from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
September 16, 2001
During this sad week I have been glad to have the gardens in which to work as I digested the world's happenings. You might guess that I would interpret what has happened in terms of broad natural principles and ecological laws. However, this is a time to feel for those who have suffered, and who will suffer, and cold philosophy is seldom a comfort to anyone in times like these.
I will, however, share this haiku I wrote on Saturday:
To calm my spirit
I transplant lettuce seedlings.
This hurts an earthworm.
Indeed, on the morning of September 11 with all the news crushing about me I went to the work table next to the upper garden and was greeted by several flats of freshly germinated lettuce. The flats had been sowed just three days earlier and now there was a tender yellow-green carpet in the flats' moist soil. It was a joy to see, a confirmation of things fresh and hopeful.
SNEEZE WEED ALONG US 61
Wednesday night a limb fell from a large Pecan tree near where I sleep in the forest. It knocked out my electricity and sent a voltage surge right through my surge protector, and knocked out my computer's modem, even though I had turned off the computer. Consequently on Thursday I had to make one of my infrequent runs into town, for a modem at Wal-Mart.
Right next to the pavement along US 61 there dwells a thin line of yellow-flowered weeds about a foot tall, and they accompany the pavement's edge for miles and miles. The same plant has been blooming for a couple of months in the middles of the more seldom-used gravel roads on the plantation. It's a tough little organism producing surprisingly pretty blossoms and fragile-looking threadlike leaves. This is Sneeze Weed, or Bitterweed (HELENIUM AMARUM) in the Sunflower family. I doubt that it makes anyone sneeze since it doesn't produce powdery pollen like ragweed or grasses, but if you taste their leaves you'll understand why they are also called Bitterweed. The plants contain a narcotic poison and when cows eat them their milk tastes bitter. You can see a picture of this species at a site calling them "Yellowdicks" at http://2bnthewild.com/plants/H224.htm#Beau.
It's worth thinking about how Sneeze Weeds form their thin line next to the pavement. Their zone of occupation is only about a foot wide in most places. Clearly they cannot live right next to the pavement, yet neither do they survive farther away, where roadside grass appears. They have evolved for a very specific sandy, dry habitat and do not range far beyond it. Their long taproot helps them survive droughts in the sand, and frequent mowing and grazing. They are native to the US Southeast, Texas and Mexico, but in recent years have spread to northern states along gravelly highways and into sandy pastures.
At this time of year around my trailer, especially under it, there appear Two-striped Walkingsticks, ANISOMORPHA BUPRESTOIDES. I never saw this species before I came here. Regular walkingsticks look like very slender half-foot-long twigs with even more slender legs. Our plumper Two-striped species often shows up with the much smaller male riding the big female's back as they mate, and that's the case with the couple I scanned and placed at my nature-study site at http://www.backyardnature.net/bugwatch.htm
As I write on that page, "Once I identified it and learned that it wouldn't bite or sting me, I picked it up, wondering how such a seemingly defenseless critter could survive, for I see them all over the place, in plain view. Then the big female squirted a drop of milky stuff on my finger. I smelled it. It didn't have much of an odor at all, but I instantly began sneezing, and I sneezed for about five minutes. Therefore, I figured out something my books hadn't told me: This species defends itself by squirting a powerful chemical at its enemies. It must be awful to get the milk in one's eyes."
Around here if you sit for a while next to some weeds with small flowers, one of the most likely insect pollinators you are likely to see visiting the flowers is a small, dark gray butterfly-like creature with little white spots on its wings. It's called the Little Glassywing, POMPEIUS VERNA. Its caterpillars eat the chest-high grass called Redtop, which is very common around my trailer. Little Glassywings are found throughout most of the eastern US.
An interesting thing about this species is that it belongs to a family of insects situated more or less between the butterflies and the moths. When at rest, butterflies hold their wings above their backs vertically, while moths hold their wings flat, horizontally. The group to which Little Glassywings belong hold their wings at about a 45-degree angle...
This curious family of insects is called the "True Skippers," the Hesperiidae. They're called skippers because they make quick"skipping" flights from place to place. Relative to butterflies and moths, the skippers' bodies are proportionately larger and their wings proportionately smaller. The Little Glassywing's wings are not just simply held at 45-degree angles -- their forewings arise a bit higher than 45 degrees and their hindwings a little lower. You can read about this species and see pictures of it, not showing the weird way they hold their wings, at http://www.nearctica.com/butter/plate29/Pverna.htm
I cut my finger a few days ago and this started me thinking about Goldenseal. Goldenseal, HYDRASTIS CANADENSIS, is a native American wildflower growing to our north, in deep rich woods from Vermont, Michigan and Minnesota south to Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas. Their knotty yellow roots, or rhizomes, are ground into Goldenseal powder, and over much of the species' distribution medicinal-plant collectors have collected them nearly to extinction. You can see a picture of the plant at http://www.ncpmh.org/golden.html
One day a couple of years ago I was coasting on my bike down the very steep grade of our gravel road as it enters the bayou between the plantation center and my place, something happened I still can't explain, and when I was again fully conscious I found myself on the ground with blood spurting from a sizable gash across my forehead. Judging from the cuts and the remains of my glasses, I had slid a good distance down the hill on my face. It's one of the qualities of a good naturalist that he or she seldom pays much attention to the path ahead, but rather gawks constantly into bushes and trees along the way. For this reason I have a long history of running into and falling over things and thus I have plenty of experience with cuts and scratches.
When I saw how the deep cuts in my face were filled with gravel and sand I knew I was in for some infections. Even if you wash such wounds, bubble out the debris with hydrogen peroxide and douse them with iodine, swelling and festering is bound to occur. I couldn't see well enough to remove all the matter from my cuts so I went to Kathy, the plantation manager across the bayou. Kathy is into alternative medicines and all she had that day was a jar of powdered Goldenseal. She packed my wounds with that golden powder, my bleeding instantly stopped, the next day my face was covered with black scabs, and when the scabs came off about a week later I was amazed at how quickly and completely I had healed.
There had been no infection, no swelling, and the scarring was not nearly what I anticipated. Never in my life has any medicine worked so effectively for me. This week Goldenseal powder did a good job on my cut finger, too.
This week's talk of weeds and bugs might during our current days filled with war talk strike one as being too concerned with irrelevant minutia. However, my life close to nature has granted a certain insight, and that is that when one fails to regularly focus on what's nearest at hand, the spirit and soul imperceptibly grow unhealthy. One loses context for understanding larger things. Somehow there is sustenance and orientation in how a skipper holds its wings, and how a roadside weed chooses its home so carefully.
The Tao says that the Goal is like an unseen hub of a wheel. By examining the wheel's spokes, we gradually gain an understanding of what the invisible hub must be like. Weeds and bugs are spokes. Therefore my attention now to small details is deliberate, and in the face of today's high-flying emotion and rhetoric, with full consciousness and intention I celebrate bugs and weeds.
Once a year I visit my family in Kentucky and now that time, planned months ago, has come. First I will backpack with a friend on the Appalachian Trail in the Smokys, and then go to Kentucky. I will return in early October. I doubt that I will have Internet access during the next two or three weeks. I hope to be writing again in October.