Why Nature?

My last couple of posts, spaced over a year apart, were topically less about nature than most.  Whether I look at page view charts, new followers, or general positive feedback they were also by far my most successful. While I don’t want this to become a mental illness or travel blog, I thought that at least deserved some acknowledgement and follow-up. Why exactly is nature my topic of choice? This thought led me to more deeply consider what about nature is so alluring to me. What is it that drives me to experience it as often as possible and to learn all I can about it? Why is it the balm that sometimes nothing else can be? I thought these answers would be easily teased out of phrases like “staggering complexity” or “majestic beauty,” but they are proving much more nuanced. Beauty and complexity certainly have something to do with it, but even after much thought I can’t settle on a single definitive root for this passion.

I may as well start with the concepts that first came to mind. So: beauty. Nature has it in spades, from the most expansive landscapes to the tiniest creatures. Land, sky, and water; animals, plants, and fungi – all these things hold beauty in varieties to satisfy every aesthetic. It is self-evident that the most beautiful views and sightings are among the most treasured. Beauty can’t be all of it, though. I am equally fascinated by some of nature’s least conventionally attractive offerings. Beetle larvae, termites, house centipedes, carrion beetles: all of these creatures repulse many but hold my interest. Some of this could be re-framed as finding beauty in unexpected places, but it would be disingenuous to say I find all the aspects of nature that interest me beautiful.

What of complexity? I marvel at macro-level natural processes like the water cycle, the progression of seasons, evolution, food webs, etc… and at the adaptations of living things to them. I am equally impressed by the smaller interactions I can discover if I really get down in the weeds (sometimes literally). I can’t talk about the complexity of nature without another significant keyword: connection. Beauty draws me in, but I think it’s the connections among living things and nature’s cycles that keep me engaged.

To cite a favorite example, consider the ash tree bolete. This mushroom doesn’t appear to be anything special, except for the gregariousness with which it sometimes grows. It is found only near ash trees, but not because of a direct relationship to the trees as with many other mushroom species. It is actually dependent on a specific species of aphid which itself feeds only on ash leaves. This mushroom can then be food for squirrels (and for humans, although having tried this once I can’t recommend it). This entire system, as well as anything else which may specialize on ash trees, is threatened by the encroachment into the United States of a single insect species: the emerald ash borer.

I’ve probably mentioned that here before and it’s probably tiresome by now. But if one investigates far enough, everything in nature has such connections to something else. Bird migrations, timed to coincide with specific plants’ fruit or seed-bearing windows and covering thousands of miles, are astounding. Diversity among bird beaks to exploit specific and widely varied food sources is no small wonder, either. Insects, spiders, amphibians, and more overwinter in leaf litter. The leaf litter is broken down by microorganisms and other small creatures, enriching the soil for new plant growth. Many of those plants wouldn’t survive without pollinators – bees, butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, etc. – which in turn wouldn’t survive without the plants.

This is all pretty basic, Naturalism 101 level information, but when one stops to consider even these well-understood relationships and how they have developed over eons, it is incredible and wondrous. In these and other, more subtle interactions I see a reflection of my own – and humanity’s – connection with nature. It’s a reminder that our cultural tendency to separate mankind from nature is in many ways misguided. As with beauty, complexity and connections are definitely part of the story. These ideas still come short of fully explaining my deep and abiding love of nature. Plenty of things are complex and connected, and I’m not obsessively devoted to all of them. I don’t keep up with the Kardashians, follow cricket, or study the three-body problem.

Challenge is the next concept that comes to mind, and I think I’m getting somewhere. This is of course closely tied to complexity in some ways, but more inward-facing. A cynic might say this is how I fool my brain into believing that nature is all about me, thus making it interesting. Nature can present challenges both physical and mental, and combinations thereof. In exploring the natural world, there are countless ways for me to feel accomplished while enjoying myself,  but with each accomplishment there is always another to strive for. It’s the same dynamic at work in free-to-play mobile games: rewards are doled out at precisely the right pace to keep users playing (and paying). In nature, there’s no need to part with money to tackle the next task – not as often and not as directly, anyway.

From a very early age the challenges offered by the natural world appealed to me. First were the purely physical: hike from here to there, climb this rock or that tree, ford the stream. They progressed to the combined physical and mental: catch the critter or fish, or seek out the really cool thing. Then I was introduced to the more purely mental, in increasing complexity: identify the tree from its leaves, learn what animals to expect in which habitat, understand the relationships between the animals and interpret behaviors. I never lost interest in the physical challenges – I still love a good hike, kayaking trip, or bike ride. I still like to catch things, too, although I like to believe I do so more responsibly as an adult. Each new type of challenge layered atop the old, resulting in a bottomless well of potential challenges to draw upon.

My latest challenge: taking better photos of birds like this American robin.
Another challenge: gradually turning this…
…into this

The more I pick at this thread of “challenge” the truer I realize it is. I have chosen specific naturalist hobbies with high degrees of challenge. Soon after college I became fascinated with mushrooms. Identifying wild mushrooms can be a complicated proposition, and it was largely that difficulty which drew me to it. There are many aspects to consider and no hard-and-fast rules except “proceed with caution.” Through experience, one can learn how to consider the myriad factors and arrive at an ID sometimes. More recently, I have adopted birding as my prime outdoor hobby of the moment. Here there are the challenges of finding and identifying specimens, as well as challenges of patience and visual acuity. Perhaps as important are the available data and tools for analyzing it. How many bird species per year, month, or day? How many in Maryland, North America, Montgomery County, or my yard? Which bird is the rarest for its location? If I examine any of my hobbies closely, I eventually discover that I have turned it into a personal challenge.

So, have I figured it all out? I’m probably missing an accent or two, but I think the cocktail’s primary ingredients are beauty, complexity, and challenge. The beauty is the initial taste, while the complexities and connections keep me coming back for that next sip.


Butterfly Garden Winter Prep: Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground

Greetings from all one of us here at Wildly Mistaken! I’ve got a lot of content to catch up on, so apologies in advance for blowing up your feeds. Forthcoming topics include: the monarch life cycle, a trip to the Rockies, a (brief) trip to China, and more. I will be postponing the remaining “12 Months of Nature” to 2018.

Today, though, I will be talking some more about my butterfly garden. Even through the end of fall there’s a lot that can be done to move the whole thing along. When I look out the window I still see beauty there, albeit a quieter, more somber beauty.


Weeding and Perennial Upkeep

Fall is, for one thing, a great time to redouble weed control efforts. The retreating foliage tends to expose a lot of unwanted plants I’ve missed through the spring and summer  months. A lot of the more agressive (and often invasive) weeds make a last effort to reestablish themselves. So step one in fall butterfly gardening is to go all scorched-earth (figuratively) on the honeysuckle, ground ivy, and garlic mustard that would like to own the yard. I mostly let the clovers, violets, and sorrel go, but remove them from anywhere they might make trouble for my other plants.

My next move is to cut back the perennials which require it and tidy up any remaining dead or dying annuals. Many of the perennials, however, require little-to-no attention. I leave the stalks of milkweeds and joe-pye weed for the bugs (and hence the birds). Alfalfa can be allowed to die back on its own and mixed in with next spring’s soil. Sunflower stalks can serve the same purpose as the milkweeds, and partridge pea has a tendency to take care of itself and can be largely left alone. I do cut back my asters, coneflowers, and bee balm. Last year my chives, pearly everlasting, and sage never went dormant through a mild winter, but I am not sure how common that is for this region. I tend to wait for spring to prune my butterfly bush, but fall pruning is also reportedly effective. Really this all mostly boils down to Googling each species and doing what more experienced gardeners tell me I should.

The stalks left behind add something to the fall ambiance, I think.

Expanding the Footprint

I’ve been annually expanding the garden to fill the available space, and late fall is an excellent time for this part of the process. It’s least disruptive to the existing plants, and the ground is usually damp and soft – not to mention not yet frozen. As of a couple weekends ago, all sod inside my garden fence is a thing of the past! I plopped the removed sod, grass-side down, in various other spots around the yard where I’d prefer grass and weeds not grow. I scratched in some compost until I ran out of supply, then covered with a thick layer of leaves.

Clearing Leaves

Speaking of which… everyone’s favorite fall passtime is raking leaves, right? Or at least jumping in the piles like some kind of gleeful suburban stereotype? Well – preachy environmentalist alert – I’m here to tell you that the best thing you can do with dead leaves (for nature, anyway) is nothing! There have been plenty of pieces written about the environmental benefits of dead leaves and alternatives to the rake and burn approach. Frankly, I have found many of them to be ham-fisted, judgy attempts to guilt folks into what they “should” be doing. I get it. Decaying leaves return nutrients to the soil, provide breeding habitat for many insects and spiders, and offer winter shelter for amphibians as well as cover for small mammals. Burning leaves releases carbon into the atmosphere much more rapidly than natural processes. Yet, no one is here for those holier-than-thou lectures and I’m not here to provide one. I’d just like to lay out the alternatives as I understand them and describe how I manage the leaves in my own yard.

I will say this for the environmentally-friendliest approach: it is also the laziest! That’s right, doing exactly zero things to the leaves in your yard actually does the most things to support the natural environment. Who among us, though, doesn’t have at least the tiniest aesthetic preference for a leaf-free lawn? Our brains like neatness and order, and a bunch of scattered leaves is certainly not the surest way to satisfy that sense.

I don’t really know the relative environmental impacts of the other options I am about to discuss, except that they are all better than burning big piles of leaves but not as good as the do-nothing approach. I do think all are worth considering as happy mediums between the greatest offenses to either our conservationist or aesthetic sensibilities.


A popular method of dealing with leaf litter these days is to mulch them into one’s lawn with a mower. It’s not quite as lazy as doing nothing, but since most of us will be mowing our lawns anyway it isn’t too far behind. This does return some of he nutrients from the leaves to the soil and doesn’t release a ton of carbon rapidly into the atmosphere. One drawback for the perfect lawn crowd is that it can be all but impossible to really grind up all the leaves small enough that they aren’t noticeable.

Montgomery County has a leaf collection program. I am not sure how common these are, but they can be a good alternative to burning one’s own leaves. Here, the county sends vacuum trucks around to collect the leaves. All residents must do is pile them close to the street. The collected leaves become compost which is sold back to residents through retailers. I don’t know how the fuel use of the trucks compares to the carbon emissions from leaf burning, or how much more efficient the resulting compost is at returning nutrients to the soil as compared to a mulching mower. Of course, once you pile your leaves at the curb they are prone to blowing back into the yard while waiting for collection, so this alone is probably not the solution for meticulous yard freaks.

Another option is to gather your leaves for use as natural mulch. Commercial mulch, after all, is designed specifically to replicate what is accomplished by fallen leaves in wooded areas. It keeps roots of desired plants insulated during the winter, helps retain water, and prevents massive explosions of spring weeds. This approach retains most of the benefits of letting leaves sit (and arguably concentrates those benefits into a desired space). It can be a lot more labor-intensive than the other options, and of course one can’t ensure that 100% of the leaves will stay in the exact places intended. After a couple of rains, though, they do become more stationary than one might think.

I’m sure there are other possibilities I’ve not considered, some probably novel and brilliant. Because I am me, I use a combination of all the approaches I have listed. Two or three times a season I collect many of the leaves into lawn bags. Then I use them as mulch, primarily in the butterfly garden. I mulch the leaves left behind into my lawn, but since many leaves collect near the road anyway I tighten up those piles for the county to collect. The result is a yard that is mostly pretty tidy in most places, with mostly healthy grass. The butterfly garden itself, in my estimation, satisfies the aesthetic side by replicating a woodland floor.


That’s an awful lot of words to get to the point: there’s no one “right” thing we should all be doing to manage leaf litter, but it’s well worth the time to consider all these options before burning piles of dead leaves. Each approach comes with its own subset of considerations. Raking is harder work but “greener” than blowing. Various mowers use different amounts and types of fuel. Local laws or HOAs may ban or limit burning or otherwise specify standards of lawn-keeping.  Whatever method you choose, as always: happy gardening!