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Sunday, September 4, 2016

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

In nature, one food source displaces another. For instance, the Virginia Mountain Mint that had all the insects gathered at the fence line in the spring  has now given way to bright yellow bidens flowers.

A Monarch in flight
I've come to expect the Monarchs at this time of year, and so I watch for their arrival on my side of the fence.

The Monarch butterflies suddenly appear at the fence line and are drawn to the yellow blooms, but many of the other insects that were there are all along, so excited about the Virginia Mountain Mint a few months ago,  are now just as happy to feed on the nectar of the beggar-tick bidens.

If I had not watched this compilation of nature clips that I had made over the past few months, I might not have noticed how the predominant white of the Virginia Mountain Mint gave way to the overpowering yellow of the beggar-tick  bidens. From a distance, they remind me of the safflower fields in the movie Only Yesterday. 

If all the same flowers were blooming throughout the spring and summer, how different it would be for the butterflies and bees! Wouldn't they neglect some flowers in favor of others? Bow is like that, too. I had to learn to buy fewer apples when there are pears to be had. And when handing out a snack between meals, it is important that it not be calorie dense, or else Bow will not be ready for dinner at the usual time.

That's why Pickle Ice is such a wonderful snack! Bow enjoys it very much, but I don't have to worry that it will spoil his dinner.

Because there are no calories in Pickle Ice, just water and vinegar and salt, Bow finds it refreshing, but it does not alter his diet. It does not displace other foods.

I remember when he was little, and we brought him to Orchard House to be tested on his literacy and language skills. It was an objective test, and he was offered chocolate, if he did it right. But even though Bow has always liked chocolate, he did not even try to do well on the test. In fact, he stubbornly insisted on answering every single question wrong. When a test subject consistently does that, and his wrong answers exceed chance, you know he is resisting. And one of the interns asked me: "Didn't he just have breakfast?" Well, yes, of course, he had. What mother would bring her child in to take an academic test on an empty stomach?

And what were they thinking?  That I should deprive him of breakfast? That I should starve him before the test? That he would skip breakfast and then fill up on chocolate? I was never going to allow that.

So here's a question that I have for researchers who use food as an incentive to do well at a task: does the reward food displace the everyday ordinary meals, or do the test subjects have bottomless pits for stomachs? I sometimes wonder if the same basic issues that plague academic economists in understanding the free market are at work in the studies of behavioral researchers. Nature abhors a vacuum. You cannot change what's available without changing the balance of things.

But... if I were to offer Bow an incentive to do well on a test today, I wouldn't offer chocolate. I'd offer Pickle Ice, because Bow likes that a lot, and he can even enjoy it on a full stomach. So there's a thought.


  1. I will have to try pickle ice one day.

  2. Loved your natural splendor video, Aya! Fantastic! The music for it was nice too. Yes, nature does abhor a vacuum. It always fascinates me to watch the varieties of plants as they grow, bloom, decline and go to seed, just as the next variety starts its life cycle and takes its place for awhile. Right now the bidens are just exploding everywhere.
    So, yes, I think some flowers would be ignored for others if they all bloomed at the same time. Maybe nature knows that certain types of calories (nectars) are needed for each part of the season....or something. Interesting thoughts.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. Glad you liked the video! I am experimenting with the new YouTube Create feature. Have you seen the one about the Red-spotted Purple being a tease-- "Catch Me if You Can"-- using the Habanera?

      Yeah, things do tend to arrange themselves for the best in nature, without central planning. I think the flowers know what is good for themselves, and space themselves out so as to be maximally attractive for the sake of their own reproduction. Those that didn't do that may have died out.