Setting out for a walk, I paused just past my building’s threshold to savor morning air crisp as a fresh Granny Smith apple, perfumed with a blend of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves that have been whisked, infused, and frappéd into breads, muffins, cupcakes, donuts, bagels, coffee, beer, hard seltzer, Cheerios, Jell-O, Spam… oh! and pie ( I almost forgot about pie). For the past decade or so, pumpkin spice has been the signature scent of autumn, yet everyone from Boomers to Gen X, Y, and Z is familiar with another, more enduring, squash-themed seasonal signpost — It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
The Peanuts gang continue to make their neighborhood rounds, year after year… first on network television, then on DVD, now via streaming. From the show’s premier in 1966 until current day, Halloween has grown in popularity from a single evening’s event almost exclusively for kids to an extended excuse for grown-ups to decorate, dress up, and party. That said, belief in a pudgy orange gourd that rises from a tangle of vines to bestow gifts on guileless youngsters never quite got off the ground… the same way Lucy, Schroeder, Pigpen, Sally, et al. never progress into adolescence and adulthood, I guess.
There’s no need for disappointment or to wait until next year if your local patch isn’t deemed worthy of an appearance by produce of mythological proportions. You can see the living, breathing Great Pumpkinseed Sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus) almost any time you like in lakes, rivers, and streams across most of North American and much of Europe.
This colorful Centrarchidae with scarlet-lipped ear flaps is sheathed in seedy speckles of colors that range from Caramel orange to Lemon Drop yellow, Red Hots red to Starburst blue-raspberry blue and Lifesavers lime green. The “official” origin story is that the common name for this mid-sized fish (4–11″ or 10–28 cm, tipping the scales at a maximum of 1.5 lbs or 680 g) derives from the oval contour of the body rather than the coloration pattern.
Maybe so, although to my eyes the pumpkinseed is classically fish-shaped and doesn’t evoke memories of gutting and cleaning jack-o’-lanterns. Who can say why some folksy nicknames hook and reel us in, while in other cases we never quite take the bait?
Unlike their distant ray-finned cousins the trouts, salmons, and chars, all of whom insist on cool-to-chilly surroundings, pumpkinseeds like to live in balmier waters and, as such, are usually found close to the shore, in the shallows or in small sheltered pools. By the way, calm and clear are preferred over cloudy, thank you very much.
Gazing at the smooth surface of a lake or the mesmerizing pulse of current in a tributary, it’s natural to assume that the life aquatic delivers exactly what a pumpkinseed prefers… a tranquil, sequestered environment safe from the sturm und drang of existence in the airy world up above.
Non. Nein. Nope.
Here’s the World War I Flying Ace (aka Lieutenant Pumpkinseed) hangin’ in the water column, chowing down on on mosquito larvae and minnow fry, or maybe some molluscs and crustaceans when he’s in the mood for something crunchy.
Suddenly, he hears the muffled ping of raindrops colliding with the surface above!
Swiftly, he races to prepare for the forthcoming assault!
When precipitation pounds the pavement and heads for a stormwater drain, it will haul all manner of troubles, including chemicals, particulates, gravel, litter, and heat from the street.
Good grief, by the time all that liquid spills out of the culvert into our intrepid aviator’s home base it’s a toxic brew indeed!
In the blink of an eye, the bucolic scene turns to chaos!
The situation heats up, literally, as the water temperature rises. Dissolved oxygen levels drop, making it harder and harder to breathe… visibility decreases as soil and soot and sand and scum barrel in from above like a squadron of enemy biplanes…
Dragged by the current, Lt. Pumpkinseed struggles to hold on in this dogfight. Strafed from every angle by a barrage of trash, he dodges plastic shopping bags and water bottles, a shoe, a tire, cigarette butts, glass jars and aluminum soda cans, batteries (AAA to 12 volt), syringes and hypodermic needles, toasters… it’s a real flotsam and jetsam grab bag!
Then just as quickly, the crisis passes. The waters calm, the sediments settle.
Time for our hero to pack up his kit, and head home from wherever he landed.
Sorry to break it to you, Linus, but while sincerity might merit visits from a gift-laden gourd, it doesn’t count for much when you’re behind enemy lines, or in the maelstrom of a tempest.
No, life in a city’s liquid realm requires physiological plasticity. Resilience. Grit, to use the currently popular parlance. When the going and the waters get rough, that’s when the plucky pumpkinseed demonstrates a capacity for greatness that its humble nickname and stoic countenance do not portend.
Valor and a stiff upper lip are just as valuable as a lack of hypocrisy, at Halloween and the rest of the year, too. Because, sure, sometimes life hands you a chocolate bar, some cookies, or a package of gum… but sometimes you get a rock.
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© 2020 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Neil DeMaster, Christophe Quintin, kweez mcG, Christa R., MPCA Photos, Mikko Muinonen, Chesapeake Bay Program, USFWS Midwest Region, GUY BUCHMANN, and August Rode.