The foliage and berries of Belladonna (Atropa belladona) contain tropane alkaloids, such as Atropine, which are extremely toxic in high doses, causing delirium, hallucination, and death. These chemicals are common in plants belonging to the family Solanaceae; more benign members of the group include the potato, the tomato, and the eggplant. These alkaloids prevent nerve transmission by blocking the binding site of acetylcholine and this has beneficial, pharmacological, application relating to surgery of the eye.

The beautiful specimen seen here was photographed on the southern coast of Appledore Island, the largest of the Isles of Shoals off the coast of Maine.


In the zone

This cove has no name. It is narrow and the tide moves quickly through it. Rockweed (Ascophyllum) grows prolifically, to a height, mirrored on either side. Its habit is influenced by the environment within which it lives. Space is limited, in this intertidal zone, and organisms have evolved to tolerate water loss rather than avoid it. Seaweeds are sessile organisms and the higher they settle, the longer they will be exposed to the air as the tide recedes. Ascophyllum’s upper reach tells of some maximum amount of time that individuals may be without water during the receding tide.

Competition is the force which limits the growth of Rockweed lower down. Competition from another alga, Irish Moss (Chondrus); which you can just make out as a dark band of reddish-brown on either side of the channel and in its swirling water.

And, what lives above the band of the Rockweed? Look and you will see a thin yellow band and then a black one. It is within the former that one finds barnacles, limpets, and encrusting algae, while the latter represents countless numbers of individual blue-green algae.

All of these organisms have evolved to live and thrive at the tidal height at which they are found, balancing physiological tolerance (mostly to what is above) with the pressures of competition (from below).

The next time you look at a beautiful, seemingly barren, seaside expanse such as this and wonder where all the organisms are … think again.



Here is another image from Appledore Island, of the Laighton family cemetery there. Celia Laighton Thaxter was born in Portsmouth, NH in 1835. When she was young, her father became the lighthouse keeper on White Island, one of Appledore’s neighbors to the south. In 1851 she married Levi Thaxter and within a few years her husband and father had become business partners and opened Appledore House, one of New England’s first seaside resorts and a meeting place for literary and artistic luminaries. Celia became well known in her own right and her poems appeared regularly in the Atlantic Monthly. Her beautifully illustrated book, An Island Garden chronicles a year in the life of her island garden, includes illustrations by American impressionist, Childe Hassam, and is, to this day, considered a fine example of horticultural writing.

More than a century later we were Pelicans on Star Island, another of Appledore’s neighbors to the south. She worked the desk while I lead nature tours. We like to tell folks that it was our mutual admiration of Boltenia ovifera, a stalked Tunicate, that brought us together (which is closer to the truth than you might want to believe). We visit the islands infrequently now, but when we do we take time to sit at this place. It is our way of thanking Celia and all of the others who came before us for recognizing the natural beauty of these places and for preserving them for all of us to study, share, admire, and to appreciate.


The Childe within

The work of American impressionist Childe Hassam is currently on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Although we have yet to see the exhibit, we did visit Appledore Island, a subject of Hassam’s work between approximately 1882 and 1916. Appledore, off the coast of Maine, is the largest of the Isles of Shoals.

Our island stay was brief and, having spent time on Star, Appledore’s neighbor to the south, I knew that photographic possibilities would be endless. Because I am a particular fan of seascapes, I settled upon recording these using extended exposure.

As I looked over the first series of photos I was struck by similarities between my images and those painted by Hassam more than a century ago. The colors of our creations were similar. The vantages from which we chose to work were similar. And the use of a slow shutter seemed, to me at least, to mimic the feel of Hassam’s impressionistic brush strokes.

I once read that impressionism was the art of capturing an image as someone would see it if they just caught a glimpse of it. Perhaps. To me, however, Childe Hassam had an exceptional ability to capture the living, vital, character and spirit of nature itself.


Lesser purple fringed orchis

I do not believe in portent and thought it simple coincidence when a Scarlet Tanager flew past the very first time we walked the farm. I was made to wonder, however, when another visited when we first explored the wood at this new place.

He said that he had glimpsed fringed orchis along the road. She took the news as a sure omen of good things to come.

And so it has been.


Evening shore

We walked, around and to the southwest.

To watch the surf, pulled by tide and compelled by wind.

Sand, bits of shell, and other tiny things caught in swirl and eddy.

To settle in unplanned arrangements.



A portion of molten glass would be attached to a pontil rod. Air was then blown through the rod and into the mass to form a bubble. When it reached an appropriate size the bubble was opened, the rod was spun, and sheet glass would form by centrifugal force. Once cooled, the glass was cut. The thinnest was at the edge and the thick, opaque, area around the mark left by the pontil was known as the crown or bullseye. This technique was used well into the 17th century. While advances in glass production were introduced in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it wasn’t until 1957 that techniques used to produce float glass were developed in the United Kingdom.

The farm traces its origins to 1652.  Nothing went to waste back then and bullseyes were installed above the transom of the solid front door to allow light to illuminate the hall. These were mounted high up and I needed something to stand on. The chairs and tables were antique so I lifted the camera above my head and stood on tiptoes. From where she stood she could see the LCD and provided guidance … left, too far, OK, up, more, down, OK. The larger shot shows evidence of the molten glass having been spun during production.




With eyes closed,

the perfumed air

the sand beneath my feet

the salt on my lips

and the ill-belayed halyard

tell me where I am.


A different sort of place

The work of fellow blogger Gary, of Photos and a Little More, provided my introduction to the art and emotion of Stone Stacking. I soon learned that there existed a deep divide in opinion regarding the practice. Artists were supportive of it and environmentalists were dead set against it. Stackers argue that not only is Rock Balancing a legitimate art form, but the practice has an emotional, even spiritual, component to it. Those who oppose the practice explain that stacks are not cairns (and could be dangerous if mistaken for them), they are pointless reminders of human ego, and lead to erosion of natural areas and to disturbance of the organisms living in them. I do not mean to imply that the opinions of these groups do not overlap, for they do, and I understand the concerns of both.

She wanted to walk. So we made for a place we had visited before. I’ll meet you in an hour, she said.

Having settled on a shallow cascade, I began. I hadn’t worked stone for quite a while and was surprised that it took time to find my hands. I pushed back against my propensity to rush. I struggled to focus and to avoid thinking too far ahead.

She says that the steady rhythm of the wheel, the coordinated motions of her feet and hands, and the feel of fiber slipping by the tips of her fingers and wrist, combine to transport her to a place of peace. For me, stacking creates a similar sort of space and being there has given me some idea of what it might be like to meditate.


Accepting the null

It’s not miraculous. Or surprising, amazing, or startling. Nature is, in my own view, awesome. But not in the negative sense of causing either fear or apprehension. Nature engenders awe, admiration, and wonder. Awe and Admiration, in the sense of respect. And wonder, expressed as an unending series of questions. For example.

I have always wondered why many organisms are so brightly colored. Surely they display to identify and to attract mates. But why would a fungus, living deep within a layer of woodland debris, be so boldly pigmented? Warning coloration, perhaps, and quite likely in this case. But what about lovely and luminescent Chaetopterus, a worm which lives within a parchment tube buried in ocean sediment? Or the opalescent layer of shimmering nacre found on the inside of a snail’s shell? I think rather than hasten to assign adaptive value to the ways of nature, it may be helpful to remember that it may not always be possible to do so. In some cases science is not able to tease and to discern the myriad connections between and among forces of causation. They may be indivisible and, therefore, unknowable.


A tale of two parasites

Several weeks ago I talked about a fascinating plant parasite called Ghost Pipe. Here’s another, Indian Pipe, which derives nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi with which it is found. Although both of these plants belong to the same phylum, they occupy different plant orders. Ghost Plant belongs to a group which includes tea, blueberry, and azalea while Indian Pipe is a close relative of herbs such as mint, basil, and rosemary.

In a genealogical sense, these plants are only as closely related to each other as placental mammals are to marsupials. Although I cannot tell you how long ago their common ancestor may have lived, I am certain that it was photosynthetic and not an achlorophyllous parasite. So, parasitism evolved, independently and de novo, in each line. It is surely an effective way of making a living and there is every reason to expect the niche to have been exploited by species from vastly different groups. Plant form is constrained by the chemical and physical nature of life on this planet. That two, unrelated, forms should express the same solution to the complex question of survival is to be expected. It is simply an outcome of first principles.


Threads of character

 Use it up.

Wear it out.

Make it do.

Or do without.

They are so much a part of her childhood that these words were spoken at our wedding. Having referred to them recently made me realize that I knew little about their history.

They are a conservation motto from a time of war and have been referred to as the Four threads of the New England character. The phrases are derived from another adage, one line shorter, which was in use a decade earlier as a call for domestic thrift and economy.

Eat it up.

Wear it out.

Make it do.

New candles are as rare as hen’s teeth at the summer place, where we celebrate her Dad’s birthday. Decorative candles are used and then saved, to be lit the next year, and the next, until they have burned away.


The way of things

A skeleton of countless
Atoms from out of air and linked by the invisible
To form molecules
and systems.
A plant emerges.
To gather radiant energies used to beget more of its kind.
And that is all.
To degrade.
The residuum,
A skeleton of countless
Atoms of carbon from out of air and linked by the invisible.


A Lady’s Slipper

The Showy Lady’s Slipper Orchid is a rare plant indeed. The USDA has classified it as endangered in seven of the fourteen states for which data are available. It is listed as threatened in four other states, as vulnerable in one and as of special concern in another. New York considers this species to be exploitably vulnerable, meaning it is likely to be harvested for commercial and personal purposes.

Specimens are often found alone, or in widely scattered groups of two or three. This place was unlike any either of us had ever seen. We walked among hundreds, forming a carpet along the ground.

The traditional photographic view presents Cypripedium from the front or the side. I wondered, as I sat, how to show it to you in a slightly different way. Without the distraction of the large labellum, this rear view emphasizes texture and symmetry. I like it very well.


Summer kitchen

The summer place is old and informal, an unapologetic amalgam.

They say it floated once, at flood, and settled a bit closer to town.

There is a large map next to the dining table, fixed to the wall at an easy height and surrounded by a frame of thin boards. It bares witness to both tiny hands and hungry insects. Storm surge brought the water up in ’38 and salt preserves everything below the level of my chest, everything higher has been tea-stained by time.

Sweet breezes and rain find their way in. One feels thunder through its walls.

Sand and toe prints mark a path to the door at the back. Partly used bottles of bug spray and tanning lotion wait on the exposed stud work.

It shouts modest among its neighbors.

It is a place where we have come to learn that it is true what they say about the best things.

Make it do, or do without. As such, and because it makes little sense to do otherwise, retired household items make their way here. To live out still useful lives, weeks at a time.

I find it odd that I should look at this image and consider it a family portrait, a genealogy of colanders. Its chronology is, I believe (oldest to youngest, and from the left) 3,4,2,1. If so inclined one could surely arrange any consanguineous group of kitchen implements in a similar way. To close my metaphoric loop, one cannot deny that colanders have changed over the years. I wonder if they have have done so in any predictable way. Surely each allows vegetables to drain equally well. I therefore conclude that change has occurred in no particular or directed way. Perhaps we should recognize that design, in this case, has been influenced by the vagaries of marketing and of materials. In any case, colanders don’t beget colanders. They do not play by Darwinian rules.


Roseau pensant

Sphagnum chorused as I sat.
Otherwise it was still, save a breath from the south.
Shy campanas rang in silent profusion. To senesce and disperse their contents.
At first, I did not understand this life of solitude and silence.  Insentience.
And then, clarity. For I am Pascal’s Roseau pensant, uniquely capable of reflecting on such a thing.
To be like Foamflower.
To alternate between life and death, with neither worry nor distraction. Without feeling.
Blessing or curse?
I do not know.

If you’re reading this, you’ve gone too far

Although specific identifications and its record of inspection are here,

I am intrigued by what doesn’t appear.

Nails and staples tell of placards and announcements which  proclaimed, directed, warned, and enticed.

Posted, Private Property, No Trespassing

Three Family Yard Sale, Saturday 12-4, rain or shine

Guess who’s turning 50 today? Happy Birthday Lisa

Anderson Wedding, next left

Auction, turn here

For Sale, ’94 Outback, next right then 1 mile on left.

And my favorite, If you’re reading this you’ve gone too far.


Ghost pipe

I discussed symbiosis last week and mentioned the mutualistic relationship between a plant (Trout Lily) and an animal (an ant). There are, of course, other sorts of symbioses. Commensalism occurs when one participant benefits while the other is not harmed. And relationships are parasitic when one organism benefits, to the detriment of the other.

Ghost Pipe belongs to the genus Orobanche. This innocent looking woodland herb makes its living by parasitizing other plants. Individuals are entirely without chlorophyll and are not, therefore, capable of photosynthesis. They have modified roots, called haustoria, which attack, penetrate, and link to the plumbing (xylem (water supply) and phloem (nutrients)) of the host. Individuals are entirely dependent and are obligate, holoparasites.

If we assume that the progenitor of the genus was photosynthetic, I wonder how parasitism of this sort developed. It is difficult to imagine that a single mutation could have given rise to holoparasitic plants because all of the photosynthetic machinery would have had to have been be lost (mutationally) and, at the very same time, all of the machinery required for parasitism would have had to form. Although this seems unlikely, there are those who would argue that novel adaptive strategies can happen in this way, and all at once. Be that as it may, I imagine a slower, less hurried, move from one strategy to the other. I imagine that a fully photosynthetic ancestor gave rise to plants like Orobanche, but only through a hemiparasitic intermediate such as Mistletoe.  Although hemiparasitic plants are capable of providing nutrient via photosynthesis, they tap their hosts for water and mineral support. From there, the mutational jump to holoparasitism would seem more plausible.



Because I am a trained biologist I hesitate to admit that I don’t enjoy being wet. I don’t enjoy being dirty. I am not enamored of things that bite, and I blister if the word Urushoil is even mentioned. When I was a kid, I fancied myself an underwater photographer and remember that I always remained clean, cool, and bug free when in the field with the camera. Years later I find myself engaged, photographically, in an alternate ecosystem. One which is, more often than not, warm, humid, buggy, and scattered with debris. In an effort to make me more comfortable while scrabbling around so many messy venues she presented me with drop cloth. I believe I put it to good use the other day when contemplating Starflower. Click here for a view of the same specimen from a slightly different vantage.


Granny’s Bonnet

I refer to its alternate for the other conjures, for me at least, unhappiness.
It was along the road. Look, she said, for it will not last.
What a beautiful thing.
I wonder why?
Not for you and me. For nature was here long before us and not even it may claim prescience.
Its color? No, for things considered otherwise may approximate.
Its shape? No, by the same logic.
Smell? I cannot tell.
Taste? I would not try.
Beauty is, in our eyes and mind.
A side consequence of interactions among and between the countless.
Neurons serving other purposes.


We promised ourselves that, if we couldn’t plant a garden this year, we would join a local CSA. And so it was that we asked questions and signed on with Sweetland Farm.

The season began three weeks ago and since then we have been treated to Arugula, Asparagus, Bok Choi, Hakurei turnips, Mesclun mix, Parsnips, Radishes, Ramps, Scallions, Tatsoi greens, and Turnip greens. In addition to the wonderful produce, we have been provided with share-appropriate recipes each week and have enjoyed Wild Ramp and Lemon Risotto, Sesame Ginger Tatsoi, and Miso Glazed Hakurei Turnips.

Sweetland is well organized, well run, and the folks there are hard-working, pleasant, and eager to please. Our experiment has been an unqualified success thus far and we eagerly anticipate a summer full of green things and other delights.

As an added bonus, the farm has arranged for a Yoga instructor to be present at share distribution to nourish both body and soul of CSA participants. Joanna has welcomed this opportunity. I prefer to wander the well-kept grounds with my camera. This past week I had a wonderful time investigating an antique Buckboard Wagon on a low hillside, just beyond the pigs. The wagon was weathered and made for a nice study of texture.



A bo[u]ld[er] view

When looking through the images I’ve posted over the last few months, it seems that my attentions have been rather narrow. In the literal sense, meaning lots of close work. The last wide shot I presented here appeared fully six months ago. Rather than consider the psychological implications of this limited view, let me rejoice in the vista I enjoyed from the summit of Mount Cardigan over the weekend. Here are a couple of others, if you’re interested in views of the NH/VT countryside. I am amazed to think of the many things which have changed since I last visited. I believe the openness of this shot mirrors a fresh view of ourselves, what we’ve accomplished, and of what’s still to come.


A gene’s way

A few weeks ago, Steve Gingold posted lovely images of Painted Trillium.  He did so again, just the other day. Click the links to see specimens from west-central Massachusetts, then look below at Trillium I saw yesterday here in east-central Vermont. The former seem vigorous. The latter seems tired. Its mottled translucence and peaked blush tell me not that the individual is in poor health. To the contrary, I interpret these as sure signs of a plant making the transition between one physiological state and another. Signs of an individual whose genome has triggered a shift-in-gears, a change-in-strategy.

The stages of the life of a plant proceed, roughly, from seed, to embryo, seedling, mature plant, egg (ovule) and sperm (pollen), fertilization, fruit and to seed once again. There may be thousands of genes coding for the materials needed to accomplish each of these stages. And recognize that all of these aren’t needed all the time. So, genes must be regulated such that their products are only manufactured when called for.

A single Trillium plant may produce as many as fifty ovules. Once these are fertilized the plant must shift gears and move on to the business of setting seed and to preparing for the coming winter. There is no longer any need to attract pollinators and so the fancy petals and flashy pigments can go. It’s better, in an economic sense, to withdraw whatever materials might be available in those parts and to then shut them down.

The histories of all organisms have been such that they have, within limits imposed by the genome itself, maximized the efficiency with which they are able to make copies of themselves. They replicate because genes direct them to do so. To put a fine point on this argument, it is the genes that have evolved over millions of generations to maximize the efficiency with which they are able to direct the bodies of the organisms, within which they may be found, to make copies of themselves. Some would say that a Trillium plant is a Trillium gene’s way of making another Trillium gene. Think about that.


A coevolutionary tale of the lily and the ant

One, Dogtooth Violet, hints at the shape of its bulb, another, Trout Lily, refers to the similarity between its leaf markings and those of a fish.

In full sun its petals curl to reveal a panoply of reproductive parts. Trout Lily is pollinated by bees. Ants are responsible for the dispersal of its seeds, a phenomenon called myrmecochory. Ants are attracted to the eliosome, a nutrient-rich seed coat. Together, the seed and its eliosome are known as a diaspore. Ants collect and sequester these and the eliosome provides a ready source of nutrient for the growth of their developing embryos. The dismissed seed, having been moved under ground, is now in a favorable spot for germination and out of view of other, hungry, granivores.

I am fascinated by this sort of mutualistic cooperation. Consider that you and I agree, or not, using words to express wants and desires. But what of myrmecochory? How can this sort of relationship occur when the participating parties are unable to communicate? There are surely benefits to individuals lucky to possess the structures (eliosomes) and neural predilection (granivory) which allow them to participate in such a relationship. But where do the predispositions come from and how are they perpetuated?

Nutrients which support the growth and development of plant embryos are stored within seeds as endosperm. Imagine a plant which, by chance mutation, a genetic mistake, produces a thin coat of endosperm on the outside rather than exclusively within. Imagine one or a few ants born, by chance mutation, a genetic mistake, with a neural system predisposed to seek out these novel seeds and to providing them to their developing brood. And so it goes that not all teratogenic miscues are bad or deleterious. Both the lily and the ant benefit from their seemingly cooperative, though unconsciously motivated actions. What really matters is that they both do better than others of their sort, others not similarly endowed by the same novel, genetic, programs. And, more importantly, the genes which encode these behaviors are reproduced more effectively than those which code for other, similar, programs. These move into the future and will continue to do so until the strategies they confer are surpassed by some other, fortuitous, solution to the challenge of getting by.

In search of

I admire the delicate networks of support and thoroughfares of supply and recall.
Economy of form.
Anabolic expression of symmetry and grace.
The reveal of molecular messages from a distant past.
Subject to the inevitability of decline, the constructions decay, but not before volumes of ancient instructions are set adrift. To be transcribed and, once again, translated into living tissue.
These messages reverberate. To be perpetuated in an unknown future and until the sun grows cold.
In your quest for vital forces think radiant energy, and the dynamic of interacting atoms.


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