Double take

I picked up these pine cones near the beach some months ago. They are smooth to touch and look as if they have been lacquered, unlike the usual dry, dusty cones which are collected in sacks to sell for fundraising and which we burn on our fires.

These cones reminded me of the neat little cone my dad made into an owl when we were little. He varnished the closed cone, inverted it so it was point-side down, and added spindly legs and bead eyes. It sat on the glass shelf arrangement called a shadow box on our living room wall.

If you look closely at the photo, you can see that each scale of the cone has two grooves, each holding a seed which looks a bit like a coffee bean. Most of the seeds had dispersed when I found the cones.

I had put a third cone on the outside table. While the deck is being repaired, the table has been moved onto a paved area exposed to the elements. It rained heavily not long after, and I did I double-take yesterday when I noticed the cone had closed. It was a spine-tingling moment of wonder. How could something I thought was dead move its scales to protect the seeds inside? I knew that pine cones open as they dry out. That’s why sacks of pine cones bulge more and more as the cones inside expand, and they make cracking sounds as they open wider if they are in the sun. But to close up in the rain seemed to suggest a mind at work!

Scientific studies have been done to show how pine cones react in wet conditions. It’s quite nice to have a rational explanation, but it’s still an awe-inspiring phenomenon.

I have also learnt that you can hang a pine cone outside to predict dry or wet weather.