Puff balls are created when gall wasps lay eggs on oak leaf buds in the spring. Photo by Wilson Kerr

Time Outdoors: The Little Things 

January 5, 2024

On Christmas Eve day we took a family walk in the woods. As we entered the forest, my wife and I tried to push aside the holiday to-do lists and ignore our phones — buzzing with logistical updates. Our two young daughters ran ahead, pointing out the little things.  

One notices a new tree blown over, but still held up by its neighbors. We call them “widow-makers.” The clear black ice on the kettle pond’s edge stops us next, just thin enough to be smashable with a good stick, and they notice skunk cabbage tips pushing up, fooled by the warm weather.  

A birch log is spotted near the path — to be remembered, so we can roll it over to check for salamanders in the spring. Another forest find is soon made, announced with a shriek of delight. A puff ball!  

Hard to see, these perfectly round, shiny forest treasures are the size of a golf ball. They are the result of a truly miraculous process started by a tiny gall wasp. An egg is laid on an oak leaf bud in the spring and hormones in the egg instruct the oak leaf to mutate and form a hard shell around the wasp larva — which then feeds on the inner part of the leaf and, once grown, bores a hole and flies away. The used “puff ball” then dries up and falls from the tree to be found later by the sharp eyes of a 7-year-old girl seeking wonder in the woods. Little miracles just lying about.  

As we climb the steep hill that leads out of the woods, this same youngest daughter stops and calls out and waves us back. On the path behind us, she’s spotted something and is pointing down. We hesitate and I glance at my wife. My first instinct is to tell her to keep up, with a hint of annoyance. To move on. We have things to do. The dog is ahead, looking back to see what the delay is.  

Her 10-year-old big sister breaks the spell and turns back. Honoring her little sister’s sharp eyes, excited to see the new wonder we obviously missed as we walked past.  

Calling the dog, my wife and I dutifully backtrack too and soon we all gather, as ordered. She is pointing to a small hollow about the size of a baseball under a root, on the steep path. Bright green moss has found a purchase in this unlikely little cave. Then we see it…  

Like diamonds, a bright splash of dewdrops is strung across the depression, reflecting the light. Mist has accumulated on a tiny spider’s web, and droplets are radiating outward like a tiny starburst. The contrast with the bright green moss is stunning and the liquid gemstones sway gently in our presence. The entire scene is about two inches across. I reach down and snap a picture. We are spellbound. Our daughter is pleased. We all pause and look around, talking in the moment.  

In this patch of woods on a continent on a blue sphere spinning in the unfathomable reaches of space, we are stopped as a family on Christmas Eve staring at a miniature embodiment of nature’s beauty. It is not something big and obvious. It is a gift, small and subtle. Hidden in plain sight but noticed by a 7-year-old who insisted we slow down enough to see it too.  

While all the presents and meals with family and friends were wonderful, this tiny, bejeweled spider web, a two-inch starburst of quicksilver on green — spotted by an observant 7-year-old girl — was our favorite holiday gift.  

I hope you had a wonderful holiday and, if your kids want to show you the little things they see during Time Outdoors, I hope you will stop to investigate. Maybe they will find a puff ball among the oak leaves and you can teach them about the little gall wasp that created it.  


Wilson Kerr lives in Concord and is an avid outdoorsman and amateur naturalist. This monthly column is written to help grow awareness of the wonders of nature. In this increasingly fast-paced and technology-packed world, it is important to stop and take in the beauty of our area and the animals that inhabit it. The author hopes this column will be read by families and used as a teaching tool and that you will spend more … Time Outdoors.