Category Archives: Nature
I’ve been on a killing spree lately. No rampant caterpillar can escape from my smash…or at least my smashing ire. I’m conducting this purge because I’m an environmentalist. Ecology has turned me into a cold-blooded killer.
The standard picture of an environmentalist is often the gentle, peaceful hippie type, someone who expresses tender loving care for all plants and animals on the planet. They are caricatured as supporting all life and opposing all death and violence. As such, killing is not even remotely imagined as a tool that is in the environmentalist’s repertoire; in fact, it may be thought of as the antithesis. But the ecological household of nature operates differently from idealized notions of harmonious environmentalism. As the poet Tennyson would say, nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’; death, as well as life, are integral parts of nature. It is an eat or be eaten type of world, and death is as necessary to nature as every organism’s metabolism. Nature continues on unceasingly because it rests in an appropriate balance between the processes of life and death, fecundity and consumption. But unfortunately, the balance of nature can readily be tipped to a point of drastic change; there exist certain species that can escape their native habitats and alter the balance of the ecosystems in which they land. These species are known as non-native invasive species. Environmentalists and ecologists alike are thus faced with the quandary of whether it is right—and to what extent it is—to kill in order to restore the balance to native ecosystems.
One of the cast of characters that appears on the most harmful invasive species list is the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar dispar). This innocuous little caterpillar—and its flightless adult moth—seem relatively benign singularly, yet the monstrosity of their sheer numbers has been an extreme detriment to the northeastern United States. Native to Europe, the gypsy moth was intentionally brought to America less than 150 years ago in 1869. A man by the name of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot imported the non-native moths with the intent of interbreeding them with silk worms to develop a more resilient silkworm industry. Trouvelot’s experiment inevitably failed, and whether intentional or not, the moths were released from his residence just outside of Boston. Lacking any of their natural predators to keep their population in check, just twenty years later the first major outbreak of gypsy moths occurred in Massachusetts. Trees were defoliated, caterpillars covered everything, and frass (i.e. insect excrement) rained down on the town. Since then, the gypsy moths have started on their relentless march across the northeastern United States. Each year, the gypsy moths stake claim to new habitat, and with it they bring their trail of destruction. Entire sections of forest can be defoliated in an outbreak scenario, and the creatures can easily defoliate more than a million acres of hardwood forest in a given summer.
In early May, the next generation of gypsy moth caterpillars hatch from their over-wintering egg cases and commence their feast. They emerge by the millions and coat everything en masse. The tiny black-haired little crawlers make their visual appearance when they are about an eighth of an inch long, appearing on every natural or human-made object outdoors. The tiny caterpillars spin an elongated strand of silk and their long spikey hairs allow them to get carried by the wind to new places. To the casual observer, it seems like the tiny creatures are flying around. A young gypsy moth hopes to land on a palatable tree so it can begin its banquet and increase in size; barring an ideal landing zone, the caterpillars have a relentless drive to crawl over any obstacle to find a food source. In late spring, the observer can tell once again when the caterpillars have returned and can thus take action before much damage is done to the ecosystem. When the caterpillars are small, they are easy to destroy. Squashing the pests seems inconsequential. Pressing down upon them with a thumb produces nothing but a small black smear. Each caterpillar dispatched is gone forever and its life and memory are no more.
But as the creatures grow, they become harder and harder to kill both physically and psychologically. They have been feeding for weeks, turning native plant leaves into more gypsy moth biomass. The caterpillars have become larger, less fragile creatures. When they reach half an inch long, they are sizeable enough to squirt out a blob of dark-green or bright-yellow juice whenever they are squashed. At an inch long, they begin to display an adverse reaction to being squeezed; it takes increasing pressure before the caterpillar is popped and its life juices run down the leaves. As the caterpillars keep growing larger, their features become more distinguishable; they have become stronger and actively resist death now with all their might. Killing the destructive organisms is now more of a struggle, particularly a psychological battle for the executioner. The juice that gets on one’s hands sometimes runs a deep red, reminding the slayer that it once belonged to the realm of the living. The breached corpses of the caterpillars clench indefinitely to their leaves even in death, a chilling reminder of the life that once was. These things remind the exterminator that the organism dispatched just moments ago was a living, moving creature.
What right do I have in taking a fellow creature’s life? Especially if they cause little direct harm to me? Is the fate of the ecosystem dependent upon my action as a concerned ecologist? Or should the gypsy moths be left alone and nature allowed to run her course? As the gypsy moth caterpillars grow, they continue to become more and more of a nuisance, even reaching plague proportions. They feverishly eat leaves, turning the native oak trees into Swiss cheese. Infestations can defoliate entire trees and can even lead to tree death; entire sections of native hardwood forest can be denuded by these insects. In a quiet moment in the forests of New England, the very sound of destruction can be heard from the tree-tops. Close your eyes and listen—it is not a sprinkle of rain you are hearing, but the falling frass of the swarm. The oak trees, and other hardwoods, suffer at the mouths of these non-native herbivores. The other native creatures that depend on the forests for food and habitat are adversely affected too. The greed of the gypsy moth’s appetite knows no bounds. Is it thus justified to kill the caterpillars for the sake of the trees and the forest in general?
Should we as humans intervene in the situation of invasive species, even if it means the prescribed death of millions of organisms? It is a struggle that we as environmentalists and modern humans must face. Our civilized world has created a narrative that removes us from the brutal truth of ecological relationships and our impact on the natural world. The metabolism of life is neatly tucked away into the folds of textbooks or of the grocery store. We do not see where our food comes from, and we avert our eyes to predation in nature. We do not fully respect the fact that in order for the balance of nature to remain intact, life indeed must be taken. Death has become so unpalatable to our modern culture. It is thus exceedingly difficult to compromise a human distaste for killing with a commitment to the facts of ecology. I am both an environmentalist and an ecologist, yet I too struggle with the necessity of death. Humans are compassionate and sympathetic beings. It is hard to watch a young or injured animal die. We like to root for the underdog to survive. But not every organism in an ecosystem ever survives; it is not even physically possible for every organism in an ecosystem to survive. The balance of nature rests on the facts of metabolism—of life and death. When humans are responsible for bringing the balance of nature to a tipping-point, shouldn’t we also be responsible for correcting our wrongs? Isn’t killing another organism justified in the name of the ecological integrity of the whole system?
I encountered a similar moral dilemma surrounding the eradication of an invasive species when I was in Australia—only this example was more extreme. Instead of simply squashing caterpillars, the most-wanted organism was the cane toad. These creatures were much more relatable than a small caterpillar, and the moral qualms surrounding their eradication were much harder for me personally. The cane toad, a vertebrate, is much more closely related to human kind. Its blood and organs are similar to mine, and I felt as if I had some kind of evolutionary connection to the toad that I didn’t share with a caterpillar. Cane toads are also much larger—reaching up to the size of a dinner plate, and their deaths would prove all the more gruesome because of it. Though I knew intellectually how disruptive the cane toads were to the ecology of Australia, I individually had quite a few reservations about personally killing a cane toad.
Cane toads (Rhinella marina) were introduced to Australia from the tropical Americas in 1935 as a biological control method to combat the cane beetle, which was threatening Australia’s sugar cane crop. In 1935, 102 toads were released in agricultural areas in Queensland. From then to now, cane toad numbers have increased to more than 200 million in Australia today. Adding insult to injury, the introduced cane toads did not even control the cane beetles they were intended to ingest. Instead, cane toads wreak havoc by gorging themselves on native Australian fauna, eating native creatures directly and leaving less food for other native species. Additionally, the cane toads are highly poisonous and use their poison glands as their primary defense mechanism. Native Australian fauna, unfamiliar with the toads, see the meaty morsels as an easy meal. The cane toads do little to resist being bitten, and instead wait for the poison excreted from their skin to kill the pursuing predator. Instead of an easy meal, the Australian wildlife is poisoned to death. As the cane toads continued to hop into uncharted territory in the Australian bush, more and more native wildlife became diminished because of it.
Cane toads have become a much bemoaned villain in Australia, and the culture Down Under is unsympathetic to the toads. Aussies will use whatever means possible to exterminate a toad. Drivers use them as target practice in the road. Kids use them as cricket balls for sporting events. Humane ethicists advise either freezing or drowning the toads as the most humane method of dispatching the pests. I too, was taught by the Australians to combat the spread of the toads by any means possible. As a backpacker lacking any real resources for the job, I was told to use my most powerful weapon—namely, my boots. I was taught to bluntly kick around the cane toads until they stopped dead.
As an ecologist, I felt that I had to fulfill my duty to an already ravaged ecosystem. And the cane toads were not hard to find. I stayed in many places in Queensland and northern New South Wales where cane toads covered the ground like a plague. Knowing about their negative ecological impact, I was ready to do something about it. At one roadside campsite near a creek and some slickrock, I encountered an abundance of the bedeviled toads. I singled one out. I picked it up by its warty back. Having no predators and no defenses other than their poison, the cane toad made no effort to resist. It didn’t even seem perturbed by being picked up. Holding the toad in my hand, I prepared for what was about to come. I let go of the toad and drop kicked it. The toad went flying onto the slickrock. I made my way to the toad. Dazed, but alive, I found it again. I had already committed to the extermination of this particular toad; it would be cowardly to back out now. Thinking thusly, I repeated the entire process a few more times. With each drop kick I imparted, I knew I was doing damage to the toad. Yet after every kick the toad still groggily got itself back up. I could still tell that the toad was every bit as alive as I was. My efforts at eradicating it simply weren’t enough. The toad wouldn’t be dispatched easily. From the outside, my toad looked every bit a toad as it did before my encounter. But on the inside, I knew, I must have done some damage. I knew I needed to end the suffering promptly and just kill the toad quickly. But I just couldn’t bring myself to the point of squashing down on the toad with my boot against the rock. I was appalled at the thought of the blood and the gore of it all. So instead I did the cowardly thing. I left the toad where I found it, hoping that it would soon die of its injuries. It seemed probable that the toad would have died soon after, but I’ll never know for certain. At any rate, my actions would not have produced anything akin to a quick, painless death. And now, I had to live with being the cause of that death. Though my hatred of cane toads caused me to maim one of their own, it could not overcome my desire to not take a life; all my beliefs about ecological integrity could not manage to win over my sentiments and cause me to end the toad’s life once and for all.
It is still possible that the cane toad I kicked around lived on. If so, the toad lived but it was the ecosystem that suffered because of it. Each cane toad, each gypsy moth that continues to live on in a place outside its native ecosystem continues to tip the balance of ecological resiliency. One does not see the consequences of continued ignorance towards invasive species individually. But collectively, the oak trees will suffer because of it. The native Australian fauna will suffer because of it too. The ecosystem as a whole suffers because of it. And thus, when an organism is causing undue harm as an invasive species, is it right to let it continue on and undermine the integrity of the ecosystem? I think not.
Though killing is psychologically painful, it is often necessary and justified for the sake of ecology.
For More Information:
- Cane Toads: An Unnatural History
- And the best scene from the film…
- And the sequel…Cane Toads: The Conquest
Some 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, a giant lobe of the continental glacier that stretched across North America during the last ice age ground to a halt during what is known as the Wisconsin Stage, the most recent phase of the last global glaciation. For thousands of years, that small piece of the vast expanse of ice stayed relatively stagnant at its location, neither advancing nor retreating remarkably. Though the terminus of the glacier remained more or less in place, the ice itself continually moved, acting like a giant conveyor belt carrying a load of rocks and sediment scraped from the bedrock of continental North America. Year after year the glacier persisted, bringing layer upon layer of sediment with it. About 12,000 years ago, the planet began to warm dramatically; it was the end of the last ice age. The glacial lobe, melting in the rising global temperatures, retreated north to the arctic where snow persists year round. In its wake was left evidence of the glacier’s presence; on the expansive coastal plain just off the mainland of modern-day Massachusetts was a very conspicuous mound of sediment. That pile of debris, known as a terminal glacial moraine, was the genesis of Cape Cod.
At its start, Cape Cod was little more remarkable than a hilly mound of debris pocked with depressions rising above a broad plain, for off the coast of New England the continental shelf is wide and gradually slopes down to the sea. At the end of the last ice age, with much of the world’s water being locked up in the melting glaciers, the ocean water was much lower than it is presently. For thousands of years after the glacier’s retreat, Cape Cod as we know it was not surrounded by water; it was surrounded by land. Gradually, as the Atlantic began to rise from glacial meltwater, the mound of sand and rocks finally became a peninsula about 3,500 years ago; a very primitive Cape Cod could now be identified by its shoreline. But it was not yet the Cape Cod we know today. It would still take thousands of years more to mold the landscape into its present form.
But even the Cape Cod of today was not the Cape Cod of yesterday, and will not be the Cape Cod of tomorrow. Geologic forces act with gusto on this geologic infant. All around the coast of the Cape is a blanket of sand—the telltale sign of active erosion. Sand moves quite readily in the wind and waves; there is nothing quite so solid about the Cape, no feature quite so permanent. Though formed of sand and rock, the Cape is little more than a giant sand castle in the midst of an angry Atlantic. To find a solid foundation—bedrock—one must burrow hundreds to thousands of feet down. With no solid foundation, the Cape exists in a state of flux. Just twelve thousand years after its creation, the Cape is dramatically different than the day the glaciers retreated. Cape Cod has never found its state of geological stasis.
Incessantly, wind and water work their relentless magic on the Cape, continually transforming the landscape. Though everywhere on the Cape has potential for rapid erosion, nowhere is this process more apparent than on the Eastern seaboard. Unprotected from the vast fury of the Atlantic, the eastern shore faces the brunt of its unmitigated ocean waves. The force of winds and waves cumulatively wash away the beaches lining the shore, which undermines the land above from the base. As more beach disappears into the water, land from above will tumble down to replenish the beach sands. Thousands of years of water undercutting the land have resulted in the wall of characteristic oceanside sand cliffs that line the eastern shore, and the continuously lapping ocean waves have eroded Cape Cod’s initially irregular eastern shore smooth into a long, continuous beach. Taking a look towards the cliffs above reliably reveals how high the land once sat.
On its eastern shore, Cape Cod loses about three feet of land every year. At its narrowest point just south of Wellfleet, little more than a mile of land separates Cape Cod Bay from the Atlantic. Given the current rate of erosion, the outermost peninsula of Cape Cod will become an island separated from the mainland in less than two millennia. Even on the time-scale of a human life, the rate of erosion is unmistakable. Glancing up at any seaside cliff, one is likely to see the underground remains of society ghastly exposed. Drainpipes emerge from the cliffs, leading nowhere, draining nothing. Electrical cables dangle limp and useless. Large chunks of asphalt lie at the base of the cliffs, evidence of past roads and parking lots. All of this evidence points to the fact that the eastern edge of the Cape was once purposely settled with the intention of staying permanently. But not even modern development could stand up to the forces of erosion over time. Eventually, even this evidence of habitation too shall disappear.
Along with the sand, much of the history of Cape Cod has fallen down the cliffs and disappeared into the hungry mouth of the ocean. The first twin lighthouses at Chatham have long since tumbled into the sea; later lighthouses would be built on moveable bases to prevent a similar fate. The landing spot of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable connecting America to continental Europe in 1879 is no more; that spot where messages were relayed across the ocean now lies more than 300 feet out to sea. As the pursuit of land by the ocean continues, more buildings face the dilemma of either moving or falling into the ocean. Man’s few accomplishments, even as groundbreaking and historic as they may be, are ultimately fleeting and ephemeral. Nothing can stop the onslaught of the elements over time. The ocean serves as a reminder for man to keep his humility.
Though the eastern shore is rapidly eroding and the Cape loses about 5 to 6 acres of land every year, not all of the elements work to destroy land. Land that is lost will eventually result in land that is created. However, on Cape Cod it is a losing battle; for every acre of land lost, only ½ acre of new land will be created. The rest of the sediment vanishes into the ocean depths. Summer winds transport eroded material along the shore southwards, adding to the sand island of Monomoy off the Cape’s elbow. Strong winter Nor’easters transport most of the sediment down-cape to the curling fist at Provincetown. Here, currents slow and the transported sediments are deposited, forming the classic recurve shape of a sand spit. At the very tip of the Cape, the area known as the Province Lands has been formed very recently, an accumulation of the sandy corpse of the easternmost Cape. The Province Lands are not a glacial feature, but a geologically infantile accumulation of water-deposited sand. But even where deposition occurs, erosion is present also. Just south of Race Point, where sand from the eastern Cape is coming to rest, waves off of Cape Cod Bay move sand south around the Provincetown Harbor towards Long Point. Erosion happens on many scales—a fractal pattern of sand spits develops.
Water is one factor in the continual re-shaping of Cape Cod; wind is another. Unprotected from higher surrounding landforms, Cape Cod is continually ravaged by winds whipping across the seas. Historically, the erosional effect of these winds has been tempered by a layer of vegetation growing on the sandy soil. Though the soil on Cape Cod is poor and holds very little organic matter, these fragile soils once supported great hardwood and softwood forests. Millennia after the glaciers retreated, pioneering species gradually built a thin soil in the sand; larger and lusher trees were then able to grow, a magnificent forest of large pines, oaks, and in places even the nutrient-demanding beech tree. Upon landing in the New World at the Province Lands in 1620, the Mayflower Pilgrims scouted the area and remarked on the majesty of the Cape’s forests, being “compassed about to the very sea with oaks, pines, juniper, sassafras, and other sweet wood.” Though the pilgrims moved on to settle permanently in Plymouth, more European settlers were soon to follow in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. With rapidity the native forests of the Cape were cut down for firewood and agriculture; the thin fragile soil was exposed to the unforgiving winds. The layer of green that held down the topography of Cape Cod was removed, and the fertility of the soil lost with it. By the mid-1800’s, man’s feeble attempts to eke out a living by farming the Cape all but ended. Today the stabilizing forests are in regeneration, the scraggly pitch pines being the first to reappear where man once tilled.
This story of human-induced erosion played out all across the Cape, but nowhere else was its effect as marked or as lasting as in the Province Lands. Though the native vegetation recolonized most of the Cape, not all places were able to return to mature forests. The sandy hills of the Province Lands, once denuded of their forests, created a perpetually shifting dunefield. As the dunes go on their continual relentless march, human habitations and historic buildings are engulfed by the drifting dunes without human intervention. Even today’s darling jewel of Cape Cod tourist towns, Provincetown, was critically threatened by the shifting sands; the fledgling town was close to being abandoned in the 1700’s as sands started to engulf the village. To allow the blowing sand to pass underneath unopposed into Provincetown harbor, residents began building houses on pillars. Efforts to combat the unceasing erosion happened nearly as soon as the dunes started moving. As early as the 1650’s, a law was passed in Provincetown forbidding the trampling of dune vegetation. Such conservation laws continue today, and Provincetown was saved from imminent burial. But the tip of the Cape is far from its pre-colonization state; the winds and sand continue to remind inhabitants of this fact. Paths and roads along Cape Cod’s sandy tip are continuously blanketed by a layer of sand. The Province Lands Dunes—as beautiful as they may be—are a man-made creation, one that has outrun his own control. Though the initial disturbance was created by humans, the relentless winds took over the process of dune movement and continues on to this day.
Everywhere on Cape Cod, change to the landscape is occurring. Much of it—the seemingly inconsequential movement of a single salt grain—happens ever so minutely and imperceptibly. Cumulatively, the effects of erosion serve as a reminder of the impermanence of humans and their accomplishments. Nothing, ultimately, lasts forever. Not even a feature as large and well-known as Cape Cod can last. Ultimately, all things are washed away into the sea.
For Additional Reading: O'Brien, Greg (2003). A Guide to Nature on Cape Cod and the Islands. Hyannis, MA: Codfish Press. Strahler, Arthur N. (1966). A Geologist's View of Cape Cod. Garden City, NY: The Natural History Press.
“Turkeys in the rain and they don’t complain, they just graze in the field with the cattle in the mist”
Seth Bernard and May Erlewine, from “Turkeys in the Rain”
Springtime has been coming on gradually in Cape Cod, with slowly warming temperatures as the amount of daylight steadily lengthens. Cool spring rains fall across the landscape as the deciduous trees burst forth their buds into new foliage and flowers. The fauna, long-since arisen from their winter torpor, are milling about their animal business. The cyclical change into springtime causes a hormonal shift and serves as a trigger for much animal behavior; for some, the breeding season is nigh and is fraught with activity. Listen closely. All around the Cape, you may hear the familiar fowl and its iconic gobble as it struts showily about. Yes, both field and forest are alive with a rafter of turkeys (indeed, that is the correct name for a group of turkeys, derived from the antiquated use of the word ‘raft’ as a motley collection of things). After a long winter living in groups separated by sex, the male and female turkeys start to mingle and commence their rituals of courtship. It is quite a show to bear witness.
The turkeys go about their labors, indifferent to rain or shine. The hens, the more pragmatic of the sexes, spend their time foraging about for food. The toms, preoccupied with vanity, fluff out their showy plumage and strut about for the ladies. The frequent rain doesn’t dampen their spirits—they continue on as they had, indifferent without complaints. Nor, as urban legend may have it, do they stare up at a raining sky, mouths agape, until they drown (actually, with eyes on the side of their heads, turkeys would need to tilt their heads sideways in order to view the sky). Neither do the turkeys seem to mind human observers; instead of being frightened by human encroachment, the turkeys merely seem more annoyed with the distraction. The hens, being more vigilant, are the more likely party to move if a visitor gets too close; the toms (also known as gobblers)—well, they still seem a little preoccupied with other matters.
Any given morning during mating season you will hear their distinctive call resounding. The comical gobble-gobble-gobbles of the turkeys pierce through the chirping din of the petite songbirds to dominate the avian conversation. Though the call may sound silly to our own human ears, the gobbling is nothing short of a serious business. With each call, the toms try to attract a mate, and their gobble is one of the criteria upon which they will be judged. Their plumage and showmanship are other vital categories in this talent show. Unlike the drab brown females, the toms are bedazzled with ornate patterns of plumage—stripes and streaks, lights and darks, mottles and dapples. They fluff out their feathers as they strut about their courtship dance, becoming the stereotypical turkey in every grade-schooler art project. Their bald heads and their hanging wattles, in varying shades of red and blue, add to their sexual appeal. On the top of their beaks hangs their snood, a fleshy protuberance that engorges with blood and expands, signaling both the prestige and attractiveness of the mate. The toms’ courtship walk about the fields is reminiscent of the dinosaurs, deliberately stepping about. For all the effort that went into this display, though, I wonder if the hens even care to notice the showmanship.
For all the pomp and ceremony that the males put into the show, the actual copulation is finished in a swift and inglorious manner. The hen, satisfied with the robustness of her mate, squats down for a quick fertilization. While the mating season is ongoing, the hens will gradually begin to break away from the co-mingled groups to create a nest—little more than a few shallow scratches in the ground under the protection of some dense brush. The hens will lay a few eggs before returning, once again, to the mating show for additional fertilizations. Once they have laid about a dozen eggs, the hens break out from the group entirely and begin the weeks-long period of continuous incubation. The eggs will hatch in June, bringing forth the next generation of poults to continue on with the show next springtime. The toms, as uncommitted as they ever were, re-form their bachelor groups and mill about in the forest. Their days will now be filled with re-establishing their pecking order for when the next mating season comes around.
As the evening fades into dusk, take a glance up into the trees. Maybe a frantic gobble from up above will give it away. The turkeys have taken to the trees to roost for the night. They prefer the stands of towering old white pines, where the branches are thick, straight, and long, and where the inner foliage of the trees is sparse. Up safely off terra firma, the turkeys can avoid their many ground predators as they rest through the night. Though they are large heavy birds and look like a Thanksgiving dinner, turkeys are actually quite adept fliers. They can muscle their way up into the lower branches of a tree, where they will hop about from branch to branch continually climbing higher into the canopy. Look up and you may be lucky enough to catch the motion of them flying from branch to branch.
As you observe the wild turkeys here on Cape Cod, you may notice how abundant they seem to be. As in the days of the pilgrims, these plump birds casually roam the forest en masse. Turkeys haven’t always been so abundant though. With increasing settlement and more game-hunting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the number of wild turkeys dropped precipitously. Eventually the iconic fowls disappeared from Cape Cod altogether. In Massachusetts, the very state where Thanksgiving was first celebrated (and very likely served turkey) the last wild turkeys were extirpated in 1851. Only recently, were these charismatic birds reintroduced onto Cape Cod. In 1989, 18 wild turkeys were re-introduced onto the wilds of Cape Cod’s Otis Air Force Base, which lies just a few miles away from camp. If all the evidence points correctly, clearly the turkeys have taken off really well since then.
At camp there is a magical box. It’s a magical box because the more trash that gets put into it, the cleaner camp becomes. This box is known as our Trail Trash, a motley collection of litter odds and ends found scattered across the camp property.
Though our camp may be on an expansive forested area in a natural setting, it doesn’t mean that litter isn’t produced here. Quite the contrary, actually, as our camp plays host to a multitude of 5th graders over the course of a few days for their environmental education. With ten year olds, a whole compilation of stereotypical litter materializes on the ground seemingly out of nowhere—candy wrappers, chip bags, plastic toys. The vast amount that gets dropped is tremendous, as if every 5th grader’s pocket leads directly to the ground. At camp, we can forgive this incidence of litter with magnanimity because the students are young and still learning to look after themselves and their surroundings. Thus, when leading a group of students through camp, I always keep my eyes peeled on the ground for those teachable moments inherent in litter. If I am inspiring and unyielding enough about picking up litter, then after every class I lead the students will have collected for me a few pocketfuls of trash to add to the Trail Trash bin.
I don’t like to think of litter as inevitable, but it is a part of life that must be dealt with. Even with the best of intentions, we all unknowingly litter. Things fall out of our pockets, or get sucked out the car window. We fumble a wrapper that is immediately swept up by a breeze. Something slips from our grasp and drops irretrievably into a crevice. We forget about things we’ve left outside, and before we can remember they have been lost to the entropy of the environment. I have littered in these ways a lot—countless times, in fact. Like death and taxes, it seems that litter is one of the few guarantees of life. But the inevitability of litter doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything about it.
This is why we so strongly encourage and model the responsibility of picking up litter at camp. Ultimately, the vast majority of trash on our camp is produced by our campers. Through the practice of picking up trash instead of blithely walking past it, students become involved in the solution of cleaning up their own environment (though they likely don’t even realize that they are the ones making it dirty in the first place). Our students learn that it is not only environmentally unacceptable—but also socially unacceptable—to cast unwanted items into the environment. They learn that when throwing something ‘away’, there really is no away. From the trash the students pick up, they can visually see that the litter on the ground stays on the ground and continues to get trampled into the dirt until someone takes the initiative to pick it up.
I love referencing the Trail Trash bin at camp because it gives me great satisfaction to pick up litter and then deposit a handful of it into the bin, continually watching the level of trash rise. The bin provides a clear visual demonstration of our human impact on our hyper-local environment. The same sentiment towards trash compels me to pick up litter in other areas where I find myself as well, not just when I’m leading children at my job. Having lived and traveled to many places, I have seen firsthand how litter is a problem everywhere. Rubbish is just casually tossed aside to join the ranks of other discarded items on the wayside, and few places have advocates championing for their cleaning. Maybe not everyone feels the same way about litter as I do. Maybe not everyone knows better either. But trash is trash nonetheless.
Litter is a form of pollution, but unlike some forms of chemical or radioactive pollution, litter is something that we can tangibly handle. It is a visual presence as well, the results of trash being immediately observable to the onlooker. There is really no excuse for the amount of litter in our society where we all should have learned better. But just taking a look down any old highway or around any old vacant lot, one will see that we still haven’t acted any differently. Litter is the low-hanging fruit of pollution. It is everywhere. It takes no specialized equipment to clean up. If our goal is to clean up our environment in all forms, maybe we can start small. We can start with the pollution that’s the most obvious and unsightly and close to home. We can challenge ourselves to pick up trash instead of walking over it. Maybe then, more people will begin to be interested in solving some of our more troublesome pollution problems.
Since I absolutely love the feeling of accomplishment from picking up litter, I recently went to a trash clean-up event along the Cape Cod Canal in honor of Earth Day. Along the canal runs a narrow linear park with open space and a recreational trail popular with residents and tourists alike. For an organized clean-up area, the canal was in pretty good shape to begin with. In order to find trash, the volunteers had to scramble down onto the rocks which line the canal and rummage through the seaweed in order to find small bits of litter. After a couple of hours of searching, I didn’t even manage to fill my large trash bag. I pulled out lots of individual pieces of trash though, but most of what came out of the weeds was small, fragmented bits of plastic—water bottle caps, drinking straws, cigarette filter tips, plastic rope fragments, balloon ribbon. Though it may have not been completely satisfying to only find small bits of trash, the clean-up event was gratifying nonetheless based on the fact of what trash wasn’t there. The evidence from this clean-up meant that the bigger and uglier trash is either being picked up or not produced at all—well, at least in our well-loved public parks. What remains in the environment are the smaller, more hidden bits of trash that may not have even been intentionally disposed of improperly. This example provides some hope that we must be doing a good job educating people about not littering—at least in some places. On my drive back to camp that day, I could still see all the roadside clutter clearly visible at 55 mph. Cleaning up our recreational areas is a good start, but our less beloved areas still tend to get carelessly dumped on.
But at least picking up litter is a place to begin. I genuinely hope that someday trash won’t be such a problem in our society. I hope that someday the trash that we’re picking up now—the small, one-time use disposable plastic bric-a-brac—will be phased out of our society completely. Educating people not to litter is one challenge, but the bigger underlying challenge is to refrain from producing all that garbage to begin with.
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
–Wendell Berry, “To Know the Dark”
There is a certain phase between day and night, a time of transition, where the diurnal blends into the nocturnal. These periods of emergent light and shifting darkness make up the twilights of the day—the bimodal intervals between dawn and sunrise, and between sunset and dusk. This is a time on the edges, on the border of binary classification. Organisms that make their way about in these in-between times are known as crepuscular. Those active strictly in the morning twilight are the matutinal; those active solely in the evening twilight are vespertine.
Many familiar creatures make their way about in this altered level of light, taking advantage of both the dimness and the illumination. This is the time to be crepuscular. Under these conditions, a multitude of large forest dwelling creatures emerge—bear, deer, moose—along with their small mammal compatriots: skunks, raccoons, possums, rabbits. Many creatures of the air take flight. The insects—mosquitoes, moths, fireflies. The birds—the owls, the nighthawks. The charismatic bats also take wing. It is now that the active behaviors of these creatures peak. To bear witness to these crepuscular awakenings, the intrepid observer must come join the experience, without light, as a member of the dark.
You are in the middle of it now. Let your feet and voice be silent as you travel in deeper. You will find that the woods are alive with sounds and movements. Careful! Listen close! You too will hear and know the character of the fading light. Though the growing darkness distorts your human vision, fear not. There is nothing to be afraid of in these woods. Nothing in the night is any more dangerous to you than during the day. With transformed senses and unfamiliar sensations, your mind fills in the gaps and imagination runs wild. Yet don’t be alarmed. These crepuscular creatures are more afraid of you than you are of them. Relax. Stay a spell. You may become privy to the hoot of an owl or catch the gliding wisp of a bat overhead.
This twilight journey has been a distinctive experience for you, for humans are not crepuscular creatures. We are largely diurnal, adapted to the brightness of day. Our main sensory experience, our vision, works best in broad daylight. As the day fades into twilight, our eyes begin to cope. The iris expands and the pupils dilate to allow in the dissipating light. Inside the eye, the cones—the sensory cells that detect color and detail—begin to shut down in the dimness. Colors begin to fade, details blur. The acuity of vision diminishes. Yet within the eye, the counterpart of the cones—the rods—begin to become engaged. With the activation of the rods, contrast and shadow become keener, movement more detectable. The silhouettes of trees overhead begin to pop against the dimming sky. The rods readily pick up movement in the periphery of your vision. What was that?!? Did something move? In your periphery, you may detect movement, but oh what tricks your mind may also play on you! The darkness is unfamiliar territory; you are more wary, more attuned to sudden movement.
Yet there are creatures about. There is an abundance of life that is indeed adapted to the crepuscular world. The fading light offers a veil of protection for easy prey, yet illumination enough by which to forage. Predators, too, make use of the twilight as a time of feeding. Equally adapted to the hunt, the crepuscular predators seek out their crepuscular prey. In the twilight, the never-ending battle of evolution ebbs on. Owls, marauders of the night sky, have large eyes adapted to gathering the few rays of light available; binaural hearing, also known as asymmetrical ear placement, allows the owl to detect differences in sound occurrence down to 30 millionths of a second, letting them pinpoint even the tiniest rustle on the forest floor. Overhead the sky is filled with the noise of sound waves, inaudible to the human ear. The bats have emerged and fill the night sky with their echolocation. By emitting their sonar in flight, bats are able to precisely locate the abundance of crepuscular insects upon which they feast. It is a world of eat and be eaten.
All daylight has now faded. At astronomical dusk, the light from the sun no longer can reach over the horizon—it is now as dark as it can get. The period of crepuscular animals is ending. Patiently they will wait again until the next time of twilight. Truly nocturnal animals now make their way about the forest. Take a moment to gaze up now. The sky abounds with a brilliance of stars. Even in the dark, light from a thousand distant suns still caress the planet with their brightness. Even in the darkness, there is light. Even in the darkness there is knowing.
“I seek a garret. The spiders must not be disturbed, nor the floor swept, nor the lumber arranged.”
* Henry David Thoreau *
There is a congregation of spiders who reside in the corners of my bathroom. Inverted, they hang from the ceiling, by day and by night. They are small-bodied creatures; their combined head and thoracic sections—the cephalothorax—is rounded into a light-brown disk no bigger than a lentil; the abdomen, dark brown and cylindrical, the size of a peanut. The body is flanked on both sides by long spindly legs, light-tan as the thorax but with kneecaps of auburn. Chelicerae hang abruptly from the mouth like two tiny stilettos. Taken together, these parts compose a graceful creature—thin, delicate, fragile. A handsome specimen of nature.
But how did they get here? How did they arrive in this indifferent human world so far removed from the wild? There is no window in the bathroom, no apparent opening to the outside world. No cracks in the walls seem large enough for them to squeeze their gangly legs through. Surely they have not crawled out of the drain, for they do not seem to like the moisture—they spend their lives on the near-side of the bathroom, far-removed from the dampness of the shower. Have they spontaneously arisen from the lavatorial miasma?
And why are they here? Why have they arrived, and how did they find their way? Are these creatures lost souls in an alien human habitat? Are they, perhaps, just frightened émigrés huddled in a dry corner, fearful of the strange land they have stumbled upon, haunted by the large creatures that repeatedly visit? Do these spiders even recollect the outdoors or pine away for its presence—a storied, sylvan world now lost to them?
Maybe they have spent all their lives here. Maybe they were born to a generation of bathroom-dwelling arachnids, generation after generation after generation. Maybe the barren corners of the bathroom ceiling is all they have known. Despite their mysterious origins and incongruous circumstances, theirs seems to be a contented life. Though resplendently graceful, they seldom move. They stand an enduring guard over the sink and toilet, watchmen on an eternal silent vigil. Quiet, monastic, unhurried. Ever present, ever-vigilant. They lead lives of amity.
Their webs, if they do make any, are non-descript. Invisible. Wispy cobwebs of fluffy silk bundled in the corners, of seemingly no practical use. Inside, there appears to be no insects victimized. In fact, the spiders seem to share the bathroom with no fellow invertebrate dwellers. From where do these spiders get their sustenance? Do they eat at all?
I’ve chosen to live with the spiders in the bathroom. They are not demanding guests. They cause no fuss. Their presence has become part of the décor; I can no more think of the bathroom without thinking about the spiders that inhabit it. Why spoil the commensal relationship we have together, out of a desire to clean and tidy? No, these creatures are part of the home, welcome as a cherished guest. They have just as every right to exist and inhabit this space as we do. We and the spiders, both fellow creatures adorned on our home the earth together, seeking out our livelihood whichever way we can.
Making the House Ready for the Lord
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
Still nothing is as shining as it should be
For you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice – it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances– but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
While the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
As I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.
* Mary Oliver *
There ought to be one day of the year set aside specifically for love. It should be a celebration of all which you hold close to you. How about February 14th as a celebration? It’s a pretty ordinary day otherwise, and a pretty bland date coming in the middle of a late winter month as it does. I think today would be the perfect candidate for a special holiday.
In addition to celebrating the things you love today, why not also focus the day on cuddling—or, perhaps it’s more like cuttling? If you haven’t picked up on my point yet, I’m writing about none other than the cuttlefish. By far my favorite marine cephalopod. And why not? Just take a look at those big puppy-dog eyes and that tentacled smile waiting to embrace you in a kiss.
I thought about all this last February 14th too. On this day last year, I took a long sunset stroll down the white-sand beaches of Australia’s Bribie Island. In the fragrant subtropical air and the warm, salty ocean breeze, I found my love—or at least their remains. Along the beach were washed up several large cuttlebones—the hard remains of these invertebrate animals that give the cuttlefish both its internal structure and its buoyancy control. Like a lover’s distinctive gaze, the cuttlebone is the distinguishing feature of the cuttlefish, separating them from all other classes of cephalopods. But don’t take the name ‘-bone’ literally—the cuttlebone is extremely porous and composed of the mineral aragonite, unlike our own calcium phosphate skeleton. Maybe you’ve even handled a cuttlebone yourself, if you’ve ever fed one to a pet bird or reptile as a good source of crunchy calcium.
Before my long walk on the beach that night, I had a romantic dinner with my cuttlefish love; the cuttlefish showed up for the main course. Worldwide, many people enjoy dinner with a cuttlefish regularly. Especially in coastal areas of Europe and East Asia where the cuttlefish inhabit the waters, cuttlefish appears frequently on the menu. One typical Italian dish, risotto al nero di sepia, marries Arborio rice with cuttlefish ink.
I try to see my love frequently, not exclusively on February 14th. At every aquarium I visit, I instinctively zero in on the cuttlefish exhibits. Watching both their sleek movements and awkward bumbling can make anyone’s day. Cuttlefish can rapidly blend into their surroundings by changing the colors, patterns, and textures of their skin, which helps them both hide from predators and ambush prey. Their camouflage can even form moving patterns along the body, like nature’s organic jumbo-tron television.
Hearts are a rather appropriate metaphor for love, especially for the cuttlefish. With one heart for each gill and another for the rest of the body, cuttlefish max out at three hearts—that’s a lot of love to give. And these bleeding hearts don’t turn red; cuttlefish blood is a distinct blue-green hue due to the copper-containing molecule haemocyanin that transports oxygenated blood rather than the deeply-red colored haemoglobin found in vertebrates.
Gaze deeply into your lover’s eyes as well. Such a graceful W-shaped pupil, so deeply black and yet so alien. Any resemblance to our own eyes is a superficial product of convergent evolution. The cuttlefish can see things in us that we can’t see in ourselves; though their eyes cannot detect color, they can sense the polarization of light. And unlike our own flawed perceptions, these creatures don’t have blind spots.
A love for cuttlefish isn’t complete without cuttlefish love either. In their relationships, cuttlefish are excellent communicators, changing their colors to reflect their moods and intentions. A male cuttlefish can tell if a female cuttlefish is ‘interested’ if she turns the aptly-named ‘precopulatory grey’ pattern. But cuttlefish romance is also full of intrigue and deception. Non-dominant males can change color to pose as a breeding female. They can then sneak into the territory of a larger competitive male and surreptitiously mate with females. Cuttlefish romance sounds like the makings of a terrible aquatic soap opera!
The preferred copulatory position is face-to-face. The male cuttlefish will grab ahold of the female with his tentacles, and then use his extra pair of tentacles to insert his sperm sacs into an opening near the female’s mouth. The male holds onto this lovers’ embrace until the female lays her eggs a few hours later.
It’s tough for a male cuttlefish to find love out there. Typical cuttlefish populations have up to 5 times as many males as there are females. The playing field is jam-packed. If a male loses his female, there just as well might not be more fish in the sea (actually, cuttlefish aren’t fish but are mollusks. They are more closely related to snails than vertebrate fishes). If all chances of love fail nevertheless, a cuttlefish can still try their luck with brains. These animals have one of the largest brain-to-body size ratios in the animal kingdom.
Finally, any romantic holiday should include a fancy dinner. Seafood is a wonderful idea. The cuttlefish love to dine on shrimp, crabs, and fish. Their table manners could use work, though. They grab ahold of their prey by sneaking out their two feeding tentacles then snatching their prey at rapid speed, shocking their victim in the sneak attack. The hapless prey is then brought into the folds of the cuttlefish’s tentacled mouth, where it is paralyzed into submission with a toxic venom. Though they may gnaw on their entire meal whole, at least they don’t have bad enough manners to chew with their mouths open.
The land is quiet. The world is asleep. All around is still. No sound is heard save the lightly landing snow.
These are the short days of winter. Today is the darkest hour. The solstice is upon us; astrological winter has begun.
The world already knows the changes that have come. Plants lie dormant in the fields. Skeletons of last year’s growth remain as wind-battered sentinels above the white covering, an indicator of what species grew here in the warmer months. The animals, too, are hidden away; no tracks can be seen in the freshly fallen powder. Even the humans do not frequent these parts. The lone explorer presses along on skis, leaving behind an incriminating trail.
The winter sun vies for even a brief appearance through the clouds from its home low on the horizon. At these latitudes, it does not promise to linger long, if it even comes at all. Nevertheless, the fresh blanket of white reflects what little sunshine penetrates through the overcast skies. Beneath a firmament of gray, the land shines brilliantly bright. Such brilliance comes at the cost of the absorption of solar energy; the positive feedback cycle of winter cold is nearing its zenith, not to be broken until the sun shines more directly overhead once again.
Today the air is frigid. The illimitable cold turns the flakes falling from the sky light and airy. Super-frozen, they land delicately on the ground in a cottony pile. The lightest motion stirs up the powder like a coating of fine dust. Pick some up in your hand; you can blow the crystals of frozen water cleanly away. Taste some of the snowflakes; they melt instantly in your mouth.
Everywhere, the snow piles up. On tree branches, the fresh flakes land on top of one another in an acrobatic perch. The mere gravitational weight of the snowflakes causes them to deform, slowly melding the flakes together into a structural form. The smooth coating of white on everything makes the world look soft and inviting—comically rotund, perhaps—and radiantly white. How long has it been since movement disturbed these branches?
Though it is well below freezing, the small stream in the field remains unfrozen. The energy inherent in the motion of the water keeps the stream from solidifying, though snow flows in the water and ice nips at the edges. This creeping ice foreshadows the inevitable reach of the cold. It too, wants to cover over the stream, to cease even the motion of the water. For now, the water still flows. Water, in every state, is still flowing.
Nearby a chickadee flits around in the bushes. Now clothed in tones of dull gray, this year-round inhabitant matches the pale hue of the surrounding woods. The chickadee braces for the cold dark days of winter. It must vigilantly search for the stashes of seeds it has cached in the summer. Inactivity can quickly lead to a songbird’s demise.
The chickadee flies away just as quickly as it came. The world is once again still. No moving dares disrupt the hushed world. It is a time of waiting. Winter is here.
Photographs taken in Zeeland, Michigan
There is a distinct chill lingering in the air, one that stymies facial expressions into subdued smirks. That chill announces a period of oncoming change, none less than the switching of the seasons. Autumn is arriving. One can tell so through the senses.
Autumn comes once again to the temperate regions of the world, bringing with it such wondrous transitions not seen in milder climes. Though the environmental change is profound, it remains entirely cyclical and expected. We’ve seen this transformation before, we know the experience of it. Come early September, we wait longingly for its complete arrival. The transmutation of summer into autumn becomes a well-esteemed and anticipated annual ritual.
In the deciduous forests, leaves swap their productive green plurality of chlorophyll in exchange for the brighter hues of reds, oranges, and yellows that have lain hidden all summer. The hillsides now brag of their newly revealed adornments. Stiff breezes off land and water blow over the colorful scene with a mission to expunge the trees of their brightness; hoarse rattling resounds from the crisping leaves. Like the well-loved narrative, one knows the end result of this tragedy: eventually the biting winds will win, taking all the leaves from their hosts in the onslaught of winter. But one nonetheless watches the scene in suspense—will it happen today? In this breeze? Maybe, just maybe, this time around the colors will last.
As the chilling breeze steals away foliage, run and catch a falling leaf in your hand. More and more will follow. Hold the virgin leaves while they are still leathery, before the desiccating wind turns them to a crispy brown. Even on the ground the liveliness of the leaves continues their animation. Swept up in windy whirlpools, blown into piles against a fence. Dried to the perfect crispiness and heaped high on the ground, the leaves become the ideal frolicking ground.
Autumn’s cast of critters scurry along with the busyness of the season. For quite some time now, Canadian Geese have been making their great pilgrimages south, flying in their iconic V’s. See them stop along the way and listen to their travelling calls. In the forests, woodland creatures are making ready their nests. The humorous scolding of the squirrel seems to become more frantic in this changing weather; there is much work to be done to prepare.
The fruits of summer’s prodigiousness are ripening. Summer crops like peppers and tomatoes have long since been mortally wilted by the first frost. Hardy root vegetables, thick from a summer of growth, now find their way to local markets. Apples in the orchards hang heavy on the trees, lusting to be picked. In a field of desiccated weeds off in the countryside, bright orbs of orange bring color to the season; the pumpkin patch has risen to the occasion.
You can tell the arrival of autumn by the feel of the air against your face. Mornings are chilly. Maybe even the ground is covered in a fine latticework of shimmering white ice crystals. Gradually later each time, that low-angled ball of sun will rise in the eastern sky. Frost disappears as soon as the warming rays of morning sunlight hit. Later on in the day, the temperature becomes mild and pleasant. It’s tepid in the sun, but even the gentlest breeze steals away warmth so readily.
When that undeniable autumn chill is in the air, it’s time to gather close and gravitate towards the warm cozy places of life. Spend a night out by a bonfire. Your face and hands will radiate with heat while the rest of your body gets comfortably cold. Head inside and warm up by a fire with hot apple cider and fresh pumpkin doughnuts. Autumn is a time to spend close to others.
Cherish the days that are to be found in the turning of the seasons, for the eternal narrative of change continues on in the temperate latitudes. Already the harsh breezes of winter have hinted at their arrival. The first snow of the season has already made a brief but fleeting appearance. The fecundity of life is swiftly on its way to hiding for a long idyll. Winter will soon make the world appear calm and dead. But for now, the activity of fall abounds.
Near where I live, an outbuilding was raised this summer. Down a gravel road then along a sandy two-track, the building stands new and distinct in a recent clearing in the woods. Earlier this summer construction vehicles often came and went, their heavy treads leaving a growing impression upon the sandy-clay soil. Spring rains had raised the water table and kept the soil saturated, making the soil easily molded by the tracks of heavy machinery. Every vehicular pass widened the quaint two-track until all the median vegetation was turned under and the ruts grew deep and muddy. Spring storms sent water flowing into the new depression; it was the genesis of a mud puddle.
I had walked past this puddle frequently during the summer. Always skirting around its edge, I never wanted to risk fully submerging my feet into the murky depths. Though it could feasibly be jumped across at places, it took fifty paces to walk entirely around. Getting too close to the edge was always risky. The waterlogged soil around the perimeter was slick and muddy; one careless step would result in a drenched shoe. Regardless, the dampness of the puddle oozed up into each visitor’s footwear, whether they were careful or not. How deep the puddle was I never found out. Its opaque muddy waters kept the true depth from me. There must be a bottom somewhere, but it was never for my pair of sneakers to find out where.
With the outbuilding having been finished, the rumble of construction traffic stopped mid-summer. The giant mud puddle remained, now undisturbed by track or tire. Only footprints troubled the new body of water. The hot July sun did its best to transform the lowly puddle into a series of dusty ruts, but continual summer storms provided aquatic sustenance. The puddle’s existence continued indefinitely.
A few weeks passed since the times I walked by the fledgling puddle in early summer. I remembered the puddle’s brown murkiness and the primordial look of its oozing mud. Yet, as I meandered past once again, I was drawn in closer. A sudden burst of movement caught the corner of my eye. Curiosity overcame me. In childlike wonder I stooped down to investigate what happened. A bullfrog had jumped into the mud shallows. Disturbed by my movement, the frog sought shelter in the puddle’s depths. The bullfrog now sat still, wary of any movement, its eyes poking just above the waterline. In my brief observational absence, the lowly mud wallow had been transformed. The lifeless ooze had changed into a thriving ecosystem all its own.
I continued to stand and watch closer. The longer I squatted and the stiller I stayed, the more movement caught my eye. Fat black blobs swam lazily in the brown water. These were tadpoles, the maturing progeny of the bullfrogs. Had the current generation of frogs been born in this puddle? Perhaps, but maybe the current bullfrog residents had moved in and lain their young there, staking the first pioneering claims to the new habitat. Elsewhere, more black dots darted quickly below the surface of the water, stopping as rapidly as they had started. With two long oar-like legs attached to an elliptical body, these are insects known as backswimmers. They have likely flown in from similar habitat in a nearby swamp. Aquatic predators, the backswimmers indicate the presence of prey species in the puddle, some of which are too small to see. In this short amount of time, a food chain has been developed in the puddle.
The formerly impenetrable murkiness of the water had also begun to clear. Slowly, sediment had settled and the opaque brown became semi-translucent. The water still appeared brown from the muddy bottom, but light now penetrated deeper down. Mats of algae now lay revealed floating in the water. Intricate, delicate; curvy, lacy folds of blue-green. Still waters had allowed algae to grow. Their spores—have they come from a proximal swamp? Were they blown in from afar? Had the spores lain dormant on the dusty road, just waiting for the rains to come again? Algal life now flourished in the mud puddle, serving as the primary producer—the energetic foundation of the new ecosystem. Elsewhere, blades of grass had started poking up from the mud. Likely remnants of the former median vegetation, the rhizomes of the grass had survived dormancy under the mud, now sending new shoots skyward to catch the sun. The inundation of the puddle had slowly decreased enough that lengthy miniature islands had begun appearing in the terrain. These new spots of land remained moist, the perfect germinating spot for colonizing plants. Ruderal species—common roadside weeds—had begun to sprout up around the puddle. In time, these plants will fill in the disturbed soil; the mud being inevitably covered up in a blanket of green.
Where had the abundance of this mud puddle even come from? Until recently, this stretch of road was a dry dirt two-track. Now, this simple mud puddle, along the lonesome two-track road, had turned into a sonata of life. It had grown into an ecosystem of its own right, a microcosm of all life itself. What will happen to the inhabitants of the mud puddle at the end of the summer? Will intermittent rains continue to feed its life? Or will the hot August sun desiccate the puddle and all creatures within? Next year, after a long and cold winter, will the puddle still remain? Or is it really just ephemeral, making only a brief temporal appearance when summer rains come down heavier than usual? In ecology, the process of change is continual. Entire ecosystems may come and go based on such a small thing as a depression to collect water. What will be the fate of the mud puddle ecosystem? Only time will tell.