After many months (five-plus where I live) of winter whiteness, it’s a relief to watch the snow melt at last. We’re always grateful, even though the loss of snow cover gives way to a mostly brown world: brown grass, sand everywhere – even brown pine needles along the roads. Not to mention the leaves, trash, or dog poop that was mercifully hidden under the snow. Those few sepia-toned weeks after the white stuff disappears and before trees and grass wake up can be visually bleak.
Sunshine, Coffee and Shoelaces: Keys to Immortality
The search for a way to restore youthful vigor dates back at least to the writings of Herodotus in the 4th century BCE. The pursuit continues today, though in the domain of science, rather than guesswork. Among the best-known historic quests to reverse the aging process was Juan Ponce de León’s fabled hunt for a “Fountain of Youth” in the Caribbean. Having driven a few million native Tainos to early graves in Spanish silver mines, Ponce de León sailed away in 1521, reportedly seeking this magic water.
Girdling Roots Kill Trees
“My girdle is killing me” was an obnoxious slogan from a TV ad that ran in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the US. The widely-mocked catchphrase was meant to inspire women to rush out and buy a certain brand of non-murderous undergarment. I doubt the ad’s plaintive tone helped boost sales, but hey – I’m no marketing expert. And yet, underclothes can be dangerous. In 2009, the so-called “underwear bomber” stuffed his shorts with explosives and boarded a plane. Luckily, he couldn’t ignite his stuff, and his plot fell flat. In 2020, Alexey Navalny, a fierce critic of the Kremlin, nearly died when a Russian agent smeared nerve toxin on his boxers (because nothing says “strong, confident world leader” like poisoning one’s critics, right?).
The tradition of burning a Yule log has largely fizzled out in most parts of the world. While holiday cards often feature cute, picturesque birch rounds in the hearth, old-time Yule logs in 6th and 7th century Europe were monster tree trunks that were meant to burn all day, and in certain cultures for twelve continuous days, without being entirely used up. Apparently, if you didn’t have a leftover bit of this log remaining after the marathon burn, you were doomed to misfortune in the upcoming year. The remnant piece of charred wood was tucked away in the ceiling and was used to light the following year’s Yule log. I assume it was extinguished before being squirreled away in the rafters or some really bad luck would ensue.
If not for a fungus, Santa’s flying sleigh would be grounded. If that were the case, the only toys he could distribute would be to the elves who made them in the first place, which kind of spoils the whole surprise element. The truth is that Mister Claus relies on Amanita muscaria, a mushroom which grows among pine and birch, to zip around the world on Christmas Eve. Sometimes called the fly agaric or fly amanita because it has been used to kill flies, Amanita muscaria is a large, attractive mushroom. Its domed reddish cap is dotted with large white spots, making it one of the most recognizable toadstools or free-standing mushrooms in the world. It is the big polka-dotted mushroom of Alice in Wonderland, coloring books, and garden statuary.
Recent improvements in the texture and flavor of plant-based meat analogs have meat-lovers as well as vegetarians flocking to buy them. While it’s normal to think the quest for mouth-watering faux meat is a recent trend, it dates back almost a thousand years. According to first-hand written accounts, European religious and political leaders in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period spent decades searching for meat substitutes. But Europe’s elite weren’t after mere Tofurkey or Boca Burgers. Their sights were set far beyond Beyond Meat in a hunt for living, breathing, meatless animals. In a strange twist, modern science has confirmed the existence of at least two such veggie-critters.
No Kidding, an Echidna
While I usually cover flora and fauna relevant to the US Northeast and southeastern Canada, every so often, a non-regional subject whispers to me that it’s endlessly captivating and deserves an essay. Eventually I comply to make the whispering stop. Please don’t tell my shrink about this. One time, I was forced to write about platypuses (compelled by platypuses, not editors). These things are proof that animals are not the result of evolution; no, they came from Ikea. Ma Nature went to Ikea for her animals, and after assembling them, a little pile of fasteners and animal parts were left on the workbench.
Tree Slime – Who You Gonna Call?
Cast members of the new Ghostbusters film aren’t the only ones getting slimed – trees sometimes get slathered in slime flux as well. Many kinds of trees are subject to sludge assaults, with elms, apples, oaks, maples, and walnuts being among the more vulnerable species. Tree-goo, unlike the Psychomagnotheric Slime in Ghostbusters, is basically harmless. In fact, it can be beneficial. Also known as bacterial wetwood, slime flux is pretty much what it sounds like: wet nastiness that oozes from a bark crack, V-shaped trunk union, or pruning wound like an eternal fountain of fetid foam.
Secret Language of Mushrooms
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was chock-a-block full of whimsical characters such as a hookah-smoking caterpillar and a bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts playing-card. Although animals and some objects in the story are able to speak, somehow the idea of a talking mushroom was too far-out even for Carroll’s rich imagination. The book depicts a colorful hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria mushroom on which Alice dines (without so much as a parental warning) to become large or small. But while the Cheshire cat is chatty, the mushroom remains mum.
Reading Bug Tracks on Tea Leaves
From palm-reading to watching Fox News, humans throughout the ages have sought knowledge through some decidedly irrational means. But every now and then, superstition pays off. For example, studying the pattern of coffee grounds in the bottom of one’s cup, a practice known as tasseomancy, will nearly always reveal that someone forgot to put a filter in the coffeemaker basket. And haruspicy, the study of the fresh entrails of a gutted animal, is consistently right in concluding the animal is dead.
Tree Sign Language: Early Fall Color
Deciduous trees, ice-cream stands, and marinas close each fall for the same reason: as daylight dwindles and cold creeps in, they become less profitable. When income dips down to equal the cost of doing business, a wise proprietor will turn out the lights and lock the doors until spring. Some enterprising holdouts stay open longer. Perhaps they have less competition, or a better location. Conversely, a few close shop at the first whiff of autumn. Those are the ventures which just scrape by at the height of summer. I’m talking about trees here, of course. Trees whose leaves show color ahead of their same-species peers are doing so because they are barely breaking even.
Anarchy is Bad for Picnics
I’m not one to shed a tear when authoritarian rulers die, but once they’re gone, picnics become a lot more dangerous. As summer wanes, the original queen in every yellowjacket wasp colony dies – having a few thousand babies in the course of one season is enough to tire any Queen Mum to death. The colony raises new queens as the old one starts to forget the names of her offspring and where she left her reading glasses. But when the feisty new regals emerge, the young queens run off with the nearest male wasps for an mating orgy, after which they hide in rotten logs or nearby attics for the winter. With no one to keep the kids in line, social order disintegrates within the colony.
If you believe we’re the master of our actions, think again. Better yet, have a fungus, bacterium, or protozoan tell you what to think. Jedi mind tricks are nothing compared to what microbes can do to animals, human and otherwise. You’ve likely heard that mice and rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, lose their fear of cats because the pathogen initiates “epigenic remodeling.” In other words, T. gondii changes the expression of rat DNA to its advantage. As a result of this “remodeling,” infected rats and mice become sexually aroused by cat urine and seek it out, to their detriment obviously. In this way, T. gondii infects more cats.
Security Lights Threaten Faerie Lights
As a kid, many a June twilight was spent trailing the beacons of fireflies in the deepening dusk to try and catch them in my hands. I was endlessly enthralled. Endlessly until Mom called to clean up for bed, at least. It pleases me that my own two children went through this phase, presenting me with Mason jars of flashing green magic before they released “their” fireflies outdoors. For the longest time, I remained enchanted by those shimmering, summer-night faerie lights. These days I’m charmed only by the memory of such. They’re nearly gone from our farm now, a paltry few flashing in a meadow that once hosted a Milky Way of moving lights.
With 2,000 known species, fireflies are native to both the Americas and Eurasia. In the larval stage, they’re carnivorous, and eat many insects we consider pests. You may see young fireflies, grub-like “glowworms,” in the lawn or flower bed. Larvae also feed on worms, slugs and snails before wriggling down into the soil or other protected space to overwinter. After a short pupal stage, they emerge to mate. Adults mainly subsist on pollen and nectar, though a few don’t eat at all in their brief grown-up phase.
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Tick Season is Here
Black flies can put a damper on summer fun, but a tick bite can change your life forever. Deer ticks (ID links provided below) are known to transmit Lyme disease, which is caused by any of three species of spirochete bacteria in the genus Borrelia. When a deer tick latches onto us for longer than 24 hours, it barfs a load of these fast-moving, corkscrew-shaped microbes into our bloodstream. The spirochetes, which have a particular craving for hearts, brains, and joints, begin to drill through our tissues in search of a nice place to settle down and reproduce. As you might imagine, the results are unpleasant.
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