Friday, May 10, 2024

Cicadas: What’s Up With Their Eyes?

It’s just uncanny how insects seem to be looking right at you. No matter how you turn them, and from no matter what angle you look at them, they always seem to be looking right at you.




So, what’s up with their eyes? I mean, we “know” they’re compound eyes and that they are quite different from our own. Our eyes are basically a clear-jelly-filled ball, with sensors (retina) at the back, a lens-covered, expandable aperture (pupil) in the front, and muscles that rotate it (so we don’t always have to turn our head in order to look around).

But their eyes are quite different. They are fixed; they don’t rotate. So why does that dark spot on their big, buggy eyes seem to follow around, so it’s always looking at the viewer?

Wet or dry . . . they always are looking at you.

Even while they’re molting!

How does this work? It’s caused by the structure of their compound eyes. It’s essentially a result of tubes, shadows, and mirrors. To understand this, imagine a model: Think of their globe-shaped compound eyes as a cluster of narrow tubes, all pointing outward from a center point, and imagine these tubes are coated, on the inside surfaces, with silver. Closest to you, the tubes are pointed directly at you, and you can see into the whole long (dark) tunnel (you’re not seeing much of the silver), while the tubes increasingly angled away from you appear light-colored, reflecting the light.

That’s basically it: you are looking at a spherical cluster of tubes.

And it’s not just with cicadas; many insects have compound eyes that have this property.

Like this common meadow katydid.

Like this little baby, gray short-horned grasshopper. So cute, sitting on a leaf in his prairie.

And like this pretty green planthopper.

The next question is, why does this seem so freaky to us?

We humans—with our social nature, our interdependence, our allies and enemies, our capacities for trust and for deceit—have evolved to be masters at evaluating each other. We look carefully at one another’s eyes. You can tell so much about someone by their eyes! Yes, “the eyes have it.”

This is why those professional poker players so often wear mirrored sunglasses—they want to conceal their thoughts and feelings. (Why shouldn’t that be considered cheating?)

It’s why people who have eye-alignment problems have a real social disadvantage, because crossed eyes or other misalignments are stereotyped as a sign of severe developmental disability, or head injury, of being dazed or semiconscious.

It’s why silent movie actors wore such heavy eye makeup.

And so we, in our anthropomorphization of insects, can’t help but look into their eyes, too, and try to read their expressions. And what we get back is an unblinking stare, perpetually fixed upon us. Does it freak us out?

Maybe it should. Insects depend on us to not ruin the world for them. They need elbow room. They depend on the existence of their many native food plants; they depend on the habitats—prairies, woodlands, glades, wetlands—that support their various food plants. They need plenty of plants and habitat, because the usual existence strategy for insects is to create a bazillion eggs and offspring, most of which won’t make it to adulthood. On some scale, they need room, like cicadas, to have a bloom, a heyday, and then have a majority eaten by countless predators, and then return to the soil.

So yes, they depend on us.

If you feel stared at, it’s not surprising.

Do things to preserve and increase native habitats.

And vote for the environment.

The above text explaining the dark dot in insect compound eyes is loosely edited from a page I wrote for MDC’s online field guide, Mantids (Mantises). Mantises, of course, are one of the many insects with compound eyes that exhibit this phenomenon.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Totem Pole Is Up!

Ta-dahhhhh--! The totem pole is now standing in our backyard! This is its third location, and after more than forty years in Columbia, it’s back in Jeff City!

I told you about it in my previous post—how my cousin Phil made it, how it was in Aunt Minnie’s backyard, then got moved to my parents’ home in Columbia. It fell over last year, Dad gave it to me, and I’ve been rehabbing it.

The last thing to do was patch some missing broken wood on the wing, and let that dry, and dab it with some paint to make the wood filler look better, and wait for it to dry again.

On Saturday, Sue and I carried it out of the garage and up the steps to the backyard, where the two support posts and concrete platform were waiting. Sue held the totem pole against the posts while I wrapped wire around and around it, hopefully unobtrusively.

Later that day, we bought some solar-powered lights (for fun), including a solar-powered spotlight that is now pointed up at the totem pole. So I can look out the window and see it at night!

Earlier in the day, I mowed the lawn (first time this year!), so the whole yard is seeming really pretty right now. Despite the pollen, and the cold, gusty winds we had over the weekend.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Totem Pole

It’s a project! With a history! Oh, boy! I’ve been going around showing pictures on my phone to anyone who’ll look at them! It’s a totem pole, and my work is almost finished. About the only thing left is to stand it up in the yard.

First, the history. My cousin Phil made this in the late 1970s, I think as part of a Boy Scout project. Or maybe it was just for fun. Did Uncle Richard help him or at least inspire him? Probably, at least as a scoutmaster.

It was made out of a utility pole. The wings, bill, nose, and ears were nailed on. The features were chiseled in. The paint was Rust-Oleum, in the standard colors available in the seventies. Phil’s initials are carved into the back of the wings.

When first created, it was installed in the backyard of Aunt Minnie’s, out on Forest Hill. She had it in the far southwest (left) corner. It added a really unusual touch to her otherwise quite proper, upscale landscaping. She loved her family and appreciated everyone’s unique characters, so it probably didn’t faze her at all to have a totem pole in her yard.

It also has strong connections to scouting’s early, and sincerely held admiration of Native American spirituality and philosophy. Today, we call it cultural appropriation and know that it isn’t the innocent thing we used to think it was. We see that white people’s “take” on Indigenous people’s culture was indeed just that: a gleaning, from people who had had nearly everything taken from them: their land, their property, their rights, their language, their culture. But I contend that we should also recognize that early scouting’s admiration was sincere, even if flawed in hindsight, and that their idealized understanding of Native American perspectives and life-ways helped produce better people. It represented a bend toward nature and ecological wisdom, toward harmony, toward quietude and humility, toward simplicity. These are good things, considering the overall trajectory of US culture in the twentieth century: commercialization, natural illiteracy, discord, selfishness, materialism.

Anyway, I recognize that the totem pole could be viewed as problematic, but I appreciate it for what it has meant to my family. For me, it’s a totem of a time when scouting unselfconsciously admired and emulated Native American culture, and it produced some generations of people who were better humans for it.

So after Aunt Minnie passed away, by 1982 the totem pole was moved to my parents’ house in Columbia. There, it stood in the southwest (right) corner of their backyard. I was about sixteen, then, so the totem pole doesn’t figure into my childhood memories. But I sure mowed around it, lived with it, and it has long been a fixture in my parents’ backyard.

Here it is in April 2008.

Well, last year, it finally pitched over. (It was a rough year all around, I guess.) The base had rotted to the point that it fell over.

Dad picked up the pieces that broke off (the bill, the nose, the ears, a bit of the wing) and moved it all under his screened-in porch. And there it lay for months. He was wondering what to do with it. Last fall, he asked me if I had any ideas. Did I want it? Should we just chuck it down the ravine on top of fifty years’ of yard waste? So I took it, and all the pieces. It actually fit in my Civic, if I folded down the seats.

And so it ended up in our garage for the winter. The last few months, I started on its renovation. I decided, first, that I wanted it to remain looking elderly. I wanted to embrace its weathered look, its impermanence. Wabi-sabi. I would mix the paint with thinner so it would not look too dressed-up.

Here's a picture of it laying in my backyard, in early March. It had been rained on, so it looks dark. Remnants of the original paint are more visible, looking like flecks of white.

The wings were hanging on by only one screw, its nails having rusted and broken clean through, so it needed to be secured. That was pretty easy.

The bill, fortunately, was still in pretty good shape. A light sanding, and some thinned-out yellow Rust-Oleum, and it was ready to reattach.

The original nose had split in half, so it needed replacing. I’ve replaced it with a section of sweet gum from a limb that fell out of my parents’ front-yard tree. It is pretty sound wood, and I left the bark (with lichen!) on it. I think it gives a nice woodsy, organic look.

The ears, however, were a problem. Only one of the originals survived, and it’s pretty rotten. I’m no woodcarver, so I couldn’t fabricate new ones on the original pattern—even if I thought brand-new wooden parts would look good.

But I wanted to do something different, also woodsy, so we found some cedars that had been culled at a local conservation area. (MDC had cut them down in order to improve the native woodland habitat. Did you know that before white settlement, the only places cedars lived in Missouri was on cliff faces? Pretty much!) With loppers, I extracted some good-looking branching portions and brought those home.

After a bit of reflection, cocking my head to one side and the other, some careful trimming, and holding different branches in place against the totem pole, I selected my two new antlers. It’s a different look, but I like it.

I’m surprised I got them to balance as well as they do. I’m not convinced I’ve attached them very securely, but I think we’ll get at least a season out of the current construction. Reevaluate next spring.

Before I got too far with any repainting, I wanted to find some old photos. I kept looking through my parents’ old photo albums and striking out.

A lot of the photos I found were generic views of the backyard, and the totem pole was so blurry, I couldn’t tell much. But we sure had some pretty fall color! And my parents have a beautiful backyard.

The day before Uncle Richard’s memorial a few weeks ago, I finally found a photo of it from 1982, which turned out to be the year it was put in my parents’ yard (apparently). I was surprised at how much color had been on it—it had faded so much over the years!

I changed some of the color patterns, though I kept the same “palette” of 1970s Rust-Oleum paints: royal blue, sunburst yellow, regal red, gloss black, gloss white. I think it’s looking pretty good!

The only thing left to do is figure out how to repair a chunk of wood missing from the top edge of the wing. I glued a broken portion back on, but there is still a hole where (I think) a knot had been. Should I cut out a square-edged hole and replace it with a squarish piece of wood that fits in it? Or cut an old piece of wood to “kind of” fit and fill with wood putty? Or maybe leave it as is? Maybe I can think of a clever workaround. Beads or feathers. A big scallop shell?

After that fix, it’s time for the ceremonial placement in our backyard. It will be in the north corner, next to The Door. It will stand on a small circular concrete platform (so the rotten bottom won’t sit in water or stay moist), and it will lean against two stout metal fence posts, to which it will be wired. I could instead sink it into the ground, but with it already rotting and shorter, and the depth it would need to be sunk, I think it would end up shorter than me. And we can’t have that.

Because I think you’re supposed to look up at totem poles.

So, we’re in the home stretch with this project. More news soon.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

The Tea That Launched a Thousand Manuscripts

Just a short post about cool beverages (hey, we’re getting warmer weather now!), and my former boss at the university press. I was reminded of her delicious iced tea last weekend when we visited her during Boonville’s annual Big Muddy Folk Festival.

She served us some of her tea while we were there. So delicious and refreshing! I had to make some today for myself.

Jane was the managing editor and, I’ll bet, played a part in creating darned near a thousand published books. (Maybe a lot more. Or maybe I overestimate slightly.) Those of us who worked at the University of Missouri Press during her long tenure were used to seeing her large, insulated cup of iced tea on her desk. It was a fixture, just like her computer, her dictionaries, her copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, her thesaurus. The stack of manuscript pages for the current work. And a stack of page proofs to be sent to the author, proofreader, and indexer.

Ahhhh, the university press. Where I once edited a manuscript, translated from German, to be published in an English edition, that had sentences that were so long I had to scroll down in order to finish them. Yes! It was double-spaced, DOS, WordPerfect 5.0, and it wasn’t a gigantic monitor, but the whole sentence wouldn’t fit on my screen at one time. I kid you not.

Now, please realize that what follows only applies to a few cases. And it’s my opinion only. I don’t want to make it sound like drowsiness was a big problem for any of us: it really wasn’t. For the most part, we had good, interesting, important manuscripts and incredibly nice authors. But a few manuscripts were indeed snoozers. I’m sure you can imagine. I mean, sometimes I’ve told people about editing, say, index manuscripts, and how I rather enjoyed it. “It’s especially nice to have some Bach or other baroque music playing. All those straight lines and right angles: perfect for making sure all the entries and page numbers are in the right order!” Just telling people about that kind of makes their eyes roll up in their heads.

Once (“only once,” ha ha), while nodding and plodding through one of the snoozers, I truly nodded off while editing. My finger was on the “down” arrow on my keyboard, and I started awake to find the manuscript flying upwards on my monitor, lickety-split. “Heck!” I thought. “This is terrible! What’s the last thing I remember reading?” I had to scroll back for my last change, or my last query.

I figured out lots of ways to keep awake while copyediting some of these projects. My morning coffee kept me chugging for a while, then it was lunchtime, but then there was the dreaded midafternoon lull. It was quiet, and I was digesting. I figured out that Polar Ice–flavored chewing gum could rouse me. I also learned to take a fifteen-minute break behind the building to practice my trumpet. That woke me up! (Well, the smokers in the office took smoke breaks, why couldn’t I?) When the drowsiness was really bad, I would put a small bowl of fresh, raw cranberries on my desk, and chew up one of those when the florescent lights’ humming lulled me to sleep.

What I’m describing is the “goofus” method of being an editor of scholarly manuscripts. Now, I’m about to share with you the “gallant” method: Be like Jane!

Jane’s m.o. was to get up super early, work out, then basically be the first person at the press. She doesn’t drink coffee. Instead, she drinks this tea she makes. There’s caffeine in it, but not much. She’s an efficient worker, so she kept to her schedule and was able to depart for home right at 5 p.m.

So this is her recipe for her special iced tea. It’s how she told me she makes it a few years ago, though according to what she said last week, she changes it a little depending on what she has on hand, or what she’s in the mood for. The bag of black tea can vary, though I indeed like to use Earl Gray.

Here’s the formula:

  • 2 teabags green tea
  • 2 teabags jasmine tea (which is also green tea)
  • 1 teabag Earl Gray (which is a black tea)

That’s it! Make a pitcher using this formula, and you’ll have the deliciousness of the Earl Gray and jasmine, and the health benefits of green tea. Enough caffeine to keep you chugging along, but not enough to make you jingle-jangle. Also, the punchiness of the Earl Gray is softened with the other flavors. I think you’ll like it!

. . . But I’m pretty sure I’m not ready to give up my morning coffee.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Uncle Richard

In Memoriam

Richard Andree Schroeder

November 12, 1931 – January 7, 2024

Well, my friends, it happened: Uncle Richard has left us. Although it’s painful to contemplate, we are no longer blessed with his presence. As it is each time we lose someone dear to us, it’s hard to believe there can be a world without him.

As a small memorial, I want to meditate for a while about the things that seemed especially him. The qualities and the interests, the personality, the things he taught me about life just by being himself.

He was, and forever is, my Woodsy Uncle. Even if he were not a conservation agent, he still would have Touched the Earth, knew the names of all the plants and animals, observed and knew their interconnections and stories. Each life-form has a personality. There is a sense of wonder about, and an appreciation of even the least of these. Black morels appear a little earlier than the yellow ones. Black widow silk is intensely strong; you can identify it just by pressing against a single strand of it. Bald eagles, squirrels, leeches, and lichens: the world of nature is complex and beautiful. All critters are welcome.

He was adventurous, apparently from Day One. Where didn’t he go? What was he afraid to do? I don’t know. If something didn’t turn out the way you’d imagined, if you lost your compass or fell in the water, or if you fell onto a cactus in the dark, if you survived, you’ll be fine. In fact, you’re better off, because now you’ve learned something. And best of all, you now have a story to tell! He made a necklace for himself out of his own finger bones.

Which brings us to his artistic, crafty, creative side. From his grandpa, I guess, he inherited his sense of “make do with what you got,” his ability to figure out a way to make it work. His dioramas, his model planes, his ability to carve, his prowess with knots. When I was young, he once created a bow and arrow for me in the space of about five minutes: a small hickory sapling was trimmed at angles, notched, and bent, and a piece of kitchen string looped to each end. . . . Signs of his craftiness remain at our house, where over the years he fixed this and that, or repaired a windchime, or whatever. I can tell it’s his work because of the unique solutions and his attention to detail. He wasn’t afraid to fail, at times, either; he plowed ahead: Several years ago, he had a saying, which I copied and posted above my desktop; it went something like this: “If it’s jammed, force it—if it breaks, it needed fixing anyway.” (It turns out that such cut-to-the-chase advice can apply to manuscript editing, too!)

His artistic side blossomed in watercolors and oils, which sadly he decided to destroy several years ago, but we remember that side of him, that skill and patience. The painter’s eye is unique; it is as clever as the gambler’s dice, and it sees through What Is into all the realms of possibility. I honor his artistry . . . I honor it.

And of course, although he worked in paints, his first medium was words: his stories and poems. The ones he wrote down, and the ones he regaled us with whenever we got together. Soon after he died, Sue shared with me a dream she’d had, in which Uncle Richard was at a gathering with everyone, “holding forth,” telling stories and laughing, getting everyone else laughing, too. I think it was a sign that everything is okay, and we will all be okay without him. With his stories, you could never quite tell at what point the narrative would veer away from total reality into fiction and fantasy. And you know, ultimately, that’s all we’re ever left with: Is this history “true”? We must interpret it, exercise the muscle that distinguishes between the treasure and the sediment, the detritus. Sometimes the best truth is in the fiction. Sometimes what initially appears to be detritus is the real treasure.

Uncle Richard, despite his sometimes gruff demeanor, was a romantic and a nostalgic. He could find meaning and significance in all kinds of seemingly mundane, insignificant objects. His collection of writings bear this out; he teaches his reader (as he taught everyone who listened to him) that you can create from the most pedestrian topic a small, inspirational sermon about the Things That Really Matter. The necklace he made from the last bite of his mom’s last batch of lepkuchen. When we bought the house on Elm Street, there was a note on the refrigerator in Richard’s hand. It was about the aging process. Grandma had adored it: “This morning, I got up and put myself on like an old sweater. Holes in the elbows? I don’t mind—I made them myself!”

Things in our universe cannot last forever. Nature teaches us that everything must be recycled and transformed. Energy is neither created nor destroyed; the quantity of mass is conserved over time; the nutrient cycle, the carbon cycle, geologic cycles; physics, chemistry, biology demonstrate that everything that exists will be transformed. Nothing lasts forever. Raindrops wear away stones. Even our earth will eventually rejoin the sun and be reduced to its fundamental elements—to be combined later into all new, miraculous things. The detritus will become new types of mosses, new trees, new clouds, new rocks, and new fossils for someone to wonder about.

So, reluctantly, I guess it’s okay that Uncle Richard has departed from us. It’s not like there’s a choice; we have to accept it. The holes in the elbows? He made them himself. Was it jammed, was it broken? It needed fixing anyway. He left us with so many . . . so many stories to keep telling, and the impetus to find new adventures and stories to create about them. He’s gone from us and rejoined the cycle of transformation, the universal state of eternity. This is the way of nature; it’s part of the magic and mystery of our world, the Nature he honored his whole life.