I Cannot Breathe

 

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I write about

fish gasping for oxygen.

I am diagnosed

with emphysema.

Fish and woman,

are inextricably linked.

My parents

cigarette fumes

certainly paved the

way for years of puffing

the magic dragon.

I own my part,

But do not choose to blame.

My plight is not

the whole story.

The trees are burning

The earth is on fire.

Even here in the North Country

polluted south winds

breathe filth into the air.

In summer the sky is thick

with noxious particles

not present

50 years ago.

Whole forests-

precious lungs

of the earth

turn to ash.

Smoke clogs my lungs

Factories spew CO2

Cars belch black smoke

Pesticides congest.

We are dying

for lack of air.

The North wind sighs,

Exhales…

Yes.

 

Working notes:

 

I recently received a diagnosis of emphysema that frankly shocked me. 45 percent of my lung capacity is gone. Although I knew my body had been struggling because I wasn’t feeling well and that my oxygen count was low I couldn’t get a diagnosis from the doctor that treated me – my symptoms were ignored – and eventually I was told to see a counselor. It was all in my head…

 

Talk about neglect. I have had this disease for approximately a year – perhaps a little longer.

 

I certainly am culpable because I smoked cigarettes as a young adult, but this is not the whole story. We are also dealing with an enormous amount of air pollution that is clogging everyone’s lungs, not just mine.

 

My disease is only a symptom of a much larger problem. One solution would be to plant billions of trees. As it is now we are destroying the same number of trees that could help us to breathe, trees that could clean the atmosphere, trees that science has proven lower anxiety levels, trees that could sequester CO2 to help us stem the flow of climate change.

 

Trees could help if we would only let them.

Fish Tails

When the two year old pulled the silvery gold fish out of the pond to the cheers of her five and seven year old siblings, parents, and grandmother, I shuddered involuntarily.

 

The young perch impaled by sharp hook was gasping for oxygen as the adults allowed the fish to hang helplessly on its hook while pictures were taken. Afterwards the group watched the fish flounder, still gasping, on the bottom of the boat. The toddler was applauded for her catch, while the terrified fish flipped over and over attempting to escape back into the water. It takes a while for a beached fish to die a death of asphyxiation.

 

I called out; “Please don’t let the fish suffer – knock it out to put it out of its misery.” The two adults standing with me on the dock along with the three adults in the boat ignored my plea.

 

I was invisible.

 

Just like the fish.

 

I repeated my respectful request twice. When it became obvious that no one was listening, I turned, and said to no one in particular, “I’m leaving” as I walked off the dock. The fish was still struggling for breath. It takes a while for a beached fish to die a death of asphyxiation.

 

The day went black.

 

Walking home from the pond I reflected upon the scene that I had just witnessed. Two generations of adults had just passed on a lie to a third generation of youngsters. Animals don’t suffer; fish have no feelings.

 

Even though scientists now know that fish do have feelings and most certainly feel pain – all animals are sentient – these truths are not taught in elementary schools or modeled by adults. Most people who have access to this information pay no attention.

 

It is appalling to me that so few seem to have the slightest interest in breaking a chain of beliefs that keeps humans distanced from the rest of nature. But worst of all is the astonishing lack of empathy. How exactly does one ignore the obvious: that a fish gasping for oxygen is obviously in trouble and terrified by what its experiencing? In today’s world people seem to be so separated from experiential reality that they are capable of overriding their senses as well as what they witness with their own eyes.

 

I remember catching my first trout with my grandmother who was a skilled fly fisherwoman. I was eight years old. After helping a small child reel in her first fish, my grandmother deftly extricated it from the hook and killed it immediately with a stone. Afterwards, my grandmother fried the small fish in a pan for me to eat, praising me for my accomplishment.

 

Although I never became a fisherwoman except in the mythical sense, exploring the depths of my unconscious self (and that of others), I did marry a fisherman who thought me quite crazy when I insisted upon killing each fish that we caught for our dinner.

 

I still eat fish, as well as other meat believing that my attitude towards taking life is more important than what I eat. In my way of thinking it is critical to acknowledge sentience so that we don’t let animals suffer needlessly, and so that it becomes natural to give thanks for the lives of every plant and animal as Indigenous peoples once did. We are all part of an immense food chain that supports all living things by taking life to give life.

 

After my children left home I discovered my vocation, becoming a passionate teacher, naturalist, and writer, one who continues to advocate for all animate human and non – human beings.

 

Today, in my seventies, after writing literally thousands of nature articles and two books on the subject I am losing access to hope. In our thoroughly mechanized virtual reality, there is no room for Life to exist in all of its myriad forms.

 

Perhaps that’s why extinction of all life forms is looming over our collective horizon. Amazingly, humans have for the most part managed to ignore that extinction extends to all species. We may kill off the insects, birds, and frogs first but eventually we too will succumb.

Day Lily Feast

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Orange day lilies in my garden

 

July is the beginning of the wild day lily feast in Maine. Orange day lilies are springing into bloom in every ditch, field, meadow, and at the edge of every forest glade. In my garden the hybridized lilies I planted years ago have reverted back to their orange relatives, as my friend Lois Day once told me they would…

 

When I think of Maine and the month of July, I think of orange day lilies. I was amazed when I moved to Abiquiu, NM to note that Bruce had so many growing around his house. Orange day lilies grow in the high desert too!

 

Up until mid-life I had a rather casual attitude towards these lilies. Orange was not my favorite color. Perhaps that’s why I ignored the profusion that grew wild around my little house on Southport Island. One day while talking to a woman friend who was then in her seventies I complained about having too many lilies. Eileen who loved wildflowers as much as I did was startled by my callous attitude, exclaiming, “Sara, those lilies are just as beautiful as all the other wildflowers you love. Maybe you have not really looked at them. I’ll take some if you like.”

 

My stomach heaved – Eileen was right. I had never given these lilies a chance. When I walked home to dig some for Eileen I followed the lines of a single flower noting the delicate variegated stripe that ran down each of its six petals, petals that opened like stars, the lemony yellow throat, the salmon color…I gently touched the velvety flower, silently asking for forgiveness. From that day onward I felt a kinship with ordinary wild orange lilies that has stayed with me all these years, and every July I remember my friend Eileen with gratitude. She opened my eyes.

 

Hemerocallis fulva, the tawny orange day-lily has many common names like ditch or outhouse lily that give the reader the sense of where these lilies thrive – in places where there is a source of water. However, it seems that they will also grow in the most inhospitable landscapes. Amazingly, like wild roses, these lilies are not native at all but originally came from Asia. The day lily is not a true lily but gets its name from the similarity of the flowers to the genus Lilium and the fact that each flower lasts only one day. True lilies have bulbs and day lilies have fibrous tubers. Many true lily bulbs are poisonous.

 

Originally this plant was grown in this country as an ornamental because of its ease of cultivation and its long flowering season – one that extends for about two to three  months lasting well into fall. Eventually the day lily escaped into the wild and now can be found growing almost anywhere in temperate climates. In Northern landscapes it needs no care at all. In areas like New Mexico it does not grow wild but can easily be cultivated. Just a little regular water and some shade will keep the fans green and blossoms coming throughout the summer. The fact that theses lilies are so drought resistant should not be taken lightly with Climate Change on our doorstep. I plan to dig up some of Bruce’s tubers to plant around the casita next fall. I will  add a nitrogen fixing ground cover – probably clover or vetch – to feed the tubers. Healthy tubers help with drought.

 

Initially, I was surprised to discover just how many sites on the internet were devoted to getting rid of these prolific lilies that are considered “invasive” until I remembered my own casual attitude towards these super adaptable plants that are also edible!

 

While there are many gorgeous hybrid daylilies that one can also eat, the ‘wild’ orange ones are said to be the tastiest. Start with steaming or stir-frying the buds, which are tender and delicious with a little butter and salt. Harvest some opened flowers and fry them in tempura batter or fill them with herbed ricotta and saute’ them in a little olive oil. It is also possible to remove all the green parts of the first green shoots to expose the tender yellow centers and use these in spring salads. Because the tubers spread so fast it is possible to dig the tubers and eat those either raw or steamed. They are quite delicious with a unique taste all their own.

 

Bon Appetite!

The Not So Common Northern Grackle

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Does anyone remember the days when the arrival of thousands of blackbirds announced that spring was on the way? As a child I recall the bare decidious trees around my grandparents farm were peppered with redwings, cowbirds, starlings and grackles. Most farming people disliked these birds because grackles, especially, loved to feast on grains and corn.

 

Today, redwings still mark the change of the seasons but the clouds of mixed blackbirds are absent because humans have decimated their populations.

 

When a shimmering blue – black Northern grackle appeared at my birdfeeder in late May I was delighted and hoped, that like the Redwing couple, this blackbird would choose to stay. In all these years I have never had a grackle nest here.

 

Last winter I developed a fascination and a deep respect for the grackle as a result of making regular visits to a Walmart in New Mexico that was built near a marsh. I couldn’t resist feeding the Great Tailed grackles hunks of bread as I observed these clever characters hopping about on the ground, dodging people and automobiles while searching for tidbits. These birds had surely adapted to human habitation and this fact impressed me greatly. Adaptability is sign of intelligence. Some of these birds always hung out on the roof with the fake owls that were put there to scare them away.

 

When the pair nested here down by the brook (all grackles like to nest near water) I was delighted because I could continue to observe another related species; I also hoped to learn some of their complex calls.

 

Although I herd the two conversing, for the longest time I never saw the female who is not black but washed in chocolate brown. Two months later I have three young male grackles that visit my feeder along with both of their parents. Although they are omnivores – they eat insects, frogs berries etc. they love sunflower seeds too. If given a choice by the Mourning doves (who scatter seed indiscriminately) grackles prefer to forage on the ground. Common Grackles are resourceful foragers. They sometimes follow plows to catch invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American Robins, and raid nests. Grackles have a hard keel on the inside of the upper mandible that they use for sawing open acorns. Typically they score the outside of the narrow end, then bite the acorn open.

 

Northern populations migrate; the rest remain in areas east of the Rockies year round. Along with some other species of grackles, the Northern grackle is known to practice “anting” – rubbing insects that contain formic acid on its feathers to deal with parasites. Though the exact mechanism is poorly understood, several studies have examined the ability of the Northern grackle to interpret the variability of the earth’s magnetic field.

 

I have yet to learn all of the Northern grackle calls, which are complicated by the birds’ uncanny ability to mimic other birds and sometimes even me! The grackles seem to enjoy my company, because whenever I am outside some members of the family join me usually perching high in a nearby pine. They peer down at me with bright yellow – rimmed eyes often making remarks that I have yet to comprehend.

 

Grackles radiate ‘brilliance’, and in fact, studies that have been done on these birds reveal how adept they are at problem solving. For example grackle intelligence was tested by posing glass cylinders full of water with bits of food floating just outside the birds reach. To grab the morsels, the birds had to drop in pebbles to raise the water levels. After a number of trials most of the grackles figured out that dropping pebbles into the water raised the water level so they could feed. They also learned that it was usually more efficient to use heavy pebbles to reach the snack, but if provided with too large stones the birds turned back to small pebbles to reach their goal.

 

Another test done had even more dramatic results. Silver and gold tubes of food were presented to the grackles but only the gold tubes had peanuts and bread in them. The grackles immediately chose the gold tubes, but when the food was placed in silver tubes the birds instantly chose them. These tests reveal not only problem solving ability but also the birds flexibility in terms of learning.

 

It’s important to note that grackles outperformed three species in the Corvid family.

 

Unfortunately the Northern grackle is listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature; the species may be approaching extinction. Indiscriminate overuse of pesticides is probably the primary cause. What disturbs me is that most of the literature doesn’t address the issue of Northern grackle decimation probably because it is considered a pest by humans. Many sites continue to suggest that the Northern grackle is widespread and common when just the opposite is the case.

 

In contrast, the Great Tailed grackle seems to be thriving in New Mexico and has expanded its range. At least in the western part of this country one species is not threatened so perhaps all is not lost.

The Monarch Butterfly

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(Author’s photo of first Monarch butterfly seen third week in July)

 

In late May a friend of mine in Abiquiu told me that he saw at least 10 Monarch butterflies clustered together in one group, a sighting that warmed my heart because the year before I had seen so few.

 

Last year I was fortunate enough to have a milkweed plant seed itself by the casita. When the seeds ripened in the fall I scattered the silky airborne parachutes under the original plant hoping that the milkweed would re –seed. This spring I was rewarded. Three new plants emerged in a place that would be watered as long as we had summer rains. When I left Abiquiu the plants were doing well, but summer would tell the tale…

 

Milkweed is the one plant that Monarchs love and the only plant on which they will lay their eggs. I hoped that a small cluster of these plants might provide sweet nectar that would entice a few more of these butterflies to visit the casita during the summer and during fall migration.

 

It should be mentioned that milkweed also provides an intriguing form of protection for this butterfly. The milkweed juices make the Monarch poisonous to predatory birds. Additionally, the deep orange color of the butterfly alerts predators to the fact that their intended meal might be toxic.

 

Here in Maine I have a field that is covered in milkweed from early July onward. I have raised many Monarch’s to adulthood over a period of thirty years because it has been relatively easy to find the eggs which are laid on the underside of the milkweed leaves beginning in late summer. The scent of the flower is, to me, intoxicating, and the clusters of tiny blossoms are so beautiful to look at in their myriad shades of pale pink salmon.

 

Ever since the milkweed started blooming this summer I have been on the lookout for Monarchs. I saw my first butterfly at Popham beach on the coast where Milkweed plants are plentiful growing amidst the sand dunes, and in wild coastal fields. I then glimpsed two around my house this week, and remain hopeful that I will see more…

 

Monarch butterflies are perhaps best known for their migrating habits. No other butterflies migrate as far; this insect flies up to three thousand miles each year. Millions of these butterflies will fly from Canada to Mexico this fall.

 

More astonishing, this entire trip will take four generations to complete. The Monarchs begin their southern migration September to October. Eastern and northeastern populations, originating in southern Canada and the United States, travel to overwintering sites in central Mexico. They arrive at their roosting trees in November. When the butterflies reach their destination in Mexico they return to the same trees that their forebearers did sometimes roosting deep in the forest. They remain in their roosts during the winter months and then begin their northern migration in March. No individual butterfly completes the entire round trip. Female monarchs lay eggs for a subsequent generation during the northward migration. Four generations are involved in the annual cycle.

 

Western populations, which would include the Monarchs in New Mexico, follow a similar pattern migrating annually from regions west of the Rocky Mountains to overwintering sites on the coast of California.

 

Many folks know that the Monarch butterfly population has dropped 90 percent over the past 20 years (Center for Biological Diversity). The species has become ‘functionally extinct’, meaning that the numbers are so low now that the Monarchs have little hope of long-term survival. Scientists look to Monarchs and other butterflies as indicators of environmental health, since they are easily affected by air and water pollution, severe weather, pesticides, the presence of other toxins and, of course, Climate Change. It breaks my heart to acknowledge that most folks have not paid attention to the decline of these beautiful insects. Globally we are paying a huge price for our blindness and indifference.

 

When it comes to Monarchs the present is what we have, and I encourage anyone that gardens to create a milkweed patch for these wanderers in the hopes that we might extend their collective lifetime a few more years. It’s important to note that milkweed needs adequate water. Refusing to use lethal backyard pesticides and planting milkweed are two things we can do to help these glorious orange insects in the short term.

Luna

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This morning when I took the dogs out around 6 AM I saw a beautiful Luna moth lying on emerald green moss covered ground. By the looks of its antenna I surmised this one was male because its ‘feathers’ were so long. In the past the sight of one of these deceased moths would have made me sad because I know that this moth in its present winged state is birthed without even a mouth to eat, and as soon as it mates it dies. But now I see Luna in a different light, as one whose time to die has come…Besides, I knew that the female that this male had mated with had laid eggs that would one day hatch…

 

When I bent down to pick up the pale green four inch wide insect with its double set of eyes, I noticed how torn and tattered its wings were, perhaps a result of a would be predator that discovered too late how unpleasant these moths can taste. Or perhaps it was just old age.

 

As defense mechanisms, larvae emit clicks as warnings. Surprisingly, they also regurgitate intestinal contents that have a deterrent effect on a variety of predators. The double sets of eyes on the lime green adult wings are believed to confuse predators as well. The elongated tails of the hind -wings are believed to jam echolocation used by predatory bats, although I hardly think bats are a problem around here. I am always amazed that insects have such sophisticated means of protecting themselves!

 

I brought the moth in the house to look at more closely wondering just where around here on the ground the larva had hatched into its adult form. Females lay 200–400 eggs, singly or in small groups, on the underside of leaves. Egg laying starts the evening after mating is completed and goes on for several days. Eggs hatch in about a week.

 

Each instar – the period between molts – generally takes about 4–10 days. There are five instars before cocooning occurs. At the end of each instar, a small amount of silk is placed on the major vein of a leaf and the larva molts leaving its green exoskeleton behind. After the final instar, larvae stay on the same tree where they hatched until it is time to descend to the ground to make a cocoon. At this point the caterpillar will spin its cocoon around a shriveled leaf that is lying on the ground. When females emerge from cocoons they fly to a tree, emit pheromones, and wait there for males to find them. Males can detect these molecules at a distance of several miles, flying in the direction the wind is coming from until reaching the female. Luna moth females mate with the first males to find them, a process that typically starts after midnight and takes several hours. The entire Luna Moth cycle usually occurs in the space of one year. In the North Country one generation of moths is produced.

Luna moths are what are known as giant silk moths – some have wingspans of seven inches. This moth was the first to be recorded in American insect literature. These most magnificent moths have a range that extends from Canada to Florida, and like every other insect this moth is succumbing to habitation loss, pesticides, logging, light pollution and other pressures associated with Climate Change.

There was a time when I used to see these moths each summer… I remember so well the year one fell out of the sky onto my head while I was standing on the porch of my camp… but these days, the sight of each one, living or dead, is a gift to be treasured and written about.

Firefly Night: A Language Made of Light

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My friend Iren from Abiquiu just wrote me that on the full moon some fireflies were lighting up the night down by the river’s edge. I was so happy to hear that news because last summer those diminutive lanterns were absent around the casita even though it is situated close to the river.

 

In my Maine backyard this summer some green and gold lights continue to flash their signals just before dark lasting into the night. I find myself looking for patterns, and counting firefly numbers obsessively, almost against my will, remembering what was…

 

When I first moved to the mountains 30 plus years ago I camped in the field next to the brook and couldn’t fall sleep at night, struck by “lightening bug” wonder. It seemed as if the field itself was on fire with thousands of these magical lights that blinked as they skimmed the tall grasses, glowing like emerald jewels from the ground. When my camp was built it was awash in firefly light, and each year I anxiously awaited magical, mystical summer nights when my nocturnal friends would appear. The first evening or so after they arrived, I couldn’t resist capturing a few to keep in a ventilated jar overnight, just as I had done as a child.

 

When it started I thought it was my imagination. Maybe it was a bad year for fireflies I rationalized, the first summer I noted the absence of an abundance of lights hovering over the field. But I was wrong. Year after year, journal entries confirmed my worst fears. The fireflies were disappearing and there was nothing I could do about it.

 

Even now that I know that our insects are experiencing a holocaust there is a child in me that cannot accept that fireflies are leaving us and that its just a matter of time before these insects disappear for good. I recently read that tourists flock to places where (synchronized) fireflies are still abundant.

 

The grief I feel is visceral.

 

Fireflies are winged beetles. When a chemical called luciferin inside their abdomen/tail combines with oxygen, calcium and adenosine triphosphate a chemical reaction occurs that results in bioluminescence. This ‘cool’ light is the most efficient in the world because almost 100 percent of the energy used is emitted as light and not heat.

 

A similar group of organisms are glowworms. The term “glowworm” can refer to firefly larva or wingless adult female fireflies—some of which are not in the firefly family Lampyridae. Both glowworms and fireflies are bioluminescent.

 

Each species uses it own pattern of lightening flashes to attract a mate, and most fascinating is that some fireflies synchronize their yellow, pale red, green, or orange lights. Several studies have shown that female fireflies choose mates depending upon specific male flash pattern characteristics. Higher male flash rates, as well as increased flash intensity, have been shown to be more attractive to females in two different firefly species.

 

Many would be predators are repelled by firefly blood that contains defensive steroids which apparently taste awful!

 

Some firefly larvae can emit light from underground, and in some species the eggs glow. The underground-dwelling larvae of the lightning bug are carnivorous and feast on slimy slugs, worms and snails. Others live in the water, have gills and eat aquatic snails before coming ashore. Most adult fireflies feast on pollen and nectar.

 

Three main factors for firefly disappearance are habitat loss (when fields are paved over fireflies don’t migrate; they simply disappear – this fact may suggest that these insects may be tied to a particular place), logging, toxic chemicals like DEET (which tend to linger in aquatic environments where many fireflies start their lives), and light pollution.

 

Most species of fireflies thrive as larvae in rotting wood and forest litter at the margins of ponds and streams. And as they grow, they more or less stay where they were born. Some species are more aquatic than others, and a few are found in more arid areas—but most are found in fields, forests and marshes. Their environment of choice is warm, humid and near standing water of some kind—ponds, streams and rivers, or even shallow depressions that retain water longer than the surrounding ground.

As previously mentioned both male and female fireflies use their flashing lights to communicate. All species speak a language of light.

Human induced artificial light pollution (including those cute little solar lights) may interrupt firefly flash patterns. Scientists have observed that synchronous fireflies get out of sync for a few minutes after a car’s headlights pass. Light from homes, cars, stores, and streetlights may make it difficult for fireflies to signal each other during mating—meaning fewer firefly larvae are born next season. Where fireflies once had uninterrupted forests and fields to live and mate, homes with landscaped lawns and lots of exterior lights (that some people leave on all night) are now the norm.

I find it distressing that so many folks are obsessed with the idea and the reality of ‘Light’ in all its manifestations and yet we are losing the very creatures who actually speak the language made of light.