The Thread Counter
Journeys to the World of the Seldom-Seen NaturePosted on: June 18th, 2020
Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #10
PREFACE: This is Part III of our excursions into backyard explorations and the observation of nature. With the aid of an inexpensive magnifying lens, windows into a seldom-explored world will open up to children and adults alike. Our backyards teem with life if we only look close enough. Armed with our loupes, cameras, field journals, and curiosity, every square foot in our yards can become an exotic location for a miniature safari. So, let’s take a step into the realm of the invisible, the wild, weird, and wonderful wildlife that lives right under our feet.
Growing up in Venezuela, I had many opportunities to be outdoors. And the outdoors, even in a city of millions, like Caracas was at that time, was still pretty wild. My house and yard lay in a corner lot, with a wrap-around yard, bordered on three sides with a 5-foot hedge of wax mallows shrubs (genus Malvaviscus) and the other side by an abandoned lot full of weeds, snakes and other scary creatures. I often saw three-toed sloths brachiate in slow motion through the mango trees in my backyard, painstakingly making their way through the neighborhood canopy. Bats colonized the dry palm frond mats of the two palm trees that framed the entrance to our house. Giant black moths that we called “palometas” scared the women and children of the household because of their alleged capacity to be messengers of death and bad news. Ant lions staged their minefield of conical traps in the sandy soil under the trees, capturing the hapless ants with minute showers of fine sand while butterflies, bees, ants, and the odd hummingbird milled around and shared the bounties of our flowery hedge. I spent as much time in my backyard as I could, sucking tiny droplets of nectar from the base of the wax mallow flowers, eating green mangoes with salt, observing, exploring, playing, and daydreaming. When I was about eight years old, my backyard explorations took a different turn when we were visiting my uncle and aunt at their house.
My aunt was a seamstress, and her shop was a marvelous treasure trove of threads, cloths, and buttons of myriad colors and shapes. I loved to sneak into her shop and explore this diverse “ecosystem.” This particular day, I found a loupe or magnifying lens that I hadn’t seen before. I learned much later that it was called a thread counter, a lens mounted on a folding lacquered metal frame that allowed the clothworker to count the number of threads per inch on any clothing material. Its fixed focal point made it easy to slap over a piece of cloth and get an instantly pre-focused view of the particular fabric or whatever else was under the lens. It opened a marvelous and strange world of giant needles, spools, snaps, textures, and forms, and I couldn’t let it go. I borrowed the lens and took it outside. That’s when I discovered the world where I was to live and work for the rest of my life. Every flower, insect, twig, and leaf became scrutinized to find previously unseen structures, patterns, colors, and textures. I was thoroughly hooked. I was unable to return the missing thread counter. I still have it, retired now to a peaceful place among other small treasures of my childhood, and over the years, have replaced it with a variety of more sophisticated optics, including microscopes and digital cameras with macro lenses.
I became an aquatic ecologist specializing in aquatic insects, which allowed me to spend many years peering through microscopes at the fascinating flora and fauna of streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands. Macro or close-up photography enhanced my ability to capture these fantastic creatures and leave long-lasting memories to visit again. To this day, I continue to be fascinated by the small and wondrous world that I discovered in my childhood, exploring new backyards everywhere I go, recording through my macro lenses this world we seldom see.
In a drawer in my office at Lindsay, I keep a small stock of pocket magnifying lenses, all new in their original packaging. These I give away to children (and, occasionally, an adult or two) who come to visit me and show that sparkle in the eye when I talk to them about little lives. With the help of a loupe, anyone can explore the world of the minute. You can stand eye-to-eye with an ant or a beetle, explore the vast field of the underside of a leaf, or marvel at the organized puzzle of scales in a butterfly’s wing. Through these explorations, anyone can begin to appreciate how complex and interdependent nature is. There are intricate food webs in action in every corner of the garden. Predators hunt prey every day, prey defends itself, and plants turn sunlight and water into stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds. Death is a form of recycling that creates nutrients to feed the next generation of fungi, plants, and animals. There is no waste in nature, the ultimate recycler, a closed circle of life, death, and renewal. And best of all, we are an integral part of it. Our actions determine how precious and beautiful these tiny ecosystems can be if we give them a chance.
Carlos L. de la Rosa