Nature Talks.

Summer Time.

So I found an Argiope aurantia in the yard and if you don’t know what that is you’re probably thinking I should hire whoever handles that sort of thing to get rid of it and if you do know what it is you’re almost certainly thinking I should hire whoever handles that sort of thing to get rid of it because you know it’s a great big spider. She wasn’t that big, though—it’s still early in the season, but it did remind me of the time when I was ten and found a fully grown one under the deck of my parents’ house. They’re quite beautiful with shiny black, white, yellow, and green bodies, and they build big circular webs with zigzag patterns. No one’s sure why they weave such obvious patterns into their webs—maybe it’s to warn birds away, or it’s for camouflage, or for some other reason.  They sit in the middle of their webs patiently waiting.

I’d visit the one under the deck three or four times a day sometimes and bring it prey which I know sounds pretty sadistic of me. At least I felt a little bit of guilt but it was also fascinating to watch. I’d catch a katydid, holding it by its leafy wings, and throw it into the web. The spider would rush over, bite the katydid once, injecting a toxic cocktail, and then start wrapping it. Some spiders wrap their prey in a single thread but an Argiope aurantia activates all its spinnerets at once producing a skein of silk that turns its catch into a mummy in seconds. Then it leaves its prey to sit and cook for a while because spiders invented ceviche long before humans did.

Sometimes when I came back later I’d find her sucking the juices from her wrapped meal. Then she’d pluck it loose from the web and let it drop to the ground. By nighttime the web would be gone. They eat part of their webs before going to sleep, recycling the protein, and producing a fresh, neat web the next day.

I spent the summer watching her grow bigger and bigger, but I tried not to get too attached. Even then I knew enough about biology to know that most spiders grow fast and put everything into producing children they won’t live to see. It’s sad but also beautiful.

I knew she was a she because the males are smaller and less distinctive. The males build a web near a female’s when it’s time to mate. I never did see her partner but one must have come around. By late August I could tell she was slowing down. She sometimes ignored the grasshoppers I threw into her web, conserving her energy while her internal organs slowly turned into eggs. The morning I found her in the upper part of her web next to what looked like a small mottled brown balloon I knew it was time. Summer at that age lasted forever and was also over in a blink.

Her children, if they survived the winter, had a tough time ahead of them, which is one of the sad facts of a spider’s life. They lay a thousand eggs or more as insurance because the world is a harsh place. Most won’t make it to adulthood.

The one I found in the garden earlier this week has been gone for a couple of days now. Her web is still there but it’s tattered. It’s unlikely she’s moved somewhere else. She picked a well-protected place. It just wasn’t protected enough, and there’s a long summer ahead of me.

As You Sow So Shall You Reap.

Source: Twitter user Lesego Semenya (@LesDaChef)

In the beginning there was wild mustard and it was good. It was pretty tasty and the seeds were good for spicing up food, especially sausage which had just been invented. It was nutritious and everyone was fine with this plant as it was.

Then it was cultivated and the cultivation led to collard greens. And this was okay too. Collard greens were also nutritious and while some didn’t like them most people were just fine with them.

Then more cultivation led to cabbage. Some people didn’t like cabbage but most did. Cabbage was useful. You could boil it or wrap other foods up in the leaves. Cabbage rolls and coffee got a lot of people going in the morning. Or the afternoon. Or whenever. It was good for making cole slaw. It was also good for serving with corned beef, which was called that even though it had no corn in it. Corn hadn’t been invented yet.

Then came brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts were basically tiny cabbages that grew on a stem. No one could explain why this was necessary, but the prevailing belief was that it was because Belgium was annoyed with the Netherlands for also being called Holland and for having people known as the Dutch, which is too many names for such a small country. Brussels sprouts were divisive. People either really hated them or were moderately okay with them. They were pretty good roasted and were deemed acceptable when drenched with cheddar cheese, which had just been invented.

Somewhere in here kohlrabi came along. No one was sure what to do with kohlrabi or how to eat it or if it should be cooked or served raw. Finally everyone just decided that the best thing was to give it a weird name and move on.

Then came broccoli. People were okay with broccoli. It was like eating tiny trees, and everyone got a kick out of that. It didn’t have a lot of flavor in spite of being a descendant of wild mustard but people could at least claim they were having something healthy at office parties by eating broccoli smothered in ranch dressing, which had just been invented.

Shortly after broccoli cauliflower came along. No one was sure why and half the people wanted to call it a flower and half the people wanted to call it an amniotic membrane. No one was sure what to do with cauliflower but since it was related to broccoli it was put on the vegetable trays with ranch dressing. Cauliflower could also be boiled and mashed into a paste so that people would think they were getting a nice big serving of potatoes until they ate it and it just tasted like wet cardboard.

And then there was kale. No one was sure where kale came from but everyone agreed that it should go back. In spite of efforts to make it palatable by turning it into chips or mixing it with bacon, which some falsely tried to claim had been invented for just that purpose, no one liked kale. Cheese ran in terror from it.

Kale would have been the black sheep of the brassica family but not even sheep would eat it. Regardless of when it had been invented it was the dead end of a once proud lineage, a cultivar that only existed because some cabbage grower somewhere hadn’t stopped when they were a head.

 

Where The Bee Sucks.

The honeysuckle is in bloom which always takes me back to a day in my childhood when my friend Troy and I were waiting for the bus to go to school and he picked a honeysuckle flower and showed me how to pull it apart, gently grasping the green base and tugging it until the stamens came out revealing a single glistening drop of nectar. It was sweeter than any sweet drink I’d ever had. I started wondering if it would be possible to fill a glass, or even a small bottle, with honeysuckle nectar, although the drops were tiny and it would take a lot and I couldn’t resist just sucking up each one as it came out, like it was a drug. We also tried to figure out if there was a difference between the white blossoms and the yellow. There wasn’t, but together we probably destroyed a hundred honeysuckle blossoms waiting for the bus, which I now realize because honeysuckle is a terrible invasive weed that can destroy forests. Not that I necessarily have anything against invasive plants. Some can even be good. Dandelions are invasive, technically, and they aren’t bad—they’re great for bees, and it’s really fun to go into other peoples’ yards and blow seeds all over them, but that’s another story.

Anyway I was out clearing the honeysuckle in our backyard. I know it’s futile. I’ve spent more than one volunteer weekend at Radnor Lake pulling up small honeysuckle plants and even cutting it down where it’s turned into looming trees that block the sunlight and prevent other plants from growing, but at least I can sort of hold it back, and by taking it out while it’s blooming I can prevent it from producing seeds.

And while I was cutting it back I stopped and pulled out some of the blossoms and pulled them apart, trying to get that sweet hit of childhood once again, but they were all dry. We’ve had more than enough rain lately so that shouldn’t be the problem. Maybe my hands are too big now and I’m damaging them as I pull them apart so I can’t get that sweet drop of nectar. Or maybe something’s changed about honeysuckle and it doesn’t have that drop of nectar anymore. Or I was just unlucky and not getting it right. Whatever the problem was it really sucked.

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