Backyard Gooseberries are Saucy Little Things

The gooseberries in our backyard try to get our attention with their tart little green offerings every year in the mid- to waning days of spring, but mostly they end up being overlooked as contributors to our partly wild larder.  Why?  Mainly because I could never get enthusiastic about the taste, which is mostly just tart.  I’ve tried letting the berries ripen past the green stage into their ruddier maturity, which tones down the tartness a bit, but doesn’t seem to replace it with anything better.

Gooseberries (Ribes missouriense)

Gooseberries ready for the picking!

These are not, in my book at least, munching-off-the-bush berries.  Something must be done to them.  In most recipes that seems to involve copious amounts of sugar and calling it pie filling or pudding, which gives a sweet-sour contrast that can be really tasty (ah, the rhubarb puddings of my youth!), but that never seemed to tempt me enough to get moving.

This year, however, Nadia came home with a small supply of gooseberries from somewhere else, so I determined to figure out something to do with them other than making sugar bombs out of them.  I set out to do some research and expand my gooseberry horizons, as it were, and found that there really are a few things to do besides pastries, puddings, jams and preserves.

In particular a recipe I found online for gooseberry ketchup caught my attention.  It was easy and fast, with a short list of ingredients.  Great place to start!   So I marched out the back door and harvested more berries from our own bushes and got to work.  Mind the stickers!

Gooseberry bush (Ribes missouriense)

Gooseberry bush (Ribes missouriense)

Ribes missouriense

Prickly stem of the gooseberry bush.

I said the recipe was fast and easy and so it is, as you will soon see.  Getting to the cooking point, however— not so much, since the tough little fibrous ends and stems of each berry have to be removed.  Gooseberries are small and it takes several many to make a cup, so I recommend parking thyself in thy backyard and observing nature while cleaning the berries or putting on a video— preferably something educational, to make yourself feel virtuous.  A cooking show maybe!  Back in the day farmers/gardeners would make a family affair (well, women and kids, mostly) out of shelling peas or dry beans and similar tedious tasks, making a social occasion out of it, maybe around the family radio.  You can try that, I guess.

At last, however, the berries were beautiful and the fun began.  I piled a cup of the berries into a saucepan with a bit of sugar (not much), some cider vinegar, chopped onions, a little salt, Worcestershire sauce, and tomato juice and cooked the whole concoction down for about fifteen minutes at a good simmer.

And it was not bad.  Not bad at all.  Nadia agreed and so did some of her colleagues who got samples.  So I got ready to make another batch and did some tweaking.  Here is where the recipe stands at this point—a little, but not too, different from the original.

1 cup cleaned gooseberries
1/4 cup sugar
2 tbs. red wine vinegar
1-2 minced garlic cloves
~3 tbs. chopped onions
~1/3 cup tomato sauce or paste (too much seems to make it too tomatoey and less   gooseberry-ey.
1 tbs. plus a glug Worcestershire sauce
1-3 splats soy sauce (splats are glugs through one of those pour spouts)
1/4-1/2 tsp. salt

Throw all into a saucepan and simmer for 10-20 minutes.  The gooseberries should get soft and start to break down.  Stirring helps to do that.  Taste and adjust ingredients as desired and continue to cook uncovered until sauce thickens.  The original recipe called for pressing the mixture through a fine sieve and discarding the pulp.  Well, not in this house.  We like the pulp and we’re keeping it.

This is a good sauce for meats and, Nadia discovered, is also really tasty on one of our easy snacks—melted cheese on crispy toast.  I expect that a grilled cheese sandwich would be great with this stuff.  I also expect it would be great to baste with on the grill.

So.  Now that I’m curious I’m ready to tackle more gooseberry cuisine, depending on the supply of berries.  For example, I found a recipe for Moroccan chicken tagine that had been adapted to replace the preserved lemons with rhubarb.  Rhubarb to gooseberry doesn’t seem like such a quantum leap, now does it?

We’ll let you know.


Posted in Cooking, Edible Native Plants, Foraging, Native Plants, Photography, Recipes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spring Rerun: Kimchi from your backyard to you

Spring is sprung and we have cup plant and lamb’s quarters in our backyard, with goldenglow within an easy hike (soon to join our other natives around the house).  In honor of this wealth of native edible greens, we are doing a rerun of an earlier posting on the making of kimchi, or fermented Korean vegetables, from whatcha got around ya.  It’s easy, it’s tasty, and, with wild ingredients for the asking, it’s almost free!  Plus, it can made in hundreds of variations—just check the web for recipes and switch in your own ingredients and preferences for spiciness, etc.  (I would imagine that an enterprising person could adapt this to make a native greens sauerkraut without too much difficulty.)

Native edible greens, korean kimchi

Korean-style kimchi made from native edible greens

So here’s the link:

Backyard Haute (or at least, Hot) Cuisine

Go thou and ferment likewise.

Posted in Cooking, Edible Native Plants, Foraging, Gardening, Native Plants, Recipes | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Seagull Named Emma

We have never had a seagull in our backyard, at least to my knowledge. So let me be clear up front that if you are expecting a heartwarming tale of an errant seabird squawking its way into Nadia’s heart or mine, you will be disappointed and probably wondering why someone would call an article “A Seagull Named Emma” and then not bother to put a seagull in it. Well, we’ll get to that.

Instead, let’s talk about names and naming, because I seem to spend an incredible amount of time trying to do that for the things we find in our little urban wilderness. During photogenic times of the year, we might take hundreds of photographs a week out there. That’s the fun part. What is sometimes less fun, and occasionally frustrating, is trying to put names to what we see, even though tools abound to help with this, from nature guidebooks, to invaluable websites with interactive identification tools, to myriads of phone apps to carry with you in the field (or yard), to friends smarter than me.

I started to wonder why this was so important. I mean, it seems obvious that we would want to know what it is we are observing, right? But must we be so obsessive about it? I recall a conversation with friends years ago about local grasses, and someone pointed out some attractive specimens nearby. “Indiangrass”, she said, to which someone replied, “Sorghastrum nutans?” At that point, someone else snorted and exclaimed “Ah, you people drive me nuts when you do that!”.

His point, as I understood it, was why not just appreciate what we’re seeing and experiencing, without trying to label it and stuff it into a dusty mental museum case? Fair enough.

But that is much, much harder than it sounds. In fact some folks spend years, even lifetimes, in intensive training in how to experience the universe directly without filters and overcome their tendencies to name and categorize. The rest of us spend years, even lifetimes, learning how to name things. In fact, this is the training that starts before any other.

When we first pop into the world we are probably as close to pure non-intellectual experience as we are ever likely to get. My memories are a little foggy from those days, but I expect that the feeling we later name “wonder” is routine for some time after first taking breath. Then along come these warm patterns of sight, sound and feeling called “parents” and the first thing they do is start telling us what things are called.

Well, actually, that’s not the first thing they do. The first thing they do is to name us, and then they start by telling us what our own names are and that we should call them “papa” or “mama”. At this point, all this is just vibrations traveling through air impacting our delicate newborn eardrums, but soon the damage is done. Meaning arrives on the wings of sound and sight, and the slippery slope of categorization has begun. Soon we’re perched on Mama’s and Papa’s laps looking at books with pictures of dogs, cows and birds. Pretty soon after that, we’re expected to know this stuff cold and show it off for Mama’s and Papa’s friends.

How could it be otherwise? How else could we survive without constant care from Those Who Name? How else to know what to eat, what to run away from, how to communicate anything at all to others, who those others are and how they relate to us?  I mean, naming stuff was one of the first tasks Adam was given, back in the day!  There was a reason for that.

Adam naming the animals.  Photo of stained glass in Dublin Christ Church Cathedra by Andreas F. Borchert

Adam naming the animals. Photo of stained glass in Dublin Christ Church Cathedral by Andreas F. Borchert

I said that it seems a no-brainer that we want to know what we are observing. That “what” entails knowledge about the properties of the observed thing and how those properties potentially affect us, an amount of knowledge that can be encyclopedic for any given item we confront. We abbreviate all that with names, shorthand for volumes of information about what those names represent. When someone says “Indiangrass”, I get a mental picture of a type of grass, what it looks like and where it grows, and when someone says “Sorghastrum nutans”, I’m pretty sure that she and I are talking about exactly the same grass, avoiding much confusion. For most people, I think it’s fair to say, the “what” of an object is its name, as in:

“What is that?”

“That is a bug.”


(Along these lines, in an historical aside, there is a group of Christians known as the “Name Worshippers” who believe that the name of God is the same as God himself. This got some influential folks so worked up that once upon a time an archbishop backed by a small Russian naval fleet with armed troops invaded a monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, beating and imprisoning some name-worshipping monks. But since this article is not about Greek monks, any more than it is about seagulls, I won’t mention this again.  Sorry.)

It is not just a staple of fantasy and folklore to assert that naming things gives us power over them (even dragons!). Like the wizard Sparrowhawk in Ursula K. LeGuin’s famous Earthsea Trilogy, we spend many years in our towers learning the names of the things in our lives, because knowing these names allows us to understand them, manipulate them and communicate with others about them. It even helps us get at things that we don’t know the names of, because we can use names we know to describe things we don’t know in ways that help us put names to them, too.

“What kind of bug is that?”

“I don’t know. But it kind of looks like a stink bug.”

“Ah! I’ll get my book and see if I can find one that looks like that!”

Then there are names that give us some information about things, even if we know nothing else about them. Can you spell “onomatopoeia“? (I couldn’t, but my computer’s auto-complete could.) Onomatopoeias are words which “sound like” the things they describe, and these words abound. We all know some and it’s not hard to imagine that describing things by imitating the sounds they make may be one of the origins of human language. If I think of a “whip-poor-will” it brings back the sounds of that bird calling during night-time fishing expeditions in deep Southern Illinois. Or my favorite, “njinga” (pronounced like enjinga), the word for bicycle in the Bantu language of Chichewa. Does a bike make a sound like that? Sure does if its got a warning bell on the handlebars! Later, as motorbikes became more popular, this was modified to include “njinga ya moto”. See how it works? An existing name was used to lever a new thing into a category that could be put on people’s mental maps. Genus: Njinga. Species: ya moto.

Finally, some names just fit, even if it’s hard to say why. Psychologist Wolfgang Köhler made up two names, “takete” and “maluma”, then showed people two drawings, one spiky and angular figure and the other rounded and curvy.  Then he asked them to decide which name went with which figure.

Takete and maluma.

Takete and maluma.

Overwhelmingly, and I bet you’re not surprised, subjects chose takete for the angular figure and maluma for the curvy one. This is called the “Bouba/Kiki Effect” (you heard it here first, folks) and basically says that somewhere down in our wiring we can consistently map types of sounds to categories of shapes. This may be yet another clue to origins of human speech. Some things just sound right.

Which brings me finally to Emma the Seagull. The German poet Christian Morgenstern wrote that, “The seagulls by their looks suggest that Emma is their name…” (This was also translated as, “All seagulls look as though their name was Emma”.)  I mean, come on. Now that you’ve read this, will you ever be able to see another seagull without thinking “There goes Emma!”? It just fits.

Why? Who knows? In fact, maybe to you it doesn’t, but it did to me.

All of this seems trivial at first read, but the more I think these things over, the more they seem to be about the bedrock, scaffolding and framework of our conscious experience in the world. Trying to imagine living in a world without using names is a near-impossible task. Trying to imagine oneself being nameless is frightening. Both of these conditions would seem to take us back to newborn status or maybe into the state of Zen consciousness that monks spend years and decades trying to capture through meditation. Direct experience. Things as they are, without the baggage carried by labels.

At any rate, when I spend hours going through trying to decide if the bee in my pictures is a Megachile mendica or M. brevis (see the last two postings), I am trying to discover the essence of that bee. Knowing the name opens doors to all kinds of published information about that particular bee. It lets me talk about it unambiguously with colleagues. It gives me a certain level of acquaintance with the next one I see in our backyard.

It gives me a little control over that part of my world.

And that sounds right.

Megachile mendica at nest.

Megachile mendica at nest. Meg, for short.

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The Long Travelers: Leaf-cutter Bees, Part II

Life travels, and a lot of it has made the journey to our backyard.  That includes Nadia and me–a few hundred miles from my point of origin for me and considerably more for Nadia.  Some of this life travels north to south and back each year and passes through on the way to grace us with its presence for a time, and some has meandered here haphazardly from far-off climes in all directions, welcome or not.  Some of it stays here pretty much all the time, but all of it has journeyed through vast distances of time and evolution, those other dimensions of change that we can only peruse indirectly and with awe.

Our last post described such a traveler: a Leaf-cutter Bee, Megachile mendica,    plying its trade and reproducing in our yard.

Megachile brevis or mendica

Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile mendica) cutting leaf disk for nest cell.

Now this particular specimen probably didn’t travel far to get here, since both of these species are native to Missouri, but a little research led to the discovery of some immense journeying indeed.  Back into the mists of time.  Way off yonder to a continent that split apart long, long ago.  To a time and place where huge reptiles made the earth tremble and plants were just learning how to make flowers.

It is thought that bees originated around 125-150 million years ago in Cretaceous times, splitting off from wasps and chasing the promise of the rise of angiosperms, the flowering plants  (“Let’s hustle, guys!  New niche!  Snooze and lose!”)  and in turn fueling the rapid spread and diversification of these new and wondrous plants.  This event probably happened on the fabled continent of Gondwana, before it separated into the South American and African continental plates, and it left the world a very changed place.

Old Gondwanaland and Laurasia (From U.S. Geological Survey)

The group that eventually gave us our leaf-cutter seems to have been one of the earlier bee groups to develop—the Megachilidae, an event which some researchers believe happened about 126 million years ago (making the case for an earlier origin for bees proper than was originally thought).  But it was still quite a hike to get from down yonder in old Gondwana to our Missouri backyard.  How did they do it?  Possibly by developing the very behavior that they are named for—cutting leaves.  It seems that bees have been making nests and laying eggs in them for a very long time, but bees that simply dig holes, lay eggs and provision them tend to be restricted to areas where moisture is not a problem.  Exposure to moist conditions can result in microbes and fungi infecting the eggs, larvae and provisions, killing the young bees or reducing their chances of survival.  The meant that the safest places to reproduce were in very arid deserts with little chance of rainfall during breeding season.

But then, somewhere along the line, some bright bees came up with the strategy of lining their nests to protect their contents.  Some used  Dufour’s gland to coat the nest and/or its contents with antimicrobial and antifungal secretions and some got the bright idea of using foreign materials, such as mud, plant resins or, like our little friend, leaves (fossil evidence for that here).  They were off to the races after that: vast new areas were opened up for colonization by these clever pioneers, who could now waterproof their nests and guard against organisms that would attack them.  It was time to see the world!  Wherever flowering plants spread, the bees followed in a symbiotic frolic that we enjoy watching daily in our own yard, sitting outside our own lined cells (3 bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, etc.).

Fellow travelers, all of us.  And now our Leaf-cutter Bee has been joined by another immigrant–a Giant Resin Bee (Megachile sculpturalis) that has made the trip from Asia relatively recently, first being reported in this country from North Carolina in 1994.  This large interloper uses plant resins to line and seal its nests, instead of rolling segmented cigars to lay eggs in.  The result is the same.  The kids are snug as bugs in rugs.

Megachile sculpturalis.  Giant Resin Bee.

The Giant Resin Bee (Megachile sculpturalis) with a mouthful of resin for its nest in a dead tree.

Megachile sculpturalis nest

Capped nest of the Giant Resin Bee (Megachile sculpturalis)

There is one more twist in this story.  Bees had something in common with the dinosaurs, being present when a comet or asteroid bumped into what is now the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the Cretaceous Extinction that wiped out maybe 75% of all the world’s species (but also see here).  Fortunately, some bees, some flowering plants and at least one shy little mammal squeaked through, unlike the non-avian dinosaurs which soon thundered no more across the landscape.  If they hadn’t our world would be a vastly different place.

Descendants of all of them, echoes of cosmic events and epic history, now share our backyard, carrying on as best we can, journeying on to wherever and whatever is ahead, all connected forward and back.

Life travels.

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Cutting-up in Columbia: Leaf-cutter Bees in the Yard

One of the joys of yard-watching in our urban wilderness is that you never know what you might find and where curiosity might take you.  One fine summer day as I patrolled our domain, camera in hand, I came across this:

_DSC3105Followed shortly by finding the little cut-up that was responsible:

Megachile brevis/Megachile mendica

A Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile mendica) on a Desmodium leaf.

And so, I was witnessing my first ever leaf-cutter bee at work, busily cutting disks of Desmodium and rushing them off to I knew not where.  Now these are gentlebees and not excitable, so I was able to photograph several sequences of disk cutting at very close range while being politely ignored.

(The bee was later identified as Megachile mendica with the kind assistance of Mike Arduser, naturalist with the Missouri Dept. of Conservation, with later confirmation from Dr. John Ascher on the invaluable site BugGuide.  And you thought a Megachile was a giant jalapeno…)

_DSC3120_DSC3121_DSC3122_DSC3123_DSC3124_DSC3125_DSC3126The speed of the work was surprising, with the bee cutting a complete disk in about 5-10 seconds, then flying off with it firmly grasped in its feet.  I’m sure that takes practice, but this bee had it down cold.  Where it was going was a mystery for a while, because it didn’t tarry for questions.

It wasn’t until later that we noticed that some holes we had drilled in a dead snag standing in our backyard were finally being used:

Megachile brevis nest

Leaf-cutter Bee nest in dead maple. Megachile mendica. July 11, 2014.


And, finally, success!

Negachile brevis nest.

Empty nest!  Larvae emerged!  July 31, 2014.

Now this is good news, because native bees like our Megachile are becoming increasingly important as honeybees continue to decline.  Leaf-cutter bees are efficient pollinators, with up to 242 species known in North America and, according to Mike Arduser (personal communication), 27 reported from Missouri.   We’ll take all the help we can get.

From the images above, it’s obvious how these bees got their nickname.  They cut and use these little leaf (and flower petal) plugs to fold into cells that get stuffed into suitable cavities in wood, plant stems or even in the ground.  Then they are provisioned with a mixture of pollen, flower nectar and mom’s patented antifungal/antibacterial saliva, followed by the laying of an egg in each cell.  These cells are often in rows, forming structures that look something like a hand-rolled cigar.

Leaf-cutter Bees and Nests

Public domain image from Lydekker, R. 1879 The Royal Natural History. Volume 6. Frederick Warne and Co.                (from

Some people consider these bees to be pests, since they “disfigure” foliage in their landscapes, but we encourage them, along with all other native bees, by providing nesting habitat and lots of nectar and pollen sources for them.  You can, too, by planting a variety of nativeplants to keep blooms going all season long, providing a supply of suitable stems for bees to bore into and lay eggs, making nesting boxes for them and/or drilling holes in suitable stumps and snags, and by leaving patches of bare soil for the ground-nesting bees (spare the mulch, save the bees!).

The holes I drilled in our dead maple used by our leaf-cutter were about a quarter-inch in diameter, but we had a selection of sizes available.  (Larger ones were used by another bee—see our next post, coming soon.)  For plant stems, we simply leave plants such as cup plant and other large-stemmed natives standing after they die and clean them up the following spring after (we hope) the larvae have hatched out.  This also provides winter cover for other wildlife that it just won’t find in a golf-course yard.

Dead trees, dry, bare ground and brittle plant stems poking up through the snow may not fit everyone’s idea of a beautiful yard, especially in the city.  But nearly fifteen years of observing our little patch of Columbia have taught us that all these fit into the larger matrix of how life works around here, with very real connections to other places and times.  We’ll never figure it all out, but the web reveals its connecting strands a little at a time.  We’ll follow a couple of these threads a little farther in the next post.

Stay tuned!



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More Caterpillar Creepies

Our backyard has many amazing things, but this one had me puzzled for quite awhile.  However, I think I may have found the answer to what exactly this is:

Braconid wasp cocoons

Braconid wasp cocoon mass

Until I sat down and really looked at this carefully, I thought it was a cocoon.  When I magnified the image it was quickly apparent that it was many cocoons crocheted together into a dangling mass.  After some extended searching, BugGuide again came to the rescue.  Not only did they provide a solid lead to the identity of these little Q-tip wannabes, but one commenter came up with this link to a video.  (Viewer discretion advised.)

It appears that an unfortunate caterpillar was parasitized by wasps which laid eggs on or in it, which happily developed into larvae inside the caterpillar, but carefully avoided killing it.  Then they cut their way out, paralyzing the caterpillar temporarily, and entering their own cocoon stage.  However, they may not have been done with their host just yet.  In some cases, the parasites somehow have enough control over the host’s behavior to force it to cover the wasp larvae with a protective layer of silk and even physically defend the mass of cocoons from attack by other wasps, until the host dies.

Consider this “Gruesome caterpillar stories: Vol. 2”.

Life ain’t easy out there, folks.

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Death on a Milkweed

Walking out of our yard today to walk Bonita the Beagle, I glanced quickly over a few young milkweeds growing on our curb next to the street.  Something under one of the leaves caught my eye.  This, to be exact:

Podisus maculiventris

Spined Soldier Bug nymph eating Monarch Butterfly caterpillar

Bonita the Beagle was visibly miffed at being dragged back into the house and stashed in the foyer while I grabbed a camera and rushed back out to record this unusual (to me) life and death drama.  At first I was convinced that this was some kind of a small weevil feeding on this young monarch caterpillar.  Later on, after the heat of the battle had faded and I had time to scour the internet, I’m pretty darned sure that this is the nymph of Spined Soldier Bug (Podisus maculiventris).

Podisus maculiventris

Spined Soldier Bug nymph (Podisus maculiventris)

Judging from the 2-3 millimeter size and the coloration and patterns, I suspect it is a 2nd instar (to see more stages, go here).

These little munchers seem to be pretty voracious in all their stages and are found pretty much all over the U.S. and up into Canada, but I had never seen one doing this before.  Keep in mind that this tiny bug is bearing the entire weight of the relatively huge caterpillar by its mouth parts, probably slurping that poor thing up like a malted milk shake while it’s doing it.  Yum.

Podisus maculiventris

Spined Soldier Bug nymphcarrying Monarch Butterfly caterpillar down milkweed stem

Too bad in a way.  Monarchs don’t need any more enemies these days, but nature is what it is.  In our yard, it’s pretty much what it wants to be.

Oh, yeah.  Bonita the Beagle got to resume her walk a little later.  She seems to have forgiven me.


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The Forest Unseen: A Book Review

Where backyards are concerned, size really doesn’t matter.  Even a square meter can yield a world of insight.

David Haskell’s wonderful award-winning book, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (Penguin Books, 2012), begins its preface with a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks painstakingly creating a “mandala” of colored sand, carefully observed by a group of college undergraduates as part of their first laboratory session in an ecology course.  The wonderfully intricate mandala (a word we become very familiar with in the course of this book) is constructed with infinite skill and patience by the monks over days, even weeks, only to be swept away upon completion.

Why go to all the trouble?  And why would this traditional and esoteric practice be fodder for a course in environmental ecology?  Ah, therein lies the tale.

Dr. Haskell has used the metaphor of the mandala, a spatially small construct which is representative of the Whole, the universe, as the philosophical underpinning of this gem of a read.  Creating his own “mandala” by selecting a site from a square meter of old growth Tennessee forest with convenient seating, he has used his year of observations to extract an intricate web of connections from the microscopic to the galactic and beyond.  No small thinking here.  Bacteria, ants, fungi all have their stories and connections to, well, everything, and he observes them all with his hand lens and mind, finding lessons well beyond the obvious.

He does not, like many observers of nature, exclude human beings from the scheme.  In fact, some of the most memorable portions of the book stem from human interactions with the “natural” world, including his own antics.  Picture a middle-aged college professor standing naked in a windy forest in the subfreezing temperatures of January because he wants to “experience the cold as the forest’s animals do.”  The musings that follow, about Bergmann’s Rule of body sizes and climate, chickadee insulation and more, are highlighted by his very rapid realization that he’s not cut out for this, followed by a panicked retreat into his clothing.  I doubt if he experienced the cold “as the animals do”, but he certainly experienced his own lack of adaptation to it.

Less dramatically, he finds himself in a conundrum when confronted with, of all things, two golf balls which have intruded into his mandala.   The puzzle was not how the balls came to be there, because this is when I realized with a slight jolt that the mandala was not an isolated site miles out into the wilds, but actually located beneath a bluff bordering a golf course.  After pondering whether he should “purify” his mandala by removing the intruders or leave them, he settles upon the latter course, reasoning that  “…to love nature and to hate humanity is illogical.  Humanity is part of the whole.”  His imagining of the eventual fate of the golf balls displays his ability to visualize immense processes taking place in vast sweeps of time, as they inevitably succumb to the entropy that humans are so gifted at temporarily reversing.

One of my favorite images from the book also involves human interaction in nature, in the essay in which the author describes nature’s warning networks, mechanisms that we are largely unaware of on our outings: birds’ alarm cries, squirrels chittering, deer flashing white tails and chuffing at being disturbed, all creating an expanding circle of heightened alert and caution.  He writes, “Hikers, for example, are preceded by bow waves that arrive  minutes before their chatter and laughter.”  And you wondered why you never see anything in the woods?  The author also describes the remedy—sit down, hold still and shut up until things calm down.  Nature doesn’t expect that of us.

Dr. Haskell’s view on humans in the network could be described as cautiously benign.  He is certainly aware of problems in humans interacting with the rest of the natural world, but he refuses to isolate them from it.  He is kinder than I might be much of the time.  But he, too, can reach his limit of toleration, as on one occasion when he ventures out on a beautiful morning to find that part of the forest had been ransacked of salamanders to use as fishing bait.  “The stream was gutted.  The forest’s salamanders would die on hooks or in stinking bait buckets.  I felt disgust and visceral anger.  I walked on,  my ire surging and coiling into itself.”  The event triggered an episode of heart fibrillation that required a hospital visit after a hard trip back to town.

I suspect that in private, the author might express a few more pointed and perhaps harsher opinions of humankind’s treatment of the planet, but in The Forest Unseen he maintains a cautious and even-handed approach.  We are seen as part and unruly parcel of the rest of existence.  But I would not like to be discovered by him in the act of poaching.

By far, the largest part of the book is taken up with finding greater meaning in the minutiae of the mandala and its surroundings, unraveling the threads that make up the fabric of the forest and greater world.  From the “dung pats” of grazing springtails, minute insect-like creatures that have an outsized influence on the soil and litter, to a 4.9 Richter scale earth-tremor that apparently had no effect on the mandala at all, Haskell uses his observations to elicit a karmic framework of cause and effect extending though space and time.

This book will not appeal to everyone.  It’s not a gripping, suspenseful thriller, but rather a book of quiet, personal science, of spiritual biology.  It should be read, I think, in small doses, in quiet moments, with time to let the ideas and images absorb and percolate.  A basic knowledge of life sciences will help, but anyone with a genuine love for and curiosity about the natural world can appreciate The Forest Unseen. It is above all, perhaps, a textbook on the fine art of observation, how to see, rather than merely look.

It is difficult to read it and see the world in quite the same way afterwards.  I mean that in the best way.  If one can truly find infinity in the workings of the natural world, as Dr. Haskell does, it doesn’t much matter whether one’s pondering take place in a square meter, an urban backyard, or a national park.  Any part of infinity is still, well, infinity.

(Dr. Haskell maintains a blog called Ramble where he continues his observations and musings.  If you like the book, I think you will like the blog as well.)


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Columbine Time (Aquilegia canadensis)

Aquilegia canadensis

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

When the spring columbines began popping up and blossoming in our backyard, we know it’s time to keep our eyes open for the arrival of the hummingbirds.  Sure enough, after several days of gorgeous blooms, we have now spotted at least two Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds hanging around.  We haven’t put the feeders out yet, figuring that they might as well slurp up the natural bounty first, but we will relent soon.  Ah, spring….

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Butterflies and Beer: Get Ready for Spicebush Season

Spicebush is leafing out!  Normally it would be blooming by now, like this:

Lindera benzoin flowers

Spring blooms of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

But it seems that the hard winter and long spring have slowed it down like everything else, since ours aren’t blooming just yet.

At any rate, you can get ready for them here on our newest Native Plant page.

Remember, when you plant spicebush, you get a twofer, since Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies will follow.  Actually, a threefer, since it can be used in cooking and flavoring beverages like beer or tea.  Such a deal!  Now go get your gold.

Papilio troilus

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar, early stage.

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