Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas all year

I was out for a walk a few weeks ago, in the late autumn woods, and saw what I thought was some sort of white fungus growing on the branch of a shrubby tree. I snapped off a twig and looked closely.

It wasn't a fungus at all. It was white cotton, like Q-tip fuzz. Wiggling in a nonexistent breeze.

I pinched off a tuft and took out my pocket magnifier. Beneath the fuzz was a tiny bug, the size of a pinhead. Six little legs thrashing the air. On the bug's back were a bunch of spigots, extruding strands of white cotton.

Woolly aphids. That's what they were. They suck sap to grow and to spin the cotton-candy fluff with which they adorn themselves.

Why, Santa? Why would such a thing evolve? I can't think of any advantage that an inconspicuous bug would gain by accentuating its visibility to predators with a pompom of cotton. I'd love to ask my youngest grandchildren what they think. Kids have nifty insights.

Next year, bring my grandkids woolly aphids.

Farther along the path I found a colony of polyporus versicolor. Turkey tails, we call them. They are mushrooms, one of those fungi that grow like little shelves on rotting trees. But this particular colony, on a spiky bit of wood, looked just like a flock of miniature turkeys. Necks up, tails spread. You could almost hear them gobble.

The grandkids would have loved it, Santa. Bring them turkey tails.

I heard and saw lots of other things the kids might like. The tunk- tunk of downy woodpeckers, and tippity-tap of nuthatches. What looked like pine cones on the tips of willow twigs that were actually insect galls. The velvety "cat ears" of the common mullein's winter rosette.

When I got back from my walk I had to pick burs off my sweater. Burdock burs. Each spiky sphere had a tiny hook at the end of each spike, and a sheath containing a seed. When I pulled a bur off my sweater, the sheath separated and spilled a seed. And that's how burdock get around. Burs are great fun to toss at a friend's clothing. All those tiny Velcro hooks. Bring my grandkids burdock burs.

But keep it under your fur-trimmed hat. My name would be mud if the grandkids knew it was me that caused their stockings to be filled with woolly aphids, turkey tails and burdock burs.

And listen, Santa. Keep those presents coming right through the year. Snow fleas. Skunk cabbage. Red-winged blackbirds. Mourning cloak butterflies. Pussy willows. Ladyslippers. Whirligig beetles. Dragonflies. Orioles and bluebirds. The summer Milky Way. The caterpillar of the luna moth. Garter snakes. Goldenrod galls. Rattleweed. Perseid meteors. Ripe milkweed pods. Woolly bears. British soldier and pixie cup lichens. Snowflakes. Orion. And those big six-foot icicles that hang from leaky gutters.

I can't promise the kids will be pleased. Mattel and Hasbro have huge advertising budgets. But I know a few things about which those big companies haven't a clue. Like what can be found inside those mysterious green spheres that grow on oak leaves. And what will happen when you touch the seedpods of jewelweed. And how to get a praying mantis to perch on your finger.

It's all free, Santa. It won't cost a dime