Sunday, February 2, 2014

Some thoughts on the beginning of spring

Brigid/Tu B’Shevat Essay,
written 2004, with edits 2014.

In America, regardless of latitude or climate, we are told to think of spring as beginning in March, at the vernal equinox. It's true that Equinox marks the changes from winter to spring at their most dramatic, when the length of days crosses over the length of nights, and flowers abound. However, if we pay careful attention to more subtle details, particularly here in the mid-Atlantic, we can see that the changes that are so dramatic in March have their roots much earlier in the year.

During the six weeks or so before the spring equinox, all sorts of changes are at work in the world: the sap rises in the trees, the days grow noticeably longer, and buds swell on their branches. Trees gain a wreathy halo of pale pink or orange or white, and the first shoots of crocus and daffodil poke their tips through the ground.

In the midst of January snows, it may be difficult to imagine that spring is on its way. But just as winter solstice is also known as Midwinter, and summer solstice as Midsummer, so too can we think of the vernal equinox as "Midspring." Many different traditions begin to welcome spring in late January or early February, with festivals to encourage the return of light and warmth:

There is the Pagan cross-quarter festival of Brigid, goddess of birth, poetry, smithcraft, and the hearth; or Imbolc, celebrating returning of light and birthing of lambs. There is the Pagan/Christian festival of Candlemas, the blessing of candles for use throughout the year. There is the secular observance of Groundhog Day, by which the weather of that one day is used to predict the weather for (not coincidentally) the next six weeks.

And there is the Jewish festival of Tu B'Shevat (literally the 15th of Shevat). Like many other holidays in the Jewish calendar, it is timed to coincide with the moon in its fullest phase. In addition, Tu B'Shevat is one of the few Jewish holidays to focus solely on celebrating changes in nature, instead of also commemorating a biblical or historical event. Tu B’Shevat is celebrated as the New Year of the Trees!


(I wrote the following song to commemorate the cycle of the seasons from the point of view of the cross-quarter times, each halfway between solstice and equinox. Happy new year, trees!)

Roots deep within the earth, your sap rising high,
Your swelling buds sweep the brilliant blue sky
Casting away cares of cold winter's winds,
You reach out your branches, inviting me in.

Green as the grass growing up from the ground,
Softly you whisper a warm zephyr's sound.
Bursting with blossoms, you're dressed for the dance:
You reach out your branches and offer your hands.

Standing as shelter from summer's great heat,
Feeding with fruit all who flock to your feet.
With cool dappled light in a leafy green dome,
You reach out your branches and welcome me home.

Leaves fill with light as the evenings grow long
Rustling, you sing out a cold breeze's song.
Sinking your roots as the last colors fall
You reach up your branches and help me stand tall.

Roots deep within the earth, your sap rising high,
Your swelling buds sweep the brilliant blue sky
Waking once more from the cold winter's winds
You reach out your branches and gather me in.

Earth Song, ©2009 Jennifer Sheffield

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Surprise Houseguest

Last Monday night I found a praying mantis in my study. I took some pictures; I left it for a bit. When I returned, it had done some exploring and was up in the plastic wrapping surrounding a keyboard propped by the wall. This was vastly interesting to the kitten, who had to be exiled from the room. I then determined that I did not want the mantis getting lost and/or suffocating in there, and so I convinced it to back its way out. Eventually it came out the bottom, and it took wing and flew hastily across the room, banging en route into the 10-y-o cat, who was like, "I'm sorry, what?"

And then it returned to the window. The window was propped open, which means there's a gap between the panes. So I got it onto my hand, opened the screen, and sent it out into the night. It promptly climbed back in.

The next morning, after checking for it, I wrote this little song:
I have a praying mantis
It came in through a crack
I tried to let it go,
but now it keeps on coming back.
(Mantis, mantis, mantis...)

Anyway. It stayed for a week. I never saw it catch any food, but I learned some stuff:

1) It grooms itself like a cat! (You may want to enlarge these to see this.)

2) Its wings look cool!

3) It drank water from my hand! (At least, I think it drank. I was holding the [film canister] cap of water over my head, so I couldn't really see. But it did examine the cap and bend its head down into it. And it seemed surprised when I pulled away. And its abdomen looked less shrunken.) It's not drinking here, but this is the cap.

And now, after exactly a week, it seems to have gone. I haven't seen it at all today. I'm glad to think of it out in the garden, for I didn't want it to die in here (either from lack of food/water or even because it's at the end of its life span, because I wouldn't know which), and I'd been kind of concerned at how still it had been much of the past three days. But I miss seeing it every day and checking on it, and having it turn its head to look at me when I approach.

And I've just been bitten up by an annoying mosquito. Maybe it was eating after all!


Two weeks ago I beheld the following on a bean vine. I was confused and startled by the sheer number of legs, and first I thought it was dead, but I blew toward it and some of the legs waved. And then I finally parsed the image as a praying mantis going through (presumably) final molt. Look at how much it's changed in size!

Underside view:

Back view:

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Do You Know My Name?

I am looking for some help in identifying some things. Any ideas?

1) Orange Daisy Plant

This plant is very exciting. It's clearly in the Compositae family (daisies, which have composite flowers), it's six feet tall, and it's growing in our back yard. I haven't found anything online that matches, although "orange daisy" is getting me a lot more useful images than when I was using "composite". Go figure...

2) Small Loud Bird

This bird has a loud raspy call (along with a more innocuous one). There have been two of them hanging out on our balcony or our neighbors', hopping from plant to plant and sometimes having a dust bath in a disused planter. May have a nest in the gutter next door. I keep thinking "wren" but don't see it in our bird identification books. (Note: once again, clicking on the photos will magnify them.)

Edit: The ledge on which the bird is standing is 3" long on top and 3.5" on the bottom. The post top next to it (which looks like a brick) is 1.5" tall.

3) Weird White Stuff

This stuff appeared some months ago on a small tree along the side of our house. I tried to cut off the branches and leaves that were occupied; got a lot off but certainly not all of it. Then much more recently after a big rain made our hydrangea's branches sag, I saw them again. I think they've changed, as though maybe something hatched from them...? Or maybe they're fungal.

4) Disturbing Vegetable Bug

This looks like a small stink bug with stripes on its legs and antennae. They're everywhere! Sunflowers, green beans, asparagus, peppers... Not sure about the tomatoes. Don't know whether they're connected to item 3.

5) Fascinating Other Plant

This is just something I saw while walking around the neighborhood. It's cool! I've never seen it before.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Life Cycles

Last September, I was out in the garden and came upon the above Thing attached to our bean plants. I was alarmed and suspicious -- what kind of weird fungal thing was this invading our garden and growing on our plants? But I am nothing if not cautious, so I decided to wait until I had gotten another opinion on it before removing and disposing of it.

Then some time went by.

A few days later, I noticed a praying mantis on the wires of the compost bin. As I got closer, I saw that its belly was distended, as if it was pregnant. I was puzzled: do praying mantises get pregnant? What does that mean for an insect? I ran upstairs to check online, but first I took some pictures. Here's one:

Among the links I found online were a fact sheet and a series of photos of the praying mantis life cycle. I learned that the pregnant female was likely to lay her eggs and then die a few weeks later. It feels very strange (even though it follows the pattern I learned at an early age from Charlotte's Web) to think that the mantids all die off and then there are none (at least in the immediate area) until the eggs hatch in the spring. Gave me a sense of concern and solicitude, fueling a plan to keep watch on the Thing that I had, unexpectedly, now identified as a praying mantis egg sac.

So my freaky frothy fungus had now transformed into a magical time capsule, and over the winter I kept watch over it and the five others I found soon afterward. (Checks became routine: one on the sage, two on the beans, one on the yellow rosebush, one on the rue. Eventually one more on the vines overhanging the path.) I was very careful about how we pruned the roses and vines and eventually the rue.

At some point I found this early blog following a set of mantid egg cases in a terrarium. Gave me some idea of what to expect, but since it was indoors, I still didn't know when to expect hatching. I had seen one photo caption that said "This one hatched early, in October." More recently I found something that said there should be several weeks of warm weather in a row. I was very excited to see them, not just because I wanted to be sure they made it through the winter, but also because I wanted to see how small they'd be when they first emerged.

I wasn't particularly expecting them to arrive in the rain, though.

But I went out in the rain just to see the garden, at the very end of April, and I noticed something odd about one of the cases when I did my cursory check. So I looked more closely and there indeed was my waiting rewarded.

And I took lots of pictures. These five are the least blurry (and they look very cool enlarged, if you click on them). I haven't seen the mantises since, nor can I tell for certain whether the other cases have hatched -- they don't change much, and that bit hanging down in the pictures has disappeared from this particular case.

But they hatched (potentially hundreds, rather than the eight or so I saw), and if any survived their first few days in the big world and didn't entirely eat each other, they're out there somewhere in the yard, growing and being part of our ecosystem.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Birds and the Bees

I'm pleased to report that we are doing our part for the honeybee crisis (not to mention attracting other insect visitors), and that we've grown our own bird feeders! While I don't have pictures of the goldfinches in the sunflowers or the hummingbird that I finally saw today (having missed all but one of the previous sightings over the past two and a half years...but that's okay; until recently, only I ever saw the bat) near the red runner beans, here are a number of images of our recent insect visitors:

Zinnias, by the way, are a type of flower I knew nothing about until I saw some in a neighbor's yard last year. So we planted some this year, and they're beautiful! I really love them. Both zinnias and sunflowers have many more flowers than one might initially think: each one is more like a colony of flowers, heralded to the pollinators by huge faux petals that surround the group. The real flowers are the little yellow bits that the bees are visiting. Those bloom gradually rather than all at once, and it's really exciting to watch the process! Look at the cool pattern of buds still to open in the sunflower: each one blooms and changes and produces a seed. Sunflower seeds are funny when they're pried loose before they fully dry: they have the right taste but with the texture of green beans!

More insects:

Apparently I'm not the only one whose favorite zinnias are the hot pink ones. :)


Yes, that's two different praying mantises in the yard at the same time. Note how the top one's legs and eyes are green and the bottom one's legs and eyes are brown (try to find the legs among the twigs). We get to see mantises sporadically all through the season, starting when they're only about an inch long. We like that our yard is a real ecosystem!

Friday, August 24, 2007

We saw the Heron!

Over the past few years, a project has been underway at the intersections of Lincoln Drive, Wissahickon Avenue, and Rittenhouse Street to convert the 3-acre grassy island of Saylor's Grove into a wetland to catch stormwater runoff. I learned about this project around the time we moved, I think, and we began our periodic walks there just as they were installing bridges and new walkways. There was clearly a wet area, with some trees in and around it, but not much was growing yet. And then there came a sign.

The sign was an information sign, and it is there still. It stands upon a sort of observation deck with low stone walls around it that we like to walk on top of. The sign tells us about various types of plant and animal life that we are likely to see in the marshy pond in front of us. When I first saw it, it reminded me of those little self-guided tour signs you see in the woods that say "Look! A spiderweb!" Wait, where?

So we laughed at the sign, which clearly listed lots of things that were nowhere in sight. The most egregious of these, in our opinion, was the heron. Huge big bird, out in the middle of this open pond, surrounded by city traffic? It was particularly funny since the sign advised us to look carefully, as the animals might not want to be seen.

So from then on, we announced our intention to visit Saylor's Grove by saying, "Let's go see the herons!" And each time, as the wetland grew up around us, we made dramatic efforts to look carefully and find the elusive heron. We saw goldfinches eating from long stalks of seeds. We saw cattails and crabapples and water pouring over stones. But no heron. On our last visit there in May, I wrote in my diary, "We visited Saylor's Grove and found, not herons, but more orioles, plus sparrows and mallards and huge stands of blue flag irises."

Then came last weekend. I'd been agitating for a walk all week, since the weather was so much cooler, and finally on Saturday afternoon as we drove by the grove (which we do frequently, always checking for herons) and I saw hosts of yellow flowers dotting the hills, I demanded that we go see the the herons Sunday morning.

black-eyed susans at Saylor's Grove

Sunday was a tricky cranky day. It was past noon and raining by the time we got ourselves out the door. We made our way to the wetland and were astonished at how much had changed over the summer. From the sidewalk we didn't see any sign of animal life except someone talking on a cell phone under a tree. We walked down the long path toward the deck, and as the guy walked out past us, he murmured in an awestruck voice, "There's a heron in there." Then he added, "I saw it an hour ago." And he left. Well, so then we did the requisite self-recriminations for not having left when we intended, but soon we quieted and began to make our way slowly and carefully around the tall grasses that cloaked the pond. And halfway around, there it was!

We were very excited. We followed it around, which was not very polite. Eventually it took off and flew over to the Monoshone on the other side of the road (which is contiguous with the rest of the park). Next time maybe not so much stalking and not so much the bright red umbrella.

We're so excited!!!