(Backyard and Beyond is not on summer vacation: B & B has lately moved from the Back 40 after ten years residence and is the process of unpacking in Sunset Park, in the midst of a home-made renovation and this enervating heat. Stay tuned for more frequent posts as August melts into September.)
Have you read Richard Mabey’s rousing defense of nature writing? You should. I’ll wait here until you return.
Mabey quite rightly marks the beginnings of nature writing in English with Gilbert White (1720-1793), the British country parson whose Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne I’ve finally come around to reading. Mostly: I picked up a Folio Society edition of 1963 which eschews the Antiquities section. This copy was only a little musty — that perfume of bibliophiles — and I found it with my nose in Barter Books, in Alnwick, UK, earlier this year.
It’s said that White’s book has never been out of print. I can report that it is entirely readable, which you can’t say about every 18th C. classic. It is epistolary, a series of letters to two correspondents. One evidently pillaged White’s work for a tome of his own. He has some felicitous phrases that I can’t get out of my head: “a gentleman, curious in birds”; “the generation of eels is very dark and mysterious”; worms are “much addicted to venery”; “happening to make a visit to my neighbor’s peacocks”. I, too, after all, go about “in pursuit of natural knowledge.” And his “annus historico-naturalis” is what my blog has been about for five years now.
White was of course a product of his time and place. A lot of birds and other animals get killed in these pages by White or his neighbors. Before the availability of good optics, this was often the only way to see a wild animal up close. But even the rarities are blown out of the sky, and, boy, does this gets wearisome for the soul, particularly now that so many bird populations are at historic lows.
White was curiously obsessed with the question of where the local swallows and martins went in the winter. He knew that some bird species migrated, down through Spain at least, but he was pretty sure the local swallows took cover underground nearby, hibernating through the cold months. This was an old idea; I think it was Aristotle who bottled it orgininally. This line of thinking wasn’t completely wrong: at least one species has been found to hibernate in this world, but it isn’t a swallow, nor found in Europe (it’s the the Common Poorwill, a North American species). Young Swifts can go into a state of torpor during short cold spells, powering down body temperature and metabolism, but Aristotle and White were way off on the swallow hibernation thing.
But then, that’s the glory of science: it can change as new evidence is discovered. This is why it’s different from belief. White of course came before the banding (or ringing, as they say in the UK) of birds. He reported what he saw, and he makes a good case within the limits of his observations.
Tags: bees, Brooklyn, Green-Wood, insects, invertebrates
This large, handsome bumble bee was thoroughly probing the Hostas in Green-Wood. Now, I find bumblebee identification difficult. There are four or five species that have yellow abdomen, and none of them are commonly seen here. I narrowed it down to Bombus pensylvanicus or B. borealis (but we are a bit south of its range) or B. fervidus.
The Xerces Society’s pdf “Bumble Bees of the Eastern U.S.“, for instance, assumes you have a specimen under a microscope. “Midleg basitarus with distal posterior corner sharply pointed” runs a typical line. I have a field guide… uh, somewhere, so that’s no help. Finally, I submitted one of these pictures to Bugguide.net: and the verdict was Bombus fervidus, Great Northern Bumble Bee.
Tags: Brooklyn, Brooklyn Bridge Park, insects, invertebrates, moths
The Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea) is distinctive. For one thing, it was working in daylight and most moths are nocturnal. Also, with its small wings tightly rolled, it doesn’t look like your typical moth; it’s one of the ermine moths. Its nominal host plant, Ailanthus (The Tree that Grows on Roofs), is originally from Asia, but this species is native to southern Florida and the Caribbean. There it originally fed (in its caterpillar stage) on Paradise Trees (Simarouba glauca). Somewhere along the way, it jumped to Ailanthus and spread north.
Tags: amphibians, Brooklyn, Green-Wood, reptiles
This downward-facing turtle was king of the hill.This frog wanted a piece of the action.And this was one determined frog.It made several attempts to…well, what, exactly? Dislodge the turtle? In theory, the right amount of force applied to the fulcrum here should have knocked off the much larger turtle. But the turtle’s steadying feet made for an impregnable bastion.Meanwhile, and this was somebody else’s storyline, a young House Sparrow landing on all the nearby rocks and the other basking turtles briefly landed here. The turtle seemed to pay no more heed to this than it did the kamikaze frog.A state of equilibrium? But wait. Another rock. Another turtle. Another frog.
Tags: Brooklyn, Green-Wood, insects
This patch of native meadow in Green-Wood Cemetery was a revelation on a recent afternoon when it was absolutely pulsing with life as numerous species of butterflies, dragonflies, bees, wasps, and beetles gathered pollen and nectar and munched on plants and each other. I gather it’s an experiment. I hope it thrives, and that those burying their dead here and elsewhere see the relevance and importance of such landscaping and start demanding it. The old-fashioned lawn of a cemetery is no more conducive to life than a suburban lawn and comes from a similar era and ideology. But if you do decide to go the burial route, forest burial and meadow burial should be options for an age with much more concern for ecology and fostering habitats. Sure, direct access to a tombstone is made more difficult, if not impossible, in this kind of situation, for relatives. So I assume that family members had to give permission for this, if there were still any on record for this crowd. And yet what a beautiful thing to visit: flowers in bloom through the summer, grasses heavy with seed in the fall, winter’s stubby potential. While we were there, the animals were buzzing as a breeze blew up the Harbor Hill Moraine and cicadas and Mockingbirds staked out their territory.
Such a difference from the fake flowers often stuck in front of graves.