Texas hopper

I admit I sometimes don’t pay attention until it’s too late.  Usually it’s because I’m lost in thought or watching something else, and then I suddenly realize an interesting thing has slipped by unnoticed.  So it was last October…

Late in the afternoon while standing on the patio, thick clouds casting shadows on everything, I stared off into space and found myself quite out of touch with reality.  I wasn’t even listening to the birds or watching the sky; I was just standing, almost daydreaming but not quite, almost asleep but not quite.  I don’t even remember what was on my mind, if anything.  Basically I spaced out.

At the other end of the patio, about 30 feet/ten meters away, a dark shape emerged from behind the tree and climbed the brick wall.  I was aware of the movement; I just didn’t turn to look at it.  I couldn’t focus that much thought.

After the large critter moved up about ten feet/three meters, I shook myself free from the mental fog I was in.  That’s when I finally decided that maybe I was missing something interesting.  So I looked.

Fulgorid planthopper (Poblicia texana) climbing a brick wall (2009_10_25_034266)

About one inch/25 mm long, even from a distance it was obvious I was looking at one of the less common fulgorid planthoppers in Texas.  In fact, from where I stood it looked so much like a cockroach (albeit a relatively small one) that I questioned the planthopper ID as soon as it entered my mind.  But then I discarded that question and assured myself that it was a hopper.

Even in the deep shadows cast by the tree, I was able to capture some photos that show the insect’s patterns and colors.  But a few photos were all I had time to shoot because the hopper climbed steadily and quickly vanished over the roof.  And because it was already so high on the wall by the time I looked, the only respectable photos I could take were from across the patio since getting closer produced images like this (or worse).

Fulgorid planthopper (Poblicia texana) climbing a brick wall (2009_10_25_034290)

I realized when I reviewed the images that I’d never seen this species before.  So I set about researching it.  All to no avail.  I couldn’t find a single ID for it, though I admit I didn’t spend nearly enough time trying to find one.  Eventually I set it aside for later review.

Then I forgot about it.  For months.  Which I’m prone to do because I take so many photos that anything not processed immediately gets lost amongst the thousands of photos that never see the light of day.  So in steps a dead camera.  Without more photos coming in, I finally wandered the backlog of pictures and rediscovered this handsome yet unidentified hopper.

Fulgorid planthopper (Poblicia texana) climbing a brick wall (2009_10_25_034256)

This time it took me all of five minutes to identify it.  Though it has no common name, it’s a Poblicia texana.

I only wish I hadn’t been in such an out-of-touch frame of mind.  I had so distant an attachment to the world at that moment that I didn’t even check or change the camera settings.  For a dSLR, it was a point-and-shoot moment.

A lazy afternoon

Daytime yearns to reach noon.  Cloudless blue stretches across the sky in all directions giving way to bright sunshine that blankets the earth.  A warm breeze from the south carries with it yet more humidity, moisture added to an already hot and moist atmosphere.  Despite the early hour, summer temperatures reign.  I stand and let sunshine and gently moving air caress my skin.

Remaining motionless, I quietly listen to birds singing in a cacophony of warbles, trills and melodies.  Their songs carry on the wind and fill the day with life.  Sweeping through the sky in graceful gestures and abrupt maneuvers, they flit from tree to rooftop to tree.  Innumerable species abound in this place, each a master of its own destiny and each blessed with the enviable gift of flight.  Their freedom in the air gives way to wistful fantasies of joining them.  I dream of leaping from the ground and finding my way into the firmament without need of clunky mechanical machines.  Ah, what a wonderfully intoxicating thought.

A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in flight (2009_12_20_046498)

Overhead, a hawk glides effortlessly into sight as it swims through the atmosphere upward into the sky, a raptor taking its place in the heavens in preparation for the hunt.  Mockingbirds chase the predator as it climbs ever higher.  Only a few times do they come close enough to interfere with the ascent, but the hawk recovers quickly with minor course corrections and continues becoming a speck at heights normally reserved for the clouds.  In great sweeping circles it rises without ever flapping its wings.  Like humans sticking their hand out the window of a moving car and letting the wind blow through splayed fingers, I see the hawk’s wings and recognize the outstretched feathers at their tips.  What a magnificent hunter this creature is, what a splendid example of conservation of energy in seeming contradiction to its movement.  I watch silently as the predator moves over the lake and eventually out of sight.

The fence surrounding my patio becomes my resting place as I lean against it.  With the sun kissing my skin and the breeze embracing me, I close my eyes momentarily and escape the world.  I imagine I am the hawk soaring high above.  I hang my head forward as my vision of the me-hawk takes shape.  I imagine myself carried on the wind and thermals, gliding effortlessly to heights above any challenger, my superior vision consuming all that can be seen.  On this day, not even clouds fight me for my place here.

Suddenly, the stir of activity across the way rouses me from my daydreaming and I open my eyes behind their cloak of sunglasses to see what I might see.  Sitting on her porch swing, one of my neighbors rests comfortably with book in hand in the shade of her own patio.  Her white ankle-length skirt hangs over her crossed legs and rustles casually in the gentle wind.  It, too, seems to enjoy the day and its lazy demeanor.  She sits back on the swing, her fitted light-blue blouse undoubtedly cool and relaxed against her skin.  I watch as she absently bounces one of her sandal-clad feet while it dangles in the air.  Slowly, almost unconsciously, her right hand moves and methodically turns the page, her attention swimming easily through the words spilling out before her.  How relaxing to see her carefree afternoon taking shape.

A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in flight (2009_12_20_046483)

Her dog is perched beside her blithely enjoying this sedate existence.  He watches carefully as the birds flutter about and sing in trees only feet away from his position at her side.  Ever so gently, he rocks back and forth as she swings them in tiny movements of vast contentment.  He reacts from time to time as some new little thing happens, perhaps a squirrel or a bird venturing close enough to be of interest, perhaps even a leaf blowing by to which he might give chase.  They fail to spur him to more action than a simple glance, perhaps a muffled, halfhearted bark lacking sufficient energy to be threatening.  If he raises his head from its place resting on his crossed front legs dangling from the swing, it is only a brief movement, almost an afterthought before it begins.  He is her sentry, yes, but even he recognizes the lack of danger and uses the moment to shift his position only slightly so that he might be more comfortable and able to rest his head on her leg.  It is a loving movement, one of absolute trust, and I hear the deep breath and following sigh telling the world he’s in heaven.

She moves her right hand again, this time to the dog’s head, and she gently rubs and scratches him as his eyes close in absolute joy.  From this distance, I am still able to hear her loving words to him.

“Are you comfortable?”

“Good boy.”

“A nap sounds great, doesn’t it?”

He stretches his entire body into rigid writhing.  The movement is over as quickly as it begins.  All four of his paws now dangle off the swing, her leg providing a pillow for his head, and another deep breath and sigh tell me he is as happy as any dog can be.  She rubs his head and neck once more before reaching again to turn the page of her book.  Her eyes never leave the pages as she transfers the book into her right hand and reaches for her glass of iced tea with her left.

A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in flight (2009_12_20_046505)

I watch only a moment more before returning my own gaze back to the sky and the overflowing nature around me.  Just before I close my eyes again, I see the hawk circling high above the lake.

[photos of a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)]

The quasi interview

An internet meme is a piece of information or an idea that takes on a life of its own.  Richard Dawkins coined the term more than 30 years ago in his book on evolution titled The Selfish Gene.  In that text, he defined a meme as a “unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another”.  In web vernacular, a meme is generally a topic passed along from person to person (status updates on FB, posts on blogs, tweets on Twitter, etc.).

I’ve never been one to do memes.  I don’t like feeling as if I’m part of a herd or as if I’m being directed.  But sometimes they have value to me, in which case I consider them.  So when Seabrooke tagged me with a meme, I looked askance at the details fearing I would have to disappoint her, which I didn’t want to do.  I was thrilled to see it wasn’t lame (which would have surprised me coming from Seabrooke, but inherently most memes are lame even if they don’t appear to be on the surface).

The idea is simple: five questions to be answered.  Because the questions are tailored to the subject, it’s not a case of being asked for senseless information like “Is your belly button an innie or a an outie?” or “When did you last use a Big Chief tablet?”.  No, in this case I’m interested in sharing the information being asked for, so here’s my response to the quasi interview.

1) You seem to have an intense curiosity of the natural world; how did that curiosity come about?


It would be easiest if I could put my finger on a single event.  Unfortunately, I can’t.  It all began as a child.  I grew up in the era before video games (oh, we had the original Atari, but it was for rainy days only) and the internet (heck, there weren’t even home computers in my earliest years).  Back in the 70s during my formative years, we were the outside generation.  We played in the dirt.  We caught snakes and bees.  We caught fireflies at dusk and placed them in a jar so we could release them in an explosion of living flame.  We climbed trees, fell, skinned our knees, then got up and did it all over again.  We rode our bikes or walked everywhere.  We camped in the wild, sometimes for a week or more.  We ate wild berries and even the occasional insect on a dare.  All of this meant exposure to nature.

Add to that having a mother who feared very little in nature and wanted her children to feel the same way.  She had us out catching crickets, playing with ant lions, watching the weather, playing with cicadas, and pretty much looking.  And the more you look at nature, the more you see, and that means you look more because each layer unwraps like an onion to reveal yet another layer beneath, another set of secrets and beauties.

Then I went through my rebellious phase.  It was all clubs and cars, friends and folly.  But when I matured a bit more, I started looking again, only this time it was with different eyes.  I’m a fanatical learner.  About everything.  So when I noticed nature again, it was more than just pointing and saying “Ooh, pretty…”, but instead it had became a desire not only to see, but to understand as well.  What is this?  What’s its role in the environment?  Why does it do what it does?  Nature became the biggest interest for me, not just here on Earth but also to the cosmological and quantum levels.  I wanted to know it.  And because one can never know all of nature’s secrets, it remains my single greatest passion since it never stops providing new things to learn.

2) What would you change about your home, your neighbourhood, your corner of the world? What one thing would you change to make it a better place?


I live in Dallas, TX, part of the DFW Metroplex, a sprawling expanse of cities and counties with many millions of people.  The region is growing more quickly than any place else in the US.  The urban and suburban sprawl irks me the most.  So much habitat has been lost.  So much wildlife displaced.  Even now alligators are moving into the area, basically reclaiming territory they once gave up to humans.  The response to their presence in the heart of DFW has not always been admirable, and in many cases they are being captured and relocated because they’re too close to people.  It’s actually disgusting to see.

To make matters worse, the metropolitan area covers more than 9,200 square miles/more than 24,000 square kilometers.  That means people drive everywhere.  And when you’re talking about 6.5 million people and growing, that’s a lot of driving across long distances.  Our air quality is poor (ozone alerts are common in summer).  One easily can extrapolate how much this area adds to global pollution.

So what I would change is simple: protect what little is left of the Blackland Prairie ecosystem and stop developing sprawl.  The further away people live, the further they have to drive to get to work.  But they don’t want to live in the heart of the city.  Yet these same people are disgusted by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  As Mark Morford wrote, “…if you’re honest, no matter where you stand, no matter your politics, religion, income or mode of transport, you see this beast of creeping death and you understand: That is us. The spill may be many things, but more than anything else it is a giant, horrifying mirror.”

3) Describe your most profound encounter in the natural world. (Or most memorable.)

I’ve always said hawks are my totem animals.  Though I usually add some unnecessarily soulful language to that (spirit guide or whatnot), I’m not really spiritual about them.  It’s just that in all the animal kingdom, hawks I relate to best.  So you’d probably guess my most profound or memorable encounter in nature would involve a hawk, perhaps even Baket.  But you’d be wrong.


The one encounter that presently sits above all others involved a Texas ocelot (Leopardus pardalis albescens).  Back in May 2009, I got lost somewhere near the Mexico border in deep South Texas.  I roamed nameless roads for a while before pulling over to give my brain—and my nerves—a rest.  With the windows rolled down so I could listen to and watch the world around me while I sipped water, a bit of movement caught my eye.  There sleeping in a tree was the ocelot, a highly endangered and rare creature.

I was mesmerized.  After snapping a few bad photos (I had no clear view of the cat due to brush and trees), I set the camera down and selfishly enjoyed watching it.  It woke and spent perhaps 30 minutes looking about lazily, then finally it stood, stretched and dropped out of the tree.  It vanished like a dream.

With only around 100 Texas ocelots in the state, I never once considered that I would see one.  Oh, I had every intention of looking for them (half the state’s population lives in the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, and that’s where I was going).  It’s just that I had no real expectation of seeing one.  Being lost didn’t matter anymore.  That I had seen an ocelot overrode every other thought and made being lost a gift.

(If you haven’t already, I do recommend you read the original post as it describes the encounter with more detail and gives some important conservation information about these critically endangered cats.)

4) If you could have a conversation with any person in history who would it be, and why that person?


Stephen Hawking.  Hands down and without question.  I know, perhaps something more oriented toward Earth-bound nature seems appropriate, but Hawking is my hero.  Trapped inside a body that was supposed to give out many years ago, the man has forged ahead to become one of the greatest theoretical physicists in history.  Similar to Carl Sagan before him, he’s been able to bring some of the most complex science down to a level for mass consumption (e.g., A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell).

Physics has always been a passion of mine because it is the one branch of science that controls every other branch of science, from biology to chemistry to meteorology and beyond.  To me, physics represents the very foundation of nature, the core of what I’m most passionate about.  Learning about it has always given me a better understanding of everything I see.  And because physics walks hand in hand with my love of mathematics, an opportunity to sit and chat with Stephen Hawking would give me one of the greatest learning experiences anyone could have.  Just the thought of it feels like illicit drugs coursing through my veins.

5) What advice would you give to anyone wanting to better experience the natural world?


My friend Ted once wrote that “Jason Hogle at xenogere is fond of the unusual and has a gift for finding it.”  It’s a gracious compliment to be sure, but it got me to thinking about my answer to this question.  I used to keep a list of every species I’ve ever seen, but then it grew too large and unwieldy, so I dropped it because I didn’t want to manage it and it felt like I was competing.  But it did play to Ted’s remark, and I had to ask myself why I see all the things I see.  Then it hit me: I don’t hurry and I look carefully.

A better experience in the natural world is simple: slow down and pay attention.  Two very basic concepts.  So much of the natural world hides in our hurrying.  We rush with a sonic boom of white noise surrounding us, and that keeps us from hearing the whispers of nature that can reveal hidden secrets.  We rush with a frenzied blindness to everything except the next goal, and that keeps us from seeing the gems that are right there next to us.  We rush with an errant purpose that makes nature a resource instead of a mother.  We rush and rush and rush, and that’s why so much is missed.

What’s unusual is simply what you haven’t seen yet.  And if you haven’t been looking, there’s a lot you haven’t seen.

— — — — — — — — — —

[1] Plainbelly water snake (a.k.a. plain-bellied water snake; Nerodia erythrogaster)

[2] Sunset over White Rock Lake; part of downtown Dallas is visible at the far left

[3] Texas ocelot (Leopardus pardalis albescens)

[4] Waxing gibbous moon

[5] Brick caps (Hypholoma sublateritium) at the base of a tree

Dragon portraits

As my friend Annie Gottlieb and I like to say, predators are always the most beautiful creatures.  Perhaps knowing that a killer lurks inside makes them all the more stunning, physical attractiveness amplified by the spirit of a hunter.

Close-up of a male slaty skimmer (Libellula incesta) perched on a reed (20080712_09282)

male slaty skimmer (Libellula incesta)

Close-up of a female great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans) perched on a reed (2009_07_19_027343)

female great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans)

Close-up of a female eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) perched on a reed (20080712_09324_c)

female eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis)

Close-up of a male great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans) perched on a branch (20080824_11457)

male great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans)

Anyone who notices

Family tragedy notwithstanding, I read something today that strikes me as pertinent.  Relative to oil spills, habitat destruction, pollution, everything.  And while we—we the family—mourn the loss of a loved one, I find I would be remiss in not sharing this representation of my spirit.

I want to tell you that the world is still beautiful.  I tell you that despite children raped on city streets, shot down in school rooms, despite the slow poisons seeping from old and hidden sins into our air, soil, water, despite the thinning film that encloses our aching world.  Despite my own terror and despair.

I want you to know that spring is no small thing, that the tender grasses curling like a baby’s fine hairs around your fingers are a recurring miracle.  I want to tell you that the river rocks shine like God, that the crisp voices of the orange and gold October leaves are laughing at death.

I want to remind you to look beneath the grass, to note the fragile hieroglyphs of ant, snail, beetle.  I want you to understand that you are no more and no less necessary than the brown recluse, the ruby-throated hummingbird, the humpback whale, the profligate mimosa.

I want to say, like Neruda, that I am waiting for “a great and common tenderness”, that I still believe we are capable of attention, that anyone who notices the world must want to save it.

— Rebecca Baggett, “Testimony” from Women’s Uncommon Prayers

[as for a writ on my aunt Cathy’s death—or more succinctly, on death as a whole—that’s in the works; it behooves me to admit that I’ve dwelt on death much of late as a response to the loss of many family members over these past few years, but most notably because I’ve only recently understood that Derek’s death in 2004 changed me in ways I never imagined; death indeed is a dignitary]