Thursday, April 2, 2009

First Date

I'll return in the next post to our mini-series on Noah's flood. Today, however, I thought I'd reprint a post (originally published on Valentine's Day a couple of years ago) that relates the uncensored, romantic story of our first date, Dawn's and mine. (I was reminded of that event just a couple days ago as together we worked to separate a batch of redworms from the compost they had been producing for us.)

We met at Boise State University, where we were both in a graduate degree program in Raptor Biology. It was my first semester, and I was taking Aquatic Entomology from Dr. Charles Baker (ultimately my favorite class of my entire academic career). I had missed a Saturday field trip (for a friend's wedding back in Oregon), and so hadn't been able to round out my collection of aquatic insects with an example of a syrphid fly larva. Fortunately for me, my good friend, Eric Atkinson, was willing (the next Saturday) to take me back to find this elusive grub. (Well, okay, "elusive" may not be the right word. They're certainly not quick, and perhaps not very rare. What I mean to say is that you've got to want to find them, and you have to know where to look--something Dr. Baker knew as well as anyone.)

At any rate, Eric and his fiancee, Melanie (still our good friends, now married and the parents of three of the neatest girls you'd ever want to meet), and Dawn and I left early for a morning of bird-watching and insect collecting at Fort Boise in Canyon County, Idaho.

Time has made some of the memories of that fateful day a bit cloudy. I do remember being impressed by the fact that Dawn was ready at the appointed time (6 a.m. or whatever it was, and this remains characteristic of her). I also recall that it was a foggy day, and so (reconstructing the event from what I know now) her long, beautiful hair would have had that curly, unruly look that humid mornings give it. I also remember that we saw some interesting birds, including the first Black-crowned Night-Heron I'd seen in awhile. But back to the story...

Like many of the true flies (the insect order Diptera), members of the family Syrphidae spend their larval stage as grubs in semiaquatic conditions, burrowing in the wet sediment at the botton of ponds and lakes. But whereas the grubs of other families (like crane flies, and deer and horse flies) must continually migrate through the sediments to the surface to breathe, some syrphid flies (like our quarry that day) possess an adaptation that alleviates this need. They have a slender respiratory siphon that extends up to two or three times the length of their body. They can thus stay submerged in the saturated muck and reach this siphon up to the surface in order to breathe. So, the larval form of this interesting creature is commonly known as a Rat-tailed Maggot, and it was the hope of acquiring examples of these that bound our hearts together on that first of many forays into the natural world that Dawn and I have shared.

Other lovers may keep a memento of their first date, a card exchanged, the pressed remains of a flower given, the label from a bottle of wine shared. For us, the tangible memento of our first date consists of four Rat-tailed Maggots preserved in a vial of 99% isopropyl alcohol and a label bearing the location and the date, the 7th of October, 1988.

Note: Should you wish to find Rat-tailed Maggots yourself, the procedure involves dredging up some of the saturated muck from the bottom of the pond, spreading it about an inch deep in a large tray, and then patting the muck with your open palm. The Rat-tailed Maggots will be the squishy-but-crunchy things. (As I recall, my bride-to-be's hands displayed just that certain sensitivity that made her adept at distinguishing fly larvae from the general muck.)

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