Category Archives: The love of writing

Where I love to write.

On the lacewing

Last week I saw fuzz on my windshield. My car does not suffer from the disease of cleanliness . I smudged the fuzz across my windshield, which added to the decor of bird poop, glass chips and cracks. More fuzz. Just as my thumb went into action, I paused. I recognized that fuzz. I leaned closer and focused on the fuzz. It wasn’t fuzz, but several strands of what looked like thin monofilaments of fishing line with slim, yellow jelly beans hanging at the end of it. There was about a dozen jelly beans dangling from my windshield (and at least one smeared).

This was not fuzz. This was eggs (yes, I know it’s not gramatically correct). Eggs of the green lacewing (Family Chrysopidae). I had left my windows down overnight so the interior could enjoy the fresh night air (read: air it out because I left some unknown food in the floorboard). The green lacewing was drawn to my car as the perfect nesting sight. No predators there. For the past week they have gone with me to work. Little jelly beans stuck at the end of a frozen bungee cord. They sitting there in my line of sight, me wondering when they will hatch and what they will eat when they do (I should have left the food in there!). 

The lacewing is a delicate and beautiful insect that is well-named. And the aesthetics of its egg-laying habits serves a more important purpose than beauty. Just like a Kit-Kat is safer from me when it’s on top of the fridge instead of on the counter, tethered lacewing eggs are safer from predators than those laid on directly on the leaf.

Below are images from my car. Below those is a better picture of the eggs (courtesy of http://bugguide.net/) and one of the adult (courtesy of http://www.cirrusimage.com) .

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green_lacewing_new

And this is what they will look like when they emerge (courtesy of http://www.bugguide.net/).

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Father Goose

Father Goose

A fat, white goose lives on the lake. I think he must be domestic and possibly someone’s pet goose because he is here all winter. In winter, he stands in the lakeside yard of his choosing and to honk that this is his lake. From emergent logs of long-ago fallen trees he makes his proclamations to the cormorants who stand on other logs with their wings held out to dry. The fat, white goose roams like a bachelor around the lake. Your yard is his yard and he greedily accepts your handouts.

I have assigned the goose as a ‘he’ because he seemed grumpy and while a lady goose can be mean and disapproving, I don’t think she would be grumpy.*

With spring come other waterbirds, mostly mallard ducks. When two or three splash down into the lake the goose swims over to them. At first I assumed to chase them off, but he only swims with them. Maybe they exchange gossip (a slip of the fingers and I accidentally typed ‘goosip’ and then tittered at my clever fingers). When the mallards swim or fly away the fat, white goose finds another log pulpit upon which to preach and honk, using the lake surface as a megaphone. Perhaps he is grumpy because he is lonely.

About a month ago the goose abandoned loneliness. The goose had a family. A mallard hen and eight fuzzy ducklings had adopted and been adopted by the goose. They followed him around the pond as he honked, like was a tour guide highlighting the best features of the lake. Indeed, he led them into yards to forage. He showed them the best docks to sleep on for sun. And when any perceived danger arrived – say a curious kayaker or neighbor with a camera – he honked an alarm, splashed into the water with small ducklings plopping in after.

Yesterday while fishing I saw the goose with two of his flock. They were no longer fuzzy ducklings but had mature feathers, but not quite grown bodies. Teenagers. As I drifted by in my kayak the goose decided I was too close and honked for the two mallards to follow. As he went around the bend, they did not follow. They went in the exact opposite direction. I watched the goose – probably thinking the two teenagers were behind him – swim father away. When he turned and saw they had not followed he honked loudly and rapidly. The two mallards ignored him and did not answer. He honked and looked for them. They did not perceive the same danger and did as they wanted to. When the goose found them and rejoined them, I would like to say that he gave them a good goose scolding. But he didn’t. He simply followed them, doing the best that he could help them make the right decisions.

My own duckling is almost a year old. When I crawl on the floor, he follows me. When I walk into another room, he follows me. He trusts me completely. He wants to be near me and doesn’t question my decisions. I know one day that will change. I can only hope that when that day comes that I have the patience of a goose.

Father's day 2016
Me and my ducking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*It is possible that the goose is a ‘she’ but the themes are the same even if not the gender. There are plenty of mom’s who act as fathers and do a fine job.

Don’t judge an egg by its color

“The color of the [egg’s] shell is an indication of the breed of the hen and has no connection with the quality of the egg or its flavor.”

                                                                                                –From Joy of Cooking

Yard eggs (2)

Even though I know better and no matter what my go-to cookbook says, I still prefer brown eggs over white eggs. I will even sometimes pay a higher price for their well-tanned shells. This is illogical. And possibly heresy since I’m a scientist that makes his living on logic. But I am a scientist who is also human; sometimes my emotional brain vetoes my logical one. I am paying extra for an experience, not nutrition.

I grew up with chickens in the yard. Rhode Island Reds surveyed the grasses for bugs and spiders along with the Plymouth Rocks and an entire assortment of other Gallus domesticus. And most of these chickens laid brown eggs. Country eggs. Eggs of the land, not of the factory. My emotional brain is a romantic one and equates brown eggs with ‘natural.’ My emotional brain can be both a fool and easily fooled.

The shell is a protective canvas stretched over the egg, and its color is determined by the peculiarities of its painter, in this case, the breed of the hen. Some chicken breeds – like the Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rocks of my childhood – lay brown eggs. One of my students sells me eggs from her Ameraucana chickens, which lay an egg with a slight peak-a-boo of blue. But these yard birds are not overly industrious or even reliable egg layers; seeming to lay only if 13 leaves fall in the yard and not 17, or not laying out of spite because you were short on corn one day last week. If you’re an industry and a grocery store that relies on steady and predictable egg production then you need a less fickle and moody chicken.

Yard eggs
Locally produced yard eggs. If you look close, you can see a hint of blue on the pale eggs. The date is when they were laid. Eggs will last about one month in the fridge.

According to the American Egg Board, the most common commercial egg-laying hen is the Single-Comb White Leghorn. Leghorns have been the foundation of commercial egg production for over a century in the U.S. One industrious and determined Leghorn hen can lay 250 eggs. E.B. White suggested this expert layer is so dedicated that “…if she were on her way to a fire, [she] would pause long enough to lay an egg.” And Leghorns, champion of the commercial egg industry, lay white eggs, not brown eggs.

Arty eggs (4)

But brown eggs are romantic. They evoke pastoral scenes of cows skipping and chickens dancing with ducks on farms. White eggs come from dirty and possibly unethical factory farms. Those are city-folk eggs, not country-folk eggs. But I are city-folk now, in a way. I don’t have chickens so my eggs are mostly store-bought. Even though my brown eggs are probably factory farm eggs, I still want that connection to holding a chicken like I did as a kid or watching a hen with her feathered thighs chase June bugs on a summer evening. Brown eggs make me nostalgic for the country and I’m willing to pay for it.

Marketers know this, which is why labels like organic, all-natural, and etc. are plastered on products. Those labels come at a cost. I think when I sell my car I’ll say that’s its free-range and all-natural and increase the price by 40%.

While the color of the eggshell has no bearing on its nutrition, what the chicken eats does. Country or farm eggs – to me – often have a richer, more orange yolk. I assume that’s because their diet includes not just feed, but insects and seeds and whatever household scraps might get thrown into the yard. Which is why I am surprised to see on the more expensive, and supposedly better eggs, a label that says the eggs were laid by chickens fed a “Vegetarian Diet”. Chickens are not vegetarians. If they were, this would be exciting news to the world of grasshoppers and beetles and spiders. I can imagine a fly one day on the kitchen window reading the “Vegetarian Diet” label and misinterpreting that to mean that all chickens are now vegetarians. The fly, as busy a busybody as you’ll ever find, reports the news to hidden arthropod citizens of the backyard. Soon, backyards and frontyards and especially the barnyards erupt in ticker-tape parades. Arthropod newspapers splash headlines, “War Over: Chickens Vegetarians!”

And then as the celebrations slow and the grasshoppers and the beetles and the spiders mend whatever feuds they had before, they hear the padding of chicken feet. Their instincts make them tense, but they remember recent news. They don’t flee, they don’t hide. But they are still nervous as old terrors still haunt. A grasshopper says, “Joe, don’t worry. She’s a vegetarian. She only eats feed and seeds…Joe?” Before the grasshopper knows what happened to Joe he is in the throat of a supposed vegetarian. In the panic of his mind and as he wedges his powerful legs against the muscles of the chicken’s throat so he’s not crushed or drawn down to the crushing gravel pit of the chicken’s crop, the grasshopper feels betrayed by the fly and the egg carton. And then he realizes that, no matter what anyone says – be it fly or egg carton – chickens are birds and birds are predators. Even the soft, downy chicken will seize the juicy caterpillar in its beak and slam the caterpillar’s soft body into the ground until it resists no more and can be swallowed easily.

And this is part of the egg’s plan – to get the chicken to eat the grains and seeds and bugs and snails and worms and turn them into more eggs. To the egg, the debate of “which came first?” is nonsense. An egg cannot make more of itself so it created the chicken, a self-contained egg factory. One egg makes one chicken, but one chicken makes many eggs. If an egg could make another of itself, chickens would have never existed. In terms of evolution, the chicken is a vehicle driven by the egg. And now the egg has convinced us to take part in its evolutionary plan. It could not be more delighted that we chose to breed a chicken who dedicates its entire life to laying eggs.

I don’t mind being drafted into the egg’s army; I just wish our uniforms were brown instead of white.

A walk in the woods

Jamestown, VA

I strapped my son, Calvin, to my chest, laced up my boots, and went for a walk in the woods on a soggy, but warm afternoon last week. The woods were saturated with the earthy smells of damp leaves, mushrooms, and rotting wood. The rain had swollen a normally jump-able stream. If I didn’t have Calvin strapped to my chest, I could have gotten a running start and jumped the muddy stream. But since Calvin was loosely tick-tocking loosely like a metronome in the harness, I didn’t trust that he wouldn’t go somersaulting and land probably-not-right-side-up in the forest. If you catapult your son in the woods and his mother’s not around to hear him cry, will you still be saying your sorry for the rest of your life?

I searched for a crossing. I found a scrawny but scrappy fallen limb that offered to be my bridge. It was springy and my son tested my balance with his tick-tocking. I made it to the middle when the branch snapped. I stood in the middle of the stream as water poured into my boots and crept up my jeans (thanks capillary action!). I should have done this in the first place. As a kid I would have not even bothered with a bridge. I would have jumped into that water first thing. After I left the stream I walked right through the middle of any and all streams and ponds I wanted to explore.

With spring, the forest has begun to reveal its secrets. But some secrets need to stay hidden just a while longer. Can you find the caterpillar below?
Jamestown, VA, woods (2)

 

Did you find him?

 

Peek-a-boo!
Jamestown, VA, woods (1)

Calvin wanted to touch and try to eat everything. He’s very tactile. He reached out when he saw a tree that needed a slight caress or a wild whack from his little hands. He really liked this tree with its twisted neck and snowflake-patched bark. I did too. Anyone know this tree?

 

After our caterpillar hunting, tree touching, and dead-tree balance beam, we ended our adventure among mossy islands that dotted the forest floor.

Jamestown, VA, woods (10)

Happy spring everyone!

Belated David Life Update

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Cypress trees along the James River near Jamestown. The home of the first settlers seems like a nice enough place to start a journey

In 2013, I was a relatively unemployed scientist living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with a friend I’ve known since kindergarten (Thanks Duley!!). Almost 100 applications and over a dozen interviews had failed to land me in a long-term position in academia. I was hurt. Science hurt me. I was mad at science. I had worked so hard and so long; yet the science I loved so much continued to reject me. Science was the girlfriend who took me for granted and one that I needed to break up with.

 

I needed a change.

 

I lingered long in front of Positions Available signs at Office Depot. I thought about people who quit their jobs and ski across the top of Canada. Or sail the world alone. Or hike the spines of mountain ranges that stretch from one state to another even though there are perfectly good interstates. I couldn’t think of an adventure other than to sit on the back porch with Duley eating his tacos and drinking his elderflower liquor (Thanks Duley!).

I did make one change. With the help of friends and colleagues and Duley’s tacos I pulled myself out of the pit of pity and anger and resentment (though I got sucked right back in more than once afterwards). I made a decision. I would make science love me back one way or another.

How was I to demonstrate my love and dedication? This blog of course. A new attitude. A new leaf.

After four months in Arkansas I returned to where my marine science career began 11 years prior, the Great Marsh in Massachusetts. For the next year I lived in a research field station blogging about the marsh and writing more applications. Massachusetts is where many of you joined me on my journey. Writing about the marsh reminded me of why I am scientist. The joy of discovery. The joy of sharing. The joy of muddy feet and salty smells.

Fast-forward.

2015. Monumental changes. I started as an assistant professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, which is a part of the College of William and Mary. I got married. We had a son (July 4!). We moved to Virginia. Whew! A long way from 2013.

Many of my posts will now focus on Virginia marshes and wildlife (including my son and wife). Fret not if you wonder about the Great Marsh. I still have a research program in Massachusetts and will have new posts from time to time on the Great Marsh. I am also writing a book about my now 14 years on the Great Marsh so I’ll be shilling for it soon!

Thank you all for following me through this journey so far. I hope you’ll stick around for the next adventures. And maybe even for the next round of tacos.

~David

The elusive Massachusetts penguin

 

Newburyport, Massachusetts

In today’s episode of Idiot Science: Penguins!
Starring: Dr. David Samuel Johnson, Ph.D. (psssttt, that’s me).

I was driving on Water Street in Newburyport when I saw something strange floating in the Merrimack River.

Are those penguins?

They were! My heart quickened. I happened to have my camera sitting in the passenger seat. I pulled over quickly, but not too close. I didn’t want to spook them. I nervously grabbed my camera hoping to get a picture before they jumped into the water.

CLICK!

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The rare and elusive Massachusetts penguin.

Success! I snapped a few more pictures of the penguins – three of them on a piece of ice. I was so lucky!

A thought crept up like a cat on a mouse, “Wait a minute, it’s only 40 F. Not nearly cold enough for ice on the river.” I realized that the penguins were sitting on a piece of Styrofoam. I thought about what a great blog post it would be to write about how these penguins – these penguins of Massachusetts – had to use trash to float on. Oh, what a clever post this would be.

I snapped a few more pictures.

Then another.

One more.

Those penguins aren’t moving. Are those…yup, those are fake.

Standing in a wind that slapped my cheeks red, I mentally slapped my forehead.

Of course they’re fakes. There are no Massachusetts penguins, or for that matter North American penguins. Penguins don’t have an address north of South America!

penguin_range
Penguins live here.
massachusetts_simple
Nowhere near here.

Someone had three plastic penguins loitering on a piece of Styrofoam. Sure, some people will be fooled. But I should know better. I’m a marine biologist. With letters and everything! And I know where penguins are found. I have railed against Coca-Cola in classrooms for their biogeographic inaccuracies for showing a polar bear and a penguin sharing a Coke. Penguins live in the southern hemisphere and polar bears in the northern! They would never meet. That a polar bear and penguin would share a Coke is biogeographically ridiculous.

 

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Ridiculous. Biogeographically even! Harrumpf!  

That my first reaction was, “oh, it’s too warm for an ice” instead of, “uh, there’s no penguins in North America” is embarrassing. But I got fooled. And like a wildlife paparazzo, went for the cover photo before thinking about what I was doing.

Well done, Newburyport. Well done.