from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
August 25, 2002
ON THE PLEASURES OF PAYING ATTENTION
These days are like the minimalist, modern music of Philip Glass. At first that music seems monotonously repetitive. But if you stick with it you begin noticing that the piece is forever changing. The same melody may be repeated again and again, but now it's in a different key, now it's accompanied by counterpoint, etc. Once you get the hang of it, Glass's music can be a pleasure, even a great one.
In the same way, these days seem all alike, yet every day there are delightful changes if you pay attention.
The process of learning to pay attention is itself a pleasure. Years ago when I began studying yoga and for the first time in my life focused on the joy of breathing, of stretching and relaxing muscles one by one, of merging with my own heartbeat -- it was like being born again. A similar awakening took place in college when I discovered a book on Japanese flower arranging. Day after day I would look at a certain few arrangements, constantly discovering new patterns, new color combinations, new tensions in the interplay of symmetry and asymmetry...
You can train yourself to pay attention. This Tuesday morning, for instance, I consciously made the effort to absorb what I could of the essence of a certain mushroom. For a good while I hunkered next to the mushroom smelling it, admiring its rich colors and unusual shagginess. I visualized its network of hidden hyphae gradually migrating throughout the leaf litter below us, then one recent day budding and sending up this mushroom. I visualized spores dropping from beneath its dusky cap at that very moment, riding air currents I couldn't feel, heading for unknown forests perhaps far away. I spoke to the mushroom, called it by its name, and this worked certain connections in my own head.
Yesterday I spent a good amount of time standing beneath an umbrella-size, star-shaped leaf of a 15-foot high (4.5 m) Castor Bean (known locally as Mole Plant), admiring how the sun caused the plant's leaf tissue to glow a certain bright yellow-green the mere seeing of which evoked the sparkling hum of sunlight during photosynthesis, of leaf cells dividing, and of sweet sap surging through the leaves' phloem. I imagined myself inside the leaf, sunlight- glowing and sweet-wet myself. Like the plant I felt myself sky-reaching, issuing strange flowers with primitive-looking bunches of stamens on repeatedly branching filaments, and with those crazy-looking, purple-feathery styles.
Whenever something touches you the way my mushroom and Castor Bean plants did me, it's an invitation by that thing to commune. Maybe there's no more beautiful thing a person can do than to consciously and whole- heartedly experience the Creator's works, to rejoice in the mere act of doing so, and to be grateful for having had the opportunity.
Last week I mentioned how the tadpoles in my dishpan like cornbread, and how my cornmeal was running low. The food problem has been solved by discovering that tadpoles relish overripe cucumbers and squash -- something of which there's plenty here.
The tadpoles swarm over slices of cucumber and squash wiggling their little tails furiously like so many contented piglets. Well, maybe it's not contentment, but rather the need to keep their bodies positioned so that their under-the-head mouths keep in contact with what's being eaten. I like to think of it as contentment, though.
If a thin slice of cucumber is placed into the water it will be attacked not only by tadpoles but also by those aquatic larvae of mosquitoes known as wiggletails. Just like tadpoles, the wiggletails work their rear ends vigorously as their mouthparts are pushed along the cucumber slice's surface.
At this time of year grasses begin coming into their own. Until now most species have presented nothing but look-alike grassblades, but now flowering clusters, or inflorescences, are emerging from among the blades, and anyone can see the fascinating differences between the flower types. What at first seemed like fields and roadsides of monotone grass now reveal themselves as museums of interesting, sometimes rather rare grass species as delightful to know as wildflowers.
One abundant grass in the blackberry field through which I bike each morning is known as Smutgrass, SPOROBOLUS INDICUS. You can see a cluster of these plants exactly as they appear in the field at www.ag.auburn.edu/ay/weedsci/weedid/smut1.jpg
Though it's a "weed grass," one originally from tropical Asia and now established throughout tropical America, north to Virginia and Kentucky, it's amazing, and I look forward to seeing it appear each year. Its name suggests the reason for its novelty: Its narrow, spike-like inflorescences are nearly always parasitized by a black, dusty smut fungus. The smut makes the inflorescences look black, while in fact they are straw colored.
Each year the grasses have this smut, and this must have been the case since at least back in name-giving days. I have tried to find references to some advantage the grass may derive from hosting this smut but I've found nothing.
This is just one of those little mysteries of nature we run across so often that leave us scratching our heads, wondering what's going on. I have placed a close-up picture of smutty Smutgrass flowers at www.backyardnature.net/fungclub.htm#smut
OLD MAN OF THE WOODS
This is the handsome mushroom I mentioned above. So far I've found only one "Old Man" and he grows right beside the Crane-fly Orchid I told you about in the August 11 Newsletter. I've found neither the orchid nor this mushroom anywhere elsewhere in the forest so each time I pass this spot I wonder what enchantment causes such illustrious little beings to settle in such a random-looking spot.
Old Man of the Woods is STROBILOMYCES FLOCCOPUS. Books suggest that its English name may reflect the fact that the mushroom persists a good while, instead of quickly melting back into the leaf litter once its spores are released, as with most mushrooms. They say that sometimes this species hangs around for so long that it acquires a green tint of algae. However, my Old Man has already deliquesced into black mush.
This is a fair-size mushroom, about 5.5 inches tall (14 cm) and the two things making it so handsome are, first, its striking, blackish-brown color, and, second, its shagginess. Both its cap and its stalk are adorned with long, dark scales.
Instead of releasing its spores from gills, spores fall from pores on its cap's underside. The flesh beneath the mushroom's dark scales is actually white. However, if injured, this white flesh quickly bruises red and then black. Since the species has pores and not gills, it is closely related to the large group of edible mushrooms known as Boletes. The Old Man can also be eaten, but its taste is so insipid that I'd rather just let him be.
You can see a picture of this species at www.pilzgalerie.de/Strobilomyces_strobilaceus.jpg On that page they refer to the Old Man as Strobilomyces strobilaceus. That's another name for our S. floccopus.
IMMATURE OAK APPLE GALLS
On the forest floor nowadays you often discover one to several red-and-white-marbled balls about the size of large table-grapes. These are immature Oak Apple Galls. I'm not sure why they are on the ground right now, for the idea is for them to remain on oak trees and develop into woody galls about the size of small apples. Maybe squirrels are tearing them off their twigs, discovering that they are hard galls and not fruits, and letting them fall. You can see Oak Apple Galls at this early stage of development at http://woodypest.ifas.ufl.edu/images/oakapple.gif
If you cut across one of these galls, you'll find in a tiny cavity in the sphere's very center a little white grub whose destiny was, before the gall was detached from its oak, to eat the gall's succulent flesh as it grew. The grub is the immature stage of a Gall Wasp (Family Cynipidae). Over 700 species of gall-forming insects are listed from the United States and Canada, and nearly 80% of those are reported to form galls on oaks. The life cycle of the wasp causing Oak Apple Galls isn't perfectly known, but here's a typical cycle for wasps in the Gall Wasp Family:
In spring and early summer, tiny wasps (all females) emerge from the fully developed galls on twigs or branches. These females then deposit eggs in the larger veins on the underside of oak leaves. These eggs soon hatch and the larvae (tiny grubs) cause small, oblong, blister-like galls, which the grubs eat as they grow. By midsummer the larvae have matured and pupated. From these pupae, male and female adult wasps emerge, then mate and deposit eggs in young oak twigs. The galls from this generation of wasps will not appear until the next spring or early summer. It may take from one to three years for the larvae living in certain galls to mature.
Our afternoon storms continue and sometimes when the air above us is most unstable, around 4 PM, lightening bolts can appear to strike out of the blue. This week such a bolt, completely unannounced by the usual pre-storm rumbling, zapped my modem, so the next day I had to bike into town for a new one.
On Lower Woodville Road leading into town, for some time a woman has operated a tiny hair-shop, specializing in the fancy and highly imaginative hairdos favored by our local Black ladies. A new sign has appeared next to her shop in large print reading "Jesus is... / Beautiful hair and beautiful hats/ for beautiful people."
Last week I touched on Einstein's concept of how man's religious urge evolves. With all the denominations and sects calling themselves Christian, it's clear that Christianity is a lusty evolver itself. Maybe this sign on Lower Woodville suggests the appearance of a new twig on religion's evolutionary tree.
It's fun to imagine how this particular twig will develop.