Specially and diversely unique. Or something…

It was waaay past time to turn the compost in our backyard.

Tomato plant growing in neglected compost

Neglected compost

One of those jobs that seem much worse in anticipation than they actually are, turning compost is something I can put off for a very long time.  Now, I know that our kitchen and yard cast-offs become usable soil much, much faster if I’m actually paying attention, but somehow that doesn’t stop me from letting them find their own path.  After all, no matter how much we put in them, the bins never fill up, and they don’t smell bad (until I take the lid off and put my head right down there).  All that stuff is going somewhere just fine all on its own.

But today was the day.  I was going to turn that compost, come hell or high water.  So I popped off  the bin lids, unlatched the two halves of the bins and pulled them apart.  Reassembling them a few feet away, I turned back to the pile, garden fork at the ready, and prepared to shovel and layer the contents back into the containers, alternating chopped up leaves, kitchen gunk, and soil from disused plant pots, all with a sprinkle of water here and there.

A cloud of gnats milled around in confusion.  Honey bees, yellowjackets, and a couple wasps looked around, annoyed at having their lunches of old fruit disturbed.  I took a forkful of the stuff and slung it into the bin I’d just moved, noting the herds of pill bugs and wrigglings of worms in the composting mass.  A few feet away, a Carolina wren watched intently and sang out its opinion.  I wondered just what its interest was in these proceedings.

I noticed some frantic motion in the leaf litter next to the bin and crouched down to see what the fuss was (yes, it can take hours to actually accomplish anything in our backyard).  I watched as what seemed to be a young june beetle engaged in titanic battle with a sinuous, writhing creature that looked as if it should be snarling and snapping its teeth.  It startled me, but I grabbed my camera and squeezed off a few motion-blurred pictures before the june beetle escaped and launched skywards, and its attacker disappeared.  I mean, it disappeared.  I sifted through the leaf litter, but it was gone, so fast that it just seemed to pop out of existence.  I later found out it was a rove beetle.

Rove beetle near compost pile

Rove Beetle--moving fast

I went back to work, trying not to inflict any more damage than necessary on the denizens of the compost—I mean, if I was doing this correctly, they wouldn’t be here in the first place, right?  I kind of felt responsible, but I could only do so much.  Ants scurried around, frantically trying to evacuate tiny, white eggs from their nursery.  Unnamed things squirmed around in the wetter parts of the mass.  I still don’t know what they were.

Unidentified organisms in compost pile

Don't know. Don't want to.

Centipedes flowed in retreat.  Seedlings sprouted everywhere, some clearly cucurbits of some kind, probably winter squash volunteers, and little tomato plants thrived.  Some yard clippings we’d tossed in had grabbed on and resprouted from the cuttings, probably having a good chuckle in the process.  Let’s not even get into the microscopic melee that must have been going on in there.

I had read somewhere that good compost is a living thing, compared to the more sterile soils saturated with thingacides and artificial fertilizers.  If that is true, this compost was beyond good.  It was angelic.

The special combination of our backyard environment, nestled in the greater environment around it, with our own blend of dietary and yard-grooming side-products, choice of sites, composting technique (or lack thereof), patterns of sun and shade throughout the day, and a thousand other variables had resulted in something that probably existed in all its detail nowhere else.  It was indeed a unique ecosystem.

Oh, no.  Now I’d done it.

I thought of all the hundreds, probably thousands, of articles, letters, presentations, and tv and radio shows I’d digested where someone tugged at my heartstrings and begged for help in preserving a place because it was, well, unique.

I pondered this for a moment, looking down at our little mound of incipient soil, teeming with a community we’d created, and thought:  Well, yeah.  What isn’t?  I mean, we’ve apparently just broken the 7 billion unique-people-on-the-planet barrier, so how rare is the quality of uniqueness?  Not very rare at all.  In fact, it’s pretty damned universal, and you might even say it’s an inherent quality of pretty much everything, at least everything living or sculpted by natural processes.  Maybe everything period.  So there I was, staring at food scraps and bugs, trying to parse the strangeness of the word “unique”.  I’m still trying.

So now what to do?  What were my obligations here?  Should I leave our own little pile of uniqueness undisturbed?  Or keep going and change it into something else that would also be unique?  I had to ask myself just what the property of “uniqueness” had to play in this decision at all?  Are there degrees of uniqueness or a uniqueness index?  If so, how does the uniqueness of our compost pile compare to that of, say, Sand Prairie Conservation Area in the Missouri Bootheel?

Sand Prairie Conservation Area, Missouri

Sand Prairie Conservation Area

I suppose that one could argue that each strip mall dotted across our fair land is unique, even if they contain a pretty similar  mix of fast food mills, gas stations, payday loan casinos, and car dealerships.  They are somehow unique and ubiquitous at the same time, but to me they score pretty low on any potential scale of desirability.  I’ve never known anyone to say, “I’m driving a couple hundred miles southeast today, because I heard there’s a really great strip mall down that way.”  Would I send donations or join a demonstration to preserve a strip mall?  Ahem.

However, I would do these things for a sand prairie.  But why?

It seems to me that if a developer took a sand prairie, paved it over and replanted it with MacBurgerBees and other species of the strip mall ecosystem, something profound would be gone.  And as much as I try to escape it, the word “unique” keeps rearing its head.  But so does the word “diversity”.

There are other sand prairies, scattered among several states, but they are not nearly as much alike as are strip malls.  One sand prairie is made up of very different components than the next, and there are not nearly as many of them.  People do travel to see them and experience their differences.  People have even been known to travel to see different types of compost piles, although not ours.  The phrase “sand prairie” (insert your own favorite ecosystem type here) contains much more diversity than does the phrase “strip mall”.

Maybe we need a new or different vocabulary, especially when trying to preserve something of which there is less and less, against the encroachment of something of which there is more and more (but makes more money!).  Maybe a better word is “special”.

When there are myriads of sand prairies and only a handful of strip malls left, maybe I’ll consider applying this argument to the malls.


I turned that compost, put the bins back together and cleaned up.  That compost was still unique, in its own way.  But special?  Not so much.




Posted in Gardening, Musings, Natural Areas, Prairies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Halloween Party!

We’ve had a couple light freezes already, but that didn’t stop the Halloween festivities in our yard, as some sturdy late bloomers attracted a few trick-or-treaters.  This is just a sample of what we saw.

Soon to come is a new addition to our native plants page on Blue Sage, which is a star provider of late-season fare for hardy nectar-lovers.  Stay tuned.

(By the way, please help to correct any wrong identifications!)

Orange Sulphur Butterfly on Blue Sage

Orange Sulphur Butterfly (Colias eurytheme) on Blue Sage (Salvia azurea)

Painted Lady (Vanessa cadui)

Painted Lady (Vanessa cadui)

American Hover Fly (Eujpeodes americanus)

American Hover Fly (Eupeodes americanus)

Potter Wasp (Eumenes fraternus) on Goldenrod

Potter Wasp (Eumenes fraternus) on Goldenrod

Common Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus communis)

Common Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus communis) or White Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus albescens)

Tachinid Fly (Archytas sp.----apicifer?)

Tachinid Fly (Archytas sp.----apicifer?)

Posted in Insects, Native Plants, Seasons | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Web

The more I hang out in our backyard and the longer I live, the more amazed at and appreciative I become of the phenomenon of life.  Its abundance, its interconnectedness, its boisterousness, its sheer tenacity and unending ingenuity.  Give it a fraction of a chance and it boils up, sometimes seemingly from nothing, ready to take on the world, pugnacious and marvelous.  Made up of an almost infinite variety of forms, it is yet a vast whole, it seems to me, with everything connected to everything else.

The fabric of life seems vastly complex, yet strikingly simple at the same time.  Most living things share basic commonalities, like the need to continue existing and pass into the future by procreating.  Most everything else seems to follow from that basic drive.  The rest is detail.

As a farm boy, I was a predator and didn’t always see things this way.  Stalking the buildings and grove with a BB gun and the fields with a shotgun, I was hell on birds.  The sparrows, doves, pheasants, ducks, swallows and their compatriots seemed to figure me out pretty quickly, and I soon found that other places on the property had a much higher population of them than the part I happened to be in at the time.  That, and the fact that I was never a great shot, probably helped keep their populations pretty well intact. But I killed my share.

Killed.  Nice word, that.

I look back on that predation, that killing, with regret.  Not the part with the shotgun, which sometimes brought wild game to the table and had a purpose, but the senseless sniping at non-game birds that we never ate and wouldn’t consider eating.  I no longer remember what the thrill was in holding those small, warm bodies in my hand and watching their eyes become dull and empty.  I don’t like to think about it now.

Nowadays, watching the citizens of our backyard has made me realize how much like them I am at a most basic level.  I want to go on.  I eat when hungry.  I duck when threatened, and I fight when necessary.  I try to protect my loved ones.  Leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.

Even so, it’s obvious that it is absolutely impossible to live without causing harm to other organisms.  We can’t take a step without causing havoc at some level, we can’t eat or breathe without causing the destruction of other things—-the flip side of the coin of creation.  The two things can never be separated.

But what we do have is a level of control that may, I say may, be unique among the creatures of the earth.  We can choose to be merciful or deadly and, more and more, Nadia and I seem to have a horror for the useless destruction of life.  That doesn’t mean we don’t swat mosquitoes or put out baits for ants when they get out of control in the kitchen in the spring.  We eat meat, although much, much less than we used to.  We eat plants, too, and they must also die.

What is different for me now is that every decision to kill is a conscious one and there is no enjoyment involved.  When I destroy a mosquito or a tick, I’m highly aware that the tiny creature was only doing what it knew how to do to make a go of it.  I smush it anyway, but there is a part of me saying, “I’m sorry it has to be this way”.  I once watched Nadia capture a paper wasp that had just wandered inside and stung her when she unknowingly leaned against it. She gently took it outside and released it. When I eat meat, a part of me feels guilt at knowing that there are other alternatives.

Awareness breeds its own kind of discomfort.  It is often so much easier not to think too much about things.

There are times, I swear, when it seems I can almost physically feel the web of life and watch it functioning, the butterfly connecting to the bee, the redbud to the mushroom, everything to everything, and all to us. That makes it hard to treat life cheaply.

We try not to.  Our backyard teems with life, and we guard it well.  Reparation for my predatory youth?  Maybe.  Maybe I’m chipping away at some bad karma.  Or maybe I just grew up.


Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Summer’s End

O Autumn, lie down on me
and cover me with russet and gold.
I will not sweep you away,
or tell the lie that only Spring is real.

Floating Autumn Leaves

Summer's End

Posted in Musings, Photography, Seasons | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Nature’s Pauses

“Nature’s music is never over; her silences are pauses, not conclusions.”  Mary Webb.


I wandered recently into our backyard, camera in hand, to see what drama might unfold in front of me this day, and the first thing I noticed was the quiet.  Now quiet is a relative thing in the city, never absolute, but this yard was quieter than usual.  No bird chatter to compete with the traffic murmur from the street or the buzz of neighborhood lawnmowers.  In fact, there were no birds visible, not even the ubiquitous sparrows.

I checked the blooming plants to see what was buzzing around waiting to have its picture taken, but the situation was much the same there.  There were a few insects visible, but where was the usual bustle among the blooms?  Was everybody gone or were myriads of bright little eyes watching me from secret hiding places?


“But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides!”  ~Artur Schnabel


Truth be told, this was hardly the first time that I’d gone into our backyard or into a forest or grassland to find not much visibly happening.  It’s like going fishing when the fish just won’t bite.  Everything looks the same as the last time the fish cooperated, but something has changed.  At least for the fish.

Very often the cure is just to wait quietly, to join the pause, and see if things pick up.  This seems most true for me in the woods, where after a half and hour or so birds will start to move around again, rustlings will be heard in the undergrowth, squirrels will creep out and start foraging around.  It’s as if the citizens there can’t associate humans and stillness and just assume I’ve gone.  Once, I looked up to see a coyote staring incredulously at me from maybe thirty feet away.  At that little motion, it was gone.  Like a light bulb going out, just that fast and silent.

Knowing when to shut up and hold still is something hunters know well–first day of Hunting 101.  It’s also not a bad strategy for life, in general.

But our backyard denizens are pretty much accustomed to us.  They may back off a little further when we come, but they don’t leave or even make much of an effort to hide.  And what about the insects?

We have seen the opposite, too, like the morning Nadia and I watched out our dining room window over breakfast and counted 18 species of birds in half an hour or so, including a Cooper’s Hawk, and that without trying very hard.  Except for the tense pause when the hawk dropped by, everybody seemed full of purpose and activity and hustle. Is it like a room full of people at a party, chattering and mingling animatedly one moment, then shuffling awkwardly the next at a sudden communal pause in the conversation?

What happens when nature holds its breath?

I couldn’t say, although I doubt that nature’s people feel awkward about silence.  Maybe everybody out there takes little breaks when they feel like it, and once in a while these pauses just happen to clump together into a Big Quiet.  Coincidence.

Or maybe the world simply deems it wise to stop and consider once in a while—taking a deep breath and listening carefully between the notes, just checking.

Seems like a very sane thing to do, if you ask me.  I can wait.




Posted in Musings, Photography | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Image Galleries—Finally

I’m finally getting around to putting some images up!  You can view them under “Image Gallery” and switch between the different topics at the lower left of the gallery screen, where it says All Categories.  More images will be added soon, along with identifications and commentary..

And so will some new posts.  I got sidetracked for a bit, but there are a couple things in the works….


Persimmon season is almost here!

Posted in Native Plants, Natural Areas, Photography, Spiders, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Late Boneset

We just added a new page under Our Native Plants for the under-appreciated Late Boneset (Eupatorium serotinum).  A humble, but worthy addition to anybody’s backyard, which literally buzzes with activity!

Late Boneset (Eupatorium serotinum)

Late Boneset (Eupatorium serotinum) with friend

Posted in Gardening, Insects, Landscaping, Native Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Unknown Turn

Clifty Creek Conservation Area and Natural Area

Clifty Creek Natural Area

I looked down the at the tattered sheet of paper laying beside the path.  Despite having been shredded by shotgun pellets, it was still legible.  “Trail Begins Again Here”, it said.  A few feet farther along, Nadia and I emerged from the trees to see the natural bridge of the Clifty Creek Natural Area just across the creek bed.  A beautiful formation in a beautiful and high-quality natural preserve, the bridge arched over a tributary of the creek heading off at right angles to the one we crossed to reach it.  We stopped to admire and take some pictures, then prepared to move on.  But where?  There was a small trail going to the left right next to the base of the bridge, but there was no sign or markings, and it didn’t look much used.  Was it farther down the tributary?  I went off to scout, walking a ways and scanning the banks for any sign of the path.  No good.  We realized that the vandal who had shot up the first sign had probably gotten the one on this side, too.  Thanks, friend.

We knew from the signs at the trailhead that we had come just less than a mile—the short part of the loop to the bridge, leaving us about a mile and a half to go to get back to the parking area.  Not much of a hike, really, especially with plenty of daylight left.  Unless, that is, you’re going the wrong direction.  So, what to do?  We could take a chance on the path to the left and hope for the best.  That would be a somewhat adventurous and fun thing to do.  We could keep going down the side-creek and look harder for any trail that might be there, doing a little true exploration.  Or we could back-track—–the safest and most boring solution to getting home.

It was only a mile and a half, so what was the big deal?  Mainly the deal was that we were thinking of another hike, just a few weeks earlier.


We were making our final, sweaty ascent up the last hill before the road to the parking lot and some welcome rest after several hours of hiking in Three Creeks Conservation Area.  The bags of trash we had picked up weren’t making the walking any easier, and I was starting to regret emptying out the several full cans of beer we had found discarded along the trail.  Even a warm beer, even a warm light beer, would have tasted good about now.  So the gravel road at the top of the hill was a welcome sight as we emerged off the path, turned left and headed for the car.

Problem was, someone had built a house while we were in the woods.  At least it hadn’t been there when we started.  The road looked kind of funny, too.  We walked a ways, far enough to be certain that we weren’t going the right way, then marched back in the other direction until the road stopped at a locked pasture gate.  A few cattle stared blankly at us.  We stared blankly at each other, in that strange bafflement that results when the world suddenly shifts and suddenly you’re not seeing what your brain says should be there.

I scanned the rudimentary map in the area brochure, but could not find any place that could possibly be our present location.  What could have happened?  All the way, I had been following tracks left in the damp trail surface by two off-road bicyclists we had met on their way back to same parking area we had started from.  We had passed landmarks we knew well, even though we hadn’t hiked this particular area in several years.

It was getting near five o’clock, and we weren’t about to retrace our steps and risk getting stuck in the woods after dark with no flashlight.  At any rate, we had no clue where we had gone wrong.  We had no idea where the car was, and there were no people in sight.  Unless….

Bowing to the inevitable we slogged back to the house and knocked on the door.  The woman that came out eyed us in a friendly enough way, and, after apologizing for bothering her, I asked where we were and showed her our little map.  “You’re right here”, she said, pointing to a place I would never have thought we could be.  “Where did you start from?”  I pointed to our trailhead.  “My word!”, she exclaimed.  “You’re at least five miles from your car!”  My blank look must have made her want to make me feel better.  “Must be the day for this sort of thing,” she said.  “A few hours ago, a couple of bikers knocked on our door.  They were completely turned around, too.”

“Oh”, I mumbled.  “Is that right?”  I think Nadia’s eyebrow arched up just a little bit as she looked at me.

Our benefactress must have decided we were sincere and harmless enough, because after a well-deserved and gentle lecture about being more prepared next time, like maybe carrying a cell phone so we could call for help, for example?, she bundled us in her van, and, at no little inconvenience to herself, hauled us back to our car.  She would accept nothing in return except our relieved thanks, not even gas money.


We started off down the trail to the left, a little apprehensive about not knowing if we were getting closer to our destination or heading farther into the woods.  If we guessed wrong, I figured, the worst part would be a longer back-track to get to the car, but the farther we went, the more distinct the path became.  At one point, some rocks had been used to make steps to aid hikers up a small bank.  Soon we passed a tree with a plastic label announcing that it was a Blackjack Oak, with a remarkably unflappable lizard clinging to its bark, and saw where branches had been trimmed back from the trail and some invading trees had been cut out.

Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus)

Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus)---I think.

Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus)

Closer view of Eastern Fence Lizard

We started to relax, and finally, after about the right amount of time considering pace and distance, we came to the turn-off to the parking area and our car.  We were relieved, even though there was certainly no real “danger” at any time.  Only the uncertainty had been a little unnerving.

Time was when the prospect of taking an unknown turn wouldn’t have caused apprehension.  The idea of an unplanned night in the forest would have even been exciting, but with age seems to come caution and a sense of possible unpleasant consequences, and at some point they begin to compete for our attention with the thrill of adventure.  That back-track seems kind of attractive.  The unknown trail, maybe not so much.

We have both taken many unknown paths in our lives: me heading out from Illinois to a summer job in California in ’79 with some camping gear and just a few dollars in my pocket; Nadia leaving her family to travel alone to a new country to study where she knew no one and nobody knew her; me quitting my job and selling most of my things to hop a bus south across the border, to come back when and if I wanted.  Both of us taking the cosmic leap of faith of trusting each other with the rest of our lives.  Into the unknown….

Exploring nature in our backyard doesn’t have the thrill and risk that taking a strange fork in the road does, but it has its own quiet advantages.  It offers a certain depth to replace the sense of adventure, allowing us to watch details evolve as our little patch and its citizens make their way around the years, acting and interacting with each other and us.  We learn to welcome the return of old friends at more or less expected times, and we say so long to others until the wheel turns again.  This is as safe, I suppose, as life ever gets, and that can be pretty comforting, if you learn to let it.

I suspect, though, that there are still unexpected and murky turns ahead, areas that we can’t find on our inadequate maps, and that’s okay.  We can still welcome that, the tingle of heightened senses scoping out unknown terrain, the adrenaline rush of “Uh-oh. What now?”  There are more moments like that coming, I hope.

In fact, I’d bet money on it.

Natural Rock Bridge, Clifty Creek Natural Area

Natural Rock Bridge, Clifty Creek Natural Area. The trail is at the left base of the bridge. Really.



Posted in Hiking, Musings, Natural Areas | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Hoarder on the Deck: Our Trashline Orb-weaver

I don’t think we’ve reached the point where intervention is called for, but we have a hoarder in our backyard.  Not the kind that buys twenty tubes of toothpaste when it goes on sale, but more like the type that can’t throw away a pair of worn-out tennis shoes, because…..well, there’s the question.

It’s the trash that catches your attention, a vertical line of silk-wrapped corpses, egg sacs, and discarded skins.  The hoarder itself, who goes by the inelegant name of Trashline or Garbage Line Orb-Weaver, is pretty hard to see, being small and all nestled in with the garbage.  Let’s call her by the prettier name of Cyclosa turbinata, which has a nicer ring to it.

Trashline Orb-weaver (Cyclosa turbinata)

Trashline Orb-weaver (Cyclosa turbinata)

Now, I hesitate to try to guess why she does this, especially since a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to figure out the same thing, with results that still sound a lot like guesses to me.  The catch-all term for this type of web-decoration is “stabilimentum”, best known to most of us from the webs of the big orange and black Garden Spiders (Argiopes), who weave those little ladders and designs in the middle of their homes. Some folks say it’s to attract prey to the web.  Some say no way, it must be to keep birds and photographers from running headlong into it by making it more visible, especially since it seems to decrease prey capture.  Others suggest that, especially in the case of our little hoarder, these things function as camouflage or diversions to distract predators. That last one makes sense to me.  See the spider?

Cyclosa turbinata web decoration

Cyclosa turbinata "trashline" web decoration

Some have even suggested that they are forms of communication, maybe even inter-species! Still others suggest that spiders might be practicing spider art and have a sense of beauty.  I like that last one, although I personally wouldn’t hang the remains of my own meals around the house.  But that’s just me—–and Nadia, too, I bet.  But I have known people who hang heads of dead animals on their walls.

One of the earliest theories, and hence the name of the structure, was that they served to physically stabilize the web—–stabilimenta—–which hardly anyone believes anymore.  But let’s not be too hasty.  There are different kinds of stability, and we are talking about hoarding here, right?  Human hoarders seem to find a kind of stability in being surrounded by lots of familiar stuff, from piles of old newspapers, to those precious old worn-out sneakers.  I once knew two elderly German sisters in Illinois who kept neatly arranged rows of Prince Philip tobacco tins in one of their farm buildings, not far from piles of corn-cobs precisely sorted by size.  I think this, along with all of their other “collections” gave them a sense of place and comfort and…..stability?

Maybe that third bug from the top in the Cyclosa‘s trashline was a really good vintage, a meal to be remembered, or the one next to it put up an especially memorable fight.  Mementos.  Could it be?

Nah.  I’m going with camouflage.

Posted in Spiders, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Native Plant Pages

I have posted the first two of a collection of pages dedicated to the native plants Nadia has identified in our yard.  You can find them in the Our Native Plants pull-down menu.  I hope to add about one per week until all 141 species she has found so far has its own page with information about the plant, its characteristics as a team player (or not) in a natives landscape, its uses, and other, hopefully, interesting information about it.  That last part might include odd bits of folklore and legend about the plant, recipes for it (assuming it’s edible), plenty of links for further resources, and sources for seed and sets.  And photographs.  There will always be photographs.

If anyone has a plant or plants that they would like to see featured from our list (go to the Our Native Plants page link), I can tackle them early on.  Otherwise it’s as the muse moves me.  Next up is probably wild leeks.  Maybe.

And I promise to pretty that list up one of these days.

Backyard colors

Backyard Colors

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