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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The Ballad of Quercus flatus: A Tale of Spring

The sap is rising in our backyard.  Spring has finally sprung (we think), after a couple of false alarms, and signs of life abound.  Our redbud is budding red, our wahoo is leafing out and preparing to flower (Wahooooooo!!), our surviving maple is making myriads of samaras and joyously spreading pollen to the four winds.

We had another maple once, which suffered an untimely and rapid demise due to unknown causes (but I suspect the unpredictable weather of recent years may have been involved).  About twelve feet of it remain in our backyard as habitat, a large monument of a stump, peeling a little more bark every year.  I suspect this year or the next will see the last of the bark, leaving the bald wood to face the elements and offer what sustenance it can to boring insects and hammering birds.

It was not so long ago an exuberant tree, which is why its death was so surprising.  One spring, not many years ago, I remember being amazed when I found sap literally dripping from its twigs.  No rain in sight and clear liquid hanging in drops.  I tasted one.  Sweet.

And as I sampled the sap, I remembered another tree, in another time and another place.  An oak.


Back in the day in Southern Illinois, my friend Al and I used to go fishing.  Night fishing.  Something would trigger the old impulse—stressful day at work, boredom, or just what the hell—and one of us would call the other and say “I hear the fish calling.”  That was the signal for packing a couple rods in the trunk, picking up some beer and munchies and heading out to Devil’s Kitchen Lake.  We would generally get out there while the sun was comfortably above the horizon, assemble the rods and bait our lines, cast them out and pop the tab on whatever beer happened to be on sale that day.

All the lakes in Southern Illinois were artificial, and Devil’s Kitchen was no exception.  It sported shattered masts of drowned trees protruding above the surface, reminders of old canyons and valleys now submerged.  The rocky point we fished from must once have been a little bluff, but now it was just a good place to sit, watch the sun go down and pretend to angle for bullheads.  We were not high-falutin’ bass or crappie fishermen.  We fished chicken livers right down on the bottom.

Drowned tree in Devil's Kitchen Lake

Drowned tree in Devil’s Kitchen Lake

One spring, years back, we were doing just that.  The sun was dropping down low, sending lazy sparkles skipping across the waves, while we baited our hooks, cast our lines, opened our beers and did what we came to do.  That involved a lot of silence, watching the scenery, sometimes arguing the issues of the day (Al was generally wrong), and, very occasionally, reeling in a fish.  The sun would drop down, the stars would slowly come out, the air would cool, the mosquitoes would come and then go again, and peace would just reign.  Stars wheeled across the night sky in the kind of splendor that is never seen in more populated areas.

One late afternoon, after we had deployed our tackle, we were sitting on the rocks and sipping our beers, when a sound disturbed our tranquility.  How do I say this delicately?  It was a sound that would engender very red faces in a church, very loud laughter in a bar, and an embarrassed “Oops” among family.  Essentially, it was a fart.

I looked at Al.  Al looked at me.  Raised eyebrows all around.

“Playing innocent?”, I said.

“Look who’s talking,” he replied.  Yeah, right.  I mean, we’re two guys fishing and drinking beer.  Might as well admit it, right?  But nothing more was said,  and tranquility resumed.  Until it happened again.

I won’t go into detail, but guys out fishing in these circumstances have senses of humor that make most women shake their heads in despair at ever getting us to some semblance of civilized behavior.  We, as I recall, were no exception.  Appropriate jokes, noises and hoots were exchanged, but still neither one of us accepted responsibility for the source of the merriment.

And again came the rude noise.  But this time we got a better directional fix on it, noticing that is was from somewhere slightly behind us.  The only living thing of any size in that location was an oak tree, seemingly growing right out of the rock, and as we watched it happened again.

Al and I glared at each other, as if to say, “See!  Told you it wasn’t me!”, then I returned my attention back to the tree.  I noticed a swirl of motion that I hadn’t seen before, a swarm of insects near the base.  As I drew closer, the swarm resolved itself into ever-changing combinations of bees, flies and wasps centering on what seemed to be a wet patch of bark.  Hunkering down, I watched and waited, and soon was rewarded by a vulgar noise and a splatter of liquid from what looked to be a crack in the tree.  Insects were crawling over the wet patch, frantically slurping up what must have been some mighty fine sweet sap of spring, released by the relentless build-up of pressure and vented by a wound in the tree’s xylem and bark.  Our very own Old Faithful Geyser! Building and building until something had to give, astounding the tourists!

Mystery solved!  Al and I opened another beer and solemnly (more or less) christened the tree Quercus flatus—a species hitherto unknown to science.  The point we fished from was renamed “Farting Oak Point” from whatever name it may have once had in the past, and it is known by that moniker to this day by at least two people.

That may have been the night that we were so humiliated by our lack of fish that we stopped at the legendary Arnold’s Market of Carbondale to pick up some frozen catfish to take home to our wives.  Or that may have been another night.  At any rate, a fine time was had by all under a gorgeous spring sky brimming with stars, and sanity was restored.  Peace and quiet had (mostly) reigned, and the fish were amused by our good-natured incompetence.  Of such nights are memories made.


Farting Oak Point is still there, but I haven’t seen it in many years.  The Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge authorities decided to put the loop road to bed that Al and I used to get to the trail leading to the point.  It is now best accessed by canoe or by hiking in from a greater distance.  I expect that oak is still there, too, doing whatever it does without the bother of quite so many gawking tourists.

The dripping maple in our backyard had once released its excess pressure in silence, with dignity, delighting opportunistic ants and other nectar lovers with its bounty.  No vulgar oak, that.  But it has passed on now and serves in different capacities, leaving the exuberance of spring to the living.  The sap still rises in them and always will.  The players change, but the spring will still come.

Devil's Kitchen Lake, Southern Illinois

Devil’s Kitchen Lake, viewed from Farting Oak Point

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Backyard Food of the Gods

Still catching up on backyard native plants articles, and the latest is this unseasonal look at the American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), whose Latin name is often said to mean “Food of the Gods”.

American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

Some disagree:

“…Linnaeus called the persimmon tree Diospyros when he was naming plants. With that said lets tackle Diospyros. The disagreement is whether the two Greek words are “dio/spyros” or “thios/piros.”  It comes down to Greek spelling. The most common translation is the more unlikely. As mentioned, Diospyros is often translated as “fruit of the gods” or “food of the gods.” That would be very bad Greek.  Some translate Diospyros as “the fruit of Zeus” which is just plain silly. There’s also “heavenly plant”  “God’s fire” Divine pear” and “Jove’s pear.” Jove’s Pear? That’s expired poetic license.  Jove was the Roman equivalent of Zeus, or the Roman name for the top god. Where the pear came from I have no idea though in Texas the persimmon is sometimes called Jove’s Fruit.”

Glad we cleared that up.  At any rate, here’s the new page, with lots of links to the history, folklore and culinary uses of this wonderful tree.  Enjoy (but not the green ones).

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Pawpaws, Mastodons and Zebras

Asimina triloba

Pawpaw leaves turn yellow in fall

Snowed in today and dreaming of warmer times.  A good time, it seems to me, to play more catch-up on the backlog of articles on the native plants we have in our yard.  This time it’s  Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)!  What does that have to do with zebras and mastodons?  You’ll just have to go see!

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Beyond the Fence

Our backyard is inexhaustible.

No, I don’t mean that it never gets tired, although that may be true, but that it is so much more than a plot of land enclosed by a battered fence out behind our house, as if that flimsy barrier of wood and mesh somehow isolates it from the greater world.  I see that fence every day, but when I start pondering I see no barrier, no boundary, except for the legalistic purposes of our society.  That fence mainly says, “This is ours, not yours.  You need permission to come in here.”  (Well, it also keeps our dog in, but that’s another tale….)

We humans generally like things in neat packages, seems to me, easily categorizable into manageable units we can comprehend.  This yard, that tree, yonder bug.  Or Nadia and me, individual people designated by names and personae that make us accessible to others.  But what are we, really?

Our yard is just another node in a vast nexus of unceasing activity and transaction, and nothing asks permission—birds fly in and out, soil creatures migrate unhindered beneath and through our fence, insects swarm everywhere, plants come and go.  Sometimes, the more I try to define our yard, or anything in it for that matter, as a distinct, identifiable entity, the weirder things get.



I can’t even define me.

Now, I don’t mean that in some spiritual sense of a mystical oneness with the ALL, whatever name you may choose to give it.  I mean it in a strict biological sense.  One real eye-opener of the last few years has been research into the human biota, the nearly unexplored and unexpectedly vast compilation of organisms that live in us.  Or perhaps I should change the last part of that sentence to “are us”.  There may be up to 100 trillion (with a “T”) organisms in our gut flora alone, ten times the number of cells in our bodies proper.  These organisms mediate many things, from digestive activities to immune responses and have been described as a “forgotten organ”

This doesn’t include the potentially trillions more organisms living elsewhere on and in us, fulfilling roles that we haven’t even begun to research, yet.  It is thought that mitochondria, those little engines that provide energy to cells and muscles, may be the remnants of microorganisms that became so symbiotic with their hosts that they eventually lost their separate identities and became instead cellular organelles within multicellular creatures.  All of this has led one researcher, Dr. David Relman, a Stanford microbiologist, to compare humans to coral, “an assemblage of life-forms living together.” It may be, he says, that we are little more than packaging for the microbes that make up the largest part of us!  We are like a backyard fenced in by skin, a package just as arbitrary as the backyard I see outside the window, communicating with the greater world, changing, evolving, exchanging visitors, dynamic.

So what?  I’m still me, right?  Well, maybe, whatever that actually means.  Consider that some microorganisms are known to influence mammalian behavior.  One, Toxoplasmosis gondii, reproduces in cats.  When it infects mice or rats it alters their behavior by making them less afraid of cats and, therefore, more likely to become cat food.  In other words, it seems to use rodents to get to the nursery to make more parasites!  So the next question is, how many of the potentially thousands of species of microbes making up the human biome may have a direct effect on our behavior and perceptions?  How much of our vaunted intelligence, culture and free will may be subverted to further microbial reproduction, rather than, or as much as, our own?

We don’t know.

In our backyard, whatever I am looks at whatever it is and sees trees, animals, insects and many other things.  That’s what the eyes of my body see.  My mind’s eye, more and more, sees forms that come and go, changing constantly, and which do not necessarily represent individuals.  The stately pin oak that sheds huge quantities of leaves and little acorns in one corner of our yard is certainly not restrained by the flimsy boards of our privacy fence.

Pin Oak

Pin Oak

Its roots extend far beyond into the neighbor’s property and they in turn are probably in intimate communication with most everything else growing nearby via a fungal internet made up of mycorrhizal filaments.  These fine, hairlike structures originate in fungi and are virtually everywhere in the soil, connecting most plants via their roots and sometimes penetrating even the plants’ cells.  This network does many things, such as aiding in nutrient and water uptake, but, like the cat-loving parasite above, it seems to do a lot more.  It can also influence plant behavior in some surprising ways.  For example, it has been shown to serve as an early-warning system for insect attack and disease in some plants.  Plants experiencing attack by aphids, for example, can send signals via mycorrhizae to neighboring uninfected plants telling them to “Get ready!”  Plants that receive these signals secrete chemicals that discourage aphids, but encourage parasitic wasps that prey on aphids.  Other plants isolated from the fungal network do not.  Guess who makes out better when the attack hits?

I expect our pin oak probably chats with our token poison ivy plant in another corner of the yard and with the wafer ash next to it, maybe through the mushrooms which live underground and pop up now and then to form caps.

Mushroom caps

Mushroom caps

I have no clue what they might be discussing, but it does make me wonder how much one can define organisms that are physically intertwined at an intimate level as “separate” organisms.  Consider that this network is probably of vast extent, extending over long distances, and it may be that our oak even gets occasional messages from beyond the horizon.

That oak tree and everything else in our yard also has its own biome, like me.  From hundreds of thousands of leaf galls inhabited by wasps and midges, to the trillions of microorganisms that surely inhabit it.

Oak Leaf Gall

Oak Leaf Gall

Who is to say whether what I see as a tree is the real oak or if the oak is actually the sum total of that dynamic assemblage of life?  Is it even possible that the oak and I communicate on a level that I simply can’t detect?  Do we speak, down deep where the world murmurs beneath our hearing and sight?

This is hardly a new theme.  As I wrote this my memory flashed back to a book I read decades ago and had nearly forgotten about.  The Lives of a Cell, by Lewis Thomas, discusses some of these same ideas, but I hardly hear the book mentioned these days.  Too bad, because the ideas are as fresh now as they were in 1974.   They are more real to me now than they were then, two years out of high school and bumbling quite clumsily through life.

I think I’ll reread Thomas this summer.  Outside, in our backyard.

Once in a while I will close my eyes and hold my breath.

I will listen very hard.


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Looking Ahead: Plant Your Peas

Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)

Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)

I know it’s unseasonal, but it’s way past time to start catching up on our Native Plants pages.  The latest entry is here.  It’s in our yard.  It should be in yours!

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A Miracle of Monarchs

We have seen very few Monarch butterflies in our backyard for the last two years, but that doesn’t mean they are not there.  Caterpillars are showing up on our milkweeds, so it seems that they must be making whoopee somewhere, then flying in under the radar and laying their eggs on our plants.

Danaus plexipp\uss

Monarch larva feeding on Common Milkweed

Danaus plexippus

Monarch caterpillar feeding on milkweed leaf








Nadia and I (especially Nadia) have watched these distinctive larvae like hawks, but some have been disappearing—victims, I suppose, of predators who haven’t yet learned their lesson about the bitter toxins in the caterpillars from the milkweeds they feed or are immune to it.  So, since we happened to have a couple milkweeds handy that were growing in buckets (rescued from a friendly neighbor’s yard with their permission), Nadia transplanted the butterfly wannabees to them and brought them inside.  They thrived and are thriving still.

Shades of my long-lost youth!  At the green young age of something or other (I forget) I raised a caterpillar to glorious monarchy adulthood, with a mason jar full of milkweed leaves and lid punched full of holes with a hammer and nail.  The day it emerged from its jewel-like chrysalis, it perched on my shoulder for a long time as its wings unfolded and dried, finally striking off to begin its travels.

Now for the first time in maybe fifty years, I would watch again.  And this time I had a camera that did more than my old Brownie box ever dreamed of.  Two of the three tenants had already formed their chrysalises and the third was getting ready.

Danaus plexippus

This chrysalis was a week old and spring-green.

Danaus plexippus.

This one is two weeks old. The butterfly is ready to emerge.  The colors of the adult are showing through the thin walls of the chrysalis.

Danaus plexippus.

This one is attached to the leaf and ready to form its chrysalis.






































At this point, about 8:40 a.m., I carefully set my camera on a tripod, composed and focused and told it to take a picture every five minutes, while Nadia and I went off and did other stuff.  (Mostly we kept coming back over and over to watch any progress that might be happening, but this little thing was in no hurry.)  For hours, we got lots of pictures like this one:

Danaus plexippus.

Monarch caterpillar taking its time forming a chrysalis.

At around 11 a.m., the dark colored chrysalis decided to disgorge its cargo and we found this:

Danaus plexippus.

This adult Monarch has just emerged and is pumping up its wings.

It took less than five minutes to emerge. This adult was later taken outside and released after its wings had formed up.  It’s hard to watch the kids leaving home, but…

Then, finally, about 4:40 the camera recorded some movement and subtle color changes.  Unfortunately we were outside at this point, or I would have decreased the photo interval to a much shorter time.

Danaus plexippus.

Getting ready!

Danaus plexippus

A final stretch….









And just five minutes later!


Danaus plexippus.

A half-formed chrysalis in just a few minutes!

Another few minutes and the miracle was nearly complete.  We never realized how fast this process happened, once it starts.

Danaus plexippus.

The chrysalis is nearly completed in another five minutes.

By 6:30 in the evening, we had our shiny, new package, just like we find them outside.

Danaus plexippus


Now we just wait two weeks and we get to photograph the emerging adult.  I’ll use a shorter interval this time.

Sometimes in this world it can be hard to maintain a sense of wonder and the miraculous.  Try raising Monarchs and just try to remain indifferent to the marvels of what you will witness.  This is truly one of nature’s small but spectacular passages, amazing, full of symbolism and happening all around us.  What a tragedy it would be to lose this…

Danaus plexippus

Adult Monarch Butterfly




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A Swallowtail Odyssey: Life among the Spicebushes

Papilio troilus

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar parked in its garage

It’s Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) time in our backyard, which is good for us curious yard-watchers, but a bit hard on our spicebushes (Lindera benzoin).  We’re watching the little ones grow up and they do it fast!  Now, I am personally not familiar with the growth stages of insects—instars and all that, but maybe you are and will know exactly what these kids are.

At any rate, you just gotta love that face.

Papilio troilus small caterpillar on spicebush

Just a baby!

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar


Growing up and getting hungry.

Growing up and getting hungry.

Papilio troilus

Lunching on spicebush leaves

After a period of feeding, the larvae head home for a well-deserved rest.  They must leave a trail to follow when they go out to forage, because they will walk along branches and twigs, unerringly turning at the right places to get home.

Spicebush swallowtail larvae

Caterpillar heading back to the ranch.

Spicebush with caterpillar leaves sheltering caterpillars

The ranch. The folded leaves contain caterpillars.

We will be keeping an eye on these kids, hoping to help them make it to adulthood.  The foliage on this spicebush is rather sparse for a population of five health, growing adolescents, but we hear that sassafras leaves can be used to supplement their diets.  We may need to go out and gather some groceries soon, if I ever want to get pictures of the adult butterflies.

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