Tuesday, February 9, 2021

I Miss Summer: A Soliloquy

Winter is a time for reflection. Not intentionally, it just happens. In the fall I feel a sense of relief that the weather has begun to cool and the year comes to its inevitable conclusion. There's also a feeling of remorse as nature seems to die and the days become monochrome and bleak. Nature is taking its annual nap, and although there are small signs of life returning to what has seemed a desolate wasteland, I still long for summer. I miss bees, wasps, and flowers. Watching life other than my own unfold in front of my eyes in the garden or in the wild is a welcome break from my excessively important human problems. If you read that in a sarcastic voice, you are correct.

Eriogonum pyrolifolium var. coryphaeum with a mason bee (Osmia sp.)

Color! I miss color. Spring and summer, from a winter perspective anyway, was full of color. Of course in summer I'm complaining about heat. Aren't us humans fickle? Bees and wasps don't worry about such things. I doubt whether insects can worry at all. They're also probably incapable of envy, unlike myself. Insects have significantly fewer neurons than humans, but they're far from unintelligent. How do you even measure intelligence in non humans? Humans are good at doing human things, but we would probably fail at doing everything a bee does with as much efficiency as they have.

Poppies provide no nectar, but produce a plentitude of pollen!
Consider nest building. I can barely manage to keep my apartment clean, but bees make nests without plans while working together, and they keep their nests impeccably tidy. My apartment, on the other hand, is a walk in fire hazard. The word hovel comes to mind. Solitary bees usually build simple nest tunnels, though for them housekeeping is a matter of life and death. Insects have many parasites and their developing young are particularly vulnerable to attacks from an array of diseases and parasites. Fortunately, as a human, we're immune to everything. Except car accidents. And coronavirus. And poor life choices. Oh, never mind.
Small bee, impressive proboscis.
Insect morphology is perfectly adapted to their livelihoods, quite literally. See the tongue (proboscis, actually) on this bee above? Many types of bees are adapted to forage on a specific variety of flower types. Some specialists are adapted to forage on a single species. Humans don't have this kind of specialization. We're more like swiss army knives, able to do a lot of different things but not great (without great effort) at any one thing. The same life-specialization can be observed in all insects. Humans need years of training and practice to become specialized, but it's not built-in.
Wasps are cool. I miss wasps. And, by extension, I miss aphids even though they suck! But they attract some of the most peculiar wasps. There are several aculeate (having stingers) and parasitoid (having ovipositors, egg laying appendages) wasps that prey specifically on aphids, not to mention ladybird beetles, lacewings, and other predatory arthropods which destroy the little suckers in varied fantastical ways. Aculeate aphid predators collect the aphids to provision nests to feed their young. Parasitoids interpolate their eggs directly into the aphids body using an ovipositor, with the larvae feeding on the living and (sometimes) paralyzed host.
Squash bee butts in a squash blossom
Bees, the hippie cousins to wasps, are also pretty darn cool. Growing squash in my garden guarantees squash bees. It was reassuring to look into the male flowers of a squash blossom on a summer morning and seeing cute little squash bee butts. No matter how my week had been, I knew I could count on that. Gardening has been a great outlet for stress and related maladies of my human life. It was and continues to be a great and effective distraction. I wish I had the focus of a bee whose objectives are objectively simple and straightforward. They are literally grown to fulfill the needs of their lives. Humans have too much freedom. Free will sometimes feels like my enemy. In my modern human world I have the option to do nothing and it won't result in my death (not quickly, anyway). If a bee were to do nothing for an afternoon, death would surely result from dehydration or predation.
Bombus bifarius and Orthocarpus cuspidatus on Mt Ashland, fits like a glove!
I've recently been trying to resist the urge to feel resentment towards humanity for the negative effects our species has had towards the environment. There is no denying that destruction of habitat and pollution have been devastating to the natural world and its denizens. There's no question that I contribute to the destruction of nature in various ways, least of which is likely a significant carbon footprint. But we, too, are part of nature. We are apes able to contemplate our own existence and we make things like houses, cell phones, and pencils. Bees make nests out of mud, leaves, and a variety of excretions (like beeswax). These things made by bees are part of nature. By extension, are things make by humans part of nature? A ball point pen may take a lot longer to break down in the soil. We need to start looking for fungi that can eat plastic.
A eumenine wasp (or maybe something else) on Angelica capitellata
I feel like gardening is one way I can give back to nature. Instead of the clean and sterile tea rose garden, or the barren commercial landscapes adorning all the best Walmart Supercenters, I prefer a more feral garden. Fungi freely send mycelium through natural and diverse mulches, plants share the same soil where one cannot discern where one plant ends and the other begins, and insects do as they will with little interference from the gardener. Walk into a forest, and plants know no bounds. And so it is in my garden. In this way, life can do its thing. Life goes on under the mulch throughout the winter, and I find solace in that, despite what appears to be a dead cold landscape.
A weird fly does yoga on Aconitum columbianum
My garden is just a microcosm of the gardens grown in nature. Currently covered in snow, the garden on Mt Ashland is a playground for my mind and soul. I find that this is the only context I ever mention my soul. I don't know what a soul is, but the wilds of the mountains here are good for mine. Words fail to capture what the blooms of summer in the mountains means to me. So I'll stop writing now.

The best thing I could ever do is share nature with my kids. They are my favorite flowers.