NATCHEZ NATURALIST
NEWSLETTER:
from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

September 9, 2001

WET FIRE ANTS
Last week I reported that our recent heavy rains seemed to have quieted the fire ants. Those ants stayed quiet only while it was raining.

Monday morning as always at dawn the first thing I did was to put on my jogging shorts. While tying my shoes I realized that my private parts were under attack. Fire ants had climbed my kitchen's poles, crossed a rope, and set up residence in my shorts that were hanging there. After my jog I found fire ants working in the ashes of my cooking fire, so while fixing breakfast I had to pick ants from my knuckles. Another colony worked in the ashes at my feet, so my toes and ankles got attention, too. By the end of the day I itched in many exotic places, in many unholy ways. In two days much of my skin looked like hamburger, and perpetually itched, and I'm itching now.

For me fire ants are more of a discomfort than the hottest Mississippi temperatures and the most suffocating humidity. Ten months of the year my feet and ankles itch from their bites, which cause whitehead-like pustules that burst and spend a long time in a semi-infected state.

Fire ants do not make themselves more endearing by being foreigners invading our territory. At http://www.ceris.purdue.edu/napis/pests/ifa/mgif/ifa_time1.gif there's an animated map showing how in 1918 fire ants were introduced into the Mobile, Alabama area, apparently from South America, and how they spread during subsequent decades. Today they occur as far north as the Tennessee/Kentucky border and southeastern Virginia.

Despite the aggravation they cause, fire ants are profoundly interesting. In their nests you find queens and workers, plus male and female members who can fly and mate. Large nests can have 240 thousand ants in them. Fire ants cannot eat solid food, and must extract or liquefy the food source, and this may explain why they like my campfire ashes so, for sometimes my cooking oil catches on fire and splatters there. Probably more information than you will ever want to know about fire ants is available at http://www.safe2use.com/pests/fireants/fireants2.htm

During my years at Laurel Hill I've reduced the numbers of fire-ant colonies in the gardens to a fraction of what was there earlier. I use several tricks. First, sometimes I shovel into a nest and carry as many ants and larvae as possible to a nearby woods and toss them in as diffuse a spray as possible into the darkest, moistest part of the woods. Fire ants need a certain concentration of individuals do survive, so spreading them out keeps them from coming together to nest, plus they need dry, disturbed areas, and cannot survive for long in moist natural forests.

This only weakens the colony, however. The main way to put an end to a nest is to soak it repeatedly. First stir it up with a shovel, then remove the nozzle from a hose, poke the hose deep into the nest, and turn the water on full blast. The next day you'll see that many ants have survived and that they are digging again, so you must perform the same operation. The next day there'll be just a few ants. Do this operation until there is no new sign of tunneling -- loose dirt around holes at the surface.

This works despite the fact that I've often seen fire ant colonies survive that had been submerged under floodwater for days. Maybe a bubble of trapped air in their nest keeps them alive -- I don't know. This may be the reason why you must shovel the nest before poking a hose into it, to break up any structures needed for bubble forming.

*****

GAIA
Were it not for their awful attacks in the gardens and the fact that I take much of my daily food from these gardens -- so that in a sense "it's them or it's me" -- I would hesitate to attack the ants at all. My respect for life in general is too high to permit needless taking of life, plus I actually admire fire ants considerably. In fact, I can't be around any complex social insect without wondering about a concept that is gaining respect in many quarters, but which to most people remains pure malarkey.

That is, that in complex societies such as we find among honeybees and fire ants, the actual "beings" are not the individual ants, but rather the colonies themselves. The colony is a diffuse animal. The queen, as she controls the colony's activities by issuing chemical messages that are transferred from ant to ant, constitutes the diffuse being's central nervous system, and the individual ants running here and there reacting to the queen's chemical messages are like corpuscles and red blood cells flowing about doing various jobs in a regular body.

This concept becomes more palatable when we recall that lichens are actually composed of two different species -- a species of alga, and a species of fungus -- that somehow unite to form this third species, the lichen. You can isolate algal cells from some lichens and the cells will survive as free-living algae all by themselves. Clearly, in nature the question "where is the basic living thing" is not always clear.

Part of the Gaia Theory is that the whole Earth Ecosystem is one living organism and that we living things are all just parts of the body comprising the Earth-Ecosystem body. According to this theory humankind, because of its destructive nature, may be considered a disease organism, and AIDS is the Earth's immune system kicking into action, in an effort to keep the infection we constitute from spreading.

One place on the Web introducing the Gaia concept is at http://www.magna.com.au/~prfbrown/gaia_jim.html

*****

MOON DREAMS
We had a full moon last Sunday, September 2, but the rains hid that fact. By Wednesday I could start sleeping outside again, and then the remnants of that moon very much became a part of each of my nights. At dusk there would be no moon and the forest would be uncannily dark, but then I would sleep a few hours and when I awakened deep inside the night I could look through the trees to the broomsedge field beyond and see that every clump of grass, every bramble and bush was chiseled perfectly in silver, and that the moon shone painfully bright above.

During full moons my dreams are much more vivid, colorful and memorable than other times, and I astonish myself with what images and ideas emerge from inside me. Well, studies show that it's the same with many people. Both crimes and suicides increase during full-moon times.

I used to hypnotize people so on full-moon nights when I awaken throughout the night and see the moon at several of its positions, it feels as if someone or something out there were probing and manipulating my psychology. I feel the moon drawing me outward, through the tree-branch silhouettes, though into what beyond that I cannot imagine. At these times the calls of the Barred Owl seem very significant.

But then dawn comes and the Cardinals sing, and I know that I have only experienced the moon crossing overhead during the night.

*****

SEPTEMBER MOSQUITOES
The recent rains have brought mosquitoes back, but not in such ferocious densities as in the spring. The main reason for the lower numbers now is that during recent summer months the forest ecosystem has had time to equilibrate and diversify -- now there are more mosquito-eating predators and mosquito-killing diseases afoot in the forest than in spring.

I'm still reading the Du Pratz book and he remarks that of all the Indians of his time (mid 1700s) he only considered the Choctaws as ugly, and that was because they rubbed grease on their bodies and into their hair, and in order to deal with mosquitoes they built fires and stood in the smoke. Thus apparently even when the forest here was pristine, mosquitoes could be awful.

I have heard of several experts forecasting that global warming is slowly causing our area to become more disease-ridden than in recent years. With longer, warmer seasons plus many disease organisms gaining resistance to antibiotics, living among the mosquitoes here will become even more challenging, especially when malaria reestablishes itself. There's an interesting article called "Global Warming Health Risks" at http://www.allcampgrounds.com/info/global-warming-health-risks.html

Atop all this, new diseases are being introduced from abroad. Mosquito-borne West Nile Disease already has killed a person in Atlanta, and two weeks ago a Bluejay was found to have died of it in New Orleans. We can assume that the disease, which is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes but also infects birds, is already in our area. You can read all about West Nile Disease at http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/westnile/

*****

NATCHEZ INDIANS' MONTH OF GREAT CORN
The Natchez Indians divided their year into 13 months defined by the moon. Their New Year began in March, which makes much more sense than starting it as we do, about a week after the Winter Solstice. The Natchez month more or less equivalent to our September was the Month of Great Corn, and it was the most solemn month of all. That's because in this month the new corn crop matured.

Being one who has dabbled with "living off the land," I can believe that the diet of such people as the former Natchez Indians must have been very bland and boring. On the other hand, from early accounts it's clear that the Natchez relished what foods they had with a gusto at least equaling ours. Maybe the situation is related to what happened to me when I became a vegetarian in the late 60s. By simplifying my cuisine and cutting out extravagances I acquired an unforeseen rainbow of new taste experiences and a whole new appreciation for food. Perhaps in the same way the Natchez, by eating plain, ordinary corn so frequently, experienced even greater food-pleasure than today's patron of Big Mama's Hot Tamales.

Fresh corn was not the only food honored by having a Natchez month named after it. Here are the Natchez's 13 months, beginning around March:

  • #1: Month of the Deer
  • #2: Month of Strawberries
  • #3: Month of Small Corn
  • #4: Month of Watermelons
  • #5: Month of the Fishes
  • #6: Month of Mulberries
  • #7: Month of Great Corn
  • #8: Month of the Turkey
  • #9: Month of the Buffalo
  • #10: Month of the Bear
  • #11: Month of Cold Meal (ground corn?)
  • #12: Month of Chestnuts (earlier gathered)
  • #13: Month of Walnuts (earlier gathered)

By the way, you may be interested in a Web page about the Natchez Indians at  http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/features/feature1/natchezindians.html

*****

FIVE WILDFLOWERS
In my part of Laurel Hill's woods five fall-associated wildflowers are beginning to express themselves. Here they are:

~ Partridge Berry (MITCHELLA REPENS) in the Coffee Family: This plant's bright red fruits surprise you as the little evergreen herb forms small mats in moist, deeply shaded gullies in the loess. There's an interesting Web page with a picture and Indian uses of this species as a medicinal herb at http://www.kstrom.net/isk/food/partuses.html

~ Beggars Ticks, Sticktights or Spanish Needles (BIDENS ARISTOSA) in the Sunflower Family: Small yellow blossoms in somewhat weedy situations. The flowers will produce forklike fruits, the tines of which in late fall will stick into socks and trouser legs. See a picture at http://www.hort.net/gallery/view/ast/bidar/

~ Beggars Ticks, or Tick Trefoil (DESMODIUM PANICULATUM) in the Bean Family: Small pink blossoms and not at all related or similar to the above, despite its identical name. Here the same common name is being applied to very different plants just because the fruits of both stick to trouser legs (and animal fur). These fruits, however, are flat beans mantled with velcro-like hairs. You can see the fruits at http://www.huis.hiroshima-u.ac.jp/~nomura/N/nusubi.html

~ Elephant's Foot (ELEPHANTOPUS CAROLINIANUS) in the Sunflower Family. This weedy herb has small, pale-pink, starlike blossoms, and nothing about the plant is reminiscent of an elephant's foot. You can see one at http://www.biolresearch.com/plants/web_html/e/eleph_car.html

~ Beauty Berry (CALLICARPA AMERICANA) in the Vervain Family. More like a bush than an herb, this plant is adorned with clusters of pea-sized drupes the gaudy hue of the pink-purple with which garden seed are dyed to mark them as poison-coated, not for eating. See the fruits at http://www.streetside.com/plants/floridata/ref/c/callicar.htm

These five species, along with the goldenrod's yellow flowers, add small explosions of color here and there in the otherwise green landscape. If you look hard you can indeed find a few yellow leaves, but one suspects such leaves of being injured or ill. Green still holds perfect reign. Fall is coming at Laurel Hill, but very, very tentatively.

*****

HYPOGLYCEMIA & SPIDERS
My second Garden Spider has moved yet again, this time more into the tall grass and shrubs between my trailer and open-walled outhouse. I know it's the same spider because she makes a web much larger and more perfect than usual, though she herself is smaller.

It's worth thinking about the fact that I can know this spider, for many would say that such small creatures have no identities -- they are all the same.

This reminds me of an experiment I read about long ago. Different chemicals were given a spider to see how each chemical would affect the spider's web. Most striking was how the spider given marijuana's active ingredient produced a sloppy web with many incorrect connections and holes. On the other hand, when the spider was given the active ingredient in LSD, the web produced was perfect, as if the chemical had increased the spider's power of concentration.

It makes one wonder how much our own realities are affected by whatever chemicals or hormones happen to be flowing in our veins at the moment. Could just the right knock to my head or a change in my diet convert me from a happy hermit to a nervous land-developer overnight?

I wonder about these things a lot, especially because I am hypoglycemic. If I happen to stoop for a while and then stand up, things will go black and I'm lucky if I can keep standing. Then as blood sugar slowly returns to my brain I become able to take a few steps, though I seem to see things through a tunnel. Finally I return to full consciousness. I think that this happens to everyone, but with me it is a daily, sometimes hourly event.

Thing is, during those few seconds when I'm able to walk but see things as if through a tunnel, I think I'm fully recovered, and actually feel happy that once again I can concentrate so clearly on the ground before me and I walk with such self assurance. It's only moments later when I'm really normal that I remember back to my tunnel-walking moments just a second or two earlier and  I realize that as I tunnel-walked my thoughts and insights had been profoundly limited.

In other words, several times a day I remind myself that the very dumb can never know just how dumb they are. I am also struck that during the first few moments of "being myself," I can still recall exactly how it was to be "tunnel walking," and I am appalled at how self-centered and narrow the tunnel-walking headset was. Also, during those first moments of "becoming myself" there's a rushing feeling -- it's as if my soul were being instantaneously derived from the bright melodies in a lush, gorgeous symphony. The whole process is like passing from being a Republican to a Democrat to a member of the Green Party.

By the same token, how can I know that when I'm "normal" there isn't an even more lucid state beyond that, one in which I could "be myself" if I only had the brain to go there?

In fact, because of very brief moments of insight accomplished during moments of meditation, I am sure that those higher levels of enlightenment do exist.

Recollections of insights understood during those brief moments of enlightenment have a little to do with why I am now a hermit in the woods. However, now in my "normal" state, I am really too dumb to explain to you clearly how my reasoning works