Saturday, May 13, 2023

Nature’s litter: not just stuff underfoot – the unseen value of detritus


New and old Live Oak leaves in late spring.

It all started with oaks.  Some time ago, I sketched a favorite tree and wrote about oaks as akeystone species, and why fallen leaves are important to their habitat.  I’m much more aware of leaf cycles now.  In my neighborhood and beyond, live oaks dropped their tired leaves this spring and new leaves emerged, bright and sassy.  As we move into summer they’re turning a darker, more sedate color.  Deciding on the actual color of live oak leaves is a challenge for me – as a whole, tree foliage seems to be a muted dark olive at times; other times there is a hint of blue in the green.  Up close they vary.  Besides enjoying the puzzle of how to accurately sketch leaf colors, I’m looking at fallen leaves and all the bits and pieces that make up the leaf litter under trees.  

Treasures under the oak tree.

 I’ve been reading learning about the value of fallen leaves to ecosystems in general and realize this is an invisible chunk of the natural world I often overlook.  Yes, I know that leaf litter is important, but until I started to educate myself more deeply, I didn’t realize how vital it is to the health of food chains.  In practice, I let fallen leaves lie (in most places) most of the time, unless they pose a fire risk.  But now this industrious hidden world kindles my curiosity and wonder.  Imagine!  An entire food web depends on the untidy clutter of nature’s litter.

 Natural litter (as opposed to human litter) is organic material such as dead leaves, twigs, branches, seedheads, husks, berries, and grasses.  We can find leaf litter on the forest floor, in streams, rivers, and bays, and under our cultivated trees and shrubs (if not raked away).   In my backyard litter, I’ve seen earthworms, mushrooms, spiders, beetles, millipedes, cicadas, snails, ants, caterpillars, anoles, centipedes, toads, grubs, crabs, and small snakes, not to mention MANY unidentified insects.  Fungi loves leaf litter too – mushrooms, puff balls, and bracket fungi often make their home there.

Leaf (needle?) litter under the slash pines. Pine needles are actually modified leaves.

 Besides sheltering many species, this leaf layer conserves moisture and protects the soil below.  Vulnerable creatures can find a home or a hiding place from predators.  Some moths make cocoons that mimic the same dried leaves they nestle into for their change from caterpillar to moth.  A small snake or anole can quickly and easily vanish into the leaves or brush piles.  Litter hangs around a while, decomposing slowly through the action of weathering and digestion.  Temperature and humidity affect the decaying process, and all sorts of living things feed on (and excrete) the nutrients locked inside.  

 Living in the leaf layer are small consumers that also de-construct – they help break apart larger bits such as leaves, twigs, branches, and berries.  A wide variety of worms and insects make their homes in the earth below, some for their entire lifespan.  Cicadas spend years underground before emerging to mate.  Underground dwellers aerate the soil as they burrow and leave their waste for others to feed on.  Bacteria and underground fungi further decompose the smaller bits into nutrients that feed the plants and trees that initially produced them. 

 These tiny life forms are part of the base of our food webs.  Dr. Doug Tallamy, author, entomologist, and conservationist, reminds us that "All animals get their energy directly from plants or by eating something that has already eaten a plant.  The group of animals most responsible for passing energy from plants to the animals that can’t eat plants is insects.”

For example, birds forage for insects and worms and other edibles among decaying leaves.  For many birds, this is their primary source of food.  Just think of the larger life forms that depend on birds for their diet and so on up the food chain – and it all starts with plants and their litter.  

 We have a lot of thanks to give to the many thousands of (or more) insects and other invertebrates that make their homes in the ground and the decomposing layer of litter covering it.  Every minute, they’re busy tidying up and transforming raw material into usable energy.  It may have been the oaks that started it, but there are so many more species contributing their own litter.  I’m more careful now about raking away the leaves, pine needles, twigs and such, and find myself checking under every tree and bush for a glimpse of that mysterious underground universe. 

 For more exploration:

University of FL/IFAS blog, an interesting read on the value of leaf litter in Florida:

  “Life in the Leaf Litter” from the American Museum of Natural History, a downloadable PDF booklet with engaging text and illustrations:

Things that go squirm in the night... a 3 minute video from

  Slash pine litter coloring page: download a PDF.

Aquabee sketchbook, 6x9”
.7 mm mechanical pencil
Pitt Pen, Sepia F and Micron Pigma, black 01
Mondeluz watercolor pencils
Niji waterbrush, Medium

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Eastern cottontail rabbit

Rabbit seen from the back
Always alert.
This past July I’ve been seeing all sorts of rabbits in the outdoor grassy spaces where I work. So far, they all appear to be Eastern cottontails, and during the daylight hours I see them on overcast days, during a gentle rain, or when things are quiet after a drenching storm. There is a wooded area nearby for a quick retreat, but I seem to be tolerated if I don’t stop and look too long. They are wary enough that I have to be content with memory and photos for later sketching.  

I’ve been seeing all sizes – from larger adults to young bunnies I could cradle in my hands. The young ones are especially jumpy and restive, so I try not to linger. Naturally I’ve now been reading up on Eastern cottontails and was surprised to find a wide range in the US up to the Canadian border, even extending south into central America. How adaptable! They are vegetarians and like to inhabit habitat edges – the fringes between woods and meadow, lawn and garden. The sources say that rabbits prefer to feed at twilight or night, even though I’m seeing plenty during the day when the sun is behind the clouds. 

Brown ink sketches of Eastern cottontails.
Sketched from photos, because they would never pose this long!

Exploring nature as a child, I thrilled to find evidence of rabbit “nests” – magical hollowed-out circles in the tall grasses or low shrubby foliage in the woods. Sometimes a bit of fur was the only evidence inside the cozy nest of twisted and flattened grass, but I could never surprise any residents. Only if I was lucky and very quiet, I might glimpse the ball of white furry tail bounding away, then suddenly vanishing. I intended to do some quick gesture sketches in pen, but those turned into detailed studies… because, well… just because. Caught up in trying to capture the mass and weight of the larger ones, and describing the fur with the right pen strokes, I dropped into my default mode – go for the detail. Observation and making an eye-hand-subject connection is a way for me to learn about what I’m sketching, and detail does that for me. The challenge! 

Color studies of rabbit fur in watercolor pencil.
Trying to capture those crazy fur textures and colors.

 A large and shiny eye, fur that varies in direction and color, unusual and unfamiliar shapes of skull and body. And the fur color – unique in that it has gray and brown fur tipped with black, and then russet and white parts. Each rabbit I saw seemed to have slightly different patterns of brindled black markings. Some almost all brown with very little black, some more gray, others heavily marked with black. The markings mimic the dappled shade of leaf litter or pine needles, even dry grasses. A good strategy if one is part of a food web.

Our influx of rabbits might be due to the expanding territory of the invasive pythons that curse the Everglades and beyond. These large constrictor snakes have become a new enemy to our small mammals. Biologists have documented the loss of rabbits, raccoons, possums, and foxes in Florida, and the statistics are sobering. Sigh. But that is a post for another day. 

Today I will just enjoy the experience of sharing a space with our rabbit families, and keep a lookout for pythons. 

Rabbit near the base of a live oak tree.
A sketch from two years ago -
their coloring blends well with tree bark and leaf litter.

Aquabee Super Deluxe Mixed Media sketchbook 
Mechanical pencil .7mm 
Rabbits: Pitt Artist Pen S, Sepia 
Fur: Micron Pigma 01, black 
Watercolor pencils – Derwent and Kimberly 
Niji waterbush, round M

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Live oak – a keystone species (and friend)

 Live oak is one of my favorite trees -- one of the many types of oaks in the world, but only growing in the US within a limited southern range. My nature journal entry is of a tree that’s about 20 years old, an acorn volunteer from a larger and much older live oak nearby. 

Click on image to view larger.
I love discovering the many things that live oaks support. The bark on the trunks of older oaks is furrowed deep, often dressed with an embroidery of lichens, fungi, and mosses -- sometimes ferns. Look up into the branches and you will probably see several types of epiphytes, those plants that grow on others (not to be confused with parasites), and get sustenance from rain and air as well as sunlight. Sometimes called air plants, many epiphytes are from the bromeliad family – in Florida we have a variety of tillandsias and Spanish moss as the usual suspects. 

Some of these air plants collect water in bowl-like centers, created by the broad bases of their overlapping leaves. It becomes a good water source as well as a habitat for insect larvae that start their life underwater. Small insects attract the things that eat them – larger insects, spiders, anoles, and birds. The thick foliage and sturdy branches of live oak provide shade, cover and a retreat for bird and squirrel nests. About 5 years ago, I enjoyed watching a trio of raccoon kits scamper up and down the trunk of a mature live oak outside my office window as they grew to maturity. When the storms came, they high-tailed it to the 10-foot-high nest tucked under a large staghorn fern in the first fork. 

The leaves are larval food for several species of moths, plus a couple of butterflies. You might notice the tracks of leaf miners or the swellings from gall-forming insects. Live oaks are called “live” because they appear to be evergreen to many people, but they do drop their old leaves, waiting until spring when the new leaves emerge. Live oaks bloom in the spring, and although the catkins rely on wind pollination, they also offer pollen to bees and other insects. 

Oaks are well-known for acorns, not just as food for squirrels, but also for grubs, birds, and small and large mammals (even people). The nuts were processed to remove the tannins and eaten by humans all over the world. Acorn culinary history spans thousands of years, as a regular food source and later as a sustenance and survival food. Contemporary interest in acorn flour and nuts comes from the curious, the epicures, and the food and agriculture specialists working on food security for our future. 

Some of the species noticed over time!

Acorns start dropping to the ground in the fall, with some years (called mast years) welcoming an overabundance. Last year (2021) was a mast year, and we had acorns everywhere! Blue jays and squirrels left pock marks in the dirt and sand as they busily buried as many acorns as they could. Between the nuts on top and the divots below, it was dangerous walking ground.

Oaks are considered a keystone species, which means that they support a large community of living things. They support, shelter, and feed all sorts of life – from the smallest insects to deer and even bears. Live oaks have personal connections for me as well, besides the trio of raccoon kits. The first pair of pileated woodpeckers I spotted in Florida were on a live oak tree. The plonk-plonk of falling acorns has put me to sleep at night; the battles of jays and squirrels over a nut have amused me in the daytime. I enjoy trying to capture the textures and colors of the bark and leaves in my nature journal. There’s not much time to observe our two urban oaks, but I still notice an abundance of life just in passing. I’ve sketched live oaks often enough that I consider them old and beloved friends. 

I hope my words and nature journal entries help you see oaks in a new light. We appreciate the beauty and shade they bring, but they offer so much more. Planting or preserving one oak makes a difference: a cascade of life follows, and this is a wonderful thing! 

More on oaks: There is much more to learn about oaks. For an overview on the many values of oaks (for nature and ourselves), I suggest you start by watching a presentation by Dr. Doug Tallamy on his book “The Nature of Oaks” on YouTube: 

Mechanical pencil .7mm 
Micron Pigma 01, black 
Aquabee Super Deluxe Mixed Media sketchbook 6x9 in. 
Daniel Smith watercolors 
Niji waterbush, round M

Monday, July 4, 2022

Midsummer Florida

Summertime in Southwest Florida has a rhythm of its own.  It’s a pattern of heat and moisture and rain and cooling.  It’s a time of luxuriant growth for the plants adapted to it.  It’s also a time when I notice young lizards and birds and bunnies out and about, learning the ways of the world. 

Cumulus congestus clouds
Storm coming.

  Our rainy season typically starts the first part of June, sometimes late May.  The days are hot, spilling over with intense bright light as the clouds start forming.  Smaller cotton-ball clouds gather and grow from the moisture that evaporates and rises from the warming land and earth-bound waters.  Boundless clear blue skies start filling up with towering cumulus clouds, sometimes building many miles upwards.

 The clouds roll in from the Everglades, sunlit white, gathering colors of violet, blue, and dark gray along the bottoms and up through the centers.  The air feels a bit cooler when the clouds hide the sun, but it’s still quite humid.  When water saturation reaches a critical point, the rain starts, typically late afternoon.  The other night we had torrential rain off and on for hours – along with booming thunder and sporadic lightning.  Abundant water recharges our underground aquifers, and brings on an explosion of plant growth.


Summertime anture journal page.
So much nature can be seen in suburban spaces.

The flowers of spring are turning into fruits now – nearby I see Simpson stopper ripening, seagrape (still green), cocoplum and more.  June flowers are blooming of course: a casual suburban observer might see common natives like Spanish needles, beach sunflower, and duck potato easily.  These are just a few volunteers in the space I move within every day, the ones I happen to stop and notice.  I also see the birds and their nests, an occasional small black snake, and young Eastern cottontails (one every day!), and other signs of procreation and growth.

 This is our lazy summer rhythm, the days hot and humid, then the clouds and rain, cooler but wet.  Nothing drenches and soaks to the bone like a Florida summer rain.  We’ve just passed the Summer Solstice and the days still feel long, although they are starting to shorten.  Our rainy season continues through the lingering months of July, August and September, and by mid-October I imagine a massive collective sigh of relief among residents.  We may still have the potential for tropical storms and hurricanes until the end of November, but at least we’ll be more comfortable.

No matter what's going on in the human world, the natural world keeps marking time, finding its own rhythms, confirming new life.  These are the drumbeats that feed my soul and the music that helps me make sense of life. 

Eastern cottontail drawing
Munching on a bit of grass.

Mechanical pencil .7mm
Micron Pigma 01, black
Aquabee Super Deluxe Mixed Media sketchbook
Daniel Smith watercolors, Botanical Floral half-pan set
Niji waterbush, round M

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Green heron

Just walking, I happened to veer to the small lake nearby and discovered a green heron intently gazing at the water’s surface.  The heron perched on a concrete culvert in the bright sun on the edge of the lake, blue sky above, green water below.  Rocking slightly in the breeze on bent, sturdy legs and anchored by long toes, waiting …waiting for a ripple in the water, a movement that might mean dinner.

Green heron
Click on image to view larger.

 I think of these smallish herons as shy birds, easily bothered and not tolerant of prolonged observation.  I quickly took a photo or two, and tried to spend the remaining precious moments in deep observation.  Ki flew off within minutes, not sure of my intentions.  I made a few drawings afterwards, and starting learning more about green herons. 

 This green heron was not exactly green, but had green glints and highlights along darker back body feathers. A beautiful russet-colored neck patch, body structure, yellow legs and eyes add to the distinctive markings.  A year-round resident of Florida, populations swell at times with migrating kin from the north.     

 I read that breeding season in Florida starts in March and runs through July, so perhaps this heron was out hunting for food for the family.  One of our smaller herons, about the size of a large crow, they like to inhabit the edges of wetlands, with food on one side and cover on the other.  With a stocky build and a long thick neck settled on shoulders, they can look ungainly on land. 

A fascinating item – green herons sometimes use tools to catch food, one of a few species that do this.  They drop twigs, insects or other tidbits onto the water surface to entice fish to surface and feed within their reach.  Debate may continue over definitions of tools and tool use, but many agree that this type of behavior indicates an increased intelligence. 

 Things to think about. 

Detail, green heron's head

Want to read more about green herons?


Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission fact sheet:  

Aquabee sketchbook, 6x9”
.7 mm mechanical pencil
Micron Pigma Pen, black 01
Kimberly watercolor pencils
Niji waterbrush, Medium

Sunday, March 27, 2022

I am from: using nature memories to define who we are and to celebrate our unique sense of place.

The inspiration

Recently I came across an article about the “I Am From” poem and the project that flowed from it.  The poems moved me deeply as I read through the unique and diverse experiences reflected in the poems people submitted.   Some of them, very powerful and moving.  The original poem and catalyst for this project was written by George Ella Lyons.  People are welcome to submit poems to the project’s Facebook page and website, and have even created videos for YouTube.  They do this individually or as a group.  There is a wonderful video of a collaborative fabric art project that not only celebrates each unique person, but creates a strong sense of place as a whole.

 I wrote a poem for myself and was surprised at the countless sights, sounds, and events that define who I am today! It includes good parts and the not-so-good, and some of the pain that emerged during this process.   I suggest a focus on what is true, but to also look for the good.  Good seems to endure and light the way, for ourselves but also for others.   I submitted this poem to the website, and hope it will be added to the “river of voices” and the amazing diversity of experiences.

 A nature perspective

Then I wondered if condensing my focus to nature would also work and tried it out – you can read that result below.  This process inspired me to add the words and resulting imagery to my nature journal.  I loved the renewed connection to the nature of my childhood and beyond, and drew with abandon, not worrying about tidy lines or splashing color around! 

This was such a memorable experience!  I suggest you try it in your own nature journal.  You can see that some of my sketches are uncomplicated while some have a bit more attention.  Some reflect that inner child.  Don’t worry about your skill level – just the basics, or even descriptive color swathes work.  Both Clare Walker Leslie and Mimi Robinson have used color shapes alone to beautifully describe environments and seasons.  Try it and see.  There are also other ways to add visual imagery:  photos, collage, prints, or ephemera such as pressed leaves or flowers, maps, tickets, fabric, and much more.

 Your own deep connection matters

It is the deep connection to place that matters, and the bits and pieces that echo place besides the flora, fauna, and geology: the colors, smells, tastes, textures, and emotions.  These have created how we view and interact with nature today.  It is a good thing to recognize the role they’ve played – and it is a good thing to expand our views when we experience another’s memories. 


Sketchbook poem and drawings for I Am From.
Click to view larger.

If you aren’t sure where to start, I offer you an exercise developed just for nature.  The 2-page PDF can be downloaded HERE One side has suggestions and prompts, the other has my nature poem plus links to the I Am From project website and Facebook page, plus YouTube videos. 

Here is my “I Am From” poem.

I am from
knee-deep snowdrifts, frozen lashes, the searing breath of winter.
Summertime poison ivy rash and itchy mosquito bumps
chasing butterflies and garter snakes
magical fireflies and a whippoorwill lullaby.

I am from
the indigo blue comfort after a midwestern sunset
the musty taste of black walnuts and joyful sweetness of tiny wild blackberries
the bright flash of cardinal and a hummingbird’s glittering eye.
Fluttering spring beauties with tiaras of columbines
and the thrum of bees in the clover.

Sketch of wild blackberries

I am from
The mighty Mississippi,
a languid longing below
the stink of fish and duckweed
and the thrill of snapping turtles.
River bottom land, and banks and bluffs of stacked limestone.

I am from
sturdy oaks and maples,
deer trails and owl pellets
under improbably green new leaves, so delicate, glowing.
Standing in prairie grasses filled with tiny treasures
and the wind in my hair.


Aquabee Super Deluxe 6x9” mixed media sketchbook (double spread)
Daniel Smith watercolors
Micron Pigma 01 black artist pen
Sakura Gelly Roll white gel pen 10

On the web:

I Am From Project website:

I Am From  Facebook page:

 Additional YouTube videos:

I Am From | Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month by Juan Delgado,

I Am From...A Poem by Aaric Pelc,

And a collective project by participants of the 2020 Whole Child, Whole Day Social Emotional Learning Symposium:


Wednesday, March 16, 2022

A connection to place

I think we’ve all known special places that have deep meaning for us personally.

 Maybe we don’t always recognize it at the time.  There are several natural places that are special to me, but those with the deepest roots are woven from my childhood memories.  Colors and shapes, smells and sounds, and textures like the tactile velvet of new buds or flaking limestone. 

 The memories stay vivid and strong – some more so, some less.  Most of them comforting, but some, not so much.   They speak of my relationships with nature.  They are both known and unknown, some barely lurking within my subconscious.  What I remember most are not the events, but the feelings those connections gave me.


Iowa fall leaves, oel deather, hickory nut, wild grape
Maple leaves, owl feather, hickory nuts, and wild grape.

This is a small nature sketch done years ago, somewhere in the mid-1980s, of things collected on a walk through Iowa woods.  It was mid-autumn, and the season gave me treasures and a near infinity of browns and buff, with splashes of red and yellow.  Along the trail: leaves on limb and ground, sticks and branches and trunks and bark, seeds and frost-bitten fruits, empty acorn caps and sometimes a glimpse of gritty green. 

 The woods I rambled in are located in upper northeast Iowa, along a limestone ridge and bluff above a river.   It is a place of meditation, of quietness threaded with birdsong.   This is also a connection to a point in time.  Fall is a favorite season of mine; it feels like an important transition somehow, and I sometimes catch my breath waiting for the next thing to come.

It feels like a time to let life unwind, and a place to rest and heal. 

A sacred place.

Wild grape fruit


Paper - unknown mass-produced watercolor paper pad, about 8x10"
Watercolor paint, probably Grumbacher and/or Winsor & Newton
     (the colors still surprisingly bright after almost 40 years)
Craft brushes
# 2 Pencil