Category: field notes

I was in Yosemite the week of September 22nd, which happened to be the 11th annual Facelift event, sponsored by the Yosemite Climbing Association. Volunteers sign up for trash pick up duty and then scour the Park for litter.   Last year volunteers picked up 9,000 pounds of trash. That’s actually down from the previous years – either people are littering less, or the cleanup is finally catching up on years and years of littering. So with the Facelift event, there’s a contest by bag-o-trash weight for the winning participant, a raffle, and that general feeling of accomplishment that makes you smile and reach for the hand sanitizer.

photo 3I signed up mainly out of guilt. I’d been wandering around Yosemite Valley and bicycling its pathways for a day and a half, watching the day-glo vested volunteers with their bags of trash and gripper sticks. I had plenty of time, so I volunteered for an hour, and ended up doing two. I signed a waiver, got an orange vest, a grabby stick, a trash bag, a free mini-ClifBar, and a pretty nice stainless steel souvenir water bottle.  Then I got the mini-lecture on trash (pick it up) versus archaeology (leave it alone!) and I was ready to go.

Picking up trash is not what I expected. I definitely knew there’d be grossities- chewed bubblegum for starters (though the main items tended to be either popsicle sticks or fruit barcode stickers). I didn’t count on the difficulty of trying to drop trash into my bag during the most blustery day of the week without the bag blowing open and all my carefully gleaned trashy bits spilling out everywhere. I definitely think the gripper sticks could be more ergonomic – how hard it is to make a handle with finger grips and angle the stick just a little differently so a person doesn’t get carpal tunnel. Whine, whine. The grippy end was amazing, though – I could pick up a tiny bit of paper in one try, and that is not due to any skill that I possess other than decent hand-eye coordination.

photo 2The two hours went by pretty fast, and I began to notice that people noticed me more often. Walking around alone in a crowded National Park is a great way to get ignored or get weird stares. When I was walking around alone with my Bag of Nasty and my grippy stick, I got smiles and sometimes chitchat. What a hero! I also discovered that, after my two hours and my 0.6 pounds of trash (not a great haul, but honestly the place had really been cleaned up by the time I stepped up), I couldn’t stop looking down at the ground for more trash. Afterward, I sat on a bench in front of the Ansel Adams Gallery and immediately counted 4 cigarette butts on the ground. I didn’t pick them up. I’d already picked up 47 butts on my trash duty. Yes, I counted the butts I picked up, and I think 47 is actually a very low number based on what I saw in other people’s bags. Anyone out there who doesn’t put his or her cigarette butts in a trashcan – you are not cool. The earth is not your ashtray.

I say all this, Miss High and Mighty, but there was one bit of trash I didn’t pick up. I saw it – a dried out buttwipe behind a tree – and I hesitated. And then, no. No no no. Not even with my three-foot grippy stick. Not a hero. But I tried.

field notes

 

Banana Slugs are so-named because they look like overripe bananas – bright yellow with brown spots. Up to 25 centimeter long, they’re almost as big as bananas – maybe petite bananas – and that makes them the second biggest slugs in the world. The first one I ever saw, scooching its way across an uneven terrain of grass, pine duff, and leaves, looked like a dog turd. A really sick, sloppy, olive-green don’t-step-on-that dog turd.   I couldn’t figure out where the dog might be, way out here miles from anywhere in the woods along Washington’s Hammersley Inlet. And then the poop moved. I took pictures with my phone.

 

Everybody loves Banana Slugs. No – they do.   UC Santa Cruz chose the Banana Slug as its mascot. Without looking, I’m sure there’s more than one Twitter account with a Banana Slug tweeting away about how awesome it is to be slimy and hermaphroditic.   I for one wouldn’t mind being able to breathe through my skin. Banana Slugs move pretty slowly though – like, six inches a minute – so there’s that. And it begs to be told (if you don’t already know, you hipster Banana Slug fan, you) that they’re known to engage in some pretty gruesome post-coital behavior: ahem, a Banana Slug will gnaw off its own penis once the deed is done. Don’t judge.

 

Terrestrial gastropods like Banana Slugs also have tongues with teeth (called radulas – toothy rasps used for scraping up the good bits to eat), two pairs of tentacles for seeing and smelling, and a lung that opens up to the air for breathing.

 

The Banana Slug that I almost stepped on was Ariolimax columbianus, quite at home as a native of the Pacific Northwest’s coastal rainforests. Apparently one of the best ways to differentiate the three different species of Ariolimax is by comparing penises (pre-chewed, one would assume). I did not, however, have any basis for comparison in that regard, so my best guess is columbianus.

 

They like to creep along the forest floor, munching on dead leaves, animal scat, and other goodies. This is when that radula comes in handy. Banana Slugs are the detritivores, the ones who clean up after the rest of us like organic street sweepers, spreading seeds and spores around and making new soil, new life, out of death and decay. Also they love mushrooms, which makes them gourmands.

 

Raccoons, snakes, and ducks love to gulp slugs, which isn’t too surprising when you consider that human beings love mollusks too, like mussels and oysters. The Yurok ate Banana Slugs, and today there’s even a Banana Slug Festival every year along California’s Russian River, where the principal goal of the culinary contest seems to be trying to make slugs at most palatable. The challenge continues, as does the animal rights controversy. Raccoons have solved this problem – the icky taste of Banana Slug slime – by tossing the slugs around in dirt and duff, possibly like rolling a chocolate truffle in powdered cocoa. But different.

 

Nothing wrong with different, when you’re essential to an ecosystem. We need slugs. And they’re not pests – the garden slugs that eat vegetable crops are actually an invasive species called European Black Slugs.   I know why everybody thinks Banana Slugs are cool.   They’re not beautiful, but…they are. They’re part of everything else, just like us.

field notes

field notes

On a summer afternoon walk in the rain, I watched storm clouds rolling over Jackson Hole in massive clots of darkness.  Near a streetcorner, I passed the open back door of a dry cleaner’s.  Despite the rumble of thunder and the drone of industrial vents, I heard a soft whirring noise.  I immediately glanced around me for a hummingbird; I knew that unmistakable sound of wings.  Down near my feet, in a landscaped plot of drooping wet yellow lilies, I saw movement among the flowerheads.

It wasn’t a hummingbird.  Instead, a moth the size of a hummer, with intricate brown, pink and white lined wings, darted in between the lilies.  It hovered while delicately sipping from the flower throats, and I wondered at the immense weight of its body carried on fragile wings so aerodynamically.  I watched for a while, until suddenly the moth flew up higher and zipped through the dry cleaner’s door, disappearing among the rotating racks of clothing.

Later, I found a photograph of a White-Lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata).  The sphinx, or hawk moths, of the family Sphingidae, sometimes fly by day and are mistaken for hummingbirds.  Not only are their wingspans approximately the same as the smaller birds, but these moths pollinate similar flowers, they’re often brightly colored, and their wings make the same humming noise.   Sphinx moths are among the masters of maneuvering flight in the winged world.  They can fly backwards, dip, and dive.

Their most remarkable feat is their ability to hover before huge blossoms while drinking nectar.   The majority of flying insects move their wings in true hovering flight.  Moths use more than the upstroke and downstroke typical of winged flight.   The Hummingbird Hawk Moth (Macroglossum stellatarum), like the Ruby Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), beats its wings at around 70 beats per second, the fastest of all birds and moths.  Hawk Moth wings can rotate almost 180 degrees as they sweep cyclically from front to back in a figure eight motion.   The naked eye sees a quick blur of color, but the scrutiny of high-speed photography and insect morphology allows us a better understanding.

In hummingbirds, all this is possible because the wing bones are short and nearly inflexible, and a loose shoulder joint allows for pivotal movement greater than any other bird.  But in insects, this phenomenon occurs with boneless wings.  At the base of each wing are several sets of powerful muscles.  Two sets of unattached, or “indirect” muscles contract alternately to cause surface changes on the insect’s body.  Because a wing is an outgrowth of an insect’s body wall, these surface changes can actually move a wing up and down.   Meanwhile, four sets of attached, or “direct” muscles tug a wing forward, backward, and in a rotary path.  Sphinx moth forewings are also narrow and tapered for greater speed.  These moth wings have the thickest veins along the front edge, providing the strength and rigidity necessary for their dexterous flight performance.

Insects are are the oldest winged beings.  From flower to flower, they have been pollinating the earth for about 350 million years, and their evolution is closely linked to that of flowering plants. Insect wings evolved from accessory appendages, unlike birds, whose wings are modified limbs.  A bird first takes to the sky through the teaching of parents, but when an insect flies for the first time, it is untaught flight.  While feathers are amazing and functional works of natural art, the wings of Lepidoptera (the butterflies and moths) have their own “feathers.”  The name of their order comes from the Greek for “scale wing.”  Each moth wing is layered with hundreds of infinitesimal scales which protect the wing’s membrane and refract light into color, much like the feathers of a hummingbird’s throat.  Linnaeus himself organized only the insect orders by the characteristics of their wings.

As I watched the sphinx moth fly into the dry cleaner’s, I reflexively and wrongly thought of moth-eaten sweaters and mothballs.  Now, I think of ancient wings, of creatures that inhabit the skies of night and storm, searching for flowers.  I will remember this the next time I hear the familiar sound of whirring wings, and wonder if I might indeed be mistaking a hummingbird for a sphinx moth.

field notes

If I were a wood nymph or a tiny fairy, I would wear purple skirts made out of rock clematis petals.  They’re perfect and so fashionable!  Bees and flies might try to pollinate me, but that would be okay.

Rock clematis (Clematis columbiana) is a perennial vine that’s native to the Rocky Mountains.   With about 300 other species, including sugarbowls, it belongs to the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae.

Sometimes called Virgin’s Bower (which actually applies to a sister plant, Clematis ligusticifolia), this delicate little creeper blooms in June and July in the Tetons.  I took a photo while hiking up Josie’s Ridge in Jackson in early June.  Josie’s is a well-known local cardio-grunt with a quick elevation gain from the trailhead, right off the bike path near Flat Creek.  The steep slope up to the ridge is host to a succession of amazing wildflowers all summer long.

Looking southwest from atop Josie's Ridge, Wyoming.
Looking southwest from atop Josie’s Ridge, Wyoming.

 

When Clematis columbiana goes to seed and loses its fragile lavender petals, it’s no less beautiful.  The seedheads fluff into frondy white tendrils.  They’d make great fairy pompoms.

Clematis columbiana-2, by Mary Vaux Walcott

Mary Vaux Walcott (1860-1940), an American watercolorist, painted numerous wildflowers of the Rocky Mountains and other botanicals, including these lovely images of Clematis.

Clematis columbiana-1, by Mary Vaux Walcott

field notes