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February 25 - Attending to Life Cycles

Last spring as I spent more time in nature close to home, I found I noticed new things; many of these observations had to do with seeing familiar plants and animals in a different stage or season of life.

For example, last year was the first time I noticed that holly bushes have flowers. I have lived near holly bushes my entire life and know their pointy leaves and bright red berries but had not observed the spring flowers.

Where I live in Virginia, pollen season is intense; it is typically something I want to go away, not something I want to attend to. However, last year, I noticed some of the baby leaves that had fallen from trees along with the pollen. It was interesting to note that the forms of these were similar to the forms of the mature leaves and seedpods of the tree. Below are photos from the sweet gum tree.

At Huntley Meadows Park, I am familiar with the bright white summer blooms of the swamp mallow bush and with the dried reeds it leaves behind in winter. This year I am hoping to observe how this plant begins to regrow and sprout anew. I am interested to observe the transition from dried out stems to new green growth.

Today’s invitation is to look closely at the life cycle of plants and animals around you. See if you can find something new and surprising in something familiar.

Practice - Record Different Stages of a Life Cycle

This practice goes along with anticipating signs of spring and noticing seasonal changes in a familiar landscape. Pick a favorite plant, insect, bird or other animal to focus on as we move toward warmer weather.

You might use your camera to record or sketch what you see. If you choose to observe leaves on a tree, you could even do rubbings of the leaves.

A simple act can be to observe a flower from bud to opening and then its drying and decline. There are many chances to observe transformation in nature and each follows its own timeline.

The images above are from monarch butterflies last fall. In closely observing their life cycle, I also learned more about the vulnerabilities at each stage of the cycle. I had always heard that monarchs eat milkweed so they taste bad to predators so I was very upset when the first two monarch caterpillars we noticed on our milkweed plants were lost to predators.

Once I brought caterpillars in to our porch, we got to observe the amazing process by which they transform into a chrysalis. And we saw that not all of them make it to this stage. We had one that died in the process of transformation. Another couple never emerged; the chrysalises turned dark but just never opened. We released over a dozen healthy butterflies into the garden on warm sunny days. The last two to open were unable to properly dry their wings to be able to fly. These I gently transferred to the bark of my favorite tree and left them climbing and exploring, knowing they would not fly away.

I was surprised by the grief particularly from these last two. At the same time, I had a whole new appreciation of all the vulnerabilities and the strength and wonder within the fragility of the life cycle of these amazing travelers.

Inspiration from an Artist and Naturalist: Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian was lived from 1647 to 1717 and is known for her amazing and detailed illustrations of the life cycles of insects. At a time when few women were able to study science, she began by observing and recording insects accessible in her own yard. Merian studied art and used her skills to record her observations and study science. She illustrated life cycles at a time when the predominant belief was that life simply sprang into being. Hers are some of the first recordings of this process. Maria Popova writes beautifully about Maria Merian and her legacy in this essay on Brainpickings:

Art, Science and Butterfly Metamorphosis: How a 17th Century Woman Laid the Foundations of Modern Entomology

And in this review of a beautiful illustrated children’s book about Maria Merian’s life:

Maria Merian’s Butterflies: The Illustrated Story of How a 17th Century Woman Forever Changed the Course of Science Through Art

I am currently working on a paper cut design inspired by Maria Sibylla Merian to add to my Mother Trees Series.

Thank you for being a part of this newsletter community.

Thank you to everyone who has been sharing images and creations.

Please feel free to share anything you are noticing or creating.

Respond to this email or share on Instagram with hashtag #papercolorearth

Thanks, Kathryn

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