from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
July 7, 2002
From my trailer it's about two straight-line miles (3.2 kms) west to the loess-capped bluffs running through the back of the plantation. The dirt road going there is so eroded that a regular car can't make it, and a 4x4 would be challenged. At the base of the bluff you enter onto the Mississippi River's swampy floodplain, with the Mississippi itself coursing about 2.5 miles farther west. Part of a topography map showing the bluff and the flatlands can be seen at www.earthfoot.org/loess/curious.htm
About halfway down the bluff's face the roadbed passes from pure loess onto alternating horizons of sand, gravel and clay. Most of our loess was deposited by wind between 17,850 years and 22,000 ago, at the end of the last ice age. The sand, gravel and clay below the loess were deposited around 700,000 years ago. Earl Manning at Tulane says that "The reason that you can find agates in the gravel at Natchez, is that it's been washed south from the Lake Superior area (where the agates originally came from) by the Mississippi River." You can read more about this sand, gravel and clay at www.earthfoot.org/loess/citronel.htm
Earlier this week I was hiking at the bluff's base, crossing a little stream. Balls of clay about the size of baseballs had washed from the bluff and now lay here and there on the stream's sandy floor. I broke open some of the balls and as always was astonished at the clay's fine quality -- so smooth I couldn't feel any grit at all. It felt like warm, malleable cheddar cheese. Some of the balls were made of orange-yellow clay, others were gray or raspberry-pink, and some were marbled inside, very pretty to look at.
I carried a few balls back to my camp, where I kneaded the clay until it was as soft as chewed chewing gum. I formed a little cup, the base orange, the sides gray, the rim pink, and then I set the cup into the sun. By sundown already the cup was fairly brittle.
The next morning as I prepared breakfast over a campfire, the cup baked among the coals. When it cooled, I thumped it and it clinked just like a piece of china. I couldn't scratch it with a fingernail. Later in the day I filled the cup with water and drank from it. In short, with Laurel Hill clay I made a serviceable cup, and I am delighted with this fact.
PECANS UNDER ATTACK
Wednesday I checked to see how the pecans were developing and I was shocked. From nearly every cluster of nuts and from many terminal buds and new shoots dangled glistening, frothy masses of white foam. I confirmed that spittlebugs were responsible by blowing the foam away and finding aphid-size, white "nymphs" within. These nymphs, known as spittlebugs, were the immature stages of a kind of insect that in the adult stage is called a froghopper. As the nymphs sucked juice from the nut clusters they issued white foam all around them to dissuade birds and other critters from eating them.
The insect causing this infestation is the Pecan Spittlebug, CLASTOPTERA ACHATINA. On the Internet I learned that this species overwinters in the egg stage. The nymphs hatch in the spring, grow as they suck juices, and finally metamorphose into pale brown adults with a reddish tinge. The adults are called froghoppers because of their resemblance to frogs. The adult froghopper deposits its eggs in slits made in the bark of the previous season's growth.
A page showing spittlebugs on pecans can be viewed at entweb.clemson.edu/cuentres/cesheets/pecan/ce157.htm and a typical-looking adult froghopper is shown at www.cnr.berkeley.edu/xylella/cercop.html
One Web page said that if 5% of a tree's nut clusters were attacked, chemicals should be used. On our trees 95% or more of the clusters are infested, and many young shoots already are dead. Of course we won't use chemicals, for that would damage local ecology. Still, I dread to think what this infestation may mean to squirrels and other creatures for whom during part of the year pecans are the main diet.
Kathy Moody the plantation manager told me that the local folks say "If it rains in June, there won't be many pecans." Maybe our June rain encouraged the spittlebugs. I have watched the pecans mature through the summer each year I have been here but I've never seen them attacked by spittlebugs at all, much less in such incredible numbers.
Newsletter subscriber Larry Butts asks if I've seen any panthers around my camp. He wrote:
"I live about 25 miles NE of Vicksburg. A logger saw one in sight of my house last week and his son who I work with told me of it. I saw one 25 years ago. My wife saw one last year."
I sure would like to see a wild panther, but I never have, nor have I seen their paw prints during my hikes. Their prints would be impressive. Mature male panthers examined in the wild in Florida since 1978 have weighed between 1O2 and 154 pounds (46 to 69 kilos).
The names panther, cougar, puma and mountain lion all refer to the same species, FELIS CONCOLOR, but there are different varieties of this species. In Mississippi if any native panthers are spotted they would be Florida Panthers, FELIS CONCOLOR CORYI. You can read about Florida Panthers at the US Fish & Wildlife Endangered Species page for this animal at http://endangered.fws.gov/i/a/saa05.html There's a picture of a Florida Panther at www.foreverflorida.com/images/fl-panth.jpg
Larry further writes: "The Wildlife people that work for the state say there is no such animal in Mississippi because nobody has produced any proof of their existence. They are wrong."
ELDERBERRIES IN FLOWER
Each dawn as I jog down Lower Woodville Road I admire the Elderberry bushes, SAMBUCUS CANADENSIS, growing up in our neighbor's fence. I'm sure the neighbor would be embarrassed if he knew I was writing about his "weeds," but my admiration for these robust, ten-foot-high (3 meters), handsome, native plants should be shared. You can see exactly what my Elderberries look like at www.wssa.net/subpages/weed/bmp/164.JPG
Right now it's their big, white inflorescences of flowers that catch the eye. Whenever I see Elderberry flower clusters, two main memories surface. First, I recall how, back in the early 70s when I was working as a park naturalist in Kentucky's Appalachian region, a backwoods lady taught me the pleasures of each evening sipping with her a homebrew wine made of Elderberry flowers. Of course everyone knows you can brew a nice red or "port" wine from the berries, but I'd never even thought of using the flowers. Our Elderberry-flower wine was clear and sweet with a gentle perfume matching perfectly the spirit of the soft green slopes of the surrounding mountains.
The second memory is from my German days, how at a certain time of year travelling by train through the country you'd gaze from the window and see green landscapes where at every woods' edge several Elderberries displayed their big globes of white flower-clusters. To me this added a much appreciated cheerful note to the too-often drizzly, gloomy-looking land. It was like seeing unrestrained country smiles glowing through the murk. Despite my pleasant associations, during the Middle Ages legends in Europe held that Elderberries were homes to witches and that cutting down one would bring on the wrath of those residing in the branches.
Of course Europe's Elderberry is a different species, Sambucus nigra. It's much larger than ours, rising to over 30 feet (10 meters), otherwise it's similar.
If there's an Elderberry in your own neighborhood, as summer progresses you'll enjoy watching the flower clusters change to big, drooping, dark-purple clusters of fruits. Though the berries contain very high concentrations of vitamin C, I haven't made a habit of eating them. They are a bit bitter and seedy. However it's possible to make passable teas, jellies and the like from them. There's a whole page describing the medicinal uses of Elderberry at www.kcweb.com/herb/elderberry.htm
There's a simple recipe for Elderberry Jelly at www.virtualcities.com/ons/wv/z/wvz59012.htm
The only thing I can add to the recipe is that your fruit clusters surely will be populated by lots of small bugs and spiders. Just shake them out and use a bit of finesse in detaching the berries from their stems.
THOUGHTS ABOUT MAGIC
I gathered the clay and fired the cup spoken of earlier last Sunday. All week I've been thinking about the experience and now I have an insight to share.
The Natchez Indians living around the mound next to Second Creek one mile east of my camp, along present- day US 61, surely cherished the clay deposits I visited at the back of the plantation. Maybe those deposits explain why the Natchez placed their village where it was and not closer to the main Natchez settlement 10 miles north of here, or closer to the wildlife-rich Homochitto River a few miles to our south.
Some years ago I wrote about a Tzotzil-speaking village of Indians in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas. Nearly the entire village survived by producing unglazed pottery like my cup, though of course their work was much more artful. You can read about my experience with a native pottery maker in that village at www.earthfoot.org/mercados/origins3.html
One day the Indian lady pictured on the above page told me where she got her clay. She motioned toward the west and in broken Spanish said "It's about two hours of walking away. There are two or three men there who dig out the clay, and it's good, clean clay... " I remember vividly that she spoke these words about "good, clean clay" with a profound sense of pride and respect.
I'm currently reading an old ethnological classic, "Argonauts of the Western Pacific," by Bronislaw Malinowski, about a group of ocean-going people on small islands off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea back in the early 1900s. A central theme of the book is the overwhelming influence of magic in the natives' lives. Every outstanding feature of the landscape came about because of magic worked on it. This rock emerging from the ocean was an ancient hero turned to stone. This cliff was once the wall of an enchanted fortress. Magic made the gardens produce, and magic called forth wind and rain. Everything important in life was a manifestation of good or bad magic, magic handled adroitly, or magic bungled. The reason why good, clean clay was available at only one spot on one island in the region was explained in terms of magic worked by the two cultural heroes Torosipupu and Tolikilaki.
The "Argonauts'" conception of their landscape must have been similar to that of the ancestors of my Mexican Tzotzil-speakers, before the Europeans extinguished their native culture. And I suspect that the Natchez Indians before their culture was exterminated thought of this land the same way. In fact, from what I have read, whenever "primitive" people traveled across their native landscapes, it was a passage through a world buzzing with magic. Those worlds must have been so alive, so threatening and so full of unimaginable possibilities, that just being alive in that time and place was surely more exhilarating and exciting than we "moderns" can imagine.
Since magic was so important to ancient people and in our culture we recognize no magic, last Sunday I began wondering whether we of today have lost something.
I've decided that we have indeed lost something, but it's something we needed to lose. After all, the "Argonauts'" magic was based on pure fantasy, just like all formalized religions. I further decided that since the human species evolved during times when magic was an overwhelming influence in everyday life, probably even today we are genetically programmed to live in worlds where magic stirs our souls. Since we have lost our magic, maybe we need to replace it with something. Maybe this loss of the sense of the presence of the supernatural in our everyday lives explains why so many of us are disoriented, feel empty, or are just plain unhappy.
I believe that the thing with which we should replace our lost magic is the magic of real things -- things that, while real, are still too majestic and too mind-boggling for the human mind to grasp. I would say that the sky is magic, the forest, the behavior of subatomic particles, the drive behind evolution... There's plenty in this world that's as majestic and mind-boggling as, say, a ceremony to make rain, or a priest's forgiving of a perceived sin.
Last Sunday, as I was returning from the bluff with my clay, gradually it dawned on me that I had become a magician engaged in a magical ceremony. It wasn't the old kind of magic controlled by priests or sanctioned by sacred legends or holy books, but rather magic of a stronger kind. It was magic nascent in the Earth itself, magic free to anyone able to detect it and possess it. The flash of recognition informing me that my clay outcrop was special and offered certain potentials was the Earth itself saying that I had discovered one of its sacred places.
Later as I worked the clay, imparting to it form and function, and remembering what I knew of clay, how it looked under electron microscopy, how it behaved as a colloid in the soil solution, what minerals caused some of it to be gray, and some orange and some red, and just how long ago 700,000 years was, I was brewing magic. As my handsome, useful little cup came into being, crystallizing before me out of mere clay, my awe of the Creator and Her creation blossomed in a sacred manner.
And all week it has been thrilling to pass through this landscape where at any moment enchanted places might speak to me of magical possibilities.