On Noticing Small Things

Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.  Mary Oliver

vintage-1135015_1920I was never much of a noticer until I took Glen Moffat’s Natural history class in my sophomore year of college. Until that time most birds other than gulls, jays, & hawks were all little brown things that flit about in the trees.  Wildflowers were all pretty.  Trees were either pines with needles or trees with leaves.

We wore hiking boots to that class.  Armed with binoculars and magnifying glasses off we went on various field trips up into the Bay Area hills and beaches.  Mr. Moffat was a short middle-aged guy with the jan-meeus-xV7Fxi5xjJM-unsplashexuberance of a young golden retriever.  His enthusiasm was infectious.  Suddenly all those little brown birds were visual wonders with names.  Among the many were wrens, bluebirds, flycatchers, tanagers, warblers, and sparrows with all manner of coloring, beaks, and feet.  Ducks were not ducks any more but dabblers and divers, shovelers, canvasbacks, and scoters.  There were actually five types of gulls I could img_2728identify: Ring-billed, California, Herring, Glaucus, and Western.  I began to recognize the calls of birds. The wildflowers took on identities of their own and I learned to tell them apart, asters, shooting stars, goldenrod.  There were differences in the shrubs, gooseberry, goat’s beard, California buckeye.  The pine trees became firs, hemlock, cedar, red, yellow, and white pines.

My fear of science dissipated to the point that when I transferred as a junior to a university I changed my major from Art to Natural History, an interdisciplinary study of botany, ecology, zoology, and geology. My studies of botany turned more intimate. I peered into dissecting scopes and marveled at the inner structures of flowers, algae, lichens, and fungi. Slime molds had designs that were worthy of a display in an art museum. I was introduced to the world of mushroom-2786789_1920lichens, mosses, algae, & liverworts.  I learned that most fungi were not mushrooms but rather molds and yeast.  Mushrooms were merely the fruiting bodies of the spidery white webs of mycelia living underground or in rotting material.  Latin names swam about in my psyche. Now everywhere I walked was a treasure hunt of natural wonders.

Eventually, I became so adept at plant ID that as a junior I was hired on a botanical study to map rare and endangered plant species in a potential wilderness area.  The plants we found, among them, a sundew (a small sundew-2783310_1920insectivorous plant) eventually converted the land into a protected natural area.  After graduation, I worked in Alaska for a forest fire ecologist, cataloged sea life with NOAA, and mapped vegetation types with the US Forest Service.  I walked the sandy barrier island off the coast of Prudhoe Bay identifying sea birds on a study with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and counting the abandoned but ever warm eider-duck-2020993_1920downy nests of eiders.

Those years of scientific study are long behind me but I am still an observer always looking for acquaintances in the natural world around me. I know the name of the birds about my yard and their calls.   I don’t have to worry about filling the hummingbird feeder so full as I noticed that their skinny tongues are over two inches long.  I noticed that the little myotis bats that darted about on warm summer nights have all but vanished as with the

hummingbirdt
Courtesy phys.org/news

warblers, the tanagers, swallows, cedar waxwings and other seasonal migrants. This troubles me. Some years back after the neighbors sprayed the brambles on the fence line, the quail disappeared. The red wind blackbirds still pass through winter and springs filling the air with their songs.  This year, the aphids did not show on my kale!

 

When I learned to notice nature, my life changed radically to the point I made a career out of it.  Science became my friend rather than something to be afraid of. The environment became something to enjoy and protect.  It is not necessary to go to the extremes I did but it is important to be aware of the natural world that surrounds us.  It can form and direct us. We humans as the decades pass are losing our connection to the earth as we retreat further and further into technology.  But it is keyboard-393838_1920important to remember that our so-called civilized lives are built on the back of nature from the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the raw materials in our house, cars, devices, and the fuel in our vehicles.  Without a connection to the earth, we continue to degrade the planet to the point it will be unable to sustain a quality of life for ourselves or its other inhabitants.  It’s happening now with climate change, pollution, and degradation of the land and oceans.

roof-768735_1920One way to keep that connection is to learn the names of the birds, animals, and plants that inhabit your environment.  Even in the city, there are species that have learned to cohabitate with humans.  If you look closely, you may see there is more than one type of sonny-ravesteijn-xsJka-hK8Gs-unsplashsquirrel, & brown bird.  Watch the crows going about their day.  There are communities in the sky conducting business you are not savvy to.

By naming the plants and creatures we encounter, we offer them respect and become aware that the earth does not just belong to us. We become advocates for our environment rather than just exploiters. Give your children binoculars and magnifying glasses rather than devices to rob their minds. Give yourself some too. Look up and around you and learn to notice the magnificent gifts that this planet has to offer.

jez-timms-PrCZOAL-vt8-unsplash

 

Pausing for Bumblebees

Covered in pollen in a zucchini flower
Bliss in a zucchini flower

It is the height of summer blooms. Bumblebees are to be found everywhere about my yard.  I find them in the cool of the morning sleeping in flowers, drunk from the previous day’s feeding.  As the day warms I pause to watch them at their work, mindfully probing into pistils within blooms sucking out nectar.

They are especially fond of compound flowers, those in the genus, Compositae, the daisy family, the largest example being a sunflower. These are flowers within flowers.  Look closely in the middle of a dahlia, zinnia, daisy, dandelion sunflower, etc. and you will find multitudes of tiny flowerets surrounded by showy petals. It’s like one-stop shopping for bees.

Bumblebees make up the genus Bombus with 255 different species.  Generally, they are black with varying stripes of yellow and sometime red. They make nests near the ground under logs, duff in small colonies.  They are honey producers but in smaller quantities.

Though bumblebees don’t get as much press as their smaller cousin, the honey bee, they are extremely important pollinators.  Bumblebees are particularly good at it. Their wings beat 130 times or more per second, and the beating combined with their large bodies

photo courtesy livescience.com
photo courtesy livescience.com

vibrate flowers until they release pollen, which is called buzz pollination. Buzz pollination helps plants produce more fruit.  Bumblebees flap their wings back and forth rather than up and down like other bees. Researcher Michael Dickinson, a professor of biology and insect flight expert at the University of Washington likens wing sweeping like a partial spin of a “somewhat crappy” helicopter propeller,

They are gentle bees, single-minded in their work and rarely sting which is good because their sting can be particularly nasty.  I have never been stung even though I sometimes gently pet their fuzzy backs then they are immersed in feeding.  Such sweet bees.

img_2894

In Praise of Bumblebees

They probe dreamily in the center

Of pie sized yellow flowers that nod towards the east

Keeping me company

As I work in the garden

 

These tiny winged beasts do their work

Heads up down, up down

Placing in precision their needle-like proboscises

In a sea of stamen and pistil

 

Gentle black creatures

Intoxicated by pollen and nectar

So immersed in their work

My finger can stroke their furry backs

 

I find them in the morning exhausted

Dozing in the midst of flowers

Dusted with yellow

Dreaming bumblebee dreams

 

Buzz and bumble

Find purpose in my zinnias, my dahlias

And sleep until the warmth of a new day

Calls you to your tasks again

sandy-millar-vhRwpRRQbd0-unsplash

Fun facts thanks to livescience.com