Night Angels

12 Jun

I am surrounded by hundreds of fireflies.
They are the stars and angels.
I am in the heavens of the universe.


Nature in Photography

6 Feb

A week or so ago on FaceBook I was nominated by two friends to participate in the #challengeonnaturephotography meme. Although I rarely participate in these memes, the thought “Why not?” prompted me to give it a try. The protocol is to post a nature-themed photograph, include the hashtag, give kudos to the friend that nominated you, and then nominate another friend in the caption.

I played by the rules for three days. Then life got in the way (long days in the field), and I got lazy. I posted when I had time, dropped the official hashtag, the nominators, and ran out of FB friends to nominate. I keep my FB friends to a relatively small number (up to 50 now!), and friends who are into photography have already participated once or twice.

Now I submit a story with the photograph instead. Why? Because photography to me is a storytelling medium. Today’s photograph is a glimpse into the secret lives on the ‘little people’.

Nearly every day for three months last summer, I was privy to an entire world few of us see in depth and detail. I felt like a giant studying, learning, and enjoying a network of soil, water, plants, and insects……….at their level. Sometimes I was so giddy with childlike delight, I forgot who and what I was. And I was full of anger and intense sadness when part of this magical world was destroyed by humans. That, too, was a lesson I won’t forget.

Revealed below is a monarch butterfly larva and several cobalt blue beetles all ‘doing their thing’. They use milkweed as a common food source. Yet they tolerate each other. I have watched members of both species consume leaf material, side by side without conflict. Here, two beetles are copulating, undisturbed and unfettered. While the monarch voraciously chows down, preparing to form its chrysalis. This, however, is only one tiny window into the lives that live in the ecosystem in which I immersed myself.

Most nature photography depicts landscapes of empty agents and actors. Or portraits of animals, still and silent in pose like a person sitting for a photograph. To me this is an injustice to the inhabitants of the landscape as they live out their drama and narratives in those spaces. Few ‘nature’ photographs reveal the complex interrelationships within the landscapes and with their fellow animals. They fail to show the communities of life in places other than within our own human preconceptions and expectations. As if we strive to capture and show only a snapshot in time and space that suits what we want to see.

In addition to the beauty, the silence and solace depicted in landscape and wildlife portrait photography is a dynamic world of creatures living their lives just like we do. The drama, the beauty, the good and bad, birth and death, at every level; from micro to macro. There are stories out there that are not of our own.

And we can learn from them: About their lives, their interactions with each other and how we interact with them. We can even learn about ourselves.

Think about that the next time you are out in the natural world. Take time to observe before you press on that shutter release button. You never know what you might find.


Fifth instar monarch larva and cobalt blue beetles on showy milkweed.

Another year on The Road

1 Jan

This was the reason I took early retirement and is my pledge for the rest of my life. To contribute to this goal. And shed the chains that prevented me from this mission.

Happy Third New Year on this road.


Taos, New Mexico

14 Oct

Tonight, live from Taos, it’s blues night on the air. The coyotes add their chorus, the moon sneaks a peek as a curved sliver, and stars twinkle their approval. Streets are quiet and ghosts from muddy plaster slither out to reenact their stories. The mountains hum and golden aspen leaves quake to the slow rhythm and moan of a blues guitar and voice. While the heat recedes and the cool air slides down in its place.

Yeah, this is the place. My place to be.

Urn in shadows and four centuries of adobe.

Urn in shadows and four centuries of adobe.

The art of observing

4 Oct

“Don’t think. Just observe.”

My first lessons in the ‘field’ were before I was taught any biology, physiology, ecology, any -ology. An old trapper/tracker in Maine was my human mentor. He was short on words and usually answered my questions with another question. Or a quick shrug of his shoulders. He spoke more with his eyes than he did his mouth.

When I asked him to teach me this or that, he swept his arm and hand out at everything before us and said, “That’s your teacher. I’m just an old man.”

It was almost a year before I started to realize what he meant. It came to me during the fall when a secret signal tells the maple trees to start turning orange and red. And when hair on several of the small mammals begin to change color. Leaves on many  annual and perennial plants turn yellow, shrivel and fall off while seeds mature and catch a ride on the winds or by clinging to your pant cuffs and socks.

It becomes harder to walk quietly in the forests on dried leaves and twigs that crunch and snap. You learn to step on tree roots and rocks thrusting above the litter. You might glimpse a deer walking in the forest and see how they slowly place a hoof on mossy spots or bare places in between the leafy carpet. Instead of pushing your way through branches, you twist half your body sideways or bend to move in the spaces in between.

During winter you might find animal tracks in other animal tracks. Or in your tracks. Blazing new trails costs energy; go where someone else has moved the snow. Perhaps you’ll remember to follow the game trails after the snow has melted.

It was a year before I could sit, or lean against a tree or boulder, and not think. I learned to watch and observe; save the thinking for later. I learned to be still. The more still I was, the more silently I moved. The more I didn’t think, the more I learned. With the dismissal of expectations and preconceptions, the more aware and attentive I was. Actually, I became less, and more like my surroundings.

And everything spoke to me. Not in words, but in just being. My environment was my final mentor.

French philosopher Simone Weil wrote:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of that though, but on a lower level and not in contact with, the diverse knowledge we have acquired, which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain, who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.

In other words, don’t ask or think……….Watch and observe.

Where water lives

25 Sep

Sitting here in a cafe that squats amidst colorful flowers on the bank of the Selitz River, a warm glow emanates despite the ebb of rain on a metal roof. Light laughter tinkles through the hush of morning people sipping their coffee and reading papers or tapping on their mini-screens like I am now. Outside, underneath large umbrellas, a few people hunch over their cups and table, chatting to each other in soft voices muted by the rain. Conversation alternates between the rare thunder storm here on the Oregon coast and the local events and politics.

A lone fishing boat gently rocks on the dark gray river enveloped by a shade lighter gray sky. Even the trees have a gray cast on this overcast wet morning. Here, on the edge of a river and the edge of an ocean, water also falls from the sky. From a person living the last 17 years where water is so scarce and precious, this abundance almost makes water drip from my eyes.

The moisture here dictates lives, from the moss hanging off trees to the livlihoods of people that call this Home. Growing up in New England where I played in creeks and skated on frozen water, skinnydipped in lakes at midnight and dug new trenches to divert snow water runoff every spring, the arid landscape I moved to challenged my perceptions and perspectives. I learned to do without or with very little water. It became imprinted no matter if water was plentiful or not. Water and its nature taught me much, and it became a respected elder.

What has remained is the magic of water. It doesn’t breathe, cry, or feel pain. Never the less, water can shout, roar, tinkle, and purr. It may be only atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, but it gives us all life. It can carve valleys and populate as bodies. Water can move with force like oceans and rivers, or slowly wander in creeks and be sedentary like lakes. Water can’t vote, plead, or punish. but it can give birth and kill just the same.

Can we justify its abuse, overuse, or contamination because it has no mind, no heart, no voice, and no blood? Is its only merit in monetary value and human recreation? Or might there be an implicit value beyond human assignment?

Perhaps water might be a good teacher of cyclical and dynamic systems, and as a part of all changes on this blue marble in a large universe. It was here long before organized life on this planet. and will remain long after we humans are gone.

Take a walk in the rain and relish its presence. listen to its stories and take care of it as you would a cherished ancestor. Treat it kindly. And go with the flow.

To be, or not to be, which species? Why question?

22 Sep

Over the past several years I have participated in the genetic and taxonomic debates over the Red wolf: is it Canis lupus (wolf)? Canis latrans (coyote)?  Canis rufus (current classification)? Or a hybrid?

Depending on which author’s paper you read, the general consensus is that the animal shares more genetic similarity with the coyote than wolf. To complicate the game, a few genetic markers associated with (note my avoidance of ‘unique to’)  the red wolf can be found in a sub-population of the timber  wolf, most notably the Great Lakes or Algonquin wolf.

The typical argument against introgression of the two wild canid species, C. lupus and C. latrans, is behavioral boundaries between them. Under normal circumstances, the two species do not tolerate each other and will not mate to form hybrid offspring. When they are sympatric (when their territories overlap), wolves usually kill coyotes or they just avoid each other.

However, a group of geneticists hypothesize that despite traditional behavioral and geographical boundaries that usually prevent introgression between species, these very boundaries are plastic. In other words, they may fail and individuals of both species may mate and produce viable offspring.

A scenario of this transgression might be in a geographical area that borders territories of both species. If resources are severely limiting, such as during a long drought cycle, a few individuals of each species may mate due to poor mating opportunities within their own species.

Another scenario is more common today: when human land use encroaches upon and shrinks traditional habitats, forcing trespass from one species into territory of the other. This is the primary explanation given for the increase of the current  ‘coywolf’ population in the northeastern US.

As one geneticist posits, such introgression may have occurred more than once, especially in an arid region, such as the southwestern area of the red wolf’s former territory: Texas. After several generations of backcrossing and/or admixture with coyotes, isolation of this growing population could conceivably be on the way to speciation, resulting in the historical  and extant Canis rufus.

Now, here lies the question: is this animal a species? Or a sub-species? Is it ‘wolf’? Is it ‘coyote’? Or is it a hybrid? And this is when the poor animal falls into the vortex of the ‘species concept’ debate. And possibly one of life or death.

Tonight I reread a paper published in 2006 and that was once used as a focal topic paper in a journal club session: “On the failure of modern species concepts”, by Jody Hey (Trends in Ecology and Evolution, vol. 21, No. 8). An excellent paper that stirred a three-hour debate between eight students and monitors. Shame on me for forgetting the final two paragraphs (‘Lessons on the method of multiple concepts’).

“Definitions cannot be forced to serve the arbitration of entities that are truly ambiguous. The fact is that species are hard to identify for a variety of reasons related to the various ways that they can be indistinct and no criterion that presumes to delineate natural boundaries can overcome this.

As scientists we should not confuse our criteria for detecting species with our theoretical understanding of the way species exist. Detection protocols are not concepts. This point would be child’s play if we were talking about electrons or disease agents, but because real species are so difficult to study, and because our best understanding of them includes their often being truly indistinct, we have had trouble separating the detection criteria from our more basic ideas on the existence of species.”

Right now, the fate of the red wolf in large part revolves around whether or not it is classified as a true species, sub-species, or a hybrid. The Endangered Species Act does not recognize and therefore does not include hybrids for protection from extinction. Both government agencies, policy administrators and scientists are still embroiled in the vicious vortex of yea or nay. Nor can the biologists agree on how the species concept applies to a possible animal caught in the cycle of speciation.

I am a victim of my own Trickster antics of playing in the ‘species concept’ debate. Tonight this is resolved and I am absolved: it doesn’t matter which species the red wolf is tagged with. It doesn’t matter if it is a hybrid or not. In fact, as a hybrid it’s protection and conservation is even more important. We have the opportunity to watch and learn what happens during the course of a mammalian hybrid as it continues its course of speciation.

May the Red wolf howl and carry on safe from human impact and intervention other than a helping hand for protection from human-caused anhilation. Perhaps you can teach us humans humility. Especially us scientists.

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