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.

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Weekly Photo Challenge- the Unusual World of Air Plants

Baylii smoosh vase 2They are the nonconformists of the plant world.  You will find these epiphytes growing in the top of trees and bushes in tropical/subtropical climates such as the SE USA, Mexico, Central & South America & SE Asia.  They shun growing in soil, preferring a good view from above.  Nutrients are hedgehog rightabsorbed from water & air through special structures on their leaves called trichomes.  I love their quirky shapes & personalities to the point I made a business of selling them and unusual holders on Etsy

They make great “housepets”

Unusual

Air Plant Love

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Imagine you are a plant and you don’t need roots to tether you to the Earth.  Instead you live in a cluster of other like-minded individuals, anchored in the canopies of trees & bushes in tropical & sub-tropical habitats. You have a great view with the company of birds & other tree dwelling animals. Forgoing roots, you inhale nutrients from soft breezes & the rain since you have developed trichomes, specialized structures on your leaves to do so. What looks like roots at your base  are actually anchors that  hold you to another tree or shrub. Like any other plant you can flower & make seeds but additionally you can produce “pups,”vegetative clones from your base.

 

Welcome to air plants, genus Tillandsia of the Bromeliad family (pineapples are bromeliads).  There are approximately 650 types of Tillandsias that exist. They are the nonconformists of the plant world- maybe that’s why I love them. I had been vaguely aware of these plucky little plants from displays in specialty stores. My minor in college was botany I I always considered myself a plant geek. Then one of my 6th grade science students gave me an air plant on a holder that his mother made from a rock, wire & beads.  Instantly I was smitten.   iron Rockin airplant CR

I began to imagine the possibilities of other artistic applications to combine with air plants.   That was my last year of teaching before retirement.  I was looking for some kind of artistic endeavor to immerse myself in post teaching that could tie in my numerous interests and perhaps generate some additional income. Thus I created ArtisanAirplants, a creative business endeavor where I could combine my work in ceramics & found objects with Tillandsias. Up went an Etsy shop and entry into art shows.Tilly flower 3

Some months later I found myself with 200 or so of these unique plants that looked like they could have escaped from another planet.   I started designing pieces designed for a certain species of air plant in mind. Many of my ceramic air plant holders are intentionally twisted & bent playing off the whimsical qualities of the plants. My work often reminds people of something out of a Dr. Suess landscape.  I also like to juxtapose them with non- natural objects such as vintage tools & hardware.

On travels around Oregon & beyond I am always on the lookout for what universe has to offer me for my art. You might find me frequenting thrift stores & garage sales for unusual accessories. My kayak & backpack will often be loaded down with rocks and other interesting pieces of flotsam & jetsam to use for pieces. Treasure hunting is an integral part of my artistic process.

Spanish moss curtain

If you are a plant lover, one great thing about Tillandsias are that they are so small that you can have lots of them. They adorn several of my window sills, walls, and hang over my kitchen sink.  I have a living bathroom “curtain” made of Spanish moss. Kids love them.  I tell my kid customers that they are easier to take care of than a hamster.Deer SKull PE 3 crop

There is a sad misconception that abounds that Tillandsias need  little or no care. If you do decide to bring air plants into your home, please be aware that they need carecropped-monklady-1 similar to a  houseplant, ie proper lighting, ventilation, & watering.  The main difference is that since they forgo soil, you need to water them by soaking & misting.  Avoid buying from big box stores as they don’t know how to care for them properly.  You best bet is a specialty plant store or an online air plant company.  

Consider them the next time you go to buy a gift, for a loved one or yourself.  They will make happy company.