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Saturday, August 9, 2008

When one hike just isn't enough

See my Picasaweb album for many more pictures from this hike.

By late morning my four-year-old nephew Dylan had asked me at least five times when we were going on a walk. I thought he might melt down completely if he had to wait until the afternoon, so to tide him over I took him on one of our traditional walks along Fairview Avenue. If you want to know much traffic has increased on Fairview in the last thirty years, walk along it with a four-year-old. I made sure to get us both well away from the road whenever cars were coming in each direction, which amounted to every few minutes. When I walked that same half mile of road as a child in the seventies I doubt I ever saw one tenth of the traffic I saw on Saturday. It makes me that much more thankful for quiet, secluded foot paths like the Link Trail.

We'd barely started when Dylan made me glad I'd brought my Peterson's Guide to Wildflowers. He pointed to what he thought was a dandelion. I couldn't remember what it was, so I took it as a teaching opportunity. I opened my Peterson's, found out that it was a sow-thistle, and pointed out some distinguishing characteristics: the tough, rough stem that resisted his attempts to pick a flower head; height; and leaf shape. We walked a half mile before we found a dandelion to compare it to, which itself was another opportunity to show Dylan how the seasons change and nature's forms flow: where earlier in the summer dandelions flourished we saw new flowers; the daylilies still stood there, but their brilliant orange blossoms were nearly all gone; we saw deadly nightshade for the first time this summer; one animal dead by the roadside had decomposed into nothing but bones, skin and hair; and the vulture circling overhead may have been attracted to the fresher carcass that we smelled as we walked by what used to be my uncle's farm. On the way back I pointed at the hedgerow across the road from the old farm and told him about the hop kiln that stood there when I was a child, and how people in this area once worked picking the hops that were used to make beer.

As we walked I pointed out the constant companions on our walks over the last few years: chicory, buttercup, tyrol knapweed, burdock, poison ivy, field bindweed, milkweed, butter-and-eggs, bird's-foot trefoil, and plaintain. Once again I made a point that he should recognize and avoid poison ivy, and that rubbing crushed plaintain on skin exposed to poison ivy can reduce the rash. We watched cloud shadows inch their way along the road and I tried to help Dylan visualize how the clouds move over the earth. When I pointed out two ladybugs mating on a milkweed plant I got the "What's mating?" question again, and again I said "That's when a male and a female get together to make babies." I'm going to have to figure out what to say when he asks for more of an explanation.

None of that took place on the Link Trail but I love my walks with Dylan so much that I couldn't resist telling about it. There's a worthier reason for including, though: it puts his receptiveness into perspective. When we went on the afternoon hike I'm about to describe, I'd already barraged him with all that information - and he was still eager for more!

In the afternoon Grace and I walked with Dylan from Quarry Road west to the quarry. I got preoccupied with a fascinating subject: a harvestman with three mites on its back. When I caught up with Grace and Dylan they were enjoying the view out over the valley. I kept falling behind whenever I'd find something interesting to photograph - first a spider that posed nicely for me on a root in the sunlight, then some wildflowers that were growing in a large patch but that I don't think I've seen before. Dylan enjoyed letting a caterpillar crawl on him. I noticed a tiny grey spider - its body was no more than two millimeters long - and the harvestman that was ambling toward it in that creepy way that reminds me of a Roger Corman movie. During the rest of the hike I noticed more and more of those tiny grey spiders. I'm starting to wonder if almost invisibly tiny spiders make up the majority of the spider biomass in the area, because now that I'm looking closely they seem to be everywhere.

Both the quarry and the snails that live nearby fascinate Dylan. He showed me the old machinery that he thought came from mowers, and I showed him the fragments of snail shell that I thought came from an animal eating the snail. As we started back I saw another harvestman with only five legs, so apparently it's not so uncommon a sight as I thought when I first noticed it a few weeks ago.

As we walked back past the quarry my eye locked onto a whitish piece of fuzz drifting on the air, and in a moment I knew it wasn't fuzz - it was an insect I'd seen only once before, on the Finger Lakes Trail in Ithaca around 1991. At the time I would have sworn it was a bit of fluff from a dandelion or a milkweed pod or somesuch, but after watching it "float" for a while I realized that it wasn't floating - it was flying in a way that mimicked floating. Obviously it made an impression, because here on the Link Trail seventeen years later it took me only a second to recognize another of the same species. Excited, I called Grace over to see. I didn't know I was about to get even more of a treat.

The insect seemed to be incredibly unlucky, because it happened to land on a plant about an inch from a small spider that immediately pounced. As I snapped away I figured I was getting shots of the insect's final moments, but I was wrong - after a few seconds of wrangling the spider disengaged and backed off, and the insect righted itself and flew away! I've since identified it as a woolly aphid. That "fuzz" is a waxy substance that, among other things, supposedly protects the aphid from predators. I'm not sure if that explains why the spider backed off, though, because I get the sense that the wax only hinders recognition; it's not clear to me whether it could have done anything to deter a predator that already had the aphid in its grasp.

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