The Upper Left-Hand Brick

NOTE:  This posting has an error.   The apple-like oak leaf gall is caused by a midge, not a wasp.  The leaf gall of the wasp is an elongated gall along the veins of the leaf.  I will update the photos at some future time when I can find some good galls.  This issue will be discussed in a later post.

The main point of the post is independent of this error, so I have not (yet) rewritten the entire piece.  But please be aware of the mistake.



I once read about a researcher in a national park, a field biologist, who said his goal was to “understand” the park, in terms of its ecology.  I’m not sure what “understanding” a vast ecosystem meant to him, but I know one of the places he started his search.

Owl barf.

He teased tiny bones and fur and other miniscule clues from the upchucks of nocturnal predators and tried to reconstruct the lives of the puker and the puked and how those lives blended into the vast and intricate matrix of the wilderness.  He started his quest for large wisdom from small and humble evidence, because he seemed to believe that all is connected.  Start small and large will follow.

How does this work?  Well, mouse bones in owl pellets might lead to pondering the habits of wild mice—what they eat, how they reproduce, what else might depend on them for food.  If the mice eat certain grass seeds, for example, then we have connected the grass to the owl and to the other connoisseurs of mice, like, maybe coyotes.  And if the mouse’s favorite grass grows mainly in mildly wet terrain with a southern exposure to the sun, then we have a connection between grass, owls, coyotes, and mice to the weather, soil drainage patterns, and even the orbit of the earth around the sun and, therefore, the origins of the solar system.  And on and on.  The trail leads up to the universe and down to the quantum particles of life and matter.

Me?  My aims are smaller, or at least the geographic scope of them is smaller.  I would like to get some kind of grip on our backyard.  The task is no less infinite, but at least I can see from one side of the study area to the other while pondering it in a hammock.  I often do that, in fact.  Hardly have to turn my head.

Sometimes for days, even weeks, I have trouble thinking of something to write about in our backyard.  It’s not for lack of subject matter, because I could never exhaust that no matter how long I tried.  Maybe it’s the vastness of it that intimidates me.

Sometimes when I’m stuck I remember something from the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, by Robert Pirsig.  Remember that?  For years, I’ve been a little ambivalent about this tome, about whether it is a cute piece of pop lit from the 1970’s or if it is a work of real, lasting significance.  These days I’m leaning toward the latter.

One part in particular has remained in my mind over the decades.  The author as a professor of rhetoric was stymied by his students’ difficulties with finding topics to write about.  One girl, in particular, expressed her frustration to him when she couldn’t get started on a 500-word essay she wanted to write on the United States of America.  He advised her to narrow it down—write about Bozeman, Montana, he suggested.

She came back later, still frustrated.  No good.  She couldn’t come up with anything inspiring about Bozeman, Montana.  Nothing clicked.  Getting increasingly irritated, he told her to pick a street in Bozeman and write about that, for pete’s sake.

She came back again.  Same problem.  This time he was getting angry and said, “Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman.  The Opera House.  Start with the upper left-hand brick.”

The next time she came to see him she was somewhat awed and handed in a five thousand word essay.  She said she had “started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop.”

There it is.  There are lots of “bricks” in our backyard, from trash-hoarding spiders, to pill bugs that scurry around every time I move a pot or turn the compost, to galls on oak leaves.  These are things I can wrap my limited mental capacity around, at least enough to get me started asking a few questions.

Take those galls.  I was rummaging around in the backyard the other day and noticed all the old fallen oak leaves with remnants of galls on them.  Looking closer, I noticed what must be exit holes caused by emerging wasps leaving their unmade beds behind.

Cynipid Wasp Oak Leaf Gall

Empty Oak Leaf Gall

Now, I strongly suspect that these galls were caused by the horned oak gall wasp (Callirhytis cornigera), since the other type of gall they cause on woody tissue has, well, horns, like those I see on our pin oak.  This is a two gall wasp, an organism born of two wombs, with two generations leapfrogging into the future.  The woody-womb wasp is all female (agamic), and the leaf-womb wasp is the old, reliable sexual model.

Horned Oak Gall Caused by Cynipid Wasp (Callirhytis cornigera)

Horned Oak Gall Caused by Cynipid Wasp (Callirhytis cornigera)

Oak Leaf  Gall Caused by Cynipid Wasp (Callirhytis cornigera)

Oak Leaf Gall

Now the problem is, should I write about the next brick over and follow the trail of the alternation of sexual and agamic generations begetting each other down through the ages?  What is the evolutionary advantage of this complex strategy?  Is there such an advantage (or many), or would something else, something simpler, work just as well?  As a graduate student I got used to the attitude that every structure, behavior, and trait of an organism is assumed by many biologists to be “adaptive”, meaning that it leads to more offspring than that species would leave without it.  But really?  Really?  Everything is adaptive?  Or not?  Pretty soon, I realized, natural selection (evolution) often seemed to be used as the biological equivalent of deity, a convenient explanation for everything observed, a way to mentally tie up unsatisfying loose ends.  This deserves a closer look….

Or how about that third brick in the row:  the interesting finding that chemical control  of these little wasps proved both effective and ineffective.  Effective in reducing their numbers immediately, but ineffective in that the treatment also decimated the numbers of another wasp which parasitized the gall wasps, killing the larvae and pupae, and keeping them in check. Although there were fewer wasps all-around after spraying, more of the eggs survived to become mature adults, resulting in a net gain of nada, zip, zero—a fine little lesson in how natural checks and balances should be considered before tinkering.  There were just as many “unsightly” galls as before, plus you’re out the cost of the chemicals and application.  There’s a wider lesson in there.

Fourth brick: seems that leaf and stem galls don’t just contain the gall wasps that started them, but lots of other things, like moth larvae, ants, spiders, beetles, mites and more.  We could get in there and try to unravel that, but I know that I’d just find another wall with a few thousand more bricks to consider.  A world in a gall.  Worlds in everything.

Fifth brick?  Like cicadas, these wasps spend, by far, most of their time out of

13-Year Cicadas

13-Year Cicadas

sight, in their sealed chambers, absorbing nutrients, working their way through their various phases, engaged in obscure dramas of survival, and lazily dreaming their waspy little dreams of—-what?  Months in the leaf galls.  Up to three years in the stem galls.  Then they pop out, do their procreative stuff for a few days, days mind you, and fade back into the universal murmur.  Yet, we refer to the free-flying, free love, stage of cicadas and wasps as the adult phase of their existence.  It was all leading up to this, we say. Seems backwards to me in some way.  Seventeen years underground for some cicadas and over three years in their cells for these wasps, and we count the brief hours of boisterous buzzing around as the focus of their lives?  A question of perspective, methinks.

I think, for me, being blocked isn’t because I can’t think of something to ponder, it’s because I have trouble sometimes grabbing onto a starting place out of the overwhelming totality of what’s there.  There’s not much to say about everything, but one can chatter on for hours about the details that make up everything and reflect it like countless little mirrors.

In other words, don’t get me started. Existence is huge. I may never shut up.


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February Flora!

February 23, and we have non-native crocuses blooming and native wild leeks peeking up in our backyard.  Talk about your winter wonderland…

Note: the leeks link has a couple recipes.  It’s Nadia’s article in the newsletter of the Hawthorn Chapter of the Missouri Native Plant Society.

(The wild leek stock came from Missouri Wildflowers Nursery.  Check it out, because Merv sometimes has a small supply of these.)

Crocus in February

Crocus in February

Wild Leek (Allium tricoccum)

The Little Stinker----Wild Leek (Allium tricoccum)

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Foggy morning wakeup

I looked out into the backyard one recent frosty morn and saw mist, so Bonita and I went out into Rock Bridge Memorial State Park to see if the mist was there, too.  It was.  There was frost on the sumacs and a nip in the air.  Perfect.

Misty Morning Landscape

Misty Morning Landscape

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And now a word from our sponsor…..

In an act of shameless self-promotion (while I’m getting my next REAL post ready), I would like to present my Etsy photography store, right here.

FYI, if anyone sees an image they would like a print of on this blog, including the Gallery section, I can create a custom Etsy listing for it.  Just contact me ( to identify the image and specify a size.

Which is, I guess, a good excuse to throw another photograph up on Nadia’s Backyard.  This was taken on a fall hike at the Prairie Garden Trust, a beautiful piece of land owned and maintained by Henry and Lorna Domke near Fulton, MO.  See the link to the right.  Go visit!

Autumn Prairie Landscape

Autumn Prairie Landscape

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We’re on a Sumac Roll, Aromatically Speaking

There is a new post in our native plants pages on Rhus aromatica, sometimes called Aromatic Sumac.  Defend your chickens and tan some leather.  Or just grow a nice plant or two.  It’s here:

Aromatic Sumac (Rhus aromatica) Leaf

Aromatic Sumac Leaf

Also, Nadia is working on the recipes for her Sumac jelly and pancake syrup.  Stay tuned.

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Flapjacks and Sumacs

Sumac Jelly

Sumac Jelly

We had pancakes for breakfast this morning, watching out our dining room window as a small hawk—kestrel, I think—tried to catch its own breakfast in our backyard.  And on our pancakes was what?  Pure maple syrup from Vermont?  Nope.  That is, like, sooo L.L. Bean.

No, sirree, we had Dr. Nadia’s Famous Old Timey Missouri Sumac Jelly, and it was delicious.  Lovingly hand-crafted from a mix of Smooth and Winged Sumac berries picked with the care of Juan Valdez, you won’t find this in stores.  The good news is that it’s not at all hard to make your own.

Winged Sumac Berries

Sumac Berries

Now, many people know that sumac can be used to make a tart, citrusy-tasting drink, often called “sumac-ade” or “Indian Lemonade”.  But, why stop there?  Nadia didn’t.  She tossed in more sugar, added pectin, cooked, strained into sterile jars and, voila!, Dr. Nadia’s, etc., etc., etc.

Sumac Fruits

Smooth Sumac Fruits

We got the idea for using it on pancakes when a couple jars didn’t set up completely, but thickened to a consistency just right for syrup.  An experienced jam and jelly maker could probably make this concoction any consistency s/he wants.  Even if it’s too thick for syrup, just spread it on your pancakes like they were toast (which also tastes great with Sumac Jelly, by the way).

So what’s not to like?  Beautiful color, wonderful flavor, home-made goodness, and YOU know what’s in it (and what’s not— like preservative chemicals or profits for some evil multi-national jelly company that could be doing who-knows-what-to-who-or-what).  Sumacs are plentiful and free (you can collect the seed heads in the fall and keep them in cool conditions or break them in pieces and freeze them in sealed plastic bags), sugar is cheap, jars are reusable, and pectin is found in most grocery stores and many other places that stock canning supplies.

So, let’s get out those canning supplies and get jammin’!

NOTE:  We will post an exact recipe or two when Nadia meets a couple of other deadlines and gets around to making another batch.  This time she’ll write down the exact procedures, measurements, times, etc.  She promised.

Winged Sumac Leaves (Thus copallina)

Winged Sumac Leaves (Rhus copallina)
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Men of Rice

This is not really about our backyard, except that that’s where I was when the memory washed over me, early one morning, about 4 a.m. or thereabouts, as I shivered and stared up at the sky, hoping to see the show from the Quadrantid Meteor Shower.  Upstairs was a warm bed, with a warm (and smart) Nadia in it.

“Let me know if there’s something to see,” she mumbled when I got up, her nose poking out of the blankets.

There were lots of stars this night, for a city sky, at least.  I stood out there awhile, listening to the nocturnal city growl, the murmur from I-70 a couple of miles north, the slight rustle of leaves in our pin oak.  A couple of upstairs lights were on in a nearby house—insomnia?  Or another watcher?  Nearby security lights were on, guarding back doors.  There is a peace to early, early morning that is hard to describe.  It sort of feels like the whole world is yours, like you’ve got it all to yourself.

I watched for falling stars—the Quadrantids are known for fireballs, flaming meteors leaving trails across the sky.  Nothing fell, but I watched anyway.

At one point, I looked straight up and saw a rapidly moving light, pulsing regularly, moving west to east.  Very fast.  It didn’t look like a commercial airliner, but it wasn’t really odd.  Military aircraft, maybe.  But it triggered something deep in my memory.


We were far out beyond where the casual traveler usually goes, deep into southern Mexico.  Chiapas, way out in the isolated highlands south of Altamirano, a little-known town on the edge of the past.  Summer, 1977.

We three gringos, Pam, the Dutchman we knew as Kris, and I sat around a small fire in the mountain hamlet of El Triunfo.  We had come to this small village the hard way, walking with heavy packs over miles and more miles of mountain paths from Altamirano.

Valley of the Tzeltal Maya, Chiapas, Mexico

Valley of the Tzeltal Maya, Chiapas, Mexico

The village headman, Presidente Antonio, was a young man, handsome, with friendly, penetrating eyes.  He made us welcome, put us up in the local schoolhouse, a wattle-and-daub thatched building with tables big enough for our sleeping bags.  Food was provided for the exotic visitors, tortillas and beans and coffee.  It was good, and we were grateful.

That night around the fire there were a few curious hangers-on willing to sacrifice sleep to be around visitors who almost never came here.  Blancos, gringos, were pretty much unknown in these parts, and we were a powerful draw.  We murmured and chatted into the night, watching the stars as they went from faint to fierce as the sun went down and night advanced.

I think that one who has never seen a true night sky has never fully lived.  Up there in the mountains of southern Chiapas, many miles from the nearest road or town with electricity, we could see stars.  The firmament glowed with them.  The sky was radiant.  They almost reached down to grab at us.

Conversation murmured around the little fire.  I missed most of it, my Spanish being somewhere south of bad, but Kris was fluent.  He was there to visit his wife’s people—the Tzeltal Maya—and here they were.  Like most people, I had read about the mysterious disappearance of the Maya in ancient times, but it was no mystery to me on this night.  They were here, with us, sitting around this fire. chatting softly in the night air.  I don’t know where their empire went, but the Maya remain.  Their ancient language murmured in the darkness when they spoke amongst themselves, but when they spoke to us, they politely switched to a simple Spanish.

Tzeltal Mayan Boy

Tzeltal Mayan Boy

It is hard not to watch that kind of luminous sky, and watch I did.  The glow was captivating and suddenly among it I saw a small point of light moving in a straight line.  It didn’t blink or diverge from its path, but it moved steadily on, from one horizon to the other.  A satellite.  I pointed at it, and said something like, “Mira.  Esta estrella is una maquina.”  Look, this star is a machine.

I’m not really sure, all these many years later, but I suppose I was bragging about our technology.  I did not get the reaction I expected.

“Si, yo se.”, said Presidente Antonio, translated by Kris.  “Los hombres de arroz vienen de estas maquinas”.   Yes, I know. The Men of Rice come from these machines. He said it like he would say that the sun comes up in the morning.  Matter of fact.  He wasn’t even very interested.  The talk moved on.

The fire and conversation died down after a while.  The villagers had to get up early to reach their distant fields and do their work.  This life was not an easy one.

Water Supply for Tzeltal Village

Water Supply for Tzeltal Village

Tzeltal Maya Children

Tzeltal Children

I don’t recall, these many years later why we didn’t question Antonio further about these strange men who come from the machines in the sky.  Kris was dozing and we were all tired from miles of hard walking. It just didn’t seem to dawn on me that we may have heard something profound.  For 35 years it has remained to me as a mystery from a mysterious people, and I have never been able to find out more.  There are persistent legends about celestial visitors to the Maya in ancient times (and here and here) influencing their advanced culture and helping devise their uncannily precise calendar, but as a tedious realist and a former student of a prominent Mayan archaeologist, the late Dr. Robert Rands, I put no stock in them.  But I would like to know….

A week or so later, we literally stumbled out of that valley, thoroughly exhausted after a forced march of what we later estimated to be 45 miles in one day.  Eventually we found our way back to our ‘normal’ lives in El Norte.  My immediate legacy of that time was a fierce case of dysentery.  The longer one is a puzzle that still nags at my mind.  The nonchalance of a Tzeltal Maya Indian confronted with a miracle of modern technology, as if he knew about it before we did, still tugs at my imagination.

I don’t know what happened to Presidente Antonio over the decades, but I fervently hope it was good.  He had very kind eyes, seeming older than his young face.  I hope he still does.

Cloud Forest, Chiapas, Mexico

Cloud Forest in Tzeltal Country



The cold brought me back. Twenty minutes or so into my backyard search for fireballs, I gave in to the shivering and decided to go back to bed.  My search was in vain.  The neighbors’ security lights glowed on.  Distant traffic rumbled.

Turned out I was a day late for the meteor shower anyway.  I had the date wrong. No fireballs for me.  No Rice Men.  Not this night.

But, damn….I still wonder.  I think I will always wonder.  About lights in the sky.  About ancient peoples and what they may know.

I left our backyard for the warmth inside.


Note: This area was home to part of the Zapatista rebellion of the 1990’s.  I have often wondered about how many of the children we met among the Tzeltal and Tojolobal Maya fought in this rebellion and how many lived or died.



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Sometimes you have to look close

Autumn leaf color

Leafscape 1

Autumn leaf color

Leafscape 2

Autumn leaf color

Leafscape 3

Winged Sumac leaf color

Leafscape 4---Winged Sumac


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You can’t keep a good Goddess down

Despite yesterday’s snow and the 15-degree reading on our outside thermometer this morning, our Sky Blue Aster still held onto a few bedraggled blossoms.

Sky Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense (Riddell))

Sky Blue Aster holding on!

Sky Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense (Riddell))

Bedraggled, but unbowed.

I mean, you really have to admire the persistence of this late-season bloomer!  It’s over for this year, but she’s not going easy.

Read more at:

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A Mysterious Gem

Watercolor by unknown artist

My Own Personal Favorite Art Mystery

I would like to say that this was painted in our backyard, but I would not be telling the truth.  It could have been, had the artist visited here.  It could have been a playful interpretation of our little water garden, with its copper irises, but it is not.

That is about the sum total of what I know about this image, except that I love it.

Nadia and I found it in a dusty antique shop several years back, somewhere in these lower 48 states, probably in Missouri, but possibly in Iowa.  I do remember that I paid about $5 for it, in a little metal frame.  It caught my eye immediately, hanging there among the miscellaneous memories and remnants of other peoples’ lives.  I looked at it, realized it was an original and looked closer, struck by its simplicity and elegance.  It reminds me of some styles of oriental painting, particularly some Chinese and Japanese ink drawings—-seemingly simple, but containing worlds in single brush strokes.  Look at the flowers:

Detail of Watercolor Painting

Detail of Watercolor Painting

These are tiny in the original—less than half an inch across.  A sure hand with a fine brush did this, unhesitatingly, in just a few confident dabs of color.  Look at this small bunch of stems or leaves:

Bunch of stems in watercolor

Detail of Stems or Leaves

Again, less than half an inch across in the original.

Looking at the whole piece, which measure about 4 1/2 by 6 1/2 inches, you see that the painting is mostly “empty” space, but this space is there to be filled with the viewer’s imagination.  It’s not hard to visualize what must have been around this little bit of water and flowers.  So why would the painter waste her/his time insulting our intelligence by filling in what we were perfectly capable of filling in ourselves?  Instead, s/he set the scene, told us what we need to know and respected us enough to leave it at that.  This is another characteristic of certain types of Chinese and Japanese art.

To my mind this is a little masterpiece, a gem of visualization.  The more I look at it, the more it takes hold of me.  I would like to sit next to this little pond.

Except for the signature, I have no clue who the artist is. Try Googling “Paris watercolor” or “Paris artist” sometime and see how far you get.

Watercolor Signature--Paris, '72

Watercolor Signature--Paris, '72

I only know that, to me, this is the work of a fine eye and hand.  I don’t claim to be an expert on art, but sometimes a thing will just jump out and not let me go.  Browsing through that antique shop that day was just such a time.

P.S.  If anyone can tell me anything about this piece, I would love to know more about it.  Email me at


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