Every weekday morning, I take a two-mile walk through the neighborhood. Because we live out in the country, various forms of wildlife appear. Some of them, unfortunately, turn out to be flattened, like the squirrel who tried to beat the car while crossing the road. I can almost hear him saying to himself, “I’ve done this a million times before”—squirrels tend to exaggerate—“I can do it again.” Only to discover that one in a million times that it doesn’t work. When deer try the same thing, at least they have a size advantage. Though they often meet their demise, they take out revenge on our cars.
But this isn’t about road kill.
Most things I encounter out on the road are much more pleasant. Take the wooly bear caterpillar, for example. Twice I’ve stopped to watch them gallump their way toward the safety of the ditch. Unless they’re moving, it’s impossible to tell front from rear. Which is the point, I guess, when a bird is homing in for a snack. A little misjudgment on the part of the bird, and the caterpillar can be off in the opposite direction.
A close look at the brown band that girdles the brown caterpillars shows wide fuzzy bands. The story goes that, the wider the band, the worse the winter to come. That, of course, doesn’t really make sense. What the band does reflect is the depth of the food buffet in the previous spring and summer. More food, healthier wooly bears, and wider brown bands. In spite of that, I still love these old tales. They’re everywhere, if you think about it. Take a yard peppered with acorns. Another instance of the sign of a coming winter that’ll blow your socks off. Same answer as the wooly bear’s band: better spring and summer weather, more acorns. That led me to think about rhubarb. Bear with me; this’ll come together in a minute. We have both acorns and rhubarb in our backyard, so it’s natural to scan and see both. Rhubarb is a perfectly yummy plant. It’s so yummy, the old-fashioned name is pieplant. But don’t eat the leaves; they’re poisonous.
Who found out that rhubarb leaves are poisonous? What early hunter-gatherer was so hungry as to try eating rhubarb leaves? I can understand how other foods passed the taste test, but rhubarb leaves? Some early hunters, having skewered a squirrel in preparation for roasting it over a fire, probably saw their precious dinner slip off the stick because it wasn’t run through securely enough. The hard work entailed in getting that squirrel meant the hunters were watching dinner turn to a cinder. They would undoubtedly rescue the meat from the fire, and then risk eating it, because who knew when the next meal would stroll by and offer itself to your spear? Voila! Sweet cooked meat! And you could carry the leftovers with you without drawing every fly in the neighborhood. Everyone benefited from the discovery. In the future, cooking meat became the norm. And so did avoiding rhubarb leaves!
But back to wooly bears. With warm springs and sunny summers, a plethora of field flowers and grasses pop up. Violets, clovers, sunflowers and asters are just some of the foods laid out on the wooly bears’ banquet tables. With such goodies in abundance, wooly bears grow fat, and so do their fuzzy brown bands. It’s their pasts that result in thick fur like velvet. So, I guess we should look over our shoulders once in a while to see how what’s here now might be based on what’s already happened. Better than trying to predict the future based on the wooly bear caterpillar.