Field report

It’s high summer. We have had some reprieve from the heat, so days are merely warm to hot, not searing. Apparently a polar vortex, much the same as this past winter, is keeping us cooler than usual. If so, then the climate research at my place of employment, Rutgers University, indicates that these vortices may be the result of the increasing instability of the Arctic climate, and that likely means will be paying for this perfect weather eventually, years or decades down the line, when we’ve largely forgotten how stunningly beautiful this July has been.

Otherwise, it’s a July like any other, and at the store and farm stands, there’s still lots of pint containers of blueberries stacking up, and the peaches have been coming in now too. I bring them home a bit hard still so they get here without bruising, put them in a brown paper bag that goes on top of the fridge for a few days to ripen them, and then you only get them a little while before they become a bruised and soggy pulp even with the advantage of modern refrigeration, but you bite into that peach within that brief time of perfection, and they’re so ripe, succulent, and sweet that the taste just explodes across your tongue and cheeks and obliterates all other consciousness. There’s only peach and the craving for more.

That’s how I feel about these dry, sunny days too, when we’re fortunate to have them. Today the boy and I headed out across the preserved open space near the house on an agenda, but it felt so good to be out that just being out seemed sufficient purpose. And while the only human presence seemed to be one of the farmers working on a rotary tiller attachment, the rest of the living universe seemed to be rising up to meet that sun, especially when we rounded the bridge over the creek and came across the front of a thousand-square-foot patch of red clover. The stunning number of butterflies caught our eye first, flitting about the tops of the flowers on stalks of clover two feet high. There were dozens of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, in male-yellow and female-black, and even more abundant Red Admirals. We saw a Monarch in the mix, and there were Black Swallowtails and Red-Spotted Purples too. Perhaps less showy, and certainly smaller, were abundant Clouded Sulphurs. When a pair of Clouded Sulphurs would meet, they would fly at and about each other in an ascending dance that would bring them about fifteen or more feet in the air and then they’d flitter back down.

Once we moved close enough to the clover, the sound of bees became quite loud, and we could see a bumblebee attending nearly any every blossom that didn’t already have a butterfly. There were also several bee-mimic moths, or Snowberry Clearwings, in with the bumblebees, which was striking, as I’ve only seen one or two a season and generally consider them a bit unusual.

And then as we got right up to the clover there was a wave of grasshoppers leaping up, if they were low and within a few feet from us, or leaping further into the clover if they were already close to blossom level. I haven’t made much effort to learn to identify grasshoppers, or distinguish among katydids, or the like. But now I feel I ought to. We saw large dusty looking ones, and smaller darker ones with yellow and red striped markings. In any case, we didn’t have a net, and didn’t stop to catch any for a closer look. We could have easily though: that wave kept leaping up and out from us as long as we walked by the clover, and in a lesser fashion in the grass that followed.

But we did have a purpose. It annoyed the boy that I kept pausing, but there were Summer Azures and Pearl Crescents to admire. At one point an Indigo Bunting – that’s a bird now, not an insect – flew quickly past, and I wanted to follow, but relented, and we took the fork of the path that headed down toward the shade of the woods and alongside the creek. On the cattle fences along the path birds lined up with keen attention to the boiling layers of insect life. Eastern Kingbirds, each one looking as if someone had just dipped the very tip of their tails in a can of white paint and they were just going to hold themselves stiff and tall to ignore that indignity, were spread out on the topmost wire at each stretch of fencing, with Eastern Phoebes bunched a bit tighter on the intermediary strands. Tree and barn swallows were in flight, the barn swallows at times swooping by less than a couple feet away.

The creek  was drier even than I expected, so we made good time walking along the rocky bed to the area I had in mind.

There we squatted by the water, turning over rocks looking for ones that held creatures we could take back home to look at under the microscope. The water there at the creek is clear and quite good, if the tiny, dark peeper frogs that seemed to be leaping everywhere are any indication, and I’m pretty sure that they are. There were certainly many tadpoles swimming about, from medium sized to definitely bullfrog, that hadn’t made their transformation, though this late in the season, I’m not quite sure what they’d be waiting for.

Almost instantly we turned over a small craggy rock whose underside held several sinuous and sinister-looking insect larvae. Damselfly perhaps? That rock and an ample amount of creek water went into a plastic container sealed up into a freezer storage bag. We kept poking around and turning over rocks large and small, partly or fully submerged. Then I hit on one, a reddish rock a bit smaller than a baseball, that I pulled out of the water and turned to look at its wet side. It was crawling with flatworms and water pennies, tiny, flat, crustacean-like larvae of a small round water beetle.

I held the rock between my thumb and middle finger and stared at it, astonished at all the movement, watching the tiny worms and the turtle-y beetle larvae make their slow progress around the rock. With all the world seemingly rising up mid-summer to watch, eat, and enjoy, I felt really happy to be watching that in microcosm on a rock crawling with exquisitely small aquatic life. There was for a moment a genuine sense of kinship.

The rock and its infinitesimal occupants then went into another plastic container to be sealed into another freezer storage bag. I feel very privileged to have this experience, and to be able to bring these creatures back to the house for further examination. Everyone should be able to walk to a stream with water clean enough to offer a similar experience.

And in the midst of all this celebration of active, striving, hungry life, contemplating the nearly microscopic brought a small measure of peace to my dread of mortality. It’s not bad to think of my body giving up its hold on form and letting each individual remaining cell collapse back into an undifferentiated slime of organic matter if at some far end of the process I can imagine that matter being sucked back up again into tiny moving forms  all keyed to organizations many orders of different from my own.

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