Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 31, 2012

Mink in a Candy Store

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:28 pm

Mink are elusive critters. This is not to say that they are un-common – only that they are stealthy and rarely seen.  Their public perception is that they are very rare (“I didn’t know we had mink here!”). This fog is carefully maintained by the BW&M -the Brotherhood of the Weasels & Mustelids but traditionally called the Brotherhood of the Wild & Mink by Mink types). It is a requirement for all BW&M members to be mostly nocturnal, slink about, and pursue their predatory habits with gusto.  The truth is that mink are not rare. In fact, in some places they are very common.

If there is a trick to spotting mink, it is to spend an inordinate amount of time in their wetland haunts (they are water-loving creatures) and trust that one or two of the animals will be caught bumbling about in the daylight hours. All of my mink encounters have been of the bumbling kind where we both were bumbling about.  My most recent encounter was by far the best.

Last month, around mid-day, I happened to be walking the sea wall along the River Raisin. The water was lowerin , as opposed to raisin, and large stretches were reduced to shallow riffles. Because of an extended dry summer, much of the river below the step dam has erupted into lush beds of smartweed and flowering rush.

This is not my usual “nature spot” and all hopes of being alone in this place have to be abandoned here, but it does offer some excitement (such as the very exciting mussel movement I brought to your attention some blogs ago). On this day, it appeared that the most interesting thing of the day would be Damselflies (I could insert a dam joke here, but will refrain). Acting as if they were full of summer vigor, dozens of Ruby Damselflies were cavorting. The males were engaged in a maneuver that can only be described as a butt dance in which they raised and lowered their assets to either attract females or ward off other males.

This would have been fine, but thanks to a human couple standing further up the shore/wall I was directed by their gaze to something happening in the river below. They were watching a mink dart back and forth out of the vegetation.  I approached cautiously – as much to avoid spooking the mink as to respect the space of the folks engaged in nature observation. The people soon abandoned the spot to re-direct their attentions to the geese wandering through the grass (no comment), but the mink continued to act as if no one was near.

Even though this animal seemed to be breaking all BW&M rules by appearing in public, she was “pursuing predatory habits with gusto” (rule 6- sub paragraph B). In other words, food trumps all other rules in the brotherhood.

For some reason, whole bunches of fish were beaching themselves on the shelf rock in the shallow flow and our mink was nabbing as many as possible. They could have been spooked by the human couple I mentioned earlier and blindly bolted along this dangerous route to the next pool. It turned out to be a gauntlet in which only a few would succeed in passing. The mink would dash out, grab the nearest victim and promptly carry it back to a secret storage place back in the smartweed patch. Vanishing only for a second or two, it excitedly returned to grab another fish.

The process was repeated again and again for over ten minutes. There was no time for eating – this was manna from heaven and was to be gathered and stored.  I lost count, but she grabbed twenty or so – mostly smallmouth bass and a few sunfish – before the candy store closed.

Mink are not fish specialists. They prefer crayfish and mammal prey (especially muskrats) and fish typically only make up less than 15% of their diet.  They also don’t tend to cache food – or horde it- as other weasels are wont to do. But, as we can see, there are no set rules in nature.

As the fish numbers dwindled, the mink wandered a bit further downstream in hopes of finding a few more. Because it was a small individual, I assume it was a juvenile and probably a female. A male would have been a third larger. She increasingly threw nervous glances up towards me with beady little eyes and finally opted to retreat for cover. I can only imagine the feast which followed over the remainder of that day. If this animal even looked at another fish for a few days I would be surprised (but then again BW&M members are a surprising lot).

October 18, 2012

A Melanistic Moment

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:46 am

One technique of a wandering naturalist is to wander the back roads until something presents itself. On a particularity crummy day in the backwoods of Northern Michigan I did just that. It was one of those dark days when you can’t quite convince yourself that you are totally awake. Light rain showers punctuated the morning drive and seemed to set the tone for the rare things I did come across.

Let me tell you what I saw and go from there. There was a spoon, a Cyclops eating a sign, and a melanistic deer. Now if that list doesn’t instill a sense of curiosity then you needn’t proceed any further. If it does, then please do (proceed, that is, to the next paragraph). Even if you have seen a spoon before, you have to admit that the last two items certainly need some explanation.

First, the kitchen utensil. My random drive brought me to a spoon in the road. Now, everyone knows what to do when they arrive at a fork in the road – they need to make a decision, right? They either take the right or left route. Robert Frost would opt for the route less travelled while others would take the route indicated by the poet Garmin. There is no straight option – that would lead to a plummeting (into the ditch) followed by a towing (by the Frost Towing company).  But, what does one do when a spoon is present? This is a rare thing.

My road spoon was flattened by previous traffic (which on this road is not very frequent) but it was still identifiable. I decided that one is required to turn around when a spoon is present, so I did. The effort did not result in anything especially notable except for leading me to a sign-eating tree.

To be precise, this tree was a sugar maple, and the sign it was consuming was a well-rusted “No Trespassing” sign. Only the “Tres” part was visible, so I have to assume that’s what it said, anyway. Perhaps it noted “Mauvaise enfant Tres bon permit” as a crude French way to announce “Very good poor child allowed.” Perhaps the owners of the place were announcing their willingness to help the unfortunate. However, in this part of Northern Michigan the only written French appears as “No” in the numerous “No Trespassing” signs.

Regardless of what the sign used to say, that the maple tree in question was a Cyclops was not in doubt. Call it a branch scar if you must, but that tree was definitely looking at the world through one eye. This one would fit nicely into a Halloween landscape. Like the spoon, I saw this rare item as a signal to turn around once again.

This time I spotted a trio of White-tailed Deer grazing at the far end of an open field. Because one of them appeared nearly black, I stopped to get a better look – thinking it was an escaped exotic such as a Fallow Deer or some African Antelope. It turned out to be a Whitetail, but was a rare example of a Melanistic deer.  Albino deer may be uncommon but melanistic deer are much scarcer.

Everybody knows what albinism is – or at least they know without knowing that they know. In a black and white world, an albino is all white. Individuals lack skin pigment of any kind. There is no such thing as a partial albino – something either is or it is not an albino. Any mix of white and normal is called Pie-bald. Melanism, on the other hand, is a different beast – so to speak – because it involves the over production of a skin pigment called Melanin. The pigment can be produced anywhere from slightly over done to totally dominant. So, an animal can be semi-melanistic. It seems that recessive genes are responsible for this effect, so it appears on a hit or miss basis in most critters (although it is very common in Grey Squirrels).

Melanisim is very rare in White-tailed Deer. Over the years there have been notable examples of jet-black deer and random spottings of very-dark deer with varying shades of black. Texas is apparently the hot-spot for black deer in North America, in case you are interested.

My deer retained her white belly and under parts as well as a fringe of reddish orange on the legs and top of the head. The rest was a deep ashy gray and resembled, for lack of a better comparison, the shading on an antelope. The dark portion ended at a definitive border on her flanks. She was a beautiful animal (and this coming from a man who has expressed on more than one occasion that deer are ugly).

As an astute reader you might recall that I was out on a misty day and might be thinking that she was just wet. I can put that aside because wet deer are more intensely orangish or light gray (depending on the season) and are not darker. Secondly, she brought along additional proof that rain had nothing to do with her shading.

She bounded off after only a few seconds of observation. Her two fawns followed suit. The trio vanished within a few bounds but not before revealing that her fawns were normally colored. They were wet little orange spotted deer.

Ahh, it was a rare day in the North Woods. I’ve been past that point several times over the past month to see if I could spot her again, but without luck. The Cyclops is still there, however.

October 8, 2012

Exhaling Silas

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:13 pm

It had not been my original intention to seek the grave of Silas Culver. My wife and I were vacationing in the vicinity of Upper New York State, Vermont and New Hampshire. Although this was not the primary focus of our trip (I’ve heard that some people go on vacation to relax), I was actually on the track of another long dead soul who once called this area home – a remarkable revolutionary soldier by the name of Thompson Maxwell. I’m not remotely related to the guy but he had piqued my historical interest enough to inspire a pilgrimage of sorts to his homeland. My brother sent a text message our way wondering if we might find some time to swing by the gravesite of one of our own lineage who was buried in New York. Blood being thicker than Vermont water, we agreed that we were indeed “in the neighborhood” and would make a go of it.  His name was Silas Culver and he was laid to rest in the South Horicon Cemetery in Warren County New York.

Horicon is south of Glenn’s Falls, New York and very close to the Vermont border. Our Grandfather, on the old New England Culver side, hailed from that neck of the woods and was appropriately named Glenn Culver Wykes. Unfortunately he died back in 1929 and was never available to fill in the family story (he, in fact, created an entirely new and fascinating chapter in the family line but we’ll have to categorize that one as a “skeleton in the closet” tale and leave it for now). Silas was his grandfather. Most of what we knew about this “great great ” was based on a geneology book about the Culvers.  In that tome, Silas Nelson Culver was listed a farmer who enlisted during the Civil War, was captured, imprisoned in Libby Prison for a while, and eventually exchanged or released. Suffering from the effects of that imprisonment, he returned home and died shortly thereafter in 1863. A good story to have in any closet if it’s true.

The fact that this fellow was purportedly a Civil War soldier caught the imagination and interest of my brother Dan who had been immersed in re-enacting as part of an Illinois Battery for many years. He never claimed to “be” Silas but admits that it was nice to have someone to channel when engaging in such affairs.  The other nice thing that made Silas stand out is the existence of his photograph. Putting a face to a name and a name to one’s own name is always a thrill.  The fact that he looked like one of the family certainly helped. My wife and I gave the Culver name to our middle child, in part because of this palpable connection.  Jim has never shirked the responsibility of explaining that unusual middle name when asked. I have never been asked why my middle name was Paul.

The problem came when we tried to verify this Civil War/Libby Prison story. There was no solid evidence that Silas Nelson Culver ever enlisted in the Union Army or was in Libby Prison. He does not appear on any veteran list either in New York or nearby Vermont. Nope, the only reference was this one family text.  Still, soldier or not, it was still worth seeking out his tombstone. A picture of it appeared on an on-line genealogy site but none of us had ever seen the real thing. It was my duty to be the one.

Located off a dirt road off another dirt road in a forgotten part of Warren County the south Horicon Cemetery (aka Pitt Cemetery) is small by cemetery standards. It is large by small cemetery standards, however, and the idea of locating a single rock among a hundred headstones was slightly daunting. Fortunately my wife found it right away.

It was a rectangular lichen-encrusted affair with the simple letters “Silas N. Culver” over “Born April 9, 1828 / Died May 13, 1863.” Oddly enough I was slightly disappointed. It looked just like the picture. Had I had travelled 300 miles just to stand next to a picture?

I did my familial duty and posed for a photo.  Late afternoon sun in my eyes, I decided to kneel next to it, in the manner of a football picture, because Silas was shorter than me. I dislike such staged shots but what else was there to do. Upon viewing this photo on my wife’s Facebook page (sent out instantly through the miracle of the ether) my other brother was prompted to wonder which of the two gnarly figures in the shot was actually the headstone. Such helpful comments from my brother, my much older brother I should add, are why I hate staged shots.

Any feeling of disappointment rapidly dissipated upon telling myself that I had not specifically travelled this far for that single reason and secondly upon the realization of a sense of place.  As an historian I’ve told countless people about the importance of being in the place where something significant happened – regardless of what it looks like today. Battlefields, for instance, give off a feeling from the ground level that is hard to describe. Without getting all “spooky” about it I have even been known to say that we channel some sense of being from such hallowed grounds.

Brother Dan, the kinder gentler brother, later asked me whether I felt any “vibes?” from standing next to the stone?  I had to admit that I did but was forced to admit to another on-site reality – the kind you couldn’t see in the on-line picture. All of the headstones in the S. Horicon Cemetery belonging to vets were marked with a flag and a bronze star marker. There were at least 13 Civil War vets in that place. At least one appears to have died during the war. There was no flag or star next to Silas Culver’s grave. Although not definitive proof against the family claim, this evidence was one more indication that his coffin nails were driven into the pine box of a civilian and not a soldier.

We may yet discover that some forgetful maintenance guy forgot to put the marker back after trimming around his gravestone. We may yet find some long lost record proving that the family story was true and my brother may yet charge across the re-enactment field crying “remember Silas.” He would never do that, by the way, but he could. Silas’s father was a minuteman during the Revolutionary War and likely did so that his sons wouldn’t have to fight.  His connection to the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont was enough to qualify the females in our family line for membership in the DAR. My sister never took up this flag but she could have.  David James Culver’s patriotic blood flowed through Silas’s veins and that same blood has flowed through the centuries through our father, through us, and will continue through the following generations. Brother Dan could presently revise his battle call to say “For the Sake of David and what he fought for!” and maintain historic accuracy.  He won’t, but he could. In truth even if Silas turns out to be “just” a God-fearing American farmer who died of consumption he will always be worthy of a battle cry – at least from our side of the clan.

The Culver gravestone looked somewhat lonely on that low sandy rise at the edge of the cemetery.  It appeared to be between rows, as a matter of fact, but was well cared for (leaving serious doubt about the forgetful maintenance theory forwarded in the previous paragraph). As I left the place I wasn’t sure how to finish my meeting with my dearly departed g.g. I’d taken plenty of shots, touched the stone, and silently talked to the neighbors. As if on instinct I finally reached down to pluck a tiny weed from the poor soil directly over the bones of Silas Culver and walked off. I pressed the plant between pages 120 & 121 of a book I had in the car. Don’t ask me why. Barely a week after returning home to Michigan I discovered the reason.

I happened to be reading an book called “the Native Grape” – a small 1866 publication by Missourian George Husmann about the American wine Industry (again, don’t ask me why) when I came across the following passage. It was in reference to a particular variety and why it flourished in Missouri:

“I think this is pre-eminently a Missouri grape…I have seen it in Ohio, but it does not look as if it was the same grape. And why should it? They drove it from them and discarded it in its youth; we fostered it, and do you not think, dear reader, there sometimes is gratitude in plants as well as in men? …it will cling with the truest devotion to those localities where it was cared for in its youth.”

Husmann went on to explain how this same devotion was expressed during the “recent war” by those German immigrants who gladly spilled blood for their adopted free country in the Civil War. “But you may call me fantastical for comparing plants to human beings,” he continued, “and will say plants have no appreciation of such things. Brother Skeptic, have you, or anybody, divined all the secrets of nature’s workshop?”

According to Husmann, plants are people too. They sense that which is about them beyond the earth, sun and water and incorporate human essence as well. Perhaps Mr. Missouri was imbibing in a bit too much of that happy Grape Juice and willing to bypass the “show-me” requirement of all Missourians. However, I did take away a fascinating thought. I had to consider that plants do have a connection to the human occupants of the land even if I could not swallow the whole of Hunsmann’s belief.

My tiny weed was flat and dry when it was later retrieved it from the book. I had a difficult time identifying the thing because it was such a micro-example of its type. That thin dry Horicon cemetery soil was not plant friendly. I won’t go into the details but it took a week to determine it was an anemic version of a mint called Self-heal. Members of the mint family, Self-heals are so-called because of their many medicinal uses. One early herbalist explained that, “when you are hurt you may heal yourself” with it. Of course the identity of the plant wasn’t especially important. It was the worse possible example of its type. Still, it started to take on some greater meaning because it could now be appreciated on two levels.

A few days later, I heard a recitation of Walt Whitman’s poem “Pensive on the Dead Gazing I Heard the Mother of All.” This, combined with the thoughts of the grape man, crystallized something in my head. Written in 1865 as a reflection on the tragedies of the Civil War – of which Whitman a witness- this poem probably has a greater meaning beyond that which I drew from it. The selected lines which centered me went as follows:

“Absorb them all, O my earth, – lose not my sons! Lose not an atom;”

“My dead absorb – my young men’s beautiful bodies absorb – and their precious, precious, precious blood;”

“Which holding in trust for me, faithfully back again give me many a year hence;”

“In unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence”

“In blowing airs from the fields, back again give me my darlings – give my immortal heroes;”

“Exhale me them centuries hence – breathe me their breath – let not an atom be lost.”

Whitman and Hunsmann, neither theological geniuses nor men of science, might have breached a third level of thought beyond reality. Of soldiers and grapes, the same can said of regular folk. There is a connection between plants and people both in life and death. We both come from and are returned to the soil. I’m not all in on the idea that plants appreciate our admiration but am willing to give the idea a nod. I am closer to considering the possibility that the tiny Self-heal plucked from my ancestor’s grave may contain a part of him – or at least a few of the atoms that once formed him. And, if you blend that thought with Whitman’s vision, it was exhaling them.  That could have been why I felt compelled to pick it.

My piece of Silas is now carefully preserved in the center of a square from a very old baby quilt. The square only measures 3 inches itself and makes the micro plant looks larger than it really is.  Yes, it’s just a pressed plant but, as you can see, such a thing can be much much more.

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