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Blane Klemek column: Worlds within worlds: A fascinating look at life

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Looking out at a landscape -- any landscape, whether it be from a vantage overlooking the Red River Valley or on top a birch ridge high above a favorite lake -- the "big picture" that such panoramas provide can be easily broken down into minute proportions.

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For the viewer, it all depends on just how small you can imagine or wish to go.

I have always been drawn to worlds within worlds. For example, a simple anthill in the middle of a woodland offers the observer a real dilemma. Should you kick the mound with your boot to witness the madness of a swarming colony of ants, or quietly squat beside it and watch a curious microcosm going about its business? Either way, something is learned.

A disturbed mound causes a flurry of activity to occur that can be both understood while simultaneously sparking a whole new set of questions.

How, for instance, do the worker ants know to seek out the perpetrator and struggle to carry the exposed eggs to the safety of another passage? And while this is occurring, others are busily rebuilding from damage done.

But watching an undisturbed colony is fascinating as well, if not more so. Moving to rhythms I cannot comprehend, are hundreds, if not thousands, of insects toiling in an altruistic, harmonious and hypnotizing manner; each with its own job, yet all working for the common good.

For obvious reasons, insects, and all the microhabitats they occupy, provides us with a wealth of wonderment. As such, it used to be that when I looked at a wetland I saw it as something like a gift-wrapped box. It's attractive on the outside, complete with water and green vegetation for wrapping, but I really didn't know much about the contents.

I contend that everyone should at least once in his or her life slip into a pair of chest-waders or hip-boots and explore the brackish waters of a wetland to become acquainted, at the very least, with the cast members of such systems. Perhaps, I believe, the ATV enthusiast, or lawmaker or developer would come away with a different point of view after having experienced a walk in the water among arrowhead, cattails, bulrush, and duckweed.

Believe me; a whole new world exists right in front of our eyes for anyone wishing to probe a wetland. For instance, the diversity and amount of life that exists in just one drop of water would in and of itself astound. In the contents of that water droplet -- of which we cannot see without magnification -- is a dizzying array of single-celled and multi-cellular organisms swimming about.

And that, unfortunately, is precisely -- at least from my perception -- the problem. What we cannot see, we therefore don't know about, don't understand, or, sometimes, don't care about.

I have often peered into small windows of wetland waters for minutes on end, spellbound by what was going on below the surface. Did you know that waterboatmen carry about a single air bubble for use, to breathe from, later on? Or that the tiny sacs dotting bladderwort plants are really miniature traps designed to capture small invertebrate creatures? Or how about those confused acting whirlygig beetles that spin about like crazy windup toys? Someone (not me) in fact determined that they can paddle their feet up to 60 times per second!

Perhaps it sounds silly, I don't know, but it's easy to get lost in the wild while knowing full well your exact whereabouts. For example, I've hid inside dense cattail stands while playing recordings of American bitterns and Virginia rails in order to coax them toward me for a closer look.

Indeed, to witness the air-gulping behavior of a territorial male bittern and the head-tossing, strange vocalizations of his incredible "onk-o'runk" call is a sight and sound to behold. Or, watching the diminutive Virginia rail taking tentative steps across floating vegetation as it searches for the "intruder" while calling loudly its unmistakable "kidd-ick, kidd-ick" call is equally as rewarding and fascinating. And all of it, these spellbinding interactions and actions and behaviors of wetland wildlife -- from water striders to waterfowl and all creatures in between -- occurs upon spots from as small as a postage stamp to no larger than a welcome mat.

It completely enchants me to stand before a nighttime grassy field of blinking lightening bugs on a warm June or July night. Of course, an entomologist will tell you straight up that the insect of your amazement is not a bug, but, rather, a beetle and, furthermore, is certainly no fly as another name -- firefly -- suggests.

And he or she will also be able to tell you why the luminance is chemically possible and why such a show occurs in the first place. It's all about procreation, but what a sight it is regardless of the reasons.

Yet what I do know is that the annual arthropodal spectacle is as enthralling as it is bewildering. From the all-encompassing view of a thousand yellow, green and amber lights blinking off and on, to a single glowing beetle at the end of a blade of grass casting a cone of light below itself like some miniature organic yard light, such things leaves me feeling small in a very small world.

And so it is; that where we find our wild and hidden treasures -- be they appear from pursuing our own curiosities, or by our chance encounters and discoveries, or through the written word -- one thing remains constant: Windows into the wild are everywhere to look through as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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