Love in the time of mosses

I’ve been thinking lately and often of miracles. Not the sort brought in flashes of fire or tears where there had formerly been only porcelain. Rather, my mind is in large part consumed with natural miracles that are abundantly commonplace.

Snails on a mossy wall. Muting of plinky piano music optional. 

Much of this preoccupation has been brought on by my obsession with Elizabeth Gilbert’s new(ish) novel, “The Signature of All Things” (recently deemed a New York Times Notable Book of 2013).

Gilbert’s heroine, Alma Whittaker, is a brilliant botanist. Specifically, she is a bryologist–a devotee and biographer of mosses. She dedicates quarters of centuries to the spongy green, taking wonder and delight in the knowledge that the quickly overlooked plants in miniature, so often ubiquitous and so easily unseen, compose fairy forests; tiny greenscapes that glow and endure despite being trod upon, ignored, and sometimes despised. (See the “moss killer” section of any garden center.) Alma takes comfort in “moss time,” the perception of time that occupies the space between geologic time and human. Mosses live slowly…not quite so much as rocks, but endlessly moreso than humans.


One of the many marvels in which Alma indulges is the way in which dried moss will spring back to life after a baptismal dunking. Specimens which had laid dormant and seemingly dead for decades will inflate themselves with water and suddenly pulse again with infinitesimal breath. In her study Alma pours through the tiny, desiccated plants that were used to cushion the journey of botanical specimens from the meridian of the earth. She’d soak them and suddenly find herself able to study and fawn over a resurrection.

I was, and am, inspired by this. It brought about the realization (or, retrospectively, the hypothesis) that my bedroom terrarium, an old rectangular fish tank filled with pebbles, sphagnum, charcoal, dirt and, of course, plants, could perhaps be a haven for the mosses that I’d always had trouble growing there. Shortly after tucking them in from the outdoors they would (and will) unhappily falter. Perhaps, I thought, it was simply too dry.

And so a few weeks ago, after spending hours in bed with Gilbert, I slaked the soil. I let nearly an entire watering can pour down into the spongy habitat’s air plants, ferns, and Venus fly trap. It licked and glazed the yellowed and browning plants. Satisfied, I went back to bed.


The next morning I awoke in a room cleanly cold. Moving from beneath the layers of blanket and sheet I went to futz with the radiator–a true puzzle that I only seem to champion at the end of every winter. I turned and twisted the enigmatic knob and dial before standing, feeling the distantly warm grate, and sighing. The terrarium was beside me; I peered in. I was still somewhat asleep, so it was with half-shut and dreamy eyes that I happened upon an unbelievable sight.

I always for a glance of Moby Dick, a beloved, molluskian member of this household for two years. S/he–for all snails are hermaphrodites–moves through the glass case, traveling on its long foot over glass, lichened bark, and (too often dried-up) moss.  I find Moby to be at its liveliest after a relative immersion of water. Snails, with their sliming skin and adoration of decomposition, love the wet. When I’d watered the previous day I’d thought with some anticipation of how much my Mister Ms. would appreciate the humidity.

I wasn’t surprised, then, to find Moby on the wall of the terrarium. I was, however, wholly amazed and flabbergasted to find Queequeg as well, very near to Moby Dick. Both snails were reaching to each other, caressing each other’s faces with antennae and eyestalk, circling coquettishly before rejoining each other in caressing cuddles.

I was flummoxed. First of all, Queequeg had not been seen in the terrarium since the start of summer and I’d assumed the snail dead and gone or, by some miracle, something else. However, here it was, with its gloriously brilliant golden shell and amazingly amorous gestures.

Queequeg and Moby Dick moved over each other’s bodies. When they’d slide away from each other I would fear that I’d scared away their courtship, but they’d always return, spreading and reaching out their tiny, amazing antennae, feeling and certainly seeming to enjoy the other. They nibbled and bit, and not only on each other’s faces. These were erotic bites, beckoning a coupling. On occasion I thought I saw something breaking out of Queequeg’s head, but I wasn’t entirely sure. Given the sudden collaborative collection of snail parts slowly unfurling before me, I could hardly tell what my eyes were being presented with. Were these the typical appendages (eyestalk and the like)  or the usually hidden and intimate ones: the penis, the vagina, the curious “love dart” (all which, in sexual adventure, emerge from the snail’s neck)?

As I stared, now fully awake and agape, Moby again moved away from Queequeg, its frilled foot fluttering against the glass. It then made a graceful turn, sliding back toward Queequeg, and, as it neared,something certainly did slip from the side of its body–a tiny penis. It pierced into Queequeg’s waiting body, leaving the snails suddenly still, sidled head-to-toe, copulating in a stillness notable for the absence of biting and the presence of sustaining sexual concentration.

Leopard slugs mating, as narrated by David Attenborough

The sex lives of snails (as well as snugs, as seen thrillingly and surprisingly beautifully in the above clip from Planet Earth) are composed of breathtaking, kinky, and sometimes fatal affairs. While my terrarium snails weren’t quite so transcendentally graceful as the leopard slug, they mated beautifully and, in the manner of I think all mollusks, marathon-style. For hours. I kept tiptoeing over (luckily this was my day off), only to find Queequeg and Moby remaining in their carnal clasp. I texted a friend with updates and told my mom about it on the phone. Eventually, in the mid-afternoon, I peeked to find the snails nonchalantly separated, one by the water dish and the other in a bed of fronds.

Fascinated (and more than a little titillated), I researched the acts that I’d been lucky enough to witness. Here is what I learned.

snail anatomy

Snail anatomy. Source.


Land snails–all the ones that you find in your garden or crossing a precarious sidewalk–are well-known for their elaborate courtship dance. After the caresses and sensual explorations, the tender and transparently aroused snails, manifestations of desire, stab each other. Not with a sexual organ–not yet, anyway–but with a harpoon in miniature, a weapon built in the mature snail’s body from calcium.


The action of these instruments is described by Wikipedia:

Prior to copulation, each of the two snails (or slugs) attempt to “shoot” one (or more) [blogger’s edit: OR MORE??] darts into the other snail (or slug). There is no organ to receive the dart; this is more analogous to a stabbing, or to being shot with an arrow or flechette. The dart does not fly through the air to reach its target however; instead it is fired as a contact shot.

A contact shot. I thought this was the same as point-blank range, but no. Point blank makes for a projectile shot from a distance of three meters or less. Conversely, for a contact shot to be true, the barrel of a gun (or the wet, moving skin of a snail) must touch its victim before loosing the hot bullet.

Contact shots make for vicious and often fatal injuries. In humans,

…Wounds caused by contact shots are very devastating, as the body absorbs the entire discharge of the cartridge, not just the projectile. Even a blank cartridge can cause lethal wounds if fired in contact with the body…

Oh, sweet daggar. Source.

Oh, sweet dagger; one snail stabbed with another’s dart. Source.


But humans snails are not, and the small stabbed creatures typically survive the violence visited upon them by their consorts. In fact, a victimized snail not only endures the assault, but answers with “a flirty fléchette of its own, at which point the dueling Cupids will copulate,” as described by Natalier Angier in a Times article about gift-giving animals.


A still from “Gone With the Mollusks.” Says Scarlet: “Oh, Rhett.”


And so, there you are: Snails have a more riotous lovelife than you. Watering an open terrarium can lead to many wonders. And while all snails may go to a lush and humid heaven, it may take awhile to get there; as of this writing, Queequeg and Moby remain happily in the terrarium, nibbling lichens and apple flesh, and liking things a lot more in all the wet. The moral of the story is to keep your environment well-watered, for you never know what it could lead to. But beware the dangers that lurk within your lover’s neck.

The dark, the grainy, the as-unobtrusive-as-possible; the evidence.

The dark, grainy, and as-unobtrusive-as-possible evidence.

How to Meet a Tree
A tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Source

The falling of leaves, that shedding of the suddenly unnecessary, undresses an urban beauty usually draped in colors that go beyond the relatively  monochromatic shades of bark. As foliage starts to shiver and shake and pigeon-fly in earnest, the limbs sway in the slow dance of an autumnal Salome. They unveil until finally naked, muscularly curving and dangling, scrolling woodily across bright, cold mornings.

In November we see not only more of the unfettered tree but also settings and props forgotten or heretofore undiscovered. Views obscured in satiny emerald and warm copper clear and come into focus, revealing fire escapes, painted doors, next-door neighbors and hibernating gardens. The leaves remaining transform to peppering accents, flicking faded maple reds and russeted elm onto concrete, sidings, attic windows and brick.

Trees are bizarrely delightful and surround us on nearly every terrestrial surface. Despite our close quarters, most of us don’t know trees as we know the rest of our neighbors. Often we hardly acknowledge their beautifully ubiquitous and stories-tall forms. I feel that it’s time we took a look and got on a first-name basis.

There are a lot of ways to acquaint oneself with a tree.  First of all, I suggest you take a walk. Most cities have parks; go to your favorite one or visit their website to see if they offer guided tours.  If they do, sign up. (You can also look to your city’s parks and recreation department, urban ecology centers, and universities.) Bring a friend if you’d like, or go alone and devote your whole self to the place and plants within. Ask questions. If you’re good at remembering things, remember them: the nomenclature, the shapes, the colors and textures of bark, lingering leaves, berries, and nuts. If you’d like you can write notes or take sketches, but if you’re on a first date it might be best to just spend some time together to see if you click.

A wonderful thing about trees (and other plants, as well as just about anything even some humans) is that you can name them to your liking. This is especially useful when you’re starting out. While it is often helpful and even imperative to know scientific names, it’s almost never necessary in the beginning. I used to work with kids at the Arnold Arboretum and we would call the beech trees “Elephant Trees,” much more for their grey and stretch-marked skin than for their size. If you remember “elephant tree” rather than “beech tree,” that’s fine, and even lovely. There’s no need to be formal about anything; this is all casual. A first date is not a wedding (though at certain times of the year there may be flowers). If you are hoping to eventually become a botanist wholly and microscopically devoted to beeches, no one’s going to care if you started out calling a tree that looks like an elephant a tree that looks like an elephant.

Purple European beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropunicea’), photographed at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Source.

Purple European beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropunicea’), photographed at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Source.

If you can’t find a guided tour, take yourself for one. You can stroll with the sole intent of making your own independent observations or print off a street tree guide and go a-hunting. Grow Boston Greener has a truly guide for the greater Boston area. Other city-specific web guides include those for New York CityRichmond, California and Dallas, Texas.  There are also some handy ones from Cornell and The Virginia Urban Street Tree Selector, as well as real live books like Lelsie Day and Trudy Smoke’s Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York Cit, and Peter Del Tredici’s brilliant Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide. (I’ll elaborate on Del Tredici’s in a minute). If a search for a resource specific to your city yields no results, never fear; plenty of street trees, like the Norway maple and horse chestnut, are regionally ubiquitous. Get an idea about what you might find in your neck of the country and see if it’s there. You’re certain to find something, whether it’s what you were looking for or not.

Arboreal winter habits. Source.

If you decide to get a little more serious I recommend a good field guide. Sometimes you can take them out of libraries, an opportunity to be taken advantage of, especially when you’re looking for one that will suit your needs. Some are illustrated with photographs while others are drawn by hand. Some focus on leaves and others on bark. Regardless of the guide you get you’ll want at least one with a good key. Keys can be frustrating to use, especially at first, but they are indispensable. The instruction on how to use them is indispensable, too; far too often people complain that a field guide is faulty before admitting that they have no idea how to utilize their key.

Since winter is nigh I’m going to share a few of my favorite guides that are most useful for ID’ing in leafless conditions. (While there are also apps that serve many of the purposes of a paper-made field guide, I’m pretty old-fashioned and don’t know enough of them to suggest one over the other. Please free to opine on them in the comments.)



This is a very enjoyable book. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the author and photographer, Michael Wojtech, and found him to be a delightful, quirky young naturalist who quotes Dillard and designs cool t-shirts. The key is not quite infallible, but bark, the wonderfully varied skin that shelters and encases everything within—cambium, phloem, heartwood and the like—is not only varied from species to species but, quite often, from specimen to specimen. Our native sugar maples, for example, go through so many transformations in a lifetime that they are nicknamed “the chameleon tree.” Because of this variability a field guide that relies so heavily upon bark for purposes of identification is bound to give you a taxonomical hiccup here and there. Luckily it also includes illustrations and descriptions of other parts of arboreal anatomy—leaves, seeds, etc—so a positive ID is always within your reach. BARK is a meticulously researched field guide from a lover of forests and aesthetics. It’s a wonderful, slim guide for new and seasoned tree-lovers alike.

john laird

The  Trees of the Northern United States and Canada

This book is a classic, and as field guides go it is almost biblical in scope. Hard-covered and a buncha pounds, it’s not exactly something that one would enthusiastically carry through the streets and parks on a frigid winter’s day. However, it’s amazing and definitely worth carting about (though I do recommend that you have a backpack so your hands can be free).  Of the field guides I have known and researched, this one seems the best all-in-one package for winter identification. (The best that’s under 30 pounds, anyway.) Every entry features wonderfully detailed photographs and occasional drawings illustrating species’ buds, bark, leaves, and mature size. The images of buds, those miniature gift-wrapped packages of gorgeous and varied life, are especially helpful for winter ID.


Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide

While the above books are wonderful, both independently as well as in tandem with one another, their one flaw for the cosmopolitan tree-gazer is their emphasis on natives. Many of the most common street trees, such as Tree of Heaven (of  “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” fame), Japanese Maple, and Ginkgo, are fairly recent migrants to North America. For these trees, Peter del Tredici’s “Metropolitan Field Guide to plants and trees of the Northeast” is unrivaled for detailing the botanical life that twines and thrusts through our cities.  Del Tredici’s book also features dozens of herbaceous plants, thus offering as thorough a census of street plants as you can get without its turning from paragraphs to charts. He also includes cultural uses for plants (ie, whether or not they have been been used for culinary or medicinal use), and little biographies that tell how the non-native plants came to be in North America.

A note on living botanical collections

The species entwined in our botanical gardens and arboreta are another thing altogether. Here in Boston we have Dawn Redwoods from China, mock oranges from California, and a teeny tiny Bald Cypress bonsai, all alive at the Arnold. Though these trees are far from native and atypical to the urban habitat that they’ve found themselves in, they are richly wonderful living things to spend one’s time with. Not only are they beautiful, regal, and impressive for their existence in a place so different from, say, rural China, they also help us to better understand the abundance of diversity within the botanical world. The Arnold, along with many other professionally tended public gardens, carefully dog-tags their plants with labels that include common and scientific names, the botanical family the specimen belongs to, provenance, and other information.

Do you have advice for meeting the trees in your neighborhood?

This post is lovingly dedicated to Kelli Korducki, who recently announced her desire to know trees and asked if I could be of service. Cheers and happy walking to you, Madame Duck! Let us know how you’re arboreal discoveries go.

Fenway Park: So good (So good!)


The Game and the Backdrop

Late October brings one thousand remembrances that creep in through the tasks. It is a time of analytical repose juxtaposed by all the hurry of putting gardens and fields to sleep, of sealing drafts and catching mice, of collecting sawing chopping splitting and stacking. There are apples to bring in, sauces to simmer, cookbooks to pour over in hopes of finding one more reason to keep the oven going.  Coats to be dug out. Mittens slated for darning and knitting needles and patterns fetched from hiding and put to work.

Autumn’s combinations of sitting and sprinting and, you know, this thing called the World Series, have sent my mind a-wandering to Fenway Park.

Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Oh, Fenway. Storied pleasure ground of fathers and sons, fanatics and franks, curses and delight, you are the unofficial last gem in our city’s emerald necklace. Green and lit, mown and chalked, you are our beloved theater, the treasure chest of tricks, our Neil Diamond music box.

Continue reading

The birds of summer, and the aliens.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher Perched, by Kalen Malueg

I turned 29 two days ago and allowed myself to spend most of my time celebrating and zero time blogging. I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about two good friends who are working on bringing a little baby into the world, a tiny bundle with limbs, toes, fingers and eyes, currently tucked inside of one of them but in position to be popping out anytime in the next few days. LIFE. LIFE IS CRAZY. And yes, I did just drink up a bit of a carafe of the house red at Santarpio’s over a brilliantly multi-cheesed pizza but, wow, you don’t need to be tipsy to consider the wild possibilities within every single wilderness. Like a baby in a uterus waiting to blossom out into the air, away from a life lived within fluid heat, a body lived within a woman, to quake and crack and squeeze out into a world of wind and breeze and bad jokes and optimism and everything grim. Life.


20th A belted kingfisher! It was perched along the little dog house that my boss made into a duck house. We no longer have ducks but their home continues to float along the pond. This is the first creature that I’ve seen using it, and I crept up lose to the bird when I realized its beak was way too wonderful to be anything but a kingfisher’s. It flew off shortly after I began stepping toward it, landing in a pondside tree and twittering a rattle at me and whatever else nearby.

21 The barn swallow that keeps clutching the wire above the bike rack, greeting me in silence as I pedal into work.

22 The anniversary of my birth. I spent a lot if time sweeping and breathing in heaven knows what. Dust mites! The remains of dust mites! Pieces of parking lot that blow in the screens and open doors! A lot of dirt. Dark lungs.

23 The drive-by-botanizing has lately been taken over by goldenrod. Everywhere. That margarine-colored golden assemblage of roadside blossoms strikes up in the most unexpected places. This includes random parking lots and sidewalk pockets.

24 I drank my morning genmaicha whilst watching a show in which Stephen Hawking discussed a fraction of the possibilities regarding life–and, terrifyingly, intelligent life–elsewhere in the universe. I also saw a beautiful mallow on a street corner. As I photographed it a man with a heavily scraped face suggested that he, Matt, and I go into crime together. Shoplifting, he suggested, adding that our movie star looks would help get the job done right. “We’ll think about it!”, we said. mallow

Random mallow by yours, truly.

Looks and Gazes


Common Purslane (Portulaca oleracea). Source: Wikipedia

I gazed at starlings pecking across the grass beside motorous Washinton Street, next door to Forest Hills Station. It’s always my favorite place to watch the little, iridescent things. They skitter around, bright-eyed and yellow-beaked, grazing in the grass like rabbits.

At work a tiny toad scampered between our feet as we weeded purslane from pea gravel. I watched a red-tailed hawk glide down the sky.

Then there were the humans. A beggar on Mass Ave who could imitate a duck to perfection. The sweet teller who complimented Kira and I on our braids, hers French, mine Swedish. Roofers in life-saving suspenders kicking debris from concrete-colored shingles. Lastly, the operator within the bulldozer knocking out a building of dust along the Neoponset. I’d never know of the deconstruction if not for the lone spectators draped over the Fairmount bridge every morning, staring wistfully at the shovel as it hit the walls and ceilings, the metal and brick and plastic, while someone from below would hose down the dusty din with the arching water of a fireman’s truck.

The eighteenth day

black swallowtail butterfly

The second black swallowtail of the year.

A wonderful radio show on WERS about the urbanologist.

Weeds by the dozen: galansoga, a fireworkish burst of gone-to-seed grass, and more grasses–tall, Easter green, each with a little fist of white roots.

Saturday Silflay

watership down

A robin pranced around the skullcap patch.

I cut a bouquet of hydrangeas and found a cricket, its antennae at least as long as its narrow, translucent body.

A mockingbird again snacked in the elderberry.

Half a dozen rabbits enjoying a good silflay throughout the gardens and slim meadows of the Fens.

Also, I don’t want to be too redundant, but I somehow woke, right around four thirty, without a bit of cricket, katydid, or conehead in my ear. Was it too cold? Or were they merely weary?

The velvet, breezy, bizarre din of wings


Common True Katydid, courtesy of

In the day the cicadas continue to drone on, offering their squeaking moans at once and for hours, turning the neighborhood to hazy, humid white noise that surrounds and fills you completely–your ears, your clothes, your skin, your gut.

In the night, however, I keep waking, wondering about the racket pulsing around me. It takes a few seconds before I realize and remember: crickets. Fascinatingly loud, percussive and choral, they strew the night with rhythms. Their steady, nearly flute-like notes carry the background as the various katydid soloists rasp at the air. One common true katydid claws KAY TEE DID with his forewings, another one answers, KAY TEE DID, usually with a touch of overlap, a little bit higher or lower than the first. Their cousins, the sword-bearing coneheads, tst-tst-tst through the night, starting at twilight, and broad-winged bush katydids start their tzeet-tzeet quietly before letting them go unleashed, roaring loudly into the night. 

And now, lists.


Marvelous squirrel on loan from Maximo Alaez


The blue heron billowing across the sky in the morning.

An osprey, flying above us as we greeted a friend just returned home. Never thought I’d see one of them in Boston, but there it was, its wings bending like elbows as it traveled toward the Arboretum or toward the sea. Apparently sightings of them aren’t quite so rare as I’d thought.

I picked several pounds of elderberries at the garden and in-between the branches found a mockingbird giving me a Look.


While brushing my teeth I crept into the kitchen to find the crazed squirrel that’s been trying to live indoors for the last few months. It scratched at the metal screen and hardly moved as I shooed and cussed it away. It finally left when I really got in its face, waving my toothbrush around like a fourth-rate wand.


I thought that Moby Dick, my beloved snail of nearly two years, was dead, but then Matt pointed out that he/she wasn’t. As a reward for its liveliness I offered it a thick twig chartreuse with lichen.

The wilderness without and within

house sparrow

The majority of the nature experienced today was tangled in all of the wild hormones within, riling my uterus and, you know, my outlook on all things. 

There were also the house sparrows at work, hopping and cocking their inchy heads, going after a gummy on the floor and the birdseed on display. I fought them without violence, clapping my hands and ineffectively kicking away the gummy which moved slow, sticking with tenacity to the cement floor.

I also found some funky, Mardi Gras costume-wearing, mantis-like creature in the sacred basil during the morning harvest. And I was sucked on by mosquitoes. Lastly, I found a cabbage moth in the greenhouse and a green caterpillar, dead and composed halfway of orange slime, also in the sacred basil. Amazing that so much life, death, and violence can exist within the juicy branches of such a holy plant.

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