Thursday, July 28, 2011

brachonid wasps and hornworms

Garden Blogging

Here's a beautiful thing.  

A small hornworm with its burden of pupating wasps

A larger caterpillar climbs a squash stalk
The parasitic brachonid wasp (cotesia congregatus) uses its long ovipositor to lay eggs inside the body of the tomato hornworm.  When these hatch, they eat the innards of the hornworm before burrowing out and pupating in cocoons attached to the dying caterpillar.

All the gardeners say to leave such caterpillars be, since these wasps are the best ally you've got against the beasts.

I think people who use insecticides miss half the fun of gardening.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


In the mid 1990's I was traveling in the Kyzyl Kum desert in Kazakhstan, near the Syr Darya River.  The great rivers of the Syr and Amu Darya are the main flows to the Aral Sea, and back then it was already clear that the Aral Sea was going to dry up unless something was done about the diversion of waters for irrigation.  The stakes were high.  It seemed that there were two choices: on the one hand an ancient inland sea with its own industries and fisheries and marine ecologies, representing a unique oasis in the arid heart of Eurasia -- on the other hand, the death of all that, the creation of a vast moonscape of pesticide-laden salt flats, internal migration, and the desert cotton industry could limp along for another generation.

As I looked at the Soviet era irrigation conduits -- open, crumbling, leaking troughs of weathered concrete, spilling every other drop out onto the muddy dust --  it was clear that there was a third option.   Cotton could be grown at a scale that allowed a flow into the Sea, or crops less thirsty than cotton could be grown in this desert.  But even if the economic and bureaucratic inertia were too much for those sensible changes, conduits could be patched, less water could be spilled, less left open to the thirsty desert air.  Not only was it not necessary to destroy the Aral Sea, the destruction would be a huge and pointless stupidity in no one's real interest.

This filled me with a sense of optimism that the crisis could and would be averted.

But of course, we did destroy the Aral Sea -- we sacrificed it on the altar of the status quo.

Today, I hear people say that our accumulating problems of climate instability, energy decline, overpopulation and resource depletion can be solved with some common sensical adaptations - no problem, when the time comes - before things really go to Hell.  Yes, I think, just like the old Aral Sea.

Photo NASA

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

There are caterpillars that will nibble on your tomato leaves.  Then there is the tomato hornworm, a big green middle finger for your garden that will eat every leaf down to the nub - then shove its face into the tomato fruit itself for a little added insult.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A few photos from Nico's and Monica's trip to see Patti, Charles, Anya and Estelle in Japan:

UPDATE:  For Monica's full photologue click on the slideshow below:

Margined blister beetles

Garden Blogging

The tortoise beetle larvae have been chewing on the potatoes, and I finally got around to going out with a cup of soapy water to drown a few score.  They are little green worms with a brown shield on their backs. They build the shield out of their own shit, but luckily I'm not interested in eating them - only killing them.)

Among the harvestmen, wasps and dragonflies that hunt the foliage, I found a few long, black beetles hanging out among the stalks.  None of them were actively chewing on anything, but they didn't look very predatory either, so I read up on them.  

Margined blister beetles (as they are called) do chew on the foliage, but in fair exchange, since their larvae prey heavily on the eggs of grasshoppers and crickets - and those critters are all a-swarm and eating the plants.

The ten life stages of the blister beetle
The beetles are laced with the poison cantharidin, the active ingredient in the aphrodisiac Spanish Fly (which was always made up of pulverized blister beetles, not flies at all!)  If you can get the toxicity just right you can irritate the kidneys and urinary system enough to get a raging erection.  Unless you die of the poisoning instead.

Nowadays it's mostly grazing animals that get poisoned, and horses, cattle and sheep can die from ingesting a few of these potent insects.

None of us are likely to eat one (or crush one, which gets you nasty blisters on any exposed skin), so I'll just leave them be and count on their panoply of larvae to make omelettes of the local hopper eggs.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


This edible fungus, Chicken-of-the-Woods,  in the forest behind our house was too tempting for my virtue.  Not content to harvest the fruit, I stole the mycelium, log and all.  

I shifted out a log in our woodlot and settled this one into its place.

We'll saute the flesh with the flounder that Monica bought down at Stonington harbor . . .  a little purslane and pickled radish on the side . . . 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

As space shuttle touched down on earth for the final time, the US Space Age came to a close.  And this country's last semblance of a forward-looking vision closed.  The robots will still go out, though for how long is anybody's guess.

It may be that the manned space flight, with it's implicit promises of exploration and colonization was never anything but a chimera and an impractical daydream.  But it may be that it wasn't -- could movement off planet could have been a reality?  I think we'll never know.  But now, is anyone imagining a future beyond iPhone 8 or Jersey Shore 2015 in hologram?  Or the latest, faddish post-apocalypta?

Meanwhile, the percentage of the population looking for jobs and not finding them ticked upward again toward 10% - though the actual number of people idle in the current economy is closer to 20%, or one fifth of the population.

The oddness of this is maddening.  Extinction-quality challenges are coming down the pipeline toward us.  The destabilization of the climate; the destruction and acidification of the oceans; the impending decline of cheap energy; the dangerous challenge of providing material for 9 billion human souls - all leading to an erosion of too many global life support systems.

But not only are we not mobilizing for any of these challenges, we are idling people - a vast reservoir of human capacity that is being given no resources, no task, no vision beyond someday getting themselves back into the suicide pact of consumption-work.

Is the humanity-beast just averting its eyes from a future it doesn't want to face?  

Friday, July 22, 2011

Monday, July 4, 2011

Dad was clearing out the shed of old bottles - the remnants of his collections of milk bottles, and old soda bottles, century-old medicine bottles that we used to dig up in ancient Pennsylvania dumps, overgrown with forest.  I took the best ones, figuring I could get them stowed away before Monica returns from Japan.  And Dad says they're probably done with canning, so I took four boxes of jars, quarts and pints, some salvaged in turn from the end of my grandmother's canning career nearly 30 years ago.  I'll return some in the autumn filled with applesauce or sauerkraut.

I left him and his indebted grandson to deal with the rest.

I dug up some of his bergamot and took some of the potted milkweeds he's grown from seed.  And a poorly placed black walnut sapling that started dying as soon as I dug it out, bare-rooted.  Still, I'll put it in the Rhode Island ground and see.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The others went shopping for telephones, drawn by the closing days of Verizon's "unlimited data plans".  Like a flock of magpies lured by the sparkly smart phones.  And Porter entered into an indentured servitude with his grandparents for an iPhone.  40 or 50 hours of paid labor should pay for the phone and most of a year's worth of payments.  Oddly, this piece of technology is going to get Porter out of the house and into the fields where Dad is planting his meadows and prairies.  (A new school is going up in Palmyra and they are letting him plant part of the grounds in his native grasses and wildflowers - so Porter's up at 6 a.m. caddying tools for his grandfather.)

I drove in to Lancaster to drink beer with Kirk and eat his Tunisian meatballs - an Independence Day nod to the Arab Spring.  Neal and Loretta came over with 2 of their 3 boys, and another friend who recalls me from years ago.  Sveta came home from work and sat with us, murmuring quietly in her Dagestani accent.  The kids splashed themselves into the inflatable pool and I played a marathon match of "darn you" with Neal's oldest boy, who gave himself a bad conscience by cheating on a close call.  But rematches are better when there's controversy for some trash talking.  When the kids had gone inside to watch TV, we sat in the dusk soaking our feet in the pool, and talking, talking, talking -- my pocket occasionally buzzed with a message reaching out to me from Porter's new phone.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Porter was viciously assaulted by sunbeams and birdsong at 6:30.  From a nearby early-opening cafe I brought him back pastries and coffee for myself.  We returned the keys to red-haired Helen at the corner shop, and drove to Park Slope to pick up my cousin Fred.  Taking his New York non-driver's bad advice, I crossed the Manhattan Bridge and spent an hour  crossing Chinatown on a gridlocked Canal Street.  I didn't care, since this borrowed van has a working air-conditioner, and I could watch the promenade in peace.

We made it to my parents' house in the afternoon.  We don't usually gather at this time of year, but Cathie came with 10-month old Leo, and Chris would arrive the next day.  So we opened the watermelon I'd brought.

Lititz Springs Park held it's first Independence Day celebration in 1811, and boasts one of the longest continuous traditions of July 4th celebration (196 years and counting).  As we arrived, around 8:30, the Queen of Candles pageant was announcing the winner, a local high school senior selected by her peers.  And then the candles were lit.  Thousands of them suspended above the stream that rushes from the springs and hisses the length of the park in it's stone-walled channel.  They made a great flickering slash through the dimness.

We spread old blankets on the ground for us to lay on - and for Leo to crawl around on.  Porter climbed the tree above us.  Over the years I've grown more indifferent to fireworks, but this show, accompanied by music from Clair Brothers Audio, was spectacular - possibly the best I've ever seen.  Leo would pause in his explorations sometimes to watch the colorful explosions.  Eventually, Porter came down out of the tree to sit with us.

Friday, July 1, 2011

We all packed up for our journeys.  A couple of small suitcases for Monica and Nico, and a larger one they'd be bringing to our friends in Tokyo.  Porter loaded into the van his own little suitcase plus his bike and skateboard, and a little pile of electronica - for a stay with his grandparents in Pennsylvania.

For days Nico had been anticipating jet lag by staying up and sleeping to noon, but we rousted him out.

And we left at noon for a 7:20 flight out of JFK, but the holiday weekend traffic we'd counted on was all going the other direction and we got to the airport at 3 o'clock.  Amidst the triple-parked chaos of the loading zone I gave them both hugs and counseled patience with one another.  And then Porter and I launched ourselves out toward Brooklyn along the Belt Parkway.  The city shone on this sunny day as though it was in one of those optimistic NYC-arrival scenes that movie-makers love to ladle in.

In Brooklyn's Cobble Hill we got the keys to Denver's place, and climbed to their apartment on the fourth floor.  The humans were out on a Long Island beach somewhere, but we made friends with Lester, the shaggy, unpredictable, saucer-eyed cat.  From their roof we could see the city spread out all around us.

Porter likes cities even less than I do, but Brooklyn is not the anthill that Manhattan is.  Though the air was hot it was clear, and he was content to stroll around with me.  And so we walked among the alien Brooklynites and ate their food and shared their well-lit night.