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Awanadjo Almanack - Issue 106

Most of Us Can’t Tell One Crow from Another

By Rob McCall
Awanadjo AlmanackIllustration by Sam Manning.

Summer is the time when one sheds one’s tensions with one’s clothes, and the right kind of day is jeweled balm for the battered spirit. A few of those days and you can become drunk with the belief that all’s right with the world.
— Louise Huxtable

Dear Friends: According to the venerable Old Farmer’s Almanac, the Dog Days of summer extend from the first week of July to the second week of August. Around here they could just as well be called the Fog Days. They are the hot and muggy days we endure in the interval between the sterling and crystal days of late spring and the buff and brown days of late summer, when clearer skies and cooler nights prevail. The Dog Days were named in ancient times for the rising of Sirius, the Dog Star. Aristotle refers to them in his Physics; the Romans called them Caniculares Dies or the “days of the little dogs.” Even the Book of Common Prayer of 1552 declares that the “Dog Daies” begin July 6 and end August 17, but perhaps this is only for Anglicans. As far as real dogs are concerned, these days are not their best. Quoddy, our black long-haired part Lab, used to groan and pant, well, doggedly, for weeks on end. He’d hollow out a shady little earthen den under the rose bush or the peonies and retire there with his tongue hanging out, emerging now and then for a drink of water and a quick, blinking look around. Then it was back into the shade. It’s easy to grumble about the weather anytime, but just think for a moment where we would be without it. Better hot weather or cold weather than no weather. I figure these sultry days are to redress the bone-chilling cold of late January and February, finally getting our body temperatures back up to 98.6° F.
Awanadjo Almanack August September 2009Illustrations by Candice Hutchinson [3].
Field and Forest Report, Early August Blueberry harvest is under way on the vast and lonely barrens of Washington and Hancock Counties. Many different varieties of goldenrod are coming into bloom, as is ragweed, with its filigreed leaves and green flowers that some believe to be the cause of their allergy miseries. Coincidentally, eyebright, known for its anti-allergy properties, is also coming into bloom along the pathways, with tiny white flowers tinted with purple on short stems and even tinier dark green leaves. The Dog Days could also be called the Cricket Days as these charming chanters enter their glistening adult stage and sing endless love songs to each other, reminding us that summer is far from over and there is still plenty of time for splendor in the grass. Yellow-banded grasshoppers click-clack back and forth in front of us as we amble and saunter through the fields. Seedpods to Carry Around with You in August From American naturalist Hal Borland: “Summer is a promissory note signed in June, its long days spent and gone before you know it, and due to be repaid next January.” And from the Greek historian Hesiod: “It will not always be summer. Build barns.” Field and Forest Report, Late August We experienced another banner season last year for both the fall web worm and the birch leaf miner; both are Lepidoptera. The former are caterpillars that feed on the leaves from the outside; the latter are sawfly larvae that feed from the inside. They generally do little damage to the trees themselves, as they feed later in the season when the leaves have already done most of their work. Spraying with insecticides is not recommended. At the same time we saw an increase in the tar spot fungus, genus Rhytisma, which produces black spots on the leaves of Norway maples. In serious cases, as on Court House Hill in Ellsworth last year, the leaves turn brown and fall off the trees prematurely. Here again, the damage to the trees themselves is minimal and rarely, if ever, lethal. If you have the problem this year, the best thing you can do is rake up the fallen leaves and compost them. And again, spraying with fungicides is generally not recommended.
Awanadjo Almanack August September 2009
Natural Events, Early September The New York Times and many others reported last year at this time that experiments at the University of Washington “have found that crows and their relatives [blue jays, ravens, magpies] can recognize individual human faces and act accordingly.” Birds of the corvid family are known throughout history and myth for their sharp intelligence and keen interest in human affairs. In the Noah legend, the first bird sent from the ark was a corvid, and through the ages ravens were carried on ships because of their ability to fly directly toward the nearest land. Corvids fed Elijah when he hid out in the wilds from death at the hands of the ruthless king he had challenged. In Aesop’s fable, the crow figures out how to get a drink by dropping rocks in a jug to raise the water level. For the Northwest tribes, Raven is the Trickster and Creator of the World, even riding along on the primordial flood with other animals as in the Noah legend. Other scientific, peer-reviewed experiments have shown that corvids can count, use tools, mimic other sounds, speak, and even understand human language. Blue jays can remember hundreds of sites where they have hidden acorns. Rank Opinion Given their widely known and well-documented intelligence, it’s not so surprising that corvids can recognize and discriminate between human faces. What is really surprising is that given humans’ widely known and well-documented intelligence, most of us can’t tell one crow from another. We really need to get out more. Mountain Report, Early September Last year, the day after Labor Day provided the perfect opportunity for a long, quiet hike over the mountain, Blue Hill—Awanadjo in Algonkian. School was back in session down in town, and the summer visitors who flocked to the summit in July and August were gone. A hike over the Wardwell Farm property wandered up through the raked, high blueberry barrens decorated with lines of white cotton string that had delineated the rakers’s rows lying limp, stark glacial boulders, and a few juicy berries still hiding under the leaves. Some bear sign dotted the grooves in the road. On the west shoulder of the mountain, three small raptors, perhaps pigeon hawks, floated and turned overhead in the breeze, manifestly enjoying themselves and each other. Awanadjo seemed both weary and relieved, like some of us after a long summer of visitors, resting and waiting for the leaves to turn. For steady improvements on many trail sections I give credit to the Blue Hill Heritage Trust for its careful stewardship of trails that lead all the way down to the post office. One Big Family Department Richard Fortey, former senior paleontologist at the British Museum, reported that there is an 80 percent similarity between human genes and the corresponding genes in nematode worms. “Some genes are so deep-seated,” he wrote, “that they continue to do their work over… many millions of years. Such evidence proves beyond question that we are one with the worm and the bacterium.” This in case we needed more proof after an election year. Seedpods to Carry Around in September From Charles Kuralt: “It does no harm to acknowledge that the whole country isn’t in flames, that there are people in the country besides politicians, entertainers, and criminals.” And from Helen Keller: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of suffering.” Natural Events, Mid September Oriental bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus, is a familiar climbing vine with rich yellow-and-orange berries that cling fast after the leaves have fallen. It is beloved by flower arrangers and crafters everywhere for making wreathes and other fall decorations. The berries are also beloved by starlings and bluejays, who devour them and then spread the seeds far and wide through their droppings. The vine grows vigorously and climbs aggressively up trees of every kind. Its thick foliage can block the sun from a host tree, and its strong stem can strangle its host to the point that the host is weakened and finally dies. Most agree that bittersweet is an invasive species that should be controlled to maintain the health of local plant life. This can be done by cutting the vine as near to the ground as possible, as often as necessary. Field and Forest Report, Mid September Cooler nights are arriving, with some full-moon frost in the north and mountains bringing red, yellow, and orange to the leaves. Early apples are coming in, including gravensteins with their tart taste and soft flesh, perfect for applesauce. It looks like a short crop in our little orchard this year, but you’re welcome to them. The last monarch butterflies of the season are winging their way southwesterly over land and water to wintering grounds in California and Mexico. The fall warblers are stopping to rest on their southward journeys, too, as Canada geese are gathering in the fields to chat awhile before their departure. Acorns are falling and bouncing off our heads as we walk along under the mighty oaks. And see the profusion of white and purple asters coming into bloom along roadsides and in un-mowed fields, announcing the arrival of autumn.
Awanadjo Almanack August September 2009
Field and Forest Report, Late September Wild blackberries are still ripe in certain places, large and juicy due to the wet weather. What a rare and delightful explosion of flavor on the tongue, and you can chew on the seeds all day. Natural Events, late September Last July at our Moose Island field station I noticed that little bumblebees were flying in and out of the boathouse where we keep the Bobby Ives sailing dory and also our woodpile. They were coming and going from a spot between the sloppy kindling pile and the neatly stacked oak. This made me curious, and I began a study of bumblebees. I had thought they were solitary creatures, feeding themselves and sleeping under any handy flower at night, and I admired them for that. My studies revealed that they are not as social as the honeybees, wasps, and hornets, but they do feed a queen bee through the summer. The queen lays eggs that hatch into solitary queens who leave the nest in autumn and find a safe place to winter over to start more small colonies the next year, while the whole of this year’s tribe dies. At Moose Island again in late September, we were painting the north side of the house and enjoying some beautiful early fall weather with cool Canadian air pouring in, a full moon, and a million stars shining at night. Back in July the bees, probably Bombus terristris, came and went from the woodpile only occasionally, but this time it was like rush hour at LaGuardia (or so I imagine, as I’ve never been there), with departures and arrivals every few seconds. And many of these bees were exceedingly enormous, the C-5As of the insect world. This made for some interesting moments getting wood to stoke the Atlantic kitchen heater Model 121A for those cool nights. One evening I went out to the boathouse to split some kindling on the chopping block near the kindling pile. As the axe fell and the kindling flew, the stolid bumblebees maintained their familiar flight pattern, buzzing in and out contentedly, and mostly steering clear of me. When I bent over to pick up the kindling with my hindquarters pointed directly into their approach, several of them flew right between my legs and even bumbled against my butt without the slightest sign of hostility, returning to their course toward the terminal of their queen under the woodpile. (Bumblebees do sting occasionally, as I also learned by experience recently, particularly when their work is disturbed. But their sting is mild compared to bees or wasps.) When I was painting atop a 28' ladder, one even flew into my ear, bumbled a little, and flew out. Rank Opinion We have long modeled weapons of war after the most aggressive, belligerent insects that fly swiftly and inflict great pain. The Hornet was an early combat plane, and newer fighters are designed thin and sharp like wasps. The Stinger is a deadly missile. We also admire the “busy-as-a-bee” industry and acquisitiveness of flying insects as they lay away far more than they need. This fits with our dated view that more aggressive and acquisitive species will survive, and the peaceful and contented will not. In the natural world, however, this is simply not the case. My field studies over the years reveal that bumblebees vastly outnumber more aggressive bees and wasps. On blooming fruit trees and on wild and cultivated flowers, bumblebees outnumbered other pollinators by as much as ten to one over the past summer. In addition, the highly social honeybees, Apis mellifera, have been decimated country-wide by “hive collapse,” a complex disorder of unknown cause. The unavoidable conclusion is that these more aggressive and acquisitive insects are no more successful than the more peaceful and independent bumblebees, and perhaps less so. Wild Speculation Peaceful, humble bumbling has worked exceedingly well for the bumblebees, and for most humans through the ages. Should we and our leaders try to be a little more humble for a change? Seedpods to Carry as High Autumn Approaches From Ralph Waldo Emerson: “We are reformers in the spring and summer, but in autumn we stand by the old. Reformers in the morning, conservers at night.” And from Emily Bronte: “Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.” That’s the almanack for this time. But don’t take it from me—I’m no expert. Go out and see for yourself.
Yr. mst. hmble & obd’nt servant,
Rob McCall


Rob McCall is the minister of the First Congregational Church, Blue Hill, Maine. This almanack is excerpted from transcripts of his weekly radio show, which can be heard on WERU, 89.9 FM Blue Hill and 102.9 FM Bangor, and streamed live via www.weru.org. Readers can contact him directly via e-mail: awanadjoalmanack@gmail.com.