from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
September 22, 2002
CROWS AT DAWN
In the July 1, 2001 Newsletter I described the sequence of bird songs bursting forth at dawn, the "morning chorus." First came the Cardinals, then Summer Tanagers, then Indigo Buntings, and on through several species to the American Crows and Carolina Wrens.
Now the morning chorus has almost petered out. Sometimes Wood Thrushes tentatively chek-call, but now there's only one exuberant bird-sound still to be heard at dawn, and that's the American Crow's, CORVUS BRACHYRHYNCHOS.
Each morning beneath my mosquito net atop the wooden platform in the woods I awaken a few minutes before dawn, right as the eastern sky acquires its first hint of paleness. I lie there looking around and listening, and I can tell within a minute or two when the crows will first caw. They caw at precisely that moment when it's light enough to get up and go jogging. Therefore, each day my routines begin with the resounding caw of a crow.
It's a very loud, staccato, three- or four-note caw-caw-caw, and this is answered by other crows which may be nearby or so far away they barely can be heard. Communication among them definitely is taking place, for they alternate their calls, and if one alters its call's timbre the others often follow suite. It's obvious that the birds are checking in with one another and that the crow community stretches for miles in every direction. I sometimes imagine the crows calling with backwoods accents, "Hey Bro', y'all still dere dis mo'nin??" "Sho' is, Hon, wut's hat'nin o'r der?"
Crows and Blue Jays belong to the same bird family, the Corvidae, and, of all animal families, the Corvidae appears to be the most vulnerable to West Nile Disease. Therefore each morning I am relieved when my crows call, and I listen to the modulations in their voices to hear if they sound ill or afraid.
When I moved here from Belgium about five years ago I was struck by the crows' callings. During most of my adult life my main income was from selling magazine articles so my first project upon arrival here was to begin gathering information for an article on crow communication. The largest and most vociferous flock was based along Lower Woodville Road fronting the plantation so I spent many hours there. I learned to recognize individual crows and I figured out social hierarchy among them. There were dynamic leaders, pragmatic behind-the-scene workers, jokesters, gawky and curious young ones, lazy ones -- a dynamic and beautiful community. They never let me come closer as they got to know me, and I liked them better for that.
It happens that the turning-around point for my jogging each morning on Lower Woodville Road lay opposite my crow-observation point a hundred feet or so away in the woods. One morning at dawn as I approached my halfway point I saw something black beside the road, exactly at the spot where I always turned around. There were seven dead crows in a circle there, all neatly arranged on their backs, with their heads toward the circle's center.
Probably a neighbor had noticed my frequent visits with the crows and had simply wanted to express his opinion about crows or maybe about me, a newly arrived outsider.
You can read about crow culture at Crows.net at www.crows.net/culture.html. The language of crows is considered at www.crows.net/language.html and you can volunteer to gather data about crow behavior at www.crows.net/help.html.Finally, you can report interesting crow behavior by filling out a form at www.crows.net/form.html.
AUGUST IN SEPTEMBER
The "august" here is the one that is not capitalized, the one pronounced aw-GUST, not AW-gust, and meaning "of majestic dignity; imposingly exalted."
When I lived in Kentucky as a boy, Augusts were always august to me. As summer's awful humidity drained from the air and sunlight acquired a certain clarity, and the landscape revealed itself as charmed with a hint of yellowness, I found myself writing my most heartfelt poetry. There was something wise and firmly rooted in the feeling of August, something that spoke of clarity of vision, of wisdom. When I look back over my years of collected verses, pages dated August -- no matter what year -- outnumber all the rest.
Down here August is a lot like July. However, by late September I am beginning to feel that same augustness I knew in August in Kentucky. One sweats but sometimes the sweat evaporates in playful, cooling ripples from the skin. You no longer feel like you're breathing hot soup. Sunlight, which for so long has been a wet weight upon the body now acquires a certain lilt, almost a musicality. Deep in the night I awaken and am delighted by the simple breathing in of cool air on the edge of crispness.
SWEET BASIL IN THE TRUNK
When Pierce Butler, the plantation's owner, moved from the plantation back in the mid 80s, he left behind most of his books. Probably 95% of them dealt with New-Age, land-based living, Civil War history and science fiction. Entering the abandoned library is like stepping back 20 years.
Buried in a 4-ft-high cardboard box filled with unsorted titles and smelling of mildew, rotting paper and mouse pee I found Gabriel García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude." A canceled Amtrak ticket from NYG to RHI (where's that?) dated June 7, 1985 served as a bookmark. What a joy it's been reading that book. I suffer from not having a library close enough to bike to.
The book's protagonists live in a small Latin American village in the humid tropics so they have some of the same problems I do. One of them is mildew. The family in the book dealt with mildewed clothes by placing sweet-basil leaves in their clothing cabinets.
So on Wednesday I broke several two-foot-long branches of sweet basil from waist-high plants in the garden and arranged them in my own clothes trunks. I'm not at all sure this will stop the mildew, but it is certainly true that each time I open the trunk for a fresh bandana to serve as a sweatband, my trailer is clouded with basil odor, and that's an improvement.
This simple little trick has got me thinking about some of the places in very hot, humid environments where I've experienced graceful living. Particularly I recall a delicious period in my life about 8 years ago spent in Nicaragua. The old, rambling house with an interior courtyard overgrown with banana trees, begonias and orchids, inward-facing patio around the courtyard, the stone floor on which was sprinkled water that would evaporate and cool as the sun passed overhead, the wearing of appropriate clothing, how this and that window alternately would be opened or closed to regulate natural breezes throughout the day, the common-sense practice of the siesta from noon to 4 PM...
When I see how we Americans ignominiously cut trees from around our homes, ignore the magic of natural drafts and the powers of evaporation, arrange our lives without regard to season and time of day, and take so little time to talk to one another in the gentle, musical manner of the Latins at mid-day, I realize how adolescent and inelegant our culture is. We are rich and powerful, yet bags of money and an attitude of aggression can be held by any unschooled ass.
THREE BRIGHT COMPOSITES
For a while the only floristic hint we had of fall was the Giant Goldenrods splotching our almost-too-green landscape with golden yellow. Now most of the goldenrods are fading but other fall wildflowers more than compensate, especially three species which are members of the Composite Family. The huge Composite Family embraces everything from dandelions to asters, sunflowers to lettuce.
In fields and along the gravel road through the plantation in many places a diffuse whiteness is breaking out, produced by large clusters of small flowers of the 4-foot-high (1.2 m) Boneset, EUPATORIUM SEROTINUM. That name "Boneset" is applied to several species in the genus Eupatorium, and probably derives from an earlier use of the plants to treat what was known as breakbone fever -- a name often applied to dengue fever, and I suppose any fever accompanied by aching joints. Teas have been made from this plant's leaves to serve as a diuretic. You can see what this abundant, weedy species looks like at www.sycamoreisland.org/gallery/gallery5/wildflower16.jpg.
Less common but maybe more noticeable because it's so pretty -- with surprising bursts of blue along moist ditch banks -- is the knee-high Mistflower, or Ageratum, CONOCLINIUM COELESTINUM. This plant used to belong to the genus Eupatorium, like the bonesets. Because it is so pretty, is a perennial that can be transplanted with its rhizomes, and is a rather tough little plant, it is often planted in gardens. Usually seed companies call it Ageratum. You can see Mistflower at www.toadshade.com/images/EupatoCo_2.jpg.
The above two species are common throughout much of eastern North America -- I knew them well at my old Kentucky home. However, the third very striking fall wildflower along roads here, especially in moist ditches, is based in the American tropics, and in the US is mainly restricted to the Coastal Plain, so it's absent from most of Kentucky. With brightly golden, aster-like flowers, it's the "Oppositeleaf Spotflower," ACMELLA OPPOSITIFOLIA var REPENS. I place the English name between quotation marks because that name strikes me as one made up by botanists, just so they can designate it in books. Probably people haven't talked about this plant enough for it to have an acceptable English name. Anyway, it's very pretty and forms a conspicuous part of our fall flora, and you can see pictures of it at www.biolresearch.com/Plants/plant.php?uniq=acmel_opp_rep
This spring and summer we've experienced frequent showers, but our years-long, overall drought has continued. Brief showers have kept plants green but when in the gardens I dig 4 inches (10 cm) down I encounter pure dust.
Thus Tuesday when I spotted a freshly constructed 1.5-inch high (4 cm) little tower of wet mud along my bike trail across the very dry blackberry field, I knew I'd come upon a mystery. In such a parched, dusty field at the top of a rise with the water table surely many feet below the surface, where would fresh mud come from? And what could build such a mud tower?
On my knees and elbows I gingerly nudged the little mud turret and was surprised to find that it simply rested atop the hard-packed dust, unattached to anything. I lifted it. Below was a round tunnel entrance about 3/4-inch across (2 cm). As my eyes adjusted to the tunnel's darkness I saw that the tunnel bifurcated right below the entrance, and that at least one of the resulting arms quickly forked again. And from the blackness of one of those tunnel branches someone sat looking squarely back at me. The little being had wide-set eyes placed at the upper corners of a triangular face. On crabby legs it then stepped forward and began scooping dirt as I watched, as if its ceiling hadn't disappeared. Its body was thick, white, and it glistened with wetness. Working with a certain sense of urgency, it struck me as being like a troll in a Hobbit novel. If I had been exploring Mars and come upon a new form of life in a crater at the edge of a field of frozen carbon dioxide, I could not have been more filled with a sense of observing something otherworldly.
Gradually I realized that this was a cicada nymph -- the immature stage of the cicada that lives underground, often for years, before emerging to become the "Jar Fly" that so noisily makes buzz-saw sounds in the trees these days.
But, how did the nymph produce mud from such dry ground? Also, I have seen diagrams of cicada-nymph tunnels, and they have always been simple affairs, with no forks in them. I have combed the Internet looking for explanations, but without success.
My guess is that the nymph made its mud by mingling tree-root juice with dust, for what other explanation is possible?
You may be interested in a scientific paper about the entire life cycle of periodical cicadas at www.eeb.uconn.edu/collections/cicadacentral/magi/williams_simon.htm
You can see a collection of cicada nymphs at aurora.portage.k12.oh.us/craddock/cicadaimages/2out.gif
Friday morning I was working in one of the gardens when I heard my friend Master whooping and cussing. I'd never heard Master cuss so I figured he'd had a close call with a snake, and I was right. He'd been picking up limbs recently fallen from the pecan trees onto the plantation manager's lawn, and a 4-ft-long (1.2 m) Timber Rattlesnake had been coiled beneath a limb. Master had been reaching toward it when he realized what he was seeing. The snake's disruptive camouflage serves it well these days when dried-up, brown, yellow and green Pecan leaflets litter the ground.
I put the snake in a bucket with a top on it and in a pickup truck we carried it to the back of the plantation, where it was nudged over the steep loess bluff. During the whole trip, coming and going, Master never stopped telling the story of how he'd almost picked it up.
Interestingly, Timber Rattlers usually don't rattle. I heard only a couple of clicks while getting ours into the bucket. Of all the rattlers I've encountered here, only one rattled, and that one was so loud that I thought it was a cicada fallen to the ground. I was gathering twigs to burn in my campfire and, like Master, didn't see the snake until I was reaching right for it, looking around for the flustered cicada.
Anyway, when we returned to the lawn Master had to tell his story to the manager again. After he'd finished, as he was opening the truck's door a dry leaf stuck to the frame by a spider web made a crackling sound. Poor Master jumped a good yard backwards, his eyes popping and his face frozen in terror.
Here was a big man nearly as tall as I, his ebony skin instantly shiny with the sweat of fear, and his muscles taut as a mule's. How I admired his focus on that leaf, the manner by which his entire body and soul in an instant had been transformed from a rambling story-telling mode to total attention to the source of that simple crackle.
I laughed uproariously but I knew it was pointless to say that I wasn't laughing at Master's fear. I was laughing with delight, wishing that somehow I could manage such intensity of concentration while looking at the sky, the grass, the trees, the sunlight, my own hands.
How wonderful it would be to be rattlesnake alive to all things the way Master was at that moment contemplating a dried-up leaf.