Saturday, June 16, 2012

Sweet Scratches


Blackberries, my brothers and I used to call them as we crawled through the brambles after the luscious jewels. I halt my lope, crack open my lab notebook, and scrawl, “Rubus occidentalis, fruit beginning to ripen, flowering done.” Clapping the notebook shut and continuing in the direction of the field house for lunch, I make a mental note to return to the berry patch and pick some of the Black Raspberries.
            Plants—perhaps not my first choice for summer study, but here I am anyway, paid to wander swamp and swale, forest and field, identifying and tracking the flowering of the plants at Flat Iron Lake Preserve. I am learning to walk like a botanist, to take slow steps, to scrutinize the forest floor, to prepare species for the plant press. Each day, I find myself drawn deeper and deeper into the world of plants, identifying cinquefoils, sow thistles, and yes—raspberries.
            Rousing myself from a lazy afternoon nap, I don jeans, hoping the denim will be sufficiently rugged to withstand the briers. Shoes, a metal bowl, and I’m out the door, sauntering down the hill toward the gargantuan patch, so large that it wouldn’t fit in a three-car garage. The blackberries—no, Black Raspberries, I remind myself—hang in alluring clumps, ripe and juicy for the taking.
            As I plunge into the patch, I also dive into a deep pool of memories, a pool nearly stagnant and forgotten but still lingering in the attic of my mind. Suddenly I see the face of my older brother Keith, flushed with excitement as we embark on a foraging expedition. Crudely woven baskets hang from our wrists—twisted together just for this purpose, to hold and transport our juicy treasure. Now I see the stern face of my other brother Ian, chastising me for taking berries to eat on my Corn Flakes—berries reserved for the pie, he said. Oh, but the pies took so many blackberries! The spindly patch next to our driveway only produced a handful at a time, so occasionally we would mount our bikes and search for other bramble thickets.
            Here I am a decade later, facing a thicket bearing more berries than I can possibly eat. Neither of my brothers is here to help, either; we are scattered across three separate states, united but twice or thrice a year. During these uncommon times, we remember the old times, laughing over our archaeological exploits in the backyard, the snowball fights, the vendetta we held against our playful old neighbor. I begin plucking the berries, one at a time, just the way I used to.
            One at a time. Greediness loses berries. Gently grasp each between the thumb and the index finger; the berry will loosen with minimal effort. The most luscious prizes always hang in back of the patch, where the canes are thickest and the thorns sharpest. Push the leaves aside, lift the runners, crouch and crane your neck; dozens of blackberries may be hiding within reach beneath the canopy. Step cautiously—the runners are stubborn and can easily trip a clumsy foot. The one thing I have forgotten is a long-sleeved shirt, but I conclude that lacerated arms are a small price to pay for the delicious rewards.
            The nasal scolding of a catbird returns my thoughts to the present. Whose dinner am I pilfering? Catbirds eat fruit; perhaps he was protesting my foraging efforts. Cedar Waxwings, robins—plenty of other birds might snack on these same berries, but I can’t remember having ever seen them feasting on them. Abundant sun-shriveled berries attested that the birds and other creatures could not keep pace with such a cornucopia.
            As I wallowed deeper into the thicket, trying to reach those sweetest morsels, a sprite of a damselfly flutters up weakly, coming to rest on a drooping leaf. I lean forward, glimpsing green exclamation points on the top of the black thorax. Fragile Forktails certainly do not eat berries, but this plant provides him too with dinner, only in the form of aphids rather than berries. Aphids—delicious! I scrutinize my growing heap of black gold and spot an aphid hopping about merrily! Suddenly, I bolstered my resolve to thoroughly wash my fruit and even contemplated refraining from eating them straight off the bush. That notion, however, violates tradition; I pop a particularly fat berry into my mouth and crush it against the roof of my mouth, savoring the streams of sweet juice cascading across my palate. If there was an aphid on that berry, it only supplemented the flavor!


            An hour of picking produced a couple pounds of berries. What to do? If only Ian were here now; we could bake pie after pie and still have leftovers to eat with our cereal! I survey the pantry’s scant provisions: oatmeal, flour, brown sugar, butter—enough for blackberry crisp, anyway! Into the oven it went, emerging half an hour later, sizzling and emitting a smell that would transform the taste buds of an insectivorous forktail into bubbling saliva springs! I devour serving after serving and am astonished to discover it all gone. I glance at the empty pan, rub my slightly bulging belly, and peer out the window at the patch that promises thousands more berries and many more pans of blackberry crisp.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Wildlife Manhandling


As the photo above indicates, I have recently spent time within the range of the rare Kirtland's Warbler. So rare is this creature that birders from all recesses of the globe make the pilgrimage to see this gray and yellow spirit of the Jack Pines, and since my girlfriend Alison gets paid to show people the Kirtland's, I too have made the pilgrimage, mostly to see her but also to see the warbler. In addition to seeing many a Kirtland's and several different subspecies of birder (Homo sapiens aviaphilosis), Alison and I explored and wandered and roamed and rambled and otherwise adventured, trying to find as many forms of life northern Michigan could offer up last weekend.


Quite accidentally I discovered a family of woodcock chicks at Hartwick Pines State Park. I had withdrawn into some shade while waiting for Alison to attend to business matters, and, becoming bored, investigated a plaintive whistle from the undergrowth. It sounded like a fledgling, but not the one I expected!

The majority of our adventures took place at a certain boggy flooding in eastern Crawford County. Masquerading as a lake, this flooding is only about four or five feet deep in its center, as we discovered once we made an exploratory expedition on inner tubes. But, surrounded by wonderful marshes, bogs, and streams, the "lake" is extremely secluded and teems with wildlife, particularly dragonflies. At times trashing through blueberry thickets, others wallowing among lily pads, and still others precariously venturing across beaver dams, we chased these toothed masters of the sky, waging war with net and camera lens.


The dragonflies were quality, too, not just the run of the mill Green Darners or Blue Dashers. I believe this one is an Ashy Clubtail (Gomphus lividus).


Some of the dragonflies supplicated us for peace by landing on our arms, shoulders, and even the rim of the net. Foremost among the dragonfly hippies were the Chalk-fronted Corporals (Ladona julia).


Frosted Whiteface (Leucorrhinia frigida)


Beaverpond Baskettail (Epitehca canis).


Hudsonian Whiteface (Leucorrhinia hudsonica).


Lilypad Clubtail (Arigomphus furcifer).


Racket-tailed Emerald (Dorocordulia libera).

After many steps through the swamp, our bared legs tired of the merciless tearing of the stiff branches. Seeking a clearer route, we retreated upland to the forest. We had not gone far when we were confronted  with a plaintive bleating sound. Tracking it through the dense underbrush, we found the living skeleton of a young fawn hobbling through the forest. Having neither gun nor knife with which to humanely kill it, we left it to wander and die of starvation. Yes, the deer would die, but its legacy would live on; its molecules would strengthen the muscles of some raccoon or fox. Bacteria would break down its hide and whatever the scavengers missed, the nutrients would sink into the soil, only to be taken up by some plant, which would then be cropped by another deer--perhaps the fawn's father, or a cousin. The circle of life would remain broken.


A mite traumatized, and perhaps poignantly reminded of our own mortality, we retreated from the woods and returned to the treacherous tussocks and mud wallows. Eventually, Alison hit upon a brilliant idea and began wading through the thigh-deep water, thereby circumnavigating the scratchy bushes and deadly sinkholes. It was here that the tables turned and the wildlife began manhandling us. Much to my horror, we discovered leeches attached to our legs! Snakes, spiders, ticks--I am not bothered by them--but leeches! I coated mine with toothpaste; the fluoride worked some deadly magic and exploded the vile creature, causing streams of swirled red and white liquid to dribble down my leg as I drove. I gritted my teeth and attempted to ignore the sensation.


Speaking of driving, I must conclude with the reason for this flooding's seclusion: it requires some beastly driving! The Stinkpot, my trusty Taurus, carried us down logging roads and even off roads to avoid fallen trees and other such obstacles.


Yes, there is much more to Kirtland's country than just Kirtland's Warblers. I eagerly anticipate the next pilgrimage!