Trout Lily Flower Action

by Carl Strang

A year ago I described my observation that trout lily flowers open and close actively, and outlined what I learned about this in a literature review. This year I remembered to note when the flowers were open or closed, and recorded the local weather conditions.

Between April 5 and April 23 I made 8 observations of open flowers and 10 when they were closed or partially open (as the flowers aged they appeared to lose the ability to close entirely). I looked at time of day, temperature, cloud cover, and relative humidity. Temperature and humidity I acquired from local measurements available on the Internet. A better classroom study would have the students take measurements themselves in the habitat, but this quick and dirty approach was enough for me. Cloud cover was easiest to rule out as a factor, as the range of 0-100% cloud cover applied to both open and closed flowers.

Time of day also didn’t seem to be very important all by itself. There was too much overlap between flower closed times of 8:02-12:15, and flower open times of 10:06-12:43.

Likewise, I found a lot of overlap in humidity ranges, 35-100% for closed flowers, 31-48% for open flowers.

The best indicator among the factors I considered was temperature. There was only a little overlap between the range of 43-59F for closed flowers and 56-73F for open flowers. This leads me to conclude that Clements’ generalization, that temperature is the most important determinant, applies specifically to white trout lilies.

Early Insects

by Carl Strang

This spring, plants have been flowering a couple weeks ahead of last year, and some of the insects are making early appearances as well. This spring azure butterfly was out by April 12 at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

The earliest dragonfly of the year always is the migratory common green darner, the first of which showed up on April 5. That’s one of my earliest observation dates for the species. Last week I found a few other odonates at the stream corridor marsh, including this pair of common spreadwings in wheel position.

There also were both eastern and fragile forktails, the latter a new preserve record. Another new insect for the Mayslake list was this skipper, which I believe is a Juvenal’s duskywing.

A colony of eastern tent caterpillars is well under way north of the off-leash dog area.

To the right of the nest you can see the egg mass from which the caterpillars emerged.

Though flowers are blooming earlier, pollinators have not been caught napping. Here a carpenter bee visits cut-leaved toothwort flowers.

At first I thought it might be a Bombus impatiens worker, but the queens of that bumblebee species still seem to be searching for nest sites. At most they are beginning to tend their first set of larvae. The lack of yellow on the relatively hairless abdomen of this individual rules out all bumblebees.

Finally, I can declare the singing insect season to be open. The first greenstriped grasshoppers were displaying at Mayslake on April 20. In my 5 years’ experience with singing insects this is the earliest crepitation I have heard from that species, by 8 days.

March Garlic Mustard Pulling Does Not Encourage Germination

by Carl Strang

I have resumed my tests of manual removal methods for controlling garlic mustard. This invasive plant has become a significant bane of native ecosystems, and considerable expense and effort go into knocking it back. Last year I set up my first experimental plots, comparing the removal methods of pulling (uprooting) second-year plants, versus clipping them at ground level in March. Untouched control plants I later clipped when they began to mature their fruits. This year I applied the same treatments to new study plots in April (the difference in timing is exaggerated by this year’s advanced phenology), and those results still are developing. For now I want to share some of the final results from last year’s plots.

One concern raised by restoration practitioners is that uprooting second-year garlic mustard plants may increase germination of garlic mustard seeds in the soil. Last year I found that this was not true for the year in which the pulling is done. There was no statistically significant difference between the pulling and clipping treatments. Seedling counts were lower in the control subplots, apparently because of suppression by the undisturbed second-year plants.

New Garlic Mustard Seedlings

Recently I returned to last year’s study plots to see if the pulling treatment produced increased seedling germination in the following year. I found plenty of seedlings in control (median count 198 seedlings per square meter), clipped (median 293 seedlings) and pulled (median 277 seedlings) treatment squares (9 squares total in each category, from three 3×3–meter study plots). Applying the Mann-Whitney U-test to the count ranks of the squares, I got U values of 30 for control vs. pulling treatment, 32 for control vs. clipping treatment, and 40 for pulling vs. clipping. None of these are anywhere close to statistically significant.

Older Garlic Mustard Seedlings

So far it appears that pulling the plants is OK. However, the second-year plants are relatively small in March. This year, pulling the larger (in flower) April plants has disturbed the soil to a greater degree, so I will be interested in seeing whether that makes a difference.

Morel of the Story

by Carl Strang

Two Sundays ago I went for a long (for me) bike ride of 40 miles on our very good local system of trails. This time the route went through a couple of detours, including a section where the trail was being rebuilt. I must have hit something nasty there, because soon I had a flat tire. This was despite having installed a tire and inner tube that supposedly were both extra tough. I stopped, unloaded repair needs from my small bike bags, placed them on the ground, turned the bike over, and replaced and inflated a new inner tube. As I bent down to pick up the tools I saw, well, not this one, but one like it, at the edge of the trail:

I didn’t have space to carry any morels, but this one was a week past emergence anyway. I looked around and saw perhaps half a dozen more of the same age. I hadn’t been thinking of morels this early in the season, but now, having seen these, I realize that these fungi appear not according to the calendar but, like early season wildflowers, according to soil temperature. Moisture would be an additional factor for the mushrooms. First flower dates have been running a couple weeks ahead of last year. Now I know what mushroom hunters no doubt have learned ahead of me: key the search to phenology rather than calendar.

Winter Campfire 24

by Carl Strang

Winter is a time when we slow down and become introspective. Sitting and staring into the fire, we ponder the big questions. If you have been following this blog, you know that the focus here is science, science that can be done simply in outdoor settings. But we are more than scientists, and science has well defined limitations that need to be understood by everyone who does science or studies its findings. This winter I am using one post per week to develop my own viewpoint and biases, in particular sharing my take on the relationship between science and spirituality. In part this defines for me what these two realms of human experience are all about, and also develops the separate methods used for inquiry in each realm. I plan to place this paragraph in front of each entry in this series, so that those who are interested only in natural history or in scientific practice can skip these posts.

Spiritual Inquiry

The essay I have been sharing this winter originally was a conceptual piece, but a true Dreaming in the Aboriginal sense is more comprehensive than that. It includes aspects of spiritual practice or religion. My approach begins with advanced awareness techniques, as described earlier. For many years seeing purely was something I could achieve for moments at a time, but didn’t attempt to sustain. This was in contrast to wide-angle vision and listening, which I had made continuous except when distracted by moments of stress. Then, on February 5 of 2009, I was playing with imagining the location of my center of consciousness in different places. It was as though “I” was a tiny person within my body, moving to sit in different places. I found a profound difference in results when practicing awareness from a viewpoint in the center of my chest. Suddenly, maintaining pure sensory perception on a continuous basis was possible, and it was easier to see people and even artifacts purely. For a while I tried to make this practice full time, but then I found that abstract thinking, logic, calculating, and working with words could not be done very effectively from the center of the chest. I had to return to the head to do such things. It seems that this chest-centered viewpoint is best regarded as a form of ongoing meditation, and that doing it as much as possible may be a necessary step toward the goal of Oneness, but it cannot be full time, at least for me.

The most difficult aspect of this technique is not so much maintaining the Seeing Purely state, but rather staying in the present moment and focusing on my surroundings without retreat into my thoughts and dwelling on past or future. Someone with a more externally focused personality type (sensu Meyers-Briggs) might find it easier.

New conceptual insights and interpretations also emerged from this new, expanded awareness practice. For instance, Benjamin Hoff, in The Tao of Pooh, translates the concept of P’u as “the Uncarved Block.” In his words, “So from ‘tree in a thicket’ or ‘wood not cut’ comes the meaning of ‘things in their natural state’ — what is generally represented in English versions of Taoist writing as the ‘uncarved block.’” I suspect that this may in fact be a reference to the experience of Seeing Purely a deciduous tree or a group of them in winter. The easiest things to see purely on a continuous basis are the masses of trees and bushes. One senses the vitality of all those reaching branches and twigs. If I’m right in this, it’s a mistake to replace this with the static image of a chunk of wood.

The next step came during a walk at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve on February 16, 2009. Having established the Uncarved Block/Seeing Purely meditation, I increased my focus on the surroundings, diminishing the ego and shutting out internal music and other self-conversation. This allowed an increase in the scope of what I was absorbing. Furthermore, I found that the sounds of my own footsteps were no longer connected to me exclusively. I was hearing them, but no longer recognizing them as mine. I had become a part of the whole, with my body now only a small part of me, and those footsteps, the sounds of them, were as removed from me as the trees I was viewing or, rather, all were equally a part of me. It was a sound of something moving within the whole. I was a center for receiving information, reflecting sensory impressions of all, indiscriminately. This I recognize as a baby step toward Stalking Wolf’s ability, described by Tom Brown (The Vision, pp. 56-58), to detect what had happened with two rabbit traps set several miles away. The Lipan Apache elder explained his correct narration of what happened at those traps, as it happened, by saying, “If a rabbit moved upon your back, could you not feel it?”

Another outcome of the Waterfall Glen experience was the realization that the closest way to God is inside, not through some intervening medium, because there is no such thing. We think there is because we live our daily lives at the separate-whitecap level. Rather, connecting to God and to the whole of Spirit is possible only through our direct spiritual connection within ourselves. If we are each at the center of the Universe there is no “up” (physically speaking). Therefore the closest way to God is within (spiritually speaking). I had the sensation of being a viewpoint of God when I allowed my ego to diminish while growing the heart center. The body is a peephole for Spirit into the physical world. That heart center became revealed as the extension of God into me. I had forgotten that there is no separation. I am part of God, and the best connection to that is through that center. So the next stage appears to be growing that sense of connection while diminishing the ego: how far can that be taken, and how long can it be held?

In a significant moment a few weeks after the Waterfall Glen experience, I became aware that I had developed an image of what was in the center of my chest as being contained, confined in a bounded space the shape of a medicinal capsule, but larger, the size of my fist or a little larger, but fronting something much greater. Shortly after I realized that I was holding that image, it became transformed during a prayer. The containment dissolved away, and since then when I have looked to that place the replacing image is not bounded. Sometimes it is like a star. It has energy, feels like a connection, but is generally quiescent. It seems to have the potential to be warmth, or light that could be a dull red or blindingly bright white, or to be my end of an umbilicus to Spirit like a communicating connection, or even to vanish and become a hole or even the Void. Alternatively, sometimes I have held the image of my chest filled with variously colored flowers. At such times, I am supersensitive to color in my surroundings. I have felt that for now, I am just to get used to the change. Perhaps at some point I will feel directed to work with it and try to bring out some of these qualities further. I sense that this is my true center.

I also have sought a more appropriate way to understand prayer and meditation (speaking and listening), including gut feeling, intuition, and experiences of love and beauty. How is communication possible in the physical world? We have media of communication appropriate to the physical world, possible because here we are indeed provisional separate entities. Communication with one another spiritually is trickier, because it has to take place through the timeless medium of undifferentiated Spirit. Again it is accomplished in the same form as prayer and meditation, coming in the form of visual metaphor, intuition, etc. In regarding other entities, nonhuman as well as human, Namaste is key. Prayer is attending and maintaining one’s consciousness of connection to that network of ties, that projection of the Universe inside the self.

I now define prayer as the process of reaching through our God-connected, spiritual selves to express gratitude for what has been, to find calm certainty about the good that we are, and to seek inspiration and guidance for future direction. Such direction comes through the various forms of intuition, resonating with emotional and intellectual certainty.

The idea of seeking oneness is a worthwhile goal, expanding on the notion of self that goes beyond the individual person to the entire universe, exploring that connection. So, what kinds of eternal moments do I want to co-create in my experience, thoughts and actions? Through them, what kind of universe do I want to co-create? This kind of thinking is what leads to an emphasis on healing among spiritual people. It points away from anger, fear and other emotional qualities based on overemphasis on the separate individual. Fear also focuses on the future and past rather than the present eternal moment.

It’s incorrect to go too far in either direction, the ascetic denial of physical experience or ignoring the call from our spiritual side, because in this life we may have our only opportunity to do either. It seems wrong to deny our existence in the physical world, and also to ignore the broader metaphysical part of our selves. Balance. The common factor in both is love.

Rumi encourages us to “submit to a daily practice. Your loyalty to that is a ring on the door. Keep knocking, and the joy inside will eventually open a window and look out to see who’s there.” Also, fake it until you make it: “God accepts counterfeit money as though it were real!” Even negative feelings can be helpful: “This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival! A joy, a depression, a meanness…Welcome and attend them all!…Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

Ten Toads A-Trilling

by Carl Strang

As the western chorus frogs began to wind down their extended breeding season at Mayslake Forest Preserve, the American toads were getting underway with their briefer one.

Like the chorus frogs, toads come to water only to breed, spending the rest of the warm months foraging in upland habitats. I find their beautiful trilling choruses to be a calming reminder of the warm season to come. American toads need a few years to grow, in contrast to the rapidly maturing chorus frogs. Nevertheless, the ongoing restoration work at the stream corridor marsh is paying off with the toad population as well. This year I have a minimum count of 10 singing male toads in two locations, many more than the high of 3 in a single location I noted last year.

Blackbird Activities

by Carl Strang

Though spring is well underway now, it was slow to get going. The first red-winged blackbird males appeared at Mayslake Forest Preserve weeks later than last year. Here one forages in a brushy woodland, showing how he can conceal his brightly colored wing patches when not displaying.

He checks something of interest overhead.

Female red-wings show up weeks after the arrival of the first males.

Red-winged blackbirds have a typical songbird pattern of males defending nesting territories and attracting females, who judge the strengths of the males and their territories in deciding where to raise their young. A different mating system is used by another blackbird, the brown-headed cowbird. Here (according to the literature) the territories are defended by groups of males, who have a social dominance hierarchy in which the top male gets most of the matings with females the group attracts. Certainly my own observations support this understanding. Here are three cowbirds, a female and two males.

Male cowbirds display with a high-pitched squealing vocalization that has been shown to be amazingly complex when slowed down and analyzed. What is easier for us to discern in real time is the accompanying visual display, which I call the falling-down-drunk display.

The male loosens his grip on his perch and falls forward, contorting his body as he flops open his wings and fans his tail. Perhaps what is most impressive is his ability to recover his upright position afterwards. If he succeeds in attracting the female, they will go on to mate and she will begin to seek foster nests in which to deposit their eggs. Cowbirds are obligate nest parasites.

Poor Choice?

by Carl Strang

Ground-nesting birds are exposed to a longer list of potential nest predators than birds that nest in trees. Often they are very good at concealing their nests, and the incubating birds themselves must be very well camouflaged. That is the background behind my doubting one mallard’s recent choice of nest site at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

She chose a corner of the mansion walls, with no concealing vegetation whatsoever.

For a while it seemed to be working. The duck was on the nest for more than a week. But then, on Friday morning, she was not there. This in itself was not a matter for concern, because they sometimes will cover the nest and take breaks. In fact the nest looked properly covered.

But when I looked inside I found only two eggs, over at one edge of the nest.

Someone had checked the nest earlier, and saw 5 or 6 eggs. It seems likely that a larger mammalian predator removed the other eggs. There was no sign that the female was harmed, and no indication that any eggs were eaten at the nest. Usually nest predation leaves behind a torn up nest and scattered shell fragments. Why this one was covered and intact otherwise remains a mystery. All that is clear is that the female abandoned the nest. It’s not too late for her to try again. Maybe this experience will lead her to a better choice of nest site.

Turtles Emerge

by Carl Strang

After the ice melts, the first warmer sunny spring days bring out the turtles. They emerge from the frigid water to soak in the solar rays and gear up their metabolism for the coming season. This is true even for snapping turtles.

Here an enormous snapper, one of the two turtle species I have found to date at Mayslake Forest Preserve, has climbed to the top of one of the large muskrat lodges in the parking lot marsh. They may be our most abundant turtles in northeast Illinois, but most of the time they stay out of sight in the murky depths. Often they emerge to bask in early spring, however. The other muskrat lodge in that marsh is occupied by a Canada goose nest, as I shared earlier. That platform also serves as a sunning spot for several individuals of Mayslake’s other turtle species, the midland painted turtle.

These turtles are extremely aquatic, emerging only to lay eggs or to disperse. That leaves me puzzled as to why this large painted turtle was far from water in one of Mayslake’s parking lots a couple of weeks ago.

I suspect human interference, but my knowledge of turtles is limited enough that I hold the question open. It seems too early for egg laying, but perhaps hibernation caught this one with a clutch undeposited.

Winter Campfire 23

by Carl Strang

Winter is a time when we slow down and become introspective. Sitting and staring into the fire, we ponder the big questions. If you have been following this blog, you know that the focus here is science, science that can be done simply in outdoor settings. But we are more than scientists, and science has well defined limitations that need to be understood by everyone who does science or studies its findings. This winter I am using one post per week to develop my own viewpoint and biases, in particular sharing my take on the relationship between science and spirituality. In part this defines for me what these two realms of human experience are all about, and also develops the separate methods used for inquiry in each realm. I plan to place this paragraph in front of each entry in this series, so that those who are interested only in natural history or in scientific practice can skip these posts.

Everyday Practice

Taoism’s approach to living appeals to me (though a theoretical approach to Spirit as represented in this series would be regarded as a waste of time by a Taoist). Taoism is based on “concepts” of Void or creative emptiness, and of one’s consciousness being a center within an interconnected universe. Other relevant Taoist concepts are seeing/experiencing purely, focusing on the moment, following the guidance of gut feeling, and the idea of creatively flowing with the situation of the moment presented by life, as entities of nature do. Negative emotions may provide energy, but often are indicators that one is resisting the flow and contriving an unnecessarily artificial response to the situation. “Follow your bliss” is a Taoist idea. Synchronicity and support from the Universe follow, though Taoism apparently rejects ideas of God, prayer, and Spirit(s). I find no indication of an important place for Love, though compassion is regarded as significant.

Diminishing the ego allows me to follow the guidance of circumstances and my intuition (i.e., to “let go and let God”). Relaxing and being myself, viewing myself and the world realistically, expanding my scope of what is beautiful, and using my senses purely, all are methods that help me find the way. I think it’s important to avoid too much of a focus on spiritual matters, however. Instead, I seek a dual focus, experiencing the physical and the spiritual all at once. When I succeed, I experience wonder, love and beauty at each step. I see my own value, and allow/contribute to the unfolding of that part of the Plan which pertains to me. This is what Being is. (A good laugh also helps). I also like Taoism’s de-emphasis on the importance of human beings. The Taoist sage Chuang-tse: “When we speak of all things, we call them ‘the ten thousand things,’ and humankind is but one of those ten thousand. People crowd the Nine Provinces with their crop-growing, their boats and carts going to and from the marketplace, yet what is the place of humankind but as a single one of the ten thousand things?”

Rumi also advocates a balanced approach: “Do not feed both sides of yourself equally. / The spirit and the body carry different loads and require different attentions. / Too often we put saddlebags on Jesus, / and let the donkey run loose in the pasture. / Do not make the body do what the spirit does best, / and don’t put a big load on the spirit / that the body could carry easily.” Jesus himself said the same thing, though in his more compact and metaphorical way: “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:24).

Stepping away from a personal concept of God removes our ability to lean on, blame, or otherwise project anything onto “God” as a being beyond ourselves, placing greater emphasis on personal responsibility in decision making. Also, if we remove the time-based notion of continuing on in time beyond our experiences in this life, greater emphasis must be placed on that life. Eternity is not about time going on and on, but rather about the permanence of each moment. Whether it is block-space-time or Barbour’s notion of a deck of cards, the Eternal Tapestry is something we create, through our experience of time, in our moment-to-moment decisions. The focus then is removed from past and future, and placed in the reality of the present moment and how we choose to live it and create it. I would argue that we must balance our physical and spiritual experience. The physical world is beautiful and worth appreciating and living in, and we also should explore the spiritual world.

Ten years ago, as I was nearing the end of my research for the first version of this writing, I had a dream in which I had moved into a larger house than my current residence. There were many rooms remaining to be explored. We are the center of the universe, the entire universe is represented holographically within us, and the only moment is now. Love is the substance of God, therefore of the universe and of our rich connectedness with it. Elaborating on such ideas conceptually, and testing them experientially, will be enough to keep this concept freak going for a long time.

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