The Natural Interest Concern


Sea Life Exposed

This experience was a long time coming, a dream really that I’ve been picturing in my mind since I was a grade schooler combing through black and white children’s science books at the city library. These books captured my imagination with stories of kids just like me, yet not like me at all — they spent their days in joyful solitude, exploring rocky shorelines as the sea slowly peeled back and revealed its secrets. I spent mine poking around in the lifeless puddles of an ugly, townhouse subdivision. Water worlds that revealed things they don’t sentimentalize in storybooks.

I wanted so badly to discover, see, and touch the magic captured in those pages, but there was no ocean nearby, just a dodgy lake over-run with zebra mussels and an elevated level of fecal matter that put summertime swimming to a stop mid-way through the 1980′s.



Please don’t leave without experiencing the Cabrillo Tide Pools from Davin’s perspective.

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File under: Expeditions
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Cabrillo Tide Pools

We had a single day layover in San Diego and for us that meant some mandatory ocean time. For two people who have lived the majority of our lives as land-locked Canadians, we both have a passion for being at the ocean. In this case, we did some pre-planning and decided to visit the tide pools at Cabrillo National Monument while we had the chance.

I have fond childhood memories of Mexican tide pools jammed with explosively spiky urchins and Gayla was once on course to becoming a marine biologist so we walked down to the crowded shore excited for what we would see. We reached the “rocky intertidal zone” about an hour after lowest tide and the area was bathed in golden light off the red clay cliffs and vibrant with tufts of green sea grass.

It was a strange experience to be picking our way around the delicate moorings of countless Starburst Anemone surrounded by at least 100 other people in what is a protected but also very public environment. It was difficult to spend as much time in certain areas as we might have wanted because of the crowds but our excitement level was high regardless.

We shaded our eyes and peered deeply into every pool and crevice. Beside the almost glowing anemone were armies of Hermit Crabs often in armour borrowed from Tegula Snails. Boulders were spotted with clusters of Gooseneck barnacles beside Keyhole Limpets and the positively prehistoric Chiton. Those Chiton do a very convincing Trilobite impersonation.

A kid called his brother over to look at a starfish and I peeked as well to see a comically small Bat Star positively glowing surrounded by dark Coralline algae and scattered broken kelp bladders. In another nearby pool, a small group of Sculpin darted around a cluster of Mussels.

A couple of park Rangers walked along the shore and an eager crowd pushed around one as he showed a tiny Brittle Star in the palm of his hand.

Our time there felt too brief, the admittedly awesome January sun set came too early in the day. Back in Toronto, I can’t wait for our next chance to be at the ocean. I have no doubt that we will make a bee-line for the first set of tide pools we can find.

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The Human Side

On a recent trip, we visited a small private library. The library’s shelves were stocked with a rich blend of titles from pulp to philosophy. Of much interest to us were a range of older naturalists’ guide books: regional trees species, bird-life, cacti … filled with illustrations and off-register colour photos.

Nostalgia be damned, those are some gorgeous spines.

Our time was brief so I took a few photos of spines to capture some of the enticing titles. Standing out to me was a cobalt-bound volume titled, “The Human Side of Birds” by Royal Dixon, 1917. Everything about the book’s spine resonated. I had to know more.

The book courtesy The Open Library.

It turns out that “The Human Side of Birds” was a follow-up to Royal Dixon’s previous books, “The Human Side of Plants” and “The Human Side of Trees”. All three volumes veer surprisingly and happily away from purest botany and towards an emotional, spiritual, and highly anthropomorphized examination of the hidden life of nature’s ‘lesser’ species.

“In the examination of some aspects and forms of life it is often best to cast aside the complex machinery of cold and calculating analysis, and to look only with the eye of love and sympathy. In this work it is my purpose to reject the limitations of unsympathetic research, and to endeavour to see beyond formal classifications, and to understand the spirit, emotions and impulses in the lives of our feathered friends of the air.” — Royal Dixon, “The Human Side of Birds”

“They are fond of having party-baths, like the old Romans…”

Dixon evokes the virtues of birds in human terms as artists, policemen, dancers, athletes, musicians, actors of the skies. His goal is to highlight the complexity of bird life — to embue them with “soul”. It’s often a tinge too quaint for its own good but it was still likely a vastly challenging notion in its time. In my own experience, it can be hard not to think of the animals around us in our own terms but they are also uniquely, unquestionably not human in their biology and behaviour. We might more interestingly ask ourselves about the Bird Side of Humans.

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File under: Gleanings
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Nature doesn’t really know about doors, walls, and windows. Inside our houses, it can feel like nature is close but kept out, separated from us by the structures we live in. It’s not that we are completely unaware that there are breeches. We know that air, pollen, dirt, and a variety of species move through our homes. It’s less likely that we think about our homes as habitats.

Meet our guest, “Spidey”.

A couple of months ago we noticed what we thought was a temporary visitor to our kitchen. The lower Fall temperatures brought a garden spider indoors. I’m sure it’s no accident that we were also in the midst of what some have come to know as fruit fly season. This opportunistic spider set up a successful operation snaring hordes of bumbling flies, drunk off the bounty of harvested tomatoes.

Once we realized that the spider knew a good thing and was settling in for a longer stay, we began to treat him as a volunteer pet, name him, and even helped him out by sending a few hapless fruit flies his way. Day after day, he was there in an elaborate web stretched across the glass of our kitchen door. We watched his progress and gave him small congratulations for his good work against the mutual fruit fly enemy.

With a few well-worded Google image searches, we guessed that “Spidey” was a Cross Orb Weaver (Araneus diadematus) — a quite common Garden spider.

Our Spidey in action.

We’ve been amazed to see Spidey’s adaptation to living in our kitchen. He was first noticed perched between two picture frames and then for weeks he built and rebuilt his web across the kitchen door — the kitchen door is probably the most frequently used door in our house as it leads out to the garden. There was even a mysterious disappearance one morning when Spidey and web were completely gone. When Spidey reappeared we learned that it is common for spiders to pack up their webs and hide out.

As of this morning, Spidey resides in a roughly 45cm wide web in the kitchen window — a far less frenetic habitat than the kitchen door. Fruit fly pickings are definitely slimmer this late in the Fall but Spidey is making do.

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For some incredible macro photos and more detailed information about Cross Orb Weavers see the Cirrus Image site run by Bruce Marlin.

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File under: Field Studies
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