The Magic of Monarchs

Butterflies
Migrating monarchs – via Flickr

This past week I saw on the news footage of millions of monarch butterflies arriving in California and into the forests of Michoacán, Mexico.

It is wonderful in the true meaning of the word – something filled with wonder. I am filled with wonder and awe whenever I look up at the night sky and consider the universe. I get that same sense sometimes when I am walking through a forest, watching a river or at the ocean, or standing on a mountaintop looking at a faraway horizon.

Those butterflies swarming like a swirling paint palette of orange and black also seem magical.

Cooler temperatures make the monarchs cluster together until it warms and they can fly again. 

Their migration began in the northern U.S. or Canada and they have traveled as far as 3,000 miles to reach more temperate winter homes.

Migration is pretty amazing. We know some things about how species make the journey. We describe it in human terms sometimes – they have built-in “GPS.” They have the knowledge from parents who passed along the knowledge. With monarchs, it is not parental knowledge. Their short lifespans preclude that. Only about one out of every five generations of monarchs migrate. Birds do back and forth migrations, but monarchs are the only butterfly species known to make a two-way migration.

The Sun has played a role in human navigation and also for monarchs. We don’t understand exactly how it works for these butterflies. I kind of like that it is still a mystery, but scientists do want to know. After all, the Sun moves, and to use it to navigate you also need to know what time of day it is when you are looking at it. How do monarch butterflies keep track of time?

Researchers have discovered that most monarchs take to the skies when the Sun is 57° to 48°. That is their window of opportunity whether they are leaving Canada or Kansas. They don’t seem to have some built-in clock but their antennae do seem to play that role in some way.

But all the science takes some of the wonder out of this. As much as I love science, the idea of researchers putting microchips on butterflies and painting or clipping antennae to study how their brain reacts in captivity to a false Sun seems cruel.

It is also sad how climate change and deforestation are negatively affecting monarchs and their migration. A recent report from the Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund states that the amount of forest occupied by hibernating monarchs in Mexico went from nearly 15 acres in the winter of 2018 to 7 acres in 2019 to only 5 acres in 2020.

Going Nowhere

brick street

Can going nowhere be a journey?

The pandemic certainly had many of us going nowhere. I canceled vacations that had been planned in 2020 and this year. The term “staycation” predates the pandemic but it is that idea of staying where you are or only traveling nearby. Travel can be wonderful. It can also be stressful.

It would seem counterintuitive to say that in this time of having more ways to connect than ever before that we often feel the need to disconnect or “unplug.”

Pico Iyer is a British-born writer known for his travel writing. At one point in his life, he decided to go to Kyoto and live in a monastery in order to learn about Zen Buddhism, the city and Japanese culture. The culture he wanted to explore was an older Japan of changing seasons and silent temples. And there, he formed a relationship with a Japanese woman. This experience led to him writing  The Lady and the Monk.

He has written other books about his travels into other cultures. Video Night in Kathmandu and The Global Soul are two of them. From the subtitle of The Global Soul – “Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home” – you get a sense of the feeling that some people have these days of not really having one “home” in any traditional sense.

So, it might not be surprising that someone who so often travels might decide at some point to go nowhere.

All this background is to introduce the book I listened to recently by Iyer about stillness. In it, he writes about others who have found stillness and remaining someplace as being a journey. From Marcel Proust to Blaise Pascal to Phillipe Starck and more recently Leonard Cohen, he writes about people who make the choice to spend years sitting still and going nowhere. “Nowhere” becomes a kind of destination.

There are elements of the contemplative life found in the book, though that is not what it is really about. Iyer has known the 14th Dalai Lama since he was in his late teens when he accompanied his father to Dharamshala, India. But Iyer does not have a formal meditation practice. He does practice regular solitude. He will visit a remote place to practice solitude too.

In The Art of Stillness, Iyer looks at old and new “wanderer-monks” and his own travel experiences. One of his conclusions is that advances in technology are making us more likely to retreat.

He does not promote or reject attaching a  religious commitment to this practice of stillness. Many people have meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other practices without a religious or even formalized spiritual element. All of these things call back to ancient practices.

I have written here about a good number of things that seem to fall into this non-category, such as forest bathing, Internet sabbaths, and lots of meditation and spending time in nature.

I will go in the woods near my home this week. Maybe I’ll read there a bit. Maybe I’ll draw. Maybe I’ll just bathe and observe. All good.


More about Pico Iyer’s journeys at picoiyerjourneys.com

Will 2021 Be A Mast Year?

acorns
Image by klimkin from Pixabay

Acorns have been bombing my home’s roof and deck and pinging the roof of the metal shed in the backyard heavily since late summer. The quantity of acorns seems to vary year to year. This year might be what is known as a “mast year.”

I had to look up what a mast year means.  The fruits, nuts, berries, and buds produced by trees and bushes are called “mast.” Things like walnuts, pecans, hickory nuts, hard seeds, and acorns are called hard masts, and berries and fruits and buds are soft mast. A mast year is a year when the amount of that mast is unusually high in number,

Since my first association with the word “mast” is with a sailing ship, I had to check the etymology of this botanical usage. It comes from Middle English and earlier Old English mete similar to mæst in Old High German where it meant food. If you think of an acorn as food (many animals and some humans do) then inside that shell is the meat.

Can we predict these cycles of acorn plenty? Do we know why they occur? There are theories but it is still mostly a mystery.

These mast years seem to occur in irregular cycles of two to five years. An abundance of acorns is often said to be a nature sign of a bad winter. The folk belief is that squirrels, chipmunks, mice and other animals somehow know that they need to stock up for a bad winter and that nature somehow knows to increase the supply chain of acorns. But there’s no real science behind that folk wisdom and weather lore. that they need to stock up. The Farmers’ Almanac – which has lots of folklore around weather – seems to indicate that if acorn numbers mean a bad winter then almost every year is a bad winter.

But I continue and observe and write about signs of the seasons in nature and keep a nature calendar.

Squirrels, mice, chipmunks and deer feed on the acorns in my neighborhood.  When the trees produce smaller crops for a few consecutive years, they are in effect keeping the populations of these animals in check. But during a mast year, the trees produce more food than the animals can possibly eat.

This abundance causes a boom in the populations of the smaller mammals. It also guarantees that some acorns will survive and grow into new trees. Producing nuts slightly stunts the tree growth, but as it happens in cycles the tree gets a chance for growth in the non-mast years. Living things generally live to reproduce.

Chipmunks hibernate in cold weather and so in Paradelle, they spend most of the winter sleeping in their dens. I read that one chipmunk can gather up to 165 acorns in a day.  But those cute little Disneyesque critters don’t just eat acorns. Along with seeds and fungi, they will eat grain, fruit, nuts, insects, and worms. I was surprised to find that though they don’t hunt for bird eggs and even nestling birds and baby mice, they will eat them when they find them. They also love to dig in my outdoor potted plants, so cute as Chip and dale might be, they are also pests around here.

In 2020, the chipmunk population locally was insanely large. This year I barely saw any – until the acorns started to fall in late August and now they are all over my backyard and deck. Where were they all spring and summer?

trees

In reading the novel The Overstory by Richard Powers and some other research as a follow-up. I learned a lot about trees. For example, most people probably believe that trees compete with each other for sunlight, water, and nutrients. That isn’t true. In fact, in most settings, they communicate and cooperate.

With acorns, temperature and moisture are probably factors in these cycles, and now it is theorized that oaks might be sending chemical signals to coordinate their production. In my part of the country (Northeast) last winter and spring were generally mild winter and so white and red oak trees are able to produce more of them when they start creating seeds in the spring. A harsh winter or cold spring or freeze can mean little acorn production, or sometimes none at all.

There are still mysteries in all this. How trees communicate with each other is still being explored. We can’t predict when any one species will have a mast year.

but we do better understand what causes it. The weather certainly has a part to play. To produce a healthy crop, the trees need the right combination of temperature and rainfall in the spring.

Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events in relation to the weather. This is the scientific version of weather lore and the studies continue.


SIDEBAR: Can humans safely eat acorns? Yes, they can be used in a variety of ways. They can be eaten whole, ground up into acorn meal or flour, or made into mush to have their oil extracted. Once you’ve safely leached the tannins from your raw acorns, you can roast them for 15 to 20 minutes and sprinkle them with salt for a snack. I haven’t tried eating yet, but maybe this is a good year for it.

FURTHER READING ON TREES 
The Overstory: A Novel
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate
The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature

   

Spiraling Nature

pumpkin spirals
Tendrils of pumpkin (Cucurbita) under magnification. From Karl Blossfeldt’s 1928 Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) — Source.

I was weeding around my pumpkin plants this week and marveling at how the tendrils grab hold of almost anything nearby.

But why do they make spirals and not just one loop around the object?

spirals ear

And why do helical seashells resemble spiraling galaxies and the human heart?

spirals ear
From  Pettigrew’s Design in Nature (1908), illustrating the resemblance between spiral shell formations and bony portions of the inner ear — Source.

Sorry, I don’t have the answers. I’m just asking the questions here. I’m not sure I want answers. Some mystery is still desired in this world.

Read more

Who Is Brood X and Why Are They Saying These Terrible Things About Them?

Talk about social distancing. These guys have been doing it for 17 years and literally went underground. Now – not in response to the COVID19 vaccinations or the lifting of some restrictions – they are coming out into the world. Some people seem fearful of their return. After all, there are billions of them. They are primarily in the northeastern United States and they won’t be quiet about returning. They have been around for millions of years. Native Americans knew them.

They are periodical cicadas of the genus Magicicada. They are easy to spot with their bright red eyes and bulky bodies. They emerge every 17 years (some species do it in 13) and for a month they go through fever pitch mating. The males are the noisy ones and will create a shrill, buzzing chorus.

But who is this Brood X that is in the news around here? Brood X (the X is for ten) is one of the largest of the 17-year cicada broods. They are emerging now in parts of 15 Eastern states. Brood X was first reported in 1715 in Philadelphia.

May 2004 Brood X Cicadas
Two Brood X cicadas in 2004 (Photo: Tracy Lee – Flickr)

They look a little creepy and some people freak out about any insects, especially ones that fly near them. But we don’t have much to fear from Brood X. They don’t bite, sting, carry diseases, or eat your plants. They’re not poisonous, so don’t freak out if your dog or cat grabs one. Actually, in other parts of the world people eat them. (I have read that they taste like canned asparagus.)

They are a phenomenon.

The misinformed Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony saw them in 1634 and thought they were the locusts of Biblical plagues. They are considered beneficial. They aerate the ground, provide food for birds and mammals, and after they die they contribute nutrients to the soil.

If you say, “I saw cicadas in my yard last year,” you’re correct, but you didn’t see periodical cicadas. You saw annual cicadas, which appear later in the summer.

13 or 17 years seems like an awfully long time to be in hiding but one theory is that as a natural defense mechanism it’s effective since predators cannot rely on or anticipate them as a food source. Like other species, their enormous numbers ensure that there will be enough survivors from predators to produce the next generation.

After hatching, immature cicadas (nymphs) spend 17 or 13 years underground. They feed on tree roots (probably not causing any serious damage) and will emerge in May and transform into adult cicadas.

The Brood X cicadas that are emerging this month hatched from eggs that were laid in tree branches back in the summer of 2004.

The nymphs crawl down the trees and burrow deep into the ground. and have been there ever since, sucking fluid from tree roots and growing steadily.

When they emerge is based on soil temperature. A few hot days aren’t their signal to emerge. It takes a week or more of warm weather to warm the soil deep down. These cicadas are not fooled, like humans, by a few warm days that get them setting out plants in late April or early May that get zapped by a late frost or even snow.

adult emerges
adult emerges from exoskeleton

The nymphs emerge from the ground and usually head for the nearest tree. That is where they will shed their exoskeletons which you have probably found. I have also found them on fence posts and even on the outside walls of my house.

All that noise is males singing by flexing their drum-like organs on either side of the abdomen (tymbals).  After mating, the females slit tender tree branches and deposit their eggs. If you have young trees you want to protect, don’t use pesticides which will be ineffective. You can loosely wrap the branches with cheesecloth to keep the female from laying her eggs.

The adults die soon after mating. In a few weeks, the new brood will head down the tree and burrow into the soil. We won’t see them until 2038.

MORE
cicadas.uconn.edu
cicadasafari.org – has an app to see where cicadas have been spotted near you and you can report ones you see. Be a citizen scientist! Go on safari with kids.
cicadamania.com
Periodical Cicadas: The Brood X Edition (book)
Cecily Cicada – a book for kids, especially good if they are bug fearful.


My post’s title is an allusion to an obscure 1971 film, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? which was directed by Ulu Grosbard and stars Dustin Hoffman.

Reading Nature

After doing lots of reading and observation of nature in my life, I have determined that some of the signs we think we see in nature are deceptive, false, or what I categorize on this site as “lore.”

Prime example: Thinking that some groundhog held in captivity and pulled out on a day in February means anything about the weather to come. Even the voluntary arrival of robins to your backyard doesn’t mean a lot. I’ve seen them sitting on my fence in a March snowstorm. They are more likely to working off nature signs in the place they were wintering. Though the American robin has been a harbinger of spring here when it arrives in March and starts nesting activities, I’ve read that many are here year-round. They have gotten the message about climate change.

cherry blossom

Japanese cherry blossoms, known as “Sakura,” reached a peak bloom in Kyoto, Japan this year on March 26. That is the earliest date in 1,209 years, based on data collected by Osaka University. This is the first time they’ve been this early since 812 AD.

Still, I keep reading and observing, particularly in my own Paradelle area and in my own backyard microclimate.

New Jersey has more cherry trees than Washington D.C.  Branch Brook Park in Belleville and Newark has more than 2,700 Japanese cherry blossom trees. The Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival this year is from April 3 – 18. They are in bloom this weekend and set to peak in the next week or so. But that doesn’t mean we still won’t have a frost night in the next two weeks.

A few years ago, I read The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs. The book’s cover subtitle tells you the breadth of the subject of reading nature signs: “Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Locate Water, Track Animals―and Other Forgotten Skills.”

I have tried to use all those skills. Okay, I haven’t had the need to find water. I can use tree roots to know the sun’s direction which tells me which way is east/west and therefore north/south. Of course, you also need to know where you are and where you want to go for that to be useful. I used to teach classes in using a map and compass and one exercise was to take people into the woods and then say “Take out your compass. Okay, which way do we go to get back?” Most students couldn’t answer. At night, some people can navigate by the stars.

You can tell something about the current and near-future weather by observing insects since many of them can sense atmospheric pressure differences. Honey bees stay in the hive when they sense a storm.  coming. Insects use tiny hair-like receptors on their cuticle to sense pressure changes.

I have read that flies bite before it rains because the barometric pressure drop makes them get food before the storm. An old weather lore rhyme is “When hungry bites the thirsty flea, rain and clouds you sure shall see.” Ladybugs seem to swarm in warm, nice weather. Red and black ants sometimes build up their mounds for extra protection or to cover the mounds’ holes when bad weather is coming. I have written earlier about crickets telling us the temperature. 

Similar to insects, birds fly high in clear weather and come closer to the ground with a storm coming, possibly because the pressure is causing them pain at higher altitudes. Old adages include: “Hawks flying high means a clear sky. When they fly low, prepare for a blow.” and “Geese fly higher in fair weather than in foul.” I have also heard that when seagulls fly inland, you should expect a storm, but I have seen them inland on nice, sunny days, so…