from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
March 3, 2002
17° AT DAWN
Each morning immediately after breakfast I log onto the Internet at a site showing the national weather map. Here you can watch fronts moving west to east, rain breaking out before approaching coldwaves, and the clockwise and counterclockwise swirlings around high and low pressure systems. It is all a vast, almost abstract ecology working itself out in terms of the sky's face and the temperature and barometric pressure registering on the old Airguide Weather Station hung next to my door.
For several days there had been a front barreling down from central Canada. The black line denoting the front on the map crossed our area on Tuesday, though there was no rain or even clouds associated with it, which was strange. However, the wind howled in the trees and the temperatures dropped from a sweatband morning to an afternoon with an uncomfortable chill. As night came on the sky stayed cloudless, the winds kept howling and the temperature continued to drop.
Wednesday morning it was 24°F at dawn (-4.4°C) and the sunny, windy day hardly got into the 40s. That day, everything felt crooked and somehow unnatural.
Thursday morning at dawn it was 17°F (-8.3°C). I jogged eastward into a kind of sunrise seldom seen at these latitudes. It looked like a slab of inflamed raw flesh lying on the horizon and the dark blue sky lay right next to it, with no pastels between the hard colors to mediate. It looked spooky and I was comforted by the white steam billowing from my mouth, something alive and normal. Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand I felt chunks of ice coagulating in my beard. Once sunlight cast golden halos around the dangling beards of Spanish moss along my path, finally things began seeming normal.
My main task for the plantation this week has been to grub out with a shovel deep-taprooted Honeylocust trees in one of the hay fields. Honeylocustes bear large, hard spines that can puncture a tractor tire or go right through a shoe. So at midday on Thursday in the middle of the field I ate my cornbread and then did something that most of the time is impossible here: I lay in the grass on my back, looking into that curious blue sky. Usually lying in the grass is impossible here without ticks, fireants and chiggers swarming over you.
How seldom we lie on our backs on the solid Earth, yet what a comfort it is! My body tingled from the morning's exertions, and now the dazzling sunlight stung my skin. Reddish blotches and white starlets animated the blackness behind my closed eyelids. The air hummed with silence. Then a grasshopper flew by, it's crackling sound arcing from one side of my head to the other.
Well, if that grasshopper could make such a lusty crackling after a 17° dawn, probably the ticks, fireants and chiggers were just as capable of doing their thing, so that was the end of my Earth-lying.
TWO WHITE OWLETS
At dusk on Tuesday as the wind roared through the trees, Kathy the plantation manager called me on her cellular phone saying she'd found two owl nestlings so young that they were still covered with white down. They were huddled together in a field near our chapel and she asked what she should do. I told her to do nothing and to leave the area.
But of course people are people, so she put the owlets into a cardboard box filled with Spanish moss and left the box next to the chapel. The next morning the box contained two frozen Barred Owl nestlings.
I can't explain why the owlets were in the field. Maybe their parent was coaxing them from an old nest to a new one when Kathy came along. Whatever the case, I suspect that when she boxed them up and swaddled them in moss, no longer was the usual signaling between parent and nestling possible. Birds can't think like humans. The owl mother cannot think "my kids are in a box and I have to get them out." She needs to see fluttering wings, bobbing heads, gaping beaks or hear certain peeps to be stimulated to appropriate innate responses.
I put a dead owlet on my scanner and now at my nature site there are fine pictures of a foot and a beak of the kind an owl has. You can see them at http://www.backyardnature.net/birdstnd.htm#b
PURPLE MARTINS & HUMMINGBIRDS
Last week I mentioned hearing Purple Martin scouts migrating northward. At our Nat-Nat Chat, Margarite in Minnesota mentioned that martin populations in her area seem to have diminished. She wondered "if they are considered one of the neotropical songbirds that are in decline.
From what I can gather, the answer is yes. At http://www.purplemartin.org/update/StarlImpact.html an article on the effect of Starling competition for nests states: " Inclement weather in the Appalachian Region in 1972 and heavy May freezes in the northeastern states in 1966 and 1967 drastically reduced numbers of martins there (Hall 1972, Rosche 1968), and recovery has generally been slow." Thus weather is hard on their numbers, as are starlings, who compete with them for nesting sites.
By the way, Greg in Wisconsin pointed out that on the address of the Purple Martin Web site I gave you last week, where you can report the first arrival of scouts in your area, somehow the "l" was lopped off the end of the address. It should be http://www.purplemartin.org/scoutreport/2002/scout.html
Before long Ruby-throated Hummingbirds should arrive here. Generally they come in mid March. If you are a hummingbird fanatic you should know about Operation RubyThroat at http://www.rubythroat.org. At that site there are pages on "attracting hummers" and for "posting your data."
Into the hill on which the old mansion used to stand I have built a coldframe with its slanting top facing directly southward. Thursday morning I opened it up and was glad to see that my tomato slips had made it through the 17° night.
The coldframe's top consists of three layers of plastic sheeting. When I pulled the top back the thermometer inside read 105° (40.5°C), for the sun had been shining for about four hours. The blast of moist heat felt so good that I stepped inside, pulling the top back over me.
The coldframe's walls were green with cascades of flowering Chickweed and Creeping Charlie, and clover and Oxalis sprouted from cracks between the cinderblocks. This moist, warm world was surprisingly cozy and I marveled at the power of "the greenhouse effect." As I sat there warming and thinking, my marveling gradually changed to worry.
For, this greenhouse effect is obviously powerful stuff! And of course the greenhouse effect powers global warming.
On the web at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) Global Warming page at http://lwf.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/globalwarming.html#Q1 I checked into the matter in more detail. (Note the address ends with #Q1.
It turns out that nearly from the beginning of life on Earth the greenhouse effect has affected life profoundly. "Without a natural greenhouse effect, the temperature of the Earth would be about zero degrees F (-18°C) instead of its present 57°F (14°C)" the page says. So, instead of worrying about causing a greenhouse effect, we need to be concerned that we'll screw up a process already going on, a process to which life on Earth has finely tuned itself.
The next paragraph reads "According to the IPCC 'business as usual' scenario of carbon dioxide increase (IS92a) in the 21st century, we would expect to see a doubling of carbon dioxide over pre-industrial levels around the year 2065.
Our government emphasizes more energy production instead of conservation, and it has walked away from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming because it would be "bad for American business."
There is an online Scientific American article entitled "Is Global Warming Harmful to Health?" at http://www.sciam.com/2000/0800issue/0800epstein.html.
A comprehensive US Department of Energy paper entitled "U.S. Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in Perspective" is available at http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/1605/ggrpt/emission.html
I am glad that I am a hermit whose American business is living simply.