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Winging southward

Late in August I set out early one Saturday morning to follow the Badger State Trail all the way to its end at the Illinois state line, and then the Jane Addams Trail in IL all the way to its end in the city of Freeport.

There are, I have to admit, no particular natural history destinations on this route; instead I largely practiced some lackadaisical trailside botany. In late August things are already starting to wind down, but in the shadier parts of the path – mostly former railway-cuts running deep between walls of fern-bedecked rock – there was a good amount of pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida):
Pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), Badger State Trail between Monticello and Monroe
and I don’t know what sort of ecotone I crossed, but somewhere south of the big trail crossroads in Monticello, the shaded trail surface started to become host to plentiful liverwort, along with the moss found to the north:
Liverwort, Badger State Trail, between Monroe WI and Illinois state line

In Monroe I stopped for lunch, and while digesting it I contemplated this very appealing display of the remainder of the trip:
Monroe & Freeport IL, Badger Trail and Jane Addams Trail, 8/14

… moderated only by the knowledge that I was going to have to climb back up that altitude in the morning.

There’s no campground that I could find particularly handy to Freeport, so instead I left my camping-gear at home and spent the night at the Baymont Inn and Suites, which is essentially right on the trail. It’s not the ritziest hotel in the world, granted, but it’s pleasant enough, and provided a bathtub and a Coke machine. Plus, they were chill about letting me keep my bike in the room, which always helps me rest a little easier. Once I’d rinsed off I wandered out to see the sights of Freeport; in a previous post I’ve already shared pictures of the leopard frog and great blue heron from the Wetland Preserve. In the city proper there were multiple markers of its most famous historical event, the debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas:
Debate Square, Freeport IL: Lincoln and Douglas
and what looked like a fine, though closed, public library.

Heading back in the morning, ballasted by a continental breakfast, I rode uphill through a very grey morning, but was cheered by some decent bug sightings. Just north of Monroe, a membracid perched on top of a wild mint in full flower:
Wild mint and a membracid, Badger State Trail just north of Monroe
In Monticello, where I stopped for second breakfast, there was a huge and magnificent crane-fly that hovered down to the base of a streetlamp while I was unlocking my bike:
Crane-fly, Monticello WI
and on the paved stretch of trail, just south of Madison, the first woolly-bear of the season:
Woolybear caterpillar (Pyrrharctis isabella), Badger State Trail, Fitchburg
An unmistakable harbinger of autumn.

By the time I reached the paved section, the morning clouds had cleared and it was a spectacular afternoon to roll home in.


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Brown snakes, red wings, white tails

Rolling into Governor Nelson Park on the second weekend in June, my first thought was how, well, un-prairie-ish the prairie seemed. When I went there for the first time last year, it was mid-July, and the vegetation on either side of the trail rose over my head, with a multiplicity of flowers and long-stemmed grasses. At this time of year, though, the grasses and flowers were no more than knee-high, except from the yellow sweet clover soaring a foot or two higher; of the spring flowers, few were left except for a couple of stands of shooting-star (Dodecatheon meadia):
Governor Nelson State Park, 6/8/14

Even in the middle of winter, a forest is still recognizably itself; the imagination need not do much more than line the branches with leaves to call up how it appears in summertime. A prairie, on the other hand, packs flat. As energy starts to pour in after the spring equinox, it gradually expands and unfolds to its full intricacy, and then begins to die back to not much more than seeds and mulch under snow. That process was still in its early to middle stages.

All the same there was plenty going on. In an earlier post this season, I lamented only ever having seen garter snakes in the wild; I can now report that I have seen what I’m fairly sure is a De Kay’s brown snake (Storeria dekayi). There’s no photographic proof, though, and here is why: I saw a flash of pale colour in the undergrowth, and bent down to see what was definitely the skin of a small snake, light brown with grey, along with some flesh that I soon determined was the body of an earthworm in the process of being eaten by the snake, but for the first few seconds I feared that it the snake’s innards; aftermath, maybe, of an encounter with a mower or careless walker. I have a strange reluctance to photograph deceased animals. It feels disrespectful. In the time it took me to realize the actual situation and lift my camera, the snake had abandoned its meal and scarpered into deeper grass. The earthworm carried on with its business of making the whole ecosystem (and all of human civilization, come to that) even possible in the first place, aplomb scarcely dented by this brush with annihilation.

The De Kay who gave his name to the snake – James Ellsworth De Kay – was an early New York naturalist. In his youth he was expelled from Yale for threatening a college tutor with a club; later he completed a degree in medicine at Edinburgh, and travelled with his father-in-law as a ship’s physician before settling down as a gentleman naturalist; though he did take up his stethoscope (or whatever they had then) for a time during a cholera epidemic, despite hating medicine. I really don’t know what to make of this Leader of the Pack/Stephen Maturin/Médécins sans Frontières biography, or how to sum it up, but he did find this little brown snake on Long Island one fine day, and it still bears his name.

The various clovers were patronized by a considerable number of Northern crescent butterflies (Phyciodes sp.):
Governor Nelson State Park, 6/8/14
I have more than a few pictures of crescents, and will probably amass many more; I never get tired of their coarse-brushed wing patterns, like appealingly drunken calligraphy from altogether elsewhere. There were dragonflies and damselflies as well:
Governor Nelson State Park, 6/8/14

The dragonflies, mostly white-tailed skimmers as best I could tell, were all moving at great speed; when the breeze would rise, they would reel wildly off course and then right themselves. What to me was a cooling touch of wind was to them a gale to be ridden out with verve and gallantry.

Also aloft was a red-winged blackbird which seemed either deeply fascinated with me, or able to sense Clif bars at the bottom of my pannier, through waterproof cloth, notebook, and wrapper – it flew back and forth over my head for some time, calling intermittently. It followed me until the trail went into the trees. A few paces beyond, a shadow flitted across the trail – a swallowtail butterfly in the canopy, distant and untouchable as a satellite.

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Suddenly, no giraffe!

Camelopardalis is one of those early-modern constellations of the northern sky, too dim to really pick out without a telescope, which astronomers seemed to quite literally name after the first thing that popped into their heads. This is how, for instance, we came to have the now-defunct Quadrans Muralis– named for an instrument that was doubtless hanging right there on the wall of Jerome Lalande’s observatory. Lalande also provided Globus Aerostaticus, the hot-air balloon, and from Johann Bode came several other gadgets in space: Machina Electrica, for instance, and Officina Typographica, the Printer’s Workshop.

Bode also dabbled in the other major source of early modern constellation names: blatant toadying. Thus, Frederici Honores (the Glory of Frederick the Great). I don’t want to be down on Old Fritz, as Brandenburgers still affectionately call him, but this seems like a solid case of if-you-get-one-they’ll-all-want-one; in fact, in much the same region of sky, there was also Sceptrum et Manus Iustitiae (the Sceptre and Hand of Justice), honouring King Louis XIV of France. Which is just a bit much, considering he already had the Sun. Anyway, both of those have been split up and divided among neighbouring constellations, so Frederick will just have to content himself with Bach’s Musical Offering. (Mind you, Scutum, the Shield, was originally the shield of King Jan Sobieski of Poland; but without him coffee would have taken much longer to arrive in the West, so it’s understandable that European astronomers are willing to make that exception.)

The other major naming theme, which brings us slowly back on topic, is animals. Lalande also created a cat, being a cat-lover and figuring he had done enough astronomical work he was entitled to put a cat-picture in the sky, which is a 21st-century enough sentiment. And the Fleming Petrus Plancius supplied Musca Borealis (the Northern Fly), Gallus (the Rooster), and Camelopardalis – the Giraffe, which made the cut as one of the 88 standard modern constellations. Regarding the motivation for the name, Ian Ridpath writes:

The German astronomer Jacob Bartsch included Camelopardalis on his map of 1624 and wrote that it represented the camel on which Rebecca rode into Canaan for her marriage to Isaac, as told in the book of Genesis. But Camelopardalis is a giraffe not a camel, so Bartsch’s explanation is unsatisfactory.

So I’m falling back on “Plancius was just thinking about giraffes that night” as the null hypothesis.

In general there’s not a ton going on in the area of sky subtended by Camelopardalis, although there was a supernova there recently, and Voyager 1 is headed in that general direction. In the past couple of months, though, Comet 209P/LINEAR crossed the Earth’s orbit, leaving debris in its wake; and astronomers predicted this debris would cause a new meteor shower, peaking the night of May 23rd-24th, with its radiant in Camelopardalis.

As indeed it did. They predicted, too, that the shower might be quite spectacular, and this didn’t pan out; but I would much rather that astronomers let me know that something might be an impressive sight, rather than that they play it safe and leave me slug-a-bed while the show of a lifetime plays out in the heavens. In the worst case I have gone out and enjoyed the company of the night sky.

And, in fact, that was what happened; I spent about twenty minutes watching, and no meteors, but it was a decent night’s stargazing all the same. Those with more patience and/or kit did see a few, evidently.

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Darwin’s Day

Here I first saw a tropical forest in all its sublime grandeur — nothing but the reality can give any idea how wonderful, how magnificent the scene is. If I was to specify any one thing I should give the pre-eminence to the host of parasitical plants. Your engraving is exactly true, but underrates rather than exaggerates the luxuriance. I never experienced such intense delight. I formerly admired Humboldt, I now almost adore him; he alone gives any notion of the feelings which are raised in the mind on first entering the Tropics.
-letter from Charles Darwin to John Stevens Henslow, 1832

My mother recently sent me a newspaper clipping with a picture of a blue Morpho butterfly, which vividly called to mind my own first sight of a tropical forest, in Monteverde, Costa Rica; before even leaving the property I was staying on I saw a large, iridescent blue Morpho dart out and then fly far away before I even had my camera turned on. An incredible sight. And then, a few steps further on, at my feet marched a column of leafcutter ants, their leaf-fragments bobbing as they walked. I must have watched them for a good half hour.

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We shine a light sometimes

I actually watched the film Europa Report some months ago, but then they took it down from Amazon Instant Video and it wasn’t in a lot of theatres. Which turned writing a review from “hey you should check out this cool thing” to “ha ha I saw this cool thing which you can’t actually watch”, so.. I didn’t do that. But now it’s up on Netflix (or at least, on U.S. Netflix), so I can talk about it with a relatively clear conscience.

It is, indeed, a cool thing. From the opening frame narrative – a press conference – we learn that a SpaceX-esque firm has launched a crewed exploratory mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa; and that something bad has happened to it. From there we pass to the compelling story of the mission proper, put together as if with footage from on-board cameras. This might give the impression of a Blair Witch-esque shaky-cam fest, but in fact effects like that are used very sparingly, and the overall feel is more like a documentary.

That being said there are a fair number of horror tropes deployed. The sound design, in particular, is often claustrophobic and unsettling. Ultimately (and I don’t want to go into too much more detail, because spoilers) it is not a horror film at all; but if I can bring H.P. Lovecraft back on briefly:

The oldest and strongest emotion is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

There’s a lot of the unknown in traveling to a world in the outer Solar System. Particularly when things don’t go smoothly, which they don’t. In contrast to the real fear, though, Europa Report sounds a very different note with a repeated line:

Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known… what does your life actually matter?

To me at least this looks back past 2001 (which definitely gets its shout-outs), 100 years back to Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. It’s not always remembered that one of the factors distinguishing Scott’s goals from Roald Amundsen’s is that Scott built doing real science into his plans from the word go. When Scott’s tent was found, alongside the dead explorers were 35 pounds of fossils, which they had carried until the end.

People tell me that Europa Report‘s physics and engineering are largely credible, though I don’t have the background to call shenanigans even if they aren’t. They seem believable, and the story doesn’t posit any unlikely new technologies. The astronauts seem like real astronauts: skilled and dedicated without being hyper-competent Spaceman Spiffs who never get irritated with each other or make mistakes. The performances were pretty solid, I thought; apart from Embeth Davidtz in the frame narrative, Sharlto (District 9) Copley was the only name I recognized, but everyone was good, particularly Anamaria Marinca as pilot Rosa Dasque. The spaceship’s crew was reasonably diverse, so kudos for that too.

That Europa is a frontier still lying in wait was emphasized by a recent Planetary Radio episode, which interviewed one of the founders of the Destination: Europa initiative; they advocate for missions to Europa, beginning with an orbiter, the romantically-named Europa Clipper. Since I’m neither a scientist who can send them interesting material to use, nor a U.S. citizen who can write my Congresscritter, there’s not much I can do beyond writing a blog post to say that they rock and you should go check it out, on the off chance that you do fit either or both of those descriptions.

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Spell of the dark woods

“… hushed stony slopes and low ivied cottages in the lee of huge boulders in Rhode-Island’s back country. Scent of the sea and fragrance of the fields; spell of the dark woods and joy of the orchards and gardens at dawn.”
-H.P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”

This mode of viewing Nature in the universality of her relations is no doubt adverse to the rapidity desirable in an itinerary…
-Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative

A wooded slope fell away steeply from the path where I stood, and then curved more gradually towards a surface of sparkling water I could only vaguely see as bright flashes through the trees. Through a trick of perspective it looked like a vast ocean far below, even though it was only a pond that began its existence, humbly enough, as a reservoir for the town of Lincoln in Rhode Island. This was Lime Rock Preserve, home of:

Red oak, hickory, a diversity of ferns, red and white baneberry, horse balm, violets, bellwort, nodding trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, trout lily

I don’t know whether they gave up on enumerating all the different ferns, or if they just didn’t have an accurate list; but there were a great many. Being still very much a novice at identifying ferns myself, I haven’t keyed them out either, but there was a great diversity of form to be seen every few paces. These large, stiff fronds I’m reasonably confident are Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides):
Fern, Lime Rock Preserve
but am still working on these (among others):
Fern, Lime Rock Preserve
Fern, Lime Rock Preserve

A big limestone boulder was covered in a lichen with huge apothecia:
Lichen, Lime Rock Preserve
and mushrooms lurked in the shadows of the bigger ferns:
Mushroom, Lime Rock Preserve
As I was almost back to the gate, a toad sprinted across the path and a little ways up a tree-trunk:
Frog, Lime Rock Preserve

Initially I’d thought – well, let’s be honest, hoped – it was a gray tree-frog. Experts on iNaturalist gently let me know it was in fact the ubiquitous American toad; an old friend rather than a new acquaintance. As a boy I collected them down by the river, and sometimes even out back of the house, by the compost heap. But I never saw them climbing a tree, so that was new.

This was the day-trip I took while in Providence for NecronomiCon (see previous report, “The Gate of the Silver Key“). With only one day, the rapidity desirable in an inventory meant narrowing down on basically one thing to see. Going along the Blackstone River via Lime Rock meant not really seeing any ocean – Touisset Marsh, a salt-marsh, was another possible choice – which I regret a little, but it was a beautiful ride, and, as I later discovered, the hills and forests north of Providence were also haunted by the young Lovecraft on his bicycle. So really it ended up as part of the fabric of the whole experience, rather than being a digression! Even the life-cycle of ferns found its way into his stories:

“It reproduced like the vegetable cryptogams, especially the pteridophytes; having spore-cases at the tips of the wings and evidently developing from a thallus or prothallus … How it could have undergone its tremendously complex evolution on a new-born earth in time to leave prints in Archaean rocks was so far beyond conception as to make Lake whimsically recall the primal myths about Great Old Ones who filtered down from the stars and concocted earth-life as a joke or mistake…”
-H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness

The Blackstone River Bikeway itself runs to the town of Woonsocket which is right on the Massachusetts border. I didn’t go all the way through town to cross the border, which, again, is a slight regret, but I don’t imagine anything is radically different on the other side, and anyway I can take the Badger State Trail to Illinois if I want to enjoy the arcane thrill of riding across an imaginary line. Though the Blackstone Valley was ground zero for industrialization in the US – the first textile mill was built there in 1790 – it’s back to quiet and picturesque, except at the dams, which are loud and picturesque. A considerable amount of wetland has been restored, where I saw a vivid green dragonfly:
Dragonfly, Blackstone River Bikeway
and some sensitive-fern (Onoclea sensibilis):
Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), Blackstone River Bikeway

Garter snakes crossed the path in a relaxed manner, although they were a little touchy if you got close:
Snake, Blackstone River Bikeway

and altogether it was a pleasant cycling experience, nice and flat on an old rail-bed, almost more like being on a carnival ride than actually exerting any effort. The milestones were even real stones, which I thought was a great touch.

The bike was a rental, incidentally, and so my thanks go to the extremely nice folks at the North Providence location of Providence Bicycle, who set me up with a comfortable fat-tired Raleigh and a helmet to fit my long Irish head.

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The Gate of the Silver Key

“Look! through that window shine the stars of eternal night. Even now they are shining above the scenes you have known and cherished, drinking of their charm that they may shine more lovely over the gardens of dream. There is Antares—he is winking at this moment over the roofs of Tremont Street, and you could see him from your window on Beacon Hill…”
-H.P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

There’s a tradition, at least in journalism, that I should lead into talking about my experiences in another city by citing some pithy wisdom from the cab-driver who took me into town from the airport. However, the cabbie who drove me into downtown Providence last month was completely intent on a game on the radio, and all I can tell you is that he wore a Blue Jays cap. That’s a point in his favour, but it’s not much of a story. (Disclaimer: I award this point through love of Toronto, my home for close to 10 years, and not out of any actual baseball-related feels or opinions, which I don’t really have.)

The principal reason I went to Providence was for NecronomiCon, a big celebration of all things related to horror author (and local history expert) H.P. Lovecraft. Most of that fell outside the rubric of this blog, but there were a few intriguing points of contact. One of them was the Ladd Observatory.

H.P. Lovecraft's "Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy"

The Ladd is of the same vintage as HPL himself: he was born in 1890 and the observatory opened in 1891. Lovecraft’s parents knew the director, Winslow Upton, and so the young Lovecraft got a key to the observatory. A key! To an observatory! After that he spent a great deal of time there, which I can well believe. It’s not a huge observatory, but a 12″ refractor is pretty respectable, and early in the 20th century the hill it’s perched on, some ways from central Providence, must have offered great viewing. That’s not so now, but it’s still lovingly maintained and used for educational purposes, and it held an open house Thursday evening at the convention highlighting Lovecraft’s long connection with it.

I had expected to see some interesting sights, but hadn’t anticipated an enthusiastic and informed tour of the place. Among other cool things, a small telescope means one person can (in principle) operate it! I was allowed to pull on the ropes to rotate the observatory dome, which was a lot of fun. I kept saying “amazing”, which probably got repetitive, but it was. Although really I think all observatories are amazing places, by nature. When I was small my mother would sometimes take me to open houses at the Cronyn Observatory at Western; which is of no particular architectural or historical interest, but it is the place I put my eye to an eyepiece and saw an ice-giant (though I can no longer recall which one) shimmering blue and green against the stars. That moment remains vivid as yesterday.

By all accounts the Ladd Observatory was something of a refuge for Lovecraft, who had some bad family stuff going on. He cited, as reasons to go on living through a tough time, “beauty and curiosity”. (Which is what I try to foreground in this blog.) In fact he leaned towards a career in science, but was defeated, I’m informed, by math. (This may have been poor aptitude for math, or it may have been lousy math teaching, which no doubt has been plentiful in all times and places, alas.) But his devotion to astronomy was such that he wrote, hand-illustrated, and published his own Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy when not yet in his teens. Several issues are still preserved in his papers at Brown University, and during the convention they were on display at the Providence Athenaeum, along with a number of astronomy books from Lovecraft’s library. Here, for instance, he’s soliciting observations of the Leonid meteor shower – part of that same crowd-sourced science endeavour going on since at least 1833 on this continent (as touched on in earlier post, Misumena vatia and Dr. Olmsted”):
H.P. Lovecraft's "Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy"

It was something to walk up through College Hill while night was falling, through streets of old houses and trees, and then see the observatory dome, not approaching slowly but all of a sudden right there, looming against the purpling sky. Looming friendly-like, yes, but definitely looming. And then in the last of the twilight to stop at Prospect Terrace – another favourite haunt of HPL’s – overlooking downtown and the state-house, and to watch the final beams with a mix of local denizens, frat boys, bohemians, and a great big statue of Roger Williams, in

… that universal haven of the odd, the free, and the dissenting.
– HPL, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Sunset, Prospect Terrace

Many thanks to Francine for the tour. There’s at least one more Providence trip post in the works, since I took one day to rent a bike and ride out along the Blackstone River, taking in the Lime Rock Preserve and its diversity of ferns; so, stay tuned.

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