from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
December 23, 2001
To celebrate the natural new year, which began at the Solstice on Friday, I took a fine walk in the big bayou between my spot in the woods and the plantation's center. But before I continue we need to talk about bayous
First there's the pronunciation. Most of the world pronounces bayou's last syllable like the word "you," but the Black folks around here, the only ones I've talked to about bayous, rhyme the last syllable with "yo" in "yo-yo." My dictionary says that the latter pronunciation is acceptable and I wouldn't be surprised if my Black neighbors are nurturing an etymological relic. Most of them I have talked to, men who occasionally work on the plantation, have never heard of broccoli, cauliflower and horseradish, but "bay-yo" slips off their tongues as easily as refrences to chitlens and turnip greens.
A southwestern-Mississippi bayou is not the same as what is understood as a bayou in most other places. Most of the world considers a bayou to be a body of non-flowing water, as in an oxbow lake, or water flowing so slowly that it appears to be stagnant, as in the swamplands along the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf coast. Bayous around here are completely different. They are special kinds of deep, steep-walled ravines or gullies. In this part of the US they are found only along loess-mantled bluffs paralleling the Mississippi River's shores, especially on the river's eastern side.
Loess. It profoundly affects life in our area, though most people here don't seem aware they they live on it, and that it causes our rather unique looking landscape. At the edge of the bluff in Natchez itself, the loess is between 150 and 200 feet deep (45 to 60 meters). My trailer, being a few miles inland, sits atop maybe 30 feet of it (9 meters). The loess mantel diminishes fast as you travel away from the river. Loess is dust deposited at the ends of the Ice Ages. Most of our loess was deposited between 25,000 and 18,000 years ago, toward the end of the last Ice Age. Well, if you don't know about all this and you find it interesting then you should visit my Web site called "The Loess Hills of the Lower Mississppi Valley," where you can read more about it than you probably want. The site is at http://www.earthfoot.org/loess/welcome.html
Where loess is thick, deep, steep-walled ravines or gullies with sandy and gravelly bottoms develop, and these special ravines or gullies are what around here we call "bayous." Walking in our bayous is always interesting because the deeply shaded loess walls are home to gorgeous gardens of cascading ferns, exotic green crusts of thallose liverworts, and wildflowers and shrubs you wouldn't expect to be living in this area. In the gravel and sand on the floor you always find semiprecious stones such as agates, carnelian, quartz crystals, jasper, and there is even petrified wood. I have found chunks too heavy to carry out and I have heard of entire huge tree trunks weighing tons being found.
TRACKS IN THE BAYOU
Since our bayous are dry most of the time you can walk for miles in them, every few feet discovering things worth looking at. In fact, when I bayou-walk I concentrate on one theme at a time, else I miss things needing to be looked for in special ways.
For example, on Friday I paid special attention to footprints. In places the sand looked as if whole communities of animals had met there for frolicking night after night, though I knew they had been laid down over several nights. Many mysteries showed themselves -- certain diggings, pawings, scratches and wallowings -- but so far I am not naturalist enough to understand what they say.
On my Solstice walk I identified prints of squirrel, chipmunk, deer, armadillo, opossum, coyote, wild boar, crow, and the tunnels of moles. Probably there was fox, too, but I haven't learned yet to distinguish fox prints in sand from small dog. With good prints I can distinguish coyote from dog, however, and Friday I had very good coyote prints.
Wild boar is abundant around here. A neighboring plantation owner told Kathy, our plantation manager, that last year they had 99 killed. On this plantation I think about 30 were killed. When I first came here I often met wild boar on the gravel road on which I jog each morning, but last year they got so thick that Kathy began encouraging others to kill them, and now the boars keep a lower profile. However, theirtracks and extensive rooting show that they are still abundant. I admire them for their intelligence, but the are introduced species, and thus "weeds" in the local ecology, and their rooting increases erosion on these steep loess slopes.
Walking in the bayou was a good way to celebrate the Solstice and the new year. It assured me that a broad community of living things continues to prosper around me, and this gladdens my heart as the new year begins.
I don't think I've ever had such a fine crop of lettuce and green onions as now. I like to take a nice chunk of hermitbread, cut it down the middle, place several leaves of sun-warmed lettuce on it and one or two green onions, maybe scrape a few shavings of horseradish onto it, top it off with a few thin slices of freshly dug garlic, and then I spritz it with vinegar. When I was adicted to junk food, this kind of meal would have disgusted me, but somehow in this life it just hits the spot.
Even the forest floor is a bit salady nowadays because of the very mild season we've enjoyed so far. In places fall's brown carpet of leaves is practically covered with green herbs behaving as if spring were long underway. In the forest around my trailer the main herb is a slender plant not yet flowering and averaging only an inch or so high (3cm), though it will grow higher. Books burden it with the unfortunate name of Baby Blue-eyes, despite its white flowers, which will appear later. It is NEMOPHILA MICROCALYX of the Waterleaf Family.
Despite its obvious ecological imporance, I can't find a good picture of it on the Internet and it's not even mentioned in Timme's "Wildflowers of Mississippi." Last spring very little of it appeared, probably because of the drought we'd had, but this spring it makes a diffuse green carpet on the forest floor.
Even more unexpected than this early appearance of "Baby Blue-eyes" has been discovering some bright yellow, three-inch-long, cone-shaped blossoms fallen onto the forest floor from the high-climbing, semi- woody vine called Yellow Jessamine, GELSEMIUM SEMPERVIRENS. This is a common vine in these parts and later in spring it'll form handsome splashes of yellow along roadsides cut through forests. If you don't know this pretty plant you should look at it at http://www.salisbury.edu/arboretum/Gelsemi/GeSe/GeSeHM.html
To top things off, there's an old-time rose variety seldom encountered nowadays, but which here has gone wild and hangs from some of our larger trees, gracing them quite a majestic "dripping" look. Even this rose is producing a few 3-inch across (7 cm) white flowers. It's the Cherokee Rose, ROSA LAEVIGATA. It's a wonderous thing the way it climbs so high and then dangles down long, flowing limbs, but I suppose people nowadays prefer meeker, more perfumey varieties. And it is true that Cherokee Roses possess viciously stout, strongly hooked spines. Even their hips are like big, red cockleburs.
I know that later we'll probably have a cold snap that will turn my lettuce to mush, shrivel the Nemophyla and stun the Yellow Jessamine and Cherokee Rose into submission, but right now we have a hardcore spring and I am enjoying my salad days.
Even the spiders are taking advantage of the warm weather. Our blue afternoon skies have been adorned with untold numbers of silky gossamers, and if you shade your eyes with your hand and look toward the sun, through the limbs of leafless Sweetgum and Pecan trees around my camp, you'll be amazed at the number of sun-streaked gossamers caught there.
Of course gossamers are silk strands produced by young spiders, or spiderlings. It's their main means of travel. When a spiderling of many but certainly not all spider species is developed enough to begin its independent life, the first thing it needs to do is to find a new home, away from its multitude of equally hungry siblings. It climbs to the top of any kind of nearby elevation, sticks its rear end into the air, and begins extruding strands of silk. The more silk produced, the more the wind pulls on it. Finally the moment comes when the spiderling knows to release its hold, and wind then carries silk and spiderling away. When we see these long silk strandsreflecting sunlight as they pass across the sky, we call them gossamers.
Spiderlings traveling by way of wind-carried silks are said to be ballooning. Ballooning spiderlings can travel enormous distances. Charles Darwin collected them during the mid-Atlantic part of his famous trip on the H.M.S. Beagle, and they have been spotted by airplanes at very highaltitude. Of course, most flights are not such long-distance ones, as the thousands of snagged gossamers in the trees all around my camp attest. These flights surely went no more than from one branch to another. But spiderlings try again and again. And there are many, many spiderlings, especially now.
Tuesday evening I was asked to make a rare trip into town, to drive back a plantation truck that had been in the garage. I have not driven anything in over a year so this was going to be some practice. As we were unlatching the gate to leave the plantation, smoke began filling the pickup's cab. It smelled of burning straw and I knew that we were once again rubbing shoulders with White-footed Mice, the species that so often sets up residence inside my trailer.
We turned the engine off and the smoke stopped. Upon returning to the cab we found a dead mother mouse on the floor. Probably she had gnawed the insulation off the wiring behind the dashboard, and when the lights had been turned on not only had the naked wires sparked, causing her straw nest to smolder, but also she had been electrocuted.
The next day living baby mice began dropping from behind the dashboard. But that appears to be the Creator's guiding principle for all living things. The Creator cares much less for individuals than for the perpetuation of the species. And though this little mouse-family has gone extinct, the species to which it belongs well may stand a better chance of being around a thousand years from now than our own.
You just have to admire a little being so adaptable that it can be content raising a family in the noodly world behind an old pickup truck's dashboard. And Mama Mouse would have succeeded, too, if the truck had sat unused just a few more days.