Frogwatch on Lughnasa!

The Wheel of the Year continues its relentless turning, as we approach Lughnasa, an ancient holiday observed in many forms and cultures as the growing season approaches harvest time. Fertility, fire, feasts – all are celebrated in honor of Earth’s bounty. This year in Connecticut, the day coincides with a months-long drought – though nowhere near as dry as California and the west’s! Rainclouds build and hover, spit a few droplets and move on, as summer’s intense heat and humidity settle over the forest. Just as the constant procession of flowering plants halts its prolific bloom.

Indian pipes
Rose campion
Bumblebee on creeping thyme
Day lilies
Butterfly weed (milkweed)

The Frogwatch nationwide project is also coming to the end of its monitoring season, something B. and I have participated in with joy and excitement since late winter. I learned about it thru a local natural history and science center, and anyone can receive training (online) and become a volunteer monitor. As the months have progressed, we’ve seen the marvelous wood frog, able to freeze almost solid to survive the harsh New England winter; minuscule grey tree frog, who popped up in our garden, no bigger than my thumbnail; and the green frog, who shows himself readily in the mucky wetlands by the river behind our yard. Watching (and listening) to these amazing sentinel beings who, as they change with the seasons, indicate the health of our planet, connects me deeply to this time and place.

My experience with wildlife monitoring began with amphibians, at Muir Beach, California, listening at a coastal wetland for the endangered red-legged frog amid a wild chorus of thousands of Sierran tree frogs. There I was stunned into speechlessness by the beauty of our surroundings, and how I felt we became one with our environment (as we truly are). I also learned the importance of citizen science in recording changes in conditions and species over time – as science writer Mary Ellen Hannibal captures in her compelling book, Citizen Science. Worldwide, anyone can access countless opportunities in person and online with projects like iNaturalist, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon Society’s FeederWatch and Great Backyard Bird Count.

That simple excursion to a tiny beach brought me into the wonders of nature and helped spawn my growing interest in wildlife and conservation, activism, and spreading information I learned. Struck by the neverending return of waves to shore, I wrote in the California Coastal Conservancy’s Coast & Ocean magazine: “the thunderous ocean sounded like a locomotive headed for the middle of the world.”

Wood frog
Grey tree frog
Green frog
Posted in Conservation, Garden, Nature, Seasons, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Spellbound on the Solstice

Happy Solstice! Can we really be halfway through the year? Today marks Midsummer in the Northern Hemisphere (Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere). This holiday commemorates when the earth’s northernmost pole tilts at its maximum toward the sun, which reaches its highest point in the sky, giving us the year’s longest day and shortest night.

We’ve been fortunate to witness a spectacular northeastern spring, as blooms unveil themselves in elaborate succession: from the first buds opening on the gnarled limbs of our ancient crabapple tree, the sun through its delicate branches filling the garden with magenta light; purple waves of iris sweeping across the garden from west to east; starkly beautiful clematis and rose campion; to lilac’s blowsy, intoxicating perfume. Even more enchanting are the wildflowers popping up everywhere, many new to us western transplants: mountain laurel – even its buds are star-shaped, red bell-shaped columbine, daisy-like fleabane, Solomon’s seal shyly hiding tiny blossoms, white yarrow that attracts pollinators, fragrant blue phlox.

Birds have been busy building nests and raising their young (some losing eggs to nest parasites like cowbirds): robins, Carolina wren, eastern phoebe, fat little sparrows and bright cardinal and his mate; all occasionally ducking for cover into the shrubs when barred owls or red-tailed hawks sweep through on the hunt; they too have young to feed.

But perhaps most enchanting has been evening walks to the banks of the river flowing through the woods behind our yard. The nights are balmy, even sticky with summer’s growing humidity. With cricket songs loud in our ears, a full moon rising in the sky, and the rubber-band call of green frogs on the make … pure magic as we come over the rise in the darkening woods, as suddenly the forest is alight with the luminous witchery of fireflies.

These most amazing creatures, also called lightning bugs or glowworms, are actually beetles in the Lampyridae family. Morphing from grublike larvae that can already faintly light, these juveniles pupate with the warming and lengthening days, emerging as adults into the summer night. Though all larvae can produce light, adults in some species cannot. This bioluminescence, tracing back to ancestors millions of years ago, once exclusively signaled bitter taste and toxicity to predators, and later evolved into mating signals. Adults’ ability to fully light lasts only a few brief weeks as they seek out mates to reproduce.

Fireflies make the forest glimmer by a chemical process occurring in light-emitting organs, usually on the lower abdomen. The luciferase enzyme acts upon luciferin (a light-emitting compound substrate of luciferase) in the presence of magnesium ions, ATP (an organic compound), and oxygen delivered by an abdominal breathing tube, to produce light.

Like too many insects and their dependent species worldwide, these tiny lanterns are also in decline due to climate change, pesticide use, habitat loss, and the disappearance of dark skies. As we’ve too often been the agents of their destruction, we owe it to these denizens of the midsummer night to curb use of poisons, and unnecessary lights – all the better to let ourselves be surrounded by forest magic, these little earthbound stars. As I have discovered again and again, once nature casts her spell on you, she never lets you go.

Bumblebee on lilac
Clematis
Mountain laurel
Bluebells
Rhododendron
False Solomon’s seal
Lily of the valley
Columbine
Crabapple
Posted in Birds, Climate Change, Conservation, Garden, Nature, Seasons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

May Day: Hope Springs Eternal

Happy May Day! Happy Beltane! On this holiday we traditionally celebrate both International Worker’s Day; as well as the burgeoning of spring and fertility of humans, flora and fauna by dancing around a Maypole, lighting bonfires, feasting, and planting for the new growing season. Finally, the long winter ends.

This first spring at our new home in Connecticut, even with occasional cold snaps robins, finches, chickadees, all manner of birds are building their nests. Shoots and buds burst from the ground. It feels like overnight that the seasons changed from the first wintergreen and skunk cabbage blooms poking up out of the snow, to an explosion of greenery everywhere. Mosses, wildflowers like viola and yarrow, herbs recovered from winter’s icy touch, and blossoms on forsythia, lilac, viburnum, and crabapple dot the landscape as nature paints bare trees with her verdant brush. Carpets of violets and daffodil dells slowly unravel and reveal themselves.

Pyrola… achillea… syringa… I repeat the names over and over like an incantation, to conjure up these landscapes again in my mind. Long after the bluejays sit atop branches of eastern white pine before roosting for the night, and the sun’s last rays glow on distant hills and it’s time for us too to go to sleep. Long after we fall into dreamland, part of me remains in the garden.

Spring

Somewhere
a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring

down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring

I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue

like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:

how to love this world.
I think of her
rising
like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
the silence
of the trees.
Whatever else

my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
coming
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her -—
her white teeth,
her wordlessness,
her perfect love.

-—Mary Oliver

Wintergreen in snow
Iris
Forsythia
Azalea
Trout lily
Violets
Ferns
Viburnum
Chives
Daffodils
Trillium
Posted in Garden, Nature, Poetry, Seasons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Frost/Thaw Cycles on the Vernal Equinox

The Vernal Equinox has finally arrived to us in the Northern Hemisphere! This holiday is commemorated by many global traditions (including an observance at Illinois’ Cahokia Woodhenge, a Native American cultural and archaeological site we visited during our 2021 trip across the country).

The Equinox celebrates winter’s close and the warming of spring, as well as the earth’s fertility and a new growing season. Now we also mark a terrible chapter in world events: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This war has already claimed too many lives: innocent civilians – apparently targeted as part of a cynical military strategy, as well as Ukrainian and Russian soldiers. Cold War tensions have returned, and the effects threaten to spread worldwide. The suggested use of nuclear or other deadly weapons, unimaginable for decades, raises the specter of a Hot War.

Millions of Ukrainians are forced from their homes and scattered around the globe, adding to the worldwide refugee and immigration crisis from other war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan, in the largest displacement crisis this century. Russians, while many exposed largely to state-sanctioned news support the war – are also joining other nations in protesting. Ukrainians have shown remarkable courage and resilience in facing their invaders, but whatever the outcome of this conflict, it’ll have widespread effects for years to come.

This idea of homeland and disputed borders, of family, affects all of us in different ways. My Russian mother was separated from her family by world war and its after-effects for most of her life. In 1989, when I watched the Berlin Wall come down on TV, my heart raced at the thought of reunion, of once again being able to visit and be visited by my Russian family. Now, although thankfully they are fine, the future of our contact is unknown.

Such domestic and international discord exposes the worst side of humanity: wartime atrocities, mistreatment of refugees, ugly reactions against incoming immigrants from different countries, attacks on both Ukrainians and ordinary Russians elsewhere in the world. This chaos makes me ask: when will be the thaw?

At our old house in California, right about now we’d be planting new seeds and starts for our food crops, but here at home in Connecticut there’s still snow on the ground, and after a number of storm cycles the cold and ice are just now thawing.

Skunk cabbage emerging from the snow

Here we’re incredibly fortunate to have nature’s wondrous balm, and I’m filled with gratitude for our home, family, and friends. With such privilege and luck comes a responsibility to help others: thankfully, many individuals and organizations have stepped up relief efforts we support.

Late winter in New England has revealed to us two amazing species:

Skunk cabbage is one of the first blooms to emerge from the snow, and as I learned in a bee class presented by the Eastern Connecticut Beekeeping Association, spring’s first pollen source for bees. The strong-smelling plant is one of only a handful that can metabolically generate their own heat by thermogenesis, creating a hospitable haven for pollinators like bees and flies. Its musky odor grows as its gnome-like flowers pop up in wetlands and boggy swamps.

Skunk cabbage opens in a stream (photo by B. Peterson)

The wood frog freezes almost solid over winter, as its body produces a special antifreeze created by its own urine, its breathing ceases, and its heart nearly stops beating. Spring’s warm temperatures thaw the ice formed between its cells, and breathing soon resumes as its heart quickens and the frog comes back to life.

Maybe we can take a lesson in resilience from this miraculous amphibian creature, and end this long winter of violence. Then we can join with spring’s thaw, when peace comes to the world and our hearts can slowly start beating again.

Wood frog on stream bank (photo by B. Peterson)

XIV.

Some things that fly there be, —
Birds, hours, the bumble-bee:
Of these no elegy.

Some things that stay there be, —
Grief, hills, eternity:
Nor this behooveth me.

There are, that resting, rise.
Can I expound the skies?
How still the riddle lies!

—Emily Dickinson

Posted in Family, Literature, Nature, Poetry, Politics, Seasons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Snow Days

Happy Imbolg! Once upon a time, ancient Celts looked to snakes, birds, and hedgehogs to predict when the end of winter would arrive. Germanic people looked to the badger. In the American tradition of Groundhog Day, today in Pennsylvania the little fellow saw his shadow, foretelling six more chilled weeks before spring. This continues a season of introspection, of turning inward (hibernation too), to regenerate and prepare for the upcoming growing season, which promises a brilliant, spectacular spring. In the midst of this icy winter blast, we commemorate midwinter by taking a walk in the woods.

Down by the river (briefly iced over)
Mushroom- and lichen-covered tree

In scenes of spare and snowy beauty, the air itself is painful, cold, and dry, and reminds one of the hardiness and resilience of those who live here – humans and other animals as well. We wander through a forest of lichen-covered tree trunks furred with new flakes from the recent nor’easter, as mini-icebergs calve off snowbanks along the river. Soon we spot numerous fresh tracks in the snow. Someone has been here overnight!

Squirrel tracks and …?

As tracker Meghan Walla-Murphy and legions of native and other experienced trackers emphasize, just as they say every picture tells a story, so does every track (and every mark, acorn crumb, broken or scratched morsel of tree bark, and leaving of scat). Here, tiny tracks at the base of an oak tree show where a squirrel stored and ate its acorns, running back and forth to gather more. A noticeable thumb in a pawprint identifies a skunk. There, larger pawprints without claw marks (because they are retractable) indicate a bobcat traversing the deep snow in search of a meal, then stopping down by the water to drink. A coyote or fox’s straight line of prints, claw marks clearly visible, leads over a small rise.

Skunk?

Now, even as I’m enmeshed in different pursuits from day to day, I continue to be enraptured and spellbound by the natural wonders just outside our door. “Big” revelatory moments may come in rare moments, but such “small” mundane rewards are amazing and everywhere! Every sequence of tracks, of crossroads where they meet, is a new mystery, waiting (or perhaps not waiting) to be solved.

Bobcat

So we followed the fox tracks deep into the woods…

Fox or coyote?
Posted in Nature, Seasons, Weather, Wildlife | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments