When he thinks I’m not looking, my husband indulges in a little eye-rolling. For the fourth or fifth time along this stretch, I stop, point, squat and aim my phone’s camera into some weedy roadside patch. He has only himself to blame. He’s the one who introduced me to my wildlife-identification app [Seek by iNaturalist], and our morning walks haven’t been the same. As my world has shrunk with the pandemic, so has my area of focus. My app is a fitting tool. I have found 141 plant species—and counting!—between our house and the turnaround point, a round trip of 2.2 miles. There’s always something new or transformed to look at, whether it’s the ephemerals in early spring, the berried possumhaw in winter, the swamp rose mallow in late summer or flowering snakeroot in fall.
But it is the fungi that most command my attention: the crowded parchment and Eastern jack o’ lantern, the crystal brain fungus and destroying angel—the last, as beautiful and deadly as Snow White’s apple in the Disney film of my childhood. As attached as I am to my sightings, I take them with a grain of salt, having discovered that my app isn’t what you’d call fool-proof. Running on image-recognition software, it can be spectacularly wrong. This is no doubt why a disclaimer appears at the start of each session, warning users not to approach, touch or make a meal out of any random species they find. Context is everything, it seems.
Just last week, a spiky sweetgum ball lying on an ocean-like expanse of snow became, according to my app, a member of the order echinoidea, which includes sea urchins. It readily identified my friend Mark as a member of homo sapiens, but was none too sure about my friend Barry. “Sorry about that,” my app chirped, as it always does when it fails to make an identification. It added that it was “still learning.” Oh, me too. Pre-app, I knew that some plants and animals were beneficial and others noxious; some native and others “introduced.” With a few exceptions, though, I didn’t know which were which.
In this state of nature, I was able to appreciate the plants, arthropods, mollusks and other life forms on my walks without special fear or favor, as if they had equal claim to our esteem. Thanks to my app, I now know that invasives like lesser celandine are the rankest of opportunists, beguiling us with their beauty as they take over every inch of roadside. And let’s not even talk about the knotweed—short on beauty, long on rhizomes—crowding out native species along our creek. Yet I can still enjoy, on an aesthetic level, the ditches full of dame’s rocket and roadsides dotted with moth mullein if I don’t think about it much.
My loss of innocence has its compensations. For instance, I didn’t have to mourn (much, anyway) the strange, long-limbed insect laid out on my hallway floor, the victim of a carelessly placed foot. As helpful in identifying the dead as the living, my app informed me that it was a Japanese camel cricket, considered invasive outside Asia. Armed with my app, I can extirpate the hardy begonias by the fence-line with abandon, and reassure myself that the creature hovering over my bed is a mouse spider, not a brown recluse. (Or is it?)
Still, there are the random tough calls. For several years, I planted milkweed by the garage in the hope of producing a few monarch butterflies. One day last summer, my patience was rewarded when I found two monarch caterpillars feeding upside down on its leaves. When I checked on them the next day, however, I was unnerved to see a gray mass of unidentified larvae nearby. In the coming days, this mass became an army of black bristles with a voracious appetite for…milkweed. Milkweed tussock moths. Fearing they would outcompete my monarchs, I consulted my app to figure out my next move. “Native! Native!” it screamed. “Co-evolved with monarchs,” a different site piled on. I got the message, and stayed my hand. With this result: Moths 1; monarchs 0.
The real folly is my sense of agency in all of this. Whether I stay my hand or raise it, large, relentless forces are at work, as inexorable as we’ve allowed them to be, making a mockery of my planting, tending, extirpating, sparing and occasional, accidental crushing. Perhaps only my cataloging has some value, for historical purposes at least. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that as many as 2,000 species will lose their place on Earth this year as the extinction crisis rolls on. * They will be as little mourned by the vast majority of our species as if they’d never lived.
I scroll through my list of sightings with their evocative names: Orange sulphur. Honey-tailed striped sweat bee. Sweet Little Betsy. Eastern harvestman (aka daddy longlegs). Tall boneset. The orbweavers, labyrinth and basilica. Painted turtle. Common self-heal. Which of them will be here, or anywhere, in 50 or 500 years? And why, oh why, are we so indifferent to the answer?
*World Wildlife Fund. Accessed February 18, 2022. Available at: https://wwf.panda.org/discover/our_focus/biodiversity/biodiversity/
Photo at top: Eastern North American Destroying Angel. Photo by Andrea Strout.