from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
October 21, 2001
SQUIRRELS EATING PECANS
At the end of last year's droughty summer there were few pecans but this year, thanks to timely rains, there are plenty. A few are falling now but it'll be a while before I go gathering them. At dawn as I prepare breakfast the squirrels are very busy above my campfire. They make their way to a branch's end, stretch gingerly across the slender twigs there and pluck a pecan, husk and all. Then they withdraw back onto thicker, more stable wood, bite off the splitting husk and drop the pieces onto the ground, and then gnaw at the pecan itself as they keep an on me below. In August and September these squirrels looked pretty scrawny but now they are sleek and sometimes I chuckle seeing how roly-poly they've become.
The breakfast view up through the big pecan trees is delicious. Branches deliquesce gracefully away from heavy black trunks. Leaves glow warmly in morning's slanting yellow sunlight, and there's dew on them so they glisten against the blue sky. Not only squirrels animate this theater but also hungry birds -- woodpeckers, titmice, chickadees, and migrating warblers. I keep binoculars handy to see which warbler species are passing through, but they are hard to identify, being silent and wearing their drab fall plumage.
Up through this busy little world my campfire's smoke drifts like an agreeable notion filtering through a soul at peace. Once I have something hot to drink and I smell the morning's baking cornbread, I know that once more all's right with the world.
It's fall, so asters are blossoming. One nice thing about asters is that at first glance they all look the same, but once you start examining them systematically you realize that there's a whole aster world worth knowing. On my recent backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail I counted over a dozen species before I lost track, and most species were fairly restricted to a certain elevation, a certain geology, or a certain spot on the dry/sunny to wet/shaded scale.
Arthur Cronquist's "Vascular Flora of the Southeastern United States" lists 66 aster species for the region covered, and many of those species are further subdivided into varieties. An aster species has even managed to invade my garden. It's the White Heath Aster, ASTER PILOSUS, possibly the most common aster of all, since it lives along roadsides and other disturbed sites. In other words, it's a "weed." Nonetheless it's a "classic aster" bearing a large spray of small blossoms composed of white rays and yellow centers. Like most weeds, it's found over a large area -- from Maine and Wisconsin to Florida and Louisiana. You can see this species at http://www.prairienursery.com/SpeciesASP/apipage2.asp
Next to a post of my outdoor kitchen there's a less-weedy species whose rays are pale lilac and whose lower leaves are heart-shaped, on a long petiole. This is the Drummond's Aster, ASTER DRUMMONDII, usually occurring in clearings and open woods, and distributed from southern Ohio and Minnesota south to Mississippi and Texas.
I've always enjoyed "variations on a theme." I love Bach fugues, which take a melody, then repeat it with minor variations, and finally transform that melody into statements almost sounding like something completely new. That's the way asters are.
There's a "classic aster" concept, but then there are so many variations on this classic-aster theme. In the musical genre we know as "flowering plants" there once long ago appeared a melody known as "the first aster." Then through the beautiful process of evolution all these "variations on the aster theme" came to populate our lives today.
Because evolution is such an all-pervasive phenomenon throughout all of nature, again and again, at all levels ofperception and understanding, the naturalist discovers occasions of "variations on a theme" being robustly generated, and perhaps nothing is quite as life-affirming as this.
COLD MORNINGS/ GLOBAL WARMING
Though the forecast for this Sunday afternoon is for temperatures of between 80 and 85 (27-30 C), this Wednesday and Thursday morning my thermometer in the Waxmyrtle tree read 38 degrees (3 C). I saw no frost in the areas where frost usually appears first. The Natchez Chamber of Commerce blurb on Natchez presented at http://www.natchezpd.com/natchez.html claims that our first "killing frost" can be expected around November 15. I suspect that from now on the effects of global warming may push this average date earlier into the year.
"Earlier" may seem counterintuitive because if the planet is warming it would seem that the first frost date might be pushed back later. However, nearly all analyses of how global warming does and will affect us show that the planet's warming will hardly amount to a simple general warming. The polar caps will melt, causing the sea level to rise and salinity gradients in the oceans to alter, thus changing ocean-current dynamics and the worldwide weather patterns they engender. Also, with more energy stored in the atmosphere, turbulence will increase, weather systems will become more powerful, and extreme manifestations will grow more extreme. Thus the cold fronts we are experiencing now can be expected to be more powerful than in the past, dipping farther south, earlier, bringing earlier frosts, even if the overall average temperature rises.
You can read about global warming by following links at my "Links for Learning about the Earth's Endangered Ecosystem" page at http://www.earthfoot.org/link_eco.htm . The topic "Global Warming" is listed alphabetically down the page.
Earlier I told you how Carpenter Bees were tearing open the sides of certain blossoms in order to "rob" the flowers of their pollen without pollinating them the usual way. Because of those cold mornings I learned more about this bee.
My little trailer is unheated so during winters I build a box around my computer and on cold nights keep a small light burning in the box to keep the computer warm. Wednesday morning's 38 degrees surprised me so when I turned on my computer I got a blank screen -- something inside the computer was too cold to work.
So I set about constructing this winter's box. For my frame I found some discarded two-by-fours that were riddled with holes excavated by Carpenter Bees. The holes were barely large enough to admit the tip of my smallest fingers. While sawing these boards I happened to cut through a Carpenter-Bee hole.
The hole went down about an inch deep (2.4 cm) and then formed a kind of T, with each arm of the T traveling in opposite directions inside the board. At the end of each tunnel there were two Carpenter Bees, four in total, all buzzing their discontent with my sawing. I was sorry to mess up such a cozy overwintering nest; I'd thought the holes were abandoned.
Anyway, one of the T's arms was 5 inches long (13 cm) and the other was 7 (18 cm). Certainly a bee capable of gnawing away so much wood can with ease rip open the side of a tubular flower! You can read about this interesting insect at http://www.uky.edu/Agriculture/Entomology/entfacts/struct/ef611.htm
SHED SNAKE SKIN/ RACER
Wednesday morning I found a yard-long snake skin shed on the footpath next to my trailer. I'm pretty sure it's a Racer's skin, not only because the skin shows that the snake is exceedingly slender, but also because every kind of snake has a distinct scale arrangement and this skin shows every single scale on the snake's body. The scales on this skin are arranged like a Racer's.
I also believe that this is a Racer's skin because in the same spot last spring when it was so hot I was walking down the path, was looking into the bushes and not at the path, and almost stepped on a snake. It zipped right between my legs as I was airborne, trying my best not to come down, and that snake was a Racer.
Shed snake skins tell a lot. For example, snake scales can be "keeled," with distinct slender ridges running down their centers, or they can be "smooth," without such ridges. Water snakes, for instance, have strongly keeled scales, so they can never be confused with kingsnakes, which have smooth ones. My shed skin has smooth ones, which is what Racers have. You can see my Racer skin's smooth scales at my nature site at http://www.backyardnature.net/snakes.htm#racer
In the old days we called Racers "Black Racers" and there were other Racers known, such as Blue Racers, Everglades Racers, and the like. Now all the various Racer species have been lumped into one big species, just known as "Racer," COLUBER CONSTRICTOR. There are eleven poorly defined subspecies. Despite the Racer's Latin name, C. constrictor, this species does not coil around its victims, which are mostly rodents and birds. Instead the snake throws a loop of its body over its victim and presses it down as it gets into position to swallow it.
Some nice Racer pictures can be viewed at http://www.chicagoherp.org/herps/snake/Cconstr.htm
The most conspicuous butterfly in the gardens right now is certainly the Gulf Fritillary, AGRAULIS VANILLAE, which you can see at the Butterflies of Texas site located at http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/bflyusa/TX/45.htm
Though abundant now I haven't seen this species all summer. I think this is because it's basically a tropical and subtropical species, but late in the season it is known to fly great distances, even over the Gulf of Mexico's open water. On the other hand, the host plant of its caterpillar is very common here, the Passionflower, so on especially mild winters we well might have some eggs hatch here in the spring.
Adults take nectar especially from members of the Verbena and Sunflower family. We have some Buddleias, or Butterfly Bushes, which are members of the Verbena Family, and when that's in flower the number of Gulf Fritillaries visiting it can bemind-boggling. Now the Buddleias are past their prime so the Fritillaries visit marigolds and zinnias, which are members of the Sunflower Family.
PLANTATION CHAPEL OPENING
The most important building on Laurel Hill Plantation is St. Mary's Episcopal Chapel, an elegant, decaying little church next to some gigantic trees draped with Spanish Moss. You can see it at http://www.earthfoot.org/places/usms01a.htm This gothic chapel was begun in 1839 and one of its main contributions was its use in the conversion of many local Black people, many of whom must have been slaves, to Christianity.
Twice a year Laurel Hill, which usually keeps its gates locked, offers an "open house" so local people can come view the chapel. The next opening is next Sunday, October 28. Between 1 and 4PM I am scheduled to be receiving visitors there, so I invite readers of this Newsletter to come view the chapel and have a chat with me. One way to find us is to take US 61 for about 10 miles south of Natchez, then go right on any small paved road, for they all soon end by intersecting Lower Woodville Road, and we are at 1054 Lower Woodville Road. Watch the numbers on mail boxes. Signs will be posted directing you to the chapel.
I dedicate this Newsletter to my Aunt Belle, who this week died of Parkinson's Disease in my home community of Semiway, a tiny place with undefined borders in rural western Kentucky. Aunt Belle died in her own home, surrounded by family, and she died in dignity.
Old country people like Aunt Belle are the guardians of a powerful insight into life. That insight is that when you live simply, nature (insert "God" if you wish)provides. Now there is one less human on Earth sharing that wisdom with us, and we are the poorer for it.
Aunt Belle lived from one year's gardening to the next. Winter for her was a hopeful time for scanning seed catalogs and for pointing out to visitors how nicely her Christmas Cactus's crimson blossoms glowed in the sunlight filtering through her little trailer's windows. Those of you who know me personally probably recognize a certain resonance between her life and the life to which I aspire. This is no coincidence.
As a child I saw around me many manners of being. Some people delighted in big cars and houses, others just did their work-a-day jobs and left it at that, some liked booze, some dreamed of Las Vegas and hitting it rich, and some were never pleased with anything. Aunt Belle delighted in how well her potatoes came up and how pretty her geraniums were even if they grew in rusty old lard cans. And she always had fresh cornbread fixed when I went to visit.
Today I am looking for a lard can, and a geranium to plant in it. For, the lives of Aunt Belle and other good folk like her have suggested to me a path toward contentment, and a higher level of spirituality, that nowadays I follow and do not intend to abandon.
Thanks, Aunt Belle.