Diminishment

When a friend who grew up in Central America visited the USA for the first time, she arrived in New York City in January. She encountered the airport, security, passport service, crowds, parking lot, the traffic en route to Central Park, shivering a bit as she went in and out of heated places to the cold weather and back. But when she finally found herself walking the city streets with her host, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon amid the many noises of downtown, she stopped and stood still a moment–listening intently.

“But–where are the insects?” she asked.

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“We notice the losses,” says David Wagner, an entomologist at the University of Connecticut. “It’s the diminishment that we don’t see.”

Because insects are legion, inconspicuous and hard to meaningfully track, the fear that there might be far fewer than before was more felt than documented. People noticed it by canals or in backyards or under streetlights at night — familiar places that had become unfamiliarly empty. The feeling was so common that entomologists developed a shorthand for it, named for the way many people first began to notice that they weren’t seeing as many bugs. They called it the windshield phenomenon.

Brooke Jarvis, New York Times Magazine Nov. 27, 2018

While I do not expect to hear insects in New York in the dead of winter, the “windshield phenomenon” is something I noticed here in the USA during the 1980s. I recalled long cross-country trips in the car with my parents and the constant need to clean smashed bugs from the window and front bumpers or grilles, back when I was a child. And somehow, once I was driving, that task became less necessary. I decided that pesticides such as DDT were responsible for fewer bug-splats, but I did not consider the long-term ramifications that Jarvis describes:

Insects are the vital pollinators and recyclers of ecosystems and the base of food webs everywhere… In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterflies fell by 90 percent in the last 20 years, a loss of 900 million individuals; the rusty-patched bumblebee, which once lived in 28 states, dropped by 87 percent over the same period.

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Right. And a loss of bees leads to a loss of any plant requiring bees for pollination. A loss of beetles and dragonflies and mayflies and even the much-maligned mosquito leads to birds that starve, not to mention amphibians, reptiles, and some omnivorous or insectivorous mammals–particularly vulnerable bat and marsupial populations. The bottom of the food chain matters more than most human beings ever stop to consider.

One part of this article mentions the important, even crucial, role of people who study nature without having gotten degrees…the so-called amateur botanists, lepidopterists, and hemiptera observers. Another reason I find this article so interesting has to do with how Jarvis employs thoughtful, reflective moments in the piece, while maintaining a journalistic stance:


We’ve begun to talk about living in the Anthropocene, a world shaped by humans. But E.O. Wilson, the naturalist and prophet of environmental degradation, has suggested another name: the Eremocine, the age of loneliness.


Wilson began his career as a taxonomic entomologist, studying ants. Insects — about as far as you can get from charismatic megafauna — are not what we’re usually imagining when we talk about biodiversity. Yet they are, in Wilson’s words, “the little things that run the natural world.” He means it literally. Insects are a case study in the invisible importance of the common.

Maybe it’s my personal inclination towards the natural observation, but I find some resonance here. It’s what I tend to do when I write poems–to celebrate the common, or at any rate to notice it. I notice, too, the diminishment.

Some readers have told me my poems feel sorrowful, and maybe that sense of diminishment hunkers behind even the more celebratory poems I write. That’s an idea worth my consideration as I revise my work. Maybe Diminishment should be the title of my next collection.

Anyway–read Jarvis’ article. You will learn much. Even if you’re one of those folks who “hates bugs.”

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Reverie, with interruption

On the first warm, sunny, not-horribly-humid day in a long time, to reward myself for marking up a pile of student essays, I lay in the hammock and looked up at the clouds. The clouds are amazing today, shifting, fast-moving, likely thanks to Hurricane Florence far to the south.

I wanted reverie, but I got spotted lanternflies instead, which interfered with my admiration for the clouds. Dozens of the creatures were aloft on this mild afternoon.

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They are a recent invasive species to our region; their appearance causes concern because they use fruit trees, mast trees, grapes, and hardwoods as host plants when they cannot find their traditional host, ailanthus. We have no ailanthus on our property, but we do have oaks, hickories, maples, beeches, and many scraggly cherry, walnut, and mulberry trees along the hedgerow and into the woodlot. Development in the valley–housing developments, business plazas, parking lots–coupled with stress from climate weirding, has been hard on trees. We already have diseases that have damaged the Pennsylvania ash, hemlocks (PA’s state tree), and dogwoods. I notice weakened bark on many trees. The droughts and the too-much-rain cycles, and unusual, high winds with storm fronts, plus road-widening, contribute to considerable loss of trees.

I lay in my hammock under the trees and worried about the lanternflies. Which accomplished nothing (I think of a James Wright poem at this point…).

What was there not to despair about? So much anxiety surrounds me. Even the damned bugs. If only starlings were to take a liking to spotted lanternflies, I mused.

A butterfly went past. I looked down at the zinnias blossoming their stems off in the garden and felt pleased to count four monarchs there. It has been a good year for monarch butterflies in my yard, and green darners and other dragonflies, and hummingbirds–which used to be quite uncommon visitors here. The little brown bats are returning each dusk, recovering slowly from the decimation of white-nose virus.

The balance may seem off in many ways. But there are restorative moments.

Even if “I have wasted my life.”

monarch.ann e michael

Monarch on tithonia blossom

 

 

 

Courting, sparking*

Early June. Honeysuckle on the breeze. New graduates on the move to wherever they are fortunate enough to get jobs. Blessings & good luck!

Many local songbird species fledged during the last week or two, and now the courting has begun for the second brood of spring.

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Robins’ nests: one never completed; one abandoned; one used, the fledglings flown.

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Meanwhile, among those bearing exoskeletons, pheromones also drift upon the air. I saw quite a bit of this activity during my lunch break. I was sitting by the library, next to ash and maple trees, prime feeding and hatching spots for boxelder beetles.

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Boxelder bugs mate in June here. This photo by bug-master Eric Eaton, co-author of the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America

This is a good place for me to make a plug for one of my favorite bloggers, the anonymous author/photographer/entomology geek known as standingoutinmyfield.

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Meanwhile, I have been contending with some minor but niggling health issues and hope to get those sorted out soon, because I will be reading poetry at the beach on Monday, June 18–Cape May, New Jersey [hooray!]. Info appears on my Readings & Events page.

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* Yes, Joni Mitchell fans, yes.

Far afield

My desire has been to wander, but my inclination does tend toward staying at home. One reaches a point in one’s life, however, at which wandering will shortly become more challenging than it was in youth. Also, it gets far too easy to stay comfortably within one’s zone of familiarity, which limits transitions and other difficult things.

Recently, I went far away, found myself (among other interesting places) in a field and happily fell into familiar behaviors I follow at home. In this case, scoping out the local flora and minor fauna in the hills in July.

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We were touring a small region of a small but extremely varied country: Portugal. The field featured small lizards that were so quick I couldn’t photograph them; dozens of types of wildflowers and grasses and their assorted tiny pollinators; robins, black redstarts, kestrels, and other birds I couldn’t identify. I am pretty sure we saw a hoopoe, which for me is exciting, though I expect it is not uncommon in Portugal.

As a humanities geek who loves Medieval and Renaissance art and architecture, I love the old cities; and the sea’s appeal abides, but the mountain regions appeal to the introverted gardener and naturalist in me. I was pleased with the quiet, with the pure air and blue sky, the twisting roads, the small farms. Most of all I was pleased to find so many plants and pollinating creatures in the field next to where we stayed for two nights, not far from the Peneda-Gerês National Park.

Some of these flower photos feature at least one bee or wasp or beetle-y thing. Below, a common sight on the mountains: heather, flourishing as well as it does in the British moors. Not much rain, but many misty mornings, even in July.

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This region is wind farm country. There are large, electricity-generating windmills atop much of the range, and quite a few of the many small rivers are dammed to create electric power and places to fish and swim. There’s certainly very little air pollution up in the hills…I have visited few places so pristine.

More little critters among the field flowers. Easy to overlook, despite how vivid these photos may appear.

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Nice to dwell, if only for awhile, in a place that offers a beautiful change of perspective.

Biodiversity, biodestruction

As the poems in my first collection, More Than Shelter, convey, I experienced mixed emotions about building a house and residing as human animals on a field that was in the process of reverting to wildness. It is a terrific privilege to “own” several acres of property and to dwell and raise food and children here. We have, after nearly 20 years, settled many of our challenges with the environment and its flora and fauna; and often, our lesson has been to let the environment be itself.MTS002

That means our “lawn” has largely reverted to clover and to grasses that can compete with weed seeds. That means we have meadows fore and aft and shrubby, scrubby hedgerows of mixed brush along a thin row of trees and rocks. It means we cannot entirely rid the area of invasive, non-native plants or the insects that come with them. And if a season passes without regular, careful maintenance–the environment will creep in on our living spaces very quickly.

On the other hand, a commitment to use no chemicals–or as few as possible (some exterior house maintenance requires paints and finishes that just are not environmentally-neutral) has meant that the property has good biodiversity for its size. So many kinds of avian life: scrub-loving little brown jobs, woods-dwelling owls and thrushes, turkeys, four varieties of woodpeckers, brightly-plumaged orioles, cardinals, jays, bluebirds, tree swallows, and goldfinches. Also the transient hawks, buzzards, and herons, and the grass-dwellers such as killdeer–to name a few. We are host to winterberry, serviceberry, dogwood, elderberry, nannyberry, mulberry, cherry, and wild grapes, so the wild fruit-eaters adore the place. Foxes, deer, groundhogs, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, opossums, even coyotes and possibly a black bear graze here.

They do not always stick to the margins and the flora. Sometimes they get into the trash cans or the compost heap (I once disturbed a deliriously happy raccoon sucking on a mango pit). Owls and foxes feasted on the guinea hens that refused to go back into the chicken run at night.

This description has not even gotten as far as the insect life, which is lively indeed–nor to the little bats, nor the oak trees’ flying squirrels.

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For the last decade, we have been among several neighbors who worked to slow the development of about 60 acres that lies immediately east of us and extends up the last low rise of the Appalachian foothills (Blue Mountain/Great Valley section). We have had some success in limiting the development: there are now 40 acres of preserved land on the north side of the slope, and the “estates” will consist of 13 township-approved house lots instead of the initially-proposed 52.brunner

But the site preparation process has begun in earnest this summer, and each morning–an hour or so after the birds start their chorus–the bulldozers and front-end loaders rev up and begin the crash-&-bang, the delivery of large culverts made of concrete, the dump trucks with their loads of gravel, the engineered changing of swale and drainage.

We were guilty of such disruption ourselves 20 years ago, when we installed the house we love on the land we think of as our own. I try not to mourn the loss of the field next door; it was never ours to begin with, and in so many ways, neither is the property on which our house sits.

The land belongs to no one. It is earth’s. If it belongs to anything it is to the generations of dragonflies, lightning bugs, red-tail hawks, barred owls, and rotund skunks, all of which preceded our appearance here by centuries.

 

Gardening in April

Spring seems serious at the moment. Bumble bees already busy at the barely-open pear blossoms. Hyacinths and daffodils everywhere, and muscari and the redbud opening up. Time to spend more hours in the dirt!

The past two years, I have made the vegetable garden less crowded; the children are grown and I do not want to can, freeze, or give away tons of vegetables the two of us cannot consume. I’ve decided to offer a larger portion of the garden to bees and butterflies by adding more flowers to the mix. Also, I have added wood mulch paths. Shredded wood mulch provides a good environment for salamanders, toads, useful insects, and other “minor fauna” (see my book–The Minor Fauna). This year, while tooling around in the soil doing preparation for plantings, I’ve been thrilled to find toads and salamanders–as well as isopods, (pillbugs, sowbugs and woodlice) and, of course, several varieties of worms.

I’ve been in the garden and taken a woodsy walk; every politician and world leader ought to stop whatever they are doing and take long, quiet walks in nature and long, deep breaths and then do some thinking before they make any more decisions. They might want to read some Wendell Berry, too.

Works for me.
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Berry was only 30 years old when he wrote these poems (and also “The Peace of Wild Things,” which many people tell me is their favorite poem). He has labored on his thinking in the decades since, and remains a poet worth reading.

muscari

April Woods: Morning

Birth of color
out of night and the ground.

Luminous the gatherings
of bloodroot

newly risen, green leaf
white flower

in the sun, the dark
grown absent.

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To My Children, Fearing for Them

Terrors are to come. The earth
is poisoned with narrow lives.
I think of you. What you will

live through, or perish by, eats
at my heart. What have I done? I
need better answers than there are

to the pain of coming to see
what was done in blindness,
loving what I cannot save. Nor,

your eyes turning toward me,
can I wish your lives unmade
though the pain of them is on me.

A great din

My friend Ann sent me this link to an NPR story on cities (Adam Frank on “The City as Engine”).

Frank closes on a note similar to Mumford’s closing chapter: “We live at a moment when cities are poised to become the dominant mode of human habitation on the planet. But we don’t yet know if such a mode can be made sustainable for more than a century or two.”

An earlier observation of his got my attention, however. He says–

There is a word that applies to the sound of cities which almost never gets applied to nature: “Din.” The din of cities heard on the rooftop as a rising wall of noise is a testament to the true nature of cities as engines of organization and dynamos of disorder.

The first time I became aware of this din of acoustic entropy, I was sitting across from Manhattan on the cliffs of Weehawken, N.J. It was night and the great city was blazing from horizon to horizon. Its low rumble of noise flowed like a breeze blown at me from a mile away across the dark river.

The reason this stopped me is that just a fortnight ago, I heard the word “din” applied to nature.

One of my nephews had just arrived for a visit. He’s been living at Oxford, attending school for several years at that ancient and venerable British institution; and he grew up in England outside of London in the suburbs (Buckinghamshire). My husband retrieved Max at the airport in the evening, and they arrived at our place past dark. We live in a semi-rural area of eastern Pennsylvania where we are surrounded by fields, meadows, woodlots, state roads, and the inevitable housing development. And it is August, a lively time for insect life.

As we unloaded my nephew’s luggage from the car and walked him toward the door, he stopped and looked about curiously. “What is that great din?” he asked, “Is it birds, this time of night?”

Din?

He was referring to the cicadas and tree crickets (and probably a few tree frogs and the occasional flying squirrel). I suppose they do make quite a racket, though we are accustomed to the noise–the ‘dynamos of disorder,’ as Frank would say. When we explained, he remarked, “Oxford is quiet. But I do realize it is its own peculiar world.”

Nice to know there are pockets of organization somewhere: no acoustic entropy at Oxford.

Nonetheless, I treasure our noisy regional denizens and prefer their din to the roar of motorcycles, trucks, and  cars that speed past on the state road, although those noises have their own associations and dynamics and perhaps charm…the way I still find the sound of trains appealing because it reminds me of my childhood summers at my grandparents, I can imagine there are people who associate the rumble of vehicles and the great acoustic roar of cities with pleasant things.

Here is a photo of a cicada. A colleague says they are “the ugliest bugs in the world.” This one doesn’t look so awful to me.

Din, discord, or music. Ugly or appealing. To each his or her own.

 

Here’s a link to the tree cricket–one of several American varieties:

black horned tree cricket