From Milkweed to Monarch

While house-sitting for friends in Massachusetts, we took care of Flute, their parakeet, and two caterpillars in the dining room. The caterpillars lived on fresh milkweed leaves from the garden. And they sure put away a lot of leaves, chewing audibly beside us during mealtime (and apparently all the rest of the time).

One day they stopped eating and attached themselves to the side of the terrarium, quiet yet pulsating, and seeming to shrink inwardly, their festive green and yellow bodies growing dark and shriveled. I stayed up as late as I could and finally had to crash. In the morning those discarded husks lay on the floor, each replaced by a gleaming jewel-like chrysalis.

Flute was a much jollier and more sociable companion, riding about on our shoulders and chatting throughout the day, but the caterpillars were a (mostly) silent reminder of the daily small miracles that surround us.



Peas of Mind Part II

(Continued from Peas of Mind Part I, July 20)


Speculation on this subject probably dates from prehistory, when nomadic peoples discovered that fallen seed produced new grain, and that it was handier to domesticate sheep than to chase after them in the wild. Selective breeding of plants and animals is thousands of years old.

But how did it all work? Why did sheep vary in color, size, and wool quality? For that matter, why did sheep give birth to lambs instead of, say, lentils? Was it all an unchanging predetermined system, set in motion by a Creator? Was variation due to inner mechanisms, or to external factors, like environmental requirements, or supernatural forces? Did new species generate spontaneously, from water, mud, cheese, and old rags? Was there an underlying material explanation for the workings of the Great Chain of Being?

Every people has had its explanation for the workings of existence. From mythology to religion to philosophy, theories abound. And as the world has shrunk and human consciousness evolves, explanations are increasingly shared, expanded, and abandoned.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, the Western world was seized with a new fever of questioning in all areas of natural science. By the 19th, scientists working independently in diverse fields were moving inexorably from childlike faith in mythology and magic toward a secular, observation-based, material Explanation For Everything. It was the early adolescence of Western thought: Ha! You don’t know everything, God, so I’m going to search for the truth myself! And maybe I’ll find out you’re not even there! Questioners sought to discover universal underlying principles of existence, revealing that they retained a desire for Oneness through science that would replace loss of faith. But that’s another post…

So back to Mendel and his peas. (I realize this is my SECOND post about a monk this month! but that is pure coincidence.)

Pea plants are self-pollinating, but Mendel controlled pollination by removing stamens from selected plants and pollinating specific generations by hand, controlling for one characteristic at a time and keeping detailed mathematical records of the results. His experiments revealed consistently that, although the offspring of a first generation of peas always resembled the parents, the offspring of two crossed generations resembled only ONE parent—and, most surprising, that among the offspring of the hybrids, three out of four peas displayed one parental trait and the fourth pea displayed the other.

Other scientists had previously studied cross-pollination, but without coming to final conclusions or developing laws of inheritance. But Mendel, after growing thirty thousand plants over eight years, deduced the existence of what he called dominant and recessive traits, controlled by elements within the egg cell and the pollen of plants (later called genes). He also concluded that each parent carries half the elements passed on to offspring, and that these individual elements remain present and distinct, controlling specific characteristics like eye and hair color. (We’re no longer talking about peas here, except for unusual, Pixar-type peas.) This was in contrast to others, including Charles Darwin, who thought that characteristics from parents blended within the offspring.

In 1865 Mendel presented his findings to the Natural Sciences Society of Brünn, and later mailed printed copies throughout the scientific community (Darwin got one), but he received little response. Some fellow scientists were confused by his mathematical approach and his talk of distinct inherited traits. And what did peas have to do with people? Mendel was disappointed, but shortly thereafter he was elected abbot of the monastery, and although he continued gardening and beekeeping, his duties left no time for further experimentation. His position, however, now made possible financial assistance for his sister’s children (and a fire house for his home village).

Upon Mendel’s death, his successor burned his papers. (Horrors! I bet there’s a secret story in that.) Fortunately, the papers Mendel had mailed abroad survived. But it wasn’t until the early 1900s that his work was rediscovered by several scientists working independently of one another in Holland, Germany, England, and the United States, taking them by surprise. His work was challenged and his theories modified, but he had grasped certain basic principles of heredity fifty years ahead of anyone else, and terminology was developed for the field of study Mendel had initiated and the mechanisms and processes he had described.

Even though middle school was a LONG time ago, I cannot see peas in a garden without thinking of dear Gregor. Sigh. Including these delicious sugar-snaps growing in our friend Susan’s Vermont garden, which my daughter and I sketched for our Botany block. We picked and ate plenty of them, too. That was for our Gastronomy block.

Apple tree

For Botany today we wander the apple orchard, examining the branches with their swelling fruit; then we sit beneath one of the trees and draw. Flies buzz overhead, birds sing in the woods nearby, and the dog stretches out on the grass for a rest. That’s what I call Natural Science.


Behold the apples’ rounded worlds:
juice-green of July rain,
the black polestar of flowers, the rind
mapped with its crimson stain.

The russet, crab and cottage red
burn to the sun’s hot brass,
then drop like sweat from every branch
and bubble in the grass.

They lie as wanton as they fall,
and where they fall and break,
the stallion clamps his crunching jaws,
the starling stabs his beak.

In each plump gourd the cidery bite
of boys’ teeth tears the skin;
the waltzing wasp consumes his share,
the bent worm enters in.

I, with as easy hunger, take
entire my season’s dole;
welcome the ripe, the sweet, the sour,
the hollow and the whole.

—Laurie Lee

CakeYellowRoses2Grandma Clarke

The Next Generation

If you have been following this blog for a while, you may recall that in April my daughter and I took a kidney bean from a big jar of kidney beans in our kitchen and set it in moist cotton, whereupon it sprouted, after which we planted it in the garden. Lo and behold, it grew into a bean plant, blossomed, and brought forth brand-new kidney beans. I realize that this is not a discovery original to us, but somehow it was just as thrilling as if it were.



Mystery Tree


One of the projects of our homeschooling Botany block, which we began just before the spring equinox (and which looks like it will continue for a year, if we want to get a rounded view of plant life) has been a Tree Study. My daughter chose a tree in its winter state, down the street on the grounds of the hotel, and we sketched its bare branches and made crayon bark rubbings. Spring arrived; we sketched other, now-budding, even flowering and leafing trees; did other bark rubbings. Our Chosen Tree remained mystifyingly and unashamedly bare in a forest of showy blossoms and new green leaves. Good grief! Was it even ALIVE? Yet the reddish branch tips were springy, not dry.

One day the tips seemed a bit longer. The next day more so. Still no green, but increasingly long. Finally each tip gently opened to reveal a glimpse of…GREEN! Then, long clusters of large, fresh leaves unrolled themselves day by day, impossibly, from the formerly slender twiggy tips. In a few days the tree bore a bright and bushy yellow-green crown wider than it was high, well worth the wait. We sketched it in its new glory. Some of you must be familiar with this type of tree, but I only recognize a handful of varieties. Our neighbor Jason, seeing the sketch, revealed its identity: it is a hornbeam.

Prince of Binomial Nomenclature: Part 1

This is a drawing of Trifolium repens (Three leaves, creeping), otherwise known as white clover, from our Botany block. My daughter has been growing her very own patch of it in the garden, and it’s doing a lot better than the arugula.

I post this drawing because Trifolium repens was personally given its name by none other than…the Prince of Binomial Nomenclature.


Wouldn’t Prince of Binomial Nomenclature be an awesome title for a work of sophisticated tween fantasy literature? An unknown yet gifted Swedish youth—the future Prince—ventures forth into the wilderness, despite the objections of his parents, to make discoveries that change thenceforth the way we look at relationships among all living things on Earth, and founds the Grand Kingdom of Binomial Nomenclature.

This is actually a TRUE story. Today is the birthday of Carl, or Carolus, Linnaeus (1707-1778), who grew up in Stenbrohult, Sweden, in a village surrounded by farmland, woods, and mountains, a made-to-order environment for a future naturalist. But his father and grandfather were both country pastors, and they expected little Carl would follow in their footsteps, so his parents hired a tutor for his pastor-preparatory education.

Carl, however, showed from an early age a distinct inclination to wander off looking at plants. Exasperated, his family sent him away at age nine to a school in town, where classes ran from 6 am to 5 pm and consisted of studying Latin, Greek, and the Bible. Astonishingly, this did nothing to increase Linnaeus’ passion for school (although the Latin came in handy later, as we shall see). Often he skipped class to explore the fields, examining flowers. The only subjects he liked were logic and physics, taught by the town doctor, who lent him books and persuaded Linnaeus’ parents to let him become a doctor instead of a clergyman—this was an age when almost all medicines were plant-based, so knowledge of them was extremely useful—and offered him anatomy and physiology studies until he was ready for University. A doctor! What a crushing disappointment! But they reluctantly agreed.

Linnaeus enrolled first at Lund University, where his father had studied. No one there taught his real interest, botany, but he was befriended by a professor with botany books in his personal library, from which Linnaeus taught himself. When Linnaeus transferred to the University at Uppsala for its botanical gardens, his parents withdrew their financial support. You’re on your own, you little botanist.

So poor that he suffered from malnutrition and patched his shoes with paper, Linnaeus would have withdrawn from school if not for a fortunate meeting with a theology professor who was so taken with Linnaeus’ botanical knowledge that he offered him room and board and found him tutoring work. Grateful, Linnaeus thanked him with the gift of a paper he had written on pollination. Not your typical present (“Happy birthday! I wrote you a paper on pollination!”), but I guess he knew his recipient.

Why pollination? Well, Linnaeus was troubled by the popular methods of plant classification and had begun to ponder a new system. Classification of organisms was hardly a new concept, dating back at least to Aristotle, but naturalists differed on how it ought to be done, and several different systems existed. Was it to be by form? By function? By environment? (One system grouped beavers with fish, because both live in water. For a while the Catholic church permitted beaver to be eaten on fast days. That must have made the Jesuits’ work easier in North America.) What about the problem of naming? The same plant or animal was given a multitude of names in different countries. And what about the absolute flood of new, unfamiliar flora and fauna arriving from expeditions to the Americas? It was overwhelming.

Linnaeus’ paper explained a theory he had developed about the roles of stamens and pistils in plants. The professor, impressed, had it read at the Swedish Royal Academy of Science, and, although Linnaeus was still a student, he was offered a position as a botanical lecturer. His talks drew hundreds of listeners, many times the usual number. This was partly due to the controversial nature of the subject of plant reproduction (a new, hot topic) and partly due to Linnaeus’ unusually poetic and anthropomorphic descriptions of his plant subjects’ structure and habits. “The actual petals of the flower contribute nothing to generation, serving only as bridal beds,” he said. And, “It is time for the bridegroom to embrace his beloved bride and surrender his gifts to her.” That’s my kind of botany class! No wonder he brought in the crowds. Nowadays we can usually mention stamens in public without causing a shiver of excitement. (Correct me if I am wrong here.)

Please see Prince of Binomial Nomenclature: Part 2

Crazy for Math

This is a page of the Improper Fractions lesson from our homeschooling Fractions block. I hope to get the entire book up on the Homeschooling page eventually. For now it serves as an introduction for what I am about to tell you.


Recently a big group of us had dinner at the home of our friends Lynn and Giovanni. The meal ended with everyone playing with math puzzles and games around the dining room table. Lynn, a Math Whiz, owns hundreds of them. For years she was a math instructor and tutor. Then in 1999 she developed a summer Math Camp called “MathTree.” It’s not only for kids struggling with math, but also for kids who can’t get enough and want it included in their summers. (I understand that there actually ARE such children, although none has shown up in my family.)

MathTree has taken off—that first summer there were two locations, and now there are 26 of them (!!!), for kids ages five to teens, all over the Washington metropolitan area. Lynn has developed a hands-on approach using objects, games, puzzles, and real-life experiences. (I was reading the fliers for the camp choices and thinking I might like to sign up myself! except they don’t have my age group.) If you are looking for an unusual kids’ math camp, MathTree might be just the ticket. So I’m putting a link to the website and brochure here. As my husband and I frequently remind each other, Someday Our Children Will Thank Us.


Three years ago my daughter and I bought three little strawberry plants at a school fair. Each year they have multiplied, and now we have about fifteen pots full of plants on our tiny rooftop deck. This spring we are drawing them at their different stages of development for our Botany block, and the process, from bud to fruit, is pretty fascinating. The strawberries are terrific. Unfortunately this year a squirrel has discovered them and visits often. What’s so annoying is that he (she?) doesn’t simply eat an entire strawberry, but takes large bites out of several and then wanders off. One day I caught him trying to BURY one as if it were a nut.