My Heart Pines

Fourteen months ago I wrote Ode to Pinus Strobus, showing my respect for the mighty pines that inhabit our woods. Curiously, it was a rainy day then. And today dawned the same, though even more curiously, today we turned the calendar to December 1, yet the temperature rose to 57˚, like a summer day as we approach winter in western Maine.

Needing a fresh-air break mid-day, I ventured into our woodlot, where part of a fertile fern clinging to a dead tree branch about five feet above the ground garnered my attention. How did it end up on the tree, I wondered. Given that I’d been picking up branches from last night’s gale-force winds, I suspected it had somehow been torn from the rest of the frond and blew onto the branch. Maybe.

Below it, perched in a more stable manner, was a half eaten pine cone and this time my interpretation was much clearer for frequently I’ve been scolded by a Red Squirrel on this trail. He must have been dining on a branch above, out of danger’s way, and for some reason I don’t know, let the cone slip from his front paws where it fell and landed between a branch stub and piece of bark that was partly dislodged from the tree.

A glimpse at the base and I was 98% certain my story was correct for a large midden or refuse pile of cone scales and cobs removed by Red in order to consume two tiny seeds located inside each scale decorated the forest floor.

Because I circled the tree to further examine the midden, and because it was raining, I shouldn’t have been surprised by my next find, but the froth that forms on pines as the result of a chemical interaction when rain drops pick up oils and air in the bark furrows bubbles through that oily film and the end result is pine soap never ceases to amaze me. Plus I love the rainbow colors.

With great patience, I watched the drops drip onto the froth and realized that if I counted to twelve I might get to see a drop just before it let go.

And could almost capture its journey.

As if that wasn’t enough to make my day, I was stepping away from the tree when I discovered a hickory nut on the edge of the midden. One of the manners in which a Red Squirrel opens a hickory nut is to split it in half. Notice the grooves along the edge created by the squirrel’s incisors.

By this time, I was hungry and maybe a wee bit damp, and ready to follow the path home, but . . . a sudden look at the tree’s bark, and I spied life.

The life of a slug is interesting and not to be rushed. No longer was I.

For almost an hour I watched four slugs as they moved at their own slow pace into and out of the furrows of the pine. These terrestrial gastropods (gastro=stomach; pod=foot) create a layer of mucus that they secrete so that the “foot” under almost the entire length of their bodies can move rather smoothly.

Their heads include two sets of tentacles that they can retract (and grow back should they lose one). The upper tentacles are light sensitive and have eyespots at the tip of the stalks. They also use these to smell.

The lower tentacles are for feeling and tasting.

And then there’s the mouth, that funky-looking line to the left of the tentacles in this photo. The radula is a tongue-like organ covered with thousands of raspy tooth-like protrusions–the better to scrape or brush particles from the surface of a tree or plant.

Here’s another cool fact about snails; they are hermaphrodites, meaning each one has both male and female sex organs.

As my snails headed in each and every direction, I at last pulled away, though I did stop to examine other trees on my way home, but found nothing else to look at. 😉 Or at least, nothing else to report.

An hour or more later, I slipped out the door again, curious to check on the action upon that one pine. The fern had blown to the ground. The cone was still lodged between the branch stub and bark. The rain had slowed and froth diminished, though remnants of it remained. The hickory nut had disappeared. And I could only find one slug who was making its way to the safety of its underground habitat.

But . . . because I went back, I spotted an Assassin Bug.

For those who love to wander and wonder, I hope you’ll be still and have an experience similar to what this tree offered me today.

My heart pines . . . naturally.

Sluggish Moments

It’s not every day that someone shares time with a slug, but this morning that’s exactly what I did. It had poured until about 5:30am, so the conditions were prime.

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Actually, I was hunting for a spring peeper that frequents one garden and the grasshoppers that live in another, when a spot of orange caught my attention. And so I bent down for a closer look.

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A slug is like a snail without a shell, which makes it vulnerable to dehydration. That’s why we only see them foraging on rainy or cloudy days. I suppose we should think of slugs as weather predictors, much the same way common polypody indicates the temperature. Of course, if you look under leaf cover in the garden, you’ll surely find them as well, no matter what the weather is. Cool and damp conditions prevail in their world view.

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As Mr. Slug munched on a mushroom at my feet, I admired the pattern on his back and thought about my past experiences with slugs. I’ve licked their backs because I’d heard that they release a chemical which works like a natural anesthetic, thus providing a cure for toothaches. The numbness did last for a short period of time. That being said, my nursing friends encouraged me to stop because slugs may also carry parasites. And so I did.

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Since I was upclose and personal, I could see Mr. Slug’s two short antennae and even shorter eye stalks. Then there was his accordion-shaped mouth that he used to grasp and shred plant material. At first I thought he sucked it in, but as I watched, I could see the chewing motion.

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Being a mollusk like a clam or oyster, one might think about sautéing slugs. Or not. Really, I’m surprised my parents never tried that. Dad always sacrificed some beer so Mom could pour it into a tin pan in the garden to attract slugs. It worked–better for her than the slugs who thought they’d found the holy grail only to instead meet their fate. A perfect marinade. Thank goodness Mom and Dad didn’t think of that. But really, though slugs do have a bad reputation because they eat plant material in our gardens, they also play an important role as decomposers–of fungi and lichens and dead insects and plant material, all of which they turn back into soil.

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And here’s another curious thing about slugs–their mode of transportation. Remember their vulnerability to dehydration? Well, in order to move along they must create a slimy mucous. And so a chemical reaction occurs in their bodies causing them to secrete a sticky, slippery substance. That probably helps in keeping their predators, like toads and snakes and birds, at bay. Once they’ve moved on, it dries up.

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This morning, after we’d spent about a half hour together, Mr. Slug decide it was time to move on–toward the garden. It’s raining again as the sun sets and he’s probably slip sliding away across the yard in search of another feast.

ant

Because you stayed with me through my slug praise, dear reader, I thought you’d enjoy stopping by to wonder about a few pollinators like the ant that visited the milkweed. Did you know that insects get their feet caught in the sticky pollen sacs of the flower? They have to twist and turn as this one did while trying to get out. In the process, their feet get covered with pollen that they carry to the next flower.

bee

Pollinators come in all shapes and sizes, but I found one who looks like it wears a Halloween costume on a daily basis.

pollen

And this final pollinator of the day–loves to get totally immersed in its job.

I never did find the spring peeper today, and only one grasshopper, but my moments spent wandering and wondering were hardly sluggish.