Assorted Bob Innisfree Leaf Litter Uncategorized

Leaf Litter: Marking my territory

An orange blaze designating the property line.

As part of a forest land tax reduction, I had to mark the property boundaries and create a 10-year plan for my land. I hired a consulting forester to help assemble the plan and learned a hell of a lot in the process. While I was out doing that, I also planted ramp bulbs and started thinking about how trails will run.

One thing is certain: There will be switchbacks. The land is steep, with the two houses on a ridge that sits like a saddle above two hollows, one south facing, the other north, creating two micro-climates with different trees and conditions. The north-facing hollow has a lot of potential for mushrooms and ramps.

The forester also created some scope creep in my schemes, suggesting that a rope bridge would be awesome over one of the intermittent streams on the property. So I’m thinking about how that will play into my trail system.

Sunny welcomes spring … her hips are in bad shape and she can’t climb, so she can’t descend down into the hollows with me when I go exploring there. Well, more accurately, she can descend. It’s the climb back out that’s beyond her.

I did a little mushroom foraging yesterday. I’m really, really hoping there are a few patches of morels out there, but the soil isn’t warm enough here yet for them to emerge. So I had to settle for elf cups, devil’s urns, and witches’ butter (a jelly fungus), and a few other specimens. Great hike overall.

Elf Cup (sarcoscypha) peeking out of the leaf litter.
Two more elf cups emerging next to a red oak leaf.
Devil’s Urn (urnula craterium)

As I walked the nothern hollow, I was amazed at the poplars there. They shoot skyward on straight trunks that culminate in tight crowns. A few of them cling to the rocky hillside in ways that defy gravity. I found a cluster of three old poplars that stopped me in my tracks. Two of them already are snags, and I think the third is going to join them soon.

Here are a few other photos taken during recent peregrinations …

Books Innisfree Uncategorized

The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects

Su Zan Swain’s drawing of a praying mantis

I’m watching insects through an entirely new lens on this autumn day, bathed in October Light (as John Gardner would have it). Crows raise hell in the trees on the other side of the ridge. Stanton Moore’s tribute to Allen Toussaint rolls out of the cabin in a funky tumble of brass and drums, rattling widows that I just squeegeed clean.

And the insects. Stink bugs queue up on the screendoor, waiting for opportunity to knock. Hordes of small white butterflies flutter about, seeking a taste of nectar from fading wildflowers. Bugs blur by on translucent wings, too fast for me to discern details.

It was cold last night. Not freezing, but close enough at 37 degrees to try the cabin’s fireplace for the first time. As I sit on the deck at Innisfree, I sense their insect urgency. Winter is coming. Time to breed and die. Or burrow. Or suck the life juices out of one last aphid.

I’ve been gnawing on Edwin Way Teale’s “The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects.” Annie Dillard referred to it in her magnificent Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as “a book that I cannot live without.” That set me in motion to acquire a copy of the 1962 field guide. It was worth the effort.

I suspect much of the info might be dated, given that the book is more than 50 years old and scientific research never stops. For instance, Teale notes praying mantises have flown to the rooftop deck of the Empire State Building, which he refers to as the tallest building in the world, a title it lost to the World Trade Center in 1971.

But it’s still a delight to read, delivering gems like this: “The dragonfly nymph is a bloodthirsty ogre, stalking endlessly for living prey.”

My copy is old, perhaps a first edition. Every time I open it, that wonderful old-book smell drifts upward, whisking me back to the Carnegie Library in Swissvale that was a key contributor to my lifelong love of reading.

The insect drawings by Su Zan Swain are wonderful, and the black-and-white photos give the whole thing a noire feeling. I picked up numerous interesting tidbits while reading Teale’s book, including:

  • The period between an insect’s molts is called the instar.
  • Chitin is the substance insect shells are made of
  • The scientific name for mayflies is ephemerae, after the Ephemerides in Greek mythology, who live only a day. Ephemeris means daily journal in Greek.
  • Ephemerides is the Greek god of celestial mechanics “The mayfly stands in literature as a symbol for the swift passing of life, for the transitory nature of existence,” Peale writes. He also references Benjamin Franklin’s amusing letter on the ephemera, which I Googled and enjoyed thoroughly.
  • Dragonflies — a.k.a. the mosquito hawk — eat the larvae and the fully developed mosquito, and it’s not uncommon to find a dragonfly with a hundred mosquitos stashed in its mouth
  • The corn-root aphid’s eggs are carried by ants into their burrows to winter over. As the thaw comes, the ants take the aphides through tunnels to the roots of smartweed, where they can feed until the corn is available as a food source. Then the ants carry the aphides to the cornstalks, where they can spend the summer milking them for honeydew. This blows my mind. The ants are treating aphides like a herd of goats they are raising for milk …
  • Fireflies aren’t flies; they’re beetles.
  • Aphides can reproduce with no male. The males emerge in late summer to fertilize eggs for overwintering, but during the summer, the females are able to reproduce without any males and the spawn don’t turn out to be male until it’s time to lay eggs for winter.
Innisfree Uncategorized

Settling in

After a week at Innisfree, we’re starting to feel at home. Sydney and Sunny are settling into their routines. Sydney even managed to draw first blood on the cabin, feasting briefly on the cedar baseboard behind his cage. So I’ll spend this weekend crafting an Anti-Sydney Device to place behind his cage. Come to think of it, there hasn’t been a place we’ve lived in during the past 30 years that Sydney hasn’t defaced in some way. Innisfree is in good company.

The snake skin I found in firewood stacked by the hearth.

Detail of the snake skin

I also removed a stack of firewood someone — presumably the real estate agent — stacked there in an attempt to stage the house. During that process I came across a magnificent snake skin. I’m assuming (hoping) that snake shed his skin out in the wood pile, not here in the house. It was a big one, based on the skin. Maybe 5 feet …