Taking Responsibility

Wendell Berry once pointed out that if we believe that the ultimate reality is political, and therefore the ultimate solutions are political, we’re going to have a hard time doing right by the land.

I’ve been thinking of this as Vermont unrolls its new mandatory composting regulations. As of July 1, residents are required to keep vegetable waste out of the trash, though in reality ANR will not be searching garbage bags for compliance. If these composting regulations are to lead to a greater good, people will have to buy in and change their habits. The private sector will need to figure out how to absorb or pass on the extra costs. Homeowners will have to figure out how to discourage or live with more crows and skunks and coons and bears. Farmers are going to have to figure out how to incorporate finished compost in lieu of synthetic fertilizer, even though it’s more expensive and harder to handle. If people are going to be motivated to do this, they’ll need to see the earth as something more than dead matter upon which they drive to and from work.

Berry’s point is that when we see things through a political lens, it’s easy to sub out the hard work to others and then Monday-morning-quarterback the results. Politics – especially these days – also turns simple things into complicated, existential things. The relatively straightforward issue of not throwing a banana peel in the garbage can become an affront to our personal liberty and right to make a living, or a dramatic first step towards a worldwide eco-revolution. The reality is that the politics here are a nudge, trying to push society in a less wasteful direction.

If we’re to do the enormous work of learning to live within our means on an increasingly fragile planet, we need to start with simple steps that are manageable and that we can each be responsible for. For those of us who live in rural areas – which geographically speaking is the majority of us – we now have to scrape our food scraps into a bowl and walk it to the hedgerow each night. I can handle that.

Composting can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. Here’s the years-old compost pile in my hedgerow. We compost everything, including meat scraps. It doesn’t smell unless you’re standing on top of it. We ignore the crows and opossums. We delight in visits by foxes and bears. We’re not trying to make a finished product.

The Year of the Earwig

According to the Chinese Zodiac calendar, 2020 is the Year of the Rat. That sounds about right, so far. But at least in our old farmhouse, it’s the Year of the Earwig. We’ve been inundated with them the last few weeks, the way we are at other times of the year with house flies and lady bugs. But rather than simply being a nuisance, earwigs have a disgusting factor to them. Sort of the country version of cockroaches. And right now they’re everywhere: on the bathroom floor, on the kitchen counters, on our toothbrushes. The name “earwig” has an even more disgusting, though mythical, origin: the folklore that these insects would crawl, or wiggle, into your ear to lay their eggs.

At the moment, our earwig population seems to be multiplying exponentially. Which, after doing a little research, I now realize isn’t far from the truth. Female earwigs lay as many as 60 “round, pearly” eggs in shallow soil, and the insects reach the adult stage in about 70 days. It also turns out that earwigs prefer hot, humid environments—so the recent weather has been perfect for them, and perhaps that’s why they’re so plentiful and active this year. “In their search for food and shelter, earwigs crawl over the ground and readily climb houses, fences and trees,” according to UVM Extension’s website. “They forage at night and hide during the day in cracks, hollow stalks of leaf whorls of plants, tubular lawn furniture, and hollow aluminum doors, and under the husks of corn cobs. Their invasion of houses begins sometime in July.” I can confirm that invasion has begun.

Every piece of firewood in the pile seems to cover a colony of earwigs.

We haven’t resorted to traps, and putting insecticide on our toothbrushes seems unwise. So we’re left to manually exterminate them, one at a time. The truth is that, despite the menacing looking pincers on their abdomens, beyond the possibility of a pinch, earwigs don’t pose much of a threat to humans. Gardeners, however, may feel differently—the damage that earwigs do to plants like lettuce, beans, and even raspberries can be severe. We’ve definitely found that there’s no escape outdoors at the moment; we’re stacking firewood right now and each piece in the pile seems to be covering an entire earwig colony.  Though I doubt they are eating too much of our wood.

The good news is that earwigs only live one year, with many dying during the winter. So by the time the Year of the Ox comes around, this batch will be no longer with us. Hopefully they disappear from our house long before that.

Versatile Milkweed

It’s hard to think of another wild plant that that has more uses for humans than milkweed. The young leaves and shoots can be eaten in spring – they’re often referred to as “poor man’s asparagus.” This time of year, the flower buds can be harvested to make capers. Later this summer, the immature pods can be used to make a side dish that tastes somewhat like okra.

Milkweed is named for the sticky white juice in its stems and leaves, a lightly toxic, bitter latex that is neutralized when you cook it. During rubber shortages in World War II, this latex was considered as a rubber substitute; in the same period, milkweed floss was used in life vests and other gear for U.S. troops, substituting for kapok. It has been shown to be a better insulator than down.

The latex can serve as a natural bandage for wounds, owing to its quick-drying elasticity that doesn’t wash off. It serves the plant by deterring insects and grazing animals with its bitter taste, though not so much the monarch butterfly caterpillar. Contrary to popular belief, monarch caterpillars are not immune to the latex – according to research cited in the book Monarchs and Milkweed by Anurag Agrawal, about 60 percent of monarch caterpillars die when they eat it, either from toxins in the latex or because it seals their mouths shut. What’s in it for the caterpillars is that those who do survive become toxic themselves to would-be predators.

Medicinally, milkweed is used as a folk remedy to treat warts and moles. (Many folk remedies are based on the “doctrine of signatures,” which holds that plants that look like a body part can be used to treat that body part, making it no surprise that milkweed, with the wart-like projections on its fruit, has been used in this manner.)

Cherokee, Iroquois, and Rappahannock sources document its use as a laxative and diuretic; early American physicians used it to treat asthma and rheumatism, as well as for other maladies.

Its practical uses extend beyond medicine. According to Arthur Haines’ book Ancestral Plants, the stems make good cordage. The hairs attached to the seeds are also a useful tinder source.

A Buckwheat Planting for Soil Health

The people who founded this publication all come from the forestry world, a craft that’s a lovely mix of art and science and voodoo. One of the things that fascinates me about it is the lack of control. You never start with a blank canvas – even clearcuts have unpredictable seed banks – and so you’re managing a forest that has its own ideas about what and how it wants to grow. You’re also working on crazy timescales: 10 years, 30 years, 70 years, 100 years until you see the results of your inputs. The best foresters I know practice the craft like the best teachers I know. They evaluate, then meet the trees/pupils where they are. They help the site reach its maximum potential, which in different scenarios means different things. They balance economic productivity with wildlife habitat goals and ecosystem health.

This is all so different than traditional agriculture, where your goal is to grow a crop. Sure, you’re still worrying about ecosystem health, albeit in different ways. But where it comes to the ground you’re cultivating, you buy seed that’s already been selected for overachievers, you create as blank a canvas as you can each spring, and then you grow towards a goal of maximum yield. The whole endeavor ends within the span of a growing season.

These differences between Ag and Forestry feel both foreign and exhilarating to me. And I guess the part that appeals to me most is the ability to build and strengthen the soil, which is something you can only do very passively in the forest.

I’ve been working on the soil in two garden plots this year around my house, one for the family, one for the wild animals. The first step was to drag an old International Harvester two-bottom plow out of the hedgerow and use it to turn the earth. It’s 1930’s – 1940’s vintage, but it worked elegantly. This was followed by a pass with a set of disks of the same era, which did show some signs of their age. I ran into some snags in the garden plot – we’ll get to that in a different dispatch. But the food plot went better, and I was soon picking and piling clods. (Some are reading this and wondering why, if i’m interested in soil health, did i even plow at all? The simple answer to this fair question is that using a cool old piece of equipment with my three-year-old was more appealing than strapping on a backpack sprayer full of chemicals to kill sod. We’ll get into no-till systems in more depth in future content.)

When the field was prepped, I seeded it with buckwheat. The goal is to grow a crop for the soil, though crows and chipmunks (among other animals) love the seed, and it’s being munched by deer and cottontails as it grows, and it’s flowers will soon attract pollinators, especially honeybees. The plant’s roots loosen topsoil and the stems store phosphorous, which then gets released as it decomposes to be used by the next crop, which in this case will be a perennial clover mix.

Buckwheat is relatively easy to grow. Its big black seeds are highly visible and thus a breeze to broadcast. It’s not known to be particularly drought tolerant, but it weathered the drought we’re in like a champ. I used an old set of harrows to cover the seed. Knowing the implement was less than ideal, I overseeded to compensate. The charts call for 50 lb./ac; I probably seeded closer to 80 lb./ac. But seed’s cheap, so for a quarter-acre plot we’re talking maybe an extra $10 to overdo it.

You can see from the picture above that the results have been pretty good. Buckwheat grows fast, so in a few weeks from now it’ll flower, and a few weeks after that it’ll be ready to get turned in. If I were transplanting the next crop, I would cut and leave the buckwheat residue in the field to maintain soil stability and suppress weeds. But since I’m seeding, I’ll likely till it in. The downside to this is that I’ll be breaking up soil aggregates, the upside is that I’ll have a better surface for the clover to germinate in.

A real farmer across the road is rehabbing an old corn field with buckwheat this summer, too. Here’s a picture of his crop in as it breaks into flower. It smells 80 percent sweet and lovely and 20 percent dank and sour.

Side Hill Cider Mill

Apple Balsamic Vinegar of Vermont hit the shelves just last fall. Made by Side Hill Cider Mill in Vershire, it’s a highly unusual product. Neil Hochstedler, the owner, has found only two other producers – one in Ireland and a small company in Massachusetts. He said his idea “seemed like a natural and logical” extension of his existing cider vinegar business.

Neil’s been deep into apples since the 1970s, when he picked and pruned for a living. He brought his work home with him, grafting and pruning apples at his own place. Before long, he was producing more perishable apple juice than he could use, and he turned some into cider vinegar, which he has been selling for several years. Too much vinegar inspired him to diversify his offerings, so he created a balsamic line. With help from Sebastian and Sabra Ewing of neighboring Flag Hill Farm, they pretty much invented a commercial-scale production process and have gotten started on marketing.

Not unlike the more familiar balsamic vinegar made from red grapes, Neil’s process begins with boiling apple juice to a sweet syrup, which is done in a small sugaring evaporator.

To make cider vinegar, the sugars in apple juice are first fermented to alcohol and, in a second fermentation step, acetic acid-forming bacteria that have survived the fermentation process are augmented with selected acetobacters which convert the alcohol to vinegar.

To make apple balsamic, the cider vinegar is mixed with the sweet apple syrup until the acid level is right. The mix is then aged in wooden barrels, with some oak chips thrown in. At every step, things can go awry. As Neil says, “There have been a lot of setbacks.” But he finds the complicated relationships among the ingredients and conditions fascinating, and when the right apples, aeration, time, and temperature have been provided, the result makes it worth all the trials and errors.

Neil’s other job is as a machinist, which has come in handy: he’s converted a carpet steamer into a tool that shrinks the sleeves on the bottle caps and has modified aquarium pumps to aerate tanks of vinegar. The kind of electric mats made for starting seeds keep the tanks warm.

The label on the Apple Balsamic Vinegar of Vermont says that it’s “Organic * Gourmet * Handmade * Subtle * Complex,” and where it’s sold, mostly at farm stands and coops at this point, it’s being gobbled up. Somewhat unexpectedly, Neil even likes the sales part, especially when he meets anyone interested in vinegar. It seems to have become an obsession. Now there’s a storehouse of tanks, drums, and casks that should keep him obsessed for a long time.

Snapping Turtle Nest

Editor’s Note: Our friend Carolyn Haley, from East Wallingford, checked in with this Dispatch.

Two Junes ago, this turtle – or its relative – settled into a shady, moist corner of our yard. The thing is the size of a serving platter. My first thought was to be concerned about our indoor/outdoor cats, who might investigate and get their limbs snapped off.

On that first appearance, I consulted the local animal warden as well as an expert on turtles I found online. Their advice was to ignore it, and it would move on. It did. And we never saw an outbreak of mini turtles.

I dismissed the experience from my consciousness, that is until the snapper turned up the next year in the same place at the same time. And then sure enough last week, while I was bringing in the bird feeders, I saw a large lump in an open sandy area of the side yard that serves as our kitties’ natural litterbox. It was the snapping turtle, digging down into the soft dirt with both her rear legs, then pushing the sand out sideways. She was, of course, dropping eggs rather than poo.

The site is an anomaly in our heavily-trafficked yard, where four 100-foot pine trees once grew. We had them taken out a decade ago to save the house from getting crushed in a blow-down, and the area has never grown in. Hence its popularity as a litterbox. And, apparently, an incubator.

I watched her – entranced – for at least an hour. But the real-world question is: what do we do now? There’s a pile of eggs smack in the middle of a daily transit path for humans, animals, and vehicles. Should I mark it with a stick and wait to see what happens? Internet research indicates hatching could occur as late as October. By then we will have transited the patch a dozen times with a lawnmower, not to mention daily foot traffic and weekly vehicle traffic.

I cringe at the thought of potentially cat-maiming creatures erupting from the soil as the cats squat above them, lost in concentration. I also cringe at the thought of what the cats – who let’s face it, are no angels – might do to these innocent turtles when they’re interrupted.

Just another example of the endless, precarious balance between people and nature.

Editor’s Note: We checked in with our friend David Carroll about all this. Carroll is an author, illustrator, and naturalist who’s been observing, and fighting to protect, turtles for 50 years. (His memoir is entitled “Self Portrait with Turtles,” which gives you a sense of the devotion.) Here’s our email exchange:

Hi David,

. . . One of our writers filed a piece that details a snapping turtle nest that, unfortunately, is right in the middle of a heavily-trafficked part of her yard. She wants to mow. She needs to drive a vehicle through there.

What would one do if they found themselves in this situation? And if there’s an option to move the nest, what are the best practices one would follow?

Thanks for humoring the question. Your name is the first one that springs to mind when I think turtles.

Carroll Responds:

Of course the best option would be to welcome such an event and walk, drive, and work around the site; it is not such a huge area. Maybe have the compelling experience of seeing the nest hatch out. But she clearly wants her yard. Moving a snapping turtle’s nest is a real project and has to be done correctly – all eggs kept in their present position, at the same depth. Maybe she has a naturalist, biologist, herpetologist friend who might want to undertake relocation.

Mowing over the nest would do no harm, driving would not impact it if tires did not directly run over it (and maybe the nest would survive even that). Stepping on it (hardly seems necessary) would not be harmful – they lay eggs fairly deeply and usually reach back under a shelf of earth. She should know that the eggs are not likely to hatch until sometime in September, possibly into October, depending on how the summer temperatures go. Unless there are barbed wire fences along both sides of a very narrow pathway, leaving it up to fate with minimal thought beyond avoiding heavy impact or digging would seem the best route to take. I’ll show more of a bias (tilted heavily toward turtle) – what good are, how important are, lawns anyway? But then, our house insurance company has characterized our place as “overgrown” – maybe it’s time to buy a ride-on mower?

My bias aside, I am grateful that she shows concern. I hope you can make something useful out of this. Good to hear from you in any event.

Pickled Ramps

One of the reasons that ramps, or leeks, or wild onions, or whatever you call them, hold a dear place in people’s hearts is that they’re relatively long-lived and predictable. Morels are mysterious and can’t really be counted on. Fiddleheads sprint to maturity, so you’d better be on them. But ramps pop up dependably in April, and if you miss the early-season window when everyone’s all excited about them, you can always go back in late spring and pop up some perfectly edible bulbs. In the early season I like to sauté the milder green parts and simmer or braise the white bit with potatoes or meat. This time of year, the foliage is too far gone to use, but the bulbs are bulbous – more pearl onion than scallion – so your harvesting footprint is smaller than it is in early spring.

Back in the days of frugal living, pickling was a go-to technique for produce that was past its peak. So that’s what we did here. The bulbs were trimmed and packed in pint jars. We added a few dried chilies from last year’s garden, a pinch of peppercorn, some herbs de Provence (fennel adds an especially nice note). We used white wine vinegar because it’s what we had – different vinegars give things a different flavor profile, so it’s up to your palate which you should choose. Our brine recipe was 1 cup vinegar, 1 cup water, ¼ cup white sugar, ¼ cup maple sugar, 1 tablespoon pickling salt – you can scale up from there. Bring the brine to a simmer to dissolve the sugar and salt, then pour over the ramps. Cool and refrigerate, or process in a hot water bath for longer-term storage.

The White Pine Removal Project

We’d been talking about and putting off the “White Pine Removal Project” long enough that it earned an official name. It was clear for years that this was something we needed to do.

The six massive white pines around our lawn were encroaching on our house and leaning precariously out over our barn, covering everything in shade and needles – and pitch. Branches (the 4-inch-in-diameter kind) were constantly breaking off in the slightest breeze or lightest snow. Actual storms brought down much bigger pieces. But the cost and complexity of the project caused us to push it off, until last week. I wasn’t sure exactly what a tree care company would have charged to do the whole job, but it was clear that we couldn’t afford it. So instead it became a family project, with the help of my brother and some rented equipment.

Decades of growth had produced white pines that dwarfed, and leaned over, our house and barn.

Day 1 began with the simplest of the removals – a 28-inch-diameter pine with a natural lean toward a relatively open area of the lawn. No fuss, no muss, no wedges. We had it on the ground in maybe three minutes. Then began the three-hour process of limbing it up and hauling away all the debris. Our white pines were not the forest-grown kind that European settlers marveled at when they first arrived on this continent –the towering, straight poles prized by the crown. No, ours were so-called “cabbage pines” that form when the trees grow in open areas with lots of sunlight. Each was probably 80 to 90 feet in height, but just as wide and with multiple stems starting 15 or 20 feet up the trunk. In that sense, each tree was really three or four trees. That means we had branches, branches and more branches to deal with. We started making piles in anticipation of renting a large chipper.

Mike White begins the bore cut on white pine #2. White pine #1 can be seen in the background.

The second pine came down nearly as quickly as the first. Wedges, and a 65cc Stihl with a 25-inch bar, helped us drop the 36-inch-diameter monster carefully between an apple tree and a maple. (Unfortunately, that meant landing it on my wife’s perennial garden.) Another several hours of limbing followed. Skipping over the branch-hauling for the moment, we moved on to the third pine. And that’s where our luck ran out. This one was the closest to our house. We hoped to wedge it in our chosen direction, safely away from the structure. But even with six or seven wedges pounded in place, the tree sat back and pinched the saw bar once the trigger wood was cut. An hour of pounding the wedges proved fruitless; they simply compressed the soft wood rather than lifting the tree and toppling it where we wanted it. Around that time, our rented 51-foot-tall man-lift arrived, so we used that to connect a climbing rope as high in the tree as we could reach and ran it to a come-along anchored to another white pine about 125 feet away. The four-ton come-along was able to put significant tension on the pull line, but simply wasn’t large enough to pull the tree over. So we returned to the lift and carefully, piece by piece, took off a major limb of the tree that was growing in the opposite direction. With the last of that counter-weight removed, the come-along was able to do its job and brought the rest of the tree down where we originally intended.

A rental lift let us prune back large limbs growing over the barn.

Day 2 started with sore muscles, and a shift to more precision work in the lift. Using an electric chainsaw and a 59cc Jonsered, both with 16-inch bars, we pruned back the large branches of the pine leaning out over our 200-year-old barn. We tied each section off to a remaining part of the branch so that the cut portion was left hanging from a carabiner; we then lowered each piece by hand with the help of a belay device. In this way, we protected the roof of the barn and those of us working on the ground. Piece by piece, that half of the tree slowly came down. We cleared everything that was hanging out over the barn, but eventually reached a point where the remaining stems were too tall for our lift to safely tackle. Fearing for our barn and our safety, we left the rest of that tree for someone with more expertise, and maybe a crane, to tackle. The remaining hours of daylight were spent with more limbing (using the Jonsered, a 59cc Husqvarna and a 30cc Echo) and brush hauling.

The beginnings of the pulp pile.

On the morning of Day 3 we began to finally cut up the large debranched trees that lay all around our lawn. Before beginning, I had called county forester Dan Singleton, who gave me the names of a few people who might be interested in the wood for pulp. We weren’t looking for any money, I told him, we just wanted to get rid of the wood and hoped there might be a better use than simply piling the logs in our woods. “The pulp market isn’t great right now, especially after the mill exploded in Maine,” he cautioned me. (This dashcam video with plenty of profanity shows the dramatic scene of the mid-April explosion at the Androscoggin Mill, where much of the pulp wood from our part of Vermont had been going.) But I called Tristan Vaughn at Grizzly Mountain Trucking in Groton, Vermont, who told me he would take a load. So we cut the logs to the specs he gave us: 26-inch diameter max down to about 5 or 6 inches, lengths of 8, 12, 16 or 20 feet. The open-grown pine was rarely straight enough to get 16-foot logs, so we focused mostly on 8’s, with 12’s when possible.

We dropped a couple more pines on Day 4, and began moving and stacking all the logs with a rented Cat 259D compact track loader equipped with a large grapple. The machine weighed about 9,000 pounds and could lift almost 3,000 pounds, yet unless a sharp turn was required did almost no damage to our lawn. In the 24 hours we had it, we got pretty quick at picking up the logs and and dropping them where we wanted them. The first log of each tree was often too large in diameter, so those had to be dumped in our woods. Likewise, logs too twisted to be loaded onto a log truck were also dumped, save for five or ten that I aside to burn in my outdoor boiler. But even after dumping at least five cords of wood, we ended up with a stack of about seven cords of pulp, and two saw logs (cut to 16 feet, 6 inches), for Tristan.

After the dust settled, there were seven cords of pulp and two saw logs ready for pick up.

The grapple also sped up the collection of branches. But the chipper we rented refused to start, so those piles will have to be chipped later. Eventually sensing we had piled all that could be chipped in a single day, we next started making a burn pile that quickly became enormous; someday this coming January you might be able to see the fire from space.

Day 5 was lawn (and perennial garden) clean-up; even after four days of work, there were plenty of small branches and needles left to take care of. All told, we spent about $1,200 on rental equipment and delivery. That’s only a fraction of what it would have cost us to hire the job done, as long as we don’t account for our time. Five long days is a lot of sweat equity, so whatever a tree care company might charge is well-deserved. And though we prioritized safety at every step, there’s undeniable danger in this kind of work. We’re fortunate that there were no injuries to people or damage to buildings, and we have some stories to tell.

 

Ghost

I saw a small white mammal dash under a log a few weeks ago, and reflexively thought I’d seen an ermine. It was about a half mile up in the woods behind the house. It took a minute to dawn on me that it was summer, and ermines should be brown now.

I went back the next day and staked things out, and learned the animal was, in fact, an albino chipmunk. I also learned I was no nature photographer. The best I’ve been able to do so far was a poor cell phone picture and some flashes of game camera video. But it has been a good learning experience.

I was able to locate the burrow the white chipmunk was seeking refuge in, which seemed a good indication I was in the core area of its home range. It appeared to be young-of-the-year, based on its size. According to Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart, in their book “Behavior of North American Mammals,” chipmunks are born blind and hairless in April or May, after a month-long gestation. But in just five weeks they emerge from their natal den and are ¾ of their adult size.

I set up a game camera and recorded thousands of videos over a seven day stretch. With the exception of false triggers, a gray squirrel who occasionally sauntered by, and oddly, a hummingbird, all the other daytime pictures – hundreds of them – were of chipmunks. But the white one appeared in only about a dozen of the photos, spaced semi-regularly over the whole seven day span. It just didn’t come out very much.

So why? It could simply be that it’s a young animal and not yet brazen enough to venture far. According to Elbroch and Rinehart, young of the year stick around the natal den for one to three weeks after first emerging, building courage, learning through play. There were several videos of a different young-of-the-year chipmunk chasing the white one, which seems to jive with this.

After the exploratory window, the mother bars the kids from the den and they disperse. Chipmunks are solitary animals, and with the exception of breeding seasons and the child-rearing window for mothers, they spend their lives alone.

Of course another theory as to why the white chipmunk doesn’t come out much is that its eyes are bad. People with albinism are considered legally blind. So if it is a true albino, and all the footage I’ve seen suggests it is, it likely has vision problems.

So how rare are albino animals? According to the National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation, one in every 18,000 – 20,000 people in the U.S. has some type of albinism. A web search turned up an abstract from 1954 that estimated rates of albinism in gray squirrels in Maine at 1 in 10,000 – that’s the closest I could get to chipmunk. The Missouri Department of Fisheries documented a ratio of 1 in 20,000 in their stocked catfish inventory. We’ll never find an actual number, but safe to say it’s pretty rare.

Yellow Grub

Taking a three-year-old fishing is chock full of lessons. There are predictable ones: ichthyology, self-sufficiency, cause and effect. (“If you throw all the worms in the water, honey, we won’t have worms to fish with.”)

And then there are the random lessons you don’t expect to learn, let alone teach, like the ones involving the parasitic yellow grubs that you might find in perch meat. These animals have life cycles that, coolly enough, involve the blue herons that were flying over us while we fished, and the snails we were noticing on the bottom of the lake floor under the bridge we were fishing on.

So in the picture above you’ll see the cysts that were in the perch fillets. The grubs (Clinostomum marginatum) are inside. Humans aren’t part of the parasite’s lifecycle, and they die when you cook them, so the meat is still edible, if not exactly appetizing.

The parasite starts its life in an egg in a heron or a bittern’s throat. The egg is either regurgitated into the water as the bird feeds or shat out – reputable sources vary on that detail, which could be an indication that both things are possible. Once free of the bird, the egg hatches and the miracidia, as the little organism is called, finds a snail to infect. The parasite goes through several larval stages in the snail, then leaves the snail to find a fish. It infects a fish, then gets passed to a fish-eating bird when the fish is eaten. Once in the bird’s throat, the adult lays eggs and the lifecycle starts anew.