from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
January 13, 2002
Here and there in the forest at Laurel Hill Plantation large patches of garlic appear. Usually the ruins of an old house lie nearby, often just a brick chimney rising among tall trees. Sometimes there's not even that, just a relic population of garlic hanging on where once a garden was tended. Naturally, having such a supply of garlic, I eat prodigious amounts of it, and must smell accordingly.
Such a garlic patch grows all around my trailer -- hundreds of plants, nowadays with green leaves over a foot tall. There's one place where the garlic plants are at least twice as large and dark green as the others, and that's at the edge of my living space where periodically throughout my days I go pee.
Of course the deal is that in the human body when amino acids (the building blocks of proteins, of which our muscles are made) are broken down -- and our bodies are continually replacing old tissue -- urea is produced as a waste product. The urea molecule has an atom of nitrogen at its center, and of course nitrogen is a fertilizer.
That isn't to say that my giant garlic plants are growing by soaking up my body's discarded urea. The nitrogen in urea must undergo an amazing series of changes brought about by soil microbes before it is presented to my garlics in a usable form. You might be interested in reviewing a simplified chart I have placed at my nature-study site describing how nitrogen circulates throughout the ecosystem. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/nitrocyc.htm
Despite my body's nitrogen needing to go through all these processes before becoming available to my garlic plants, in the end my garlic plants are outgrowing all the others because I pee on them. The whole situation gratifies me enormously. Every pee I take, I stand there visualizing nitrogen atoms in the foods I eat incorporating themselves into my body, my body manipulating those atoms into all kinds of wondrous tissue and organs, then during the process of continual rejuvenation my body passes on the nitrogen as waste, which would poison me if it were not properly cleansed from my system, and then my garlics receive my abandoned nitrogen as if it were manna from heaven.
This summer when my garlic plants' green blades will have died and shriveled away I'll go dig up enormous white garlic bulbs at my peeing place. The bulbs will have no odor of urine at all in them, of course, for my discarded nitrogen will have been transformed through many magical processes into pure garlic essence.
And how good will be that garlic in a salad or soup, or eaten raw on my tomato sandwiches. And all the time as the garlic aroma wafts about me I'll be thinking what a wonder it is that at that moment so many nitrogen atoms are returning to my body, that again they will find themselves inside my muscle tissue and the DNA and RNA of my genes, and eventually, sure as anything, at least some of those nitrogen atoms will be peed again in the vicinity of some needful garlic roots.
A couple of times each day a flock of 300 to 400 of those foot-long, black, long-tailed, sleek-looking birds called Grackles, QUISCALUS QUISCULA, announces itself with a sound which, when heard from a distance, is reminiscent of a rain coming through the woods. The flock draws closer and squeak and chuck calls of individual birds emerge from the general din, and then a large diffuse bird-cloud filters noisily through the tree tops around me.
It's as if the birds can't decide as a flock which tree to light in. Maybe a hundred will land in one tree but the rest will pass a few hundred yards beyond to another tree, and some birds won't land at all, just keep going, and when the ones in the first tree see this they also take wing, but by then the ones who didn't land now are landing... Well, it goes on like this, and in the end the entire flock more or less keeps together as it more or less moves as a unit through the forest.
On Thursday as I worked in the garden, part of such a rambling, undisciplined flock landed in a large Water Oak nearby and I wondered whether they were eating that tree's small, orange-fleshed acorns. All the birds I could see were only squawking and looking around at their neighbors so I decided that they were not.
However, soon this part of the flock rose up and flew to join their companions across the hill. As they passed directly above me I heard expressive sounds I would not have thought any bird capable of making, sounds you might expect from a troupe of half-drunk, completely uneducated and uninhibited elf-thieves chortling over something dumb they'd done, maybe.
Something plopped onto the ground beside me as they passed overhead. It was half of a Water Oak acorn, so some of them had indeed been foraging. In fact, in our area acorns are this bird's second-most important food source, after corn scavenged from fields.
You can read more about Grackles, see what they look like, and even hear them at the Cornell Bird Lab site at http://birds.cornell.edu/BOW/COMGRA/
One of the most common weeds in my gardens is a little Mint-Family member with the unfortunate name of Purple Dead-nettle. On Tuesday, less than a week after the 14°-degree (-10°C) morning I told you about, one Purple Dead-nettle presented the world with a very springy, purple, dog-faced little flower. Last year the first blossom of this species appeared on February 1. Well, it is true that this winter on the average has been warmer than last winter, so the Purple Dead-nettle tells the truth. You can see this pretty weed at a Web site in England (where it is called the Red Dead-nettle) at http://www.bioimages.org.uk/HTML/P159284.HTM
Keeping records of when plants and animals do seasonal things, such as flower, or mate, is fun, and it can be useful as we document the dawning of the new age of global warming.
If you are in North America you may be interested in a place on the Internet where you can keep your records of first blossomings, first hummingbird arrival, first Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly of the season, etc. The site is located at http://www.sws-wis.com/lifecycles/dbase.html
At this site, click on "Enter My Observations into Database," and then do so. You will need the book- name and Latin name of the thing you are documenting and you must be specific, so you will need to get your information together beforehand, probably using a field guide to be sure of the identification. It's not enough to say "see a butterfly," you must report "first appearance of a Tiger Swallowtail."
The study of when seasonal things happen is referred to as phenology. You can read more about phenology at my nature-study site at http://www.backyardnature.net/phenolgy.htm
One of the joys of producing my "EarthFoot's Free Ecotour Posterboard" Web site at http://www.earthfoot.org is that on a daily basis, via email, I work with gifted naturalists, environmentalists, tribal people and the like all over the world. On Wednesday a naturalist in Homer, Alaska called me about getting his program on the Posterboard. He told me a lot about bear behavior so I thought I might ask him about a little mystery in animal behavior I've been wondering out.
In an earlier Newsletter I mentioned that an animal had left a dead mole, with no part of the body missing, on the forest trail to my trailer. I have often wondered if a coyote, fox or other critter was attempting to communicate with me.
Clint, my Alaskan friend, was delighted with the story and he said he had an idea. He'd been with a wildlife manager watching foxes when they observed foxes locating subterranean prey by sound. Getting a good fix on the sound, the fox would leap into the air and come down exactly atop the sound, attacking the animal through the soil's surface. When the sound source turned out to be a certain species of shrew the fox would drop the dead victim and walk away, since this shrew species has musk glands making them unpalatable.
On the Internet I found that our Eastern Mole, SCALOPUS AQUATICUS, does indeed have musk glands producing musk so powerful that many predators consider them inedible. Sometimes the musk even colors the mole pelt a yellow or orange hue.
Maybe my dead-mole mystery is solved. A fox had simply heard it working in the soil near my trailer, had attacked it and killed it, and when it discovered its snout filling with skunky musk, it dropped its quarry like a hot potato.
I am glad to be fairly sure now that a coyote or fox is not trying to leave me gifts expecting some kind of reciprocation, or is in disagreement with me about whose territory this is. It is simply a matter of moles stinking more than a fox can endure.
Last week I mentioned that that Thursday's 14° weather had not fazed the aphids on my turnips. You can see the aphid-covered bottom of an immature turnip leaf from one of my gardens at http://www.backyardnature.net/aphid_lc.htm
This week I have been studying my aphids and I find them pretty interesting creatures. First of all, there are many kinds of aphids, and each species has its own special life cycle. The one on my turnips is the Turnip Aphid, LIPAPHIS ERYSIMI. A typical aphid life cycle goes approximately like this:
A wingless female hatches from an egg and begins sucking juice from its host plant. Without assistance from a male, this female -- instead of laying eggs -- gives birth to a number of wingless females like herself. Wingless virgin females then produce generation after generation of wingless virgin females. About when summer comes along certain of them begin producing offspring that develop wings, and this new generation of winged aphids then flies to a new plant, which may be a completely different species from the host plant of their mothers.
On this second host plant, new generations of mostly wingless females are born. As colder weather begins coming along in late fall, suddenly a generation of winged aphids is produced and now about half of them are males. Sexual reproduction takes place the usual way and the female returns to the kind of host plant we started with in the spring, and lays eggs on it. These eggs overwinter and next spring the cycle begins again.
The life cycle of my Turnip Aphids differs from the above scenario. Since Turnip Aphids live mostly where winters are not severe, the overwintering egg stage is basically skipped. As my January turnip leaf shows, the females just keep producing females all year round, and both eggs and males are usually very hard or impossible to find.
Turnip Aphids do often switch host-plant types, though the new host species must be a member of the Mustard Family, such as radishes, kale, collards, and weeds such as Bitter Cress and Shepherdspurse. In places where Canola, or rape seed, is grown, our species has become a serious pest.
The ability of aphids to reproduce is mind-boggling. Wingless adult females can produce 50 to 100 offspring. A newly born aphid becomes a reproducing adult within about a week and then can produce up to 5 offspring per day for up to 30 days! The French naturalist Reaumur during the late eighteenth century calculated that if all the descendants of a single aphid survived during the summer and were arranged into a French military formation, four abreast, their line would extend for 27,950 miles, which exceeds the circumference of the Earth at the Equator!
More technical information on Turnip Aphids can be found at a site in Hawaii at http://www.extento.hawaii.edu/kbase/Crop/Type/lipaphis.htm