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Swarm Tree: Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life

Come join me on this adventure. It’s sort of a down-to-earth spiritual journey. We’ll be following tracks, messing with bees, chasing butterflies, stalking deer, catching fish, and picking up pawpaws — and hitchhikers. We’ll be learning the lore and natural history of the plants and animals we encounter, but we’ll also be probing Creation, asking the deeper questions, and learning the stories that connect us all.
This book is partially about crossing boundaries—journeying into new realms—gaining new perspectives. Sometimes a boundary is defined by something as tangible as a barbed wire-topped chain link fence, or something as political as a mere dotted line on a map, as legalistic as an interpretation of the law, as mutable as the shoreline of a tidal creek, and sometimes it is as unfathomable as the tender edges of a lover’s heart.
I’ll be introducing you to a number of interesting critters and plants as well as some extraordinary human characters. Along with truckers and Georgia cops, you’ll be meeting old Appalachian mountain folk, young, rowdy good ole boys, hitchhikers with butterfly nets, a renegade PhD, an ancient African-American wise woman, and my own sweet wife and son. These folks have special relationships with nature and share unique perspectives that can help us stretch our own boundaries and more fully realize our multifaceted connections to this wondrous web of life of which we are a part.
At the end of many of the chapters I have included natural history notes with information about some of the plants and animals and their ecological and cultural relationships. These notes bring the background into focus, flesh out the setting, and give a broader and deeper context to the stories being told.
So I welcome you on this adventure. We’ll be exploring the confluence of nature, humanity and spirit — diving deeply into the richness of the natural world and coming back to the surface, and we’ll be climbing high into the tree of life, exploring some of its branches and returning to earth — with amazing stories, hilarious insights, and deep spiritual truths.
$18.00 plus shipping – order from my website: www.dougelliott.com

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Finding Stories in Nature

When I was a little boy about 4 or 5 years old, my dad and I came upon a small patch of wood sorrel at the edge of our yard in Maryland. My dad called it sour grass. He had learned it as a child in Louisiana. “It’s good to eat,” he told me. It was probably the first wild green plant I ever tasted. We nibbled the sour leaves there for quite a while. The intense tartness teased my young palate with a hint of the stimulating piquancy and richness of the natural world.
Wood sorrel (Oxalis sp.) is a distinctive plant. It looks somewhat like a “three-leafed clover” except that each of the three leaflets is heart-shaped. They are joined at their points so that together they form a heart-circle with smoothly scalloped edges. There are various species of wood sorrel all over North America, and in other parts of the world as well. There are at least three species in my yard in North Carolina. It was one of the first wild plants my son, Todd, ever tried. He in turn has shown it to his friends.
Once I was wandering in the North Carolina mountains with Ron Evans, a Chippewa Cree Indian from northern Canada. I was asking him about the various plants we encountered but most of what we were seeing were southern species that were unfamiliar to him. Then I spied a wood sorrel. “How ’bout this one?” I asked. He smiled. Yes, he knew that plant. One like it grows up north, he told me. He used to gather it by the basketful when he was a child. His people often eat it mixed with other greens in salads. The sour flavor works like a salad dressing.
“What do you call it?” I asked. He answered with a softly rolling collection of syllables that sounded like “cah-see-yo-ta-sko-si-ya.” When I asked him how that name might translate, he thought for a moment and said, “It means, ‘It’s all there’.” And then, as if he had never really thought about it before, he said, “I wonder why we call it that?” And we continued on our way. A little while later he stopped and said, “Ah, I know why it has that name. We consider the number six to be a representation of completeness, in the same way the six directions– North, South, East, West, Sky and Earth–represent completeness to my people. When you look at this plant, you can see that each stem has only three leaves (leaflets) so it seems incomplete. But when you look a little closer you will see that each of the three leaves is divided into two lobes. The complete number six is there, after all. So when we see this plant we say, ‘It’s all there.’ This plant teaches us that if we look closely enough within our own selves, we will see that we, too, are complete beings.”
It took my breath away to realize the deep truths that a common weed can provide when viewed from a mythic perspective. (I looked around me. “What does that plant teach, and that one, and that one?” I wondered as I looked at the oak tree, the honeysuckle vine, the wood fern and the goldenrod. ) Wood sorrel’s message is a broader one than just that of personal completeness. It is about the wholeness and completeness of nature as our source. It IS all there — not only food, clothing, and shelter, but personal answers, mythic lessons, profound stories, and deep spiritual truths are there, too; though sometimes it takes a peculiar squint of the eye for us to see and realize all this. Finding stories in nature is about squinting — or about opening our eyes up wide. It is about adjusting our way of looking at the world and trying to rearrange and broaden our perspective in order to see nature with new and different eyes that just might soften our rigid concepts about the way things are as we shed new light on ourselves and the beings that share our world. Continue reading Finding Stories in Nature

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Morel Mushroom Alert

Morels are happening! We’ve had some nice rain the last few weeks. The morels are popping up. This might be a good year and a good season to look for these easily recognizable world class gourmet mushrooms. (Take a field guide with you). It is often said that they emerge about the time the mayapples emerge. Over the years, the first place we usually find them is around our bee hives. Morels are associated around here with tulip poplars, ash, dying elms, and old apple orchards. They are sometimes found in great numbers after a forest fire. Morels are both saprobic (decomposing dead organic matter) and mycorrhizal, meaning they also connect to live plant roots in a more or less symbiotic relationship, where the fungus gets sugars and nutrients from the plant while providing the plants’ roots with a greatly increased absorptive surface area by extending mycelia out into the earth. This enhances the plant’s ability to derive nutrients from the soil.
I first learned about mycorrhizae thirty-some years ago when I was combing the botany library at UNC in Chapel Hill researching roots for my first book (Wild Roots). I was fascinated to learn that almost all healthy plant roots are infected by fungus. (“Mycorrhizae” means fungus-roots.) The plant’s good health is actually dependant on this fungal infection. Apparently even in rich soil that is sterile, without fungus, most plants can barely survive. It’s the fungal connection that allows them to thrive. This fungal connection is why certain mushrooms are found under certain trees

I have been reading (and writing) about mycorrhizae for decades but I had never actually seen them. Last summer my son, Todd, sat in on some graduate level mycology classes at Duke and at the Highlands Biological Station where they did extensive microscope work. So last week, when we were digging holes to plant muscadine grapes, and Todd unearthed a mass of mycorrhizal rootlets, we prevailed upon him to show us how to examine them with the microscopes. First at 70X we looked at the uninfected rootlets that were covered with root hairs. Root hairs are large single cells that form the primary absorptive surface of the plant roots. Then we looked at the engorged mycorrhizal rootlets (that looked like tiny twisted balloon creatures) He cut a tiny section of the rootlet, dyed it, pushed a cover slip on to it and when we looked at it at 700x. We could see the microscopic hyphal strands that penetrate between the cell walls of the rootlet and extend out from the surface. These are the parts that grow out into the soils and become part of the great mycelial web that is a primary component of the “fabric” of the earth– essential strands in the web of life. There’s a lot going on beneath our feet!

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Central American Adventure

We had a marvelous trip to Costa Rica in 2006. First we went to a no-frills jungle lodge called Rara Avis (rare birds) fifteen kilometers into the jungle. It takes three or four hours to travel that distance. It’s an amazing, wet, green rainforest scene.

On the trail we found tiny bright red frogs with blue legs. These are called “blue jean” or “strawberry” frogs. They are one of the brightly colored tropical frogs with toxic skin secretions known as poison dart frogs. Related species of these frogs were/are used by native hunters in South America to poison the tips of their blowgun darts. We learned that these little warning-colored beauties have an extraordinary life history. The males establish territories and staunchly defend them. Occasionally during the breeding season they can be seen (looking like tiny sumo wrestlers) struggling with each other over a tiny piece of the forest floor from which to sing a love song described as “insect-like chirps and buzzes”. His calls attract a female. As she approaches, a male will ceremoniously deposit a wad of semen on a fallen leaf and move away, inviting the female to come and lay her eggs. If his song has “moved” her in that special way, she will deposit three to five eggs. A week or so later when the tadpoles hatch, she returns, and backs into the glob of newly hatched tads until one wiggles up onto her back. Then she climbs up a tree with the tadpole hanging on like a slimy little fanny pack. Up in the tree she finds a pineapple-like bromeliad air plant that has water trapped in its leaves. She lowers herself into the pool and the little tad swims away into what has become the nursery pool. She makes several trips back down the tree until she has all her tadpoles in the pool. Then she returns every couple of days and backs herself into the pool. Her tadpoles wiggle their tails excitedly at her approach. When she senses their presence, she deposits unfertilized eggs for her babies to eat! The tadpoles eat them by “biting a hole in the jelly capsule and sucking out the contents.” Slurp! How ‘bout that for a child-care system!

After marveling at the frogs, a little further ahead we came upon a 5 foot boa constrictor crossing the trail. I had had a pet boa just like this when I was a teenager. I spent many hours with that critter. Here in the wild was a snake just like the one I had as a pet. It was living free and literally crossing our path at this moment in time. I begged the guide to let me “mess” with it. In his best English, he replied, “Okay but, eet’s gonna bite you, man!” I gently picked it up and let it crawl through my hands, marveling at its thick, strong body and then I passed it to Todd and he handled it for a few minutes. Then when I reached for it to take it back, the snake saw my rapidly approaching hand as an attack and it went into a defensive mode and rather dramatically bit me; my punctured hand bled dramatically (as superficial punctures are prone to do). All this totally amazed the other guests. (Boas are not venomous, by the way, and it healed up in a couple of days.)

We spent the next few days roaming trails, seeing all sorts of flowers, birds, frogs, and mammals, like coatimundis, which look like streamlined coons with long erect tails. We saw rare, intermediate, nether-world type creatures like a caecilian, which is a primitive amphibian that looks like a huge lavender-purple earthworm, and the rare velvet worm which looks like a soft-bodied centipede. The velvet worm captures its prey by ejecting a glob of clear mucous that entangles the hapless critter. The one we saw in our flashlight beam had just caught a small roach.

There was even a tapir that came onto the grounds of the lodge. A tapir is the size of a burro and related to the horse and rhinoceros. It has three toes on its feet and a stubby, almost elephant-like snout. It is generally considered the wildest and shyest of the rainforest creatures, but this one had gotten used to the folks at the lodge and came to visit almost weekly especially when lured by one of the guides who cut a branch of its favorite food tree (Clusia) which usually grew out of its reach. They had named him Miguel. There he was standing in front of the dining hall munching leaves off the fresh cut branch. Miguel had a strange backward pointed penis. He regularly urinated a stream straight back from between his hind legs. Hint: Don’t stand directly behind a tapir.

It was astounding to me that this proverbial wild, timid creature actually enjoyed being rubbed and patted. It even lay down to get its belly scratched and allowed me to pull some huge ticks off. When it ambled back off into the jungle I followed along (but not directly behind.). I wanted to prolong and maximize the experience of being with this critter, but when it got into the forest, it became wild again, became suspicious of me and would not allow me to get close.

Todd carried his camera practically everywhere, documenting everything he could and was incredibly alert and observant. We all saw twice as much because of him.

Our time at Rara Avis helped us acclimate and prepare for our upcoming sessions at the more upscale resort called Sueno Azul (“Blue Dream”) where we helped to coordinate Omega Institute’s Family Week in the Rainforest.

Family Week in the Rain Forest

At Sueno Azul we met with former Omega friends Stephen and Lila Pague and put together a fun week of activities for 27 people– about 7 families with varying numbers of adults and kids. Our activities included music, singing, skits, and crafts, like vine baskets, dream catchers and palm crafts from materials we gathered. We swam in clear jungle rivers and explored the rain forest, observing monkeys, toucans, sloths, snakes, bats, etc. We had exciting experiences catching young caimans (Central American ‘gators), huge toads, and other critters at night; and butterflies and lizards during the day. We harvested tropical fruits (guavas, coconuts, citrus). We not only fished with hooks and line, the kids cleaned their catches (tilapia/mojara) and cooked them on an open fire that Steven started without matches using a bow drill. bThere was also yoga and chi-gong in the mornings, supplemented by resort-sponsored activities like zip-lining through the rainforest canopy from tree to tree (swinging for a mile or so on cables sometimes 90 feet up), whitewater rafting, horseback riding, etc…not to mention incredible regional food.

bEvery night Todd would come back into the gathering area with amazing critters including small caimans, large geckos, and one night, a Northern Jacana, which is a bird (like a quail-sized coot with long legs ending in huge heron-like feet.) On its wings at the “wrist joint” there was a bright yellow pointed spur, supposedly used in defense of territory (more on that below). Jacana spinosa is the scientific name; spinosa likely referring to that spine or spur.

bWe were astounded when we researched this strange bird’s natural history. Jacanas are appreciated by “feministas” because of the “reversal of typical avian sex roles.” Males do all the nest building, incubation, and child care. It is the female who defends her territory. As soon as she finds a mate, he creates a smaller territory of his own within her larger territory. She mates with him, lays her eggs and leaves that male on the nest to brood the eggs and tend to her young. Then she takes up with another male, makes a nest, and mates with him in another part of her territory, leaving him sitting on that batch of eggs in another nest, and so on…. One female has been observed mating with four different males in one hour. As promiscuous as this sounds, she does remain true to “her guys,” mating with the same males year after year and she helps them guard their nests and defend their territories. This “simultaneous polyandry” is rare in birds and might have evolved because the high rate of nest failure and egg and hatchling mortality in the unstable watery environment where these creatures live and breed.

The Costa Ricans were extraordinarily upbeat, friendly and really supportive of our efforts to speak Spanish, though many in the resort speak English. It was really heartwarming to work with Todd and Yanna (and Steven and Lila) as a team. Sometimes we’d all be together and other times Yanna would have some people weaving baskets in one area. Todd would have a group of kids playing soccer or exploring the lake. I’d be doing a walk Steven would be playing guitar music. Sometimes Steven, Todd and I would play tunes and the whole group would sing and carry on together. Great experience for us all. Maybe you might like to join us in 2007 (Easter Week, April 7-14). www.eomega.org/omega/travel

In the picture below we are showing a 6 foot Sabanera, the beautiful green, yellow and orange flecked, very snappy (but not venomous), bird-eating snake. (It also bit me shortly after this picture was taken.)

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Todd’s Adventures on stage, with chickens and with bees

Our son Todd had been working up a few stories, tricks and fiddle routines and we have had a great time performing together the last couple of years. The summer of 2005 we were invited to the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival in Utah and the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee where he told stories about his chickens and played fiddle tunes like “Cluck Ole Hen”. People seemed to like it pretty well.

I have been keeping bees for some twenty-five years. As Todd seemed interested in bees as a little boy, I invested in a kid-sized bee suit and we have had fun working together in the bee yard. Just to keep him engaged, I would designate one hive that was “Todd’s hive” but the 2003 and 2004 seasons with mite problems and the excessive rain during the nectar flows, were the worst local beekeepers had ever seen and even though we had at least a half-dozen hives, we still ended up buying some honey for our own household use.


todd with bees

The spring of 2005, however, our eight hives survived the winter and as spring rolled around, the colonies were building up well. As it turned out, I had a 10 day storytelling tour in late April- early May (CT, PA, MO). This is the season that bees swarm, (When your hive swarms, the old queen and most of the work force leave to establish a new colony and you lose most of the surplus honey crop for that year, but if you can catch the swarm before it flies away, you can establish a new hive.) Before I left we made sure the bees had enough room in their hives to expand and we did everything else we could to prevent swarming. Just to be sure, I left Todd with 3 empty hive bodies ready in case the bees did swarm. I came back to find our apiary had more than doubled in size to seventeen hives. Todd had caught more than a dozen swarms. He had scavenged every bit of used bee equipment he could find to hive the swarms and had even called neighbors to give away swarms, mentoring some elderly new bee keepers in the process. So now there is no question about some of the hives being “Todd’s hives”. And he knows which ones they are – he caught ’em. And this year we got some really nice honey.

(There is more on beekeeping and the life of the hive in my book, Wildwoods Wisdom Chapter 9 entitled, “Observations of Social Parasitism – Of Feminist Bees, Slave Making Ants, Radical Gardeners, and Sleazy Academics”.)