from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
July 14, 2002
This week figs began ripening at full speed. There were a few last week, but this week each morning when I crossed the bayou the first hour or so was spent just picking figs.
It's not a bad way to start a day's work. I see a plump, purplish fig, place its stem between two of my fingers, give a tug of a certain strength, and if the fig is properly ripe it breaks off. That "tug of a certain strength" is something you have to learn; no book can teach it. I am always tickled to know something a book can't teach.
It's too hot to wear more than a pair of shorts and a sweatband so the trees' rough leaves scratch against my body and the brittle limbs poke at me. After a while I get good and sweaty and itchy, and my hands are all gummy from the figs' latex. This is "deep immersion" and in a strange way it feels good. When I'm inside the trees with morning sunlight slanting in from the east, I feel like a goldfish in a brightly lit little aquarium thick with seaweed. And the sweat and itching make the stretched-for fig a little sweeter.
In the woods I sat quietly next to a deer pond about the size of a house. It was a shallow pond with fallen limbs emerging all across it and its waters were murky brown in the center, turning rusty red at the edges. With all the frogs and dragonflies there was plenty to watch, but my attention was focused on some shallow depressions at the pond's edge. The pit rims were about six inches (15 cm) below the water's surface and the bottoms of the depressions were about twice as deep. The holes themselves were about 20 inches (50 cm) across and some 5 feet (1.5 meters) from one another. Each depression was clearly a nest, for it was being attended very conscientiously by an adult Bluegill fish, LEPOMIS MACROCHIRUS, about 6 inches (15 cm) long. You can see a Bluegill at www.wildlifedepartment.com/fish/bluegill.jpg
Male Bluegills excavate nests by undulating their rear ends from side to side while remaining in a vertical position. The males then wait in their nests making grunting sounds to attract females. Once a female enters a nest and after the pair swim in circles a while the female releases a few eggs and the male releases his milt. Then it's all done again. The female doesn't deposit all of her eggs during one visit, nor is only one nest used by a female. Once spawning is completed, the female leaves the nest and the male remains caring the eggs. What I was seeing in this pond was males tending their nests.
I think they must have been under a lot of stress that day. It was around 90° (32° C) and in that shallow water the oxygen level must have been low. In fact, the males would vigorously swim in circles for about 15 seconds, then come to the water's surface over their depressions' centers and seem to gasp for air for up to a minute before swimming in circles again. The circle-swimming was surely to aerate the eggs.
The pond also was thick with Mosquitofish and every few minutes a school of these would slowly approach a nest. As soon as the father Bluegill spotted them he'd chase them away. In the mid-day heat these Bluegill fathers seemed pretty fagged out, but they just kept at it.
At www.umich.edu/~bio440/fishcapsules96/Lepomis.html you may be interested in reading how certain mateless male Bluegills will dart into their neighbors' nests while their neighbor is mating, steal eggs as they are being produced by the visiting female, carry them to their own nests and fertilize them with their own milt. This information is given under the heading "Comments."
Two summers ago in midsummer I was visited by a Pickerel Frog, RANA PALUSTRIS, then he didn't show up last year, but now on Wednesday morning there he is again. Of course it may be a different frog. I'm just glad to see him. He spends the day beneath my trailer clinging to a cinderblock, then ranges around at night. You can see a Pickerel Frog with its rectangular spots in 2 parallel rows down its back at www.leaps.ms/pickerelpage.jpg
The neat thing about Pickerel Frogs is that most of the year, like normal frogs, they stick around places with standing water, but then in summer they begin wandering. They range far across grassy fields and weedy areas where you wouldn't expect a decent frog to go. Since there's no standing water near my trailer, this one is wandering.
The books say this species can "call in a rolling snore while under water." Also, its skin produces an irritating secretion that not only makes it unappetizing to many predators but, also, if you put a Pickerel Frog in a terrarium, the secretion may kill the other frogs.
So here we have Bluegills in which males are programmed to obsess about raising the young, and a frog which has a profound compulsion to make summer roamings. I think my genotype more closely matches the frog's.
JAPANESE BEETLE QUESTION
My cousin Miles in western Kentucky writes:
"You ask me if we had any beetles this year. Yes we have all you want. We are cutting the roses so they won't bloom. You can't see the blooms for the beetles. When you drive down the levee to Calhoun they sound like someone is throwing rocks at your car. They eat everything they like. They just make a mess and I don't see any good from them."
On the Web you can see a map of the current distribution of Japanese Beetles at www.ceris.purdue.edu/napis/pests/jb/imap/jb2001.html The map I found for you this time last year didn't show any infestation in Mississippi but, sadly, this year's map indicates that they have made strong inroads into northern and eastern Mississippi. This time next year they could well be munching on our Crepe Myrtles. I have seen Crepe Myrtles listed among the Japanese Beetle's "preferred foods."
Japanese Beetles with their damage are shown at http://ipm.missouri.edu/images/Japanese%20beetle.jpg
You can distinguish Japanese Beetles from similar blackish green ones because their wing coverings have a conspicuous golden sheen to them.
Larry Butts up near Vicksburg writes about what he saw this week on a backcountry road near his home:
"I saw 3 different hen turkeys with their broods. The little turkeys were in different stages of development with some being the size of quail and some being half as big as their mother. What a sight! The ability to hide is already ingrained in these young turkeys. They did not tarry very long in the road. Also the deer are beginning to bring their young out. The deer have a reddish coat at this time but will be gray in the winter."
Wednesday I found on a Hophornbeam tree next to my trailer one of the most beautiful of all beetles. It's the Elm Calligraph, CALLIGRAPHA SCALARIS. Naturally I scanned it and you can see it on my "Insect Profiles" page, the third picture from the top, located at www.backyardnature.net/ins_prof.htm In real life it's actually prettier than the picture, since its golden middle stripe shimmers in sunlight, instead of showing up black as in the picture.
Nowadays if you walk down any forest trail you're bound to run into spider webs slung across the path, with a spider suspended in the web's center. If the spider is black and white, and its rear end is held skyward so that its head is below, and is large and covered with low, thick-bottomed spines, it's the Micrathena spider, genus MICRATHENA. Several Micrathena species are common in North America forests and gardens, though they're mostly a tropical genus. I think the most common one I'm seeing here nowadays is the Spined Micrathena, MICRATHENA GRACILIS, shown at http://troyb.com/photo/images/photos/091-36-Micrathena.jpg
CAROLINA BUCKTHORN FRUITING
One of the prettiest and one of the least known trees in our forests is the Carolina Buckthorn, RHAMNUS CAROLINIANA. Right now they grace many woods edges with their shiney, dark-green leaves, and small clusters of pea-sized, red fruits. They look Christmasy, like holly. You can see a branch of one with red fruits at wildflower.avatartech.com/Plants_Online/Grow_Native/plantimages/3612_22.JPG
The fruits will turn black when they mature.
PANOLINS MOCK OWLS
On Monday Master came to do some yard work for the plantation. He lives in Sibley about 4 miles south of here. Sibley is a mostly black community and Master, whom I regard as my best Mississippi friend, is black himself.
I told Master about the panther sighting commented on here last week. He said that that wasn't any big news to him, for he sees them all the time.
He went on to say that "panolins mock owls." "Panolin" is the word he says his folks use for "panther." I asked how panolins mock owls and he explained that when an owl hoots, then a "panolin" comes to where the owl is and tries to make similar owl sounds, though he isn't sure why. Master had another story about once hearing an owl, then going to see the panther come, and it came, making sounds "just like a bawling baby."
I'll bet that the "panolins mock owls" concept has deep, deep African roots. Can "panolin" be a word brought by the slaves from Africa? The closest I can come to it is "pangolin," which is a kind of Asiatic and African scaly anteater. However, that word is of Malay origin, not African. If anyone out there can help me figure out where "panolin" comes from I'd like to hear from them.
In a similar vein, the other day when I met Master in the orchard and he wanted to know the name of a certain tree he asked me "What that is?" Now, Master is a smart fellow who's lived in Chicago most of his life and he's nobody's fool so I figured that his putting-the-verb-at-the-end-of-the-sentence may be a grammatical survival from his people's original African language. On the Internet I checked out Swahili sentence structure and from what I could see, sure enough, there seems to be some tendency in that language for verbs to wander to sentence endings, though that doesn't really prove anything.
Similarly, that day Master and I dug Jack's grave, he asked me if I believed in "hoodoo." I figured out that he was talking about the regular chicken-sacrificing, hex-putting "voodoo" we hear about in Haiti, which has African origins. He said that some of the older folks around Sibley still believe in it and practice it, but he wouldn't say much more. He seemed relieved that I wasn't a believer.
Anyway, why shouldn't such grammatical questions be part of a naturalist's interests? For me one of the most transfixing features of nature is beholding how all the parts connect and evolve together to ever higher levels. Languages connect and evolve in the same way. Both languages and living things, as well as all complex systems I've identified, appear to behave like the basic paradigm, which is the Universe at large.
The bird and the verb are kinds of brothers.