A day I have fond memories of came in Virginia, just north of Wayneboro. The Appalachian Trail crossed a section of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, with wide swaths of grass lining the road and beyond that, a corridor of taller plants and what most people would call weeds. Milkweed was the dominant plant, mixed in with the orange blooms of butterfly weed, black-eyed-susans, queen anne’s lace and other tall grasses.
It was such a joy to capture the moments with my camera, freezing the creatures when they stopped on the fragrant blossoms. There were so many different insects it was hard to choose! Cars whizzed by behind me as I inched along the corridor, taking pictures of butterflies and moths, of bees and beetles, of flies and bugs and wasps, ants and spiders. Such variety!
So many different shapes and sizes and colors of insects, each more odd than the next with their feathery antennae and their iridescent eyes, their hooked feet and hairy legs. I loved them all! Couldn’t get enough of them. I felt addicted to the task of representing each one, a spot of beauty most wouldn’t even notice.
People in their air conditioned cars slowed down to check me out, likely wondering what I was photographing. A bear? Fawn? Fox? I could feel their eyes, almost hear their thoughts wondering what I was talking pictures of. Something exciting? Their vehicles idled along behind me and I did my best to ignore them.
“What are you taking pictures of? Something exciting?” I knew they would ask.
My answer would be funny, as I would say “YES! It is something exciting! It’s a painted lady! A monarch! A tigerswallow tail! A milkweed beetle! A honeybee! A garden spider.” Most people don’t even think insects ARE animals.
But each one fascinated me and I longed to stay there all day and watch them, learn their habits, see how they interacted with the other visiting invertebrates. After a few seconds of watching me, the people would drive on down the road, probably wondering why on earth I was standing in the hot sun (it must be 95 degrees!), with a loaded backpack (that looked heavy!), photographing bugs(those bothersome pests!) Was I completely nuts?
Of course the answer to that would be yes, I am nuts. Only a nut would want to walk from Georgia all the way to Maine. But I was proud of my ambition, not embarrassed to stand beside the road in my grimy clothes and do what I love more than anything in the world: nature photography. I was in my element, prepared to enjoy the fruits of my labor and make time to smell the roses. Or in this case the milkweed.
I walked beside the road a while, enjoying the cushion of grass beneath my feet, the obvious lack of obstacles to step over and the plethora of photo opportunities right beside me at my fingertips. It was heavenly and I was powerless to step away and leave it behind to get back on the trail. Instead, for a while I inched along, snapping and snapping and snapping photograph after photograph.
I captured the proboscis of the painted lady, a long thin, hollow coil that rolled up in a swirl of black when not being used. Like a straw it is used for sucking nectar from the flower’s center. I captured the brilliant green iridescent eyes of a type of fly and the transparent wings of a lacewing. I found a crab spider among the blooms, perfectly camouflaged amid the pink flowers. I knew if I stayed long enough I might see it grab an unsuspecting insect.
I spotted the smooth striped bodies of the monarch butterfly caterpillars and the hairy bodies of bumblebees. Among the vegetation, when I looked really carefully, I could find the long narrow bodies of an insect called a walking stick and the green katydids whose songs would fill the night air on evenings in late summer. I saw spiders with bodies like marbles, hanging still and upside-down in their invisible webs, waiting for unsuspecting prey to flutter into their silken traps.
Farther on down the road I found a gentle honeybee, her back legs loaded with pollen that she collects, sticking the tiny grains to her hairy legs, making giant bundles. Despite this new weight, she will fly back to her hive and once there, with a dance, she will show the other worker bees where the food is and they will leave the hive, flying there as though with a map. Amazingly, the dance will tell the other bees the quality, quantity and direction of the flowers. The bees will travel back and forth all day between flowers and hive, leaving their pollen baskets at the hive each time–food for the growing larvae. And though it was likely above 95 degrees that day, I knew the honeybee hive would be a constant 93 degrees. Amazingly, honeybees can control the temp in their hive, bringing water drops in to cool things on hot days and flapping their wings rapidly together on cold days. Such incredible little creatures!
As if the flowers and insects weren’t enough, there were berries too! So many ripe blackberries, perfect for picking. It was always a pleasure to pick them right off the plant, set them on my tongue and slowly enjoy their sweetness. Yum, nature’s perfect food, free of pesticides and chemicals, left to grow wild without pruning or weeding. And yet! Perfectly tasty, a delicious treat on a hot summer day.
I had lunch at a great overlook where I sat beneath a tree on warm rocks facing the valley. I could see the parkway below, winding like a snake through the tunnel of green, the cars silent from this distance. More than just food, my lunch on the trail was frequently an event, like a celebration of sorts, unhurried and relaxing, worth savoring. I had walked all the way from Georgia to get there, darned if I was going to be like other thru-hikers and shovel it in as I walked along so I wouldn’t “waste time.”
I sat back and stretched my legs out, relishing the air on my bare feet and the warmth of the rock, flat and decorated generously with lichen. That day I enjoyed my treat of grape kool-aid, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and combos. Then, like a soak in a hot bath on a cold day, I enjoyed a bit of dark chocolate, eating it slow and letting it melt in my mouth. The trail would wait! No one passed by and I reveled in the solitude, content with my rocky floor and ceiling of brilliant blue sky, dotted with clouds and the occasional turkey vulture soaring silently on invisible currents.