Academy of Natural Sciences

alive and enchanting

In a museum full of dead things, the butterfly garden gets prominent billing: “Alive and Enchanting,” says the banner above the admissions desk.


But the skeletons still fascinate. Pointing and squealing, schoolchildren thunder through the hall of the “Mesozoic Monsters,” as the museum calls them. For millions of Americans under the age of seven or eight, dinosaurs and their relatives occupy the same niche in the imagination that will later be filled by pop stars and Hollywood celebrities.


In a slightly quieter part of the museum, a 3,000-year-old mummy lies half-naked in a replica of a tomb. Here disassembly rather than assembly was required. Small knots of schoolchildren pause before the exhibit long enough to express their bafflement at finding a dead man on display on a floor otherwise devoted to taxidermy mounts.


But one floor down, the cocoons are left unwrapped until they hatch. Here in this newest addition to the museum’s permanent exhibitions, nature is no less of a spectacle than in the more traditional exhibits, but now the visitors are permitted behind the glass.

swallowtail 2

And while we are still discouraged from touching the exhibits, we are given instructions in how to behave should the exhibits happen to touch us: “Just stand still and wait for them to fly off. And watch where you step.”


We were all eyes.

First things first

The first contribution for qarrtsiluni’s Ekphrasis theme has been published. I think this will be a fun edition. I know if I weren’t an editor, I’d be submitting like a fiend. For example, here’s something I just wrote in response to this image.

Living in the country, you learn that you can let almost everything else go, but you must look after the roof. Not far from here there’s a junkyard that sprawls over a couple of hilly fields next to the highway — ranks of auto bodies, refrigerators, stoves and kitchen sinks. I like the idea of lining the highways with refuse, as a daily reminder of our profligate ways. Besides, it’s better than looking at crown vetch. But at this particular place, it’s the old barn that attracts attention, because you can see right through it. Most of the siding has been removed, presumably for some other building project, leaving little but the beams and a tarpaper roof. One can often spot a few goats inside, silhouetted against the sea of rusty metal. Once when we drove by, the entire herd was out front, clustered around an old chevy. One goat stood in the bed of the truck with his front hooves up on the roof of the cab, as if at a podium. He had the beard of prophet. It was a sunny day, with no hint of the wind that was sure to come.

Quehanna Wild Area

mud puddle ice

We didn’t just drive two hours to look at ice on a mud puddle, did we?

No. It was more like an hour and a half in each direction.

And why not? Someday, ice might be as rare a sight here as in Macondo, the fictional town in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Fifty years from now, we’ll struggle to describe it to the young ‘uns, who by that time will have attention spans less than four seconds long. “It was kind of like cold glass,” we’ll begin, and stop when we see their eyes glazing over.


An old wound has exposed a patch of heartwood in a tulip poplar. I run my fingers over the rippled surface, like an illiterate person trying to make sense of the headlines. But this is ten-year-old news, at least. It’s useful to be reminded once in a while just how large a percentage of every healthy tree is technically dead.

How long could any of us stand without a sturdy superstructure of memories and habits? We shouldn’t call it heartwood, I suppose. The heart gets blamed for everything, the poor sap.

teaberries in birch log

Dead trees of some species, such as oaks and hemlocks, disintegrate from the outside in. Bitter tars or tannins help preserve them from the agents of decay. For others — locusts, poplars, birches — the outer shell is the last thing to go.

Civilizations are like that too, aren’t they? I can imagine America’s thin plastic skin persisting for centuries after its Nutrasweet core has succumbed to rot. Meanwhile, the descendents of the Aztecs have managed to preserve the core of their intellectual tradition more or less intact for five hundred years after the Conquest, that apocalypse in which their ancestors had so heavily invested. To the Nahuat way of thinking, it is our waking life that is a shadow. Even the sun must travel to the underworld to get more light.

white birch

An almost-pure stand of white birches, I discover, is less impressive than a single white birch on a mountainside of black birches, reaching into the rhododendron like a blind man’s cane. I’ve never been to this particular spot before, but I’ve been to enough places like it to have a sense of what’s been lost and may never return, short of another ice age: the deep, spongy moss under a north-facing slope of towering hemlocks. The wind hissing through its teeth. Siskins and crossbills.

rhododendron trunks

I suppose some of you might go to the woods for a dose of something called “nature,” which is alleged to have restorative properties. Not me. I go to hunt for ghosts.

blackberry leaf 2

Which is to say, for lights and mysteries. What left its white track on this soon-to-wither leaflet? Does the thick end of the path indicate metamorphosis, or sudden death?

green beret

Was all that summer green just a trick of the light?

dead rhododendron

I could ramble on, but we ought to get out of the woods now. The deer hunters are moving in for Monday’s rifle season opener, cleaning out their cabins and staking out their favorite spots, on which we have probably been trespassing all afternoon. I guess some hikers are after a wilderness experience — whatever that means — but whenever I visit a new place, I like to speculate about who might’ve been there before me and how they might have seen it. Up that ravine, someone’s cousin might’ve shot an albino buck, and got maimed in a car accident three weeks later as a result. Along this very section of trail, some toddler out with her grandparents may have encountered ice for the very first time. You never know.

As always, be sure to click on the photos to get the blow-ups.

October in Pittsburgh

Dangerous ginkgo 2

At the Point State Park in Pittsburgh, where British soldiers at Fort Pitt once repulsed hordes of Indians and Frenchmen, a ginkgo tree is fiercely posted with warnings about its felonious fruit. Or rather, its naked seeds.

Ginkgo is a gymnosperm (as opposed to an angiosperm), meaning “naked seed”; its seeds are not protected by an ovary wall and hence, the berry-like structures produced by female ginkgo trees are technically not fruit. […]
Its outer layer (the sarcotesta) is light yellow-brown, soft, and fruit-like. It is plum-like and attractive, but the seedcoat contains butanoic acid and smells like rancid butter (which contains the same chemical) when fallen on the ground. Beneath the sarcotesta is the hard sclerotesta and a papery endotesta and nucellus.

You have to admire a plant with that many testes.

Dangerous ginkgo 3

The Daughters of the American Revolution, who operate the adjacent Blockhouse — sole survivor from the days of the fort and the oldest building in all of Western Pennsylvania — want to make very sure we know just what kind of enemy we’re up against here. Even if they can’t remember how to spell its name.

Inside the bunkhouse, I was charmed by an authentic reproduction of a peace tomahawk. This was a deeply symbolic weapon with dual functions: opposite the sharp blade was a metal pipe bowl, from which one could smoke through the drilled-out handle. Apparently, the order of business was: 1) hack/dismember enemies; 2) following successful negotiation of a cease-fire, clean off blood, load up the bowl with primo weed and pass it around; 3) bury hatchet in the ground to symbolize repudiation of hacking/dismembering and commitment to peace treaty; 4) upon breaking of treaty by whites, disinter tomahawk and repeat.


October is a nice month to visit Pittsburgh — kind of like April in Paris, minus (as previously mentioned) the French. Tourists like to go up and down a very steep and absurdly short railroad line to nowhere, poetically referred to as the Inclined Plane, to gape at the slowly turning fall foliage. Locals just like to gape at the brightly colored funicular cars gliding silently up and down the tracks, a source of great, if somewhat inexplicable, local pride. Best of all, though, are the newspaper boxes, like autumn all year long.

newspaper boxes

I was unaware of the fact that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The aforementioned Point State Park marks the occasion by turning the fountain pink. The shape of the fountain remains resolutely phallic, however. And there’s no signage to enlighten the perennially clueless, like myself. Where are the Daughters of the American Revolution when you need them?

Point Park fountain 1

The color is achieved not with Pepto Bismal, as it might appear, but with fifteen gallons of environmentally safe dye, according to a newspaper article from last year that I found on the web after I got home. As public art goes, this is didactic in the extreme — it’s no Christo installation. Still, many Pittsburghers seem to enjoy the aesthetic effect.

Erin Coen, 19, of the North Side, maybe liked it the most. She wore a pink Hello Kitty backpack, shoelaces interwoven with pink strands, and sported red hair. “I used to have pink hair,” Coen said. She took photos of the fountain, hoping something thrilling would happen. “I was hoping kids would go crazy and begin jumping in it,” Coen said.

Point Park fountain 2

The Point in question, by the way, is a little, pubic-shaped triangle of open space between the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, right where they merge to form the Ohio — hence its strategic importance back in the day when global superpowers battled for control of the beaver trade. Being, as I said, unaware of the significance of the color of the water, my best guess was that the dye was meant to symbolize the blood of Indians and Frenchmen and/or the vanquished foes of the Steelers, whose home stadium is right across the river. Some sort of Columbus Day commemoration, I figured. Yeah, I know, it sounds kind of wacky, but in Pittsburgh — as in Paris — almost anything seems possible. Dude, pass the tomahawk!


barn knots 1

Near where I found the dead man’s fingers, a murder of crows — as they say — harassed the treetops, shrill with complaint and denunciation, rage rattling in dozens of crow throats. I couldn’t see what they were mobbing, even after I climbed the slope to the base of the tree that seemed to be at the center of the swirling and diving shapes. It was around ten o’clock on a chilly morning. The sky was gray, and the birch and witch hazel leaves glowed yellow under the dark canopy where darker wings clipped against oak leaves, precipitating a rain of acorns. I never heard the wings of their foe, whose changing position I could only infer when all the crows suddenly rose at once and moved downridge, but by that very silence knew it could only have been an owl.

barn knots 2

High winds a week ago felled a few trees seemingly at random. Not far from where the crows had been, I discovered a good-sized red oak tree that had snapped near the base and lay head-down against the mountainside, its entire green city of leaves upended. I hiked up to the stump and peered in at a chaos of red-brown wood. I saw no sign of rot, no carpenter ant galleries, nothing to explain why an 80-year-old tree would snap like that, in the prime of life. As I stood there — without my camera, forced to take a long, close look — a chipmunk popped up right in front of me and ran straight down into the center of the rent. I held my breath — what if the tree suddenly settled a few inches? But the chipmunk came back out, saw me, and froze. I took a few slow steps backwards. These leaves would turn brown in a few weeks, I knew, but it would be a year or more before they fell. Having fallen itself, the tree would hold tight to the very sails that caused it to capsize.

barn knots 3

We drive by an Amish schoolhouse every time we go to buy vegetables and dry goods at our favorite Amish farmstand and store in the neighboring valley. In fact, the very first time we went out there, following a map that one of the proprietors had made for us when we stopped by her booth at the farmer’s market, we were surprised to find that the Amish kids already seemed to know us. The school had just let out, and kids of all ages were running along the road. “Hi, Mrs. Bonta!” one of them shouted to my mother as we drove past, waving.

barn knots 4

Two autumns ago, the township supervisors in their wisdom decided to park a heavy truck right on top of a large culvert pipe under the gravel road that leads into the farmstand, to try and keep it from washing out in the flood from Hurricane Ivan. The usually dry creekbed turned into a torrent and, as the bemused Amish neighbors watched, in the middle of the night the back of the truck slowly sank from sight.

We happened by a few days later, on the very morning the township decided to try and raise the truck, which stood almost on end in the creek where the poorly constructed culvert-bridge had been. Close to a hundred local residents, Amish and non-Amish alike, gathered around. Some brought lawn chairs and video cameras. Suddenly I saw kids pouring out of the schoolhouse a quarter mile away. Their teacher had obviously given up trying to keep them focused on their lessons; here was education of a different sort. I watched as they romped and played in the pasture next to the creek, little different from any other kids their age. At one point, one of the smallest boys picked up a large rock and held it over his head, unsteadily. Then he heaved it a girl. It looked as if it landed on her foot, or pretty close to it. I saw her turn and yell. He wandered off, the brim of his straw hat tipped down at a thoughtful angle.

barn knots 5

Early last week, when I accompanied my mother on a vegetable run, the kids were all out on recess behind the schoolhouse. They were playing softball, boys and girls together. Just as we drove by, I saw a lanky kid of ten or eleven swing at the ball, then start for first base with one hand on his hat, bare feet flying.

My apologies to dial-up users for the size of the photos in this post, which may be my last post until Sunday or Monday.

All five photos were taken on the northwest side of our barn. The barn has been painted twice since it was built a hundred years ago: first red, then, sometime in the fifties or sixties, white to match the houses. I was thinking of the quote in yesterday’s post: “In good weather, funerals are often held in barns.”

Planting sang

Sing a song of sang, that human root:
wrinkled homunculus growing slow as thought.
Even the seeds take twenty months to sprout,
stones that finish growing in the ground
as if traveling through the interminable gut
of some great beast that vanished in the Pleistocene.
Sing a song of burying in haste,
the berries’ flesh a tempting prize for mold.
So if picked on a morning in early September,
nestled into a plastic vial & sent by overnight mail,
you must plant them as soon as they arrive —
don’t put it off till after supper.

Choose each resting-place with care,
moving slowly through the woods & stopping often.
Pretend you’re burying a grandparent, piece by piece.
Make a hole with your index finger
no deeper than the second knuckle,
drop the blood-colored berry in & cover it up.
Pray for uninterrupted sleep, & an end to sleep.
Let your stomach rumble, soft & low.

Quite by chance, I just found out that my local public radio station aired a related story this morning. Refer to the other links on that page for more on sang culture in Pennsylvania.

Residence in the earth

one of our neighbors in the valley

The way our would-be straight lines fall on the land, whether along the contour or across it, makes me think of clothes on a body — the farther from town, the more natural the fit. From highway to road to lane, it’s the same-size wheels, but then for the crops they must grow, sprout treads. Suddenly escape is no longer an option: if we want to eat, we must slow down and pay attention to every detail.

Why any of this should amaze me is difficult to explain. As long as I’ve lived in the country — almost all my life — I am still a creature of books and screens and flat Cartesian spaces with their promises of freedom. I must continually remind myself that power is round: gears. Coins. Bellies. The sockets in which our animal limbs revolve as we wander the globe.

corrugated pipe

Why Monday and not Saturday, the Amish woman wonders as she hangs out the wash, darks and lights together. The breeze swells a kerchief the same way the earth ripples under the fields. Aren’t weaving and harrowing pretty much the same? Her eyes still lazy from Sunday follow a hedgerow up to where the woods start in earnest — a good thing, because desire works best within limits. It’s a sin to want more than what you can properly attend to. She gazes at the mountain, a long, low ridge nearly identical to all the others she’s known since childhood. Every few miles another mountain, like a permanent Sabbath rising between weeks of fields.

Gingerbread man

wild ginger

Caught out in the open as she trots down the gravel driveway, the feral cat freezes and flattens herself in the track, trying to impersonate a large black stone.

I’ve come outside to take a leak, but end up measuring myself against a bull thistle instead. It stands a little taller than me, and its flowers are still in bud, swelling like green porcupines. There’s something charismatic about this plant: it has style. Every angle of every leaf tapers into a spine, exhibiting a kind of single-mindedness that one does associate with bulls, or human warriors. The Russian thistles massed up in the field are mere foot soldiers by comparison. I aim a jet of urine at its lower leaves.

An hour later, my brother Steve shows up, and we head off down the mountain for a short expedition to a nearby natural area: a north-facing base of a talus-strewn ridge where cold air collects in small pit-caves even in the middle of the summer. We used to go swimming in the adjacent creek when we were kids, but that wouldn’t be possible now — it’s fiercely posted and fenced on the state forest side. These are hotly contested cold waters: Spruce Creek, a trout stream that attracts flyfishermen from around the world, following in the footsteps of President Eisenhower, who discovered it back in the 50s when his brother Milton was president of Penn State. A couple nights ago, Steve and I watched the documentary Why We Fight, which goes into great detail about Eisenhower’s prophetic anti-war thinking — the generally forgotten background to his famous coinage of the phrase “military-industrial complex” in his farewell address to the nation. It’s tempting to imagine Ike crafting his valediction right here at Spruce Creek, standing knee-deep in the current and ruminating on the need for balance.

Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society’s future, we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

While I go off stalking photos, Steve stretches out in the largest of the pits, luxuriating in the natural air conditioning and escaping the oppressive humidity above. I guess the way it works is that ice formed last winter and spring lingers deep inside the crevasses of the mountain, cooling the air that drains out at its base.

For someone from out West, or somewhere else in “real” mountain country where snow lingers on high peaks until June, our little Appalachian ridges must seem like a joke. But whatever these mountains lack in size, I think they make up in mystery (not to mention biodiversity: due to its boreal microclimate, this very spot harbors one rare plant, which shall go unmentioned, and at least two other uncommon ones). When I last stopped by here, in the third week of May, there were still several inches of ice at the bottom of each of these so-called caves; a hundred years ago, when hemlocks extended all the way up the mountainside and kept the forest considerably cooler, visible ice probably lasted right through the summer. That was the case up in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, where a much larger ice cave used to be a well-known roadside attraction until the forest above it was cut down and most of the ice disappeared.

hemlock stump face

I find a small hemlock stump that for some reason kept growing after the sapling was cut down, forming a kind of pinched-together face that reminds me a bit of a flower bud. The adjacent root sprout is already almost two feet tall, identical to, yet different from, the tree that was cut down. No wonder the stump got its signals crossed.

When I circle back to where my brother had been lying, he’s gone, so I take his place in the pit for half a minute. It’s odd: there’s no transition from the hot, sticky air above to the cool, dry air below ground level. The sounds of the creek echo strangely off the rock walls; it could be the murmur of a distant crowd, or a radio turned down to the point where you have to strain to make out the words. Somewhere at this very moment, people are huddling in bomb shelters, or crouching motionless among the fruit trees in their orchards as jets scream overhead. Somewhere, bodies are being washed and wrapped and prepared for burial.

I walk quickly back to the car, pausing only to admire a slope covered with wild ginger (Asarum canadense) and briefly imagining the sharp, spicy flavor of their roots. Like the more familiar Asian ginger (Zingiber officinale) whose roots you can buy in the supermarket, this American species was traditionally credited with the power to “quicken the blood.” The refrain from the children’s story goes through my head: Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man! I snap a picture of their rounded, heart-shaped leaves before hurrying on. It looks like rain.

Finding the crayfish

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The other week, we took Eva to visit some friends of the family who live a few miles away. The main inducement was easy access to a quiet portion of the Little Juniata River, and the promise of good crayfish hunting there. Their interest was scientific or aesthetic rather than culinary, though Eva is from a part of the country where crawdads are considered a delicacy. But how do you find creatures that are almost the exact color of the mud they burrow in?

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While the kids honed their crustacean search images, I went hunting for smaller invertebrates. Along the shore, several foot-long bays seethed with tiny rowboats — the aquatic insects known by the somewhat redundant name “water boatmen” (family Corixidae). Their bodies are fully submersible crafts; they have the enviable ability to capture bubbles between the hairs on their bodies and turn them into shiny wetsuits of air.*

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It was a hot and humid late afternoon, and everything seemed a little stunned. In the woods along the river, I found a daddy longlegs resting quietly on a small black cherry leaf, rather like the Little Prince,

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while nearby, a long-legged cranefly took the opposite approach, suspending itself between several sassafras leaves. Clearly, it was a good place to hang out.

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In the adjacent wetland — which was rather parched on account of the drought — a question mark butterfly also seemed intent on doing not very much at all. Of course, it’s the larvae of the species that do most of the work, including locate their proper host plants, elms and nettles. Once they emerge from their chrysalises, life slows down. The females lay eggs hither and yon, as the mood strikes them.

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A white moth floated dead on the surface of a muddy pool. I wondered whether, like the Chinese poet Li Bai, it had drowned while trying to embrace the reflection of the moon. You never know. Back at the river, Eva’s newfound hunting buddy Nathan took a fall that he swore was an accident, and totally unrelated to his previous pleas to be allowed to swim. So much of the hunting impulse seems driven by pure envy of the prey.

*UPDATE: Rebecca Clayton thinks that the bugs in the photo are more likely to be juvenile water striders (see comments). After checking out several reference sources, I’m inclined to agree.

Aviary (2)

On Saturday, after picking up Eva at the airport, we spent several hours at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. My niece’s name has the Spanish pronunciation rather than the English, so it made a certain kind of poetic sense to take Eva to the Aviary. This is the second of two posts.

great argus pheasant

Resplendent in his cloak of a thousand eyes, trailed by a royal train five times the length of his body, the great Argus pheasant is reduced to beggary by an insatiable craving for grapes.


wattled curassow

The curly head of the curassow draws many admiring fingers to her sleek back, which is speckled white from the most recent aerial bombardment. She seems equally indifferent to all blandishments.


Nicobar pigeon

“Dead as a Dodo” describes so many far-flung members of the pigeon tribe — quintessential strange birds, castaways on remote islands who went native and forgot the predatory ways of the real world. The Nicobar pigeon nests within easy reach of the walkway. When did we start thinking that “wild” was synonymous with “fearful”?


Victoria crowned pigeon

Every thing the Victoria crowned pigeon did, every pose he struck, was photogenic. Even standing in his feeding pan and crapping into his food, he looked magnificent. I got so bored of looking at my pictures of him, I almost decided not to post one at all.


brown pelican

In the huge Rainforest of the Americas room, among so many brightly colored species, the pelican makes a convincing case for brown.


feeding the pelican

An injury to his bill made this one incapable of feeding himself. His gullet is a large, moving target that the keeper finds nearly impossible to miss.


red-crowned (Japanese) cranes

The total population of the Japanese crane, which symbolizes good fortune and longevity to a nation of 127 million people, is down to less than 2000 individuals. The National Aviary plays a critical role in its recovery, coordinating an effort by American zoos to send fertilized eggs to a nature reserve in eastern Siberia. When a keeper enters their compound to refill their food trough, she moves quickly, carries a sturdy, five-foot-tall shield and wears goggles to prevent the cranes from pecking out her eyes.