Backyard Naturalist: Science, Fiction, and the Oak

Oak gall among autumn leaves. Photo by Dana Wilde

“What is this?” Bonnie said one long-ago late summer afternoon, before the ticks had invaded the forest and daylilies still plastered the windshield in the spring.

She held up a shiny red spotted ball, a little bigger than an acorn. Since I’m the backyard naturalist and fancier, and everyone else is just curious, she expected me to have an answer, or at least an odd speculation.

“I have no idea,” I said. “Where did you get it?”

“Jack found it under the oak by the shed.”

She handed it to me. It was smooth and looked like some kind of fruit or nut, although there was no obvious end to the stem. I went outside to have a look.

Surrounding the shack (which looks like a derelict tool shed from the outside, but is a wall-to-wall library of books inside) are spruce, pine, beech, oak, maple, hemlock and cedar trees, none of which drop a little round fruit. That I know of. The shed is attached to the garage, on the other side of which were dogwoods, a few ash trees, and a dead elm tree that died so suddenly you’d swear it had a heart attack. But they don’t grow acorn-sized fruit either. We had never noticed this thing before.

I looked for the ground among the acorns. I soon spotted one of the red balls and picked it up. Strange. Were they a rare species of acorn? Or maybe they were pods of obscure origin that would sprout tentacles at night, attach themselves to our sleeping faces, and clone us into expressionless human-alien hybrids that would dispose of our desiccated bodies in the trash on Wednesday.

Maybe not.

I went back into the kitchen and took out the books of trees and flowers and leafed through them, but found nothing that resembled the pods, as we called them now. I gave up for now and left them on the kitchen table, hoping the strands wouldn’t make it into the bedroom.

The next evening, the pods noticeably dry out. Two days later, they were completely shriveled, like big raisins. When I got back to the shed where the science fiction novels are actually kept – out of the reach of those who are merely curious – I took another five or six pods and checked the tree and flower books again – which are kept in the house itself – but not yet found similarities.

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The next morning we decided to solve the problem before small creatures with prehistoric teeth started to erupt from our chest cavities. We set about cutting it up.

The truth, as is often the case, was one of those disturbing natural phenomena that generate, rather than result from, science fiction. It was not a fruit. It was growth.

Using a knife instead of a scalpel, we cut open the pod. Inside was a white worm, or rather a larva. The larva we eventually found was that of a gall wasp, a small non-stinging flying insect. The gall wasp lays its egg in an oak leaf and leaves a chemical that causes the oak to grow this fleshy pod or gall around the egg. The larva grew in the gall and fed on it. Some oak galls (aka acorns) grow right inside the acorn, and some, like the ones around the shed, grow outside and fall from the trees.

We stopped worrying that aliens might be coming for us at night.

Science describes what happens; science fiction imagines what might happen, at least in its imagined modes. We began to think that we should pay more attention to the things that scientists worry about. Like disappearing insects and carbon emissions.

Dana Wild lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] His book, Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods, is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month.

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