Gratitude and Discovery On the Wilson Prairie at the Tail End of Winter

Blessings come in the form of warm days on the end of this mixed winter. An alternating cycle of frigid wind and premature blossoms that beget premature butterflies. My son Zev and I found ourselves at the threshold of just such a blessing as March began to cover the tracks of February.

“It’s a beautiful day,” he comments. I know what is on his mind, and I won’t take too many pains to argue. We are going cocooning.

The early evening sun beams down full and bright on this post-work, post-school walk across the field from our house, where a familiar lot full of greenbriar-skirted post oaks grows, a huddle of stately sentinels of the cross timbers, their budding sprigs washing the branches with a pastel hue that suggests a restoration of life to the western edge of the Wilson Prairie. My back yard. A thick crackling carpet of ochres and sepias and mahoganies accumulates over the tops of our shoes. There are cocoons mixed in with them somewhere. And not just any cocoons, but special ones. They are the winter-dormant pupae of the great Polyphemus moth.

A Polyphemus has a lifelong romance with these oaks. From the hard, round eggs, scarcely larger than a pinhead, adhered to the leaves quite generously, to the ravenous larvae, lime-green and built like a three-inch-long living accordion, through the pupal stage spent enclosed in silken protection among the leaves, to the magnificent adult with the wingspan that stretches from palm to fingertips, back to the egg again. Blessed cycle.

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Zev, looking among the leaves

Zev makes for the deadfall, the wild crop of curly hair he inherited from his mother bouncing as he goes forth in unbridled joy, energy, and enthusiasm. A pang of loss for my own naïve, blissful youth is vanquished only by the gratitude of being able to share in his. His sharp eyes scan the ground for anything suspect. A description is all he goes by, for while he has found many a cocoon in his eight years, never before a Polyphemus.

“Look for something the size, color, and shape of a rat snake’s egg,” I suggest, “a fuzzy, ovaline object wrapped in silk, off-white to manila, sometimes hidden in a curled brown leaf.” At first, everything is suspect. He pounces upon mushroom caps, an oak gall, a stray chunk of Styrofoam, with false hope fueled by faith and anticipation. But when he actually does find one he has no doubts. “This has to be one!” he exclaims. “Come quick!”

It is. At the base of a young oak tree with a trunk no wider than my thigh, tucked away safely in the carpet of leaves, the little lepidopteran gift waits with seemingly timeless patience.

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A Polyphemus cocoon

“I found one!” Zev cries, as if its profession marks the point at which anticipation births reality. Carefully, he picks it up, taking care not to roll it from its original position, a testament to the gentleness of his spirit.

“When will it emerge?” he asks as he draws it up close to his face, studying the detail.

“When it is ready,” I tell him. “Most likely in three or four weeks, perhaps longer.” He hands it to me, this newfound little treasure that has just turned the key to a previously undiscovered world that has suddenly joined with his own. I place it in the pocket of my shirt and we continue on our walk beneath the skeletal branches, between the rugose trunks, among the death-dry filings of last year.

The advent of springtime is like medicine to our winter-weary hearts. How many frigid days and windswept crisp nights we have spent over books and the dreaded television, our eyes gazing out past the here and now through the front window, eager for these first green brush strokes of life to come splashing onto the sullen earthen hues of pause and stillness and dormancy. How eager we are now to pluck them up, drink them in in all their diverse wonder.

A little brown skink weaves its way among the substrate, a coppery flash of scales in the sun that delights our eyes for only the briefest of moments before slipping back into the private obscurity of its shy, hidden existence. The cucumber-green, spine-laced tip of a prairie nipple cactus, that tallgrass succulent that looks so out of place here in this oak motte, reaches up for the sunshine from the midst of the sea of leaf litter.

“A cactus! Look, dad!” Nothing great or small escapes the observation of my son, whose senses are in hyper-drive at this point.

A pair of fruit trees, planted by the hand of man, stand in our path, their early blossoms ablaze with a mixture of the pastel hues of soft roseate purple-pink (a peach) and buttercream white (a pear). The day is warm and bright, the scent and color of the blossoms invoke a convention of insects to reap the benefits of their sweet pollen. I take this opportunity to stop in my tracks and study, poring over the bunches of blooms one by one, inspecting each in detail, and in doing so am rewarded by life rejuvenated and celebrated in its amazing diversity. Lady beetles, some familiar orange-spotted-black and others unicolored, scramble over flower heads, their ever-ravenous appetites gobbling up aphids. Paper wasps, honeybees, and metallic bees jostle for position, nectar-drunk and too preoccupied by the bliss of sunshine to pay my presence much mind. A buckeye butterfly spreads its wings wide as it rests on a leaf, the intricately patterned eyespots of purple, blue, yellow, white casting their intricate sheen. There is a false blister beetle and then a crab spider waiting in enviable patience atop a pear blossom, its color matching to a tee, blended in so well that the next bee or butterfly to visit will never know what hit it, perhaps assuming in its final moments that the flower itself has trapped it, brief life passed back into the chain even as it had just begun to enjoy the world once again.

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Buckeye butterfly

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Checkered skipper

Zev joins me in my study but for a few minutes, but soon becomes antsy. There are cocoons at stake. He excuses himself and resumes the search around the tree bases, where the cocoons have long since dropped from their flimsy attachment to the lower twigs several months before in the wake of our first stray norther. No child was ever happier filling an Easter basket with plastic eggs, I can assure you.

We pass out of the grove now, where a gnarled, weathered wild grapevine hangs between two mature oaks, its thick, curling central stem resembling the trunk of a huge snake made of wood. To an 8-year-old it is an excellent swing, and my son takes full advantage of nature’s playground. He stands at its center, bracing himself with his arms on either side of the vine, pushing off as he stares up into the still-bare branches of the understory.

CK-Zev-grapevine“I wonder if there are any cocoons up there that haven’t fallen?” he asks, more to himself than to me. His swinging slows as his concentration quickens.

“I don’t know, I say, “it’s possible.”

Eventually the grapevine swing is abandoned for a walk out in the open field, the yellowed grass razed low by cattle. Zev’s eyes have spotted a second grove of oaks a hundred or so yards away, growing along the edge of a shallow ravine that carves an eroded trench downhill to the pond.

“More oaks!” he shouts, and the hunt is back on.

Beneath my feet, flat, dark green pads of cow-trampled, resilient prickly pear spring up in their constant greenery, with no seeming concern for season, their red-tufted spines seeking out the edges of my sneakers. Late winter grasshoppers, the proof of another mild winter, leap in front of me in discordant, gangly jumps. Zev brings me the dried husk of a dung beetle, its legs rigid. A winter casualty.

“I will add it to my collection!” he states with extended hand, and the little prize joins the cocoon in my shirt pocket. We walk the edge of the ravine, among the post oaks flanked by the greenbriar, but no cocoons are found. The ditch that runs parallel to the tree line is full of water from a recent rain. It stands in a shallow narrow pool, giving the superficial resemblance of a creek. Dense stands of dewberry with their spangled white flowers march along the water line, with the impenetrable tangle of wild plum thrust into their midst, their own tangled branches of disarray clothed in a different shade of floral white.

“Let’s make a bridge!” Zev suggests, and together we hoist a thick, heavy cover-board I have set out to encourage herps across the narrow expanse of space we find in a rare open space in the plum thicket. In no time we emerge victorious on the north side of the ravine.

I already know his plan. Seldom do we venture into this field when Zev fails to explore the coyote den. A group of coyotes graces us with their mournful, discordant singing year-round. As the sun slips over the edge of the Wilson Prairie they break out into that same dirge night after night, regardless of season, with one setting the pace in a brief solo of yips and yaps, revving the engine for what eventually becomes an orchestra of drawn out howls that have rung out across these lands for thousands of years. On warm, pleasant nights we listen from the comfort of lawn chairs beneath the porch, in total darkness. What seems to be dozens of coyotes but in reality is probably only three or four seem to rise in pitch and volume, their lonely echoing canid voices resonating all around us. We have only ever seen one in the daytime, and that less than a week ago as the hardy, grizzle-furred wild dog made its way across the open field on a Saturday morning. It had turned back to watch us with an inquisitive, suspicious glare before deeming us innocuous enough to constitute no further caution and trotting over the low ground to the security of a stand of junipers. Last summer we discovered what we suspect to be their lair, a gaping maw of excavated red earth from the side of the ravine in a tributary gully. It is wide and deep enough for my son to slink inside, and with fearless abandon he adventures in. But not today, as the rains have filled the gully on all sides of us, blocking our entrance. Likewise the coyotes seem to have abandoned this favorite shady shelter, which they probably use more for shelter from the sun than they do actual denning and pup- rearing. The only traces of their presence lie in the scattered paw-prints they have left behind in the mud.

No coyotes today, but we are suddenly delighted by the appearance of a pair of black-tailed jackrabbits as they explode from the grass at our very feet, the long ears, veined and almost translucent pink in the sunlight, twitching and falling as they bound away from us in a zig-zag pattern that has ensured their survival for countless generations.

“Whoa!” Zev shouts in excitement. “We walked right up on them. Now that’s some camouflage!”

“That camouflage is what keeps them from becoming a coyote’s dinner,” I tell him. “Although it looks like we’ve blown their cover to that guy.” I point upward, where the silhouette of a big red-tailed hawk soars like a sharp-eyed predatory kite freed from its string. Perhaps taking note of its shadow, the rabbits disappear before their luck runs thin. Their bounding suddenly stops and once again they melt into the yellow-brown hues of the prairie as if they never were.

A few more feet and we are at the pond now, with its flat, muddy banks crowned by a mass of sand willows and a wild plum thicket eight feet high and so dense one can stand in front of it and catch not so much as a glimpse of the water surface on the other side. This pond is a wonderful little mantra, teeming with an assortment of aquatic, semiaquatic, and water-dependent life that maintains its continued existence on the otherwise dry prairie. We have visited this place many times and in all seasons over the 18 months we have lived on the property. We have stalked basking water snakes in the mornings, creeping as stealthily as our field experience can muster to observe them as they sun on the drooping willow branches that overhang the water. Inevitably one of us attempts to stretch a leg or arm, sending the ever-vigilant serpents sliding effortlessly into the water with hardly a ripple. From my current vantage point I recall a time last summer when I stood on this very spot and watched in humble adoration as a cloud-rich evening masterpiece of magenta and powder-blue and tangerine was mirrored in its reflection on the surface of the water. Twin worlds, one real and the other a mirage, separated only by a thin layer of vast, flat prairie.

For now, though, the water is muddy brown and devoid of reflection, save for that of the overhanging branches of willow. Its surface is broken by a pair of water striders who skim across in expanding ripples, their bodies seeming to defy gravity as the mass of their bodies is distributed on stilt-like legs.

“Water striders,” Zev points out. Nothing goes unnoticed.

And then I get myself into a bit of trouble. “Yeep!” a startled young bullfrog calls as it plops into the water from its former position on the bank. And behind it a little brown amphibian bullet does likewise, although this one makes no noise. “There goes a cricket frog.”

“Where?!” Zev comes running and again I sense a pang of envy jolting forth from the banks of my suppressed memory, to a simple time when the presence of something as commonplace as a cricket frog could so explicitly and wonderfully grab my attention and captivate my thoughts. With the same level of enthusiasm he doted upon the Polyphemus cocoons an hour or so earlier he concentrates on the tiny anuran, who has at this point reached the water’s edge, where it throws itself in and under. Beneath the water it can barely be seen as it kicks off, its long, muscular legs propelling it forward, then pushing it back around to face us. In the work of an instant it had buried itself in the mud, out of sight. Zev takes note of its location and makes a grab, but water and mud is all he gets.

“Dang!” he yells.

It is at this point that I make my mistake: “I bet you can’t catch one,” I say to him, forgetting the dedication, vigor, and determination-fueled energy and persistence of an 8-year-old boy naturalist in the field. In fact, so non-recollective is my memory that I seal the deal on my fate. “I’ll give you two dollars for every one you catch.” These are famous last words. A four-foot tall, gangly little machine fires off into the muddy, wet domain of the cricket frog, instantly taking on their very traits himself. Pants get soaked, shoes bogged down in thick accumulation of red clay that adheres with all the affinity of gorilla glue, and Zev soon has a ball of pond mud in his fist, brandishing it under my nose before opening it up slowly.

“There!” he shouts victoriously, and sure enough, two tiny bulbous amphibian eyes stare up at me from out of the mud ball. “Two bucks, baby!” he laughs, although the joy of his recent winnings are soon overshadowed by a close study of the frog. We watch it breathe, comment on its coloration, habits, and what it might be thinking before releasing it back into the water. Then it’s all eyes back to the shoreline. In the span of a moment he spies another frog.

“Hold my hand so I don’t fall in,” he says, and I support his balance as he leans as far out as possible. Another successful grab. He is getting good at this. In my haste to encourage his exploration of all things natural I failed to include the phenomenon that a small boy can accomplish feats seemingly lost with age. Much like lizard-catching, the pursuit of cricket frogs seems like a pastime tailor- made for the vigor of youth. He catches a third and then a fourth with what has now become relative ease. From their undisclosed vantage points the resident water snakes watch with jealousy as my son turns up cricket frogs with the efficiency of an egret. Washington gives way to Hamilton as Zev nabs a 5th frog.

“Okay, demand is about to exceed supply,” I warn him, but a deal is a deal. The damn cricket frogs are everywhere. It is a plague of Biblical proportions, and I envision a scenario of myself standing on the soup line. “How’d you get here?” the guy behind me asks. “Put my life savings in two-dollar shares of cricket frog stock,” I say glumly as the ladle hovers over my bowl, from the center of which a pair of tiny bulging eyes emerges from a pool of vegetable broth.

“Oh yeah, number seven!” Zev yells, his muddy cupped hand running over with pond water. It is opened and yet another frog leaps from it, plummeting back into the pond.

“OK, that’s enough, kid. You’re definitely abusing the system. The sun is headed down anyway. Let’s head for the house before I’m forced to declare bankruptcy or take out a loan.”

“Fourteen big ones!” he says for emphasis. “A deal’s a deal, daddy-o.”

“It certainly is,” I agree.

IMG_2112.JPGAs we make our way up the embankment and point our mud-caked shoes in the direction of home, the diurnal prairie life is gearing down for bed, making way for the night shift. A gentle breeze has blown in, caressing the flowering edges of the thickets, where a bumblebee hangs on precariously as the flower she is clinging to sways first one way and then the other. Overhead, the resident great blue heron glides over the field as he does every evening like clockwork, a feathered biplane on a silent angled descent as he prepares for a little pond-side hunting of his own. Cricket frogs beware, for he is twice as stealthy as my son and has much more ominous intentions.

As we walk, Zev is reminded once again of the cocoon. “I’ve still got it in my pocket,” I assure him.

“When will it be ready to come out?” he asks again.

“In good time,” I tell him. “We’ll sit it on the back porch in a mesh tent and if we’re lucky we’ll get to see it happen, although I wouldn’t count on it. That’s the great nature of mysterious things. They go on unobserved and in secret, a thousand tiny worlds that exist alongside and yet just outside our own, right under our very noses.”

“Yep,” he nods. The daylight fades on the Wilson Prairie, and a dark world replaces that of light, making conditions ripe for secrets and mysteries to go on in the deepest cover of night. The tinkling trills of a Strecker’s chorus frog begins somewhere behind us, instigating a bevy of others to follow suit, complementing the hummed tune of elation that comes in on the wind from in front of me, where my son walks in the final fleeting rays of sunlight. Blessings of late winter on the cusp of another spring in the cross timbers.

 

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