Nature in Action: Heavy, Man. Heavy.

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Backyard in the rain.

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Penta and Coreopsis

My wife Judy sits in our back yard garden every day when it’s not raining (the Florida drought has turned into afternoon monsoons) and watches nature in action.  She’s reported on the activities of caterpillars and butterflies.

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Zebra Long Wing (near the top)

One type of butterfly likes to lay its eggs on a passion flower vine growing up and through a beauty berry bush.  Geckos and other lizards love to eat the eggs when they in turn are not being pursued by black racer snakes.  Red shouldered hawks soar overhead in search of careless snakes sunning a bit too long in the open after a heavy meal.

Caterpillars hatch from the remaining eggs and begin to eat the leaves on the vine.  A parasitic wasp, if it manages to locate a caterpillar in the tangle of vegetation, injects its eggs inside.  The wasp larva hatch and eat their way out of the caterpillar.  Ants come along and take chunks out of caterpillars.  The vine secretes a sugary substance when attacked, and the ants are drawn to its tormentors.

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Zebra Long Wing caterpillars.

The desperate action continues after a caterpillar survives long enough to fatten and turn into a chrysalis.  A female proto-butterfly gives off a pheromone that attracts males before they emerge from their cocoons.  Male butterflies land on the chrysalises, flap their wings impatiently, and wait for the lady to make her debut.  I’m not sure if they allow the females to stretch their wings before the “romance” begins.

So nature in action seems to be all about eating or being eaten.  This leads to a frantic urge to spread one’s genes to succeeding generations before a bigger, sneakier, meaner creature seizes one in its jaws.  We witnessed desperate sexual ardor on display the other day among the branches of a plumbago plant in our front yard.  We saw a large female grasshopper bearing the weight of two smaller males on her back.  One male was attached to the female and attempted to deposit his seed.  He was distracted, however, by the male on his back.  The male on top had no homosexual intentions, however.  Instead the uppermost hopper frantically flexed his hind legs to try to pry the male beneath him off the female.  He had decided, apparently, that it was his turn.

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Male grasshopper.

Judy’s a plant physiologist and taught botany courses at Rollins College for many years.  She and I were talking about our garden and how the caterpillars were chewing their way through the milkweeds and passion flower vines.  I teased her about GMOs and said that scientists should come up with a genetically modified plant that turns insects into Existentialists.  Instead of chewing, mating and fleeing predators, the bugs would glumly sit around thinking about the ultimate futility of their lives.  “What’s the point?” they’d ask themselves, “of all this useless activity?  Life has no inherent meaning and worth.  Why spread it?”

Never kid a plant physiologist.  Judy told me that plants like the opium poppy and marijuana create protective intoxicants: the production of opium and THC evolved as a means of defense.  An insect predator becomes passive and uninterested in consuming more tissue after ingesting these drugs.  The motionless, tripping bugs attract predators, predators on the look out for a way to harsh a buzz with extreme prejudice.

I had been thinking of nature as the WWII movie, From Here to Eternity:  sex, violence, survival.  Now when I stroll in the garden I hear the opening strains of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and think about episodes of “The Mod Squad”.  You know, the ones where a love-in on the beach suddenly turns tragic.  Sex, violence, survival and drugs.  And as Peggy Lipton would say, “Heavy, man.  Like, heavy.”




When Nature is Out to Get You: Gators

One day I was painting by myself at Black Point Nature Preserve on Merritt Island.  If I squinted hard as I looked southeast I could see the vehicle assembly building far off in the distance at Cape Canaveral.  It was a brisk day in February and the saltwater marsh was alive with migratory birds and Canadians.  Squadrons of low flying thrushes buzzed a few feet above my head, and their wings made a thrumming sound like the engines of WWII fighter planes:  vrooomph.  Canadians drove slowly by in large, white Winnebagos on the winding road that snaked its way between the ponds.  Many of them would pull over and get out to watch me paint my landscape.  They would inevitably ask, “Have you seen any alligators?”

The nearest bathroom to my work site was a mile or two away.  I usually went behind some bushes to relieve my bladder when my morning cup of coffee cleared my kidney.  On days when the preserve was busy I went down a raised path that divided two black mud ponds until I rounded a bend where small trees and bushes hid me from hikers, bird watchers and gator seekers.  On previous trips I had spotted the bones of wild pigs on the ground along the path, but thought nothing of it until this particular morning when I nearly tripped over a gator.

He lay across the path five feet ahead of me.  He was eight foot long from head to tail and moved incredibly fast as he rushed and dived into the canal on the right.  I had rickety knees, but when I saw the gray blur of his body in motion I managed, without actually being aware of making a conscious decision, to leap backward five feet.  After I caught my breath and calmed my pounding heart I crept closer to the edge of the canal.  I could see his knobby head half submerged in the water a few feet away and that his ping pong ball sized eyes were keeping a careful watch on me.  I opened my zipper and peed into a bush while keeping a careful watch on him.

That might have been an act of bravado on my part, or perhaps my fright gave my bladder an overwhelming need to be emptied.  At any rate, when I finished and closed my zipper I backed up the path till I rounded the bend, and then trotted fifty yards to put some distance between me and the gator.  I wasn’t sure that he would remain in the canal and that he was able to distinguish me from a very large wild pig.

I went back to my painting and lied to Canadians when they asked me about where all the gators were.  I didn’t want to have to run back there and wrestle a very nice, polite man from Ontario from the jaws of death.

I was nearly over my fright and had settled into my painting once again when I heard a crackling sound behind me.  Bushes, rushes and small trees grew along the edges of the ponds around me, and when I looked carefully I saw a two foot gator climbing into the low branches of a mangrove shrub ten feet to my rear.  It was too small to be much of a threat, so I ignored it.  Then I heard crackling sounds to my left.  A three-footer tried to find a comfortable spot to sun in the branches of another mangrove.  And another appeared straight in front of me.  They were all small, but I started to get the feeling that Tippi Hedren got in “The Birds” when she saw bunches of crows staring at her from their perches on a jungle gym in a deserted school yard.  Nature, or Gatordom, seemed to be marshaling and concentrating its forces on my position.

I began to paint faster and faster in a style that was more emotional and expressive than usual as prehistoric reptiles continued to gather around me, and I began to ponder the brevity and fragility of my existence.  I ended my work when the sun dipped toward the west, the shadows lengthened, and my nerves were completely shot.

I was happy when I crossed over the bridge from Merritt Island to the mainland in Titusville, and took comfort from a visit to a kwicky-mart on the edge of town.  The gaudy displays of beer, chips, soda, tobacco and tabloid magazines made “Nature red in tooth and claw” seem far, far away.

I decided to paint a cityscape the next time I went out.


Black Point Marshes Black Point Mangroves