from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
July 21, 2002
Before ending this Wednesday, for several weeks storms had been popping up around us each afternoon. Usually they brought a lot of thunder and lightening, sometimes a bit of wind, and occasionally a shower not amounting to much. Though the showers hardly make a dent in our long-running water deficit, they put the drought on hold a while.
Thanks to these rains the landscape is about as green as it can get. Another reason is because it's too late to see sprinklings of color of spring-blooming wildflowers, but too early for fall bloomers. People in towns may not notice just how flowerless the forests and fields are, for in gardens several horticultural species are putting on shows. Crape Myrtles look like big piles of incandescent strawberry sherbet. Marigolds, zinnias, cone flowers, butterfly bushes, amaryllises, lilies, cannas and the rest are likewise spectacular.
But the forest and fields are locked into their greenness, and it is a greenness I have been looking at closely. For, it's almost too dark a green, a kind of green tinged with blackness, like that of a tomato plant so overfertilized that it produces abundant herbage but no flowers and no tomatoes. And then I heard on Public Radio about the enormous amount of nitrogen that runs off farmers' crops and pastures. This nitrogen is carried by rivers to the oceans, then when the oceans' nitrogen-rich evaporation condenses to rain, the rain "fertilizes" the entire Earth.
Every gardener knows that plants grown with too much nitrogen grow large and green, but they are especially vulnerable to cold and diseases. No one is sure yet that this is happening on a level disastrous for the Earth ecosystem. However, even if it is, farmers won't stop using it. I have heard that 3.5 billion people are alive right now because of the use of nitrogen on food-producing crops.
I walk the fields trying to recall the exact shade of greenness of the forests of my childhood, but I know that such long-dormant memories can trick you when they emerge.
On Tuesday afternoon while I worked at the computer I heard a big wind coming through the forest in advance of a storm. Here you can hear those winds long before they hit, sounding like a big waterfall. Quickly I turned off the computer to avoid voltage spikes from falling tree limbs hitting the wires, and stepped outside to enjoy the spectacle.
A Mississippi Kite, ICTINIA MISISIPPIENSIS, hovered directly above me facing into the wind and when the gusts began knocking him about and bending the biggest trees, he just drew in his wings, screamed louder, and I am sure that he was doing exactly as I was, just enjoying the storm. I must tell you my kite story.
Early this spring a pair of Mississippi Kites arrived from their wintering grounds in South America (as far south at Paraguay) and for several days hung around a big pecan tree just one tree away from my trailer. Then one bird disappeared from view, but ever since the remaining bird has come and gone on a daily basis, and during most of most days he or she can be spotted sailing in tight circles on thermals above our fields. My impression is that the pair nested in the big pecan, have produced at least one offspring that has been fledged, and somehow they have managed to pull the whole thing off without my being able to watch the details.
Kites are hawk-like birds. All birds are divided into about 36 bird "orders." There's the "duck order," the "penguin order," and the "hawk-and-falcon order," for instance, with kites being members of the latter. That order is divided into 3 families. One family is the falcons, another the ospreys, and the third, the really big one, holds the hawks, eagles and kites.
Kites are especially graceful on the wing. They hover while hunting and when prey is spotted instead of diving headfirst they descend feetfirst, seize their victim, then swoop skyward again. During a visit to Natchez last summer I saw about 8 Mississippi Kites sailing over the Mississippi River right in front of town. Kites in general seem rather social and unafraid of humans. In Europe two kite species are common fixtures above many fields. In downtown New Delhi, India, many hours I have watched kites sailing among tall buildings, their elegant flight contrasting poignantly with the state of affairs at street level.
Mississippi Kites are fairly small, only 12.5 inches long (32 cm), as opposed to, say, Turkey Vultures, which are exactly twice as long. Therefore kite food is small, mainly grasshoppers and dragonflies, plus a few mice, toads and small snakes. You can read more about this species at www.ronausting.com/mississi.htm
During recent months many times I've glimpsed a kite darting into the pecan tree's upper branches, yet always by the time I could change position in order to see where it went -- just seconds -- already it would be disappeared. With binoculars I have scanned the pecan tree again and again looking for the nest or its entrance but I have seen nothing. I am embarrassed and impressed that this pair has for an entire nesting season eluded me.
One dusk right as a violent storm was beginning to let up, while it still rained, the wind was gusty and lightening was striking nearby, I heard one of the kites calling with a very urgent tone in its voice. Then there was a different call, obviously also a kite, but higher pitched and sounding nervous. I rushed outside only to see the silhouettes of two kites merging with the forest's shadows. I think that this was the moment of nest-leaving for the young, and I am amazed that such an unlikely moment was chosen. Yet, if you're a kite wanting to hide your kid's nest-leaving, what better time?
What a secretive bird this kite is! How I admire its sharpness and wisdom!
You can see a Mississippi Kite looking exactly as it does above our fields at www.gos.org/gabo-miki.jpg. If your computer can digest .VCD audio files, you can hear a Mississippi Kite's high-pitched scream at www.virtualbirder.com/vbirder/edcentral/birdsong/vcd/SE1/58.vcd
WEAK BLEAT OF A SHEEP
Last weekend wildlife photographer Jerry Litton of Jackson visited Laurel Hill. One evening we were sitting outside after a shower had just passed, listening to frogs. Suddenly a new one began calling, one I've often heard but did not know the name of, so I asked Jerry if he knew. He identified it was a Narrow-mouthed Frog. When I said that I'd been trying for years to chase down the call so I could figure out who was making it, Jerry broke into one of the most hearty laughs I've heard in a long time.
"You can forget about that!" he roared. Then he explained this is one frog you hardly ever see, how it is famous for calling from hidden places and quickly digging itself into the ground if approached. I was glad to learn this, for I was starting to be sensitive about not knowing who was making this frequently heard call right outside my trailer's sleeping window.
On my trailer wall I keep a sheet of paper on which I've printed out word descriptions of all the calls of all the frogs and toads that my field guides say could occur in this area. Nineteen species are listed. On this sheet the call of the Narrow-mouthed Frog (sometimes called Narrow-mouthed Toad) is described as "weak bleat of a sheep," and that's exactly what we heard that night. However, the call of the very common Woodhouse's Toad is "bleat of a sheep with a cold," and when you think too much about some of the other descriptions they come pretty close to this, too; thus my confusion.
Narrow-mouthed Frogs, GASTROPHRYNE CAROLINENSIS, are strange looking creatures, mainly because of their narrow mouths -- giving them a egg-shaped body and a pointed snout. Jerry says that ours are reddish. One of his friends found one in a water-meter box. This frog gets only about 1.5 inch long (3.8 cm). The books say that they eat a variety of insects but that their passion is ants. I wonder how they handle fire ants?
You can see a nice picture of a Narrow-mouthed Frog at www.leaps.ms/narrowmouthpage.jpg
Here is that list of frog calls on my wall. The ones with a "?" denote species for which Natchez is located on the extreme edge of their distribution, so I'm not sure they reach here.
For several weeks a few Annual Cicadas have been droning high in the trees around camp, but only this week have they become really noticeable. Annual Cicadas emerge each summer and are different from the Periodical Cicadas that put on such a show here in the spring of 2001. I told about them in the June 10, 2001 Newsletter, which is archived at www.earthfoot.org/znatnat/010610.htm
Those Periodical Cicadas, emerging on a 13-year cycle, sounded very different from the annual ones I'm hearing now. The periodical call was somewhat soft, echoic, almost spooky when all the calls were heard together. It was only their incredible numbers that made their calling so loud. In contrast, there's nothing at all soft and echoic about the calls I'm hearing now. The very harsh buzz-saw call of a single Periodical Cicada can be heard from half a mile away across a flat field. It's very similar in quality to the nights' katydid call, except louder, and it is continuous instead of consisting of two short calls per phrase.
Calls of the Annual Cicada always fill me with a special nostalgia. The sound evokes memories of heat-choked summer days in Kentucky during my childhood, and the feeling I had then of being surrounded by wide fields of soybeans and tobacco framed all around by dark green swamp forests on the horizon. The heat, the sunlight, the dazed feeling, the rustling of cottonwood leaves and the lonely sound of cicadas calling... But it was more than that. It was while taking long walks in that environment that I began sensing and longing for the undefined, unimaginably magnificent and profound SOMETHING that surely lay just beyond my little world -- or maybe in that world itself -- if I could just figure out how to find it. The cicada calls became a kind of Ommmmmmmmmmmmmm for me, the sound of transcendent mediation, and of infinite possibilities.
This week the cicadas reminded me of this quotation from St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380):
"All the way to Heaven is Heaven."
I wonder if anyone else out there has a touch of cicada nostalgia these days, and is in any way touched by St. Catherine's insight?
You can see an adult annual cicada and its discarded pupal husk at www.ppdl.purdue.edu/ppdl/weeklypics/Weekly_Picture8-28-00.html
THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
This week's cicada nostalgia also reminded me of how I discovered some of the heretical thought patterns and belief systems that now make me who I am. Many of those ideas were accidentally smuggled to me in the form of discarded paperbacks of the world's classic literature. These were brought to me by my mother when each day she returned from working long hours in the book-selling drugstore of the next town. Usually the paperbacks had their covers ripped off because when a book was damaged the clerk could do with it what she wanted and no one was charged...
Somewhere among those classics I was introduced to the Four Noble Truths discovered by the Buddha around 500 BC. They are:
At times in my life I have practiced several kinds of yoga and meditation, same as I have studied all the major religions. Today I still practice certain yoga and meditation techniques, but I've laid aside all the religions, and even the Four Noble Truths have come to seem flawed. I can no more identify with "Man's existence is inseparable from sorrow" than with "Man is born in sin." Also, I suspect any creed based on "right" anything. However, for me, "peace is attained by extinguishing craving" comes close to hitting the mark.
This week the forest has been profoundly deep and dark, and with that worrisome blackish tinge like a minor chord being struck during a vigorous melody in C, I have walked the fields sometimes with a brooding mind. However, it has been a great pleasure deciding to rededicate myself to certain aspects of the Four Noble Truths.
This week, memories and meditations have been like bright wildflowers blossoming out of season, just when they were needed.