from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
April 14, 2002
MOMENTS OF PERFECTION
This week the world has been fresh and vibrant. Showers came and went leaving plants sparkling in spring sunlight, birds put on shows, new flowers blossomed every day, it was neither too hot nor too cold, and the mosquitoes weren't bad. The big Pecan trees above my trailer now sprout leaves and dense, dark clusters of catkins of male flowers. Bugs swarm among the catkins eating pollen and worms attack the succulent new leaves, so birds rush from branch to branch eating bugs and caterpillars. On Saturday morning several Orchard Orioles and Baltimore Orioles, both bright-orange-and-black species freshly arrived from the tropics, along with some warblers and woodpeckers, made a gaudy circus above me.
Some afternoons white-topped thunderheads built up, and sometimes I just had to escape from the computer and go watch how the clouds' towering tops billowed into the dark-blue sky. There's power and purpose in these enormous, rumbling, dark-bottomed clouds. The binoculars show how edges of the cloud boil and seethe and you can imagine the howling, cold winds and mighty electrical charges at play inside the clouds. But then take down the binoculars and there's just pretty white against pretty blue, and perhaps later there will be a pleasant shower.
Right before dusk there's a fresh spurt of activity among the birds and I walk along the woods' edges looking into the interiors of trees lighted by low-slanting sunlight. What a pleasure just seeing the colors of birds and butterflies in these theaters of glowing green leaves and black limbs gilded with orange sunlight.
If I had a million dollars I could never purchase the pleasure and contentment I have enjoyed for free during this single past week.
Tuesday morning for the first time this year during my dawn jog I ran through a moist, warm pool of air suffused with the odor of Japanese Honeysuckle. My legs almost buckled as I was swept with a wave of perfume-inspired mingled nostalgia, memories of distant romances, the need to be intimate and vulnerable... All very un-hermit sensations.
Well, it's been shown that much mammalian behavior (and therefore human) is linked to the effects of airborne chemicals known as pheromones -- especially pheromones produced by members of the opposite sex. Pheromones may or may not smell, but one thing they can do is to trigger hormone production, and you know how crazy you can get when your hormones get out of whack. Thing is, odor-molecules of flowers are often very similar in shape and size to pheromone molecules. In other words, I got the honeysuckle staggers because my body reacted to the molecules comprising the honeysuckle aroma as if they were molecules of sex-associated pheromones.
There's been a good bit of research on how certain odors sexually arouse humans. Amazingly, among the most potent of odors is that of lavender combined with pumpkin pie. That fragrance causes a 40% increase in, as the researchers put it, "penile blood flow." The odors of orange, black licorice, cola and Lily-of-the-valley also cause significant excitement.
You can read about all this at a funny web site with entertaining headings such as "Cleanliness Can Produce Loneliness" and "Why Women Call Men Pigs" at www.skinbiology.com/skin-pheromones.html. Of course this site also reminds us of Napoleon's famous message to Josephine: "I will be arriving in Paris tomorrow evening. Don't wash!"
Anyway, on a spiritual level I find the effects of honeysuckle odor to be confirming with regard to my world view that all us living things, from fern to bee to human, are profoundly related and interrelated, all of the same stuff, and dancing to the same Earth-tunes, and vulnerable to the same Earth-abuses. I don't mind if a honeysuckle tricks my gonads. It's a good joke, pretty close to a God-joke.
A KETTLE OF HAWKS
Late Wednesday afternoon I noticed some hawks overhead and as I watched more and more of the same species passed. They were Broad-winged Hawks, BUTEO PLATYPTERUS, and they were all sailing west-northwest, never beating a wing, just gliding in straight lines. Some were fairly low and others were very high. Sometimes they appeared alone, sometimes in small groups, and one cluster of about a dozen passed.
"Cluster" isn't the right word, for migrations of Broad-winged Hawks are such spectacular phenomena that there's a special word for migrating clusters like I saw, and that's "kettle." I was witnessing the passage of a kettle of Broad-winged Hawks. Actually, my kettle of about 30 wasn't a particularly notable one. Above Duluth, Minnesota up to 10,000 Broad-winged Hawks have been spotted in one day. The more general name for any group of hawks is "cast." You see a cast of hawks.
The Broad-wings glided above me without beating a wing, and that also was typical of their migration method. As Broad-winged Hawks migrate they locate rising air currents, or thermals, and circle inside them until they are high in the sky. Then they break away and glide in their chosen direction, not beating a wing if they can manage, until the next thermal.
This fairly common, forest-loving hawk spends winter from southern Mexico south to Peru and Brazil, and in southern Florida. They migrate north along the Mexican and Texas Gulf Coast. Entering the US they follow the Texas Gulf Coast as it curves around eastward to meet Louisiana. Finally they fan out throughout the forested part of eastern North America, and if you look at a map you'll see why a lot of them pass right over us.
What a majestic passage this was. What a pleasure knowing that the Broad-winged Hawk sky-highway passes right above us.
You can read more about this bird, see a picture of it and hear its call, at www.raptor.cvm.umn.edu/content.asp?page=2506
Jack-in-the-pulpit is one of the most famous of American wildflowers, if only because of its name. You see it here and there at Laurel Hill, on fairly moist and shaded forest floors. The name comes from its very strange flower arrangement. Like grains of corn on a cob, its dozens of miniscule flowers are arranged on a slender, pencil-like, vertical stem which is surrounded and mostly hidden by a cylinder of leafy tissue. One side of the cylinder rises like a roof over the whole affair. "Jack" is the flowered stem, and the "pulpit" is the roofed cylinder from which Jack peeps. You can see the whole setup at www.poison-ivy.org/images/with-jack-1.jpg
Jack-in-the-pulpit is a member of the Arum Family, which is mostly tropical. In this family you find Anthuriums and Philodendrons, which have similar flower arrangements. The Latin name is ARISAEMA TRIPHYLLUM.
One of Jack-in-the-pulpit's common names is "Indian Turnip," because the Indians made flour from the ground and water-leached root. I'll never forget the day I decided to see what the root tasted like, back in Kentucky. Without bothering to ground and leach the pulp, I simply sliced off a piece from a root I'd just dug and tossed it into my mouth.
In my entire life I have never experienced such a jolt of pain from anything put into my mouth. For several minutes I coughed and spit and was sure that at any moment I'd die. Hot needles inserted into my tongue and twisted would not have hurt more. The effect of biting into a habanero pepper is not nearly as awful. This is the power of tiny calcium oxalate crystals Mother Nature put in these roots to keep moles and such from nibbling at them.
I later learned how to slice the root into very thin slices and let them dry for several weeks. Then these chips can be ground into a serviceable flour. However, it would be a shame to do this, for lots of wildflowers would have to be sacrificed just for a rather bland biscuit or two.
Across the broad mouth of the small bucket into which each morning I drop my egg shells a Featherlegged Spider, genus ULOBORUS, has built its web. This spider is a strange looking one, for it holds its legs so close to its body that the spider looks more like a slender fallen twig than a being with eight legs. Tufts of hair on the front legs give it its name. You can see a similar but different species of Uloborus at www.terra.es/personal/sara2111/aracnid2.htm. Mine is longer and more narrow than the one in that photo, but my species doesn't appear on the Web yet.
Unlike most spiders, Uloborus has no poison, and unlike most webs, this spider's silk is not coated with sticky droplets. The web's individual silks are "hackled" -- their surfaces are roughly feathery instead of smooth. This featheriness creates such a large surface area that simple molecular powers of adhesion cause small prey to stick to the silks. It's the same mysterious force that makes dust particles gather on my glasses, and which enables an anole with its feathery-surfaced feet to climb up my trailer walls. Uloborus's web is also unique because it is built horizontally, not vertically, as are most sheet webs.
THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
Here are the migratory species I identified on Friday, April 12, despite one semi-dysfunctional ear:
WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE
2 Hermit Thrush
4 Cedar Waxwing
3 Solitary Vireo
35 White-throated Sparrow
SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED
1 Yellow-billed Cuckoo
3 Chimney Swift
2 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
1 Great Crested Flycatcher
4 Acadian Flycatcher
12 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
4 Wood Thrush
5 Summer Tanager
35 Red-eyed Vireo
15 White-eyed Vireo
5 Yellow-throated Vireo
12 Northern Parula
1 Black-and-white Warbler
1 Blue-winged Warbler
10 Hooded Warbler
2 Kentucky Warbler
2 Yellow-throated Warbler
1 Blue Grosbeak
PERMANANT RESIDENTS WHO MIGRATE
1 Turkey Vulture
3 Mourning Dove
2 Brown Thrasher
3 Chipping Sparrow
14 Brown-headed Cowbird
Last week I spotted 14 Ruby-crowned Kinglets but this week I spotted none. Last week there were 9 Yellow-rumped Warblers, and the week before 26, but this week none.
Last week the big news was the arrival of 19 Red-eyed Vireos, after there being none all winter, but this week there were 35 -- sometimes so many singing at once that I could only guess how many there were. Last week there were only 12 species of "summer residents just arrived," but this week there were 19. In short, the migrants are just flooding northward right now.
Maybe the most welcome of this week's arrivals is that of the Wood Thrush. Though this forest-loving bird is almost plain in its appearance, its haunting, fluty song is one of the most beautiful we have. That's the way it often is: The best singers are usually among the most ordinary looking. You can see and hear the Wood Thrush at birds.cornell.edu/BOW/WOOTHR/