Boo and happy All Hallows’ Eve to you!
I’m a little jet-lagged, as I’ve just returned last night from Borneo where we were scouting for next year’s wildlife and birdwatching tour (you’re invited!) As a naturalist, Halloween is my favorite holiday and there’s no better place to spend it than deep in a spooky rainforest jungle. We were there for three weeks, exploring Sabah; one of two Malaysian states on the island, and there is certainly no shortage of Halloween-themed wildlife here, from cave centipedes and their cockroach prey writhing in bat guano to blood-sucking tiger leeches and golf-ball sized carpenter bees (which are actually gentle flower pollinators)!
Creepy Rainforest Inhabitants
Many of the rainforest’s insects expertly camouflage themselves, from dead-leaf moths and jet black beetles to 6-inch long stick insects. Orb weaver spiders suspend their webs across foot paths, orange and black millipedes resemble trilobites, fuzzy caterpillars are untouchable with their urticating hairs and the Giant Forest Ant is well, giant, being about an inch long! The evening sky is filled with blinking neon-green fireflies (actually a type of beetle which is becoming increasingly rare in the U.S.) and the air is filled with the ever present Top 40 sound track of frogs and cicadas; each species of which has a unique call. Plus, if you’re lucky, a cloud of flying foxes may circle overhead, in pursuit of a fruiting tree.
Even the plants are ‘spooky’; from the world’s largest flower; the dead flesh mimicking parasitic Rafflesia to dozens of species of crimson red-streaked carnivorous Nepenthes pitcher plants and shrubby palms that overhang the trail, threatening to slice you with their inch-long spines, plus fungi of all colors, from red ‘dead man’s fingers’ to yellow ‘witches butter’.
In the spirit of the Halloween holiday, I recently ventured into a pioneer cemetery while visiting my gold rush-era hometown in the foothills of California. Founded soon after the first settlers arrived in 1849 to seek their fame and fortune, it’s got the best view in town; looking over the roofs of our village and out to the distant mountain ridge from which the full moon rises. It’s a very peaceful place for its inhabitants to rest for eternity.
I’ve always loved this cemetery; I used to wander through here as a kid, as a roundabout way home from school. It’s an idyllic setting, nestled among now towering pines and oaks. Most gravestones are horizontal now, and miraculously, some made of wood still remain. Curiously, scientists also like to visit historic cemeteries such as these, to study the lichens that slowly cover the marble headstones – identifying the species, and making rough estimates of their growth rates by the date of the beloved’s departure.
Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, so full of mystery and free of family drama. My childhood creativity came into full expression as each September I would start planning out my costumes. It was a great way to put my 4-H sewing skills to use. Costumes that stand out in my memory include a pumpkin (of course), a court jester, a mummy, a mermaid. I even won a $100 costume contest once with my Statue of Liberty outfit, complete with a battery powered torch!
Many of my best childhood memories included Halloween. I loved carving elaborate pumpkins, making sand candles, going to haunted houses, visiting pumpkin patches and corn field mazes. Just this evening, I was ecstatic to find out that the same haunted house in my neighborhood is still going strong. Yes, we couldn’t resist stopping by.
I went trick-or-treating all the way through high school and when the neighbors said “aren’t you a little old for this”, I’d say, “well, isn’t it better than TP-ing your house like my naughtier classmates are planning to do?” They’d throw us some candy and hurriedly send us on our way.
And the movies! Watching It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown is still a holiday favorite. But, no scary movies for me; I am still traumatized by being forced by peer pressure to watch Night of the Living Dead when I was a kid. Today, my tastes run closer to The Corpse Bride.
I’ve always loved the spooky and macabre. Maybe it’s my Irish heritage from my maternal grandmother’s side that has made me identify with the roots of the holiday founded in the deep, misty Celtic moorlands of the Druids.
Perhaps, since curiosity prevailed, over fear of the dead, I was naturally inclined towards pursuit of a career in the sciences. Case in point: in middle school, I exhumed my long dead pet cat and brought its rearticulated skeleton to the science fair!
Don’t forget to check out my Spooky Nature Facts stories.