Welcome to the Bad Naturalist newsletter

Spring Sneaks Up on the Mountain

Geek out with me about critters and plants on a mountaintop in Virginia. I’ll share what I’m learning as I try to bring native plants back on 200 acres of old farmland and tell stories from my encounters on the mountain.

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In this issue

  • Why “Bad Naturalist”?

  • 3 things I wish I’d known about native plants

  • Field notes: bird & butterfly

  • Signs of life: good news/bad news

  • Questions for YOU

  • Recommended reading: info/inspo

  • The Official Mountain Poodle

Why “Bad Naturalist”?

Because when I started this project, even though I was fascinated by all sorts of wildlife, I knew nothing about plants or about restoring native meadows. I’m learning as I go, and so far, I’ve learned that planting native plants matters wherever you are, whether you’re dealing with a window-box planter or a suburban yard or a 200-acre mountaintop.

I’ve written a book about what I’m doing and what I’m discovering here on the mountain:

BAD NATURALIST: One Woman’s Ecological Education on a Wild Virginia Mountaintop

It’s coming from Timber Press/Hachette Book Group in January 2025. I can’t wait to share my story with you!

What’s so special about this mountain, anyway?

The 75 acres of meadow here sit on top of a remote mountain. This has been open land, rather than forested, for hundreds of years. The meadow consists of a mix of native, nonnative, and invasive plants. I want to shift the balance toward native plants to benefit wildlife and support biodiversity.

It turns out that a mountaintop is a lot to take on.

I’m working on it.

the rolling hills of the winter meadows; tall golden dried grasses and flowers in the foreground; golden hills in the distance, edged by trees. In the foreground, the photographer's shadow falls over the tall dry grasses.

Meadow in March

3 things I wish I’d known about native plants when I started:

  • Native plants from where you live are most well-suited to your local climate and your soil, because these plants evolved along with the soil organisms that help them grow and the pollinators that support them.

  • Native plants are usually more pest-resistant and drought-tolerant than nonnative plants.

  • Native plants will do well—and they’ll do good…feeding native insects and wildlife.

Bonus: Native plants are beautiful! I mean, just look:

close up of the lavender flowers, with more filling a meadow that's blurred in the background. The flower petals look almost like a fringe.

a field of wild bergamot

What’s happening now on the mountain?

I was walking along the edge of the meadow when I unintentionally flushed this brown, chonky bird with a long skinny beak and a black stripe down its side. It flew up and away, and I went, Wait? Was that…?

A woodcock!

Chonky brown bird with white and dark brown markings on the sides and long pointy beak. Bird is sitting on the ground.

Photo by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

(Sadly, this is not my photo…the bird and I surprised each other, and I wasn’t fast enough.)

Woodcocks begin nesting in March, so I hope I didn’t interrupt anything. The birds do an elaborate courting dance that was immortalized by Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac:

“Why the woodcock should be such a stickler for a bare dance floor puzzled me at first, but I now think it’s a matter of legs. The woodcock’s legs are short, and his strutting cannot be executed to advantage in dense grass or weeds, nor could his lady see them there…”

Aldo Leopold

After scaring away the woodcock, I went for a walk along the edge of the woods and was startled to see a butterfly rise up from amid the leaf litter. A butterfly? In cold early March? I tried following it, but it refused to land and continued its wobbly butterfly dance overhead before disappearing among the trees. I got enough of a look to figure out what it was. Its wings were almost black with a distinctive white edge along the lower perimeter.

A mourning cloak butterfly

Butterfly is nearly black with a yellow edge and small blue spots just inside the border where the yellow edge meets the black.

Photo by Petritap, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

(Again not my photo; butterflies seem to be bad at sitting still unless they’re busy eating. I can relate.)

The very cool thing (no pun intended; ok, pun intended) about the mourning cloak is it’s one of the few butterflies that overwinters in its adult form.

It basically holes up in a tree cavity and freezes itself—it replaces its body fluids with glycol—until March, when it thaws out and ventures out to eat. No flowers around yet? No problem. Instead, it drinks from tree sap and last year’s rotted fruit, as well as the sweet fluid released by insects like aphids.

If you take a walk in the woods right now, you might see this butterfly, too. It’s common all over North America, Europe, and temperate parts of Asia.

Signs of Life

The good news:

I found the teeny tiny beginnings of a wild geranium! And I didn’t even accidentally step on it!

Wild geranium (aka Carolina crane’s bill and Geranium carolinianum) is a native plant that’s great for early pollinators, so I was excited to find some in a new spot. It wasn’t planted; it grew here on its own.

Tiny generanium sprouts amid dry grasses. Leaves look almost like green snowflakes.

Here’s what it looks like in bloom:

The flower has opened. It's pink with 5 petals and a yellow-white center.

The bad news:

This is bitter dock (aka broad-leaved dock and Rumex obtusifolius). I think of this plant as a parting gift from the cows that used to live here. They didn’t want to eat it, so they ate around it. It’s a pasture weed, and it’s basically everywhere.

It’s supposedly edible, especially when it’s young, but if you eat too much of it, it can be toxic. How much is too much? Heck if I know. I’ll stick with kale.

This little goober will get 3 feet tall.

Small heavily veined green leaves shaped like elongated hearts.

What’s growing in your neck of the woods?

Tell me where you are and what you see coming up in early spring, in a park near where you live, or in your own yard or window box.

While you’re at it, tell me what you’d like to see in this newsletter!

For information

Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them by Paige Emery - “Most people’s knowledge of bees revolves around honey bees—their intricate social lifestyle, their honey-making—but that’s not how most bees live.” An engaging narrative that focuses on native bees and why they’re important. Stories about specific wild bees and people who are working to save them. Lots of great photos. Maybe you’ll spot some of these bees where you live.

For inspiration

I can’t wait to read We Loved it All: A Memory of Life by Lydia Millet. The Washington Post calls it “a profoundly evocative ode to life itself, in all its strange and wondrous and imperiled forms.” You can hear Millet talk about the book with host Brad Listi in this recent episode of the podcast Otherppl.

For fun

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include “Tunneling for Daylight,” my recent essay in The American Scholar (no paywall), about a “buzzworthy” experience I had with carpenter bees while staying at an artist residency.

 And, introducing Cleo, Official Mountain Poodle

Silver standard poodle runs toward camera with tongue out/smiling. Surrounded by green meadows and backdrop of silhouetted mountains

Now’s a good time to subscribe for more mountain discoveries, book news, and the requisite poodle photos.

Thanks for joining me on the mountain!

Until next month—

Paula W.

Bad Naturalist: One Woman’s Ecological Education on a Wild Virginia Mountaintop

Coming in January 2025 from Timber Press/Hachette Book Group


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