The Damsel or the Dragon (with no apologies to Frank Stockton)

The Damsel or the Dragon (with no apologies to Frank Stockton)

It’s almost summer here in the northern hemisphere, though Madison Avenue says otherwise.  Many insects give the lie to that as well.  For other than the absent buzzsawing of cicadas, one might think that it was high summer in SE Michigan.

Perhaps you live in an area graced by dragonflies or what you thought were dragonflies.  Myself, I’ve only determined the difference between what I thought were small or young dragonflies and actual dragonflies for about a decade.  We’re looking at two different genuses altogether.

I’m talking about damselflies.

This is not a dragonfly  (courtesy of wikimedia commons)

This is not a dragonfly (courtesy of wikimedia commons)

The two belong to the same order–Odonta meaning “toothed-jaws” though I can’t find much evidence that either species bite people.

For those interested, both are also classified in suborders: zygoptera (damselflies) meaning “yoke-winged” and anisoptera (dragonflies) meaning “unequally-winged.”  I don’t know if the taxonomist(s) consulted St. Paul when naming them.

So, dragonflies and damselflies are similar, and can be confused for one another, but closer inspection reveals differences just like the annoying conflation that this meme clarifies.

Beekeepers hate it when someone claims to have been stung by a bee when it wasn't a bee at all.

Beekeepers hate when someone claims to have been stung by a bee when it wasn’t a bee at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both species have eyes conveniently located on their heads (Gasp!  Just like us!), but dragonfly eyes touch or nearly touch at the top of the head where damselfly eyes are clearly separated on each side of their head.

Dragon eyes (courtesy creative commons)

Dragon eyes (courtesy creative commons)

damsel eyes (courtesy creative commons)

damsel eyes (courtesy creative commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

As might be known, the dragonfly is the bodybuilder of the two suborders with a stockier thorax larger than the abdomen.  Conversely, the damselfly is long and slender with its thorax and abdomen roughly the same size.

Both fly with transparent wings (though I’ve seen damselflies with smoke-black wings) but the shapes differ.  Dragonfly wings are long and narrow and are dissimilar in pairing with the hind wings broader at the base; damselfly wing pairs are similarly shaped, but rounder than their cousins.

Speaking of wings, and an easy identifier (because, let’s face it, are you going to catch a dragonfly and declare, “Why yes, Charlotte, the wings are dissimilar in shape!”?) is wing position at rest.

After cruising some time, a dragonfly will hold its wings out horizontally at rest, resembling a plane.  Naturally, the damselfly is a contrarian and it folds its wings up vertically, perhaps like something out of the Star Wars universe.

God's Biplane (courtesy of me)

God’s Biplane (courtesy of me)

Dragonflies tend to be larger than the other fly; the largest one recorded at 20 cm (about 8 inches for the metrically challenged), but they average 3-10 cm (1-4 inches).  By now you’re expecting smaller records and averages for the zygoptera and you’d be correct.  Ten centimeters was the length of the largest damselfly, though the ones you will most likely encounter average 3-8cm (1-3 inches).

The dragonfly appears to have the damselfly “beat” in most categories.  However, an adult anisoptera only lives two to three weeks, whereas the daintier damselfly can last up to six months.

If you’re not bored by this point let me drop just a couple of more comparisons for you and send you on your way.

Dragonfly                                                           Damselfly

  • flyer                                                             percher
  • round eggs                                                  cylindrical eggs

The dragonfly can fly forward at about 100 body lengths per second (that seems wrong, doesn’t it?), backward at 3 body lengths per second, and can hover for close to a minute.

Both insects breed and live around freshwater and will eat whatever insects are available.  Both are preyed upon by birds, frogs, fish, and larger flies.

Still after more than 40 years on this planet, I find it thrilling to spot a dragonfly cruising around with more precision than even our best drones.  The almost clumsy and yet gentle flight of the damselfly evokes wonder.  The panoply of colors that abound in these too orders is likewise exhilarating.  Don’t let the seeming commonplaceness of these insects dull your sense of awe.

"Common" blue damselfly (courtesy creative commons)

“Common” blue damselfly (courtesy creative commons)

So the next time you see some iridescent flying thing that’s either too large for a bee or too slow for a fly, try to get a fix on it and tell whether its the dragon or the damsel.

And no, they can’t sew your lips shut.

“…Dragonflies draw flame…”  –Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

 

Six signs you might be travelling with a naturalist

Naturalists are a special breed of people.  While many of us easily miss the signs of life happening in the ecosystems we’re in and around, these people catch it all.

"Bug Camp" on Fletcher Creek

“Bug Camp” on Fletcher Creek

If you find yourself in a vehicle with one, see if these observations don’t ring true:

1) You find among the trash and dirt on the floor of the vehicle snake skin, sea shells, and river and beach rocks.

2) She keeps trying to identify tree species at 55-70 miles per hour.

3) His attention drifts from the road to the raptor soaring near the highway

4) She calls out the scientific name of the road kill you just passed.

5) He starts grumbling about the invasive plant species he can see when he parks the car.

6) Along with the ketchup packets and napkins, you find field guides, bird calls, and binoculars in the glove compartment.

What have you found when riding with a naturalist?

Sound + Vision of Spring

Sound + Vision of Spring

T. S. Eliot wrote in The Wasteland, that “April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.”

T.S. Eliot "Spring foe"?

T.S. Eliot “Spring foe”?

Obviously, never having visited Michigan (he was born and raised in St. Louis, MO) he continues, “Winter kept us warm, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow, feeding/ A little life with dried tubers.”  He’s been dead for 50 years and didn’t have to contend with this year’s February (see last month’s post).

That’s all behind us now, at least in this corner of Michigan and much of the Midwest.  Plants are beginning to sprout, maple syrup season is over, and even the occasional insect can be spotted.

Usually people in Michigan identify the American robin (turdus migratorius–what an unfortunate appellation)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

with the arrival of spring.  Not only does Michigan lose points for making our state bird one that Wisconsin and Connecticut also claim (the northern cardinal appears to be the most popular state bird), but not all robins leave the state in the fall.  Some stay around, somehow managing to find food through the winter.

There has been a movement over the last few decades to make the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii), a bird that only breeds in northern lower Michigan, the state bird, but too many people complain that politicians ought to find better things to do with their time than designate state animals, rocks, and books.

Kirtland's warbler image courtesy of Creative Commons

Kirtland’s warbler image courtesy of Creative Commons

So, for now, we’re stuck with the ordinary robin.

For me, though, the harbinger of spring is the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus).  Yes, it’s a common enough sight and sound in wetlands (even saltwater marshes) around the country, but they aren’t found in Michigan in winter.

Unlike the lazy robin, they hightail it south for open water and abundant food.  Well, not too far south, some are found year round in Ohio.

Some of the more sophisticated birds like to winter in Mexico.  The ones who can afford it, do, I suppose.

If you’re not sure what one looks like, all you need to do to spot the male is to look for a black bird, not quite as large as a blue jay, but certainly larger than a sparrow.  OK, I guess they are robin-sized.

But this isn’t one:

This non-native (image) is courtesy of Creative Commons and Torange.US

Image courtesy of Creative Commons and Torange.US

This bastard The starling isn’t even native to North America, thanks to a Shakespeare lover it was introduced in Central Park in New York in the 19th century and now they gobble up native birds’ food.

This black bird is also not red-winged, but it is native:

Grackle image courtesy of Ironphoenix.org

Grackle image courtesy of Ironphoenix.org

The common grackle is larger than the red-winged blackbird and is widespread as well.

 

 

The red-winged blackbird is as it’s name claims, a black bird with a scarlet and yellow shoulder patch on it’s wings.  That’s the male, anyway.  The female is brown and has field markings similar to a song sparrow.

Besides the instant sunshine the bird brings with its appearance, is the varied musical call the male sings.

Watch this beautifully shot short video by Lang Elliot:

I don’t know about you, but that bird’s call is magical to me and instantly brings spring to mind.

Lastly, spring is also here when the ground is brown, bare, and soggy, yet it smells of “the dearest freshness deep down things” to quote my favorite Jesuit poet.  There’s that earthy smell that is heaved into my nostrils.  And it’s not a bad smell at all.

I can throw the windows open, blow out winter’s dust, and thrill to the call of boy blackbirds and smell the fecund earth.

What’s spring like in your neighborhood?

Reading Dead Trees

Stewardship means using nature for human flourishing rather than preserving it in a museum, but it also implies a fine appreciation of the constraints implicit in ecosystems where human life exists  –Paul B. Thompson, The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics

Southeast Michigan has experienced the second coldest February in recorded history!  I’m fairly cold tolerant myself, but even I have limits.

If you can’t get outside, even when the weather is more amenable (like today, I think it was 44F), try reading.  Turn off the TV, power down the computer, the phone, and engage your imagination.

Before children, I read voraciously.  That has since slowed down.  A. Lot.  Still, somehow, I can read at least ten books a year.

I recently came across this article which lays out a plan to finish a book a week.  It’s ambitious, but do-able with discipline.  I’m achieving about 75% success with it.  See what you think.

So yes, the sap should be running soon, the daylight is increasing (Ugh, Daylight Savings Time started today), and the average temperature is eking upwards, but you still might find time to read by a fire or the old forced-air furnace.

I did this a little over a year ago, and am repeating the challenge: briefly review some books that fit the blog’s theme and am encouraging you to read them or find some others and report back.

The biography

The biography

At first glance, Paul Mariani’s biography of Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins might appear out of place, but Hopkins brilliantly melded his Christianity with many poems about nature.  Mariani, a poet himself, examines Hopkins’ emotional and spiritual landscapes as well as the natural landscapes that inspired much of the poetry in Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life.  All of Hopkins’ life was lived in very anti-Catholic, very Victorian Britain.  If biography isn’t for you, I highly recommend his poetry.

 

Wes Jackson, of the Land Institute, has a 100-year goal: to get food crops to mimic the perennial nature of the prairie.

The Blue Book

The Blue Book

The point of this is to preserve the soil, without which we won’t have many plants.  Additionally, he wants farming to go back to the more natural model of polyculture versus our industrial monoculture that is easy prey to pests, disease, and genetic die-off.

Jackson claims to be about 50 years into his plan.  Obviously, the institute will have to carry on after him.  It’s an uphill battle, as industrial agriculture has the mountain lion’s share of money and is firmly ensconced in our political culture.

New Roots for Agriculture isn’t a dry book about Ag techniques; it’s about his labor of love.  He quotes the first director of the Soil Conservation District (in the country?) by saying that the “land must be loved to be protected.  To him the plain truth was that ‘Americans as a people, have never learned to love the land and to regard it as an enduring resource.'”

The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, edited by Daniel Imhoff, has been quoted in an earlier post and to reiterate briefly, the essays look at the costs associated with our current meat and animal byproduct method of “farming.”

You may reconsider your meaty meal after this.

You may reconsider your meaty meal after this.

The various authors, only a few of whom are shrill, calmly examine the energy, health, environmental, social, and even spiritual costs we incur from this endemic system.

Next up, a 25th anniversary edition (2004) of Donald Worster’s history of Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s.  I had seen parts of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary of a similar name, but when it aired, for whatever reason, it didn’t grab me.

Worster manages to make the details lively and includes plenty of oral history.  Considering he was interviewing people who lived through it in the 70s, his history seems fresher than Burns’ 30+ years later.

Of course, the ecological causes and effects are delved into, but Worster doesn’t shy away from squarely bringing the blame to American culture:

The culture of modern, western man rests on the belief that he is autonomous in nature.  He is confident that he is a sovereign creature, independent of the restraints that plague other species–not controlled as they are, but in control [emphasis mine–SFM].  That has not been the view of most people in world history.

Included in the volume are quite a few photographs from WPA photographers and others of the period that help to concretize Worster’s prose.

Not a dusty tome

Not a dusty tome

Perhaps most shocking–I didn’t see it in the Burns’ show–was that the Dust Bowl returned to the region two more times!–in the 50s and the 70s.  For much the same reasons–industrialized agriculture–in an ecosystem that rejects that kind of farming.

 

 

 

 

Lastly, I finished The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics most recently, on 28 February to be pedantic.  Paul B. Thompson attempts a philosophy of farming.  He succeeds–partially.

I enjoyed about the first two-thirds of the chapters, but then it bogged down in defining sustainability.  The author explains why it’s tricky (think about it–what exactly is meant by the term?) and even apologizes for creating previous material on the subject that was dull, but slogs on anyway.

Maybe worth your time, maybe not.

Maybe worth your time, maybe not.

In the end, he pushes for a hybrid of Jeffersonian and other thinkers’ agrarianism.  I could see a place for religion in his argument, but he only mentions it near the end.

Most of the titles in this series (the University of Kentucky’s Culture of the Land) have been excellent.  This one?  Not so much, but if you enjoy philosophy this might make for something different.

 

So, did you read anything of note this winter that was ecology-related?  Leave a comment and tell us if it was worthwhile or not.

See you in April!

Fibonacci sculputures

Have you heard of the Fibonacci sequence? It’s a mathematical property that appears in so many natural places like seeds and flowers.

Image courtesy of creative commons

Image courtesy of creative commons

Don’t ask me to explain it–I’ll only confuse myself.

Instead check out this article on sculptures constructed from 3D printers that illustrate the principle.

http://artstyle.sfglobe.com/2015/01/14/3d-printed-sculptures-look-alive-when-spun-under-a-strobe-light/?src=share_fb_new_32233

I Resolve…

Most dictionaries (I haven’t checked them all) state that “resolve,” among other things, indicates  making a firm decision about something.  It comes from a Latin word for paying a debt.  So, to make a resolution, to resolve to do something is, by definition, something serious.  Not, as seems to be the annual custom, to make a claim for a change and then drop it by the third week of January.

Make 2015 (Where are our rocketpacks, by the way?) the year you learn the names of three trees in your neighborhood.  Perhaps even go the extra step by differentiating more than “that maple over there” to “See that black/red/sugar/Norway maple?”

Good ol' Calvin and Hobbes

Good ol’ Calvin and Hobbes

Aim for two or three herbaceous plants.  How about identifying those three birds you always see, but don’t know what they are called?  Insects and arachnids–what are they exactly?

Whatever goals you might set, make them achievable–saying you’re going to know all the plants in your yard by December might be too lofty–or maybe not.

Visit some new areas in your community; observe what problems may exist.  Is it in your power to effect a positive change?  Our duties go far beyond entering a voting booth.  Let this be the year.

Resolve to love your community, the ecosystem you inhabit and are already embedded in.

Lakeport State Park, MI

Let me end with an excerpt from farmer and writer Joel Salatin’s essay “Healing” found in The CAFO Reader, a book I recommend if your interests lie in ag issues.

For the first time in human history, people can move into a community, hook a water pipe into one coming in, the sewage pipe into one going out, buy food at the Wal-Mart from unknown sources, flick on a light switch for energy from who knows where, and build a house out of materials covered in bar codes from Home Depot.  We don’t have to know the local ecology, economy, society, climate, agriculture, or anything.  Just hook up.  Such a noninvolved existence inherently breeds contempt for the community that sustains our existence: physical, spiritual, mental.  Respecting our humanness requires that we respect–by appreciating our codependence on–that community of air, water, plants, animals, soil, and microbes.

What do you resolve to learn to love in 2015?  Leave a comment.

 

Parks: The Human Wilderness

Parks and ponds are good by day;

I do not delight

In black acres of the night,

Nor my unseasoned step disturbs

The sleeps of trees or dreams of herbs.

                                                                                     –R. W. Emerson

 

Some goodly time has passed since the last challenge.  I wonder if this month’s subject isn’t a bit out of time, as we in the north are going to turn inward more than outward.  Nonetheless, I’ll charge on.

 

For this challenge, I’d like to turn your attention beyond your backyard—unless you’re lucky enough to have one of these adjoin your property.  I’m talking about your friendly neighborhood park.

 

Sure, it’s probably got a playground with the de rigeur equipment, perhaps a ball field (soccer or base), a disc golf course, or some kind of dog run.  It might be tree less or nearly so.  Full of trash?  Just a corner lot in the middle of the city?

Typical park landscape

Lola Valley Park, Wayne County, Michigan

 

That doesn’t matter.  You’re sure to find something of interest with some diligent exploration.

 

Parks, as far as I can tell, originated among the rich in Europe, specifically in England (though I bet some Chinese and Japanese emperors had some) as a place to ride horses and hunt game.  They were surrounded with thick hedges to keep the game in…and the commoners out.

 

Game animal or park visitor? Lola Valley Park, Wayne County, Michigan

Game animal or park visitor?
Lola Valley Park, Wayne County, Michigan

 

In the U.S., the claim for the first public park was the famed Boston Common, established in 1634 for the purposes of military training and a public place for grazing animals (You might want to check out Garret Hardin’s noted essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” as a loosely related aside).

 

Over time, the idea of parks became associated with leisure.  They were established as littles oases, specifically for urban dwellers, a break from the duties and distractions of mundanity.

 

Today, we’ve got tiny pocket parks owned and operated by cities and towns (urban, suburban, and rural) to county, state, and national parks.

 

What kind of park exists in your neighborhood?

 

Natural areas v. areas of human use

Natural areas v. areas of human use

You’ve probably explored the playground, but what is there beyond that?  What species of trees grow in and around the park?  Do flowers and native grasses grow naturally in some areas?  What birds and mammals frequent the area?

 

Here’s a perfect opportunity to get to know the flora and fauna of your neighborhood.

If your park is not much beyond a turf grassland, the species are probably limited.  If you’re interested you might be able to change that.  Talk to the your parks and recreation department about creating strips of native vegetation.

 

Does a stream or river flow through or next to your park?  What kind of vegetation grows there?  Most parks use the paradigm of mowing right up to the streambank.  That practice, however, lends itself to erosion, and, of course, limits biodiversity.  Talk to the managers about the best practices for streambank stabilization.

 

How can you protect your park?

How can you protect your park?

Take advantage of the large green space in your neighborhood.  Help your children to identify trees, birds, and insects that pass through or reside.  Learn to love your park and understand ways that can help increase it’s natural areas.

 

You don’t have to let nature take over the whole park, but balance can be created for human use as well as for the non-humans.

 

Explore, learn to care for your park, and work to restore some of the natural areas, if possible.  You’ll increase the beauty and the value of your neighborhood while doing the right thing.

Look for the extraordinary ordinary in your neighborhood park.

Look for the extraordinary ordinary in your neighborhood park.