Years ago I knew a man who had been a lineman for a utility company in Maine. Partly disabled in retirement, he enjoyed leisurely drives through rural areas with his wife at the wheel. The “view” mattered little to him. It was all the same whether the fields were just coming into bloom, the summer foliage was lush and green, or the countryside had been set ablaze in autumn color. He simply kept his eyes on the overhead wires. Whenever he detected a damaged pole or a utility line amiss, he insisted on stopping at the next public telephone, from where he called his former colleagues at the utility company to report the damage.
I sometimes recall that old man when I drive or stroll through the countryside in fall. Sure, the color is grand, but what draws my attention are the little glitches in the landscape. Nature, the great artificer, is always at work undermining her masterpieces. She adds an extraneous figure here or a grotesquerie there. There are a thousand discoveries to be made in that forest now sitting for its portrait in Technicolor purity.
As summer wanes, the messy, foot-long, communal webs of fall webworms cover the leaves at the tips of branches on some deciduous trees. These tents may spoil the picture for nature photographers, but the insects that spin them (the caterpillar stage of tiger moths) are interesting in themselves. They are the late-season version of the familiar tent caterpillars, a different species of insects that make their nursery webs in the forks of trees in late spring and emerge to browse on leaves elsewhere on the tree. Fall webworms feed mainly on the foliage wrapped in their webbing. Trees rarely are afflicted often enough by these caterpillars to suffer lasting damage.
A little farther along the road, I notice some paper birches that have already lost the leaves from their top branches. Lower down, the leaves haven’t even begun to turn color. A fungus, appearing in spring, blighted the upper leaves, again causing no permanent harm to the trees. Nearby, a white pine suffers from a “rust,” or fungus, that stains the needles dark yellow. The fallen needles form a cloth of gold beneath the tree.
Walking through the forest, I’m aware of a haze of tiny, bluish-white bits of fluff that resemble wind-blown seeds or pollen. On closer inspection I note they are wooly alder aphids on the move. Minute tubes on their backs produce a covering of wool so that they walk or fly like mobile tufts of cotton candy. They feed on the sap of alders and maples.
I pass a whirl of thick woody spokes, looking like a giant orb web spun by a spider in a horror movie. It’s the root system of a fallen white spruce. The spruce doesn’t possess a long taproot to give it a firm hold in the soil, only these horizontal roots just below the surface. Storms often “uproot” these trees, and winter wrens find the dense woody maze a secure place for a nest.
A confirmed minimalist in the forest, I often focus on the leaves themselves. Having already lost its chlorophyll and turned red or gold, or even a withered brown, a leaf still displays the story of its life. I notice one that had been invaded by a leaf-mining insect; the surface still bears the twisting marks that trace the travels of the tiny miner as it ate its way through the tissue between the upper and lower epidermal layers of the leaf. Another leaf has played host to a roller, an insect that uses silk to roll and bind a portion of the leaf as a shelter for itself or a protected niche for its eggs. And over there is a leaf bearing an “oak apple”—a brown, round, one-inch fleshy ball formed by chemicals injected into an oak leaf by a tiny wasp.
Each season unveils its splendor for our admiration. But as we look deeper, we begin to understand better how the natural world works.