Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature offering you a glimpse between the pages of an Acres U.S.A. published title. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is A New Farm Language, by W. Joe Lewis.
Etched forever in my memory is the first time I observed a bat up close and personal. I was six. One evening after dark, my parents and Patsy and I were at Uncle Lonnie’s grocery store. While my cousin Paul and I were inside and the others were on the porch, a bat flew into the store. Paul and I began swatting at it with brooms, eventually knocking it to the floor. When I pounced down and grabbed it, I was stunned by a piercing bite between my thumb and index finger. To this day I feel fortunate to have somehow avoided rabies. I saw for the first time that this creature was not like the other flying creatures I had seen in my six years. This was no bird. This had the face of a rodent, with hair and ears and teeth. Sharp teeth, as a matter of fact.
One reason I might have been surprised is that the actions of the bats I had seen to that time had been mimicked by a bird known as a nighthawk. The nighthawk is a bird that feeds at night and flies erratically, like a bat, making long dives and just as quickly putting on the brakes and pulling up and darting in another direction, its wings making bull-like sounds. We knew them as bull-bats, in fact, so it’s easy to see what I had in my mind when I first approached the bat that night in Uncle Lonnie’s store. But the creature I encountered had neither feathers nor a beak.
What it did have, as I would learn, was something called radar. Until then, I assumed that, like a bird of prey, a bat would visually spot its target. We often used to throw little pebbles up the air at dusk to watch bats dive for them, only to veer off once they realized the pebbles were not insects. It was stunning to learn that a bat actually picked up the motion of the pebble from an internal radar system. Nature just kept getting more and more interesting.
I kept learning about insects, too. There was another kind of doodlebug I learned to catch, another member of what I would one day understand was part of the Neuroptera insect order. This doodlebug was called an antlion, part of the family Myrmeleontidae of the order Neuroptera (big names I would learn much more about, much later in life). In the larval stage, the antlion has a plump little body with long mandibles. In sandy soil, they build little pits that trap passing ants or other prey. The antlion feels the vibration of the ant sliding into the pit and is ready to grab it with his mandibles. If you know what you’re looking for, you can spot these little cone-shaped traps, tap on the side of one with a piece of straw to mimic a fallen, trapped ant and snatch the antlion right out of the pit just as he closes his mandibles on the straw.
I also began to observe and learn about different types of “hunting wasps” that catch various insects and spiders and take them back to their nests for their larvae to feed on. These wasps included dirt daubers, a type of wasp that builds its nests out of mud; the paper wasps that build their gray paper-like nests in sheltered places such as under the eaves of houses, the underside of tree branches, or the open end of pipes; and the yellowjackets that also build similar papery nests in protected structures like tree stumps and cavities in the ground. On numerous occasions, due to my unrelenting curiosity, I discovered in a very real way that the paper wasps and yellowjackets can be quite aggressive if disturbed, and both pack a painful sting. Later I would learn that the dirt daubers are classed in the family Sphecidae and the paper wasps and yellowjackets are in the family Vespidae. All of the wasps and bees are part of the order Hymenoptera (other big words I would eventually learn).
Of course there were the lightning bugs, perhaps the insect that intrigued me the earliest in life because of its natural magic lamp. I would go on to learn how efficient these insects are, generating light while losing very little energy to heat, something we humans could never do with our own incandescent lighting and something we’re only now beginning to approach with LED lighting. Lightning bugs are still a subject of study as nature’s unmatched model, guiding pursuits of even more efficient energy usage.
Larger wildlife that grabbed my interest included foxes. Daddy hunted foxes and we always had fox-hunting dogs, along with dogs for hunting quail and squirrels. The fox hunting was mostly a social event with cousins and other people from the community, everyone more enamored by the chase than anything else, and mostly content to sit around an evening bonfire listening to the dogs. The men all knew their dogs by the sounds of their barks and could tell which one, having come across the scent of a fox, might be yelping, which ones were participating, and which one was leading the chase. Once a dog got on the trail, there was no stopping him.
I saw this kind of stubborn determination with our dog Bobo when I’d go out hunting squirrels with him. He’d find the scent and chase a squirrel up a tree and stay there, looking upwards and barking until he knew you understood exactly what it was he’d found for you. Sometimes a squirrel would be smart enough to leap to the branch of another tree without Bobo noticing and make its escape. For their part, the foxes had their own tricks when being chased through the woods. They’d often run through water to mask their scent or sometimes loop around just to confuse the dog.
Squirrel, quail, or fox, it was the hunted and the hunter, perhaps the most basic of all natural relationships, next to mating. What I learned with all of my observing and discovering was that when it came to hunting, there were really only two ways for a creature to proceed: ambush or search and find. The antlion uses the ambush technique. Dirt daubers use search and find. As humans, we copy these animal techniques, building a bird or mink trap or using a turkey call as an ambush, or setting the dogs free to search and find a fox. We’ve never done anything that nature didn’t do first. Maybe this is what interested me in nature in the first place, even at such a young age. Nature was infinitely wise and I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with admiration and respect. Everything was so efficient and every animal so resourceful. My insatiable thirst for learning about the environment around me continued and, as I grew older, I got it in my head, somewhere along the line, that no matter what I was going to do or be as a grownup, it was going to have to include continued study of the natural treasures of my world.
About the Author:
Dr. W. Joe Lewis is an award winning scientist, recognized worldwide for major crosscutting discoveries in the fundamental science of pest management. The models for his studies have been behavioral and chemical interactions of parasitoids, insect herbivores, and plants, along with ecosystem principles. The impact of his research is evidenced by over 200 refereed scientific publications and book chapters, including five papers in prestigious journals of Nature and Science, and three in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and an invitational paper in Scientific American. His work has been highlighted extensively in the popular press, including CNN Science and Technology, BBC/ Discovery Channel, Business Week, National Public Radio and BBC Wildlife, Fortune Magazine, and NBC Today Show.
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