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I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Late Flutters

Walking home from the library this afternoon, I saw two sulphur butterflies fluttering in grassy areas on two separate blocks. My eyesight generally doesn't allow me to get positive IDs of two-inch insects several feet away, so I had no idea which of the many varieties of sulphurs these were. My first reaction to the little guys was sadness, as there were no nectar plants in bloom that I could see--not even dandelions, which do occasionally throw up winter blossoms in our area--and I hate the thought of butterflies (or anything else) starving and freezing.

An online search revealed that what I saw was probably the common clouded sulphur, which flies in our area as late as December. Unfortunately, the adults that I saw are unlikely to last much longer; sulphurs overwinter in the chrysalis or egg stages, not as adults. Another possibility is that at least one of today's butterflies was a cloudless sulphur. Every year, some of these beautiful but ephemeral creatures do a reverse  migration: instead of flying south as do the monarchs and most of their fellow Phoebis sennae, they fly north, some of them actually arriving in Canada before winter sets in. Unfortunately, this is their last flight, as they do not survive the winter. No one seems to know a reason for this behavior.

Doomed as they are, today's butterflies were still beautiful.  

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Meditation on Thankfulness

Yes, I know that we've probably all had it up to wherever with Facebook "thankfulness" posts, but gratitude, as a habit of mind, has a lot going for it, even though neither the ancient nor the medieval philosophers put it on their list of major virtues. (For the record, the four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, temperance, and courage, accompanied by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity--all good things and a nice balance to the seven deadly sins.) If nothing else, gratitude seems to be good for our health, at least according to people who study what has come to be called positive psychology: a mindset of thankfulness seems to boost the immune system and help people deal with stress. Counting your blessings seems to help more than counting to ten.

So, in no particular order, things for which I am grateful:
  • Biodiversity. Without it, how boring would life be? Imagine if all we ever saw were buildings and people (as delightful as humans and architecture can be).
  • Ecosystem services. While there are many more of these than I am aware of, given my lack of scientific training, let me take a moment to praise trees and other deep-rooted plants. They give us oxygen, filter pollutants from the soil, and hold soil in place so that the planet consists of more than bare rock and muddy streams.
  • Friends. Companions on life's journey make the trip much more fun and interesting.
  • Cats. Yes, outdoor cats may be the most destructive of all non-native species in North America, but the purr of a happy housecat is one of the most soothing sounds I know. (So bring your cats in the house and listen to them. Purring is especially soothing when one is trying to get to sleep, something that cats do much more easily than people.)
  • Beauty. The world is full of it, and too many of us are focused on electronic gadgets of various kinds to notice (writes a woman who is at the moment typing on one of said gadgets). I cannot believe that Skyrim's graphics are in any way superior to a morning or evening sky. So let me end this post by sharing one of the poems of my misspent youth (when I spent way more hours with my nose in books than paying attention to the world around me, moderation not being a virtue I had developed): Sara Teasdale's "Barter."
Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sing,
And children's faces looking up,
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like the curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit's still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The comfort of deep time

Friday evening I had the privilege of hearing Hollins College physicist Marshall Bartlett speak on "Global Warming Now and Then: Geologic Perspectives on Climate Change." The title was probably a little dry for the average person (although the talk packed the recently refurbished WVU Parkersburg Theatre--over 150 seats filled plus people sitting on the stairs and in extra chairs set up on the stage!), but Dr. Bartlett drew the audience into the contemplation of deep time--500 million years or so of time. He took us back to a time when the largest organisms on earth were single-celled.

This voyage was good for me as I'm the sort of person who too often tends to respond with despair to the latest news of what we humans seem to be doing to our beautiful planet. When I read about the latest uptick in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, my thoughts go to all the species being pushed to extinction by our species' behavior, and it feels as if the best thing we could do for the world is vanish in a puff of power-plant smoke and let the rest of life get on with living. Friday's discussion of the revelations found in ice cores was comforting.

Not totally comforting: CO2 concentrations now are higher than they have ever been in the history of humans on this planet, and much of the world's human, animal, and plant populations are likely to suffer as a result. Still, from the perspective of planetary history, our carbon dioxide levels are nothing new, and not particularly high. The dinosaurs stomped around in a world of CO2 levels several times higher than ours, a steamy world of lush, giant plants and warm oceans. According to Dr. Bartlett, humans will still be able to breathe even if we reach those levels again. Life, even if it's not life as we have known it, will go on.

There will almost certainly be losses, but at least some of Mother Earth's kids will be all right.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The wild city

I've become fascinated by the wildlife that manages to coexist with humans. It seems these days that everywhere I go, animals carry on their lives generally oblivious to us, or, sometimes, using our habits to their advantage.

I prefer not to write about the deer that take over my neighborhood every evening. With no four-legged predators, they have found delightful new food sources in our daylilies and hostas. At least, they leave fertilizer deposits behind as they browse our yards.

The last weekend in October, downtown Marietta squirrels seemed to be enjoying an early Trick or Treat. For some reason, several of them dashed onto decorated porches as I meandered up the street. I half-expected the householders to start giving them candy (and if any unwary people had already put candy baskets outside, I expect the rodents got their share).

Ever since Charles deLint's Someplace to be Flying, I've been more aware of corvids, the crows and their relatives. We get a fair number of jays at our feeders but few actual crows where we can see them. They prefer to hang out in the tall trees at the back of the lot, ignoring us. On the same day that revealed the porch-visiting squirrels, however, I was observed by a pair of crows who called to each other from neighboring trees as my walk took me down to the riverside walking path. At one point, a jay burst out of the tree to my right and flew across the street. What they were thinking or saying, I've no clue, but if I could read any bird minds, the corvids would be my choice.

Yesterday took me to Juli-Anna Square in downtown Parkersburg, an historic neighborhood of mansions from the oil and gas boom days. Packed with humans for nearly 150 years, Ann Street offered glimpses of squirrels (of course), sparrows, finches, and, because of the heat island effect of so much brick and concrete, perhaps the last flowers in town. Roses aren't wildlife, but it was good to see a row of them blooming in wild cerise on a November afternoon.