Winterizing the brain


It’s that time of year, the transition between summer abundance and winter dearth. In the warm months it’s so easy to find something to blog about: life is everywhere. Insects, flowers, birds, green leaves everywhere you turn. The brain gets lazy, there’s no need for it to work overhard. Then come October and November, all that great wealth of life begins to thin out. You go out with your camera to find something to blog about and the brain says, “Are you kidding me? There’s nothing out here!” It’s wrong, of course; there’s still plenty of interesting things going on, stuff to find, but the brain is in summer mode. It will take some effort and time to retrain it into a winter way of thinking and seeing.

Earlier this week I took my brain for a walk into our back fields. It saw nothing, so I made it look closer. “Let’s start with this rock,” I said, “and we’ll go from there.” My brain peered at the rock and saw only rock and moss. I chastised it. “No, look closer. Pay attention. What do you see?”


“Well, those red things are pretty obvious,” Brain said.
“Good!” I applauded. “That’s a great start. British Soldier Lichen, their red caps in full bloom, to produce spores. What else is there?”


“Um. Some spikey mosses. Lots of them there.”
“Yes! Juniper Haircap Moss, Polytrichum juniperinum,” I enthused, including the italics. “Cosmopolitan, occurs on every continent, including Antarctica! It gets reddish ‘flowers’ on the tips when it’s reproducing. You’re doing good! Keep going, what else?”


“Some branchy lichen to the side,” Brain pointed out. “Wait, I think I remember these – reindeer lichen?”
“Excellent! Yes, reindeer lichen, specifically Cladina rangiferina, which can be told apart from Yellow-green Lichen, Cladina mitis, by its blue-gray colour. It’s soft and spongy after a rain, but brittle and crumbles when dry. It’s a major food source of reindeer, hence the name.”


“There’s that curly grass stuff in the little patch there,” Brain said, warming up to the challenge.
“Probably the same stuff we walked through to get here,” I agreed. “Poverty Oatgrass, Danthonia spicata, widespread across most of the continent. It can be identified by the curly tuft of grass at its base. Grows on thin rocky soil and is very resistant to drought, probably why it’s growing in amongst all these mosses and lichens on the rock.”


“Hm. Oh, look! Cup lichen, tucked in beside the British Soldiers.”
“So there is, good eye,” I said. “Cladonia species, perhaps False Pixie Cup, C. chlorophaea, which grows on rocks, among other substrates, and is commonly found with mosses.”


“And the moss has put out spore spikes,” Brain said, now getting up to speed.
“Ah yes, just on the right. Now you’re on a roll. I didn’t even see those till you pointed them out.”


“Some dead cedar leaves, from the cedars at the edge of the rocks, I guess.”
“Seems probable. Deposited here by wind or animal, do you think?” I wondered aloud.


“Look at that cute little plant,” Brain pointed to some red leaves. “So small. Any idea?”
“None whatsoever,” I admitted. “Too bad it doesn’t have any flower heads or seed pods to help. Something to look for next summer, I guess.”


“Oh, and look. It was visited by a rabbit,” Brain finished up by pointed out one final item.
“Eastern Cottontail or Snowshoe Hare?” I joked.
Brain and I stood up from where we’d been stooped over our one-foot-square of rock.
“See? That wasn’t so bad,” I said. “All it needs is a bit of practice to get you back in shape.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Brain said grudgingly.
“You did good. Let’s leave the lesson there for now. We’ll try again later this week, perhaps.”