Nature blog: The insects of Heaven’s Hillside

This post originally appeared on April 15, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”

Sketch of some insects and bugsAt some point in the transition from childhood to adolescence, I stopped liking bugs and started being a little freaked out by their multiple body parts and jointed appendages. I used to relish the various bug collecting projects assigned to us in elementary school, the task of collecting enough species with my net, sticking them in jars along with rubbing alcohol-soaked cotton balls, waiting for them to die, and then carefully pinning them to a cardboard backing and labeling each one. To this day, the smell of rubbing alcohol reminds me of bug collecting.

Now, I’m learning to tolerate them again. The only bugs that ever really really freaked me out are thousand leggers, and only really when they’re near my bed. Stink bugs freak me out too–especially their soft white underbellies and the way they crunch when you squish them–, but I don’t mind them as much as thousand leggers. Thankfully, I’ve only seen one of them in three years of living in this house. We do have an abundance of spiders, and those I don’t mind at all. They eat mosquitoes (something I neglectfully left off my sketch). Aside from mosquitoes, we get a few types of moths that I’ve been unsuccessful in identifying. More annoyingly, we get yellow jackets in the summer. And stink bugs in the fall, of course.

Today, after yesterday’s wonderful soaking rainfall that we needed so much, I saw some earthworms moving about. I’m sure that made the robins happy. In addition to providing birds with food, earthworms have incredible soil benefits. Their physical presence and burrowing actions keep the soil open and prevent too much compaction, which is bad for root systems. They also help break up leaf and other dead organic matter through digestion, which improves the fertility of the soil. Some research suggests that good farmland supports up to 1,750,000 earthworms per acre, and that even in poor soil, up to 250,000 worms per acre may be present.

Rolly polley bugs, also known as pill bugs or potato bugs, is another creepy crawly that makes itself at home in my backyard and feeds on decaying plant matter. Rolly pollies are actually a type of woodlouse, and as the nickname suggests, rolls into a ball when touched. Some people apparently keep them as pets. They regulate their temperatures the same way as snakes: by sunbathing when it’s cold outside, and hiding in the shade when it’s hot. I’ve never found a rolly polley in my house, but I never have to look hard to find one outside. Apparently they can live for up to three years as pets. I’ve always thought they were vaguely cute, especially when they roll up into a little ball.

I’ve only ever seen one butterfly species in my neighborhood: the cabbage butterfly. I only ever see one or two at a time flying in my backyard. I enjoy watching them flap about the stinging nettle, especially now that the denser foliage makes bird watching much more difficult. The cabbage butterfly is named so because its caterpillars munch on that crop, causing lots of damage. The species hails from Europe and was introduced accidentally to North America, where it’s spread across the continent and become abundant. Although I enjoy the butterfly stage, I have found cabbage butterfly caterpillars on my petunias before, and I can’t say I enjoyed the holes they left in the flowers. Today, though, in the 70-degree weather, I saw only butterflies.

Nature blog: Heaven presents a mystery

This post originally appeared on April 8, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”

A charred treeAfter a leisurely walk with my dogs, I went up to the backyard to see what new plants had come up since last week. I found a few, but also several trees of heaven with singed leaves. The scent of scorched plant matter hung in the air, but I could only smell it intermittently. What could have caused some of these leaves to burn like this, other than someone with a lighter or matches burning each individual leaf? Nothing on the ground looked burned or singed. I frowned. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning Saturday because of excessive dry conditions, meaning that areas around Pittsburgh were at increased risk for fire.

And then I remembered the Pirates’ 2-1 win against the Philadelphia Phillies in an extra inning last night. And the Zambelli fireworks show afterward. They set the fireworks off from the Allegheny River near PNC Park, about one mile from my house. I’m not sure that hot fireworks ashes would travel far enough to singe leaves on three trees in my backyard, but nor do I have a better explanation, and the breeze seemed to be blowing off the river in this general direction. Giant magnifying glasses from space don’t sound quite as plausible as fireworks, and sometimes the smoke from the fireworks does drift into our neighborhood (we can also see them from our third floor window–though we were at the game last night, so window-watching wasn’t necessary).

12.04.08.stingingnettlesIn less mysterious backyard news, the stinging nettles* exploded from last week and have now taken over the base of the wood pile. Other minor patches of it are springing up down by the retaining wall and by the right-hand fence. I’ve been stung by the nettles enough to know to stay clear of them unless I’m wearing my thick working gloves, jeans, and long sleeves. The bull thistles have started coming up in the yard of the empty house, as well. On the next day after a rainy day, when the ground is most pliable and roots most willing to come out of it, I may need to pull up some of them to keep the path to my yard clear for myself.

I don’t think I’ve been out in the yard around noon before, at least not since the robins returned from their wintering grounds in the southern United States and Mexico (at least those that left–many staid here all winter). Several flitted from tree to tree across multiple yards. They didn’t seem to be doing much except looking around for something. I didn’t see any other birds. My family came to visit for the baseball game (we are from Philadelphia originally, but I have turned traitor and root for most Pittsburgh sports teams–but I like the Philly teams, too), and I had hoped the cardinals would make an appearance for my mother. They didn’t, but my mom did bring me a gift–a bird identification guide.

Plant with small white flowersAnother mystery: some kind of shrub growing by the right-hand fence. It has white flowers with five petals and about a dozen stamens protruding from the center of each. Extensive searching of white flowering shrubs yielded several promising lookalikes (something in the Deutzia family or elderberry), but no positive matches–the leaves seem all wrong. Up close, the flowers remind me of a sea anemone waving in the ocean, beckoning fish to its stinging tendrils. Thankfully this plant does not seem to contain any venom. My yard doesn’t need more than one plant with an irritating defense mechanism.

 

Bird List: April 1-8

  • Male and female Northern cardinal
  • American robins
  • Black-capped chickadees
  • Song sparrows
  • European starlings (even more seem to have moved into the area lately…)
  • Pittsburgh Pirate Parrot

*Note from 2015: Yes, the yard had stinging nettles, but what exploded was actually garlic mustard, yet another invasive species. That’s what you can see in the photo, too.

Nature blog: Heaven at dawn

This post originally appeared on April 2, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”

Eastern redbud blooming

Some kind of pink blooming tree visible through the tangle.

I woke up before the sun, hoping to see it crest over the rows of houses in my neighborhood and wash my yard in red or golden or pink light. Instead, a gray morning greeted me, and all I could see of the sun was a gradual lightening of the sky. Not even a robin or sparrow sang, and I wondered if birds also suffered from cases of the Mondays.

Then, just after seven, all the birds on the hillside seemed to explode into song at once for a few minutes before falling quiet again. A robin kept up his song, and a few other birds chimed intermittently. As I was writing this, the cardinal pair  hopped on top of the wood pile, pecking around together  presumably looking for food. They peeped at each other like my grandparents used to do. The male ate some of the Eastern redbush seeds, then flew away.

The stinging nettle has started coming up at the base of the woodpile. Nettles are apparently good in soup, and I’ve been meaning to try it, but I’ll admit I’m a bit apprehensive about eating something that can raise huge welts on my skin. Supposedly if you pre-boil them, the stingers come out. The tree of heaven sapling grove looks like a tiny palm tree grove, with its developing leaves starting to spread out.

White hyacinth

Another hyacinth from the abandoned yard.

Every spring, I get the itch to garden. And I do garden, albeit in various pots spread across my porch and patio (they seem to multiply every year). I haven’t done much this year, just groomed my potted perennials that started coming up much earlier than usual: a hosta, a bleeding heart, tulips, daffodils, and then a blackberry bush. The mint from last year that I never bothered to compost has come back with a vengeance, and I’m glad its in a pot so it can’t take over anything (but I’m also glad it came back, because it’s delicious in yogurt).

I’ve also got a hemlock sapling and some kind of tree/shrub that I liberated from the empty yard next door (its pot had disintegrated, leaving its roots exposed, and it would have died if I hadn’t re-potted it). My nebby neighbor, the one who thought I was some kind of hooligan, suggested I also take the daffodils from the empty yard before a developer buys the house. I think I’ll leave them. How many daffodils does one person need?

Imaginary Map of My Yard

As a renter with a reasonable landlord who so far doesn’t seem to care what we do as long as it isn’t destructive and as long as our check arrives on time, I could probably work out a deal to clear the hillside and turn part of it into a garden. It’s something I’ve thought about doing for the past several years. But now, as I watch the chickadees chase each other across the back of the yard, I wonder if I still want to.

I can still see the skeleton of a garden here, and I don’t need the whole hillside. Just enough for a small raised bed, and some room for my dogs to sniff around and do their business. If we had our own set of stairs leading up here, I could install a bird feeder, too, and we’d all win.