Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Galls and Nests

I have noticed in myself a tendency to become fascinated by things that I wasn't exposed to as a child. Squirrels are a great example; they are commonplace, but none live on the island on which I was raised. I've lived in a squirrel-infested city for over a decade, but I still get excited to see them playing, fighting, and stealing food right off people's plates.

Oak trees are another such thing. An oak blight hit the islands before I was born, and though some stands of oaks are making a comeback in the area, I wasn't raised with this type of tree. The variety of oaks in California is astonishing, and I love to see their various adaptations to arid, coastal, or mountain environments.

One thing I am particularly hooked on is oak galls. Galls are an abnormal outgrowth of tissue caused by a parasite, and in the case of oak trees that parasite is a gall wasp. Galls can form on leaves or branches; leaf galls are mostly harmless, but those on branches and twigs can harm the limb by rerouting resources from it to the gall. There are over 1,300 known species of gall wasp, and about 70% of them use oak trees as a part of their reproductive cycle. The female gall wasp lays an egg on the tree and, due to an unknown trigger (chemical, viral?), a gall forms around the eggs. When the egg hatches, the larvae feeds on the accumulated tissue of the gall. The gall also provides a sturdy shelter for the larvae.*

The thing that is incredible to me is that one can identify the species of wasp causing the gall by the physical appearance of the gall itself. Some of them are really, really beautiful, too.

I've been thinking a lot lately, as I try to articulate some of the opinions I have about design and aesthetics, about designs that echo nature -- not necessarily mimic, but reference in a more vague and even unintentional way. And while I was out walking yesterday, looking at oak galls forming along the trails around the lake, I realized that nothing reminds me more of an oak gall quite so much as NestRest shelter/swings (pictures here are from this site).

True, they are called NestRest and obviously mimic a bird's nest, especially the nests of orioles or weaver birds, and I won't deny that's probably what they're based on -- those nests are also really remarkable. But in concept, NestRest reminds me strongly of galls: an attachment to the limb with a hard shell and soft interior in which one can often find something squishy and alive. Maybe it's a person, maybe a cat, or if you leave your NestRest out all winter, maybe another forest critter. It is an organism glomming on to a tree limb; nest or gall, I think both apply... but one has a much better marketing potential.

This might sound a bit insulting to NestRest, but I assure you, it isn't. In fact, I though the big swings looked rather silly until I came to this perspective on them. Now I find myself really interested in hanging out in one. Maybe I'm more of a bug than a bird?

Have you ever been inside a NestRest or similar swing? Will you tell me about it? 

*Though, true to nature, another type of insect has developed a very long, sturdy proboscis and ovipositor that can penetrate the shell of a gall to prey on the larvae. Evolution: can't survive with it, can't survive without it.

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