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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Home Stretch

Air Date: Week of

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Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg ponders the end of a short summer and the prospect of another long winter.


CURWOOD: With summer almost over and the prospect of another long, cold winter looming, commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg says all the creatures on his farm are contemplating hearth and home.

KLINKENBORG: I never think of wasps as particularly domestic creatures. They cause in me, and in most people, a swift revulsion—not only a fear of getting stung but of getting stung by an insect that looks so alien. But while I was fixing up the pig-house the other afternoon, I looked up and saw a pair of paper wasps delicately dabbing at the edges of a small nest hanging from a single stem under the pig-house eave. Something about their movements, embroidering their way around the circumference of cells, struck me as downright broody, a word we use up here to mean maternal. The wasps and I were at work on the same task, fixing up the place. And I've come to the conclusion that they're not as alien as humans think. According to one researcher, paper wasps recognize each other not only through chemical scent but through visual identification of facial patterns.

Nature seems to offer the same two lessons to humans over and over again. The first one is simply that no matter what form life takes, no matter how alien a creature appears at first, it turns out, in the end, to be very close genetic kin with fundamentally similar concerns as ours. The other lesson is best summed up by the scientist who studied the recognition behavior of paper wasps. “They are more sophisticated than we thought,” she concluded. That's always the conclusion. Someday, as a measure of our own sophistication, we'll conclude that all creatures are more sophisticated than we thought.

The stripes on the paper wasps happen to be the color of late summer. It’s a shade that in some lights is golden, in others almost orange, like mullein and asters and black-eyed susans. By early August the palette of blossoms has shifted to hotter colors, as if in their vividness they were reflecting the sun. Our own wishfulness makes these last few weeks of summer seem a perpetual season, when time almost pretends to stop.

A few weeks ago, the Queen-Anne's lace came into bloom out by the mailbox. It seemed as if those blossoms had always been there, but that's really just the memories of other summers filling in for the shortness of this one.

What’s made this summer different around here is the presence of a broody hen. The natural eagerness to sit on eggs has been bred out of most chickens, but we have one hen from an old breed—a Dorking—who will sit on anything even vaguely egg-shaped. Not quite three weeks ago, we set her on a clutch of eggs—an odd number for good luck. She has barely moved since then. Her comb has gone pale, and she's looking a little bloodshot around her beautiful amber eyes. When we stop by to check on her—waiting for that 21st day—she looks out at us with a certainty that we try to parse. To me, it looks as though she knows she's in the home stretch.

[MUSIC: The Magnetic Fields “I Shatter” 69 LOVE SONGS VOL. 2 (Merge - 2000)]

CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about the rural life for The New York Times.

[MUSIC: The Magnetic Fields “I Shatter” 69 LOVE SONGS VOL. 2 (Merge - 2000)]



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