Monday, November 30, 2009

"Winter" Wildflowers X

Wild bergamot, a square-stemmed, spicy-smelling member of the mint family. It has a few crispy leaves remaining, but most leaves, and some flowers, have already fallen off.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Winter" Wildflowers IX

Queen Anne's Lace, one of our prettier summer invasive weeds, isn't my favorite-looking plant in its winter costume, but it does have a neat form... like a heart-shaped cage enclosing a knot of seeds.

Friday, November 27, 2009

"Winter" Wildflowers VIII

Northern Sea Oats, Unfinished. I actually think this woodland grass is at its best in its winter form, with its flat seeds waving and flickering in the wind.

I was surprised to learn that at my parents house, just 15 miles south (and, admittedly, closer to the lake) they had no dusting of snow yesterday morning. Today is sunny and crisp (one might even say cold).

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

An interlude from drawings to show you all what was on the ground when we awoke this morning:
The FIRST SNOW! As the sun rises (behind the rain clouds, that is) it's already turning to slush and currently, before 7 am, it's back to raining. Yup, it's going to be a lovely holiday. So anyway, we didn't get much and it won't last long, but it still counts! And it was enough for:

And now a sappy interlude... this Thanksgiving, I am, among other things, thankful for all the discoveries I have made, and that I can share them with you, and you take some of your precious time to read about them. Have a good one -- N

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"Winter" Wildflowers VII

All the winter wildflowers are soggy and drippy, due to the rain we've been having. It still hasn't been that cold, but that's about to change -- they're predicting a first (small, non-sticking) snowfall by the end of the Holiday...
Ironweed is a favorite of mine in the summer with its jewel tone purple. In the winter, its former flowers look like mini brown actual flowers once all the seeds have flown (and like tan paintbrushes while seeds still inhabit them).

Anyhow, it's a messy sketch, but there it is...
Happy day-before-thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Winter" Wildflowers VI

Probably very little explanation needed for this winter wildflower... milkweed is one of the most distinctive forms on the prairie. An interesting study in textures, too... fuzzy in some places, soft in some places, smooth in some places, bumpy...

Monday, November 23, 2009

"Winter" Wildflowers V

The pods on the evening primrose plants are fun -- you can almost see them popping open when you see their four sections curling outward. The pictures below focus on one capsule from different angles, but each stem has well over 10, and the numerous seeds spill out if the pods are tipped at all.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Winter" Wildflowers IV

These flowers -- some sort of black-eyed susan-y thing, grow like weeds around here.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Winter" Wildflowers III

Yellow coneflower, orbs on sticks before seed loss, in three stages of dispersal. This plant's seeds have a very special smell, which I can't describe -- it reminds me of rye, but I don't think it actually smells of rye... but it's earthy spiciness makes me think of it. Smells are funny... very powerful, but very hard to describe. Kids will always smell things and tell me they smell like cinnamon or lemon or pizza, when (to me) they smell nothing like any of these things. In fact, sometimes it's the same thing and three different kids will smell it and describe it as lemon, pizza and cinnamon. (I always tell them they must have strange kitchens.) But really, I think our vocabularies just don't have language for smells the way they do for textures, shapes, etc. So it has to smell like something else that you can pinpoint. And if it doesn't, there's not enough words... which is strange. I mean, if I say something smells like autumn leaves, you can probably imagine what it smells like. But what adjectives can you use to describe that smell? Crunchy doesn't describe smell... I don't know... OK. Enough of this.

Friday, November 20, 2009

"Winter" Wildflowers II

Prairie Mimosa, also called Illinois bundleflower, has these interesting clusters of dark brown pods. They smell vaguely onion-y; as I was drawing them, I kept looking around for wild onion until I discovered that the odor came from the plant on which I was focusing!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"Winter" Wildflowers I

The prairie in late fall and winter is a brown place. Many shades of brown to be sure, but largely monochromatic. What I like about that is that it gives you a chance to really focus on other things besides eye-catching color... shapes, negative space, shadows, textures... It's actually good for a person like me, who draws everything in pencil. (Yeah, that's right... not a good pencil, either. A cheap but comfortable-in-my-hand mechanical pencil, which are supposed to be terrible for shading. But is seems to work for me. I have thought that I should get some good art pencils... but I don't know if I could still draw with those fancy things!) Phenologically, it's not that exciting. I mean, this particular phenophase will be here unchanged for months (assuming snow isn't deep enough to cover it). But artistically, it's a nice time.

At any rate, today I drew this "winter wildflower," which is a native plant called foxglove beardtongue. Its seed capsules had an interesting shape to me. I'm going to try and pick one interesting-shaped plant each day and draw them for a few days... so here's the Winter Wildflower Series I:

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


3:45 pm and it's like night time outside.
And, the rain finally came yesterday afternoon and most of today.

All Out of Gall Puns

(Maybe I could start spelling it Gaul and making France puns? But it's not that important.) Anyhow...

I really didn't think I'd be able to find the insect inside these woolly oak galls that grow on the underside of the leaves. They are, after all, quite small, and consist mostly of fuzz. Beneath the fuzz is a hard kernel about the size of a sesame seed... and I managed to cut into it and find the larva inside (it's small and whitish, see it?). I should have been a surgeon.

These galls turn into wasps, I believe.
And speaking of oak trees, why are they so awesome? Among other things, check out these branches. They're twisty, gnarled, craggy, crooked, knotted, like the bony, arthritic fingers of a crippled old woman. I mean, look at those shapes!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Gall of that Fly.

Goldenrod galls are probably not the most common around here, but due to their size and relative common-ness, they are definitely the most "famous," and when I say "gall," this is what students think of. The sketch above shows what they look like this time of year -- I love that the leaves (now just little nubs where leaves used to be) continue to grow out of the stem where the gall is... These galls are housing flies, which spend nearly a full year inside the goldenrod stem, if they are not interrupted by a mean teacher with a pocketknife. The adult flies, with a lifespan of less than a month, mate in the warm months of the year. They lay eggs inside of the goldenrod stem, and the larvae begin eating the stem immediately upon hatching (10 days later). Their saliva contains an enzyme that causes the plant to the protective gall. The plant functions around it, and the insect is completely protected. As it eats, it makes more space to grow and puts down more saliva, causing more stem swelling. As winter approaches, the gall flies dig a tunnel almost to the edge. In the picture below, you can see the the larva in the very middle, and the tunnel it has made going up between 1 and 2 o'clock. But it won't finish eating its way out until the spring... over the winter, it will stay in its protective plant case and produce some anti-freezing stuff. When spring arrives, it will pupate and emerge through a hole in the gall.
ps -- never rained yesterday, now they're saying today...

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened...

So this week, some of my classes will be looking at galls. I actually started with one class on Friday, and it was pretty neat. We found them, cut them open (which, I know, is committing insecticide, but we just cut open a very small percentage of them) and saw what was inside. Some galls are empty at this time of the year, but others have critters that overwinter in there, and we made some very cool discoveries. Expect some more gall postings this week, assuming I have similar findings with other classes.

Well, I had this oak leaf in my office. I picked it up a few weeks ago because of the shape and the veins, I just liked it and thought I might sketch it at a later time -- never happened. But the leaf happened to have a gall on it. On Friday after my class, I was thinking that it might be a good idea to have a "sample gall," so kids would know what to look for besides just the goldenrod galls, with which they are familiar. I put the oak leaf on my desk so I would remember to bring it to class.

This morning, when I arrived, I noticed right away that the gall had become less round, had flattened a bit. I inspected it, and found that the gall itself had a hole in it -- there was not one when I left on Friday, of this I am certain. And there was a tiny spider near the hole. (Either it emerged from the gall... or it ate whatever did and decided that the gall was good hunting grounds.) There are about 800 types of galls that live on oak trees... 800! Just on oak trees!!!... so it's entirely possible that one of those 800 types is a spider and does come out around now.
See it right there, above the gall in the photo? The actual size of that gall is about 3-4 mm. So I thought that was pretty cool; the gall "hatched" right at my desk. I put the spider and gall in a bug box to show my class today, but then I will release it and let it take its chances in the wild, so as to keep the arachnacide(?) to a minimum.

UPDATE: 2:42 pm. That spider has been safely released. I cut open that type of gall and discovered that the spider did, indeed, come from inside that gall. Cool.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Feelin' a Little Blue

With the sun at a low, nearing-solstice angle, its rays catch the seedheads of the little bluestem. The plants seem to have halos; the prairie a is holy place.

That photo is from Friday. After a week of mild, sunny weather -- we've had October in November so far... anyhow, today is cloudy and chilly, and tomorrow promises cold rain -- my favorite! (Or not).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hanging On

This blanketflower, growing wild near a pond, seems an improbable blossom for Nov 13. And yet, here it is, the only remaining color among the seed heads.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Thursday, November 12, 2009

For Five Crows

I found a small gray feather on Tuesday and I started sketching feathers...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I Found One, Too.

Look! This eastern burningbush (Euonymus atropurpureus; also sometimes commonly called eastern wahoo, which is a fun name) is growing near my parents' house... Thanks to the Veteran for opening my eyes to it...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I'm Famous.

Guess what, dear readers? I have become the poster child for the underpaid... the face of the over-achieving and under-compensated.,0,1639857.story
We are so proud. Rock on.

Ryerson Ramble

Enjoying the warm weekend weather, we walked through Ryerson Woods. As you can see, all the trees are naked and the woods are pretty brown.
This tree had a lot of shelf fungi. And they were quite large, too. Very cool.
I just thought the sun on this mossy log looked inviting.
And I enjoyed how the oak leaves floated in the still water in this pool.

Also noted:
  • blue jays have been very active and vocal in the past few days. Perhaps they are migrating? They are here year-round, I believe, but maybe they move?
  • There are still bees out and about -- or, at least, they're coming out when it's warm.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Paddling Reflections

Both days this weekend were warm (low 70s) and sunny (although the sun's angle is about 30 degrees in the middle of the day). We took full advantage.
I went canoeing with my dad on Sunday afternoon. (note: all the green in the picture is buckthorn. The rest of the leaves have pretty much turned color and fallen off...) Before my grandfather died, he and my dad used to go canoeing almost every Sunday when the water was open. After he died, for a while my dad and I went every week. But this summer, we didn't go at all. This is partly due to the fact that my dad basically lives in England and only comes home for about 1 weekend a month; it's partly due to the fact that my dad's shoulder was injured this summer. At any rate, it was nice to get out this weekend. (another note: my arms are out of shape. Apparently approximately 7 minutes of lifting 8-lb weights 2 times a week is not equivalent to an hour of paddling every week.)
For a while, I had thought that the herons were gone. We used to see them at every turn. But we didn't see any until about 2/3 of the way through our paddle -- and then we rounded a corner and saw this fellow. I guess they're not all gone after all.

And, on the same fallen tree was a turtle!

I would like to end this post with a note about paddle sports. I noticed the trend today of people kayaking with iPods. I know that they are fitness paddling and I don't have a problem with people jogging with headphones. But it bothers me that people have them while paddling. I don't know. A big part of what makes paddling enjoyable is the sound of the boat slicing through the water, tiny waves lapping against the bow. And the plunk of your paddle entering, the drips as you pull it out. Not to mention the sounds of nature, and all that. Headphones wreck it. So people, just don't.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

All Puffed Up

Puffballs? Are some pretty darn awesome fungi. On Friday, we went to Hart's Woods challenge course, which is nicely wooded with some old oaks and lots of rotting logs... Anyhow, my groups instructor told the kids in my group (which had named itself Team Awesome, btw) that the word "awesome" was overused and that they could not use that word to answer questions about how the team did. Awesome, really, means awe-inspiring. He told them tidal waves are awesome. Standing balanced on a see-saw with your classmates, really, could be described more accurately with other words. It is with this in mind that I call the puffballs awesome.
They look plain and unassuming. (They do get quite a bit larger than this one...) They're pretty boring most of the time. And then they split open.
Touch them even lightly and a cloud of spores wafts out, looking like brown smoke around a witch's cauldron. (It is very hard to photograph this...) And there seems to be an endless supply of spores inside. I watched a bunch of 7th graders, who are at the age when they're too cool for everything, go from "whatever" to literally pushing me out of the way so they could look at the plain beige mushrooms. Anything that has that power must really be awesome.
Here is is after 7th graders discovered it...
This one is just about done spilling its guts (it's a different one, I promise).

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Few Honest Scraps

Well. I'm honored to have been tagged by Mary Delle at the Secret Cottage Garden for the Honest Scrap Award. Though titled an award, it seems like one of those chain emails, except for blogs. I wasn't certain about it, so I did a little bit of research, and here's what I came up with.


1. You express your gratitude, Oscar-style, at getting the award and you credit your nominator. You also paste the Honest Scrap picture on your blog.

2. You tell 10 honest, interesting things about yourself in a blog post. For some bloggers, that may be simple (or hard because they already reveal everything about themselves in their blogs). For me, it's "hard" because my personal idiosyncrasies are really not the purview of my blog -- I mostly keep my other pursuits out of the internet world. Also, I am not predisposed to brag on myself, but nor do I wish to disparage myself in public (as it were). But this will be an atypical entry, I suppose.

3. You choose 7 other blogs to nominate for the award, and notify them, so they can do the same thing. (I read anywhere between 7 and 10 nominations, but I'm going on the low side due to point #3 below.) Of course it's optional, and I almost didn't do it... but then I figured.... why not? It's cool that people -- or at least one person -- wants to know more about me. And I enjoyed reading her 10 things, so...

Here are the 10 honest, somewhat interesting factoids about Naomi:

1. My current job is the longest I’ve ever spent going to one place each day. It got that distinction this year, as I began my 7th year… which means I have been at PCCS for longer than I was at my own elementary school (6 years, k-5). High school and Carleton College are next at 4 years each, and I’ve never stayed at a job longer than 2 years before this. (I did have the same summer job for about 7 years, but that’s just 8 weeks a year). I feel like I should be getting tired of it, but I’ve got no plans to leave.

2. We have 4 wall calendars and none of them is currently showing November, 2009.

3. I don’t read blogs. I write one, and I am thrilled when other people read it, and feel guilty that I don’t follow all the people who follow me. But with a very few exceptions, I don’t spend the time. In general, I have a working relationship with my computer. I use it to work, and to find out necessary information at home (like directions to places), but I don’t use it for fun. This blog is the exception that proves the rule… to be honest, I started it for a class. It was an assignment. But that was just the first 3 or 4 entries. Then I received a grade and was free to abandon the project, as did 99% of the other students in my ed tech class. But I was hooked. It was almost like my nature journal on line, and when I got a scanner… well… then it became my nature journal on line. (So I apologize to all those out there who are offended because I rarely read back.)

4. I can start a fire with flint and steel even on rainy and windy days (which a student correctly described as “about the worst possible weather for what we’re doing.”)

5. Sometimes I just hate being outside. As the “nature teacher” at my school, I feel like I’m supposed to love it all the time… but after a week of going outside with classes every day, some Saturdays I just want to lay on the couch.

6. I think I might actually like fennel. Since I first joined a CSA and began my locavore endeavor, I have dreaded getting fennel. I don’t like wasting things, and I tried it several ways and just never liked the taste. It has a distinct flavor, and some things, you just don’t like, you know? But it turns out? I like to eat it raw, like celery.

7. Becoming what I mock, I seem to be a fan of reality TV. I mean, I’ve still never watched the Bachelor or an episode of Survivor… but I would plan my week around Top Chef, if I ever had any plans that late on a weeknight. And all those shows in the same vein – Project Runway, Top Design – I watch them, too, although I don’t enjoy them as much because I don’t really know or care about fashion/design. Cake shows, like Cake Boss and Ultimate Cake-off, are a new addition to my repertoire (complementing wedding shows). And the one I’m most ashamed of… The Biggest Loser. Yeah, I know.

8. I let my cats sit on the table while I’m eating. Heck, I practically let them sit on the plate.

9. I am proud of the fact that, since June 5, 2009, I have not had a single diet coke. Beginning in high school, I drank diet coke every day, in varying amounts at various times – anywhere from 1 can per day to 6. As vices go, I could have worse, but is was definitely inconsistent with the other dietary choices I have made.

10. I honestly love plants and fungi and bugs, I can’t get enough of them, the shapes and patterns and textures, the smells that change with the seasons, the spectacular adaptations that are beyond the imaginations of even the best science fiction writers. Grand scenery is great, but it’s the little miracles that really amaze me. I’m not kidding about my nature nerdery.

Now, here's my nominations:

Jamie's Drama (because I get to remotely stay linked to my college roommate turned life-long friend, who I dearly miss)

Chicago Gardener (because, well, how could I not?)

The Daily Parker (because I always learn something interesting, and who doesn't love an up-to-date pic of the dog?)

Huginn-Muninn (because I wish Five Crows would write again, I miss her blog even though I get to talk to her almost every day. I doubt she'll do it, but it's worth a shot.)

Fractured Thoughts (because more people should get to know the Veteran's writing...)

Blue Jay Barrens (because I learned about nostoc, which is pretty cool)

Tag! You're it!

Sigh. I'm just going to hope that my readers aren't that into math.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Galling Situation

There are hundreds of varieties of oak galls, and this is one of the coolest I've found. It looks like something alien to earth, with magenta tentacles coming from a yellow orb. (A gall, in case you're not as nature nerdy as I, is a growth on the plant that contains an insect larva or a mite. Most of them have little wasps or flies. In most cases, the insect secretes a substance that causes the plant tissue to grow abnormally and then the insect can develop inside the protective plant tissue. Oaks and goldenrods seem to be common hosts to galls. Also maples and ashes, now that you mention it.)
This seems to be how they start, small and tentacle-less.
This is an older one; they got almost half an inch long and turned brown, like little hedgehogs.

Here are some of the other oak galls I found today. Unfortunately, I only had my camera for part of the day, so I missed some of the varieties I found.

Tomorrow? Some scraps of honesty, I promise.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Hanging Monkey Brains

Partial picture of an Osage orange. I am not sure what I was thinking when I started this... how could I possibly have had the time, or the patience, to complete all those little segments? But I did gain an intimate knowledge of the different sizes and shapes and patterns in there...

As the leaves fall away, revealing bare branches, the Osage orange trees stand out for the improbable green orbs hanging from their branches. The numerous orange-sized, chartreuse fruits look like earrings dangling from the tree's branches, or perhaps early Christmas ornaments. The fruits consist of many seeds that come out from the center like rays of sunshine. Each little segment could contain a seed, and all the segments get narrow and connect to the center.

Osage orange trees, also known as hedge apples, and called monkey brains by my students, aren't actually native here. They originally come from the Texas, southern Arkansas, and Oklahoma (OK!) areas, but were moved north as hedge row trees, where they remain today. These trees made barbed wire fences possible -- I'm not sure if that's because their thick, sharp thorns gave rise to the concept or because their rot- and termite-resistant wood was often used for the fenceposts on farms. Thus Osage orange trees were partially responsible for the transformation of our prairies into farm fields.

The seed balls, which provide hours of recess fun and squirrel food, aren't actually viable. I'm not certain if this is because we are just too far north for these trees to grow from seed, or if it's because the seeds aren't fertile. Osage orange trees are a variety that have distinct male and female trees, and female trees without male trees in the area will still fruit, but the fruits won't contain viable seeds. So maybe I am only in the vicinity of girl trees.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Last Flower of 2009

Today I looked up during a class and saw shrubs coated in bright yellow. I knew they were witch hazel from their location, and I knew that I had seen witch hazel flowers covered in snow before. I used to think that they were some of the very first signs of spring. Turns out, I was misguided. They are the last flowers of fall (at least this yellow variety), which sometimes hang on until later in the winter. But now is when they're being pollinated. There aren't that many pollinators out there at this point, but these plants are capitalizing on the fact that what few pollinators are left have got very limited options. So they're all heading to the witch hazels. I guess there are moths that last into winter and feed on these flowers. Once pollinated, the plant will go dormant for the winter and the nuts won't form until next year. It's sort of a strange life cycle, really. But it obviously works.

Other trees adorned with chartreuse today are the osage oranges (more on them at a later time). I am tired. Just in case you care.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Morning Moon

(Look! It's light when I go to work now! Of course, it's dark when I get home...)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Alive Awake Alert Enthusiastic

This garter snake was awake and active this afternoon. (Although... after being surrounded by 20 first and second graders, it will probably head immediately into its den just to avoid all those feet!) Garter snakes hibernate, but they are among the most cold-tolerant of all snakes, emerging early in the spring and staying active into the colder days of autumn (as evidenced here). When they do finally hibernate, they do so in large groups, all "cuddled up" to keep warm. Males emerge from hibernation first, and await the waking of the females, who basically get jumped as soon as they see the light of day. :) (Actually, females often get their choice of males...) In the summer, babies are born live -- and as many as 30 at a time. Fun stuff.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

More Fall Fun

We went apple picking today. It is quite near to the end of the season; in fact, several orchards were already closed for the year. I'm sure the selection of apples isn't what it was 3 weeks ago... but them neither were the crowds! And the weather was fine when the sun was out, which I can not say for the poor trick-or-treaters yesterday. Anyhow, we went to 3 orchards that were open, and got what I will describe as a counter-full of apples and 2 gallons of cider. The apples were mostly Jonagold, blushing golden, empire, winesap, with a few honey crisps and galas, and a single macintosh. I have already made 2 recipes of applesauce and 1 recipe of apple butter, and there's still a large number of apples on the counter. I don't even know what you do with apple butter (Chanukah gifts?). Sometimes I let these things get out of control.