Checking Out Oaks for Myself

After reading the book about oak trees last week, The Nature of Oaks, I felt compelled to go find some old oak trees and see what’s living and growing on them. What kinds of ecosystems would I find in and on the oak trees near me? The closest ones that are easy to see are the ones at the Walker’s Creek Cemetery, which are old white oaks that were probably planted there when they founded the cemetery in the late 1800s.

One of the beautiful oak trees at the cemetery.

Right now, they are in their blooming stage, so I got to see a lot of oak catkins, which Doug Tallamy told us in the book are the male parts with all the pollen on them. They do look pretty, even if they make many folks all clogged up with sinus stuff and turn our cars yellow.

Very fresh leaves and lots of catkins, pollinating all they encounter.
Two insects, or chrysalises or something. Note there are already holes in some leaves.

I was wondering what I’d see living on the shiny new leaves that had just poked out after their very chilly winter slumber. I found lots of little bugs, but I was having camera focus issues and couldn’t identify any of them. A few leaf clusters had multiple types of insects crawling on them, probably eager for some tasty young oak snacks. Another thing I learned from the book is that the leaves develop more and more tannins and get harder and harder as the spring moves to summer and summer leads to autumn. By the time the leaves are ready to fall, only leaf miners and other insects that can get to the soft centers of the leaves are able to get much nutrition out of oak leaves. How about that?

While looking for life on the oaks I couldn’t help but see some more life in neighboring shrubs. There were a few very interesting Eastern tent caterpillar nests. These have only one generation per year, and from the number I saw, they aren’t doing too much harm to anything. They appeared to be on hackberries, a native tree no one’s all that fond of, so I’m happy to let them build their nests.

Tent caterpillars and their poop.
This nest appears to be on a hackberry and a smilax vine.

The thing is, the little caterpillars are jumpy as heck! I’m used to caterpillars slowly moving along a plant, chomping away. These guys were flinging themselves around frantically. I don’t know if they were reacting to me disturbing them, were getting ready to pupate, or what. They were fun to look at, though.

I didn’t see any moths, but I did see a lot of little wasps that were too fast to photograph. I also saw a beautiful pileated woodpecker, chickadees, and the usual cardinals, all on the oaks, so I confirmed for myself that these oak trees support a lot of life.

What’s going on in your neck of the woods? (look, I stuck with my tree theme!)

Book Report: The Nature of Oaks

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Admission: I only gave this book 4 stars because I wanted it to be longer. I dwell on every word Doug Tallamy writes, so I selfishly want more of them. The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees is his latest book, and it was only published two days ago. I snatched it out of the packaging and started reading it immediately! I’m really glad Tallamy mentioned this when I heard him speak in February, so I knew to pre-order.

Now, not only is Doug (I’ll call him Doug, because I consider him a friend, though I’ve never really talked to him) my favorite current naturalist writer, but oaks are my favorite trees. How much better can it get?

Oak trees and I go way back. One of my mom’s favorite stories about toddler Suna is that she used to go outside and find me talking to the trees in my yard. I thought there was someone in there, you see. I spent my childhood in something like a paradise for plant lovers, a small cement-block house on two lots, covered with large live oaks, along with a few other lovely native Florida trees. I was, however, not at all fond of pine trees (ironic, since my grandfather worked for a company that planted pines for paper-making). I liked oaks. They always had something going on, with all that Spanish moss dripping off them, possums and squirrels running around, and of course an endless parade of songbirds.

My most recent visit to some of my favorite trees, at the park I played in a child (as did Tom).

I loved those trees like family members, as I followed my dad around helping him landscape the yard and make lovely flower beds around the oaks, all mulched with their leaves. Little did I know he was doing the exact right thing by planting the dogwoods, redbuds, azaleas, and such under the larger trees to mimic a natural understory. Most important, the leaf mulch supported all sorts of wonderful insects that contributed to the ecology of my little world. Thanks, Doug, for confirming my dad’s innate wisdom!

The oaks and I continued our love affair, and I continued to visit ones I particularly cared about as long as I lived in Gainesville, and I still check to see if certain trees are still there (most are, 50+ years lager). And when I moved to Illinois and then to Texas, I learned about more and more types of oaks, which shed their leaves in the fall like normal trees (not like live oaks, who shed in the spring). My favorite tree in my first yard in Texas was a bur oak we planted, of course with an understory of Texas mountain laurel and native plants. It’s a gorgeous specimen now.

All this background is to explain why I was so happy this book was written. It turns out, I was right, there was “someone” in my oaks! They support more moths and other insects than any other type of tree. They teem with life! I enjoyed learning a lot about the various caterpillars and moths Doug finds in his Pennsylvania trees (he also talks about other areas, too, though).

An oak out in nature in Florida

He also satisfied my curiosity as to what the heck oak galls are, what they’re made of, and who lives there. Well, little larvae live in there, but the galls are somehow inspired to grow from actual oak material by the wasp who lays her eggs on the leaf buds. All sorts of insects want to eat the larvae, but galls protect them well. Then, when they leave, they make a nice hole, which then can be used by certain ants as little homes. I never knew that!

So, there’s just one example of the kinds of things you learn about amazing oak trees in this book. It’s enough to make you want to run out and plant some. That’s exactly what Doug wants you to do. Like to many trees, their numbers have diminished. We need them to store carbon, to support life, and to clean the atmosphere. You’ll find fun information on starting oak trees from acorns, as well as comprehensive lists of the best oak varieties for different parts of the US (by size, too).

You’ll also be sure to enjoy the color photos of trees, insects, and all the denizens of the oak world. I guess Doug’s now famous enough that he gets to have color photographs in all his books. We win!

This little book is a treasure, and I’m so glad it confirmed my bias toward the gentle old trees I’ve loved my whole life. I plan to take the book off its shelf and hug it occasionally. It’s my friend, I guess.

Want to read more by Doug Tallamy? I have a review of his previous wonderful and inspirational book, Nature’s Best Hope that you might enjoy.

I’m Becoming Irritating

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Maybe it’s irritating; maybe it’s righteously indignant; maybe it’s newly awakened evangelism. Whatever it is, I can’t stop talking to all my friends about the Caste book I just read. I keep retelling the parts about the lynching postcards, Hitler’s use of the US as a model in how to de-humanize Jews, and the clear explanation of why poor whites identify more with powerful elites than to other poor people. Apparently, I have been deeply affected by Isabel Wilkerson’s scholarship, and I simply MUST share.

This woman is inspiring.

Have you ever read something that you can’t shut up about? I was recently that way about Nature’s Best Hope, which I begged everyone I knew to read (and at least I know all my Master Naturalist friends will read after hearing Doug Tallamy speak in person. I can remember being that excited over The Color Purple, too, as well as the first book on feminist spirituality I ever read. But, it doesn’t happen often, so forgive me, if you know me in person, if I keep going on and on about things the US has institutionalized to maintain an artificial difference between two groups of people.

These are the kinds of things that just get me angry at my fellow white people.

You will be either pleased or annoyed to know I just got Wilkerson’s first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which is about the immigration history of the US. I can’t wait to learn which group of misfits gets scapegoated decade by decade. I’ll try to keep my enthusiasm to a dull roar, hee hee.

I’ve been thinking, though, about what gets me all riled up into a pile of agitated activism. It always seems to center around people or other living beings not being treated fairly. That’s what sparked my religious outrage in the past, nearly all of my strong political feelings, and my advocacy of child and animal welfare. None of us is ACTUALLY any better than anyone else, people, animals, plants, rocks, whatever. At least that’s what I’ve been socialized to believe.

Just shut me up. Hey, at least this stuff keeps me from dwelling on other things that annoy me. Yeah, Suna, just keep on shaking your fist at the status quo!

Thanks to all the reading I’ve done lately, though, I can see how other people come to view things differently. I may not think it’s right all the time, but it’s odd how learning about the treatment of minorities, indigenous people, and disfavored groups has led me to a better understanding of how desperately people cling to anything that lets them believe they are members of favored groups.

I’m still thinking. In the meantime, what book (or movie or television program) has led you to get all riled up and ready to take action about injustice?

Doug Tallamy: Incredibly Inspiring

Wow. Just wow. My life is now so much better, having heard the amazing Doug Tallamy speak at the Texas Master Naturalist meeting. He’s just about as inspirational as a speaker gets, and I now have my answer when people ask what famous person I’d most like to have dinner with. I could talk to him for hours, or more likely, listen.

I recently read and reviewed his book, Nature’s Best Hope, and once again I must encourage everyone to read it. It’s one of the few books I’ve read lately that made me feel empowered to go out and actually make the world a better place, right on my own property.

Listening to him speak to us, sounding just like some nice guy you’d talk to at your meeting, but with an amazing wealthy of information, was a mind-blowing experience. And the information he shared about how he and his wife turned their property into a place that is both beautiful AND attractive for natives was nothing short of inspirational.

Tallamy reminded me WHY I don’t want all the land around the ranch scalped into a beautiful monoculture lawn and why I ask that the wildflowers be allowed to grow, bloom, and seed each spring. They support so much of the diversity of animals and insects that we are rapidly losing.

When he shared how many different moths grow on the goldenrod on his Pennsylvania property, my heart swelled, since you may recall just yesterday I wrote about how much I saw growing on goldenrod plants (and I skipped a wasp that I couldn’t get a clear photo of). I feel like at least some parts of our ranch are helping the earth heal itself, while still providing food for people. I think it’s a win-win.

He provided lots of useful links, but I was too enthralled to take many screenshots. But here’s something you might be interested in, which is the keystone species that support the most insects, birds, etc.

The Hermits’ Rest has lots of these! Just not many maples.

I’m not going to write down everything Tallamy said, but I hope you will go to his website to learn more. There’s TONS of fascinating stuff there. This one point he makes sums it up for me:

From the Bringing Nature Home website

We ARE part of nature and need to live with it, wherever we are. I’m going to hold that in my heart and work as hard as I can to help Professor Tallamy achieve his goals.

His final slide.

I encourage those of you who want a better world for the children who are around today to read his books and take action. It’s awfully easy to plant some native plants. Many of them just show up, after all (“weeds”). And as soon as you have them, insects will follow.

Even if all you have is a balcony or some space outside your office, you can make the world a better place. Now, that’s awesome.

Book Report: Nature’s Best Hope

Do you care about our planet and the life it supports? Then, stop reading this blog post and go order this book: Nature at Its Best: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, by Douglas W. Tallamy. Consider it an early Earth Day present to yourself and the Earth. Get ready for some gushing now.

Why encourage caterpillars? Birds need them to make more birds!

Wow, this is a great book, which you might guess, given that I devoured it in a weekend. It’s got proper footnotes and references and such, but is written more for a lay audience than Behave! was. (Since I really don’t want to take pictures of the pictures in the book, I’ll share my own happy nature pictures from the weekend to encourage readers to make environments where they can see these for themselves, like the book describes!)

This is the book you want to give people who are not naturalists or environmental activists to explain to them that a) all those horrid weeds and bugs are what’s keeping the world alive and b) you can make a beautiful planting area on your property that encourages birds and other wildlife without going to a lot of trouble and effort.

While not part of creating a landscape of natives, donkeys and horses have a place, at least in my heart. (Spice and Fiona)

Tallamy makes so much sense in this book! Wow! He calls using native plants in naturalistic, yet attractive, settings creating Homegrown National Park. The main point of the book is that if people did this instead of planting endless swaths of turfgrass and non-native plants, we would be well on our way to saving the beauty all around us, benefiting us (we get to watch birds, butterflies, and animals) and the planet (diversity will be maintained, etc.). And Tallamy points out that turfgrass does have its place, for making nice paths.

Urban wildlife! Duck party at the Pope Residence.

I especially enjoyed all the beautiful photos he includes in Nature at Its Best, to show the kinds of sights you can see if you just make an appropriate setting. And that’s important, because exposing kids (and adults) to the natural world right where they live will make such a huge impact (as opposed to visiting nature in very carefully structured short trips). I say yes to all this, as do my fellow Master Naturalists.

You just can’t help but get all fired up and ready to drag in some native trees and shrubs and stick a rotting log or two around the place for moths to pupate in. And, conveniently, Tallamy provides links to two excellent websites to help you select what you should plant where YOU live:

  • Native Plant Finder: uses your postal code to help you find trees and herbaceous plants for hosting caterpillars. This is EXTREMELY cool.
  • Plants for Birds: same deal, but for hosting birds. I’ve already looked up both my houses.
Don’t worry, we are just using up the last of the red hummingbird food. We’ll make more of the correct kind!

I’m impressed that the work of one person, Kimberly Shropshire, created the original database for these, working with Tallamy. She must be an amazing person!

Honest, this book encourages citizen science at its BEST. I’d really like to spread the word about this resource. If you know people who enjoy nature and gardening, please share this post or the name of the book. And order it, even if just for the pretty pictures!

Those of you who prefer novels to nonfiction, rest easy. My next book is a fun historical novel.