from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
February 24, 2002
Even more than the deer, armadillos and woodrats, during 90% of the year Green Anoles are my most companionable animal neighbors. I'm talking about a kind of green lizard found in the Deep South, ranging as far north as extreme southern Tennessee and southern North Carolina. Green Anoles are often sold in pet stores as "chameleons" since they can change from a vivid green to a dark brown in less than a minute. You can see them and read a lot about them at http://www.parcplace.org/education/sparc/trip31.htm Amazingly, the word "anole" is pronounced something like "eh-NOH-lee." You can see the pronunciation guide and hear the word spoken at http://www.m-w.com , where you'll need to type the word in the blank.
This week has been a warm, sunny one, so my camp and the gardens have been rich with anoles. I reach for a hoe and there's a Green Anole on the handle looking me straight in the eye. I'm working at the computer, something catches my eye at the screen door, and there's a Green Anole stalking a fly across the screen, and before the day is over he'll probably enter through the crack and do pushups on my scanner.
They escape the cold by wedging themselves into tight places where they "hunker down" until it warms. This winter there haven't been two weeks in a row when I did not glimpse a Green Anole warming himself in the sunlight on or near my trailer. This Wednesday I found a dead one who'd crept between two corrugated sheets of tin roofing lying on the ground, not reckoning on metal's easy conductivity of cold. Of course he got scanned, and now his image graces my lizard page at http://www.backyardnature.net/lizards.htm
With low-power binoculars I often watch these animals. Low-powered ones are better than powerful ones because they focus closer. You can watch things just 9 or 10 feet away, and that's perfect for anole-watching.
Thing is, anoles do much more than just wander around stalking flies, beetles, spiders and the like. Males stake out and defend territories inside which several females have their own smaller, often overlapping territories. You see the patrolling males fanning out the large, pink "dewlaps" below their chins and chests at a rate of about a hundred times an hour. These displays are mainly to signal to other males that he's on the job so they'd better stay away. A patrolling male covers about 70 feet (27 meters) per hour.
All this is such hard work for a little green lizard that he can't eat enough to keep his health up. One study found that during a 4-month period about 70% of all males grew so exhausted that competitors invaded and took over both territory and females.
This is worth thinking about. If you accept that we humans have evolved according to the same principles as all other living things, then it seems that Nature is not above programming some of us for stressful lives doomed at the offset to end in frustration.
On the other hand, maybe the gratification of being an alpha male with a splendid pink dewlap and, at least for a time, a whole harem of ladies, makes it all worthwhile...
PURPLE MARTIN SCOUTS
All week I've been hearing scouting Purple Martins flying so high that I was never able to see one. The species has overwintered in Brazil and thereabouts in South America and now the first males are coming north, apparently scouting out the best nesting locations in preparation for the ladies' arrivals.
If you are interested in Purple Martins you should visit The Purple Martin Conservation Association's "2002 Scout Arrival Page" at http://www.purplemartin.org/scoutreport/2002/scout.html There you'll see that my "first spotting" this week isn't an especially early one for here. By clicking on Mississippi in the clickable world map I found that on January 22 of this year Jess & Wes Engels in Bolivar County up in the Delta spotted the state's first. On that Web page another map shows that the first scouts average arriving at my home area in Kentucky around March 10, Chicago around April 1, and Edmonton, Alberta, Canada around May 1.
If martin scouts haven't arrived at your location yet you might listen for them and submit your sighting at this site. If you've forgotten what they sound like, check out the "Vocalization Page" at http://www.purplemartin.org/main/Vocalization.html
JAGGED CUMULUS CLOUDS
Tuesday was a windy day with a storm front moving in. For about an hour in the morning the sky was graced with white cumulus clouds of a special kind. Each white cloud was perfectly defined by distinct edges and the whole cloud-fleet calmly sailed northeastward through a deep blue sky as wind roared in the trees.
These clouds were not typical billowy cumuli but rather they had jagged edges. They reminded me of perfect, well-formed teenagers with spiky hair. Also in the manner of teenagers, these clouds were not around for long. Soon the blue sky behind them grew milky and the clouds themselves curdled into more conventional, less distinct and interesting forms.
Every day and every moment the sky expresses something analogous to a human emotion. Vivid colors and forms put on a show in a theater of subtle gradients of humidity, of airborne odors, and minglings of always-shifting temperatures and sunlight intensities. No painting is as expressive and profound as the simplest sky.
There's a fine page on cloud types on the Internet at http://seaborg.nmu.edu/clouds/CloudPix.html It's good to know at least the cirrus, cumulus, stratus, and cumulonimbus types.
RECYCLING CARBON DIOXIDE AND OXYGEN
You know that during photosynthesis plants use light energy to combine carbon dioxide in the air with water to produce glucose (the plant's "food") and free oxygen (which we can then breathe).
This week I read in Steven Rose's "The Chemistry of Life" the following: "...every molecule of CO2 in the atmosphere gets incorporated into glucose by photosynthesis once every 200 years, and every oxygen molecule every 2,000 years or so."
Just think of all the molecules of carbon dioxide in the wind that blew so lustily this week, and to imagine that any given molecule of carbon dioxide, in the last million years, may have been part of the bodies of 5,000 different plants...
Just think of the majestic wisdom of recycling and of the pure reality of the web of unseen interdependencies this fact implies.
Monday morning I awakened groggy and annoyed because the Eastern Woodrats introduced in the December 9 Newsletter had thumped and bumped all night beneath the trailer. This was unusual because the rats have done this all winter and usually I find their presence good company. Often I have to laugh, imagining what shenanigans must be going on below for such unlikely noises to be produced.
"Pickle juice," I concluded.
Kathy the plantation manager periodically cleans out her refrigerator and sometimes I am the beneficiary when she sends my way her sour milk (good in cornbread batter), fungusy cheese, and delicacies such as pickleless pickle juice (also good in cornbread batter). Well, the day before the woodrats, Kathy had set next to the garden gate a jar with pickle juice in it and I had used it.
Like so much in the American diet, this pickle juice contained outrageous concentrations of salt. Just a little salt causes me to retain water so that within an hour or two I get blurry-eyed, my ears ring, I can't think or sleep well, and later feel grumpy. One day all's right with the world, then some salt slips into my diet, and the next day the world is wretched and insidious.
This is worth thinking about.
For, is the real "me" the one with or without pickle juice? What are the implications when we discover that we think and feel basically what the chemistry in our bodies at that particular moment determines that we think and feel? And if what we think and feel isn't at the root of what we "are," then just what is the definition of what we "are"?
Actually, I can shrug off that question, but only because a larger one nudges it aside. That is, is "reality" like Chopin's gauzy, dreamy etudes, the way I experienced it on Sunday, or more like Schönberg's angry, disjointed, atonal piano pieces, the way I experienced it on Monday after taking into my body the pickle juice?
Thoughts like these have led me to distrust all my assumptions about life no matter how obviously "right" or "wrong" they appear at the moment. I have long noted how huge blocks of my behavior appear to depend exactly on how much testosterone happens to flow in my blood. An acquaintance's tendency to weepiness corresponds precisely to whether he's taken his blood pressure medicine and another's whole personality depends on her remembering to take her lithium pills.
In the end, however, you have to accept certain assumptions just to get through the day, even if you don't quite trust them. I have chosen two insights in particular to serve as bedrock on which all my other assumptions about life and living rest.
One insight arises from meditating upon the grandness, the complexity, the beauty and majesty of nature -- the Universe at large -- and thus I recognize that the Universe has a Creator worth contemplating. (This has absolutely nothing to do with religiosity, by the way, for religions are manmade institutions.)
The other insight is that love in whatever context is worth seeking and sharing.
This latter insight is the one that keeps me hanging around in this quaint biological entity, my body, with or without pickle juice.