The Great And Silent Feast

I felt the breeze…

I stumbled on a tree root when…

Finally, we reached the pond…

yardleaves

Concentrate. Start over.

When I was a teacher I was often given the dubious privilege of “lunch duty”. A room, nearly the size of a gym, filled with 5th & 6th graders…or 9th & 10th graders and a hand full of teachers produced a noise level that made it impossible to carry on a conversation or to even think about the hour before you. Sometimes on days when I didn’t have duty, I would retreat to the faculty lunch room. Even there, teachers talked about the students, the administration or their Valium prescription. Still, no time to think.

As a last resort, I would take my tray to my empty homeroom and eat alone. It occurred to me that I would appear antisocial…but at least I could think.

Once, perhaps a decade or so ago, I found a guidebook to monasteries, close to our home in Manhattan, that opened their doors to travelers…like a B & B with stained glass. Mariam and I found one, run by the Episcopal church, on the western side of the Hudson River. It was a large estate-like building that sat high above the river in the Hudson Highlands. It happened that we booked our room on a “quiet” weekend.

No talking allowed.

During the meals, all I could hear was the clinking of forks and spoons on the china plates. A whisper here and there…but otherwise, silence.

I could think.

On October 7, Mariam and I with our friends took a walk on the Silver Lake Bog trail. The sky was azure. The foliage was at a peak. Brilliant reds, yellows, copper and scarlet leaves mixed with the green conifers.

pineneedles

[Even the conifers lose their leaves (needles) in the autumn]

I hung back and walked alone. I stopped to listen. The gently falling leaves sounded like a light rain. I looked around me and realized that I had walked into a grand feast, a forested restaurant, a silent meal.

And, I could think.

A gentle sense of melancholy overcame me…it’s that time of year that evokes death and endings and dormant life.

lichentree

[This once-living tree is now being consumed by dozens of organisms]

Nearly everything I looked at was in the process of dying…or already dead. What was alive was consuming what was dead. This was considered to be a fairly dry summer, but you would never have guessed that from that bog or our front yard.  I have seen more fungi this October that I can recall.  My copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Mushrooms was used more than the previous decade.  It is now well dog-eared.

fungusinyard

It was like watching “The Walking Dead” with the roles reversed. Of course I have lived a life-time of seeing this every autumn, but on that day, the Big Picture came into focus more clearly and gave me the urge to put all this into words. I was a witness to the Great Cycle of Life. I know it’s a cliché, but there it was, all around me. The ground itself was covered by a blanket of moss and lichen that were feeding and consuming the organic material. The dead logs, many cleared from the trail by a chainsaw, were helpless to resist the countless fungi, moss, bacteria and water that were breaking a once tall and stately beech or maple or oak into mere molecules.

mossylog

[A dead log feeds a number of organisms]

And, all this was done in total silence and would continue even under three feet of snow and ice and temperatures of -37 degrees.

mossyground

[The ground cover of moss and lichen]

In six months, a small spore, a seed, a dormant larvae of a black fly would begin to revive and then bloom and the green would return.

Everything goes somewhere.  “Matter cannot be created or destroyed…it simply changes form”.  I think that’s Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics…but I could be wrong.  I stopped being a science teacher a decade ago.  Most things return in the spring.  Some things take a longer time…but sooner or later it all comes around again.

The exception, I hope, is lunch duty.

 

Cause and Effect: My Front Porch Dilemma

Image

Today, on my front porch, I was faced with a dilemma.  I was a witness to an act of nature, an act that is repeated a billion times each minute here in the North Woods.  If you factor in the endless variations on this particular situation that occur world-wide, then the number is incalculable.

But I was allowed a peak of only one such entanglement.  And, that is what it was.  An entanglement.  As I stepped off the porch onto the ramp leading to the new stone walkway, something caught the corner of my left field of vision.  It was under the cornice of the roof, you know, where the giant icicle grows from November until late April.  The mass of this ice, building drop by drop, grows into something large and frightening as a homegrown glacier.  Take a portion of Niagara Falls..drop the temperature to -75 degrees and you have an inkling of what drapes itself off the corner of our roof.  I’ve considered renting it out to ice-climbers for weekend workouts and crampon practice.

Thank heavens it’s over the guest room.

But I digress.

What caught my eye was a rather large dragon-fly.  We have hundreds of them on our back deck.  I, who have a revulsion to mosquitos, black flies, spiders, snakes and larger-than-mouse-size rodents (I can’t bring myself to even utter the word), find dragon flies beautiful and non-threatening.  It’s about the only flying insect in the entire Adirondacks that is non-threatening (you can’t count moths and Monarch butterflies).  The dragon-fly mates while flying and the males is upside-down and backwards, but delicate eyes and minors might be reading this blog so I can’t go into details.  One sat on my knee a few days ago.  It was so passive and friendly, I almost gave it a name and thought about taking it for a walk.  They don’t make leashes that small, however.

My appreciation for the dragon-fly increased 1,000 % when Mariam told me she saw one eating small gnat-like things in mid-flight.  Now, there’s a bug I can like.

So, here’s the problem: this particular fly was caught in a single strand of spider web material.  As I stood looking at it, I didn’t notice the gossamer web and I thought the fly was levitating.  I knew they were really cool, but still…

I had forgotten about seeing the spider’s web a few days before.  I asked Mariam if I should swipe it away…not a good thing for visitors to see as they approach our front door.  We thought for a moment and decided to leave it unmolested.  After all, you don’t have to be Charles Darwin or John Muir to know that spiders eat insects.  (Remember, I don’t like insects…or spiders, so that was a whole other dilemma for another blog).

Back to the imprisoned dragon-fly.  I hadn’t noticed the web so I tickled it ever so slightly.  It jumped to life and tried to fly away.  But it was caught by the spider.

That’s the moment when the enormity of the situation hit me like a lug nut flying off a truck on 7th Avenue.  Should I walk away, not interfering with the cycle of nature and let the spider feast on the fly?  Or, should I deprive the spider of its honestly won reward of good home-made fly goo?

I couldn’t help but to insert the human factor (mine) into this picture.  “Take Nothing But Pictures & Leave Nothing But Footprints” is what all the signs tell us when we are in an area of great natural beauty.  And, this scene on my porch was natural beauty.

My choices were simple: do nothing and let nature “happen” i.e., the fly gets eaten, or free the fly.  Now if I interfered by freeing the fly, said fly would, hopefully, go off to eat more insects that annoyed the hell out of me.  I win.  The dragon-fly wins.  The spider loses.

Before I raised my hand, I considered further ramifications.  If the fly dies early for lack of food, he/she may not have a chance to reproduce, thus lessening the overall number of spider in the future.  If I let the fly die, there may not be time to reproduce, thus lessening the future generation(s) of dragon flies.  Therefore, more annoying insects.

I tried to project this dilemma into the distant future.  One pair of dragon flies can, conceivably, be responsible for millions of future generations of their species.  The same goes for the spider.  My actions, in the real natural world, would have far-reaching consequences.

I decided to take a moral leap into the unknown.  I freed the dragon-fly.  It didn’t hang around long enough to thank me.  Probably because it had some time in the web contemplating its short term future.  They’re not that stupid.

What made me decide to do what I did?  I think it was, while I was mulling the situation over, I was attacked by a mosquitos.

I deprived the mosquito of future generations by smashing it into a bloody spot on my forearm.