from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
July 28, 2002
LOOKING AT THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER
A gear-changing cable on my bike broke so Wednesday I had to bike into town to buy a new one. Approximately once a month I go there at dawn on Sunday mornings when traffic is lightest, to buy supplies at the Piggly Wiggly, but this was my first weekday bike visit for about a year. While there I dropped by Bluff Park overlooking the Mississippi River and as always the river -- 0.7 mile from bank to bank at that point (1.1 km) -- made a grand impression.
It's hard to grasp just how large that river is. I stood there trying to conceive of the power of the forward motion in all that silvery-surfaced fluid. I remembered the first time I walked into the ocean how a wave had hit me at mid thigh knocking me backward, and when the water returned it had tugged me seaward and scared me with its strength. I remembered little mountain creeks flooding in Kentucky's Appalachia carrying refrigerators and whole buildings downstream, yet this Mississippi could accommodate thousands of such creeks.
I visualized the vast watershed served by this river. Here passing me were waters from Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Montana, Saskatchewan, Colorado and New Mexico. I thought of the history of all those places and of how the river had served the land and its people for so long. I recalled the Natchez Indians who once stood right where I was and I tried to imagine how they felt shoving their little canoes into the waters, hoping to reach the other bank. I thought of generations of flat-boaters drifting downstream toward new lives "out West," of steamboats loaded with cotton bales and I visualized the passing faces of slaves, landowners and scoundrels, and I thought of Civil War gunboats, and of all the grain and oil and sand and machinery that had moved past my point, mostly for decent purposes. Natchez Under-the-Hill lay just to my left and below, with that faded wall advertising smooth Kentucky bourbon in easy view, so I also remembered the violence, the energy, the good humor and the plain dumbness and general disreputability the waters had transported, too.
Some of that water flowing past me Wednesday must have dripped from meager seeps in the Dakota Badlands and some must have migrated through chains of ponds in upper Wisconsin's hemlock-white-pine forests. Some gushed down mountain streams beneath giant beech and sugar maples in the Smokey Mountains and some passed the Arch at St. Louis or coursed beneath the bridges at Louisville and Cincinnati on the Ohio. In my mind's eye I saw those waters moving silently through Nebraska's rolling prairie, saw it passing neat little Iowa farms and I knew a lot of it had tarried awhile in those big TVA reservoirs in northern Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. It had emerged from vibrant cypress swamps and a thousand disgraceful US Army Corps of Engineers channelized streams, out of sandstone coal country and limestone cave country, and it had passed noble loess bluffs and mansions of Nashville's rhinestone-cowboy millionaires and plenty of little shotgun shacks and hangdog trailers in Appalachia and the Ozarks.
A 12-ounce can of Coke can hold approximately 1,200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water. Imagine the number of molecules passing each second in the Mississippi, and think of where and what those molecules have been. Certainly there were billions and billions passing me right then from my home area in Kentucky, and probably even somewhere out there, there were molecules from the pee Sigrid and I left on the Smokey's northern slopes last summer on the Appalachian Trail, and maybe even one or two long-lost molecules at that very moment once had been part of my mother and father when they lived, and of myself when I was a child in Kentucky.
Thinking like this, the Mississippi became a kind of mother, a kind of brother, a living thing sending roots into me and what I was and will be, and into this generous land and all it has been, is and will be, same as all this land and myself contribute to it.
But then I remembered the vast Dead Zone growing right now at the mouth of the Mississippi, where life in a huge region of the Gulf of Mexico (7,200 sq. mi. or 18,000 km2) is extinguished because the river bears the burden of America's industrial and agricultural pollution.
You can read about the Dead Zone at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's "Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico" page at www.nos.noaa.gov/products/pubs_hypox.html
Leaving Bluff Park I shook my head, thinking of how, as always, a moment of exaltation had resolved itself into the usual ambiguity. Each silver lining has its cloud. Maybe it's a law of nature. Maybe it's one of those God jokes we turn up from time to time.
The river flowed southward toward New Orleans but during my brief visit flowing northward along its shore was a steady stream of Rough-winged Swallows, STELGIDOPTERYX RUFICOLLIS, gracing the air with their buoyant flight. As in counterpoint to the river's ponderous flow, the swallows were like bubbles caught in a playful wind. It was a juxtaposition that filled me with delight.
About 50 individuals, mostly young birds, constituted one flock, and other individuals and pairs flew before and came afterward in their own good time. It was only natural that this species be there. They are citizens of rocky gorges, shale banks, stony road cuts, railroad embankments, gravel pits, eroded margins of streams and other exposed banks of clay, sand or gravel, and what was the place I was standing on if not an exposed bank of clay, sand and gravel? They also nest in protruding drainpipes, crevices in bridges or tunnels, gutters and culverts -- and US 65's long bridge just south of where I stood surely presented its share of crevices.
It's written that this swallow descends to the ground only when it gathers nest materials. Flying insects, especially flies, winged ants or wasps, and beetles, are eaten while on the wing from dawn till dusk. Generally it feeds more over water and at lower altitude over ground than most other swallow species. You can watch this bird drinking by dipping its bill into water while flying. Few creatures are as wedded to the free sky as this little being, so it deserves our admiration if only for that.
In our area during the summer we have 4 swallow species. Barn Swallows are black above and orange below, with deeply cut tails. Cliff Swallows have squared tails and orange rumps. The much larger Purple Martins are kinds of swallows, but I assume everyone knows them, the blue-black males and the brown-gray females. Our Rough-winged swallows are different from all of these because they are the brown-gray color of the female Purple Martin, but much smaller than she is, and there's no orange to them. Their tails are forked, but not much.
During migration Tree Swallows and Bank Swallows also visit us. My ancient field guide shows that during the summer Cliff and Barn Swallows are not found this far south along the Mississippi. Apparently these species have expanded their distributions, as shown on the wonderful distribution maps for all our bird species available at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm96/map617/all.html
You can see a Rough-winged Swallow at www.birdphotography.com/species/photos/nrws-2.jpg
Leon Felkins up near Yokena sends me these lines:
"... the armadillo digs up whatever I plant... In fact, any time there is any disturbed soil, he seems to always dig in and see what it might be about... I'm amazed at the armadillo's ability to find turtle eggs. The levee on my lake has many dug holes with the egg shells laying at the side. Even way up in the woods, they find the eggs. Apparently the turtles still get by as my pond is full of them (sliders and a few snapping turtles)... Between the raccoons that eat my corn, the deer that eat my vines and beans, and the armadillo that has on occasion dug up a whole row of new beans and new peanuts, we are lucky to get anything for ourselves... Whereas I have been able to capture a raccoon or two in my corn patch, there seems to be no way to entice the armadillo into a have-a-heart trap."
I just had to laugh because I've been through the whole thing, including the have-a-heart trap. If you like your garden but don't have a touch of Zen outlook in your personality, armadillos can drive you bonkers.
Thing is, armadillos (officially known as the Nine-banded Armadillo, DASYPUS NOVEMCINCTUS) love to eat bugs and the grubs that bugs metamorphose from -- and these are just about everywhere in the ground. Armadillos can smell juicy grubs 6 inches underground (15 cm). As Leon points out, they are attracted to fresh dirt. When I plant a tree I know that if I don't put boards or bricks atop the fresh soil, the next day the tree may have been damaged by armadillo digging. Armadillos are closely related to anteaters so they do eat ants. Also snails, carrion (especially relishing the maggots), and small reptiles and amphibians -- including, as Leon points out, the eggs of these.
To me it almost seems that an armadillo's brain is just 10% for thinking but 90% for smelling. If you approach one from downwind you can often walk right up to him. He'll look at you with his squinty little eyes giving the impression that the image of you standing there just a yard away just isn't registering. However, if you come from upwind, long before you get near, he'll stick his nose high, turn, and waddle away as fast as an armadillo can go. Another indication that armadillos are not particular bright is that around here they comprise the main ingredient of roadkill.
Despite this, zoologists report their doing something I'd just love to see. With the bony shell covering them making them too heavy to float or swim in water, when they must cross a stream they simply walk across the stream's bottom beneath the water. However, if they have a larger body of water to cross, they'll swallow enough air to inflate their stomachs to twice their normal size, providing enough buoyancy to swim across. Afterwards it takes several hours for all the excess air to escape!
Armadillos dig impressive burrows about 8 inches across (20 cm) and up to 25 feet long (7.5 m). Here they especially like burrowing in our orchard and grape arbor and more than once I've fallen into their holes. These holes are especially bad for horses.
Each dusk nowadays, and for the last couple of months or so, a certain armadillo comes up the trail from my toilet and squeezes between two sheets of corrugated tin leaning against my trailer, making a loud scraping racket. You'd not think such a small critter could make such noise, or that a wild animal could stand to be so noisy, but this armadillo just doesn't care. He sniffs and digs a bit beneath the trailer (I hear him grunting and snuffling) then exits beneath my door and continues his nightly rounds. When he finally abandons this itinerary I'll be disappointed, for he's just the kind of guest I like. He comes when he's expected, fulfills his obligations, and then leaves until the next time.
You can see an armadillo and read a bit more about them at www.flex.net/~lonestar/armadillo.htm
This year in my own gardens my fences, buried 6 inches all around, are mostly holding so I've not had much armadillo trouble. However the gardens still look pretty ragged. One reason is because my garden space has been used continually for a long time, maybe for a century or much more, so disease organisms and insect populations have really built up.
Several tomato diseases are inevitable, so if you can get one good flush of tomatoes before the vines die, that's good. Cherry tomatoes seem a bit more resistant so this year I'm only growing them. This spring for the first time all my green bean plantings lost their leaves soon after emerging, then resprouted. I've never had problems with squash, but this year every summer-squash planting has succumbed to stem borers. In early spring all the broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale died from stem rot. Little white, grubby caterpillars ate all the collards. This year even all the irises died back. Because of the Pine Voles I don't even try to grow things with underground tubers and storage roots, like potatoes and carrots.
That leaves peppers of several kinds, winter squash, basil, Jerusalem artichokes, black-eyed peas, horseradish, cucumbers, a lot of dying cherry tomatoes, and some wiry green bean vines. The prettiest thing is probably the castor beans (mole plants) about 12 feet high (3.6 m) abundantly overgrown with red-flowered Hummingbird Vine (Cypress Vine).
Yet, I enjoy the insects and disease organisms perhaps even more than just eating what comes from the garden. I like trying to figure out how to deal with these problems without using chemicals, and when I fail, which is usual, it's fascinating seeing these organisms' life cycles. Several of the fungal diseases have made their way onto my fungus pages on the Web.
BAT & CHIMNEY-SWIFT TRAGEDIES
Not everything goes well all the time. All my water must either be carried in plastic Purex jugs via bicycle from across the bayou, or else it's rainwater collected in buckets at the downspout of my outside kitchen's roof. When the downspout isn't leading into one of my buckets, it pours into a big cement-walled cistern, probably from slave days. After a recent rain I placed a bucket next to the downspout and the cistern head, and in my forgetting to move the bucket after the rain a seed of a tragedy was planted.
For, that night two young Southeastern Myotis bats flew into the bucket and drowned. The bucket was only half filled. Since bats navigate with a kind of sonar the inexperienced young bats must have misinterpreted the echoes returning from my half filled bucket as coming from the old cistern head with its hole, where hundreds of bats live (that's why I don't use water from the cistern... ). I told about this population of over 700 in my Newsletter of July 22, 2001, archived at www.earthfoot.org/znatnat/010722.htm
The other tragedy took place at a nearly identical cistern across the bayou where the plantation manager and her two daughters-in-law live. Next to the historic old Carriage House occupied by one of the women a small flock of Chimney Swifts has occupied the cistern for many summers. One of the women's cats has, one or two per night, destroyed the whole colony. I find their gnawed-on bodies beside the cistern as I pick figs each moring. Starving baby swifts are falling from their nests into the water where they drown. You see them floating below, their featherless wings spread, their white bodies suspended in the black waters, just the opposite to their dreams of being black birds free in the shining sky.
These tragedies were caused by the usual reasons. One by neglect, the other by whatever it is in a human that lets housecats run free in nature.
You can read about, see and hear Chimney Swifts at birds.cornell.edu/BOW/CHISWI/ You can see the bat and its distribution map at www.batcon.org/discover/species/myaustr.html