Monday, March 28, 2011

The Lightning Forest Chapter 2: The Inner Lantern

Florida Black Bear testing the paw paw fruit

      The changing of the seasons is best marked by repetitive observations from a single location. My wife Melissa and I enjoy sitting on a swing in the evenings and watching the daylight world wrap itself up for the night. Great flocks of ibis fly into Blackwater Swamp to their rookeries. The local pair of sandhill cranes swings low over our heads, calling to each other in their bugling language. The sun edges every cloud with glimmering oranges and pinks. Harvester ants busy themselves sealing up the entrance to their mysterious mound. A few early frogs peep. By nightfall, the frognoise will be deafening and disorienting. The individual frogs somehow make sense out of what sounds to us like a single, enormous orchestral note.

      Tonight, for the first time this year, we hear the chuck-will’s-widow. We listen to this night bird enthusiastically defend his territory. Many people confuse this bird with his close relative the whip-poor-will who is more inclined to habitats further north. You can tell the difference because the widow clucks at the start of his song. He puts a little funk into it. I call out to him, out of tune, awkwardly and probably insulting, but he answers and flies in closer. We bicker back and forth. In a few weeks, upwards of five chuck-will’s-widows will live in the immediate area and he won’t need me to issue challenges. His return to the scrub is the signal that within days the pawpaw trees will begin to leaf-out and flower. Year after year this rule applies. Chuck-will’s-widow migrates in from tropics bringing the spark that lights inside the pawpaw’s woody heart.

      The willows have already bloomed on the edges of the ponds and the elfins have fed, laid their eggs in the dahoon hollies, and died. Henry’s Elfin (Callophrys henrici) is a small chocolaty brown butterfly that synchronizes its adult emergence with the willow bloom. By hatching so early, they have fewer competitors for the precious willow nectar.  Few people notice or care about the elfins, but like countless events in nature, there is a satisfying beauty to this delicately timed event.

      The pennyroyal colors the open sandy paths. Small cone-shaped bracts hold hundreds of delicately purpled flowers. Green halictid bees and hairstreaks swarm the pennyroyals. Lyreleaf and fleabane fill the roadsides and medians. The fallow fields are oceans of bright phlox that make you want to pull the car over and splash like a child through waves of shocking pink. The calves gallop and gambol while the herd humbles about in the next field over. Hog plum trees brighten the sylvan borders. Orange blossoms lavish every breeze with their extravagant scent. Pollen-faced and stingless, male carpenter bees patrol their territories. What a testament to courage they are; small thimbles of black and yellow fur, hovering face-to-face with me, knowing they have no sting to back-up the bluff. Lupines shoot their short-lived blue candles upward. Their color is an intoxicating blend of chicory blue, lavender, and pink; not swirled together or piebald, but a single, unique color. I can describe it only by naming the color ‘lupine.’ The lupine’s long fuzzy seed pods will mature in a month and explode with a loud pop, sending the seeds flying in all directions. In some places deep in the scrub, you can sit quietly on the sand and hear them popping all around. There is another, much rarer, scrub lupine that favors the pink color. It’s limited range falls almost entirely underneath Walt Disney World. There are only a few vacant urban lots between Disney and Orlando where this ephemeral beauty can be seen.

      It may be spring, but this is the dry season, and it has been over a month since it has rained. The plants of the scrub seem to know how to grow without water. The scrub pawpaw (Asimina obovata) looks like an awkward stick that someone has shoved into the sand. Thin, fragile branches alternate up the stem. Field guides indicate that the scrub pawpaw can reach up to 12 feet. I have never seen one taller than six. Some species of pawpaw bloom before they leaf out, some vice versa. The scrub pawpaw decides to do both at the same time and it is the first of the season to do either.

      Pawpaws are not the first flowers of the year, nor the most bountiful, nor the brightest. Pawpaw trees are not tall and symmetrical. Their leaves are sparse and tend toward curling and browning. Cattle won’t eat them. They grow better after being burned to the ground but are impossible to transplant and close to impossible to cultivate. They will not jump out at you, grab you by the throat, and shake you. They grow unseen between the eye-catching palmetto and moss-draped oaks. Most people will not even notice them, but there are some folks out here that let them grow wherever they decide to inconveniently sprout.

      Very soon after the first leaves, the flowers emerge from the buds as large, luna-green petals. Three petals hang downward and come loosely together at the ends like a Chinese lantern, concealing the center of the flower. Inside, there is a ring of three much smaller petals that also mimic a lantern around the androcium. The inner lantern has an area near the base that will turn maroon as the flower ages. Pawpaw flowers don’t come out of the bud brimming with nectars. They need to age and ripen like a fine cheese. The best flower is one on the verge of falling apart with age, a little brown on the edges. Some books describe the scent as a carcass of rotting meat. They must be smelling other pawpaws, because to me pawpaws smell like warm mellow Froot Loops. But that is still weeks away from today. Today, they are small, greenish, and have no scent.

      The soft lime-green leaves emerge alternating, usually focused on the tips of the branches, but eventually moving down toward the stem. The twigs, buds, and petioles are covered with a soft, red pubescence. Like the willows and elfins, the timing of this emergence is serendipitous because the tender leaves are crucial to Zebra Swallowtails (Eurytides marcellus floridanus). Zebras are very fast and stealthy fliers. They are among the first of the year’s butterflies, but they are not often noticed because they don’t linger in the garden. Flying at a high rate of speed near the ground, the Zebra’s color pattern makes it difficult to pinpoint even though it is a large butterfly. They are primarily decorated with black and white stripes that resemble, well, a zebra. When fluttering, the pattern creates an optical effect that becomes very confusing as it zips through dappled sunlight and grasses. Sometimes, the white parts of their wings take on a greenish sheen, caused by an interfering layer of clear scales. The sheen will turn coppery as the butterfly ages. The only other color they have is a striking red stripe on the underside of their hindwings and a few cobalt crescents on the hindwing edges.  Zebras have the longest ‘tail’ of any North American swallowtail and are the only representative of a kite swallowtail north of Mexico. Kite swallowtails are noted for their svelte triangular shape.

      Nothing about the Zebra suggests that they like people. They shun urban and suburban areas. They don’t flutter about in faces or land on noses. Get too close and they will make a speedy retreat. They aren’t flashy, but you will never forget seeing one. Maybe that is what makes them a quintessential resident of the scrub.

      One morning, when the first pawpaw leaves are starting to burst, a female Zebra Swallowtail cruised unseen into the yard and laid a mint-green egg or two on the new foliage.  She may have snuck a quick sip of nectar from the hog plum or a blackberry, but in less than a minute she flew in, laid her eggs, and moved on. As she nectars, she never stops fluttering her wings, her long tails shivering behind her, seemingly alive on their own. Her tails make a likely target for hungry birds and indeed it is unusual to find a Zebra with both tails intact. She will be lucky to survive a few weeks so any advantage her long tails afford her are a matter of successful motherhood. She will return again, maybe in the afternoon, maybe tomorrow, because there are over 20 scrub pawpaws on my acre of land. But she won’t be visiting this tree again. She must leave a chemical marker to know which trees have eggs. Too many eggs would mean not enough food and none of her young would survive.

     Within a week, the tiny eggs will hatch if they haven’t been carried off by ants. Some unfortunate eggs have an extremely small wasp larva growing inside. These parasitic wasps are little-known, in part, because of their size. The Zebra Swallowtail has a small advantage against both ants and wasps. By not laying their eggs in clusters, they don’t attract attention. Predators must happen upon the eggs by chance.

      The newborn caterpillar’s jaws are small and incapable of chewing through mature pawpaw leaves. Young, tender leaves must be available or the caterpillars will starve. The caterpillars are almost blind. They have small ocular fields that are located very low on their heads and can barely see their ‘hand in front of their face.’ They can see in color however, especially in the ultraviolet wavelengths. As they walk the pawpaw twigs and leaves, the entire scope of their perception is no further than an inch away.

      Later in the spring, the Zebras will give up laying eggs on A. obovata because the leaves will be too tough for much of anything to eat them, much less a Zebra hatchling. They will resort to using some of the other, later-flushing pawpaws around here like A. reticulata or pygmea whose leaves remain tender.

      Zebra swallowtail caterpillars are as equally secretive as their parents. They hide at the base of the stem, or in a nearby tree, or in the leaf litter. Their favorite hiding spot is inside the Chinese lantern. After a few weeks, the petals are larger and have become a soft creamy white. Go to any scrub pawpaw and start peeking inside the blooms. If you are lucky, you will see the shy caterpillar, buffalo-shouldered and softly green. Along the side of its body, there are small oval shaped spiracles that are used for breathing. It is waiting for a quiet moment to sneak out and grab a bite to eat. Often, it will feed at night to avoid spectators. Somehow, it notices that you are watching. It swells at the shoulder, a hump-back, exposing blue, yellow, and black lines. This behavior seems vestigially similar to other swallowtail caterpillars that have stunning eyespots on their humps to scare away predators with their snaky appearance.  The Zebra’s tri-colored stripe is so visually different than eyespots, that I have a hard time believing that it serves as a snake mimic.

      If you attempt to pick up the caterpillar, a canary-yellow forked organ emerges out of its head and bends up and backwards. The organ, called an osmeterium, produces a strong, sickly sweet and spicy scent that serves as the caterpillar’s last line of physical defense. The osmeterium’s sudden appearance and smell are startling, which is the point. 

      So inside the lanterns they hide. Quietly they grow. They shed their skins and grow in a series of five stages called instars. The fifth instar is 800 times heavier than when it first hatched from its egg and has added several pale yellow stripes ringing its body. Soon, it will expel the contents of its stomach and go searching for a suitable site to become a chrysalis. Usually on another tree, they shed their skin one last time. The chrysalis is a modified skin layer that will serve as the caterpillar’s home for ten or more days. Even the chrysalis of the Zebra is shy and wary. It has none of the flashy gold dots like the monarch or the opalescent silvers of the fritillaries. Instead, it looks exactly like a curled-over, bent leaf. The edges of the leaf are fused together as if stitched by a tiny sprite. Some chrysalides are green, some are brown. During the final molt, a chemical decision is made to make the leaf green or brown. One would think that the decision is based solely on the surrounding plant material, but I have seen green chrysalides surrounded by brown leaves and brown chrysalides in the greenest of venues. The chrysalis is the hardest stage of the Zebra to find in the field.

      The pawpaw leaves grow tough and smell like pesto when crushed. The entire bush is covered with flowers now. The flowers ripen. Lean in close. Warm Froot Loops greet your nose. The inner lantern blushes maroon. The outer petals are browning and tiny thrips are sucking the rotting juices that sweat out from the brown patches. Thrips are so tiny that they are difficult to see, but they are the perfect size for long-legged flies, like a rabbit is perfect for the wolf. Long-legged flies (Dolichopodidae) are the quick metallic dots you might see circling and flitting about on leaf surfaces. Very common, there are hundreds of species in Florida. Each one is particularly and uniquely beautiful, sporting shiny colors, coppery overtones, gold, green, stripes, and a brassy attitude. One memorable long-legged fly is covered from head to tail in a shining metallic royal blue. Dolphins around a sardine ball, they dart into the thrips. Their movements are too fast to follow with the eye. Some prance past other flies. They might spin a circle, burning a bright ring over another. They might approach each other, retreat, return from another direction, moving in a jerky cadence. Who knows what concerns and communications are going on here? For at least this week, the pawpaw is the long-legged fly’s favorite hunting ground.

     The flowers ripen still; the smell is now noticeable from a few feet away. Stigmas turn brown. The pawpaw then makes a crucial evolutionary mistake.  Its pollen is only available for one day.   Then, they only remain receptive to another’s pollen for less than a week. Precise, uncanny timing is critical for the pawpaw to procreate. What is the strategy here? Why put your future in the hands of a single day?

      By now, the other flowers in the garden are alive with a stunning variety of solitary bees, bumblebees, fritillaries, skippers, hairstreaks, and leafcutter bees. The zinnias, lantana, salvias, and tickseeds are humming with activity. The competition for attraction is fierce. But the pawpaw sits quietly. Bees fly straight past without taking notice. Monarchs and queens snub them. Even the adult Zebra Swallowtails have no interest in the flowers. Pawpaws don’t desire bees or butterflies. The pawpaw flower stalks another pollinator.

Trichiotinus beetles

Trichiotinus beetles are part of a larger subfamily of beetles known as Cetoniinae, the Flower Scarabs. Trichiotinus scarabs must be crazy for Froot Loops. Find a nice ripe pawpaw flower and hold one hand underneath as you give it a good shake. Into your hand tumbles three or five pawpaw scarabs, brightly clad in burnished metallic colors. One is purple, one is blue, one a reddish-brown. One is a shining green emerald on your palm. Some of them have tiny white markings on their backs. Their bodies are squarishly oval and about the size of a honeybee. The end of their abdomen sports two large white spots that look remarkably like the eyes and head of a wasp. They stick their hind legs straight up in a way that looks like a wasp moving its front legs aggressively. Upside down with its heads in the sepals, the pawpaw scarab looks like a dangerous wasp coming out of the flower.  When disturbed inside the flower, they release their hold and drop out. Caught in your hand, they quickly right themselves with a buzz. They gleam and sparkle in the sunlight at the moment they launch into the air, a firework. A batavique.

       The pawpaw has gambled its future on these little beetles. And this is make-or-break time for the Trichiotinus beetles as well. They rely on the pawpaw to feed their short lives. Trichiotinus are not very active pollinators. They seem to prefer finding a nice ripe pawpaw flower and establishing themselves long-term there. The pawpaw uses its nectar to keep the beetles around, ensuring that the beetles are present on the single fateful day that the pollen ripens and dehisces.  If they visit a pawpaw flower on the right day, pollen sticks to the tiny hairs on the underside of their bodies. With luck, that scarab will visit another pawpaw tree before the week is over. The pawpaw scarabs use the proteins and sugars from the nectar, pollen, and petals to make eggs and mate. Some long-lived beetle may survive until the yucca blooms or the creamy yellow silk of a prickly pear blooms. A few might even eat from the sprays of palmetto flowers later in the season. But for the most part, this is their chance. Pawpaws and Trichiotinus share the same tenuous fate. Life is brief.

      A living jewelbox has fallen into your consciousness.  Every spring a yearning wells up in you for this simple, unchronicled event. They are newly hatched beetles, but they arrive like old friends. Each year, a new color of Trichiotinus seems to arrive. Every pawpaw lantern holds another surprising burst of living color..

      Perhaps Nature needs a marketing firm, someone to create the language and mold its image. Science has progressed into a world where the profounditities are conceptual and don’t translate into our perceptions without a lot of study. The language of Environmentalism can’t escape its own agenda. Religion has abandoned the natural world altogether as anything other than a desperate political argument. The Consumer narrative might use nature as a metaphor to sell beer or development projects, but its nature is a gloss, a lie. The level of natural detail that attains wide public inheritance is limited to the macro-level of weather systems and seasons. In a state with subtle seasons and a transplanted population, even that awareness dulls. Florida is even said to have ‘no seasons.’ Those that say Florida only has a wet and a dry season are not looking closely enough. Look deeper. The seasons are clicking away on profound gears. Just like purple crocuses emerging from the snow, elfins bring the promise of barbeques and lazy summer evenings. The lynchpins snap into place. Seasons are powerful, pawpaws are holy. A shining beetle buries its head into the inner lantern, fulfilled on the nectar found there. Completely content, lit by the glow of sunlight through petal. Purposeful. Blessed. Isn’t this how we all wish to live our own brief lives?

      Weeks pass. May is swirling by in a calico dress. The flower stem has swollen into a bulb. The future generation pays dearly for the single-day pollination strategy; less than a fourth of the flowers have fruited.  The Zebra Swallowtails are interested in the other pawpaw species now and the second generation of the year is tucked away under the completely maroon flower of Asimina pygmea, the pygmy pawpaw. The thrips and long-legged flies have moved to the passionvine and sunflower leaves. The pawpaw scarabs have disappeared altogether. The pawpaw fruits grow singly, or in clusters of up to five. They swell with juice, bending the weak branches down.  The awkward stick in the ground now looks on the verge of utter devastation. The leaves look moldy and yellow. The branches might snap at any moment. All of the tree’s energy is flowing into the ripening fruit.

      Pawpaws are the largest edible native fruit in the US. Known as squirrel bananas or Hoosier bananas, the size record goes to a more northern, wetlands species called Asimina triloba, but our scrub pawpaw is doing pretty well. I count six fruits on one flimsy five foot tree.

      It is July and a 98-degree pollination frenzy is going on someplace else in the yard. My wife and I are sitting on the swing again, sweating. I am eating a Winn-Dixie orange creamsicle and reading a book about snowflakes. Brief, delicate symmetries. I count over 70 classifications of snowflake, all with poetic names: fernlike, bullet, cone-like groupel, scroll, and rimed star.  The count of names exceeds the common perception that Inuits far out-distance American English naming snow. The vocabulary is available to the non-Inuit speaker.  But naming is only the first step. What is a cone-like groupel is good for, what are its implications? And this is where the Inuits have us. Perhaps, to them, the rimed needle is a sign that a large ice storm is on its way. Perhaps the dendritic crystal storms bring walrus in close to shore.  The difference is not in the words, but in our ability to look beyond classification and into consequence. We are catalogers and collectors. The Inuit are intimate with the vocabulary. Its consequence is a part of their everyday survival, born out of necessity. For Floridians living in the scrub, the necessities of survival are being plowed under even before we can establish a vocabulary. What we do learn remains in scientific journals and in the memories of crackers, far from the new suburbanites. The apocrypha remains sealed in clay jars, hidden.

      I look up from my snowflake book to see a 200 lb bear reaching over with her mouth to the pawpaw fruits, 20 feet away from where we sit. Gingerly, she takes a particularly large fruit cluster into her huge, toothy muzzle, and then lets it go. The fruit cluster swings safely back. She is testing the fruit to see if it is ripe! She is calculating. How soon? How sweet? To a bear, leaving food on the tree to ripen must be one of the most willfully difficult things to do. Bears are among Nature’s elite when it comes to gluttony. But now she releases the cluster and walks away. Unripe fruit may be too aspic for bears, but I suspect that the luscious memory of ripe pawpaws is what drives this bear to take a chance and wait. As a cub, her mother would have taught her the right time to harvest and enjoy the rich pawpaw juice running down her throat.

Asimina obovata fruit
       Later in the evening, I look closer at the cluster and there are no puncture marks. She had applied enough pressure to test it, but not enough to do damage and cause it to rot. How can such a large clumsy-looking animal be so gentle?  Bear waits, so I will wait. I defer. I’ve wanted an opportunity to taste this fruit myself but she is a better judge of the harvest. I want to learn all of the languages this land can teach me, not just the obvious languages of the cicadas and chuck-will’s-widows, but the dialects and accents, the annual flux, what words come surfacing on the white sands during the spring ebb, the taste of its fruits.  Will the pawpaw slide on the tongue, a sweet crescent of sunny liquor? Or will it bring the quartzite sands alive with a bright sparkle? So I wait and watch for signs. I mark the days, pay attention to the moon phase. I squeeze the fruit. Any day now. Then, one morning, every fruit is gone.  Every tree on our land has been harvested. I walk through the woods to the other pawpaws I’ve been watching. Nothing. The bear knew every tree that I knew and many more, I suppose. I missed the signal. The sign had gone up, sharp as a flare but invisible to me. She has taught me patience. She has taught me not to be stupid about patience. Dehiscence has its one glorious day. No one really knows how Asimina obovata seeds are dispersed, but it is a good guess that somewhere in this woods, a bear is planting new pawpaws.

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