A non-plague of non-locusts

egg-laying cicada

The locusts are, it must be said, a bit of a plague on the locusts. The males call “Pha-roah! Pha-roah!” in a slow southern drawl while the females plunge their scimitar-shaped ovipositors into the thorny twigs, sometimes so deep that they break. All along the top edge of the field, the black locusts are acquiring a pruned and chastened look, as if they were the victims of some very localized storm.

cicada damage

Of course, 17-year “locusts” are really cicadas (see Brood XIV). According to some sources, when early European settlers first encountered periodical cicadas in eastern North America, the only parallel they could think of for such an extreme insect outbreak was the plague of locusts in the Bible, so “locusts” they became — despite the fact that, as members of the order Homoptera, they could scarcely be more distantly related to true locusts, which are grasshoppers, Orthoptera. According to the Locust entry in the Wikipedia, however, the conflation goes much further back, to “the Vulgar Latin locusta, which was originally used to refer to various types of crustaceans and insects.” The English essayist Thomas Browne was bemoaning the confusion between locusts and old-world cicadas as early as the 17th century. And obviously the popular description of the call of Magicicada septendecim as “Pharoah” shows the unabated influence of Exodus 10:4-15.

However, it would be a great exaggeration to say of these “locusts” that “they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land.” Here’s what the folks at Cicada Mania say:

Question: Will the cicadas kill my trees, shrubs and flowers?
Answer: Possibly. Cicadas don’t kill flowers and shouldn’t damage shrubs, but they can do damage to young, wimpy trees like ornamentals. If you have wimpy little trees, you can net them to keep the cicadas off. Tree species that aren’t native to North America won’t fare as well as native species. Trees that lose a lot of branches typically revive after a year or two, but they will be ugly in the mean time. Cicadas actually are a benefit to trees, as they destroy the weaker branches. Please don’t use pesticides — you’ll destroy the good bugs as well as the “nuisance” bugs, and ultimately do your garden and the environment a huge disfavor.

Of course, as larvae, cicadas do subsist on tree sap, but given that cicadas and deciduous trees have evolved together, I doubt that they do much to weaken the trees. Though the science is inconclusive, it’s likely that their extensive tunneling benefits the trees by aerating the soil, and possibly by creating macropores for new roots and fungal mycelia. An AP article quotes a Dr. Frank Hale from the University of Tennessee:

The holes from which they emerge aerate the soil around the tree roots, Hale said. The millions of decaying cicada bodies supply nitrogen and other nutrients, which rain washes down the holes to the tree roots.

However, a Penn State Ag School publication for orchardists assumes the worst, and considering the unique stresses on heavily pruned and sprayed trees in monocultural plantations, it may well be on-target with its recommendation to prevent egg-laying at all costs. It also emphasizes netting if feasible, and mentions the harmful effects of pesticides on beneficial insects.

cicada in scrub oak

Do the various Magicicada species vary in their arboreal preferences? I’ve mentioned black locusts as a favorite for swarming and egg-laying activity (see my video at the Plummer’s Hollow blog), but I suspect that’s largely because of their location in the field-forest ecotone. The cicadas here do show an affinity for forest edges and openings, regardless of where they originally emerged. I don’t know if the fact that locust trees are nitrogen-fixing legumes makes them any more attractive as adoptive mothers to cicada larvae. We have noticed relatively few cicadas in the black walnuts that surround the main house, which might seem logical given the toxicity of walnut roots to many other plants, but it seems that if we had the rarer third species, Magicicada septendecula, that might not be the case:

Within the same brood, the three species are always perfectly synchronized, but they are separated microspatially by having different habitats within the same woodland. Magicicada septendecula prefers ovipositing in hickories and walnuts, and emerges in higher proportions under those trees than under comparable oaks. Both M. septendecim [the “Pharoah” species] and M. septendecula occur together in upland woods, but septendecim exhibits much less host specificity than septendecula. The latter species is much rarer than septendecim; it can usually be heard chorusing in local patches within a woods occupied by septendecim. Magicicada cassini is a species of floodplain woods, and characteristically can be seen to replace septendecim and septendecula as one moves down a wooded slope leading to a stream. Over much of the eastern United States, however, the original forest has been extensively disturbed. Periodical cicadas survive and reproduce surprisingly well in cutover, scrubby second growth. Tree species characteristic of floodplains, like American elm, are often a component of upland second growth, and, especially in such situations, cassini, septendecim, and septendecula become intermixed though they remain reproductively isolated. The present lack of microspatial separation in many situations, then, is an artifact of human disturbance.
—Henry S. Dybas and Monte Lloyd, “The Habitats of 17-Year Periodical Cicadas (Homoptera: Cicadidae: Magicicada Spp.),” Ecological Monographs, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Summer, 1974)

That might explain why the M. cassini cicadas are so much louder and more numerous around Canoe Creek State Park, much of which is floodplain or early-succession second growth. At our annual Audubon Society picnic last week, they were nearly deafening. In fact, a friend just told me that the dog-day cicadas are usually very numerous there, too — and regardless of the species, they make excellent fish bait, he said. Hardly the stuff of plagues.

Today is the deadline to submit links to the next Festival of the Trees. Details are here.

The shortest night

top-heading garlic

The morning after the summer solstice, which arrived just before 8:00 p.m. here, the garlic tops have each coiled another half-turn. Irises that were once blue dangle curled brown locks and raise flags of surrender, milky as a blind man’s eyes. It’s chilly. I grab my hooded sweatshirt off the doorknob and stand staring for a moment at my reflection in the bald brass.

cicada wings1

A 100-foot section of the mowed path leading from the garage into the woods is bejeweled with cicada wings, hundreds upon hundreds of them, covered with dew and glinting in the morning sun. What brought them there?

They had to have been brought: it’s not an area where either the emergence or the courtship of the 17-year cicadas have been particularly intense, or indeed noticeable. There are no overhanging branches from which birds might have discarded the wings as they ate — in fact, the wings peter out as soon as small trees begin to line the trail.

I suspect raccoons. What else could it be? I can picture them gathering there in the light of the just-past-full moon, squatting companionably as they pull the wings off their squirming victims and chew, chew, chew.

Father’s Day surprises

chipmunk with red elderberry

Father’s Day dawned clear and cool. After making an appointment with my dad to cut his hair later in the morning, I took my camera for a walk. Along the Road to the Far Field, in one of the large clearings created by the icestorm of 2005, I surprised a chipmunk next to a fruiting red elderberry bush. It froze when I hove into view, and the bright sun might’ve helped dazzle it a little as I inched closer for a clear shot through the brambles. Ecologists who study the effects of deer on forest health consider red elderberry a good indicator of low browse pressure, and we’ve been happy to watch its spread through moister portions of the property in recent years, thanks to the abundant patience and excellent marksmanship of our hunter friends. As this photo graphically demonstrates, lower deer numbers are good news not just for plants, but for other animals, too.

old mayapple leaf

I made my way to the thicket below the Far Field, where I knew the dense carpet of mayapples would be entering their autumn now as their fruits approached maturity. First they break out in a rash of yellow spots. Then larger areas of brown appear around their edges, turning them thin and brittle as old newspaper.

A few paces into the woods, in a patch of shade too dark to permit a decent photo without a tripod, I found a dense network of slime on the ground, as if a snail had been trying to weave a spider web. Then as I circled the field on a path I’d mowed just a few days earlier, I found two orange and olive tentacles poking out of the ground, foul-smelling and rubbery to the touch, about four inches long and half an inch in diameter at the base. They were in bright sunlight, but still I managed to screw up and didn’t get a single clear photo.

orange tentacle

This was the best I could do. It reminded me of a web comic I’d seen recently, in which an apparently fortuitous discovery has unpleasant repercussions. They turned out to be stinkhorns of the Mutinus genus, which lack the bulbous heads of their Phallus cousins: probably Mutinus elegans.

Many of the metaphors we use to try and come to grips with the inherent weirdness of nature aren’t terribly accurate, but the association of stinkhorns with human sex organs is right on target. In Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard: the Mysterious World of Mushrooms, Molds, and Mycologists, author Nicholas P. Money writes,

Most of the volume of the erect fruiting body is air. But mechanically speaking, the stinkhorn is comparable with the mammalian penis because both erections are maintained by pressurized fluid rather than a column of solid tissue. The penis contains flattened reservoirs that become engorged with blood, while the tissue of the stinkhorn receptacle is built to tear apart to make a honeycomb supported by pressurized water within its hyphae.

One major difference, of course, is that mammalian erections don’t bulge with fertile spores or smell like rotting corpses, and aren’t designed to be eaten by flies and slugs, which will plant the seeds of a new generation of stinkhorns in their excrement.

That wasn’t the only place where bizarre reproductive rituals were taking place. All along the top edge of the field, the 17-year cicadas were singing and flying, clicking and crawling through the scrubby locust trees — appropriately enough, given their alternate common name, “17-year locusts.” I shot a video and posted it to the Plummer’s Hollow site, in an entry headlined “Cicada courtship in full swing.” I like the way biologists persist in referring to mating behavior as courtship: such an old-fashioned word, conjuring up visions of hay rides, shucking bees, and minuets in the parlor.

Ebony Jewelwing, from the Undiscovery Channel.

I was surprised to see several male ebony jewelwing damselflies on the ridgetop, half a mile at least from the nearest stream. They were, however, engaged in classic jewelwing flit-and-pause behavior. I like the video not just for the jewelwing — which is out-of-focus part of the time — but the soundtrack, which features a wood thrush, a scarlet tanager, a pileated woodpecker, chipmunks, and a train whistle, all set against a background surf of cicadas. (This was a couple hundred yards in from the edge of the field.)

In Indian musical theory, I’m told, the drone note symbolizes the inescapable horizon. Over the past week, the cicada chorus has contributed an almost constant, high-pitched drone as a backdrop to other elements of the soundscape. And from my front porch, first thing in the morning, that drone does literally emanate from the eastern horizon: the crest of Laurel Ridge, where the sun first strikes. By mid-morning, though, the cicada choruses become more dispersed.

mountain laurel

Speaking of Laurel Ridge, the mountain laurel was at its height of bloom yesterday, meaning that no more blossoms remained in bud — and that the earliest blossoms were already on the ground. As decimated as the laurel has been by winter-kill and diseases over the past six or seven years, we didn’t expect to see the woods turned white with their blossoms ever again, but this year comes close to the way it used to be every other year, back in the 90s and before. 2008 has been a remarkable year for flowering shrubs and trees of every description, from shadbush and red maple to wild azalea and tulip poplar.

When I got back to the house, I dug out my barber’s kit, we found an old sheet, and I had Dad sit on the veranda for his haircut. He’s slowly healing from surgery to remove a tumor on his lower spine last month, which involved slicing into the dura mater and coming right up against a cluster of nerves. Enough pain and numbness remain to make a trip to the barbershop seem like a daunting prospect.

The hair was thin and didn’t take long to cut — a scattering of tufts on the concrete floor. A half hour later, when Dad came out on the veranda again for some reason, he saw them there and couldn’t figure out what they were for a second. “That can’t be my hair!” he said. It had been silver for what seemed like forever, I guess, but now it was undeniably white, as white as snow. In a morning full of surprises, the passing of time was still the most surprising thing of all. I’m sure the 17-year cicadas would agree.

Lines for a June heat wave

half-grown groundhog
Click to see larger

A half-grown groundhog —
“Wait while I get the camera,” I say,
& it does.


Recognized by its glide,
the first monarch butterfly
back from the south.


In the air-conditioned mall,
the plastic flowers are safe
from the blistering heat.


Drinking from a tap
in the base of an old elm,
a Penn State squirrel.


I run into someone
I first met 17 years ago,
in cicada time.


So good, I don’t want to finish it:
fresh strawberries sliced
into stewed rhubarb.


Inside the package
stamped “Royal Mail,”
a book of small stones.


Driving the tractor into the woods,
mountain laurel blooming
above the roar.


Back from mowing,
I find a ground beetle trapped
in the kitchen sink.


A game in a dream:
no one knows the rules, or how to win.
I wake to heat lightning.

For another view of the half-grown groundhog, see here.

None dwell in their tents

tent caterpillar on black birch trunk

Let their habitation be desolate; and let none dwell in their tents.
Psalm 69:25 (KJV)

Eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) are a common sight this time of year, especially in their last instar, after they abandon their tents. They stray onto the porches and wander over the furniture, looking for protected places in which to pupate. On a visit this past Monday, my three-year-old niece Elanor decided that they were cute — not typically my own reaction — and began petting them, prompting the caterpillars to arch their heads back like housecats. Yesterday afternoon, I watched one crawling up the neck and across the face of a box turtle, which merely shut one eye while the caterpillar took its measure.

tent caterpillar tree (black cherry)

The tents began appearing at the end of April in unusual numbers, especially on black cherry trees, which are the favorite food source for tent caterpillars and occur in unnatural abundance across Pennsylvania due to 150 years of clearcut logging practices and the reversion of old fields and pastures. Black cherry is a common first-succession tree species in many forest types, and thanks in part to its relative unpalatability to white-tailed deer, it can form almost pure stands in many areas that would have formerly hosted oak-hickory, beech-hemlock, or mixed deciduous forests. Here in Plummer’s Hollow, many of our southeast-facing slopes are dominated by black cherry stands, and I figured they’d be completely defoliated by this time.

blossoming black cherry

Instead, Sapsucker Ridge is white with blossoms, filling the air with an ambrosial scent. One finds only a few black cherries as badly defoliated as the one in the second photo; the tree above is more typical. Though dotted with tents, only scattered branches have actually been stripped of their leaves.

dead tent

A closer look reveals that most of these tents are filled with dead caterpillars. The few still alive twitch spasmodically. What happened? I’d guess that the unusually cold, wet weather over the past few weeks is at fault. Nighttime temperature routinely dropped into the low 40s this month, and sometimes even into the high 30s; daytime temperatures rarely exceeded the mid-50s; and rain was almost constant for the first three weeks of the month. Not only would the cold have shut down their temperature-sensitive digestive systems for prolonged periods, but the rain would have kept them confined to their silken tents, and the two together would’ve made them much more susceptible to starvation and disease. According to the Wikipedia article on tent caterpillars,

The tent is constructed at a site that intercepts the early morning sun. The position of the tent is critical because the caterpillars must bask in the sun to elevate their temperatures above the cool ambient temperatures that occur in the early spring. Studies have shown that when the body temperature of a caterpillar is less than about 15 °C [59 °F], digestion cannot occur. The tent consists of discrete layers of silk separated by gaps and the temperature in these compartments varies markedly. Caterpillars can adjust their body temperatures by moving from one compartment to another. On cool mornings they typically rest in a tight aggregate just under a sunlit surface of the tent. … Later on in the spring, temperatures may become excessive at mid day and the caterpillars may retreat to the shaded outside surface of the tent to cool down.

Entymologist Vincent G. Dethier’s wonderful and evocative classic, The World of the Tent-Makers: A Natural History of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar (University of Massachusetts Press, 1980) describes in Chaper 13 (appropriately enough) the battery of predators and diseases that keep this native insect in check. He details the spread of a deadly virus from colony to colony, then adds:

As if that were not enough the unusually wet late spring had been kind to molds, mildews, smuts, blasts, and bacteria. A particularly virulent spore-forming species of bacterium struck many of the colonies. … The enormous population of tent caterpillars had been cropped by weather, starvation, ants, bugs, parasites, fungi, viruses, bacteria, and misadventure in general. It had been a particularly trying year. Summer had hardly begun and the die had already been cast for the year to come. There would be fewer moths, fewer egg masses, and fewer colonies of the next generation.

So a spring that spells bad news for many farmers is good news for the wood products industry, which relies heavily on black cherry in Pennsylvania. Unlike fall webworms, which come too late in the season to have much of an impact on the trees they defoliate, tent caterpillars can greatly stress the trees they defoliate during their periodic outbreaks.

As global climate change plays hob with our weather patterns, it will be interesting to watch the effects on insect outbreaks, and over the long term, on forest succession. For example, if black cherries continue to predominate as many foresters would like, more-frequent icestorms would have a much greater impact than they would if less brittle species such as red oaks and tulip poplars took their place. Warm winters are said to promote the spread of pest insects, but what about warm winters followed by cold springs? I’d heard that the state was due for some pretty large gypsy moth outbreaks this summer as well, but here in Plummer’s Hollow, at least, their caterpillars are few and far between.

Cross-posted to the Plummer’s Hollow blog.

Lines for a cold May

question mark butterfly

first clear day in weeks
butterflies walk slowly over
the dry forest floor

interrupted forest

interrupted ferns’
delicate tips are still clenched
against the cold

pink lady's-slipper orchid

in the cold wind
a gnat clings to a bobbing
pink lady’s-slipper

leaf pond

tent caterpillars
the vernal pond quakes under
a coat of leaf-pieces

oak apple gall

oak apple gall
I bend down for a closer look
such a fresh green globe

The first two photos are from last week; the others are from yesterday evening.

Ode to a Plane

This entry is part 16 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools



The carpenter’s plane glides
through a sky of wood,
no propeller but the knob,
no tail but the tote,
no landing gear but the mouth & the blade
& no chance of flying but the flat steel frog.

The carpenter’s plane touches down
& down. Chips curl in a wave
that never stops breaking.
No one ever really escapes;
all planes are bound to the planet.
The only route out leads farther in.

When the carpenter’s plane got to Japan
it began to work in reverse:
there’s always more power in the homeward pull.
You go out hungry & come back
digesting fragments light as air,
dangerous with the scent of new surfaces.



Yesterday I finally paid a visit to the Rhoneymeade Arboretum, Sculpture Garden, and Labyrinth, which is about 35 miles northeast of here, right out in the middle of a farm valley. The only other sculpture gardens I’ve visited have been those attached to major urban museums, so I was interested to see what difference, if any, the rural location might make.

blue atlas cedar

Well, for one thing, not all sculptures here are made by humans. Also, trees both native and exotic take pride of place in the garden and in the nearby labyrinth, a refreshing shift in emphasis from most modern presentations of Art, where nature plays a supporting role at best.


Nor were all the human sculptures either anthropomorphic or completely abstract, though the majority did fit into one of those two categories. “Flight” was one of a half-dozen or so that seemed to take its surroundings fully into account.

Brown Man 2

The birds here do what birds always do to public statuary. This plaster and resin sculpture is identified as “Brown Man” on the website, but “Thoughtful Man” on the laminated directory in the studio at Rhoneymeade itself. One way or another, it’s obviously getting lots of attention from the local birds.

Brown Man 1

The plaster was beginning to fall off in a couple of places, and the grass had been left to grow long around it. Given its manner of composition — a life cast from a living model, according to the owner — I imagine that the artist fully anticipated its slow return to nature.

Complete set of Rhoneymeade photos (9) / Slideshow

Trees, water

fly with wild yam

A new edition of the Festival of the Trees is up at 10,000 Birds. I was somewhat embarassed to find my own entry (the Rickett’s Glen post) first in line, but aside from that, it’s a great edition. Also, relating to what I was saying in that post about Pennsylvania’s endangered brook trout streams, my friend Alan Gregory has a good column up today: How not to care for a state’s official fish. Despite the Pennsylvania focus, this is an issue affecting much of the eastern United States.

What’s so great about wild trout?

Eric Palmer, the state of Vermont’s director of fisheries, summarizes the uniqueness of wild fish on the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s Web site:

When you catch a wild fish “you have living proof that the water they came from has suitable habitat for all of the life-stages of that species. It is like holding an intact ecosystem in your hand.”

Which brings us to qarrtsiluni and the new call for submissions to the May-June theme, edited by Lucy Kempton and Katherine Durham Oldmixon: Water.

Water is the moving skin of our planet, the most part by far of our bodies; we drink it, we bathe in it, we waste it and taint it, we may yet again wage wars for it.

Submissions of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, short film, spoken word, art, photography, and any combination thereof are welcome through May 31.

Back to Rickett’s Glen

Going in Circles, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

Gnats circle our heads without biting as we climb up and down the rock steps with cameras or strip down to bathing suits to swim in the plunge pool, each attentive in our way to the mysteries before us. The stone face beside the waterfall stares unrecognized from a thousand vacation snapshots.

walking birch

walking birchThis is one of the most popular places to go walking in Pennsylvania; even the trees seem to want to join in. Black and yellow birches balance on stout root-legs, the stumps on top of which they sprouted having long since disappeared, like crutches thrown away after a visit to the healing waters of some sacred spot.

The understory shrubs known as hobblebush, or witch-hobble, lean out over the water to escape the ministrations of the white-tailed deer. They’re already in radiant bloom, with their heart-shaped leaves only half-grown.


“Deer Park,” says the label on the plastic water bottle bobbing below the falls. But deer numbers in the park must be low, or there’d be no hobblebush at all, and far fewer of the wildflowers that carpet the ground: trillium, foamflower, trout lilies.

lichen on hemlock

Twigs shed by the hemlocks are covered in arboreal lichen, as one would expect from an old-growth forest. I try not to focus on the unnaturally thin and grayish foliage on some the trees — a sign that the hemlock woolly adelgid has reached North Mountain, and in a few more years all the hemlocks here may be dead. If and when that happens, it will be catastrophic for lichens and the invertebrates that feed on them. Cold-water stoneflies, brook trout, and other species dependent on the cooling properties of hemlock groves will suffer, as will some of the songbirds that reach their highest densities in old-growth conifer forests: Acadian flycatcher, Blackburnian warbler, black-throated green warbler, and blue-headed vireo. All but the flycatcher have returned from their winter vacations in the tropics for another breeding season, and sing from the treetops.

truck in the woods

Brook trout dart across the bottom of sunlit pools in Kitchen Creek, seemingly oblivious to the traffic on the two-lane highway. I think I know why some people find fishing addictive: staring at the water and the fish moving through it is a passport to another, more timeless dimension.

We’re on our way home from a funeral for a great aunt, the last of her generation. My paternal grandmother, her husband, and most of her extended family are buried within fifteen miles of here. My ancestors have been making the circuit hike of the glens probably since before Rickett’s Glen was a state park, and my parents courted here back in the days when couples still courted, putting over from Bucknell University on Dad’s motor scooter. Somehow without really intending to I end up visiting at least once a year myself. It’s beginning to feel almost like a pilgrimage.