Monday, October 31, 2005

Halloween and Samhain Greetings

The spider had been manipulating prey in our back yard. The filaments are Spanish moss.

(I am not all that jaundiced in real life.)

"You got Hot Wheels stickers?" Mary flips the cards in her hands. "Why?"

"Variety." I show her my other purchases, which include 3-D plastic flower and Finding Nemo stickers. They join our leftovers from last year, which include flat paper stickers and plastic glow-in-the-dark creepy-crawlies (scorpions, spiders, worms).

She frowns. "You couldn't get Matchbox cars?"

"They didn't have Matchbox cars. They had Hot Wheels."

(I understand her chagrin. I used to collect Matchbox cars. Hot Wheels just weren't the same.)

I stopped giving out Halloween candy in 1983, the first year I lived on my own. Instead I offered stickers. A friend accused me of being a "meanie"; neither of us knew how popular the stickers would be. They still get a good reception....

For 11 months out of the year we didn't have candy in the house where I grew up. (Entenmann's pastries, yes; candy, no.) My father started buying bags of candy on October first, "for Halloween." They were destined to run out well before the holiday, which gave him a good excuse to make the next haul, and the next, until finally we were stocked for actual trick-or-treaters. It would have been a cuter strategy had my mother not been diabetic; trying to resist the Entenmann's had been challenging enough.

I had two favorite costumes when I was a kid: I went around the neighborhood as either a witch or a gypsy. (I did not want to be a princess, though I was a devil at least once and remember that only because somewhere there's a picture of it.) I carried the witch motif into adulthood, dressing in black and setting my newly-washed hair into numerous tight, thin braids before going to bed the night before. In the morning I brushed the braids out vigorously and watched my hair spread out into a glorious, wild halo that would last all day and into the night.

After the last trick-or-treaters left, it took me at least an hour to comb out all the knots.

We don't do anything to the yard, but Sunday evening we got in a six-mile walk and admired what some of the neighbors have put together. Inflatable archways, statues, motion-activated recordings. Skeletons and huge spiders (more huge than the usual ones, that is, and plastic) in palm trees draped with enormous faux webs. One guy was disappointed that his laser wasn't working, but he could still use his smoke generator.

(Cue Shaker hymn: "'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free....")

I didn't take any shots of decorations, but a couple things caught my eye as we steadily lost the light.

I first whipped out the camera when I spotted a mockingbird perched on the tip of a branch. These are three successive photos, a bit unfocused because my shutter speed had slowed.

The sunset had turned our water tower pink; by the time we reached it the light level had dropped considerably. Except for cropping, the first two photos are "as is" out of the camera. I've sharpened the third photo slightly, and sharpened and "embossed" the last photo.

I don't know what these berries are, but I popped up the flash to photograph the clusters once the sun had set.

Mary and I did some late grocery shopping on our last leg home. On the wall of the strip mall near the supermarket I spotted a tersa sphinx moth.

The last time I'd photographed one of these was before I'd gotten the new camera, and the form was barely recognizeable. I love the fine woodgrain look of these things. According to this site, "Sphinx Moths are also called hawk moths because their wings resemble hawks' wings in shape, and because of their strong flight and hovering ability. They can fly at speeds of up to 25 mph."

Magic is afoot. Not just on Halloween, but every day.

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Sunday, October 30, 2005


The original entry, "There's No Place Like Home," still exists (with your notes -- hurrah!). It's accessible here.


We now return you to your regularly-scheduled programming.
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Partially Restored: There's No Place Like Home

Yesterday I'd added the Postscript (in red, below) to this entry, and was able to save and then view the new version. Then today I discovered it had been wiped out.


Fortunately I'd saved the initial text. Unfortunately, the notes seem to be gone. Dang. Sorry about that, folks; I love your feedback and am sorry it's been lost. Hopefully it's hiding in a cache somewhere and will magically reappear, but until then, this partial reconstruction will have to do.

Late afternoon palm

Being a "stick-in-the-mud" because the mud continues to fascinate....

Grow up in one big city (Brooklyn), live for 20 years in another (Boston metro), then move to rural Florida. Our decision almost 3 years ago led some folks to ask, "You're moving where?!"

(I think this area is still called "rural". It's developing fast, though; I'm enjoying the wild pockets while I can.)

In the summer of 1977, a friend and I had worked in Manhattan during the week. Every Friday night we met for dinner and a Broadway show, in the days when a back-row seat cost $6-8 a ticket. We lived a block from each other and getting back home was a subway ride away.

After I moved to Boston I had season tickets to the American Repertory Theater, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Wang Center dance series. I frequented the Brattle Theater art house. Big names: Vladimir Horowitz, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Yo-Yo Ma, Alvin Ailey. Before rents shot up and overtime became unpaid.

I was lucky enough to enjoy a fabulous immersion in culture and the thrills that come of urban life. No wonder some were surprised at a move that places us a two-hour drive from Tampa -- which, except for once driving Mary to the airport, we haven't yet visited. We have gone to Orlando -- to drive through it, on our way to a poetry convention in Melbourne.

What folks didn't know was the number of journal entries I had written as an adolescent, praising the moon and twilight seen out of subway windows on the elevated tracks. The mantis who was a childhood friend. The thrill of fireflies before they had disappeared from Brooklyn, and the thrill revisited when Mary and I found dozens of them one dusk along the Minuteman Bikeway in eastern Massachusetts. As a teenager I tried my best to capture the moon, sunsets, and my neighbor's roses with my Kodak Instamatic. Following a childhood friend's lead I had tasted sweet nectar from the Rose of Sharon flowers in our back yard.

I had grown up a couch potato but Mary had grown up hiking; she is my mentor in planetary stewardship. Our first long walk together came on Christmas Day ten years ago, in calf-deep snow along the banks of the Charles River. Since then our urban hikes have combined nature-watching (including a great blue heron standing calmly on red brick outside the Alewife subway station) and what Mary calls "beautification" -- clearing the streets of tossed cans, dropped wheel weights, dead batteries, etc.

Littering occurs here, too, though to a far lesser extent. Still, when I take my aerobic walks, I often circle back to where Mary is as she stoops to fill one of several plastic bags she carries in her fanny pack.

We'd started collecting field guides while still in Boston. I had purchased my first -- the Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders -- back in the 80s, almost a decade before Mary and I met. The second was Eastern Birds, volume 1 in the series of Peterson Field Guides -- because I had attached a suction-cup bird feeder to my office window and found that I kept e-mailing one of my coworkers with bird descriptions, asking, "What is this?" I'm sure he didn't mind telling me, but I finally asked him to recommend a reference book.

This pond a few blocks from the post office had dried up a couple of weeks ago but recent rains have refilled it. I think this might be a fulvous whistling duck. Hard to tell from what's visible (and it wasn't whistling at us), but this one seems to have the telltale white on its rump.

Since then we've added field guides for western birds, wildflowers, edible plants, eastern and western forests, Florida, the Southeast, perennials, and others I don't recall offhand. Usually they give us the information we need, but not always.

I'm still trying to identify this moth, whose wingspan I estimate at less than an inch. It isn't in any of my field guides, but was perched on the wall just outside my back door. The closest I've come so far is a photo of the orange-spotted tiger moth, family Arctiidae, taken in Australia.

Postscript: Wrong moth, and wrong family! Thanks go to Bob Patterson and Hannah Nendick-Mason at Bugguide.Net for identifying this as Syngamia florella (no common name). Patterson adds that it's "a common moth in Florida, family Pyralidae."

Except for a few meetings, we haven't left the county. And we've barely seen the county. In many respects we are still in the "settling in" process that involves everything one might expect from taking over a 25-year-old house.

Truth be told, I'm still continually fascinated by our immediate environment. A two-mile walk to the post office and back yields incredible riches. The photos here were all taken on the same day, during the same walk (more than two miles but less than three), and represent about a fifth of what my camera caught overall.


One of a gang of squirrels careening through a stand of trees.

A male red-bellied woodpecker. Before I got a good look at the shot I thought I'd photographed a downy or hairy woodpecker, which have similar "zebra" markings but only a red patch on their heads. This species has an entire red head, and was one among several in the tree. They were a loud and active bunch.

Often when we walk we scrutinize other people's houses because we're still learning how to live in what for us is a new climate. Who has gutters? Who doesn't? How close is that tree to the building? What kind of hurricane shutters are up? Is that conduit capped? Sometimes we just engage folks in conversation.

Eventually we'll venture further afield. We'll actually become tourists, though I won't say when. (Although I grew up in Brooklyn, I didn't tour the Statue of Liberty until Mary and I visited New York in 1996.) For now, I'm still being a tourist in my own back yard.


A late-afternoon pine a couple of blocks from home.

A neighborhood palm tree catches late afternoon light. This is the same tree as the one up top.

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Saturday, October 29, 2005

Season's End

"It might have been knocked around by Hurricane Wilma," Mary said.

"Maybe," I conceded. But would Wilma have made the creature so faded? Was I looking at an elderly butterfly at the end of its season? The life span of an adult Gulf Fritillary is just one month....

It was joined among the lantanas by a younger-looking companion. I wondered if the two butterflies were keeping each other company, if they were related. Compared side-by-side, they certainly looked like a younger-elder pair. (Photos are as-is out of the camera except for cropping.)

After photographing them I'd stood on line at the post office, behind a woman who had brought in a cardboard box almost half her size. She wore a housedress and cat's-eye glasses; her white hair was up in curlers. Too late to help her on the way in, I held the door open for her on the way out. She thanked me, told me her legs aren't what they used to be.

She is turning 89. The box holds presents for her great-grandchildren.


Closer to the post office I had found some lantanas nestled in among pine needles, backdropped by Spanish moss.

A couple of green pine cones had dropped, beside the ones that had turned brown and hard. In another universe this one would be a giant caterpillar, ready to spin a chrysalis the size of my forearm. The butterfly that emerged could block the sun out with its wings.

The wind had been brisk in what passes for a cold spell in Florida. Stands of goldenrod heaved, and on them dozens of particolored, polka-dotted "wasps" that are really Polkadot Wasp Moths. They were in none of my field guides, but a Web search finally turned them up. According to the University of Florida, "Some authorities classify the wasp moths as the family Ctenuchidae or Amatidae rather than as a subfamily of Arctiidae." This particular wasp moth is the adult stage of the oleander caterpillar.

I didn't know if I was watching two species or the males and females of one, and am still trying to identify the less-dazzling creature. I moved in as close as I dared, backing up when it seemed the wind might simply blow them into me, particularly because I'd assumed they were wasps.

Postscript: And one of them is! Thanks go to Matthew Roth and Patrick Coin at Bugguide.Net for identifying the other species as Scolia dubia, commonly known as the digger wasp or blue-winged wasp. It ranges from Massachusetts to Florida, and west to Colorado, Arizona, and California.

Many citrus fruits on the trees remain green but others have been ripening. I am used to seeing fallen oranges and grapefruit on the surrounding ground, but sometimes a ripened fruit levitates instead. (This photo is as-is out of the camera except for cropping.)

A turtle dove sat vigil on a wire by the church as clouds gathered. I photographed it first from across the street and then moved closer. One of the first things that struck me when we moved here was the absence of rock doves (a.k.a. pigeons).

Another bird fared worse, a sparrow perhaps. It had been dead on the road long enough to have been reduced to feathers and bones.

The leaves this far south do not become fiery, but colors still change as more and more plants go to seed. I saw these as I headed to the market.

By the time I emerged with packages in hand the sky had darkened considerably. Whenever I see sunbeams like this I think of Cecil B. deMille's Biblical epics. When I was ten I called the arrangement "God clouds," not out of religious fervor but because Hollywood did them so well.

Four trees stand at the edge of a retention pond down the block and around the corner from home. After they have dropped their leaves, these yellow berries remain.

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Monday, October 24, 2005

On the Outskirts of Wilma

My heart goes out to all those affected by Hurricane Wilma, which might make more of an impact on the city I left (Boston) than it has where I live in west central Florida. I'm also thinking of thingfish23 (The Taming of the Band-Aid) -- he and his family live very close to where Wilma made landfall this morning....

Rain fell steadily from 9PM Sunday until some time after I'd gotten to sleep at 7AM Monday for a five-hour snooze. The winds had picked up around 4AM and we still had a healthy breeze (probably with gusts up to tropical storm strength) by the time we took our walk around 3PM, after Wilma had passed into the Atlantic.

Our local bank had closed. Its flag indicated steady winds of probably 30+ miles per hour, at around 3:30 PM.

Mary had gone to bed shortly after 11PM, just after Wilma's winds had been clocked at 115 mph for I suppose the second out of (so far) three times. I stayed awake until I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer. When the sound of wind outside became constant I fished out a tiny flashlight on a lanyard and slipped it around my neck in case we lost power, though I needn't have worried. (Last year we'd been without power for 4 days with Frances and for another 2 days with Jeanne; my Frances diary is reprinted here. Even so, we were extraordinarily lucky then, as we are now, knock on plywood.)

You've Got A Frond (with apologies to James Taylor and/or Carole King)

The only storm effect we spotted during our walk was this fallen palm frond that Mary (who stands at 5 feet 5 inches) carted home. That large silver disc she's holding in the right-hand photo is a 14-pound weight, one of two we use to hold down our rain barrel screens in case of high winds. In addition to Wilma's lightweight presence here, I suspect last year's storms largely took care of the neighborhood's weaker trees.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

On the Wing

Gulf Fritillary

We are north of Wilma's "cone" of possibility (even NOAA has us north of it now; for days we'd been just inside theirs, though significantly north of the Weather Channel's). We're under a tropical storm warning until Monday afternoon (shortened from Monday night) and don't expect anything out of the ordinary, but have brewed a 35-cup pot of coffee and will be filling a few water bottles in case the power goes out. We've had our other "hurricane supplies" in place since June....

Rain held off yesterday, which gave me a chance to get in some shots. I swung by the postage stamp-sized "wild" area where I'd taken most of the photos in Patch of Wonders. This time I got some glimpses of a gulf fritillary and more zippy long-tailed skippers.

According to our Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders, the gulf fritillary caterpillar eats passion flower foliage. Flight is spring through fall, and throughout the year in Florida. "Because caterpillars eat passion flower foliage, both the caterpillars and butterflies contain a poisonous chemical, and their predators soon learn to leave them alone." The butterfly here is sampling nectar from a lantana.

What looks like a forest is actually a small wild patch between the post office and the supermarket. A few short steps and you're in a housing project on one side, a strip mall on the other.

On my way home a buckeye butterfly actually held still for me long enough to shoot, before I caught the blur of its takeoff.

Flight is in midsummer to fall. Caterpillar feeds on snapdragon, monkey flower, plantain, stonecrop, and other low herbs. Says the field guide, "The Buckeye flies swiftly if disturbed. Males dash after others of their own and different species and even chase Carolina Locusts."

And another shot of the prior entry's magnolia seed pod, which fascinates me. Some of those seeds look like holiday lights.

I'm off to treadmill to the Weather Channel....

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Fallen magnolia seed pod

Free-writing is writing off-the-cuff in answer to a prompt. For more on the process and the group, go to this entry.

At our most recent weekly meeting, the prompts included "Past" and "Volcano", which led me to produce the following:....


Astronomers explain retrograde motion in the language of passing lanes. The Earth, a Ferrari, circles the Sun, the center field in the Solar System 500; or, in this case, 93 million miles times 2 times pi, to get the approximate circumference of our orbit, our particular traffic lane. I forget our speed in miles per hour, but our 365-and-a-fraction days of whizzing a lap outpaces Mars, and Jupiter, Saturn, and the other outer planets. Such that, when we pass them, they seem to move backwards in the sky.

I think not of race cars but of seagulls on the Verrazzano Narrows, flapping their wings furiously but moving backwards as the Staten Island Ferry chugged doggedly ahead. A comical sight. They were trying so hard, beating the air like a feathered Sisyphus.

Twenty-five-plus years ago I gazed upon my first retrograde loop, watching Mars skirt the constellation of Perseus in the wrong direction. The other planets maintained their slow troll forward while their red brother flew against the tide. And then, in a matter of days, seemed to change its mind, pause, and then revert back to forward motion -- bending, it seemed, to peer pressure. I could almost hear the sigh.

In truth we had moved past it in our respective orbits, the Earth's inside lane tighter and quicker than Mars's outside track. We hardly thought of how we might look to Venus or Mercury, just as silly as the gulls, dropping behind as the inner planets passed us. As loopy in our orbit as the next world -- a ballet Ptolemy had choreographed as actual loops, like beads on a thread. Loopy for a thousand years, when we thought we were the center of the universe instead of a planetary Ferrari on a well-worn track, racing toward the inevitable checkered flag of stellar decay.


The news article reports on a rising mound in the northwest -- the beginnings, perhaps, of a volcano. No ominous vents, no warning temblors. No hue and cry to evacuate.

Just a mound, growing like a pregnancy, the gestation of lava. Geologic time will determine its own speed on this one. A whippersnapper of a formation, called young by scientists perched on the surface of a four-billion-year-old infant.

A year after Mt. St. Helens blew I walked on lunar terrain -- the ash still thick, rivers choked with gray. Matchstick trees blown down a denuded mountainside.

And yet through the ash rose bright green shoots, the persistence of ferns. And a young doe stepped daintily, shyly among them, bending to munch tender tips.

Illusory, this concept of solid ground, terra firma. Our planet's veins run as hot as our own. Its iron heart pumps, hellish vents on the sea floor a mere soak in a warm tub to bacteria that are more survival savvy in a single cell than we are in our wildly-differentiated bodies.

Like the mound rising out west, we are young, a species still trying to find ourselves, still surprised when the earth shifts. We want permanence and guarantees, creatures of habit in an environment of changing protocols.

We pride ourselves on our highly-evolved intelligence, on our propensity for breaking the rules. Then we squawk when our planet does the same -- as though the rules had ever been ours, quantified and straitjacketed.

Perhaps, in a billion years or so, whatever we may have become will know better.

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Friday, October 21, 2005

Patch of Wonders

Rose outside the Citrus County Art League

Mary asked, "What do you think of when you hear the word, 'skipper'?"

"Oh," I mused, "jolly fellow, 50-ish, kind of heavy. Crisp white captain's hat. Talks a lot to Gilligan."

I had never really watched Gilligan's Island, and we were talking about bugs. But pretty soon we were trying to remember the names of the characters and reconstruct the theme song, while Mary carefully carried home some delicious-looking wild berries that I'm glad she didn't pop into her mouth, because they might be nightshade....

I had never before heard of Skipper the Bug -- or, as Mary put it, "Not quite butterfly, not quite moth." I got my first look at one in a small, wild patch near the supermarket. Some day I'll get a clearer shot -- this one was whizzing from one lantana to the next. Some of my shots came up empty because by the time I opened the shutter it had already dashed out of frame.

Says Dorothy E. Pugh on her website: "Skippers are not considered to be 'true butterflies,' but they're in the Papilionidea (butterfly) super-family anyway. ... the Long-Tailed Skipper can move steadily and rapidly."

Yep. Lovely, zippy little thing.

Lantanas are some of the prettiest wildflowers around. They belong to the verbena family and bloom year-round in open woods and disturbed areas. According to the USDA Forest Service, a disturbed area is one "where natural vegetation and soils have been removed or disrupted" -- so I suppose the lantana is part of nature's attempt at reclamation.

American black nightshade also grows in disturbed areas. Mary's doubtful that these berries are nightshade, whose leaves our field guide describes as, "wavy-edged to coarsely-toothed." These leaves might not be coarse enough to qualify.

The field guide mentions two types of Florida blueberries: the highbush and the shiny. This one doesn't resemble either, and seems most closely to match the nightshade, whose berries range from black to purple.

My concern that Mary might have eaten them was not all that far-fetched. She has on occasion sampled flora on our urban walks up north, including unidentified "clover". From her I learned about wood sorrel, lamb's quarters, and purslaine. I adore wood sorrel, which is like a leafy sourball; a second or two after I pop it into my mouth and start chewing I get a fabulous burst of vitamin C. And we knew the locations of several wild mulberry trees (including the sweeter white mulberries) dotted throughout Cambridge, Mass.

I feel like Alice in Wonderland sometimes. Mary will hold out something in her palm and say, "Taste this." Sometimes I staunchly defend my wimpitude and decline. When we switched cable companies and the cable guy met up with a nest of honey ants (also called sugar ants), she tasted one to see how sweet they were. (They are, she said. I believe her.) I did, however, sample the Florida pusley that our local bees like so much, and that our Oxford English Dictionary reports was once considered nutritious fare before it was demonized into a weed.

Near the lantana and the berries we found some shelf fungi, whose exact type I haven't yet been able to determine.

The art league (where I found and photographed the pink rose) was to have held its 40th anniversary gala this weekend, but Hurricane Wilma's caused a postponement. Some performers had planned to fly in from out of state, then decided to sit tight. We're north of the Weather Channel's current projected-path cone, but are barely inside NOAA's cone. I've already driven through near-blinding rain from Wilma's way-outer bands.

That teaches me to have three meetings in two days. This weekend I think I'll just snuggle in -- unless the weather is favorable for another walk with camera in hand.

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