from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
August 5, 2001
SEASON'S FIRST GOLDENROD
On June 21st, the Summer Solstice, the annual cycle began tilting toward fall, but this is the first week I've really felt "fallish." Each morning as I jog I listen to Public Radio on my headphone radio, so I've known for some time that when the 6 AM news comes on it's darker that at 6 AM on days before, so the days must be getting shorter. However, largely because timely rains have kept the forest and fields green, the feeling of mid summer has tarried this year longer than usual.
Now that feeling is gone for another year, for along the one-lane gravel road I bike each morning to go work in the gardens, the first goldenrods are beginning to flower. Thing is, goldenrods are fall flowers, so they have catalyzed the flipping of my mind from "mid-summer" mode into "fall mode." Now everyplace I look there are signs of fall.
Just look at the size of the green pecans and Sweetgum balls, hear how loudly the annual cicadas call, see the sunlight acquiring its fallish glare...
Among our most conspicuous fall flowers are the goldenrods, asters, eupatoriums and Spanish needles. Each of these kinds of flowers are represented by several species. In the Southeastern US some 53 species of goldenrod are recognized, and several of these are broken into two or more varieties. Goldenrods have solid, descriptive names worth knowing, such as the Slender Fragrant Goldenrod, the Blue-stemmed Goldenrod, the Elf-leaved Goldenrod and the Rough-leaved Goldenrod, all found in southern Mississippi. The species along my morning road is the Giant Goldenrod, Solidago gigantea. And it is indeed a big one, up to 8 or 9 feet high (2.5 m).
In recent years I have spent a lot of time in Europe where during late summer often I have been pleased when I saw an immaculate German or Belgian flower-garden showcasing our native American goldenrod, the Canada Goldenrod, which is very similar to the Giant Goldenrod. When I tell European gardeners that in America their treasured goldenrods are regarded as weeds, and that they grow wild along highways and in fields, they can hardly believe it. In fact, it's almost hard for me to believe, too, for in Europe where our Canada Goldenrods are not beset by their natural leaf-eating bugs, where they receive plenty of rain and maybe even some garden fertilizer, they grow much larger, their leaves are greener and more robust and the plants are generally much more spectacular than our weedy specimens.
It makes me wonder what else there might be around us which, if husbanded with loving care, might flourish to the point that it hardly would be recognizable as one of our old taken-for-granted acquaintances.
My Uncle Rock in Kentucky cares for and trains Tennessee Walking Horses. My Aunt Peck reports from there that "the horses have been shedding their summer hair and putting on their winter coat for about two or three weeks. When they do that this early, it usually means an early winter and a cold, hard one." Of course you wonder if a winter's weather really has anything to do with horse hair, but a lot of people are sure that the two phenomena are related. In the past I've been surprised by how often horse-hair forecasts are accurate. We'll just see about this winter...
Luna Moths have been emerging. These are large, beautiful moths with pale green wings, a long tail on each hindwing, feathery antennae, and small markings on each wing looking vaguely like the moon, thus the name. Luna Moths have a wingspan of about 4.5 inches (12 cm)so they are pretty striking when you see them.
One interesting thing about Luna Moths is that they do not eat. The species does all of its eating during the caterpillar stage, so that the adult stage -- the moth stage -- can dedicate all of its energy to procreation. Adult Luna Moth mouthparts are so degenerate that they could no be used for eating even if a moth had a mind to do so. When moths emerge from their cocoons they need a while for their bodies to harden and their wings to expand.
During this time they are very vulnerable. One Luna Moth that emerged near my outside kitchen didn't make it. Apparently the ants found him before his body hardened, for by the time I discovered him he was nothing but a pair of beautiful wings and a hollowed-out body. On my way to work in the gardens one morning this week, on a weed I spotted a Luna Moth with its wings half unfurled. When I returned about 2 hours later the moth was gone and I knew that it now was frantically searching for a mate, mating, or else it had fallen victim to one of its many enemies.
Luna Moth caterpillars are strikingly large, green beings thriving on Sweetgum leaves. Sweetgums are the most abundant trees around my trailer so that accounts for why I'm seeing so many Lunas now. You can see a fine picture of a Luna Moth, its cocoon, and various stages of its caterpillar existence at http://www.aa6g.org/Butterflies/Raised/luna.html
Speaking of caterpillars, I just added the picture of a very interesting and common spiny caterpillar at my nature-study Web site. You can see a picture of the caterpillar of a Question Mark Butterfly found outside my door at http://www.backyardnature.net/metamorf.htm#q Even more interesting is my new picture of a Tomato Hornworm parasitized by Braconid wasp larvae at http://www.backyardnature.net/ecoeats.htm#h
Each afternoon between 6 & 7 PM the Carolina Wrens I've mentioned before visit my outside kitchen to snoop around and peck at this and that. Lately the big female has discovered the joys of hopping beneath the grill holding my skillet, and dust-bathing in my woodfire ashes. She flutters with her eyes closed, lies on her side and stretches, clearly enjoying it all enormously, and when she's finished she is a truly gray wren hopping about with renewed vigor.
I've never seen a definite statement on why birds take dust baths, but most authorities agree that it probably has something to do with making life hard for parasites living among the birds' feathers, and sometimes there's a mention of the dust carrying away excess oil, and maybe of putting essential micronutrients in contact with the birds' skins. Actually a good bit of study has been done on dust bathing among egg-laying hens. If dust bathing could be shown to make hens produce more eggs, you can bet that dust trays would be furnished in every commercial henhouse.
However, no one has shown that hens really need to take dust baths, or that dust bathing increases egg-laying. On the other hand, it is clear that hens do want to bathe in dust. One study in Canada found that a significant percentage of hens would push harder on doors held in place by weights if they knew that dust awaited them on the other side.
My presence in the woods at Laurel Hill is as much an experiment in life as anything. I think of myself as seeking a "Middle Path" in a world which seems to me to have strayed too far in the direction of unsustainable consumerism and individual self indulgence.
On the one hand I do live a simple life and am close to nature, but on the other I take advantage of certain relatively low-impact technologies. For instance, obviously I have a bicycle, telephone and computer, but I do without a car, an air conditioner, refrigerator and TV.
One of the great pleasures I derive from the Internet is that each day I check the national weather radar, and the radar as picked up at Baton Rouge, which shows local storms. Continental weather is grand theater, and it helps make sense of what the local actors are saying -- every cloud, every change in temperature and humidity, and every breeze here at Laurel Hill.
As I send this, Tropical Storm Barry is churning in the Gulf of Mexico, and I am absolutely fascinated watching it on Sunday morning as it drifts into the Florida Panhandle, after toying for a while with the idea of moving toward us... I particularly like the "radar loop" which shows an animation of storm activity during the last several hours. When a storm like Barry is on the screen you can watch majestic spirals of storm-lines spew away from the system's counterclockwise-spinning center. If when you read this Barry is still close enough for the Baton Rouge radar to pick up, you should look at the radar loop at http://www.intellicast.com/Local/USLocalWide.asp?loc=kbtr&seg=Loc> alWeather&prodgrp=RadarImagery&product=RadarLoop&prodnav=none&pid =none When you paste that address into your browser, be sure that the first part begins with "http://" and the last part ends with "pid=none". It should all appear on one line.
Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,