from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

January 6, 2002

It's been a cold week here. Monday before dawn I was awakened by sleet peppering my trailer's aluminum top, though the snow that buried much of southern Mississippi never reached here. Thursday morning the thermometer in my Waxmyrtle read an amazing 14 degrees (-10C).

I had draped tarpaulins over my lettuce and for the most part it survived. Probably residual heat in the ground made the difference. Green onions, kale, cabbage, broccoli, snow peas and other things appear fine, though the turnip greens and dill are hurt. These plants' centers are OK, however, so they will grow out of it if unless there's more such cold.

This Sunday morning one thing I was sure to check was this: Did the cold reduce the aphid population? I plucked a young turnip leaf and really wasn't surprised to see that its bottom was mealy with aphids of various sizes, some of them obviously newly born. These aphids are tough.


On these cold mornings I am especially aware that each day for me begins with a touch of magic. I am thinking of the orange flash that erupts at the end of my match, then moves as a hesitant blaze into the teepee of dry branches and wood splinters I've heaped beneath the grill and the skillet. Then for a few minutes a kind of dance between the fire and me takes place as I coax the flame to feel at home within my construction. If the air and wood are moist this can be hard but so far I've always managed to cook my meal.

There must be some kind of atavistic memory at work here, maybe a certain sequence in my genes resonating with the fire that accompanied untold generations of my evolving ancestors in their caves, their winter lodges of bark and fur, and on Africa's savannas.

Every campfire is a piece of the sun itself momentarily visiting me. Energy from the sun flowed through space and was captured on Earth by the bush or tree whose wood I am now burning. That sunlight energy was stored among the chemical bonds of the carbohydrates comprising the wood. Now as that wood burns, its chemical bonds break apart and the former sunlight energy is released.

If we are looking for an appropriate ceremonial communion with the agencies sustaining us as living beings, there can be no more appropriate act than to conscientiously ignite and nurture a fire just large enough to do its job, and then to be thankful for its service.


In the woods I've been finding spots on the forest floor about the size of a kitchen table, looking as if someone had kicked the leaves away, then scratched the exposed ground with a pitchfork. Actually, that's probably exactly what has happened. Our paying hunters are up to some of their "old hunting tricks."

For a long time hunters have believed that such "scrapes," as the are called, are created only by dominant bucks scraping the ground with their front hooves. A doe in heat discovers the scrape and feels compelled to leave her scent by urinating on the spot. The buck then revisits his scrape and follows the scent trail to his doe. At least this is what most hunters seem to believe. They likewise believe that if they watch trails leading to scrapes they may be able to pick off amorous individuals passing to and from their message board. Also they figure that they might attract deer by creating their own scrapes with boots and ground-scratchers.

The scrape story isn't all that simple. A young woman by the name of Karen Alexy, working on her Ph.D. at Clemson University, is studying deer scrapes systematically with motion-activated video cameras. She's shown that this "old hunting trick" is based on misunderstandings of deer behavior.

For instance, she's found that not just dominant bucks make scrapes but rather a scrape may be the product of as many as 13 or more bucks, and these may include low-ranking first-year ones. On the other hand, some scrapes may have hardly any visitors at all. Thus all along hunters have been wrong to assume that big-antlered dominant males range around their scrape keeping small-antlered ones away, and that all scrapes were equally used. Alexy also has found that most deer-visits to scrapes take place deep in the night, not at dawn and dusk when hunters usually go out.

In fact, only about half of the "scent message- boards" deer produce involve ground scrapes. The message-board begins when bucks rub low-hanging branches with their foreheads, antlers, or sometimes chew on the branches, presumably leaving their scent there. Ground scrapes are only added later, and that only sometimes. The odors present at a marked spot are far more important to deer than ground-scrapes.

The most interesting thing, however, is that even Karen Alexy admits to not understanding more than a little about what really is going on with all this scent-marking and scrape-making.

I did not need this to remind me that in this forest I am immersed in many such mysteries. At night I hear rustlings, snarls, grunts, thumps and bumps, flutterings of wings, scamperings and the like that I cannot begin to explain. Sometimes it simply seems impossible that the animals conceivably found here could be making such combinations of sounds.

An article on deer scrapes by Karen Alexy appears at