Last weekend I took photos of the magnolia seed pods and sent them to a friend, who exclaimed: “what an awesome praying mantis!”
I hadn’t even noticed the creature when I clicked the shutter. So, I thought, how many photos do I have with accidental critters in them? A few. But if I expand the concept, I have a great many images of life among the flowers.
Most, but not all, of these images have animals among the blossoms. Human animals included. In a few, like the first, the wildlife is invisible. It’s been a colorful year!
Fairy house on Capitol Hill
Poodles Lily & Laika in Congressional Cemetery
Compulsive Gardener Glee
Jose visits from the Left Coast
Lynn and her lovely daughters, plus Hunter
Laurels blooming on NoName Road
Pollinators at work
Blogger in Bliss
Silver-bordered Fritellary on Echinacia
Boats & Day Lilies
Zebra Swallowtail on Buttonbush
Lotus in the Mattawoman, flood tide. Who swims below?
My paddle felt familiar in my hands, even after 18 months without setting sail in my lovely battered plastic kayak. A twice-postponed trip came about, at last, on a perfect day.
This is an easy to have a boat, really. It’s plastic, it floats even when full of water. No ports or holes in the hull to leak, nothing to rot. Very little gear required.Just get it on and off the car, drag it to the water, shove off and…. ahhh.
There is nothing like that glide, the feel sound and smell of the water all around you. Such a smooth flowing sensation, and the sound of the dip, pull, swirl, lift, dripping, and repeat again, finding your rhythm, it’s exquisite, it’s ancient, it’s instinctive.
We all know it’s lovely to look at:
My local kayaking river is the lovely The Mattawoman Creek, a short tributary of the very long Potomac River. Hailed as one of the most pristine river ecosystems in the state, Mattawoman is prized as a trophy bass nursery. The river also hosts increasingly scarce anadromous fish like shad, alewife and herring. Mattawoman’s sweet, wild, water is much appreciated by birds and fish, fisherman and paddlers. I love it because it’s still pure enough to swim in.
Those Magnificent Flying Things
The bird count wasn’t spectacular, but the bird behavior was great. I watched a gang of male red-wing blackbirds harassing a large white Egret, buzzing the tall bird, who ducked and squualked and lunged at them comically. Later we saw the white bird flying, still trailed by hostile red-wings. Real-life Angry Birds!!
Osprey were on the hunt all up and down the stream. More than once I saw them flying with a nice fish in their claws, back to the brood, or for lunch on a favorite branch. They look like a loaded bomber, carrying their cargo below, but there is no way they’ll let that fish go until they’re ready.
Later, a half dozen swallow fledglings begged fitfully on a low hanging branch as mum and dad ably demonstrated hunting on the wing. I paddled right up to them, and they just eyed me, until I spoke. That always breaks the spell. They flew away with perfect grace.
Flora in Abundance
The rivers edge is lined with waterplants,: wild rice, cattail, pickeral weed with its lavender spike, spatterdock, the round yellow waterlily and her cousin the American Lotus, which is just beginning its glorious blooming season. These unfurl huge platter-sized leaves that repel water, rolling it into rounded pools like mercury. And the grand blossoms sway on tall stems, each cream petal large enough to drink from. Apparently a thoroughly edible plant, this lotus is found throughout north America
We only saw a few in full bloom, but plenty more ready to burst into bloom in weeks to come. The showy redwings perched on them for lovely effect.
Changes in the Water
Over the 11 years I’ve paddled and swum this river I’ve seen it grow cloudier, more weed choked. That’s the imprint of increased sediment and nutrient load resulting from upstream development. Although a short river (30 miles) it runs through some active DC exurb communities where sand and gravel pits are evolving into subdivisions. Runoff and erosion are inevitable result of this activity, unless mindful steps are taken to prevent it.
It’s still clean enough to swim in, but its not as clear as it was 10 years ago. The water is murky from silt, and Hydrilla weed chokes the shallows, fed by human and farm waste, plus suburban lawn chemicals. The Mattawoman’s productivity as a fish nursery is measurably declining, particularly in the last decade.
You Can Help
There are steps you can take to help local improve your local watershed health, but it does require some adjustment of behavior.
STOP using chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides on your lawn. Let there be many grasses, clover, even dandelions in your yard! Consider replacing some or all of your lawn with a better habitat for birds, wildlife, butterflies.
CAPTURE and reuse rainwater for gardening, or at least divert it to disperse into the soil.
REPLACE impermeable surfaces with permeable pavers to allow rain water to filter through the earth instead of running into sewers, which washes waste and toxic residues into the local waterways.
GO OUT & ENJOY the beauty and diversity of the waterways, and share your experiences, especially with children.
Dip. Splash. Rustle of cattails. Flop! a fish jumps. Cry of the osprey. Swish, drip, dip, repeat. Breathe. The kayak can take you into intimate shallow glades, where fish drowse amid the water weeds, where birds don’t notice you watching them as they catch bugs, pick berries, gather nest material. The rusted remains of a gravel dredge now creates a sculpture garden where turtles sunbathe.
It’s right there, just outside your window: an incredible world filled with (magic, love, science, energy, mystery, god, light, LIFE). A world where the smallest thing is vital, integral to the whole. Where your breath is as necessary as air, where angels really do dance on the head of a pin.
Just step outside and let the modern din, as alluring as it is, fade back. Listen: bird, plane, crickets, another bird, grasses waving. Look: sky filled with clouds like wings, deepening from white to cream to gold in the lengthening light.
It can be so easy to miss, these things, what with all the worries in your world: hurry, money, late, bills, gallop through your day, always reaching further than you fear you can reach. No room for the moment when a Damsel Fly (some call them darners) lands on your hand. She chooses you as the stable place to unfurl new wings. To accustom her new body to air before lifting off.
See the rainbows in her stained-glass wings. See the green-gold scales, irridescent armour protecting her beating heart. See the bulbous insect eyes, comically large, that see your world through a kaleidescope. She’s tender, pulsing, driven by hunger, born to move in the world, alive. She lifts off your hand, ready to fly.
I met her while kayaking earlier this week on the Mattawoman River. Considered one of the last pristine rivers in Maryland, it’s a major nursery for sport fish and other wildlife.
Just a little ways away, right now, lotuses are furling for the night, their generous cups closing until dawn. Their velvet green leaves, big as dinner-plates, ripple, floating. Droplets of water beading like mercury. beads and rolls off the rich . The water is warm silk, the boat parts the way through the lotus forest, somehow not an intruder. Green frog with satisfied grin watches from a floating leaf island. His tiny cousin climbs aboard. Small as a fingernail and perfectly froggy in every way; his orange eyes blink, unafraid.
Froggy rides with us further upriver. This creature that swam below the surface just days ago now sails through the upper world. He lost his swimmer’s tail ashe grew strong legs, preparing to begin a new life above the mirror’s surface. Now he’s on the prow of our craft. vivid green-apple green, skin patterned with leaf-llke veins, fading to cool lemon-white on his belly, punctuated toes ready to grasp or release; dead useful.
We paddle against wind and current, a proud craft with figurehead on the prow. Somewhat later, scratching ashore on gravel bank, Froggy debarks into his uncertain future. Happy hunting, my friend.
Here in this water our life begins, our sustenance is generated, life arises again and again every moment. Sun spun to sugar, consumed by tiny creatures that feed the tadpole, destined to be frog. CO2 into oxygen, caterpillar to butterfly, jellied egg to trophy bass, muddy seed to transcendent lotus: the everyday miracles are countless, and everywhere you look.
Now the sun slips below and only the high wings of the sky still beam us light. Tree swallows begin their dusk ballet and we glide on the outgoing tide, motionless, while the birds fly low and fast over the water snatching their evening meal. They pass so close we hear the flap of feathery wings rustle, as if we were invisible to them.
The lifeblood of these creatures flows around us, buoying the boat, carrying food and messages, pulsing with a heartbeat of current and tide. What happens miles away will determine the story here.
One day when you mow your lawn and dump the clippings in that low spot behind the garage, you may notice a little water moving.The grass clippings, lush with fertilizer, send plant nutrients trickling down, from drain to ditch to creek to river and sea. En route, your contribution joins all the other small amounts of fertilizer and excrement ultimately fouling the River and Bay as they feed great green clots of algae that suck all the oxygen from the water, creating ‘dead zones’ where no fish or crabs can live.
It’s a messenger, the water. It carries your chemical story into their world, but returns a message as well. Listen: in that quiet little shimmer there’s a pulse, a movement not unlike your own. I’m heading to the sea, taking your messages with me. Don’t you want to come along?
River gets bigger, finally spreads out into shimmering marsh lands, whole worlds of wild rice, spatterdock, pickeralweed and lotus, where young bass grow up to be sport fish. Where green frogs grin and lotuses unfurl and soaring birds eat their fill of flying things over the sunset river. You belong here, too.