from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
August 19, 2001
Tuesday morning as I was biking to the gardens I spotted some raccoon poop with dark brown seeds in it about the size of large Lima beans and that meant only one thing: Pawpaws are ripe!
In the rural area of western Kentucky where I grew up Pawpaws are more part of the culture than they are around here. I recall that as a small child my mother would sing to me "Pickin' up Pawpaws, puttin' em in the pocket."
Pawpaw trees are "understory trees" -- they usually grow to only about 15 feet (5 meters), thus live in the shade of taller trees. Pawpaw trees are members of the mostly tropical Custard-Apple Family, and if you taste a properly ripe Pawpaw you'll instantly understand the custard connection, for the fruits are musky-sweet and the yellow-orange flesh is soft almost like custard. The fruits are about the size of potatoes. During the last two summers tremendous crops have been produced here, but this year there's only a normal crop. If you're unsure what Pawpaws look like you should see my picture of them at http://www.earthfoot.org/loess/trees.htm#p
Whenever I find ripe Pawpaws in the forest my mind invariably follows the same sequence of thoughts. First I think what a wondrous thing this is, to find such a package of sinfully good sweetness simply lying on the ground where all you have to do is to pick it up, scrape away the thin skin, and start eating. Then it occurs to me that I could share this experience with others then maybe they would grow closer to nature, and be more concerned about the ongoing destruction of the Earth's ecosystem. But then I remember that in times past when I could indeed share such finds with the completely uninitiated, usually the reaction has been a big yawn, or even a disgust, for tastebuds accustomed to industrial-strength sweetness, saltiness, greasiness, starchiness... typically find nothing pleasing in Pawpaws. I think a Pawpaw tastes good only to someone who has a pleasant mental association with it, or possesses a "clean palate," which I as a vegetarian for over 30 years, and as someone who does not eat junk food, do have
The final thought of my inevitable sequence of thoughts is, "Well, at least the Indians must have loved this even more than I," and I visualize those earlier people standing next to me laughing and smacking their lips, thinking along with me that it's a wonderful world when sometimes you can find Pawpaws just lying on the ground waiting to be picked up.
I wonder if the time will ever come again when Pawpaws are honored as they ought to be?
I've been sowing big beds of kale, mustard greens, beets, collards, turnips, and some other things. If I'm lucky, by Thanksgiving these will show up as broad strokes of dark green in my gardens. In heavy heat, humidity and the garden's rank weediness, as I sowed the seeds I thought of how cold the morning dew will feel on my hands when later I pick my messes of greens, and I couldn't help chuckling with anticipation.
Of course, by then I'll probably be planning on planting certain seeds in my coldframe, for spring planting, and I'll be chuckling with anticipation then, too.
Well, this is how gardening is supposed to work. Always it is a matter of celebrating the potentials in being alive.
Nowadays if you'll watch roadside bushes sometimes you'll spot masses of what appear to be orange thread or wire strewn among the weeds. This is dodder, a flowering vine-like herb which parasitizes a number of plants. Dodder is a member of the Morning Glory family, thus its ancestors surely had leaves and were green. However, dodder steals all its food from its victims, so it has no need for either leaves or green chlorophyll, and during evolution has lost its leaves and greenness.
If you spot some dodder you should look at it closely, and notice how it sends tiny rootlike haustoria into the plants it parasitizes. Later in the year tiny flowers and fruits will appear. I've placed some nice photos of dodder found near Laurel Hill at
Earlier this month I told you of the big Garden Spider who has occupied one corner of my outside kitchen with its enormous web. She's still there, though now she's eaten all my wasps and each day I find her sucking on something different -- a grasshopper, a cicada, a butterfly. A much, much smaller spider (body fitting inside this "o")has co-occupied her web all along. At first I thought it was a young male Garden Spider, but now I see that it's something much more interesting. It's an entirely different species a Dewdrop Spider, Argyrodes elevatus. It's called that because its rear end is conical like a dewdrop, and silvery to boot. In the US this species is restricted to the Deep South.
Dewdrop Spiders are kleptoparasites. In other words, they take leftovers from the Garden Spider. Sometimes they actually share the big spider's meal, but from what I can see more often they live on the gnats and such that get caught in the Garden Spider's web, but which are so small that the big spider doesn't bother with them. Often the little Dewdrop Spider can be seen working along a single filament of the Garden Spider's web, like a fisherman checking his trotline, looking for goodies.
If you have some big webs around your place, why not look for a Dewdrop? The species is easy to identify because its tiny cone-shaped rear end is white-silvery, but the very bottom, where it attaches to the rest of the spider, is black. I can't find a picture on the Web, so this must be a fairly uncommon species.
I'm presently reading "The History of Louisiana" by M. Le Page Du Pratz, written back when Natchez was loosely considered part of Louisiana. The book was first published in French, in 1758. Du Pratz was a Frenchman living among the Natchez Indians and today his book provides some of the best eyewitness accounts of what the Natchez Indians were like, plus Du Pratz was very interested in natural history, so his accounts of local plants and animals are among the earliest.
Below I copy an early English translation of part of his book about an event that took place at Natchez in 1723 or thereabouts, when Du Pratz was living among the Natchez Indians:
"Toward the autumn of this year I saw a phaenomenon which struck the superstitious with great terror: it was in effect so extraordinary, that I never remember to have heard of any thing that either resembled, or even came up to it. I had just supped without doors, in order to enjoy the cool of the evening; my face was turned to the west, and I sat before my table to examine some planets which had already appeared. I perceived a glimmering light, which made me raise my eyes; and immediately I saw, at the elevation of about 45 degrees above the horizon, a light proceeding from the south, of the breadth of three inches, which went off to the north, always spreading itself as it moved, and made itself heard by a whizzing light like that of the largest sky-rocket. I judged by the eye that this light could not be above our atmosphere, and the whizzing noise which I heard confirmed me in that notion. When it came in like manner to be about 45 degrees to the north above the horizon, it stopped short, and ceased enlarging itself: in that place it appeared to be twenty inches broad; so that in its course, which had been very rapid, it formed the figure of a trumpet-marine, and left in its passage very lively sparks, shining brighter than those which fly from under a smith's hammer; but they were extinguished almost as fast as they were emitted."
"At the north elevation I just mentioned, there issued out with a great noise from the middle of the large end, a ball quite round, and all on fire: this ball was about six inches in diameter; it fell below the horizon to the north, and emitted, about twenty minutes after, a hollow, but very loud noise for the space of a minute, which appeared to come from a great distance. the light began to be weakened to the south, after emitting the ball, and at length disappeared, before the noise of the ball was heard."
The above is copied from page 37 and 38 of "The History of Louisiana," by M. Le Page Du Pratz, a limited edition reprinting (1972) by Claitor's Publishing Division of Baton Rouge, of a 1774 English translation of the French original, published in London by T. Becket.