from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
May 19, 2002
GREEN LEAF PERFECTION
This surprisingly cool and still-too-dry week has brought a certain kind of perfection into the forest around me. For, this is the first week this year when most leaves of all the forest's trees are fully expanded. The Pecans' leaves above my trailer were the last to grow to full size. The vast majority of these leaves are picture-perfect, dark green with no obvious blemishes.
Of course this perfection won't last for long. In fact, already, if you look closely you can see tiny yellow spots that later will develop into gaudy leafspot fungus infections. Here and there caterpillars have nibbled holes or consumed large patches. And some leaves, having a hard time acquiring the iron they need from our calcareous loess soil, are mottled yellow, showing the effects of nutrient deficiency.
As days pass the fungal infections will gain ground and new generations of caterpillars will tatter the blades and sever critical leaf plumbing. If it's a dry summer, the yellow-mottled leaves will probably be discarded onto the ground by mid summer, useless because of their lack of chlorophyll.
So nowadays I walk down my paths consciously admiring every tree's healthy, well formed leaves, letting myself be charmed by the Sweetgum's handsome star- shaped blades, the Water-oak's leathery club-shaped leaves, the Black Oak's vigorous spine-tipped leaf lobes, the Pecan's scythe-shaped leaflets, the Hophornbeam's finely toothed leaf margins, and on and on, each leaf with its own special character and accomplishment.
The word "charmed" is appropriate, for something interior to me buzzes and lives especially gladly when my days are spent among these perfect tree leaves. I do believe that every tree has a kind of diffuse and magnanimous soul, and that if a human even half tries to be receptive to that magnanimity, the tree-soul can bestow a spiritual gift into us, the way tree roots grace and add integrity to the soil in which a tree is rooted.
I've told you how I first learned about Laurel Hill when I was a freelance writer visiting here to write about the land-based "hippie commune" established back in the late 70s. Being organic-minded, the hippies used a fancy outdoor toilet set up so that their wastes could be composted and used to fertilize the land. Last spring a certain gust of wind knocked over the poor, long-abandoned toilet and it's lain in the grass decaying there until this week. This Wednesday Kathy the plantation manager decided to get rid of it. Its remains were trucked into the broomsedge field near my camp so I could use what's left for firewood.
Part of the steps was salvageable so I leaned that section against the side of my trailer, and the toilet's door was still in good shape so I placed it across my roof in a way that it didn't press upon the thin aluminum. Now I can climb the steps and walk onto the old toilet door, and make myself at home atop the trailer.
It's nice up there. Though it puts me only about 10 feet (3 meters) higher, there's a different world among the leaves and branches of the young Sweetgums crowding around me. The light is crisper than below, it feels drier, and there are fewer mosquitoes. There's a puddle of water in the center of my little trailer's sagging roof and in the afternoon birds go there to bathe. I can be sitting motionless (invisible) on the door and they'll bathe right beside me.
At the tips of the Sweetgums' branches where the tissue is soft and turgid, sometimes herds of aphids are tended by ants. You can watch an ant touch an aphid's rear-end with its antennae and then sometimes the aphid exudes a sparkling droplet of "honeydew." Then the ant heads down the branch with the sweet liquid, onto the trunk, and continues its journey to a secret colony someplace below.
If I had a good ladder, the right lumber and tools, I'd build platforms all through the big Pecan trees above me. Life in the trees is beautiful, the air and light there is refreshing, the view is more meaningful, and inside the trees you are reminded that trees, even more than being magnanimous living things themselves, comprise infrastructures supporting all kinds of complex societies and manners of being. I wouldn't mind being one of a tree's complex beings myself.
A while back Lonnie Looper in Greenville, Mississippi contacted me asking if I would want to place pictures of fossils he had collected, at my Loess-Zone Web site at www.earthfoot.org/loess/welcome.html
For some years Lonnie and his wife Freida have collected over 500 fossil bones of Ice Age animals which lived in our loess area between 10,000 and 250,000 years ago. These are not entire skeletons, just a vertebrate here, a horn there, which the couple found while walking on gravel bars in the Mississippi River during low-water times. Among the species represented are Giant Ground Sloth, Llama, Mammoth, Mastodon, Musk Ox, Stag Moose and Tapir.
A number of fossil horse teeth also have been found. Horses were actually native to North America, but they went extinct, possibly because of overhunting by early humans. All the horses in America today were reintroduced here from the Old World.
You can see some of these fossils at www.earthfoot.org/loess/fossils.htm
Lonnie's fossils rekindled my own interest in Ice Age paleontology so last Sunday I biked to the back part of the plantation where high loess bluffs rise above the Mississippi River floodplain. I walked a good distance examining the vertical loess faces, which in some places stand 30 feet high. However, as usual, the only fossils I found were ancient snail shells, which I tell all about and show a picture of at www.earthfoot.org/loess/snails.htm
However, the hike was a fine one. Most impressive were two plants that at this time of year are in full blossom. One was the Southern Magnolia, MAGNOLIA GRANDIFLORA, with wonderfully fragrant white blossoms up to 9 inches (23cm) across, and the other was the Oak-leaf Hydrangea, HYDRANGEA QUERCIFOLIA, with small white flowers arranged in dense, elongate clusters as big as the biggest magnolia flower.
Both of these species prefer the deeply shaded, moist cliff-bottoms and deep ravine slops so common in our loess area. There in the twilight you can understand why their blossoms and inflorescences are so large: They need this big splash of brightness to attract their pollinators. Of course the magnolia flower also has its fragrance to attract pollinators. As I worked along the cliff faces sometimes a breeze would carry the scent of magnolia to me and a surge of that romantic nostalgia I told you about earlier would jolt my system.
You can see a big magnolia blossom at www.hr.duke.edu/dukegardens/bigmagnol.JPG and read more about Southern Magnolias and see a map showing the Southern Magnolia's natural distribution in the US at www.na.fs.fed.us/spfo/pubs/silvics_manual/Volume_2/magnolia/grandiflora.htm
You can see a cluster of Oak-leaf Hydrangea flowers at www.flwildflowers.com/wildflowers/hydranquerc.jpg
For the last two weeks each morning as I crossed the field between here and the hunters' camp I passed through a colony of about 20 Green Milkweeds, ASCLEPIAS VIRIDIS. They flower each year at this time and I am always happy to see that they have made it through the winter OK and are thriving.
I especially like this wildflower for several reasons. One is that it's simply a very handsome plant with pretty, complex blossoms. The flowers are actually greenish, and that's unusual. You can see a flower at my nature site, at www.backyardnature.net/fl_milkw.htm
Milkweed blossoms have evolved an amazing pollination strategy. You know that typical flowers produce male pollen, which is powdery, and that this pollen is transferred to the stigmas of the female parts of other flowers. Flowers in the Milkweed Family have a complex anatomy consisting of fused-together male and female parts. Pollen is produced as tiny waxy masses called pollinia. Two pollinia unite into an upside-down, Y-shaped structure called a pollinarium. When insects visit a flower, their legs get caught in the acute angle made by the upside-down Y-shaped pollinarium, the pollinarium is pulled from its place and stays attached to the leg, and when the insect visits another milkweed flower, the pollinarium catches in a special structure of the flower. This is how the male sex germ is transferred from flower to flower. If you know where to look, you can see these upside-down-Y pollinariums, and remove them with a pin.
Sometimes the pollinariums don't come off the flower easily, and an insect loses its leg. More than once I have found little legs caught in the pollinarium vices of obstinate milkweed flowers. This shows that even in that part of nature where humans have no influence, sometimes things go awry.
Another reason I like milkweeds is that Sigrid, my German friend with whom I hiked on the Appalachian Trail last fall, does her research in this family. With her I have traveled in a number of countries in South America, Central America and Africa, looking for milkweeds for her studies. I've seen a lot of the world I never would have if not for milkweeds, and for Sigrid and her research grants, which paid the bills!
I can't pass by any milkweed plant now without remembering a certain sunset across Lago Titicaca on the Bolivian altiplano, the hard climb up Picacho in Baja California, Mexico, and the sickness we experienced looking for them in backcountry Madagascar...
I did my usual count of migratory species this Friday, but I'm not including that information here because this week's list is pretty much like last week's.
However, I want to tell you how it feels to be a bird-counter. You may think that I count because I have a strong scientific bent or because I think the data collected is important. That's not so. One thing I have learned in my 54 years is that politics decides which ecosystems and life forms are to be destroyed or preserved, not empirically based insights. One good slogan like "No new taxes" ultimately affects the Earth's ecosystems much more than a thousand good pieces of information such as, say, "Animals need clean water in order to live in dignity." For me, the special thing about making this count has been what it does to my own brain.
When the season's first migrant appeared, I raised my binoculars and saw that the branch my lenses were focused on was a different one from the one I'd aimed at. The problem was that I'd grown out of practice pointing my binoculars exactly at the spot I wanted. It's like shooting from the hip. However, now at season's end I'm happy to say that when my binoculars go up, almost like magic the image of the bird simply materializes before me, and that expertise makes me feel good.
As the season has progressed I have also noticed how my eye has grown more sensitive to slight movements. I can stare into a tree and if just one leaf in it flutters, all my attention for a second is on that leaf. And my brain has learned to discriminate between movement of the kind a leaf in the wind makes, and the more deliberate shifting of a foraging bird. Surely this is a talent our hunting ancestors had even much more acutely. Surely they had skills that enabled them to track and locate game, which we shall never even be able to imagine. But, I do have this hint of how it must have been with them, and that also feels good.
Now at season's end my mind is like a well ordered filing cabinet where information on the field characteristics of birds is very well organized. In an instant the mind notes: tail-flipping flycatcher; white eye-ring; whitish throat gradually blending to dark chest; slightly greenish above... Acadian Flycatcher! It feels good having dominated the subject matter, and knowing that if I can just get a good view and maybe hear a scrap of song, I'll know instantly what species perches before me.
So, this season of counting migratory birds has reminded me that as we let our intellectual, spiritual and physical selves go to pot, the world around us grows stale and narrow. However, as long as we struggle to glimpse what seems to lie just beyond our easy vision, the world around us rewards us by revealing itself to be more worthy of knowing than we had imagined, and we are enriched and enlarged by that experience.