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Astronomically, the moon is at apogee right now. This means it’s in its furthest point from Earth in its elliptical orbit around us. Astrologically, it has been representative of different ideas, including the traits associated with what is sometimes called the dark or black moon: the dark side of human nature that we tend to subvert, ignore and deny, yet is present in all of us. Spooky.


Know how I know? My Farmer’s Almanac tells me so. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is one of the best reference books to have around your house, and a copy only costs $5.99. It’s teeming with information about astronomy (as they point out, that’s what makes it an almanac), gardening, and weather, and they still include interesting dates and facts from the old liturgical calendar. I page through this book often and have even been inspired to write poems based on certain oddball turns of phrase in there. The best thing about it is it’s a part of American history, published continuously since 1792 when George Washington was serving his first term as president.

sometimes it’s a lake.
in dry spells the marsh curdles,
a brown-grass desert.

Today at a thrift store I found “Common Weeds,” a coloring book put out by Dover in 1976. First let me say that I love Dover. They produce a million inexpensive educational books, including many collections of clip art. I have used their interesting copyright-free images in many a zine, and I find their books delightful. Once I even wrote an email to them telling them how much I loved their company because they’d kept my zine enterprise looking pretty, and a sweet woman wrote me right back and told me Dover was glad to have me as part of the family.

Anyway, this book is interesting because it helps to define what makes a weed a weed. Think about it: weeds are just plants. Many of them are flowering, and some are edible. A person could certainly decide to cultivate many of the plants we consider weeds, and in fact my mom has tansy, a yellow-flowering herb, growing in her garden right now–and this is one of the ones included in the book.

So what is a weed? E. F. Bleiler, the editor of this pretty little book, wrote a short introduction on the question. Bleiler said a weed is usually defined as a “vigorous, intrusive wild plant that becomes a nuisance.” It doesn’t say anything about their being ugly, or not useful. Lots of people like weeds, and I’m one of them.

Like, honeysuckle is the first entry in the book. Any gardener will tell you that honeysuckle can be a real problem because it grows like crazy and chokes other plants out. But it is a beautiful vine, and when we were kids we plucked the lovely white flowers, put them in our mouths as we pulled the stamen through, and told ourselves the sweet taste was honey.

Thinking about the value of weeds reminds me of a poem by Michelle Tea that I LOVE. It’s about pigeons, and how she likes them and even identifies with them in some ways. She says, “I am suspicious of people who say they hate pigeons. I think, Who else do you hate?”

The thing about weeds is, they grow where other things can’t. In shallow, poor soil; in wasteground; in parking lots; between cracks in the sidewalk. They grow where they can and they thrive. There’s a metaphor in that for sure.

I intercepted a lightning bug as it flew past me where I stood on my mother’s front porch. He sat on my index finger and I looked at him; he didn’t blink his light and he didn’t fly away. He stayed on my finger for my whole walk home, little black antennae bending and straightening. When I got to my building I saw my neighbor’s slender grey cat in the grass so I sat down to join him there. As I settled onto the ground the bug opened its four wings and lifted off my hand and up into the sky.

Okay, so, I live in an apartment. I don’t have my own yard. We have nice shared grounds, though. I’m on the second floor and from a couple of my windows I can see a huge, beautiful horsechestnut tree and a smaller tree that I still haven’t been able to identify. It’s one of those maybe-tree, maybe-shrub creatures, with what looks like multiple trunks all coming from the base.

There’s a woman who lives downstairs who enjoys putting lots of flowering plants into containers out back, and she also feeds the birds. Just outside her window she put a bird feeder hanger with several different plates for seed hanging from it. She does this every spring and summer and by now has attracted a lot of wild birds—sparrows, nuthatches, black-capped chickadees, jays, cardinals. But I can’t enjoy them too well from up here because it’s at an awkward angle for me to look out my window at them. I decided I needed my own feeder, which may not sound like a monumental moment to you, dear reader, but was a big deal for me since I’d never done it before. I waned something inexpensive and I found it: a $4.99 cone-shaped green metal suet feeder. For another couple of dollars I purchased a suet cake with red pepper in it because the birds don’t mind the pepper but the pesty squirrels can’t stand it, so they stay away. Two evenings ago I set up this contraption on a low-hanging, sturdy branch of the shrub-tree that I’d be able to see easily from my windows, and when I got up unusually early yesterday morning (thanks to a cat that woke me by vomiting on my bed) I remembered about the birds and went to have a look. They were having a party! Thanks to the lady downstairs and her big bird collection it didn’t take long for word to spread that there was a new feeder in town. I watched throughout the morning as they chipped away at the brick-colored block of suet, and by the end of the day it was completely gone.

I’m realizing I need a good bug identification book. This week I visited The Morris Arboretum, one of my very favorite places in the world, and I stood and watched a bee that can’t have been more than 3/12 of an inch big sitting on the petal of a large lily. It was busy with the flower so I was really able to study it, and I don’t mean to get fruity on you but it struck me at the time as being the most perfectly made thing I’d ever seen. Tiny diaphonous wings like wax paper with hair-thin veins through them. A teardrop-shaped body that he kept bobbing up and down. A perfect, tiny bee. I’ve seen some descriptions of dwarf bees and apis florea, but the dwarf bee sounds like it might be even smaller (! it’s the world’s smallest, apparently), and apis florea seems to be in other parts of the world, so I don’t know.

Sue Thomas is a woman I know from the Inquirer column I write about digital literature. She’s a professor of New Media at DeMontfort University in Leicester, UK, who I talked with for an installment of my column about how writing for digital media is taught at the university level. Just yesterday she launched a new project at a blog called The Wild Surmise: a study of nature and cyberspace. She’s looking at the connections people—regular computer and Internet users like you and me—make between the online world and the natural world, and she’ll be writing a book based in part on this research. If you’re interested in participating she’s drawn up 5 questions, and you may answer all or some of them. I answered a couple. They’re interesting things to think about. Have a look.

On one of the lovely sunny days we had last week, before this nasty-ass heat wave, I looked out the back window to where my mom was pointing. Two fairly hefty brown birds were pecking at the ground. Turned out they were woodpeckers, but a kind that often looks for ants on the ground instead of (or in addition to, I suppose) in trees: Northern Flickers. This appeared to be a male and a female because only one had any colored markings on it, a stripe of red on his back. I think that would make them Red-Shafted Flickers, but I didn’t look at my Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America until now, so I didn’t know about this variety. They were neat looking and had some real size to them; my book puts them at 13 inches long.

I just got back from a lovely, relaxing, and mostly Internet-free week at the Jersey shore. It’s built up, congested, and crazy busy there this time of year, as people from all over New Jersey and suburban Philadelphia make the trek to the beach. Even still, there are many wild things and places there. I love New Jersey and stick my tongue out at people who say it’s nothing but malls, because they’re wrong. Yesterday by the side of the road, alongside a small lake where I rode my bike, I saw a Great Blue Heron, this amazing dusky-blue 4-foor-tall animal that seems to be all legs and neck until it takes flight and you see those wings. I also had a hair-raising encounter with a snake INSIDE THE HOUSE. I’ll tell you about both of those things tomorrow because I need to get to sleep soon, but for now I’ll tell you about some of the creatures I saw on a marshlands walk on Saturday morning, before it got blistering hot.

* Looking down as I walked over the sandy path, I spotted two tiny grey speckled toads, one slightly darker color than the other. I don’t want to brag but catching toads is sort of my specialty. I don’t always grab them up though because it usually scares them. I scooped up one of these little guys in my palm for a moment, and sort of communed with the other. They were smaller than one joint of my thumb, and I have weirdly small hands. They were so lightweight that as they hopped around they would land in small tufts of grass and only slightly bend the blades and get stuck there before scrambling and hopping back out. I love those little guys.

* Spotted one duck with seven babies swimming behind her as a little human family of two parents and one bespectacled kid sat on the bird watch platform and looked on.

* Set back a distance away from the path is a large pond, surrounded by rushes, where you can often see a big white trumpeter swan or two gliding around. Today there was a ton of them; I counted 30 but there may have been a couple more skinny necks in the fray that I missed. I have rarely if ever seen this many swans together at once and sure enough our Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America says that they are usually found in pairs or family groups. Wonder what they were all doing together like that.

* Also saw a few lone and young rabbits back in the scrubby underbrush. One was so small and young and unwise to the ways of the world that he hopped toward instead of away from me.

* A family of two parents and a shy young teenage daughter pointed out a black snake about two feet long with a faint diamond pattern on its back gliding over the surface of the water.

* Here’s the best thing of all. We kept seeing beautiful butterflies that are just the same kind as ones my mom is stitching in a counted cross-stitch design. They have a bright orange bar across the top of their wings, contrasted with a patch of black above it that’s flecked with white. I think they must have known my mom was immortalizing them in stitchery because one landed on her t-shirt and we watched it open and close its wings a few times in that slow rhythmic way that reminds me of breathing. We looked at it closely and smiled, thinking the same thing: it’s the butterfly! These are Red Admiral butterflies, according to our Dorling Kindersley Butterflies and Moths identification book. It’s interesting because the picture my mom is stitching is by a British designer, and sure enough the book informs us that we have those same kind of butterflies here. Red Admirals range from southern Canada through the US down to northern Mexico and throughout Europe to North Africa and northen India. Looking at an artistic representation of something in nature is a neat way to learn about it—perhaps teaching you even more than you’d learn from seeing it in its habitat alone.