It’s time to slow down and appreciate the little wonders of nature

“Look at this caterpillarsaid Andrew J. Brand one afternoon as we passed an old, bumpy shrub of horse chestnut in my garden.

What a caterpillar, I thought, quickly dragging my eyes in the direction of his gaze rather than embarrassing myself by acknowledging that I hadn’t noticed anything.

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What he saw looked like nothing more to me than another among many twigs, sticking out of a branch at a slight angle. But it wasn’t a stick. It was a stick caterpillar, the well disguised larval form of some geometrid butterfly or else – a creature so inconspicuous, so enigmatic, that it can eat without being eaten, hiding in plain sight – except for Brand.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that someone with a master’s degree in tissue culture – propagating plants from small bits or single cells of the original – has a keen eye for the intricacies of living organisms. His task when he graduated, aided by magnifying glasses and microscopes: “to work with tiny things, cut them into small pieces and really look at the details”.

Not much has changed since then, it seems. But Brand’s current tenure as director of horticulture for Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay is to make sure the big stages appeal to us too.

The 300-plus-acre public space, which welcomed more than 250,000 visitors in 2021, includes more than 20 acres of display gardens with nature-focused features like an apiary for bees and a native-bee exposure. A native butterfly and moth house is planted with host and nectariferous plants – food for larvae and adults – carefully matched so that each species can complete its entire life cycle there.

Beyond the cultivated areas, trails beckon visitors deep into the Maine woods, along narrow paths through towering spruce and pine woods, to a tidal river with gulls and ospreys .

The public aspect is one of the things Brand loves most about where he started working in 2018, after 27 years at Broken Arrow Nursery, in Hamden, Connecticut, specializing in rare and unusual plants. He was the nursery manager there and, as he does now in Maine, he kept an eye on the botanical activities and also found himself observing visitors as they looked around the gardens.

He can’t help it: he wants to make sure everyone experiences the equivalent of our caterpillar moment.

“Have you seen that?” he asked a couple he was watching as they witnessed the biggest scene in the kindergarten in Maine at the end of a summer. Then he leaned down to offer an impromptu tour of the tiny spotted flowers of the toad lily (Tricyrtis hirta) near ground level.

No, they had missed it. Their reaction: “Incredible”.

In a faded flowernature stained glass

When there’s no audience, a little wonder like the toad lily, a shade garden plant native to Japan, can inspire Brand to seek his iPhone camera. He did just that one day in February when he spotted a single backlit floret of a wilted Hydrangea paniculata that was still hanging on.

Of course, the shrub’s summertime outpouring of hundreds of florets clustered in each of the many giant flower heads had been striking, a crowd-pleasing moment. But it was the design of this individual jewel that had caught his attention, so he focused.

“The stained glass of nature”, he commented on his instagram page when he posted the close-up of this long-gone flower. Brand isn’t a social media influencer or professional photographer, but his friends and colleagues can’t wait to see what he sees and shares with the hashtag #observeconnectexperience.

His way of observing is often centered on what he calls “the greatness of small scenes”.

Every little moment quietly reminds us not to rush into the next garden chore or get distracted by the showy and obvious stuff. Instead, slow down and really watch.

A colleague who leads the botany garden‘s boutique recently asked to turn some of her photos into greeting cards. (Calendars are coming soon, too.) That was a compliment, sure, but that wasn’t what motivated him.

Even for someone with his formal botanical education and decades of work experience, the camera phone has been a window into a self-guided lifelong curriculum. Take out the phone, take a picture and enjoy another layer of understanding.

It’s “digging deeper into what’s not just pretty,” as he describes his ongoing training and ours. “Not just to put a bunch of pretty pictures out there, but I hope to inspire others, and myself, to find out more.”

Ask, ‘Why, why, why?’

Why is that butterfly hanging upside down under this flower, he wonders as he approaches. Sure enough, he finds the culprit: a white crab spider had caught the butterfly.

“And then you look up ‘crab spider’, and you find that the spider can turn yellow when it’s on the goldenrod, and…” he trailed off, the ands seeming endless.

Zooming in for a close-up of a lupine flower, he considers how the native lupine (Lupinus perennis) has nearly disappeared from Maine. Instead, the bigleaf lupine (L. polyphyllus), a western North American species that escaped gardens and became invasive, is now ubiquitous along the state. road sides.

Staring at the handsome alien on screen, he said: “It makes my brain start thinking, ‘How is this plant pollinated?’ And then I stop what I’m doing and I start observing the bees.

Small species cannot quite open the individual, shell-like flowers typical of members of the pea family. Bumblebees are able to finish the job and get the pollen inside, he notes, but the little guys can’t.

Blooming or not, the lupine remains a draw for Brand, especially on a misty morning when its hair-covered leaves are dripping with beads of dew. To really know a plant is to see it in all kinds of weather and light conditions – and in all seasonal incarnations.

Same Winter offers a lot of material for Brand and its phone. He has become a connoisseur of puddles, seeing the possibilities (and faces) they contain, including a Picasso-like portrait and “a tapestry of frozen bubbles”.

As he admits in one post, he has an “unbridled imagination.”

The stories that dragonfly exuviae can say

Brand does not use any particular technique to produce its images. He continues to want to take an online course on the iPhone camera, but instead continues to take pictures.

He doesn’t use filters, preferring his special effects to come from a reflection in the water or a dramatic angle of light rather than software. He simply finds his subject and the frame, zooms in and then touches the screen to lock focus where he wants – and takes multiples of each subject to improve his chances of success.

On a recent walk by the pond, Brand came across various dragonfly exuviae — the outer husks of young dragonflies. Dragonflies begin life as aquatic insects inside a larval case. After reaching adulthoodthey should come out of the water by clinging to the stem of a sedge or other nearby plant.

The last step of the metamorphosisif all goes well: the case opens and the winged creature molts, ready to take its first flight in pursuit of prey, leaving behind the exuviae.

“Most people won’t know what it is if I post the pictures, or the dragonflies spend most of their lives in the water,” he said, though he suspects some have seen exuviae in a kayak or canoe. “Maybe my picture will get them thinking about it – and asking, ‘What does he do the rest of the time, in the other stages of his life?'”

These magical milkweeds

Back to flower beds and borders, Brand admits to various obsessions with garden plants. He has grown over 125 varieties and species of Epimedium, for example, and his current collection is around 75.

“They have a delicate, almost frail look,” he said. “But they’re so tough and durable.”

The naturalist in him is especially taken by the natives, although – like the milkweed (Asclepias), which thrive in such diverse habitats: wet, dry, full sun, partial shade.

Asclepias exaltata, the poke milkweed, really likes that high canopy or woodland edge shade. Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) can take it wet, as its common name suggests. Butterflyweed (A. tuberosa) is extremely drought tolerant.

And a field of common milkweed (A. syriaca) is Brand’s idea of ​​a good time.

“You walk in there and the sound of insect life is amazing,” he said. “Besides, it smells so good.”

He notices bees hanging by one leg in the flowers, and a new riddle must be solved. What is all this about?

“I love when you can go in there and take your time,” he said, “and walk around and see so many different things” — whether it’s a butterfly, a bee, or a beetle.

“And that’s constantly changing,” he added.

The biggest drama: a meadow filled with milkweed in the fall, when the pods explode and blow away in the wind.

Some captions of images he posted of such moments: “I’m leaving. Floating towards the sun. And: “New beginnings take flight.”

To be fowarding something.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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