from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
September 1, 2002
MUSCADINES & PAWPAWS
Suddenly the air has dried a bit. The eternal heavy humidity has let up and sleeping beneath the mosquito net in the woods is even more pleasant as, at least toward dawn, it grows coolish.
The early-fall feeling diffuses through the daytime woods, too. You can't walk far without turning up a few dark purple, luscious muscadine grapes lying on the ground, or some musky, yellowish-green pawpaws. This year our muscadines are as abundant as ever, but the crop of pawpaws is only normal, not the bounteous amount of the last couple of summers.
We have several species of wild grape in the forest here. Muscadine Grape, VITIS ROTUNDIFOLIA, is easy to distinguish with its small leaves only about 3 inches across (7 cm), and its large, thick-skinned, purple grapes. The leaves are glossy on both sides and crisp like the paper of a high-quality ad in a glossy magazine. The muscadines' thick, high-climbing stems sprout long-dangling, reddish aerial roots. If you're still unsure whether you have a muscadine, then here's one final secret:
Break a small stem off the big grapevine and with your knife cut down the middle of the stem lengthwise. Inside the stem you'll see that the wood is white but there's a brownish pith. Well, in species other than the Muscadine, at those "nodes" in the stem where buds and leaves arise, the pith is interrupted with a kind of diaphragm. In the Muscadine, the pith continues right through the node.
Sometimes the muscadines are so acid and sharp that as you saunter through the woods nibbling you want to swallow them whole, seeds and all. But then comes a pawpaw tasting just the opposite, darkly musky and sweet. One moment in a beam of dazzling sunlight, the next in a moody shadow, now a grape, now a pawpaw...
You can see muscadine leaves at www.virtualherbarium.org/lf/vitis.jpg and some Laurel Hill pawpaws at www.earthfoot.org/loess/pawpaws.jpg
GOLDEN SILK SPIDER
In this year's July 14th Newsletter I told you how frequently I walk into webs of Micrathena spiders. Since then they have only increased in numbers, plus this week while looking for pawpaws I've encountered about ten webs of one of the most striking spiders we have here.
It's the Golden Silk Spider, NEPHILA CLAVIPES, a species native throughout the American tropics and subtropics from Argentina and Peru north to the southeastern US. From the tip of its hind legs to the tip of its front legs it's about 3.75 inches long (9.5 cm). Besides its large size, the two striking things about its appearance are its yellowish, prettily patterned rear end (its abdomen), and the conspicuous tufts of long, black hairs at the "elbows" on its eight legs. You can see all this at livingthings.narod.ru/Clt/Ani/Art/Ara/Arn/arn035.jpg
Its web is even more striking than its body. First, the web part composed of spiraling silk is over a yard wide (1 meter), and its silk is yellow or golden. I found one web strung between branches 15 feet (4.5 meters) apart. Larger webs often have webby constructions on both sides of the main web, creating a real obstacle course for flying creatures. One funny thing about the main web is that instead of its being like a round plate held vertically (an orb web), it's like 2/3 of a plate held vertically, with the upper third broken away. In most orb webs you have to admire how neatly the spirals of sticky silk are laid down upon the radiating threads, but this spider's spirals look sloppy, and you wonder why.
This spider's silk is especially strong. One Internet page says of its dragline silk that it "surpasses the strength of 'Kevlar,' which is a fiber used in bullet-proof vests. The dragline thread is biodegradable, stronger than steel, and economically valuable."
The male of this species is 1/5th to 1/6th that of the female's size, and often it occupies a position in the web about 2 inches (5 cm) above the female. After mating, the female does not typically eat the male, but she may abandon her mate and web, and go build another web, and take a different mate. In the ten webs examined this week, I found males in only two.
In last year's August 19 Newsletter I told you about tiny Dewdrop Spiders, which are kleptoparasites in the much larger Garden Spider's webs. In other words, Dewdrop Spiders scavenge insects caught on the sticky silk too small for the Garden Spider to bother with. It occurred to me that Dewdrops might accomplish the same thing in the giant webs of Golden Silk Spiders. I looked for them and sure enough I found them in a couple of webs.
TRUMPET CREEPERS WITH SENSITIVE STIGMAS
For several weeks the Trumpet Creepers, CAMPSIS RADICANS, have been blossoming. These are scrambling vines often found growing up through fences and appearing at woods' edges. With their 2.8-inch long, red flowers (7 cm) and dark green, compound leaves, they are hard to miss. This native American plant is so pretty that in Europe it's often a prized garden plant. You can see a picture of one at www.missouriplants.com/Redopp/Campsis_radicans_peg.jpg
If you run across a flowering Trumpet Creeper you might get a kick from locating a blossom's stigma, touching it, and watching what happens. For a diagram showing how a flower's stigma relates to its other parts you can visit my flower-anatomy page at www.backyardnature.net/fl_stand.htm Stigmas are the female part that receive pollen from the male stamens. In Trumpet Creeper flowers the stigma is like two flat hands opening atop a long slender pole, which is the style. Inside the flower you'll also see four stamens, which make up the flower's pollen-producing male parts.
If you touch a Trumpet Creeper's stigma that hasn't been touched recently, during a minute or less it will gradually close up. The "open hands" atop the pole will come together. And the neat thing is that no one is sure why this amazing thing happens. Studies in which "touch-sensitive stigmas" have been glued so that they couldn't close have shown that losing this ability does not affect fruit and seed production. This is just another of those mysteries that hasn't been explained yet.
Trumpet Creepers are important sources of nectar for hummingbirds. At the "Operation Ruby Throat" site there's a page on hummingbird ecological relationships, at www.rubythroat.org/RTHUEcologyMain.html There it is said that "...if there suddenly were no hummingbirds, Trumpet Creeper would likely survive because it has other pollinators such as bumblebees. But, if all the Trumpet Creepers were to disappear, it would probably have negative impact [on the hummingbird], since it is a major nectar source..."
In the woods now a fairly common but unusual little fern is appearing. With its single frond rising only about 6 inches high (15 cm) and looking a little like a sprig of parsley, it's the Oblique Grape-fern, BOTRYCHIUM DISSECTURM var. OBLIQUUM
One thing making this fern unusual is its manner of producing spores. Most ferns bear their spore-producing spots -- their "fruit dots" or "sori" -- on their fronds' undersides. Grape-ferns, in contrast, produce special structures apart from their fronds, and right now those structures, like tiny, green ostrich feathers adorned with miniscule green grapes, are rising above the fronds. You can see a herbarium specimen of such a Grape-fern at www.portableherbarium.com/Botrychium-dissectum.jpg
The herbarium specimen at that address labels its plant the "Cut-leaved Grape-Fern," not "Oblique Grape-fern." That's because this species is represented by at least two varieties, and the specimen shown is the northern variety, the cut-leaved one. Our "oblique" variety looks very similar, however.
Not only does this species break into intergrading varieties, but also it intergrades with another distinct species, the Southern Grape-fern. Therefore, the whole concept of our Grape-fern species is much in debate among the specialists, and a matter of confusion. John Thieret writes in his "Louisiana Ferns and Fern Allies" book, "...the identification of some individual specimens puzzles even the experts." I'm always glad to see experts admitting such a thing because it reminds me to keep in mind this fact:
Nature makes absolutely no effort to fit her creations into the thought-pigeonholes we humans have invented. Nature evolves and expresses Herself with much more spontaneity, artistry and vigor than the human mind can grasp.
TADPOLES OVER THE EDGE
During a late-afternoon rain on July 31, frogs left eggs in the dishpan in which I wash next to my trailer door, and each week since then I've reported on the developing tadpoles.
About an hour after I issued last Sunday's Newsletter a storm came up and simplified the dishpan's overpopulation problem. The dishpan lies beneath an awning from which water dribbles into it. During last Sunday's rain the dishpan overflowed. I stood there in the downpour watching tadpoles flow over the edge to certain death on the ground below. I let this happen because of my realization that there were just too many tadpoles there. Even if all the tadpoles somehow made it to adult frogdom, the local ecology could never support so many frogs. I watched as about half my tadpoles went over the edge.
Standing in the rain with all my conflicting feelings, this question occurred to me: Am I not to my tadpoles in their dishpan approximately what the Creator is to us humans on Planet Earth?
Having that insight so vividly placed before me, and remembering some times in my own past when I could have used a bit of divine intervention, I thought: "Obviously the Creator has made us tadpoles and humans this way, but why wouldn't it have been just as easy to formulate us so that neither tadpoles nor humans are predisposed to commit the excesses and errors that get us into these awful situations? Why build a frog whose vast majority of offspring must die before reaching adulthood, and why build humans programmed for the arrogance and aggression that's screwing up our world right now?"
I cannot recall the path my mind took from the moment of that thought, but I can say that leading directly from it suddenly there arose a flash of insight. For perhaps a thousandth of a memorial second I understood that the moment the Creator cleaved matter from primordial energy, the die was cast for things being the way they are, frogs and people. I understood clearly that in any Universe in which matter existed apart from nothingness or pure energy -- where there was stuff of touch and movement, stuff that interacts and evolves -- then tadpoles over the edge become inevitable, and so do hermits with some hard memories and hemorrhoids.
During that micro-moment in the pouring rain I understood profoundly that without pain there cannot be pleasure, without darkness, light.
An hour after the rain, walking around still stunned by the intensity of my insight but already gradually losing the thread of thought leading to my discovery, I noticed that ants were tearing at the drying-out tadpoles on the ground below my dishpan table. Up close I even smelled the fishy odor of tadpoles coming undone.
Yet, it all seemed right. If during this last month my emotional currency had been invested in ants instead of tadpoles, I should now be as close to the ants as I am with the amphibians. And I would be rejoicing with them that during this recent rain these gelatinous packets of dark, speckled protein plopped onto the ground from above, a kind of manna from heaven, just what the Queen and her colony needed.
And I stepped into the trailer laughing at the world, laughing at myself, just laughing.