Even At The Gates

I looked up from the kitchen window about 10 minutes before we were to depart for a hike and pot-luck across the county.

WhatDaWhat! There not thirty feet away was a cluster of bittersweet (you never find just ONE Oriental Bittersweet vine because hundreds of seeds have fallen from the plant the year before, and many new sprouts also strangle the host tree and twine around others of their kind as well.

I reached for the loppers, since cutting the sapling at the base was the only remedy. And yet, this is no remedy.

I drug the whole mess down to my truck, and there it will stay until our next bonfire Weiner roast. To discard it in any other manner only spreads Medusa’s head in other seas.

And so what if one small group of vines does not drop seed this year? The cut vines still remain–to big to pull out of the ground. And within a hundred yards are a hundred other vines, climbing up the white pines in the powerline right-of-way.

I know this. And yet to do nothing with invasives coming right to the edge of the yard and in my face was a challenge I could not ignore.

And yet, in a hundred years, the flora of this place will be dominated by plant species from other continents. And maybe people born then will accept Stilt Grass, Multiflora Rose, and Oriental Bittersweet and admire them for their positive qualities, not knowing what would have grown in those places during their great great grandparent’s age.

Extirpated, Eradicated, Extinct

Passenger pigeons: From many to none.

We were walking down our pasture loop yesterday, and for some reason, I remembered when we first walked this path in 1999, we often saw flying squirrels that would drive the dog-of-the-day crazy. Not any more. It’s been years since we saw the last one.

And ruffed grouse: We’d hear their low-frequency drumming in the woods almost every time we went down the valley, some times of the year.

Red squirrels: Mountain Boomers, they’re called. I’d see them from the back porch, three or four at a time, chasing each other or the gray squirrels they seem to have a natural loathing for.

Whippoorwills: we heard them without fail every spring for the first ten years we lived here. Nope. None for the past decade.

Fortunately, these species are not gone completely and forever. They are only missing from our local landscape by my observations, and maybe all these kinds of macro-vertebrate animal have come to where you live and you see them regularly. I hope so. But I have little reason to think that’s the case.

It would be hard to tease out exactly why the range of some animals changes from year to year. But looking at global numbers of plant and animals species and populations, the news is not good. And it is not just local range retractions but large-scale ecosystem declines of entire webs of inter-related plants, animals, fungi and microbes taking place with increasing frequency and breadth across all biomes.

Two hundred species go extinct every day, the latest studies project.

Imagine: today, the Eastern Chipmunk. Thursday, the robin. Friday the raven. Saturday, the Monarch Butterflies. Sunday the silver maple.

These are conspicuous, named and familiar creatures we’d miss if they weren’t there. We’d be alarmed if we could actually see extinction, like so many lights across the globe that wink out suddenly. The very last one of its kind dies, and that is the end of the genetic line forever. We can’t see those lights going out, but be assured it is happening. And this Sixth Great Extinction is not new and it is not something we can blame on natural cycles.

The increasing number of humans on the Earth; the voracious appetites we have for stuff and the enormous footprint we leave in our wake of resource consumption; and now the extra heat our carbon era has left in the atmosphere—all of this disturbance of natural checks and balances is rapidly leading to a planet unlike the one experienced by living things, maybe not EVER, but certainly over the 200k years of hominid presence or the 10k years of proto-civilization.

Every living organism on every continent and in every biome is being challenged by the changes Homo sapiens has created. And our arrogance has us thinking we will be just be about our business of doing what is best for our own kin, corporation or country. And in the end, it will be self-absorbed indifference and willful ignorance that will do us in.

Extirpated. Eradicated. Extinct. As species disappear, we are burning the precious books–the last and only existing copies–from the Library of Life. Few of the species whose way of life has brought this about seem bothered by this emergency. Humankind may yet be a self-terminating species, but it will not be because we did not see it coming.

A Cicadian Pox of Conidial Pustules

Yes, it does sound like a medieval incantation of doom. This is one for you from Nature’s Book of Bad Dreams.

Seems we have among us a fungus that infects periodic cicadas in a most bizarre and ghoulishly effective way. So if you find said insect with its back half white, it is a flying salt-shaker of death to others of its kind. It will not turn you into anything more or less than what you have been. OTOH…

The white pustule is a teeming mass of fungal spores, that, when germinated in the tissues of a passing cicada, turn it into a living zombie, roaming the world for weeks with its hind-most parts replaced by the fungus that has eaten it alive. Note that the fungus, too, has periodicity so to be timed to “bloom” along with the emergence of its meal and meal ticket.

During its zombification, the chances of spores finding other victims are increased by the fact that chemicals are released by the spores (including a couple of known human hallucinogens, but you’d have to eat a bucket full of insects to get a, er, buzz.) These drugs induce male cicadas to produce sounds typical of females to lure in other males not yet infected. And also infected males respond by seeking out calls of both sexes, thereby increasing the odds of contact and contagion.

Order it by name: Massospora cicadina

What Native Plants?

Japanese Spirea ~ a beautiful invasive

We rounded the bend on Griffith Creek last week to find a hundred yards of creekside lined thickly with a flat-topped pink-flowered shrub I recognized as Spirea, a member of the rose family.

But the members of the genus I was familiar with are knee-high wildflowers, not shrubs. And seeing the extent of this population, I suspected it was spreading without threat of disease or predators, because it was “not from these parts.”

I sometimes wish I did not notice the invasives that are taking over Floyd County; that are changing the visual space; that are outcompeting or otherwise damaging what used to be endemic North American natives. There are so many forms of “kudzu” these days, and it makes me heart-sick.

At one point, I spent a lot of energy hand-picking the garlic mustard, coltsfoot and Japanese stilt grass; clipping back the multiflora rose, autumn olive and oriental bittersweet from anywhere I came across it within our boundaries.

Now I have acquiesced. I surrender. The bittersweet reaches the tops of young trees under the powerline clearing, having dropped so many seeds already that clipping back the mature vines will have no impact on future infestation. I suppose I have no options but to harden my shell.

I wish I didn’t care. I wish that this out-of-balance state felt okay; that knowing my grandchildren would experience the consequences of biological homogenization–the opposite of biological diversity–in their world and beyond.

It is the price we will pay as a species for the speed and ease with which we travel and ship and transplant from all around the living world. Their native plants and animals are now our pests, nuisances and invaders. And the average person thinks “so what?”

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” Aldo Leopold

(extra)Ordinary Nearby Nature

Ichneumonid wasp on our woodpile a few years back

Horntail wasp just out the back door last week

I’d never seen a horntail wasp until I saw this one last week, but knew at a glance what it was. Note the horn on the tail, just above its rather short, stout ovipositor. It is NOT a stinger.

And so now, I have familiarity with both the predator and the prey. How they interact is truly amazing, and a story I had known about for decades.

This short video below shows excellent details of the Ichneumonid’s remarkable way of getting its egg onto the horntail larva deep inside the trunk of a tree. Worth your time. Trust me.

This is just crazy! And yet, it’s just life for this barely-noticed common wasp.