Stories under the bark

a bristly millipede and a selfless spider


A well-known local photographer and naturalist lifted a flap of hemlock bark and found some interesting small creatures. There were several tiny millipedes, only two or three millimeters long. Unlike most millipedes, which are plated with hard covers on each segment, this kind was covered with bristles (of undetermined function). According to experts, this is a species of Polyxenus, probably Polyxenus lagurus, a widespread species. At the rear end of the body are two tufts of detachable, hooked spines—a sort of grappling hook–that form a defense against predatory ants and spiders. When attacked, the millipede swings its rear end toward the predator; the spines detach upon contact and cling to the attacker; when an ant tries to groom off the hooks, it just makes matters worse, as it gets entangled and incapacitated in a snarl of spines. Of course, there is somebody somewhere who beats the system: a large tropical ant subdues a polyxenus by stinging it before it can use its hooks.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Many millipedes live in moist places (some get to be a foot long!), feeding mostly on plant debris. However, the little bristly ones feed on lichen and algae on bark and rock surfaces, where they are often exposed to the risk of desiccation, and their foods also get very dry, providing little dietary water. But they have a thrifty way of conserving water: by absorbing water vapor though the walls of the rectum (the last part of the intestine). Moisture in the feces produces water vapor and high humidity in the rectum; because there is more water vapor there than on the other side of the rectal walls, it passes (by osmosis) through the walls to parts of the kidney that lie tight against the rectal wall. A shriveled, well-dried polyxenus can rehydrate in just a few hours, if it happens to find a bit of moisture. Rectal water conservation has evolved independently in a few species of several unrelated kinds of small invertebrates, including some beetles, fleas, cockroaches, mites, and isopods.

The other interesting creature under that flap of bark was a handsome spider, identified as a species of Callobius, a genus that occurs mostly in North America. They live under bark and stones or in the leaf litter. The common name is hacklemesh weaver or lace-weaver spider, named presumably for the loosely-woven, fuzzy-textured mesh with which they make a somewhat disorganized funnel web. The males overwinter as immatures, molting to adult form in spring; after mating, they die. Females, however, are found all year round, and may live two or more years. They lay eggs, often in their webs, with several dozen eggs in each cocoon. What happens when those eggs hatch is not yet known, but close cousins of these spiders (in the genus Amaurobius) do something unusual, so maybe Callobius does too.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

An Amaurobius female lays one clutch of eggs and guards them until they hatch. She is induced by her first batch of offspring to lay another clutch of eggs, which are usually infertile. These are called trophic eggs, and they are eaten by the first offspring. Then the female vibrates her web, which stimulates those offspring to eat their mother! This is called matriphagy, an extreme form of parental care. Motherhood may have a high cost, but there is a payoff: Offspring that are fed on trophic eggs and on the mother get bigger and probably survive better than those that are not. They stay together for a while, hunting cooperatively to subdue prey. Females that provide trophic eggs and subject themselves to consumption by their offspring have higher reproductive success than those that don’t.

The habit of producing trophic eggs has evolved independently in certain species of unrelated animals, including tree frogs, ants, crickets, stingless bees, and snails. In some species, trophic eggs are the only food the newly hatched offspring get. Young mackerel sharks develop within the uterus of the mother, who produces numerous eggs. Early-hatching offspring commonly eat undeveloped eggs while still inside the mother; in some cases, this habit progresses to cannibalism on late-hatching embryos.

Similarly, matriphagy, usually with lethal consequences for the mother, has evolved independently in certain insects, nematodes (round worms), scorpions, as well as spiders. There is said to be one vertebrate in which the young eat part of the mother, without lethal consequences; in a species of small amphibian known as caecilians the young eat only the skin, which the mother can regenerate.

Who would have guessed that such strange and fascinating stories would be lurking under a flap of tree bark!

The peace of wild things

when despair for the world grows…

There’s a poem by Wendell Berry, written over five decades ago, called The Peace of Wild Things. The poem has been reprinted many times and also set to music. At a recent concert when the song was performed, I was asked to make an introduction, using my experience as a local naturalist—a personal statement related to the thoughts expressed in the poem—despair and grief at the state of the world and finding solace in Nature. With great trepidation, I agreed to do this, although this task was much harder than writing a scientific paper or giving a class lecture. So here goes…

Like the poet in the song, I am very pessimistic about the future of the natural world. The things we proudly call civilization and progress have unleashed a monstrous wave of destruction over the planet. The human population has been and still is increasing at a phenomenal rate, creating social tensions as well as prodigious ecological damage. With little or no regard for the often predictable consequences, human activity is wreaking havoc everywhere—cutting forests, plowing prairie, paving ponds and marshes, overharvesting and overgrazing, extracting material resources and dumping what’s unwanted, polluting land and ocean and air, warming the climate…causing one of the biggest extinctions in the history of the world.

There is clearly reason for grief and despair. No use waiting for government or bureaucracy to act, and I think collective human behavior is unlikely to change very much. It all comes down to individuals.

But distressed minds do not think clearly; despair must be temporarily set aside behind a mental curtain, in order to live productively and constructively, perhaps even doing some small things to slow the pace of destruction. In a search for equilibrium, I seek comfort and peace where it can still be found.

Even as a child, I found comfort in walking in woods or meadows, doing nothing in particular, just looking and listening. Mind you, I didn’t know anything; I reckon I could tell a maple from an oak, and a robin from a blue jay, but that’s about all. Now I know a bit more, and I still walk outdoors, in forest or meadow, virtually every day, looking and listening.

The best kind of walk for me, either solo or with a like-minded friend, is one of noticing things in my surroundings, finding little stories of interest. The surroundings are not just scenery. I am intently focused, so it’s a kind of meditation, but that focus is directed outward. I love the little stories I find—here’s where a weasel popped up out of the snow, bounded a few yards, and dove back under, presumably hunting voles. Here are the tracks of a junco near the web of a winter spider, where it may have picked bugs from the web. And here is a bumblebee, sleeping in a flower. Look how happy the lichens are, after that rain! There’s a nest of a black-backed woodpecker, and the noisy young ones are just now fledging! The ruby-crowned kinglets are here again, and singing my favorite song.

I take other kinds of walks, of course—some might be mainly for exercise, or for sociality with friends, or for time to brood about what to make for dinner…But even those walks bring some inner peace, because I know the other lives are there. I am hearing a chorus of subtle voices, not with my physical ear, but internally. It is a chorus of tardigrades in the mosses, of voles under the snow, of sticklebacks in the ponds, of shooting stars waiting for a bee… On such walks, I ‘hear’ them without paying focused attention; I just know that they are there. In a different way, that can be as comforting and important as listening to a Schubert sonata or a Haydn symphony or a Bach motet.

By focusing on little stories, listening to the subtle voices, and just knowing they are there, I find a feeling of connectedness to the other lives in natural communities around me, making me part of it all. As another song says, Because you are listening, you’re part of the song! That fosters some inner peace, restedness, and renewal.

I’ll end here with a small story. After my husband (and canoe partner) died, I was determined to keep on canoeing. I bought a solo canoe, and for many years I made solo trips to the Boundary Waters and Quetico, staying out for a week or more at a time. Each trip was an experience of total immersion in the here and now, a kind of strenuous meditation; for that time, there were no past or future concerns. No motors, very few people, an occasional bear. One day I pulled up to a portage, unloaded my boat, and was about to swing my canoe up on my shoulders, when I heard a bird song from the top of a nearby tree. Not a robin….so I looked up. At the top of a white birch tree with brand-new shiny green leaves, backed by a cerulean sky, there was a male scarlet tanager! Oh my! That vision and that song carried me over the portage and a long way on, and they’re with me still.

Peace be with you!

A plant called pipsissewa

the intriguing story of a small flower

The rapidly lengthening days of March are an annual pleasure for us all, I think. They also make some of us fidgety—eager for spring and summer to arrive. As I write this, however, the early morning temperatures at my house are around five degree Fahrenheit, which suggests that I might be a be over-eager with my fidgeting.

Nevertheless, my thoughts turned to a small shrubby plant in the forest understory, one that blooms in summer. So I decided to write about it, even though it is not exactly seasonally appropriate.

This little plant is called pipsissewa (or sometimes prince’s pine, though it has nothing to do with either princes or pines); its scientific name is Chimaphila umbellata. A friend called to my attention a small patch of it one summer day, as we prowled along a forest trail on the lower slopes of the west side of Mendenhall Lake. I think I have since seen nonflowering specimens in several other spots. However, the field guides and books on the flora of Alaska present somewhat conflicting information on how to tell this species from leatherleaf saxifrage when no flowers are present, so I can’t be sure.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Then it dawned on me that I knew absolutely nothing about this plant except that it belongs to the wintergreen family and, like its relatives, pipsissewa has shiny evergreen leaves. So I dug up some information. This species grows in the mountain west and across the boreal forests of North America and Eurasia, and research information comes from eastern North America and northern Europe.

When summer finally rolls around again, pipsissewa produces a few pinkish-white flowers, more or less saucer-shaped. The flowers are said to have a faint aroma, and they produce nectar. Pipsissewa flowers later in the summer, after many other species have finished flowering. It is pollinated primarily by nectar-collecting bumblebees. Many of the pollinating bees are males, which are produced late in the season. Although they are less efficient pollinators than the (female) worker bees, they gain a source of energy for flying around looking for females with which to mate (those queens will produce next year’s broods of workers). The flowers are self-compatible, meaning that pollen originating on a given individual can fertilize ovules and produce seeds on the same plant. But it usually takes a bee to accomplish the pollen transfer from the anthers, where pollen is produced, to the female-receptive parts of the flower. Pollen grains are produced in clumps of many grains stuck together, so many of the seeds that develop from each pollination event are likely to be full-siblings with the same father.

Pipsissewa produces large amounts of very tiny seeds that hold little nutrition for a developing seedling (as is true for other wintergreens and for orchids). The seeds are buoyant and disperse on vagrant puffs of air in the understory, but most seeds probably don’t go very far. One study found that germination was better if seeds landed near an established adult plant and in more acid soils.

The miniscule size of the dust-like seeds means that some other source of seedling nutrition is needed, since so little is stored in the seed itself. Pipsissewa and other plants with dust-like seeds are ‘fed’ via fungal connections to other plants that are well-established, already photosynthesizing carbohydrates, which the fungi transport to pipsissewa and other plants; these fungi also supply nitrogen and other nutrients to the growing seedling. As the young pipsissewa grows to adulthood, it apparently becomes less dependent on the fungal connections for carbohydrates but still obtains other nutrients that way.

The fungal connections are called mycorrhizae (fungus-root), which have featured in my essays many times. Most plants, including ferns and mosses, in our forests have these connections, moving nutrition from plant to plant. Some plants are entirely dependent on their mycorrhizae for growth and maintenance, others are only partly or temporarily dependent, while still others are much less dependent and may serve chiefly as suppliers. I suspect that we would not recognize our familiar forests if they lacked these fungal connections; altogether, one could say that fungi make our forest what they are!

How do plants breathe?

… wait… did you say plants breathe?

Most folks have learned that plants take up carbon dioxide from the air (to be used in photosynthesis) and produce oxygen (as a by-product of that process), but less well known is that plants also need oxygen. Plants, like animals, have active metabolisms, fueling all bodily activities. For this, almost all organisms need oxygen (a few use sulfur instead), which interacts with glucose (from the breakdown of organic compounds) to produce energy, and the complex process produces carbon dioxide (and water molecules) as a by-product. Most of the carbon dioxide is used by the plant for photosynthesis, but any excess needs to be eliminated. So plants need to breathe—to exchange these gases between the outside and the inside of the organism. Breathing is part of a long, complex process called respiration, much of which occurs inside cells, where the metabolic machinery produces energy.

Although many land plants get some of their oxygen from water that rises from the soil through conducting tissues (the water-conducting tissue is called xylem, which forms the wood in trees), water doesn’t supply enough—plants also need to take in oxygen from the air. This is not a simple matter, because the outer coverings of plants are impervious to the passage of water, protecting them from desiccation. But these coverings also prevent the passage of carbon dioxide and oxygen.

However, evolution solved this dilemma by incorporating a sort of ventilation system into the plants’ aerial exteriors. Many tiny pores (called stomata) are scattered densely over the surface of leaves and stems; they are especially dense on leaves, sometimes thousands per square inch. Movement of gases in and out of these minute pores is regulated by two special cells on each side of the opening; these cells can enlarge, to close the pore, or shrink, to open it. (Stomata also help regulate water uptake and loss, but that’s another topic…). Oxygen entering the stomata diffuses to areas of lower oxygen concentration inside the plant. Eventually it reaches the metabolic machinery in the cells, where it is used to oxidize glucose and produce energy.

One day, I happened to notice some alder branches with numerous lumps on the bark. These are called lenticels, which are pores that open through the bark into the underlying wood. They too allow the passage of gases between the outside air and the living tissues of the wood. Lenticels often have raised, stiffened edges, which are thought to prevent excessive deformation as the plant grows and the stems thicken (which makes me wonder if the very lumpy alder branch that prompted all this verbiage had been under lots of stress while growing). In the central part of a lenticel the cells are widely spaced, leaving room for the passage of gases by diffusion.

We see lenticels on lots of trees. For instance, on birches, they are conspicuous as horizontal, black marks on the white bark. On alders, they seem to take various forms, with or without the very lumpy ridges of bark around the opening. On some trees, they are sometimes quite hidden under thick bark layers but may appear at the bottom of crevices in the bark.

It turns out that many land plants have lenticels, not just on the woody parts. For instance, apples and pears have lenticels on the fruit skin. Sometimes these openings become enlarged and discolored, affecting the visual attractiveness of the fruit. On potatoes, when the soil is too wet, the lenticels enlarge, to admit more oxygen, and become unsightly—if they then dry, they look like scabs all over the tuber. Grapes have them both on the fruit and on the little stem that attaches each grape to the plant. A recent study caused much excitement among grape-growers and wine-makers, because the study revealed that oxygen deprivation, when the lenticels are blocked, caused increased cell death in the grapes, so that they did not contain the normal amount of water, changing the flavor. Oxygen uptake is affected by temperature, and at least in some varieties of grapes, cell death increases with temperature. So there is concern among grape-growers, wine-makers, and wine connoisseurs that climate-warming would increase oxygen deprivation and increase cell death in grapes.


some tidbits about a lesser-known local tree

On a nice winter day, a cluster of Parks and Rec hikers perched for lunch at the edge of a beautiful muskeg. Someone observed that many of the shore pines were rather stunted and often crooked, while others grew straight and tall. Our local shore pines are a distinct subspecies of lodgepole pine, which grows mainly in the Interior; its straight, tall growth form gave the species its common name. Some of these Interior-type lodgepoles are reported from the north end of Lynn Canal.

The question, that day, was whether or not the tall specimens in our muskeg might be strays from up north. Someone remembered that there are subtle differences between the subspecies in the orientation of the cones on the branches. But without a detailed genetic analysis, this notion probably cannot be ruled out—after all, these pines use the wind to disperse both pollen and seeds, and who’s to say that no genes from the upper Lynn Canal population have ever come to Juneau.

On the other hand, we observed that the tall, straight pines in our muskeg grew chiefly along the edges, near the surrounding spruce and hemlock forest. This distribution suggested to us that maybe the growth form is determined by habitat; for instance, muskeg edges tend to be dryer than the main part, and perhaps the acidity is somewhat less, too. A little research, back at home, revealed that expert plant ecologists have come to the same conclusion.

The “contorta” subspecies. Photo by Kathy Hocker

That little discussion reminded me that pines are interesting in several ways. I have room to deal with one of them here.

About forty species of pine occur in North America (out of over 100, worldwide). Most of these produce seeds with well-developed, flat wings; they are adapted for wind-dispersal when the cones open and shed the seeds. Just a few kinds lack wings altogether or have extremely small wings.

The best-known North American species with wingless seeds are the several closely-related species of pinyon pine. They grow on poor soils in dry areas of southwestern U.S. and Mexico. The seeds are large, over a centimeter long, and well-endowed with highly nutritious endosperm (about 60% fat) to fuel the growth of seedlings. When the seeds are mature, the cones open but hold the seeds on the cone scales, not releasing them to just fall to the ground. This is considered to be an adaptation for seed dispersal by birds, principally pinyon jays and Clark’s nutcracker, although scrub jays and others also participate. The birds harvest ripe seeds from the handily open cones and commonly cache them all over the landscape, sometimes may kilometers away from the parent tree. Many of the cached seeds are retrieved and eaten by these birds with excellent memories, but some are lost—and these can produce new trees for another generation. Squirrels don’t miss these tasty bites, of course, but they are mainly seed predators. Any fallen seeds—and some cached ones—are scarfed up by rodents, quail, and other ground foragers, including humans.

Pinyon jays and Clark’s nutcrackers both have very strong bills, for hacking open closed, green cones early in the season, before the cones open. Both species have special anatomical adaptations for carrying loads of seeds to caches. The upper esophagus of the jays expands when it is packed with seeds; as many as forty pine seeds can be carried at one time. Clark’s nutcracker has a pouch under the tongue where dozens of seeds can be carried. Both of these birds eat other kinds of seeds too, as well as insects and other foods, but the relationship between the birds and the pinyons is considered to mutualistic—with benefits to both sides. Less specialized birds, such as scrub jays, participate in the mutualism, but the relationship is less specialized.

Two additional pine species (limber pine, southwestern white pine) in western North America make seeds with vanishingly small wings; their seeds also dispersed by caching birds. Seeds are released from the cones when mature and are available then to ground foragers. The seeds of the southwestern white pine are eagerly harvested and cached by Mexican jays, which cannot open green cones well and apparently eat more acorns than pine seeds.

One more North American species (whitebark pine) makes wingless seeds. But in this species the cones do not open readily. This species grows in montane forests of the western U. S. and British Columbia, where seed-harvesting birds and squirrels generally have to open the cones to extract the seeds. The caches of these harvesters are regularly raided by black and grizzly bears. At least in some areas and some years, this food source contributes significantly to the survival and reproductive success of the bears.

Wingless pine seeds also occur in Eurasia, where winglessness seems to have evolved independently several times. The spotted nutcracker there participates in a mutualism similar to that in North America., but the Eurasian jay seems to be more closely associated with acorns and beechnuts (as is the blue jay of eastern North America). Who else might participate in a mutualism with wingless-seeded pines in Eurasia?

Another question: What are the historical and ecological factors that determined the lack of wingless pine seeds in Southeast, where the seeds of all conifers are basically dispersed by wind?

Spring medley

progress of a favorite season

Spring is officially here: the vernal equinox has gone by and the days are rapidly lengthening. There are much livelier signs of spring as well. Sapsuckers have arrived in force, rat-atat-tating on rain gutters and stove pipes (and trees). Juncos trill at the forest edge and song sparrows are tuning up in the brush above the beaches. Pacific wrens sound off from invisible lookouts in the understory. Best of all, ruby-crowned kinglets can be heard, high in the conifers, calling ‘peter-peter-peter’ or singing their full, cheerful song. That’s when spring is really here, for me.

A walk on a favorite beach on Douglas Island was focused on finding mermaids’ purses—the egg cases of long-nosed skates. Every year, about this time, we find them washed up in the wrack at the high tide line—there must be a nursery just offshore. On this day, we found sixteen eggs cases, mostly black, dry, and in various stages of decrepitude. Just a few were still mostly whole and khaki-colored, and two had natural openings at one end, where perhaps the young skate had exited. All the egg cases had sizable holes punched into them. I would love to know if marine predators had nabbed the developing embryos or if the holes were made by a tardy, would-be predator just hoping that an embryo was still inside.

A good find in the rolled mats of rockweed at the high tide line was the body of a sea star, entirely eviscerated. All the gonads and digestive parts had been cleanly removed, neatly exposing the calcareous skeleton of the water-vascular system that runs from the center of the star out into each arm. In a living sea star, the canals of this hydraulic system are filled with fluid, mostly sea water. Numerous branches of the main canal lead to the tube feet (often visible in a live star, in rows under each arm) that function in locomotion and in opening clams. When the tube feet are extended, their ends stick to the rocks or the clam shell, and muscles in the feet contract, pulling the animal forward or pulling the clam shell open. We sometimes see a sea star humped up over a partly open clam while the star is having dinner.

A stroll on the Boy Scout/Crow Point trail led to the goose-flat covered with hundreds of crows fossicking in the dead, brown vegetation. Lots of searching and probing. Sometimes half a dozen crows would suddenly converge on another one, everybody poking at something. Apparently, successful hunts were not very common and the gang thought that sharing was appropriate.

Lots of Canada geese were scattered in small groups on the flats, in the river, and in the vegetation by the river. There were mostly head-down, intent on foraging—grubbing for roots and such, and of course talking to each other. Occasionally, two of them would take off and wing around in a wide circle before landing back where they started. One of these duos took off upstream—perhaps a mated pair about to look for a nest site in the forest.

As we often do, out there, we encountered a fellow we call the Raven Man, who carried a big bag of dog biscuits to feed the ravens. He does this from time to time, and the local ravens recognize him. As he passes through each raven territory, the residents come to greet him and cadge some biscuits. We watched some of these ravens carry five biscuits at a time, first stacking them up in a neat pile so they could be held in the bill. A dog, with some hikers, came along later and sniffed out places where ravens had cached their loot, covering it with grass or moss—surprising the hikers who were not expecting to see dog biscuits in the moss.

Most folks in Juneau are glad to see the snow disappear, at least at the lower elevations. But I loved the good snows we had in February, and here are a few flash-back memories.

–Weasels had been very active in the Peterson Creek meadows and Amalga meadows. They bounded over the clean snow, ranging widely. Every so often, the trail dove straight down under the snow and re-appeared a few feet beyond or disappeared under the overhanging edge of a frozen slough. I think they were hunting voles, whose tunnels run under the snow; did they dive down in response to the sound or fresh smell of vole or were the dives just exploratory? Another treat in one meadow were well-defined trails of mice, showing a good tail-drag.

–On the west side of Mendenhall Lake, one day I found a set of tracks running way out onto the snowy ice and right back again. It was clearly a member of the weasel family, probably a mink. What was it doing??

–A snowshoe trek up a creek out the road was a bonanza of tracks (and no recent human tracks). In the woods on the way up the hill, there were tracks of deer, mouse, weasel, squirrel, and maybe a marten. Big excitement of some large tracks that were surely those of a wolverine—the toes and the gait gave it away. The most fun was seeing a set of wolf tracks coursing over a frozen pond that sparkled with sun-struck hoarfrost.

Now the fun in the snow is finished for the year, and the fun of spring begins. Juneau folks typically love to note the progress of spring, as the season unfolds. Skunk cabbage emerging, pussy willows appearing, blueberry buds expanding, the gradual arrival of more kinds of birds, ravens carrying sticks for a nest—they all mark the progress of a favorite season.

Spring colors

glimpses of red, yellow and purple herald the season

There often comes a time in early spring when the seasonal progress seems to stall—there are still freezing temperatures at night, many ponds are still ice-covered, the iris shoots in the meadows aren’t getting perceptibly bigger, meadow grasses and sedges lie flat and dead, the lady ferns stay humped under their old dark fronds—and we get impatient for more signs of spring.

That is a good time to notice little spots of color in the forests and meadows. Folks who live in Southeast had better like green and gray, because those colors are the common background on the landscape—green conifers and frequent gray clouds. One can add ‘brown’ for all the dead grasses and sedges lying in the meadows. But the little bright spots of other colors are a visual treat, adding interest to a walk.

Touches of red pop up in several ways:

–Ruby red berries of so-called false lily of the valley lie nestled like glowing jewels in the moss. These are last year’s fruits that typically don’t ripen until they have overwintered. They will feed the early-arriving robins and then the hermit thrushes.

–Red twigs of the early-blueberry shrubs gleam, adding a pleasing contrast in the still-leafless understory. That observation brings up a question: why do these twigs turn red but not (or so I am told by those who know more than I do) those of the later-blooming Alaska blueberry?

–A few translucent red berries of high-bush cranberry hang at the ends of thin branches, uneaten by bears or pine grosbeaks or anybody else last fall or winter.

–A flash of red on the side of a tree trunk helps to advertise the presence of a red-breasted sapsucker as it hitches its way upward, tapping the bark.

–Along the roadsides, the male catkins of red alder make a swathe of a duller red that is nevertheless very noticeable against the conifers’ green. As the catkins mature, they droop and gradually open to release pollen, and the redness fades.

In residential areas, gardens of multicolored crocuses attract queen bumblebees, busily searching for nectar deep in the flower and grooming pollen off their heads. Some of them probably collect pollen too. Away from settled areas, however, those queens have only male pussy-willows as a source of nectar or pollen, until the early blueberries bloom (adding pinkish-white to the color-scape).

A favorite of many folks is the bright yellow of skunk cabbage. First appearing as a yellow spear emerging from wet places, the hood (or spathe) around the cylindrical inflorescence expands. It helps attract pollinating insects and also happens to provide shelter for the little beetles that come to the small flowers of the inflorescences to feed—and also to court and mate, and incidentally pollinate the flowers. Skunk cabbage provides a ‘progressive party’ of color, because different stands mature at different times as their specific locations warm up. Even one skunk cabbage is delightful; a whole pond full of them is spectacular.

Many of us look for purple mountain saxifrage in early spring. It likes to grow on cliffs and other rocky places, so it is very localized. We always feel rewarded when we find the first blooming ones each spring.

At somewhat higher elevations, Cooley’s false buttercups make splashes of yellow. And don’t forget to look for the violets!

Of course, impatience doesn’t suffice to hurry spring along. But it will come—flocks of robins now skitter along beaches, mallards congregate in the ice-free part of Riverside Park pond, the early songsters are heard more often. Ruby-crowned kinglets now serenade my house daily!

I never tire of watching the prolonged arrival of spring. The basic patterns are generally consistent, but always with some little variations and even surprises. This year, the big difference is what is missing: there is very little snow on the mountains. The rocky mountainsides are showing all too clearly and the usual cornice on Thunder Mountain hardly developed at all. The lack of snow ‘upstairs’ will surely have serious consequences, reducing our sources of water and hydropower and the water supply for the creeks where salmon usually spawn.