from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
September 8, 2002
BIG, YELLOW PEARS
As pawpaws disappear from the woods, the pears in our little orchard ripen. I don't know what variety these pears are but I suspect they are an old one. They're yellowish green, mottled with green and golden blotches. They can be larger than a softball, often the bigger ones are more spherical than pear-shaped, and they are very hard, crisp, fairly grainy, and tart. In fact, I prefer them cooked, since that mellows the tartness and makes them sweeter.
Each morning during pear season I prepare a skillet-size hunk of "bread" consisting of about 4/5ths sliced pears, and 1/5th batter made of half flour and half cornmeal, plus a couple of sliced jalapeño peppers. I like the hot-sweet taste embedded in a basic offering of cornmeal. I bake the "bread" over a wood fire until it's leathery on both sides, and golden, speckled with black burn marks. I thump the bread to see if it's ready, and the thump sound reflects the tough exterior, and moist, gooey interior. When the thump sounds just right, I salivate like Pavlov's dogs. I don't know if this recipe would taste good prepared in a regular kitchen. Often I've tried to prepare my hermit meals in civilization, but usually such concoctions don't travel well. Maybe it's the different energy-wavelength radiated by a campfire, or maybe it's the woodsmoke's flavoring.
When I first visited Laurel Hill in the early 80s we had a sizable orchard with many varieties of apple, peach, plum, cherry and pear, but now nearly all the trees have died from diseases and neglect. Only this variety of pear survives, and its trees remain handsomely robust. Each year -- unless a late frost nips the flowers -- they produce a bounty. You walk up to a drooping limb so thick with pears you can't see the branch, give it one little shake, and a dozen or more big fruits tumble to the ground.
If I'm ever dying and have the time to think back on the more wonderful moments of my life, I think I'll try to remember a few of my best pear-storms -- of when my tug on certain overladen branches released avalanches of a bushel or more of huge, profoundly tart, yellowish-green fruits that bounced in the tall green grass below sounding like galloping horses, and of course a few landing on me, as if the tree were a playful friend.
THE FOLIAGE NETWORK
Friends in the northern states and Europe report fall colors already. You may be interested in keeping track of the colors this year at The Foliage Network Web site at http://foliagenetwork.com/ If you live in ME, NH, VT, NY, MA, RI, CT, NJ, PA, MD, DE, VA, WV, OH, MI, WI or MN you can be a "foliage spotter," and you will be asked to submit a report twice weekly during September, October, and November. You can join up at http://foliagenetwork.com/join.html
ROUGHLEAF DOGWOOD FRUITS
Everybody knows about Flowering Dogwoods, CORNUS FLORIDA. As in most of Eastern North America, Flowering Dogwoods are common in the woods here at Laurel Hill, and they put on a show in the spring with their white blossoms. However, here Flowering Dogwoods aren't nearly as abundant as the closely related Roughleaf Dogwood, CORNUS DRUMMONDII, which seldom grows higher than about 15 feet (4.5 m). Leaves and twigs of the two species are easily confused with one another, but their flowers and fruits are very different. You can probably visualize the Flowering Dogwood's small, tight clusters of bright red fruits. The Roughleaf's fruits appear in larger, looser clusters and the fruits themselves are white, spherical, about the size of small peas, and each white fruit bears a tiny black dot. In fact, the Roughleaf Dogwood's fruit clusters, which are appearing now, look like nothing more than bunches of little eyeballs... You can see this at www.noble.org/imagegallery/woodhtml/wood1-66/W255.jpg
Unlike Flowering Dogwoods, which are upland forest trees, Roughleaf Dogwoods usually live in wet woods and along stream banks. Among our Loess Hills they also occupy disturbed woods and woods edges in the uplands. I've often noted that this upland loess causes lowland species such as Boxelders and Sycamores to feel at home in the uplands, and I'm not sure why.
In the swamps there's a viburnum, VIBURNUM NUDUM, with leaves that could be confused with dogwood leaves. There's a wonderful trick you can use to distinguish dogwoods from other similar trees. The next time you're near a dogwood, either Flowering or Roughleaf, slowly tear one of its leaves apart and notice that something like spider silk connects the separated veins. The deal is that on a microscopic level members of the Dogwood Family possess "vessel elements containing strongly coiled wall thickenings that unravel to form threads between broken leaf halves" -- as an old botany text says. Vessel elements are those elongated, dead, slender cells with open ends, lying end-to-end, which conduct water and nutrients inside plants. The system of vessel elements makes up the xylem of flowering plants. (Remember that in flowering plants there are two kinds of vascular tissues: Xylem conducts water and nutrients, while phloem conducts food manufactured during photosynthesis.) The walls of the vessel elements in dogwoods for some reason constrict into narrow spirals, becoming like coiled Slinky toys, and when you break apart the veins, the spirals pull apart, glistening in sunlight like silk.
So, Roughleaf Dogwood is one of those very common and therefore important species which most people have never heard of. In brushy fencerows and at woods edges you should look for its clusters of little white eyeballs now, see for yourself the magical silk in its leaf veins, and say hello to it.
POPLAR PETIOLE GALL APHID
In the bayou (ravine) between here and the plantation center there grow some Eastern Cottonwoods, POPULUS DELTOIDES. As the Latin name shows, cottonwoods are kinds of poplars. At this time of year maybe one in twenty of the Eastern Cottonwood's leaf petioles bear a grape-size gall where it attaches to the blade. This gall is created by the Poplar Petiole Gall Aphid, PEMPHIGUS POPULITRANSVERSUS. Naturally I have scanned such a gall, with one side removed so you can see the aphids inside, and that image resides at the top of my gall page at www.backyardnature.net/galls.htm
Poplar Petiole Gall Aphids overwinter as eggs on a cottonwood's leafless twigs. The eggs hatch in the spring as the leaves develop. When the newly hatched nymphs feed on leaf petioles, they cause galls to form and the small, dark-colored aphids move inside. The aphids secrete a white, waxy material which coats their dark bodies. After two weeks, the females bear live young that mature into winged females. These females leave the gall and find plants in the mustard family, where they establish residence and bear wingless, female, mustard-eating aphids. In the fall, winged forms appear on the mustards, and these then fly back to the cottonwoods, reestablish residence there, and produce a new generation, this time part of them being males. After mating, one egg is laid by each female somewhere on a cottonwood's twigs, that egg overwinters, and the life cycle begins again next spring.
SPURRED BUTTERFLY PEA
Here and there along the weedy woods edge of the gravel road leading into the plantation sometimes nowadays you spot a small vine with leaves like those of green-bean vines and bearing several large, lavender flowers of the type typical of members of the Bean Family, to which this vine belongs. It's the Spurred Butterfly Pea, CENTROSEMA VIRGINIANUM. Often it's simply called "Butterfly Pea," but several plants in different genera go by that name.
The flowers on this species are remarkable because the bottom petal is enlarged to form a landing pad for pollinating insects, and in the center of this large petal there's a white dot, a kind of "nectar guide," helping pollinators locate the nectar. The corolla is up to 1.4 inches long (3.5 cm), so such large flowers make a colorful splash. This vine is worth looking for and knowing. Though in our area it is common, in New Jersey at the northern extreme of its distribution it's listed as an endangered species.
You can see a beautiful close-up of a flower at http://media.duc.auburn.edu/media/858008978122.JPG
Last Sunday afternoon some of the tadpoles in my dishpan were going belly up, though they'd dive to the water's bottom when I nudged them. The water was bright emerald green and smelly, and foam formed around the edges.
As soon as I saw this I placed the dishpan next to the tray in which earlier I had deposited the vast majority of eggs left in my dishpan during the rain of July 31. You'll recall that subsequently something removed nearly all of the tadpoles from the ground-tray, leaving only three or four there, while in the dishpan on my outside table my overlooked eggs hatched, creating a tiny ecosystem overpopulated with tadpoles. Last Sunday I hoped that during the night something would come and similarly reduce the population in my dishpan.
As I placed my dishpan next to the ground-tray, the three or four tadpoles remaining in the ground-tray caught my eye. They were five to ten times larger than my tadpoles, though they were from the same egg mass. In their tray they darted from shadow to shadow like gleeful, mischievous Calibans, and I was ashamed of my lethargic, dying, runty little beings, for I felt accomplice to what had happened, though all along I had just "let nature run its course."
While regarding my sick dishpan ecosystem, a certain memory vividly took possession of me. Some years ago I took a night-train from New Delhi in northern India to the far-eastern town of Cooch Bihar. At dawn in the slow-moving train I awakened to find outside my window the flat, grossly overpopulated plain of the lower Ganges, India's sacred river. It was countryside, but there were people, people, people... little people, very thin and very poor, standing staring at the train, their poverty, misery and desperation etched in every face, in their body language, in the exhausted land itself. The odor of woodsmoke, moist earth, human and animal manure, people atop people... It was countryside but I felt claustrophobic. At least in the Bombay slums one always felt the possibility of escaping to a park, to a tea booth, to any dark corner, but here from horizon to horizon there was no escape from obscene overcrowding.
Maybe the most nightmarish thing, however, was that though I knew each person standing out there watching the train was a unique individual, as fundamentally different from one another and with as many natural talents as people in any mixed crowd anyplace, their poverty and misery had made them all the same, all having to think and do exactly what was most efficient and effective for staying alive in an ecosystem pushed to its very limit. And this process of forced conformity had created a monotonous ocean of dwarfed, somnambulant, hopeless-looking beings.
On Monday after a night of Ganges-Plain dreams, all my tadpoles were dead.
Maybe it was a disease or algae producing toxins, but I suspect it was much simpler than that. Algae photosynthesize and produce oxygen during the day, but during the night they respire, using oxygen, and oxygen levels in the water drop. I think the oxygen in my algae-choked dishpan just reached such low levels during the night that my tadpoles died from asphyxiation.
I'll bet that if I had been keeping a graph with one line showing the rises and falls of oxygen in my dishpan water, and another line plotting the dishpan's ever-increasing tadpole biomass, days in advance I would have been able to predict the precise moment when the graph's lines intersected -- the instant when the dishpan's oxygen level dipped below what was needed to sustain tadpole life.
On Monday morning just after tipping my dishpan of dead tadpoles into the grass, I was listening to NPR's Morning Edition on the radio. Tabo Mbeki, the host of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, was giving a speech. I was busy fixing pear-cornbread so I didn't get his words exactly, but I think they were something like this:
"We must take care of our Earth. It supports us, and it is sick. We know what some of the problems are and we know what we can do to ameliorate some of the problems. What a tragedy it would be if we did not now do what we see so plainly must be done."