from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

March 10, 2002

In abandoned fields, around old brushpiles and at the edge of woods often there are blackberry brambles. Stiff, semi-woody, gloriously spiny, close-together canes six feet (2 meters) long and longer arch from the ground forming thickets a human or even a deer can't get through, but which a rabbit can, at least by keeping his ears low. Now those canes are issuing penny-size tufts of green leaves. When seen from a fair distance these tufts give the entire bramble a diffuse, pale green cast. This is a wonderful sign of spring.

If you stand close enough to see individual tufts and there's a low sun beyond the bramble, the tufts glow and seem suspended within a dark mahogany cloud. If you stand farther away and let your eyes drift out of focus, the brambles look like glowing, green fog. Before long this blackberry bramble green diffusion will seep into the trees as buds on tree limbs burst with little leaves.


Anyone wanting to help document and preserve Chimney Swift nesting sites should visit the NORTH AMERICAN CHIMNEY SWIFT NEST SITE RESEARCH PROJECT page at You can request an information packet by sending an email to" You'll get an email back asking for $10 for their "newsletter 'Chaetura,' nest and roost monitoring forms, a 20 page booklet with detailed plans for building your own Chimney Swift Tower and more." Some people call Chimney Swifts "Chimney Sweeps."


In the October 28 Newsletter I told you about a dainty little orchid about half a foot tall blossoming here, but so slender and small-flowered that most people would never notice it. It was the Nodding Ladies' Tresses. Last Sunday in the woods I found a second similar orchid species that was the same size and just as slender and small-flowered. It was the Southern Twayblade, LISTERA AUSTRALIS. It seemed impossibly delicate to have survived that week's 17° weather, but obviously it had.

The similarities between the two species are only superficial. Getting onto my hands and knees and looking with a handlens, the tiny (3/16 inch long, 5 mm), reddish-purple flowers showed profoundly different floral anatomies. Well, this is how orchids are: At first glance they're all alike, but up close every blossom type is a wildly imaginative variation on the fundamental orchid theme.

This is a fairly rare wildflower. In fact, though I looked for a long time, I found only one specimen in that part of the forest.

You can see a portrait of a Southern Twayblade at and a rather ugly close-up of the miniscule and bizarre blossom at  


On Wednesday a bright yellow and black Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (PTEROURUS GLAUCUS) turned up alongside the gravel road between here and the plantation center. This is one of the largest, brightest and prettiest butterflies we have, as well as one of the most common. You can see one at

One reason for its success is its flexibility. Instead of its caterpillars (which resemble bird droppings) eating just one kind of plant, they can be found munching on cherry and plum trees, ashes, tulip-poplars and many other kinds of plants. The adults likewise take nectar from a huge variety of blossoms.

The next day I saw several Zebra Swallowtails, EURYTIDES MARCELLUS, likewise one of the most striking and most common of our butterfly species. View one at    Taking an opposite strategy for survival from the Tiger Swallowtail, this butterfly's caterpillars feed on just one host plant in our area -- the Pawpaw. The one-host-plant strategy works here because we have an abundance of Pawpaws.

I wonder if these butterflies will survive, for there just aren't that many flowers blossoming now, and we're bound to have more cold nights. I would guess that the recent unseasonably warm days, which outnumbered our few "historically cold days," caused these butterflies to emerge too early, and that they may become yet other victims of Global Warming's extreme weather vacillations.


This has been a sad week at Laurel Hill Plantation. Jack, the eldest son of Kathy the plantation manager, was killed in a car accident in Houston, Texas. He leaves behind a young wife and a beautiful boy not old enough to have said his first word.

On Tuesday I went with the hired hand Master to dig Jack's grave near the Chapel.

Digging a grave for a friend is a somber job, and when you are in the grave and the family and friends come to see how things are going, you don't know what to do other than to keep on digging.

The grave is dark and the heavy odor of earth presses upon you. Sometimes you must rest and you stand up and look out and you see how sweet and bright the world is beyond the grave, and your own feeling for this thing called life assumes a genuine urgency. You feel like getting out of that hole and going walking in the sunlight, throwing your arms open to the sky.

You also think about the phrase "dust to dust," for as you are bent over digging it becomes very clear that "dust to dust" in more than a quaint phrase.

Jack had a good laugh and he was the only person on Earth I knew who had feet wider and uglier than mine. The last time we talked we sat in the grass just laughing at one another's feet.

While I was bent over inside the grave, I reflected on the fact that something unseen behind all the dusty-smelling earth around me shows a great passion for life. Scientists now say that life appeared on Earth just as soon as the Earth had cooled enough for life to be possible. Creatures have been discovered living in hot-water vents in the oceans' deepest regions and in cracks thousands of feet below the Earth's surface, where earlier no one dreamed that life could exist. The Universe seems to be a theater in which life is the crowning act.

Walking home in the afternoon sun, my body buzzing with the fatigue of a day of digging, it further occurred to me that we humans just can't know what lies beyond the end of life. Yet, because the Creator so obviously rejoices in rambunctious life, and has a sense of humor and a genius capable of creating things like giraffes, slime molds and Jack's feet, it seems a good bet that if anything at all happens to the "soul" at life's end, it cannot be something that -- if we could just grasp the Creator's whole concept -- we would call bad.

Maybe it is all this simple: There was Jack and this was good and beautiful. Today is today, and dust passes to dust. Life goes on as ever.