It’ blew up on TikTok’s blowing up on social media right now. Women are asked if they’d rather be stuck in the woods with a man or a bear. Most women answer, A bear. Which apparently has annoyed some male human beings. But the women are correct.

When I hada class in backwoods safety many years ago, we were asked to guess which was the most dangerous animal we’d encounter in the backwoods of New England. Of course we all answered, A bear. Not so, our (male) instructor replied. The human being is the most dangerous animal in the backwoods of New England, by far. Humans are big, smart, strong, and potentially vicious. Second to human beings, he said, we should be wary of moose. Why a moose, someone in the class asked. Because moose are big, near-sighted, stupid, and easily annoyed. If they’re annoyed, they might charge you. But if they charge you, just duck behind a tree. Free-roaming dogs can also be major dangers, and should be avoided. Bears, on the other hand, were unlikely to be a problem. The only bears in the New England backcountry are black bears. Black bears are bigger and stronger than humans, they might steal your food when you’re not around, but they are mostly peaceful, shy, and retiring. — So said our instructor.

Obviously, the original intention of the #manvsbear debate is to draw attention to the problem of male violence against women. And everything I’ve just said simply confirms that original intention. Of course women should fear a male human more than a bear. Human beings are way more dangerous than bears, and statistics show that male human beings are way more dangerous than female human beings. By the same token, however, just remember that if you’re a man who decides to go out backpacking in the backcountry alone, the animal that you need to fear more than any other is — another male human.


I was walking down the rail trail from the Cohasset train station through Whitney Thayer Woods when a brightly colored something seemingly caught in an oak seedling caught my eye.

Oak sapling with something fuzzy white with red spots growing on it.

Closer inspection revealed that it was a gall. I took a photo and uploaded it to the iNaturalist app, which informed me that it was probably a gall made by a Wool Sower Gall Wasp (Callirhytis seminator).

Closeup of the same fuzzy white object.

What a strange phenomenon galls are. Somewhere inside that fuzzy red-and-white ball is a wasp egg. Somehow, the wasp egg causes the plant to produce a protective growth. But why is the growth so bright and so showy? Is there an evolutionary advantage for the plant? Or is it just happenstance that something so beautiful grows around the wasp egg?

Cheap pocket plant press

Photo of the materials listed, laid out on a work table.

(1) This pocket plant press is made from a stack of 3 x 5 index cards, salvaged corrugated cardboard, cheap watercolor paper, and rubber bands. Cut two pieces of corrugated cardboard to 3 x 5 inches. Cut two pieces of cheap watercolor paper to the same size. Find a flower, and blot it dry with paper towels.

A flower arranged on the open plant press

(2) Place one piece of corrugated cardboard down. Stack half the file cards on top of it. Place a piece of watercolor paper on top of that. Arrange the flower on this stack. Then make another stack of corrugated cardboard, file cards, and watercolor paper.

The completed stack, the flower is in the middle with its stem sticking out.

(3) Assemble the stack with the corrugated cardboard on the outside. Wrap the assembly with the rubber bands. If the stem of the flower is sticking out, you can trim it off with scissors.

Side view of the assembled stack, showing the layers.

Now let it dry for at least a week. Longer if the weather is humid, or the flower is especially moist. If you want the flower really flat, stack some heavy books on top of the plant press.

The watercolor paper takes the place of blotter paper in a real plant press. In some cases, the pressed flower may leave a colored image on the watercolor paper, so with some experimentation you should be able to use this technique to make pressed flower monoprints.

The stack of file cards makes the plant press stiffer, and helps spread the pressure of the rubber bands out evenly. You can also press several flowers in this plant press by using alternating layers of file cards, watercolor paper, and flowers.

(This is a follow up to this post. And for the finished product, see this post.)

Plant presses and nature collage art

I’m in the process of developing curriculum for a couple of different eco-spirituality programs I’ll be co-leading this summer. One of the people I’ll be working with, Jessica, a former environmental educator who’s now the DRE at the Northhampton UU congregation, floated the idea of pressing plants.

Now, plant pressing is usually done to prepare specimens for an herbarium. But Jessica found a lesson plan in the Project Wild Aquatic curriculum book which uses a plant press for a process art project. You assemble a collage of aquatic plants (or really, any kind of plant) between sheets of porous paper, and press in a plant press. As the plant is pressed, the paper absorbs some of the colors of the plant. Wait a week till it’s dry, and you have a cool collage.

This activity kind of resembles flower pounding (see lesson plan #24 on this webpage). It also introduces participants to the use of a plant press — a standard botanical tool/process — which is a nice addition.

Still working on refining this activity for use with kids in a summer camp setting. We’ll see where this leads. In the mean time, a couple of resources: Plant presses for the classroom | Herbarium Supply Co.

Update, later the same day:

Here are my instructions for a cheapo plant press, cobbled together from several online sites:

You’ll need fifty 3×5 file cards, two pieces of corrugated carboard cut to 3×5 inches, and two strong rubber bands. Place a flower in the middle of the stack of file cards. Put the rubber bands around everything (see the drawing). Let dry for a week or more. When dry, glue the dried flower to the index card using white glue.

Sketch of the flower press described in the text

Snowdrops are starting to bloom outside our front door, so in a couple of days I’ll be able to give this a try in the real world.

(And here’s the follow up post where I actually make one of these.)

Summer reading: nature books for kids

Last week, I led some ecology programs in Maine with kids of various ages, including with the “Sand Diggers,” a group of children in preK-K. A few days before we drove up to Maine I checked the weather forecast. The National Weather Service was predicting rain most of the week, meaning we might be indoors much of the week. Uh oh. All my lesson plans for the Sand Diggers were for outdoors activities. I decided to get some nature storybooks to provide some indoors activities with the Sand Diggers.

I found a couple of good books at a nearby Mass Audubon sanctuary gift store. Our local bookstore didn’t really have any nature-themed picture books. So with the help of my librarian sister, I placed on online order for seven nature-themed picture books. Amazon was the only online bookseller who promised delivery in time for our trip to Maine; all I had to do was sign up for a month of free Prime “membership.” Of course, only one out of the books I ordered arrived before we left for Maine, typical of the poor customer service offered by Amazon. (Needless to say, I canceled my Prime “membership” before I had to actually start paying for that kind of poor service.)

Enough about Amazon, because this post is not about how horrible Amazon is. It’s a post about nine nature books for kids, all of which I think are pretty good. Capsule reviews of each book are below, with the best books saved for last.

The nine storybooks arranged on a table.
L-R, top row: I Can Name 50 Trees Today (the only book shipped on time by Amazon); The Lorax (shipped late by Amazon, but I got a free used copy from a Mass Audubon Little Free Library); Celia Planted a Garden (shipped late by Amazon); We Are Water Protectors (shipped late by Amazon); Light the Sky, Firefly (purchased from Mass Audubon).
L-R, bottom row: Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt (shipped late by Amazon); Over and Under the Pond (shipped late by Amazon); Hike (purchased from Maine Audubon); The Hike (shipped late by Amazon).
Amazon shipped just 1 out of 7 books on time. Thank goodness for Mass Audubon and Maine Audubon, so I had books to read to the Sand Diggers. Support your local booksellers!
Continue reading “Summer reading: nature books for kids”

Saco Heath

Alex, Patricia, Carol, and I took a walk toady across Saco Heath, a peat bog that’s owned by the Nature Conservancy. We walked most of the way across the boardwalk, stopping frequently to look at unusual wildflowers — wild cranberries, pogonias, bog orchids — and other plants.

The fog, low clouds, and light drizzle made it feel like an alien landscape. We wanted to spend more time there, but we only had an hour. Sometime I want to come back and spend half a day enjoying this unusual ecosystem.

Three people walking along a boardwalk through low vegetation
Halfway across the boardwalk


Carol and I went for walks in two wildlife sanctuaries today: the Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary and the North River Wildlife Sanctuary, both in Marshfield, Mass. Usually when we walk in wildlife sanctuaries I spend most of my time looking at plants, especially flowering plants. But today, without trying at all, we wound up seeing a quite a few animals. Here are three of them:

Two raptors in a nest built of sticks.
Adult and juvenile Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
A beetle on a leaf. The leaf has pieces gone from it, perhaps eatne by the beetle. possibly
Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Turtle mostly submerged in water.
Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)

Each of these three animals is what I’d call charismatic. I’m not quite sure what makes some animals more charismatic than others. Animal charisma is not a matter of being cuddly — none of these three animals could be considered cuddly. Nor is animal charisma a matter of being cute — a baby Osprey might be cute, in a fierce flesh-tearing-beak sort of way, but a Red Milkweed Beetle is not what most people would consider cute. In fact, being cute and cuddly is almost the opposite of being charismatic. Cuteness and cuddliness feel controllable; charisma does not.

Humans remain my favorite animal. At the same time, I think it’s good for us humans to encounter non-human animals. After all, for most of human existence, we lived in close-knit human communities while being surrounded by non-human animals — a distinct contrast to our current existence, where we are alienated both from other humans, and from non-human organisms.


Earlier this week, Carol and I walked on a beach in Maine where we saw two endangered bird species, Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) and Least Terns (Sternula antillarum).

Small sand-colored bird, standing in the sand, covering a chick with its wing.
Piping Plover with a nestling
Small gray and white bird nestled in the sand, perhaps sitting on a nest.
Least Tern — this bird remained stationary while we watched it, and may have been on a nest

Both these species nest on the beach above the high water mark. Nesting in the sand was a useful evolutionary adaptation for most of these birds’ existence. However, in the last hundred years as humans have used beaches more and more heavily. Many former nesting sites have either been eradicated. Other nesting sites see such heavy human use that nesting success has dropped precipitously.

Take the Piping Plover. The main strategy they use to evade predators is their cryptic coloration — when threatened, they squat down in the sand and are almost invisible. But this adaptation is counterproductive when the birds encounter over-sand vehicles (the birds and their nests get smushed), or off-leash dogs (the birds are found by smell, not sight) or oblivious humans playing on the beach (again, the birds get smushed). Then when some humans try to enact regulations to protect the birds — like restricting dog-walkers’ access to nesting areas, or prohibiting over-sand vehicles near nesting areas — many humans don’t comply with the regulations. So at another location in Maine this week, I saw a human with an unleashed dog standing right next to a marked nesting area where a few hours I had earlier seen a Piping Plover.

This is an example of how land use change and human overpopulation have caused rapid species decline over the past several decades. Now we can add another threat to these two species. Global climate change is already causing rising sea levels. If sea level rise continues, the preferred nesting locations for these birds is going to disappear.

It’s easy to sink into despair and imagine that these two species will be extinct in the next couple of decades. But while I’m not optimistic, there is still hope. Because even though humans are pushing these species to extinction, it’s also possible that they can be saved from extinction by careful human management. For that reason, I’ve decided that “management” is my new synonym for “hope.”

Tiny flower

Medeola virginiana, sometimes called Cucumber Root or Indian Cucumber-root, is in bloom in the woodlands around Cohasset right now. As the name implies, the small root is crunchy and white and tastes like cucumber — but you kill the plant when you dig it up for the root, so I stopped foraging for it many years ago.

The flower is tiny, maybe a centimeter or two across. It doesn’t look like much until you look at it through a magnifier:

Close up of a tiny flower, with a deep red pistil that terminates in three parts that are longer than the petals, and with greenish-yellow petals that curl back from the ovary.
Front view of Indian Cucumber-root flower through 10x hand lens
Same flower as previous photo, but a side view.
Side view of Indian Cucumber-root flower through 10s hand lens