Whether you like to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve or Día de Muertos, or maybe both, next week there will be plenty of small, colorful creatures collecting edible goodies. Some will ring doorbells while clad in homemade or purchased finery, others will wear their everyday wardrobe while bouncing on tree limbs, or shuffling through fallen leaves, or excavating frosty soil. But everyone will be in hunter-gatherer mode, in search of binge-worthy treats.

There’s a reason we think of October and November as harvest time, even though many agricultural fields have already been gleaned and tucked in for a long winter’s nap. Autumn is when nut-lovers hit the jackpot.

As Dash and I scanned our local stretch of the Huckleberry Trail looking for nuts—our goal and mantra for today’s journey—I had to remind myself that not all of the trees we were seeing are native to southwestern Virginia. Some were introduced by homeowners who live nearby, or maybe by squirrels who ventured into backyards, then back into the remnant patch of forest near the railroad easement to stash treasure below the forest floor.

The local stalwarts include black walnut (Juglans nigra L.)… it’s flavor some people cherish and others revile. Love or hate ’em, everyone needs to keep their ears open for the sound of these hard green golf balls crashing down from above or risk getting knocked on the noggin’.Shagbark hickory nuts (Carya ovata) are endemic to this region and other parts of North America. They’re a favorite from my own childhood because our next-door neighbor had a towering and prolific tree. Hickory nuts require a lot of coaxing, both to break open the shell and then to pry the meat out of tiny nooks and crannies but, imo, it’s well worth the effort.Honestly, I never really thought about pines as nut-bearing trees until I lived in New Mexico, where the the two-needle piñon pine (Pinus edulis) is a cherished part of the state’s cuisine.  Pine nuts (from a different Pinus spp.) are a familiar ingredient in Italian food, too, and I knew that but somehow failed to make the connection to a pinecone. I’ve not encountered local pine nuts on any menus here in southwest Virginia… maybe the local species aren’t as tasty (to humans), or maybe they’re just too hard to remove from the cone.Acorns, including those from the chestnut oak (Quercus prinus L.) and white oak (Quercus alba L.), are a staple for many wild animals… tree squirrels, of course, but also chipmunks and flying squirrels, as wells as bears, deer, opossums, raccoons, and rabbits. Birds also depend on this nutritious, high-calorie food to make it through the winter, including blue jays, quail, and wood ducks.The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was once the dominant forest species in Virginia, but most of these trees were killed over the course of a couple of decades when the chestnut blight fungus was introduced, accidentally, in the early 1900s. Researchers continue to experiment with resistant varieties, hoping to return these majestic giants to their rightful home. I keep hoping to spot one… even a stump sprout would make me wildly happy.

Do you have a favorite wild nut? Share your memories and photos in the comments section!

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Alan Wolf, pepperberryfarm, Laurie HulseyChris Luczkow, Bob Travis, Greg Wagoner, NatureServe, and Rachid H© 2017 Sidewalk Zendo. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Gone to Seed

In honor of the harvest season I decided to dedicate this morning’s walk to seeds.  I had to pay attention, scanning the edges of this black-topped former railway easement, because they are more quietly beautiful than the flowers that begat them.

The woods and fields are a cornucopia filled with tints and tones of brown…

a bountiful array of shapes…

and sizes…

There’s still plenty of green foliage for seeds to hide behind but hungry wildlife are motivated scavenger hunters (so am I, even though I wasn’t searching for breakfast)!


Share thoughts, observations, and images of your own seedy neighbors in the comments section below!

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Anne Worner, CameliaTWUAntinephalistVicki DeLoach, gautsch., Larry Krause, Michael Levine-ClarkDavid SandilandsSo nice, Sunny & Cool!, Joy, Becky McCray, Gilles Gonthier, and Jen Goellnitz© 2017 Sidewalk Zendo. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

A Room of One’s Own

Insects are all about population-level survival of the species. Life is hard for individuals, starting right out of the egg-gate. You won’t ever catch young preying mantises, stinkbugs, caterpillars whining to Mom about the over-crowded nursery… she’s long gone.  If Mom was around she’d likely say (in her buggy way), “If you don’t like it here, disperse!”

Dispersal is probably a good idea for reasons other than personal space. Non-social insects are serious about eating and if the meal that’s close at hand is a lover, or a sibling, or a child, well, let’s just say that bugs don’t need to be hangry to bite someone’s head off.

But I was reminded recently that there are some members of the six-legged set who appear to have an affinity for what Virginia Wolfe so memorably termed “a room of one’s own.” Dash had stopped to see if some smell was worth rolling in, and I took that opportunity to peruse my immediate surroundings. That’s when I noticed the tree in front of me had leaves with an interesting speckled pattern. I turned one of them over and saw those spots were the result of some insect squatters.

As terrier-boy and I continued on our way, I started watching for other signs of leafy residences with solo-occupants, and found several that demonstrate even larval life-forms like to decorate to suit their own aesthetic preferences.

It never fails to amaze me that there are a seemingly endless number of little universes, right here on the home planet. We don’t even have to build a spaceship and escape gravity to find them. For the most part, all these myriad Earthlings are completely unaware of each other’s existence, despite living side-by-side in the same three dimensions… at least until, for a brief moment when a dog catches a scent and stops to investigate, and his person takes that moment to do a little undercover work of her own.

We don’t have to look far to discover worlds within worlds within worlds.

What weird and wonderful lifeforms have you seen while traveling through the Great Outdoors? Share your thoughts, experiences, and photos in the comments section below!

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Vlad Proklov (lime nail gall mite), Martin Male (caterpillar tent), Katja Schulz (Ocellate gall midge), Jason Hollinger (maple leaf), and gbohne (cherry oak galls).]


red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

Here is the instruction: Only connect. Wherever you are, right now, pay attention. Forever. ~ Sylvia Boorstein

In true terrier fashion, Dash is always excited and impatient to begin our walks. Once we set off out the door, I never see any indication that he’s disappointed to be traveling over the same route as last night or this morning.  He’s all in, 100% of his attention on here-and-now.

Which is not to say he holds a single focus through the entire outing… far from it. More than any other canine companion I’ve known, Dash is pulled through the world by his nose. In fact, I have to mindfully keep one eye on him at all times so I don’t trip and injure myself, or him, or both of us should he suddenly cross in front of me pursuing some siren-scent his sailor-self is incapable of resisting.

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who has a keen sense of smell, and perhaps for a human I do. If so, it’s a dubious honor; biologist and author Edward O. Wilson explains in his book, The Meaning of Human Existence, that our physical senses are pretty sad compared to other Earthlings, giving us access to a “microscopic” subset of available stimuli.  Certainly, I’ve observed that aroma beckons to Dash in a way that makes me wonder — if I could experience the olfactory world as he does, for a single minute, would it be a mind-expanding adventure, or would it hit me like a tsunami, flooding my lungs until I could no longer breathe?

I’ll likely never know but it’s an interesting thought experiment.  In the meantime, I can attempt to pay closer attention to the sensory input I do receive, and today I tuned my ears to birdsong.  I decided to take note of each call I heard and identify its source, if I could. The section of trail we traverse is only about a mile long but, to my delight, the number and diversity of birds I heard required counting on all 10 of my fingers and both of my big toes.

I’ve provided a visual list, starting with a red-winged blackbird, shown above, and all the rest, in order of appearance, below.  Two quick caveats:  1) I’m sure I heard a warbler but I can’t guarantee it was a black-and-white; and 2) the downy woodpecker was pecking, not drumming or calling, but it was an audible avian-produced sound so I decided that counts.

p.s.  If you’d like to hear a typical song for each of the species below, and learn other interesting facts as well, I highly recommend The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website.  Type the common name into the Search field and you’ll find an audio link beneath the photo of that species.

blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

American robin (Turdus migratorius)

mourning dove (Zenaida macroura)

northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

house wren (Troglodytes aedon)

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis)

American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)

Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)

black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia)

downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)


[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Jordan Walmsley, Dave Doe, C Watts, Dave Lundy, Patrick AshleyTCDavis, naathas, Rachid H, Ellen & Tony, Henry T. McLin, John Sutton, and John Sutton© 2017 Sidewalk Zendo. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]