The Tree With the Lights In It

Loblolly and Light

After spending a few hours on the Big Thicket’s Pitcher Plant and Turkey Creek trails last Sunday,  I nearly had regained the trailhead when I looked up, searching for bits of autumn color in the still mostly green trees.

Instead of color, a vision of what I first imagined to be an enormous orb-weaver’s web stopped me in my tracks. There was no larger-than-life spider lurking, of course. There was only a loblolly pine, and the sun, and a phenomenon I’d never before seen. Despite their apparently random distribution, the pine needles had transformed the light into a beautifully circular pattern; it was nature, not my camera, that had created the effect.

At the time, I didn’t think anything at all; I only stood, and wondered at the sight. Later, I remembered a favorite passage from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and realized I’d been granted my own vision of a tree with the lights in it.

One day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it.  I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame.  I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed.  It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.  The lights of the fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. 
Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared.  I was still ringing.  I had my whole life been a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.  I have since only rarely seen the tree with the lights in it.  The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

 

Comments always are welcome.
NOTE: I consulted Jim Ruebush, who taught physics for years, and here’s what he had to say about the effect: ““In the fully enlarged image, the pine needles radiate out in all directions. But, the only ones that reflect brightly to the camera direction are aligned circumfully (if that is not a word, it is now) to the sun. Their surfaces act like long narrow mirrors. Needles aligned any other way don’t reflect brightly to the camera.” Or, to the human eye!

Nature’s Tricks and Treats

Giant water bug ~ Lethocerus americanus

Motionless, seemingly at rest above the shallow waters of a roadside ditch, the creature caught my eye — dark enough to be noticed; large enough to invite a closer look.

In time, I learned I’d found a giant water bug: the largest true bug in the United States. Nearly four inches in length with a flat, oval-shaped body, a short, pointed beak on the underside of its head, and overlapping wings at the end of its abdomen, the creature seemed entirely capable of living up to its nickname: the toe-biter.

Adapted to living in water, the giant water bug breathes through snorkel-like tubes located at the end of its abdomen. When extended to the surface of the water, the tubes collect air from the atmosphere, then add it to a bubble of air trapped beneath the insect’s wings. From that bubble, air enters its body through holes in its abdomen: one of the neatest bits of engineering in the insect world.

Using its flattened hind legs as oars, the water bug skulls over to a plant growing near the surface of a pond or stream and secures itself. After snatching an unfortunate victim with the hook-shaped claws of its forelegs, it pierces the prey with its beak, injecting powerful toxins which paralyze and liquify the victim — bones and all — for easy consumption.

Able to catch and consume creatures fifty times its size, the giant water bug’s menu is extensive; it feasts on aquatic insects, crustaceans, tadpoles, salamanders, fish, and frogs.

Especially active in late summer and early fall, giant water bugs begin moving from shallow water to deep, where they can continue to hunt during the cooler months and bury themselves in mud during cold spells. This season of movement is the time that they’re most likely to be seen by humans.

One of the more memorable passages from poet and naturalist Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek involves her own encounter with a giant water bug, and the frog that became its victim. The tale seems entirely suitable for Halloween, and far more haunting than a grimacing jack-o-lantern or bed-sheeted ghost.

A couple of summers ago I was walking along the edge of the island to see what I could see in the water, and mainly to scare frogs… As I walked along the grassy edge of the island, I got better and better at seeing frogs both in and out of the water. I learned to recognize the difference in texture of the light reflected from mud bank, water, grass, or frog.
Frogs were flying all around me. At the end of the island I noticed a small green frog. He was exactly half in and half out of the water, looking like a schematic diagram of an amphibian, and he didn’t jump.
He didn’t jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island’s winter-killed grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football.
I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag started to sink.
I had read about the giant water bug, but never seen one. “Giant water bug” is really the name of the creature, which is an enormous, heavy-bodied brown bug. It eats insects, tadpoles, fish, and frogs. Its grasping forelegs are mighty and hooked inward. It seizes a victim with these legs, hugs it tight, and paralyzes it with enzymes injected during a vicious bite.
That one bite is the only bite it ever takes. Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim’s muscles and bones and organs — all but the skin — and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim’s body, reduced to a juice. This event is quite common in warm fresh water. The frog I saw was being sucked by a giant water bug.
Of course, many carnivorous animals devour their prey alive. The usual method seems to be to subdue the victim by downing or grasping it so it can’t flee, then eating it whole or in a series of bloody bites. Frogs eat everything whole, stuffing prey into their mouths with their thumbs. People have seen frogs with their jaws so full of live dragonflies they couldn’t close them. Ants don’t even have to catch their prey: in the spring they swarm over newly hatched, featherless birds in the nest and eat them tiny bite by bite.
That it’s rough out there and chancy is no surprise. Every living thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac. But at the same time we are also created. In the Koran, Allah asks, “The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?”
It’s a good question. What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms? Or what do we think of nothingness, those sickening reaches of time in either direction? If the giant water bug was not made in jest, was it then made in earnest?
If we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light.Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist, there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous.
About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.
The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealed the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and floated onto the grass.
I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For the complete passage from which Dillard’s tale was excerpted, please click here.

Ripening

Texas coneflower (Rudbeckia texana)

 


In the deep fall
don’t you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don’t you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think
of the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep
inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.
                           “Song for Autumn”  ~  Annie Dillard

 

Comments always are welcome.

An Unexpected Gap

Crossing into spring

 

Reaching high into the air, this long, slender branch from what appears to be an elm tree caught my attention because of its bridge-like curve, and the lovely, green glow of its leaves against the sky.

As so often happens, enlarging the photo revealed an additional, amusing detail: a gap in the neat procession of growth where one bud had failed to open. Was it sleeping? Just a little lazy? Perhaps it was protesting Spring’s arrival, or had been prevented from opening by some external force.

Whatever the cause, the gap among the leaves recalls these words of Annie Dillard, from Pilgrim At Tinker Creek:

The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself like a once-blind man unbound.
The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells that the wind lances through: the icy, narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery.
Go up into the gaps if you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock — more than a maple — a universe.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Nature, Wearing Basic Black

In response to my recent post featuring turkey vultures on The Task at Hand, many commenters mentioned the presence of black vultures (Coragyps atratus) in their area. My certainty that I’d never seen one — or, at least, hadn’t recognized the ones patrolling the countryside — was clear from some of my own comments:

I’m still not sure if I’ve seen a black vulture. I may have seen them in the sky. Now that I know a little more about how to identify them, I’m going to have to look more closely.

In the end, I didn’t have to look closely at all. Only a week later, while hunting for berry-laden possumhaw, I glanced into the tangled thicket of trees and shrubs edging a canal, and there they were.

Some distance from the road and obviously comfortable on their limb, they seemed undisturbed by my presence as I left the car to watch them. I felt at the time I was watching a mated pair, and now that I’ve learned the species forms monogamous, long-term bonds, I’m even more certain of it.

For nearly fifteen minutes the bird I presumed to be the male stood, watching turkey vultures circling in the distance. His mate, obviously less interested,  eventually caught his attention by repeatedly opening and closing her great beak. His head-scratching response suggested she might have asked, “Why don’t you just sit down and enjoy this nice sunshine for a while?”

Perhaps because of her urging, that’s exactly what he did. When I left, the relaxed pair looked as if they might be settled in for a nap. An hour later, I found them still on their limb: apparently well-fed and happy.

In past days, I’ve seen other black vultures, both perched and flying. Clearly the fault has lain not with my eyes, but with my expectations and experience. After learning a new word, I almost always read or hear it in other contexts. The same apparently holds true in nature: the more we see, the more we see. Watching the vultures, I remembered with some amusement one of my favorite passages from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

Only children keep their eyes open… Matt Spireng has collected thousands of arrowheads and spearheads; he says that if you really want to find arrowheads, you  must walk with a child–a child will pick up everything.
All my adult life I have wished to see the cemented case of a caddisfly larva. It took Sally Moore, the young daughter of friends, to find one on the pebbled bottom of a shallow stream on whose bank we sat side by side. “What’s this?” she asked. That, I wanted to say as I recognized the prize she held, is a memento mori for people who read too much.

 

Comments always are welcome.