Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Fuzzy Wuzzy

Before I ever lived on a farm -- make that, before I even dreamed of living on a farm -- I enjoyed reading about the natural world. Thirty years ago I read Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won her the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. (Note: She was only 29.)

In the book, Annie Dillard sets out to see what she can see over the course of a year as she explores the meadows and creek near her home outside Roanoke in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. What she sees are astonishing incidents of mystery, death, beauty and violence, described in exquisite detail. The narrator (whom I always assumed was Annie herself), records her thoughts on solitude, writing, religion, as well as her scientific observations on the flora and fauna she comes across.

It was one of those books that stuck with me and I think of it often as I'm out exploring the flora and fauna of Farm Dover. A couple of weeks ago, I pulled my tattered hardback copy down from the bookshelf and began a rereading. It was as good as I remembered.

Last night, I began the chapter on her observations in September and was delighted when I came across a passage about woolly bear caterpillars – for on Monday, I observed, and photographed one as it made its way across our stone path out to the cottage.

Here's what Ms. Dillard has to say about them:

"The woods were a rustle of affairs. Woolly bears, those orange-and-black-banded furry caterpillars of the Isabella moth, were on the move. They crossed my path in every direction; they would climb over my foot, my finger, urgently seeing shelter. If a skunk finds one, he rolls it over and over on the ground, very delicately, brushing off the long hairs before he eats it." 

I love the thought of a skunk playing with its food before gobbling it down. And I was delighted to find out the kind of moth a woolly bear becomes once it emerges from its cocoon.

Pyrrharctia isabella, the Isabella tiger moth

Whenever I encounter a woolly bear, I peer closely to see if it is mostly black, or mostly brown. For, as legend tells it, the wider the rusty brown sections, the milder the coming winter will be. The more black there is, the more severe the winter.

So far, most I've seen have been mostly rusty brown, which may explain why it is in the record-breaking 80s in November!

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