Friday, October 26, 2012


Leavings pl. n. something remaining, scraps, residue, refuse, etc.

Crisp days of raking leaves - HA! Memories of those take me back to our years of living in Montana and Idaho where great dry masses of fallen leaves were as most of us think. I reveled in the swish and crunch of walking through them, loved raking them and being buried within the huge piles.
Here, fall can be a gooey, messy time of year. All those beautifully-colored leaves do eventually fall and with our perpetual rains they form a slick, heavy, sodden mass on the ground, which few bother to even try to rake up. Cheery fall colors and glowing fields of pumpkins and corn stalks slowly give way to wet, rotted leavings - some of which are internal. Unlike spring, with its bright cheerful awakenings, fall is a time of farewells for many of us. Farewell to summer, for sure, but also ever-shortening daylight, colder temperatures, thoughts and activities that often slow down and turn inward...
So, I was not too surprised when I glimpsed the nest and found it ragged and deserted. All my "good intentions" regarding it during the summer came rushing back. Discovering it fully-formed and humming with activity during our glorious late summer days, I checked on it each time I passed.
But I was busy with gardening, coming from or going to the mail box, running those countless errands like we all do. I fully intended to study it carefully, meant to photograph it and its inhabitants in detail, pretty much failed to get any of that accomplished...
But it was still there, gracefully hanging from the branch as it had from its beginning. This time, I took the time to study it closely and what an intricate work of art it was!

Sometime last spring, a fertile queen paper wasp emerged from hibernation and began the process of turning raw wood into this sturdy paper home. She used her mandibles to scrape bits of wood fiber from fences, logs, or even cardboard.
She then broke the wood fibers down in her mouth, using saliva and water to weaken them. Flying to her chosen nest site - the thin branch of this Kousa Dogwood - she added the soft paper pulp to it for support. As the wet cellulose fibers dried, they became the strong paper buttress from which she would suspend her nest.

The nest itself was comprised of hexagonal cells in which the young developed. The queen protected the brood cells by building a paper envelope, or cover, around them. She raised the first generation of workers on her own.

After they emerged, those workers collected food while she switched to only laying eggs. The larvae were probably fed pre-chewed caterpillars, while the adults fed on nectar.  The nest expanded as the colony grew in number, with new generations of workers constructing new cells as needed, until it reached its final size. Many nests are typically small, usually a few dozen workers, but may contain as many as 100.

As fall approaches, colonies produce males and new queens, which leave the nest to mate. After mating, the new queens burrow into the ground where they spend the winter. All workers, the males, and the old queen perish around November, leaving any young behind in the nest to also die. Old nests degrade naturally over the winter months, so each spring new ones must be constructed by the new queens as the process begins anew.

I tore open one of the still-sealed cells and shook out a fully-formed dead wasp. Evidently, it had not matured enough when everyone else left the nest - or the temperatures dropped low enough to kill it. A few other cells remained sealed but most were empty, so it seemed that a lot of wasps were produced in this nest.

It has been nearly a year now since my second-oldest sister entered the hospital with a severe case of pneumonia. None of us imagined she would be gone before Christmas. They say it takes a full year, at least, to begin to adjust to such losses, but who are "they" and what is a year when I'd known her for nearly 70? This sister was 14 when I was born, left for college when I was 4, married and moved away when I was 7. With the age difference and distance, it might seem that we'd have nothing in common, but that would be wrong. We shared a love of sewing, cooking, reading, the outdoors, the arts, and American Indian history and culture. She was the one who showed and explained to me all the parts of a living grasshopper and how to fish for trout in a cold mountain stream. She and her family came back to visit every summer and the memories of those times are priceless. We kept in touch - not as often as we should have, probably - with letters, phone calls, and occasionally emails. She was the one who always said "Oh, I intended to call you before now, but I just didn't get around to it..." Yeah, I know how that goes.

A cold wind rustled the trees and a light rain began. I tossed the ripped-open wasp's nest into the woods and smiled. True, I never did study and photograph it while it was at its peak of activity, but its remnants were still beautiful and intricate. Perhaps I'll get another chance - for I'm remembering that new queen tucked safely away just waiting for spring.

"Don't cry because it's over.
Smile because it happened."
Dr. Seuss
Other fall meanderings:

Friday, October 19, 2012

Beach Exploration: Driftwood

"The three great elemental sounds in nature are
the sound of rain,
the sound of wind in a primeval wood,
and the sound of the outer ocean on a beach."
Henry Beston

After a nearly unprecedented 8 weeks without a drop of rain, the weather has finally turned sodden again in our corner of the world. Trying to finish up gardening chores, I've found the ground in most areas dry as far down as I've dug. Many garden plants and vegetables suffered during this drought and needed to be watered, but native species (although now heaving a collective sigh of relief) will do just fine. They have, after all, lived here for eons and are well-adapted to the soggy winters/summer droughts of the Pacific Northwest. Some of the deciduous trees that are bone dry have given up early, simply dropping their leaves without a lasting show of autumn color.

The huge conifers are drooping and many of the cedars are "flagging" prolifically.

It is perfectly normal for them to do this on occasion, but these stately giants of the tree world require rich, damp soil to thrive and hot, dry weather may stress them enough that some of their needles turn a rich orangish-brown and drop. The return of the rains will undoubtedly perk them all up again.

Although our local beaches vary considerably, they are never far from fresh water runoff and lush vegetation - usually in the form of large conifers.

And so it is not surprising that driftwood is common, whether carried by water from somewhere else and washed up on shore or crashing down from the many high banks as endless erosion takes its toll.

Either way, it is at the mercy of the sea and its endless ebbing and flowing. With time, all wood here is "sanded" down to its essence with all trace of leaves, bark, and branches scoured away.

Some driftwood fits its name and drifts along with the seas - for who knows how long - picking up all kinds of passengers. Some use logs as a resting place or hook a ride for a bit;

others are in it for the long haul, attaching themselves permanently to the wood.

Some of this wood has been purposefully transported here by humans for constructing piers and various other structures.

Depending on the type of wood and the severity of the coastal waves, some of these can remain in place for many, many years.

Humans have never been able to resist using this wood, which nature has already cut, limbed, and stacked.

Depending on where they lived and what the land offered, various Indian tribes have used this readily-available resource for fire, shelter, tools, utensils, art objects, and boats.

There are stories of early-day pioneers collecting and lugging this wood to what they deemed a suitable home site on which to build a simple shelter.

"Every time we walk along a beach
some ancient urge disturbs us
so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments
or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers
like the homesick refugees of a long war."
Loren Eiseley

The lure is still there - as evidenced by the "play" structures, pieces of art, and campfire remnants still found on any beach with a reasonable amount of driftwood.


With time, isopods, shipworms, and bacteria decompose the wood and gradually turn it into nutrients that are returned to the food web of the sea. Nature, ever the master recycler, never wastes a thing. 

No matter the season, or weather, we return to the beach - to relax, walk, listen, observe, contemplate... for it is here that we are renewed, cleansed, reminded of our place in the greater scheme of life. Storms are bound to come - we may be battered and worn down, our size and shape may change, but we will also become hardened and polished. Like driftwood, we toss about on the seas of life, following the ebb and flow, until we wash up on some steady shore - rough edges removed, outer facade stripped away. If our inner grain runs straight, strong, and true, we will be primed and ready for whatever "new use" we can be put to. Are you ready?

"If you want to build a ship,
don't drum up people together to collect wood
and don't assign them tasks and work,
but rather teach them
to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

For other BEACH EXPLORATIONS,  please click below: