Friday, September 11, 2015

Down An Old Gravel Road...

Nature loves ground newly broken, 
laid open to the sunlight and the moonlight and the rain,
long dormant seeds exposed,

The old gravel road winds gently up and over a sandy ridge, 
then meanders with much dust and crunching and other ado 
into the swampy bottom beyond, 
a reliable old country byway,
but not much traveled  
since the logging trucks left for good last summer.

And where the stately pines once shrouded the humble highway in shadows, 
denuded shoulders now luxuriate in the sun's warm gaze, 
and herbs long asleep rise briskly from the broken ground in the no longer shade...

Leader of this riotous uprising of green and gold?

None other than our old friend,
Bidens spp., polylepis or aristosa,

Carolina autumn's ubiquitous "ditch daisy" or "tickseed sunflower".

Accompanied by an eager and extensive entourage of herbs and arthropods alike,

tickseed has engineered an herbaceous explosion,
a village of ten thousand bright nodding faces
here along an old gravel road in the country
where once there were none.  

Here along the narrow weed-filled ditch, 
a meager stream makes its way in and out of the roots of a few scraggly gum trees 
before moving on through a dense tangle of cat brier and blackberries and clematis and poison ivy and cow itch vines.

It is here that Streamside Lobelia, Lobelia elongata,
poses proudly for a picture with the golden girls of the old gravel road garden,

just as a golden gossamer-winged glider appears on the scene, 
accompanied by yet another fawning fan of the bright yellow flowers, 
veritable fountains of life-giving nectar.

Literally lighter than a feather, 
eastern tiger swallowtail, Papilio glaucus,
still elicits a courtly bow from the gently bobbing blossoms 
on their sylphlike stems.  

Lovely lobelia looks on, 
perhaps a little slighted at the lepidopterans' apparent indifference 
to her brilliant blossoms so blue.

And everywhere the sun's rays fall, bold Bidens shines brightly, 
a beacon of plenty for late summer sippers and foliage nibblers alike.

This perfectly camouflaged tickseed moth, Cirrhophanus triangulifer, 
commonly known as the goldenrod stowaway moth,
will mate and deposit its eggs somewhere in the mass of fresh green tickseed salad,
ensuring its young an opportunity to continue a mutually beneficial relationship 
with the showy roadside weed.  

At a glance, the tickseed blossoms are flowers of a feather, 
uniform in appearance but for some age-related variations in size; 

a closer look reveals the occasional non-conformist, 
such as this lovely gem with white tipped petals, 
not at all fazed by the singularity of its brief moment in the sun.

Perhaps attracted by the unique petal pattern,
this handsome female mason wasp, Monobia quadridens, 
tough to overlook with its bold black and white markings, 
drops in for a drink at the white tipped tickseed blossom,
another happy nectar lover by the side of a little country lane.

She has other less glamorous purposes here in the roadside garden as well, 
potentially beneficial to her nectar supplier.

She will capture a plump little caterpillar or two from the plants' delicate stems and leaves 
and take them back to fill the larder of her nesting cavity, 
so that another generation of wasps may continue their relationship 
with these humble but remarkable plants. 

The black-striped golden swallowtails continue to feed with gusto,
here in the old gravel road garden,

where goldenrod, 
(another leading player in the fall flower scene) 
is just beginning to blossom.

Also an aster, though with ray flowers more unkempt and much less regularly arranged, 
this may be Streamhead Goldenrod, Solidago patula, 
or perhaps another of its many fall-blooming Carolina kin.

And lest passersby forget nature has colors in her palette other than gold, 
this trumpet creeper, Campsis radicans
with her blossoms of deepest crimson-orange, 
sprawls directly in the roadway proper, 
having traversed the tricky stone-paved terrain just to delight the visitor with her colors so bold; 

as well, perhaps, to lure the busy carpenter bees down from the nearby tickseed, 
where the delicate ditch daisy's stems can hardly bear their weight.

Among the tangle of vines beyond the ditch, 
there is evidence of the blossoms of the blooming season just now past,
where the hirsute and showy seeds of the native leather flower, Clematis sp.,
awaits the ideal moment to disperse.

That simple seeds should assume such spectacular forms 
is another of nature's wonderful mysteries on display somewhere down an old gravel road.

A bit farther along, a mass of lobelia demands attention, 

but, alas, a most interesting arthropod quickly steals the show.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth, Hemaris thysbe
gives its best impression of a bird, 
with specialized scales evolved to give the appearance of feathers, 
right down to the flaring plumes of its "tail".

Its ruby and emerald colors likewise enhance the illusion of a tiny ruby-throated hummingbird, 
as does the buzzing generated by its rapid wingbeats.

Nature's wonders abound on the ditch banks of this humble country road, 

an abundance of biodiversity revolving around a profusion of roadside weeds.

Travelers might well expect to see butterflies among the mass of radiant blossoms, 

and a lovely Variegated Fritillary, Euptoieta claudia, ensures that expectations are met.

Just a plant or two away a silver-spotted skipper, Epargyreus clarus,
serenely prepares to dine in the shade of a perfectly positioned sun screen...

Uncommonly beautiful Common Buckeye is around as well, 
flightiest of the gathered throng, 

pausing just long enough for a quick sip, 
then it's up and on the way again...

Another wasp wings in; 
this time it's Blue Winged Wasp, Scolia dubia, friend to turf lovers everywhere. 
When not grabbing a quick shot of nectar in the roadside garden, 
and serving as a highly effective pollinator, 
this red-tailed digging wasp locates the grubs of June bugs and Japanese beetles. 
After immobilizing the grub with a sting, 
it lays an egg on each one, 
providing its own developing larvae with a reliable source of food.

With so many cool critters on the move among the flowers, 
time melts away,
absorbed completely into the place and the experience and life as it is in nature...

and now appears another clearwing moth, 
this time the Snowberry Clearwing, Hemaris diffinis.

Behaving very much like its cousin thysbe, 
yet a slight bit smaller and colored like a black and yellow bumblebee, 
it might best be dubbed a Bumblebee Moth.

Next up along the roadside, 
blue Streamside Lobelia has a cousin, too, and she is clad in brilliant scarlet!

Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis, 
another lovely North Carolina native, right at home in the streamside thicket. 

Here on the flanks of the old gravel road, 
more exciting encounters await at every turn, 
like this diminutive skipper, 
entirely unconcerned by the proximity of the lens,

and, as if to affirm the timelessness of nature, 
a tiny chrysalis, 
dangling unobtrusively in the afternoon breeze, 
a butterfly in waiting, 
perhaps a common buckeye,
soon to join the late summer frenzy in this natural garden by the side of a country road, 
metamorphosis complete.

Up around the next curve, in the midst of a scattered smattering of Bidens and Solidago
there rises an impressive dark green stand of New York Ironweed, Vernonia noveboracensis
with its distinctive purple blossoms just beginning to open fully.

More than two meters in height, these "weeds" provide ample room for any number of nectarers,

and dozens of lepidoptera are on hand to partake of the bounty,  
most of them familiar old friends, 
the tiger swallowtails and the silver-spotted skippers.

The lens quickly becomes preoccupied with three female swallowtails, 
two of brilliant gold,

the other black, 

all three sporting the powdery dusting of iridescent blue on their hind wings
that distinguishes them from otherwise similar males of their kind.

Somewhere down an old gravel road in central North Carolina,
in the perfect light of a late summer afternoon,
for a few fleeting moments,

all that is alive in nature comes together,
 into something larger, unified, complete...   

Timeless, enduring, ever active, ever changing.

Especially in the disturbed places, the newly broken ground...

Somewhere down an old gravel road in the country, 
nature awaits,

and your presence is needed...

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Few Years Closer to the Stars...

Once upon a time, a ten year old kid from rural Harnett County, NC, USA, Planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, took up his dad's challenge to count the stars in the late summer sky. 

Filled with wonder, and inspired by the profound mystery of a universe so vast, populated by iconic characters named by the ancients, he got off to an auspicious start, but...
somewhere in the low two thousands, little Jimmy stopped counting, closed his eyes, and dozed off to the music of a few thousand cicadas.

High overhead, the stars shone on...

When he awoke, the big dipper had cleared the hickory tree and was poised perfectly alongside the big pine tree, as though pausing for a moment from its nightly task of watering the majestic longleaf.

Fast forward thirty-eight years. 

Cousin Danny aims his digital SLR up at that same late summer sky and captures the same few thousand stars in all their digital glory. 

The big pine tree still stands, nearly half a century later, and all the more beautiful for its advancing age, while the ghost of its sister stands sentinel across the way, having succumbed to a lightning strike a couple years back.

And so the stars cycle regularly across our sky, faithfully appearing where the sky guides say, 
season after season and year after year, 
as we earthbound mortals gaze upward and outward from the same old spot, here at the edge of the universe.

Jay is home from UNC for Dad's birthday, 
and he casually offers a glimpse of the pictures he took in his freshman astronomy lab. 
Through the magic of computer software developed by his professor, he dials up an array of telescopes high in the Andes, with a minimum of light pollution and atmospheric haze and inputs the coordinates of a spiral galaxy some 61 million light years from our tiny orb. He confirms that the "object" is currently visible in the South American sky, then requests the first available telescope to render his image. 

A little later, he selects the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, much closer to home at a mere 15 million light-years, and transmits his request to the appropriate telescope.

Et voila!

Finally, he takes aim at his dad's favorite constellation, Orion the Hunter, and request four images in rapid succession, each with a different color filter. He then uses commercial photo editing software to layer the images and produce a single photograph of the Orion nebula, visible to the naked eye as one of the "stars" in Orion's sword, a mere 1,344 light years from earth.

With light traveling roughly 6 trillion miles in a year, the vastness of the universe quickly taxes the limits of human understanding.

Interesting, though, how that same limited understanding has advanced technology so rapidly in the past forty years, that Jay can utilize technology deployed half a world away via the laptop computer in his dorm room on the UNC campus to view and record celestial features more than a thousand trillion miles distant.

Our universe is apparently expanding at an ever-increasing rate, which means that our familiar stars are much farther away now than when the light our eyes and our instruments detect today was first emitted many thousands or millions of years ago;

but, somehow, as I ponder these amazing images of Jay's, the stars feel a good bit closer than they did from little Jimmy's vantage point in that Harnett County back yard all those short, short years ago...