129 The Garden Is the Teacher: a Conversation With EagleSong

Our guest on this episode of the podcast is EagleSong Gardener. From her bio: EagleSong is human being, green witch, herbalist and crofter dedicated to deep transformation on an individual and planetary scale. She tends the Spiral Garden at the Pacific Wise Woman Center in Monroe, WA and inspires the Pacific Women’s Herbal Conference on Vashon Island, each fall. During the podcast we discuss:

You can find EagleSong’s website and blog at www.eaglesong-gardener.com.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected] You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. Closing theme music by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

City Nature Challenge 2017

Fence lizard, photo by Calibas - own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2967183

Western fence lizard (photo by Calibas)

Attention Citizen Scientists!

There’s a inter-city challenge taking place over April 14-18 which asks you to go out and document as much nature as you can over those days using smart phones and the iNaturalist app.

Participating cities include: Los Angeles (County) and San Francisco (and surrounding counties) include Austin, Boston, Chicago (Cook County), Dallas/Fort Worth, Duluth/Twin Ports, Houston, Miami (Miami-Dade County), Minneapolis/St. Paul, Nashville, New York, Raleigh, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and the Washington, D.C., Metro Area. 

Which city has the best nature sleuths? Which will record the most species?

If your city isn’t on the list, tell them to get on it next year! Last year’s challenge was only between LA County and the Bay Area (LA won), so the competition is growing fast. And heck, even if your city isn’t participating this year, there’s nothing to stop you from getting together with your friends and doing an iNaturalist survey a bit of your hometown and see what you find.

Some linkages for more explanation:

What’s in the Dirt? by the Daily Breeze

City Nature Challenge via the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum website

Last year’s competition results via The California Academy of Sciences website

iNaturalist

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Paper Wasps: Your New BFFs

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We don’t spend nearly enough time admiring the works of nature, because we are too busy admiring ourselves. Sure, humans invented smartphones, but what is a smartphone compared to an acorn? The thing is, the more you learn about nature, the more you learn about it, the more it blows your mind.

All this summer I’ve been fascinated with Polistes dominula, the European paper wasp. In North America there is a native paper wasp, which is quite similar, but the non-native European variant is more the wasp you will  likely be dealing with in urban/suburban North America, because unlike their native counterparts, Euro wasps aren’t shy. They are the ones who will build a nest by your back door, or on the side of your mailbox. Paper wasps build those distinctive, easy to recognize papery nests made of many cells. There are other types of native wasps which build with different materials, such as mud. Honeybee colonies, of course, are made of wax, and in cold climates you’ll never see those just hanging out in the open air. Honeybees like to build inside cavities.

Polistes dominula really like our front porch, and every year we host a colony out there. The nest rarely exceeds the size of a tennis ball. This year, though, it is more than twice that size. This is our fault. We did not knock down the previous year’s empty nest, so they were able to reuse it and get a real jump start in terms of colony size. (Generally they don’t like to reuse nests, but can do so– in this case the queen started a new nest next to the old nest and annexed it as she built).

img_7454So the population of wasps is accordingly quite large, and perhaps a bit worrisome to visitors, who make it up our stairs only to be confronted with a large wasp nest by the door. Yet we have not had any bad encounters with our waspish neighbors. In fact, we’ve never had a single problem with our porch wasps ever, not one sting, despite the fact the like to nest a couple feet from our front door, despite the fact I hang laundry all around them, despite the fact that Erik’s favorite chair is just beneath them

They truly are peaceable creatures, which is why it saddens me when I hear that someone panicking about a wasp nest, calling the exterminator or heading off to the big box store for a can of poison. When I hear about this, I always want to bring up a few points:

  1. Paper wasps are, as I’ve said, peaceable unless their nest is disturbed. The process of trying to get rid of them is what makes them ornery.
  2. They should not be confused with yellow jackets, those reviled picnic crashers who are attracted to meat and like to hang out on the lips of your soda can. Those guys live in underground nests. Your resident paper wasps will not hassle you if you’re doing backyard grilling or enjoying lemonade on the porch. They don’t like our food.
  3. Wasps are seasonal creatures. They build their nests in the spring and the colony disperses in the fall. You can solve your wasp “problem” by simply waiting it out. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you! Wait til they die off in the fall, knock the old nest down, and next spring, keep your eye out for any single wasps trying to establish nests in your space. That would be a queen trying to start a new colony. It is a lot easier to discourage a single wasp than to wait and deal with a full populated nest. But I never discourage them, because…
  4. Wasps are a gardener’s best friend! Sure, ladybugs are cute and all, but wasps are stone cold killers working for your benefit, like your own army of mini Dexters. Their favorite prey is caterpillars, e.g. your arch enemies the cabbage lopers and hornworms, but they are also fond of aphids. They swoop down on garden pests like tiny eagles–or flying monkeys–or homicidal Amazon drones– and drag their ravaged bodies back to the nest to the nest to feed their babies. Only the larvae are carnivorous. The adults live on nectar, so wasps are both pest hunters AND valuable pollinators. You want a healthy garden? Host a paper wasp colony.

These are my arguments for adopting a tolerant attitude for paper wasps around your house. Here are some more cool things to know about them:

Only fertile queens survive the winter. The rest of the colony disperses and dies. The fertile queens mate one last time in the fall, and then find some little nook in which to hibernate over the winter (this is amazing to me and I haven’t found any details about it yet.)  In the early spring she emerges and builds a tiny nest, like maybe six cells, to generate a first generation of workers to help her out.

These workers are female, as with the bees, and as soon as they hatch they get to work on enlarging the nest and feeding and tending the next generation of workers. So when you look at a paper wasp nest, this is what they are doing. The wasp nest is a fairly mellow place compared to the extremely crowded, restless interior of the honeybee hive. If you watch a wasp nest, mostly they just seem to be hanging out there, while a few come and go. What they are actually doing, as far as I can figure, is slowly masticating wood pulp to make new cells, or stuffing caterpillars down larvae mouths.  They are daylight creatures, so during the day the nest will only have a few wasps on it, whereas in the evening they will all come home and every inch will be covered with huddled bodies.

I’d love to take a closer look at all this, but as mellow as our relationship might be, I’m not sticking my nose inches from their nest! Someday, though, maybe we can set up a spy camera.

Here is one of those jaw dropping natural science facts: wasps choose the destiny of the developing larvae in the nest– whether will they be workers or “founders” — that is, fertile wasps. They influence this by vibration, by drumming with their antennae. These vibrations alter the gene expression of the larvae, pushing them one way or the other.

If I’ve got my facts right, the males are produced only with the purpose of breeding–like honeybee drones, they do not work. The wasp queen is mobile, so she can choose to mate with males in her own nest, or to go out on the town looking for love– and more often she chooses non-nestmates. Which I understand, because more than likely their nestmates leave the toilet seat up all the time.  Freewheeling males attract fertile queens by staking out key landmarks, such as trees, and marking the leaves and stems with scent. I believe they prefer Drakkar Noir.

I’m feeling a little bittersweet, sitting on the couch, admiring our wasps and knowing that their days are numbered by winter–even a winter as insubstatial as the one we have here in LA. The other day something unusual happened at the nest: suddenly, most of them were airborne and swirling in circles around our porch. This is something I’ve never seen before. I only noticed because I heard the “tip-tap” of wasp bodies hitting the glass of our front door. At first I thought they might have been attacked by a bird or something, and were all riled up, but after watching for a while, I realized they didn’t seem angry, and in fact, it reminded me of something the honeybees do called orientation. Whenever a new batch of workers is hatched in a hive, they all flow out of the hive and circle around it in a big cloud for a few minutes. They are learning how to recognize the hive so they can locate it when they go out in the world. It looks crazy for a couple of minutes, and then ends as abruptly as it started. It was the same case with the wasps– the party (?) lasted for only 15 minutes or so, but was pretty impressive while it lasted. I imagined it might terrify some folks, who would assume the wasps were swarming and up to no good. I wondered if perhaps they’d just hatched their batch of males for their fall mating, the last party of the year. Maybe those males were orienting, or maybe they were all dancing their last, joyous dance before the quiet of winter sends them all to sleep.

For a complete run down of the wasp life-cycle, the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web provides a really detailed read.

Tolkien and Trees

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The cypresses of Point Lobos

I love trees. Some of my earliest memories are of trees, and my passion for them and fascination with them only deepens with time. In addition to being a literal tree-hugger, I’m also a bit of a geek (no, tree huggers are not geeks–technically they are eccentrics) so you can imagine how delighted I was when I discovered that the Godfather of Fantasy, J.R.R.. Tolkien, was an unabashed partisan of trees.

A couple of quotes from him regarding trees are making the rounds on the internet, but I’ve learned to distrust popular quotations. They are often misattributed or downright made up. So I searched his edited letters for references to trees.

There are many–he always mentions trees when he describes places, has funny things to say about artists who can’t draw trees, and has many trees of significance in his books, which he mentions in passing, but the following are the more direct defenses of trees:

#165 To the Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1955 :

I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.

#83 From a letter to Christopher Tolkien, 6 October 1944:

It is not the not-man (e.g. weather) nor man, (even at a bad level), but the man-made that is ultimately daunting and insupportable. If a ragnarök would bum all the slums and gas-works, and shabby garages, and long arc-lit suburbs, it cd. for me bum all the works of art – and I’d go back to trees.

#339 To the Editor of the Daily Telegraph

[In a leader in the Daily Telegraph of 29 June 1972, entitled ‘Forestry and Us’, there occurred this passage: ‘Sheepwalks where you could once ramble for miles are transformed into a kind of Tolkien gloom, where no bird sings…’ Tolkien’s letter was published, with a slight alteration to the opening sentence, in the issue of 4 July.]

30 June 1972
Merton College, Oxford

Dear Sir,

With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, page 18, I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.

Yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien

I say amen to that last paragraph!

And finally, as an interesting aside which may be of more interest to fantasy geeks than straight-up tree lovers, here he is on the Ents:

#163 To W. H. Auden, 7 June 1955

…Take the Ents, for instance. I did not consciously invent them at all. The chapter called ‘Treebeard’, from Treebeard’s first remark on p. 66, was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labour pains) almost like reading some one else’s work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the ‘unconscious’ for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing  but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till ‘what really happened’ came through. But looking back analytically I should say that Ents are composed of philology, literature, and life. They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connection with stone. Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill’: I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war…

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Lost in Light: A Short Film on Light Pollution

Via BoingBoing, a beautifully shot video by Sriram Murali showing the damage done by city lights.

Shot mostly in California, the movie shows how the view gets progressively better as you move away from the lights. Finding locations to shoot at every level of light pollution was a challenge and getting to the darkest skies with no light pollution was a journey in itself. Here’s why I think we should care more. The night skies remind us of our place in the Universe. Imagine if we lived under skies full of stars. That reminder we are a tiny part of this cosmos, the awe and a special connection with this remarkable world would make us much better beings – more thoughtful, inquisitive, empathetic, kind and caring. Imagine kids growing up passionate about astronomy looking for answers and how advanced humankind would be, how connected and caring we’d feel with one another, how noble and adventurous we’d be. How compassionate with fellow species on Earth and how one with Nature we’d feel.

This is an easy problem to fix. On the political front we could start by getting rid of billboards like the mayor of São Paulo did. On the technological front, there are a lot of lessons to learn from the lighting designers of the High Line in New York.