Gene Logsdon: More Evidence of Nature’s Resilience


The Contrary Farmer

I’m always amazed at how I continually gain new information from land that I have walked over for three-fourths of a century now. On the first warmish March day of this beastly cold year, I strolled out over the pasture field by the pond. The ground was still frozen hard to the very surface but there was no snow on most of it. The pond was still frozen too. In fact just three nights previously, the temperature had been below zero. A flock of robins was hopping around on the frozen ground— I am tempted to call it tundra— and I was wondering if they were starving to death looking for worms. I walked towards them and to my amazement I discovered that the pasture surface was alive with little spider-like insects. The robins were darting about, gobbling them up. They weren’t starving; they were joyfully committing gluttony!

I am hoping some of you might be able to tell me the name of these bugs. They varied from pea size to a bit larger, brownish-black, an arachnid I am almost sure, but so fast it was hard to get a good look at them. They would scurry up over the dead grass as I shuffled along and then disappear into the turf again. I thought about snow fleas but these bugs were quite different. They were much too nondescript to identify from any of my bug books.

I did learn, as I tried to identify this mystery, that snow fleas, a form of springtail, contain an antifreeze protein that enables them to operate in sub-zero temperatures. How about that? I wonder if the mystery spiders were so endowed and had wintered under the nearby woodland leaves or under logs or bark or even under the dead pasture grass and needed only a sudden increase in air temperature to become active.

I sometimes get criticized for over-emphasizing the amazing resilience of nature and in that way give human society an excuse to gloss over or justify activity that threatens the environment. There’s some truth to that criticism, I suppose, but in these days of excessive paranoia, I think well-meaning people are becoming more overwrought than necessary at the dangers human activity exerts on wildlife. Nature is one tough old bitch. When I got back to the house from my pasture adventure, I spied another example. Despite the crushing burden of some of the coldest weather in history and below zero nights just three days earlier, guess what. There were winter aconites blooming along the south wall of the house. A clump of snowdrops close by were budded out and ready to open. I could not believe my eyes. The house foundation had evidently kept the soil right next to it unfrozen— even though it was frozen just three inches away. Zero temperatures returned briefly after that, but when warmer weather returned the flowers bloomed merrily away even farther out in the yard.

What a lift to an old farmer who had been going to the barn every day through this arctic weather and was tempted to think that maybe spring would never come again. Cheer up, gang. The world’s not over just yet. And I bet if it comes down to who is going to outlast whom, the flowers will bloom and the bugs zoom even as humans head for doom.