It began raining right around midnight, the first real rain we’d had in more than a month, and I was happy, even though there was a good chance it would make for a soggy International Rock-Flipping Day. It was still raining when I got up around 6:30, but tapered off slowly into drizzle, then fine mist, then nothing at all by noon. Around 3:30, the sun came out.
So it was with mixed feelings that I slung the camera around my neck and set out to see what, if anything, I might find under some rocks. Due to the severity of the drought, I had a feeling that the answer would be “not much.” But I guess it all depends on what you’re looking for.
I started with a rock in the corner of the little herb/butterfly garden in front of my house, next to the concrete walk — a rock I placed there myself more than 15 years ago for decoration. If IRFD were held in the northern-hemisphere spring, I’m sure it would be good for an assortment of earthworms, sow bugs and ground beetles, but yesterday I saw nothing but shadows.
Still, they were interesting shadows, I thought.
I wandered up into the woods. The sunlight was still only intermittent, so I had to stand around and wait for it to emerge from a cloud to see what my next target would be. To my delight, it illuminated a large, charismatic rock at the edge of the trail.
This rock must also be one I’ve moved fairly recently, since it sits on the downhill side of a drainage ditch I dug about ten years ago. It didn’t look as if it had been moved since, though. Despite its vague resemblance to a ship, it was firmly anchored in place, and required two hands to lift. Once balanced on end, I held it with one hand while I snapped pictures with the other. I felt like the worst sort of paparazzo,
the kind who doesn’t care if some of his photographic subjects end up crushed and killed, as long as he gets the shot. Lady Di comparisons might seem overblown, but if ant colonies have queens, surely her daughters can all be considered princesses? And royal families are alike in shunning the spotlight, are they not? The revelation of their ultimate powerlessness against our common enemy must panic them in a unique way. Think of the First Emperor of China and his increasingly grandiose schemes to cheat death. I eased the rock back into place as gently as I could and started up the Short-Circuit Trail toward the spruce grove at the top of Plummer’s Hollow.
I wasn’t sure how many more undersides of rocks I’d be able to photograph — the sun was in more than it was out — but it was a nice afternoon for a ramble. I couldn’t get enough of the odor of just-rained-upon woods. Acorns rained down all around me in the slightest breeze, though somehow I managed to avoid a direct hit. A mosquito buzzed my left ear, but one swipe of the hand was enough to discourage her, and I never heard another all afternoon.
The tail feather of a wild turkey lay across the trail like a dropped pen. Once when I was a teenager and heavily into calligraphy, I actually did fashion an ink pen from such a feather, so I’m not being entirely fanciful. These days, though, I think it’s better to leave them for the kids who go walking on our trails from time to time. I confess, I prefer the cheapest of disposable ballpoints. I’m not one of those writers who fetishizes his tools.
I was on the lookout for rocks that seemed to have been in the same spot for a while — but not for so long that they were half-covered with moss that I’d make a mess of. (Yes, it’s true: I have a harder time killing moss than killing ants.) I found one above the trail that appeared to have all the right signs — splotches of lichen, leaf litter almost burying it — but when I flipped it, I found nothing but more leaves.
Two thoughts crossed my mind in quick succession: “That’s really beautiful” and “This is bullshit.” Obviously I was mistaken about how long it had lain there. Bears are always flipping rocks in search of ant larvae, and whether for that reason or some other, the leaves under this rock didn’t look as if they could be more than two years old. I snapped several photos to make sure I had at least one good one, then rocked the rock back into place among this year’s leaves, which are already turning and beginning to fall, a month early, on account of the drought.
I crossed the trail and flipped the first rock I could find. It was neither especially charismatic, nor did it look as if it been in its current position for very long — it sat high and dry (here’s a photo for the curious). Yet when I tipped it up, I found a gorgeous red centipede.
I mean, it was nothing uncommon, I don’t think, but it says something about my level of desperation that I was thrilled to see it, especially when it paused just long enough for me to snap a couple of unblurred shots. I have neither a macro lens nor quick reflexes, so shots like this one are very much hit-or-miss for me. I started thinking how lucky I was — and then how lucky I was to be foolish enough to consider this lucky. “I live like a hundred-legged king,” I said to myself, “in a palace with a stone roof and a dirt cellar.” Sometimes a metaphor is the only thing that stands between me and a black hole of self-reflexivity.
A few feet farther along, a small dragon was out for a stroll in the opposite direction. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what it would’ve become if my five-year-old niece were along. The boring, grown-up name for this is a red eft (which makes almost as little sense, since it is clearly orange rather than red).
This is the terrestrial stage of the red-spotted newt, an otherwise aquatic amphibian which, as a teenager, sheds its gills and leaves the creek or pond to go on walkabout for a few years. They’re a fairly common sight here on the mountain after a rain. The highway-construction-cone color means roughly the same thing in the non-human world as it does to us: “Look out!” They’re poisonous. My mother once stroked the side of an eft’s head, something it seemed to enjoy — and her finger tingled for a while afterwards.
By the time I got to the spruce grove, there was a steady breeze and things were drying off. A spider web on one branch still held onto its hoard of raindrops, but only because it was in the shade.
Then my glance strayed upwards, and I saw a monarch butterfly soaring high overhead. Then another, and another. I turned to look northeast, down our goldenrod-yellow field, and more monarchs fluttered past. As I stood there with my mouth agape, I lost count of the dozens, probably hundreds of orange voyagers sailing up out of Plummer’s Hollow en route to Mexico. I struggled with a momentary urge to set off down-ridge after them.
I walked back along Sapsucker Ridge Trail, pausing to turn just one more rock in the bed of one of the dried-up ephemeral pools, on the off chance there might be a salamander under it. There wasn’t, of course. If I’d really wanted salamanders, I’d have gone exploring in the creek, but we’ve done that on past years.
The thing that impressed me about this last rock was simply the tight, perfect fit between its bumpy contour and the contours of its bed, which was a little hard to capture in a two-dimensional photo. The dirt had turned slightly reddish and bluish with the minerals from the rock, and was webbed with fungal mycelia — the forest’s version of the internet.
I was reminded too of an older technology: an open book. Especially the kind of book that pulls you in with some humdinger of a first line and doesn’t let you go for days, sleepless and shaking. “House made of twilight,” I muttered, thinking of the Navajo Nightway Ceremony text and its “house made of dawn.” I went home and wrote a poem with all the words I found under the rocks.
(Update) Here are the other of IRFD 2010 bloggers and photographers (thanks, Susannah!) :
Lynda at mainlymongoose
Kordite in the Flickr group
Bill Murphy at Fertanish Chatter
Malia at The Shell and Mantle
Rebecca In The Woods
Paul, The Obligate Scientist
Wanderin’ Weeta. Here and on Flickr. Plus one to be posted soon.
Kate St. John on Outside My Window
Ontario Wanderer on Flickr
JayLeigh in Pacific Northwest Nature for Families
Fred Schueler: a Google document, copied here.
Rikaja in Slovakia
Bev Wigney at Journey to the Centre
Hugh, at Rock, Paper, Lizard