from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
September 29, 2002
TROPICAL STORM ISIDORE
It seems that fall here usually begins with a snap. One day the heat and humidity are endless, then a storm comes and thereafter the feeling of fall reigns. This year Isidore brought us fall.
Isidore made a pleasant passage here. Over three days she bestowed three inches (8 cm) of evenly distributed rain, exactly what we needed. Here every little storm knocks down a tree, cutting the electricity for a few hours or days, but even that didn't happen. At midday as the storm approached, with my trailer's windows closed, it was so chilly outside that the windows fogged. I wore a shirt and long breeches against the chill for the first time since early spring.
Friday morning after the storm's passage the sky was deep blue and intense, sparkling sunlight etched black shadows among freshly washed tree leaves, and a mockingbird sang as if it were spring. Before Isidore, one automatically kept to the shade when possible, for sunlight's humid heaviness brought a sweaty weariness. Now in the fields sunlight is a congenial complement to playful breezes. Its light touch upon the skin evokes the mellowness of a bushel of ripe apples, the golden-syrupy odor of a mound of freshly dug sweet potatoes.
This is a miraculous change, something worth celebrating.
OTTERS IN THE DUCKWEED
Last Sunday as my Newsletters were being distributed via the modem and these miles of corroded copper wire strung through the woods and along highways, it began to rain. Before the rain had ended I went walking, not only because the forest is beautiful when it's raining, but because sometimes you can see things you don't notice otherwise.
I came to a small deer-pond completely covered over with a carpet of duckweed, the little flowering plants that float atop water looking like green confetti. Working along the pond's banks were two River Otters, LUTRA CANADENSIS. You can see exactly what they looked like, minus the green carpet of duckweed, at www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/mammals/Otter.GIF
The otters were so engrossed in their work that I approached to within 15 feet of them (4.5 m) and for 20 minutes they never saw me. With my binoculars I could make out every hair on them, the quivering of their nostrils, the glistens in their eyes.
River Otters from nose to tail-tip are about 3.7 feet long (1.1 m) and are native to nearly all of North America, except for the most deserty and frozen parts. I've seen them several times here so they must be fairly common. During winter I find them only in the swamps, but at this time of year they seem to wander across the uplands. You might recall that I reported another otter sighting in last year's September 2 Newsletter. Otters eat fish, crayfish, frogs, reptiles -- just about whatever small animal they find.
For me the most striking feature of their behavior is their playfulness. As the two otters worked along the pond's bank whenever they met they'd briefly curl into one another, each slithering around or beneath the partner with graceful twists and turns, perpetually half-playing peek-a-boo among tussocks of Water Pepper at the water's edge and among the coagulations of duckweed on the water's surface. In the muscular animals' body language you could read a kind of quick- witted laughter and it was clear that here was a level of intelligence a whole dimension beyond that of a dog or a pig, nearly the kind of wit you'd expect in a monkey or a porpoise. I was glad to be sharing the forest with this delightful and intelligent animal.
After 20 minutes the wind got up, apparently swirling my odor into the pond, for suddenly both otters stopped their cavorting and up through a thick carpet of duckweed poked their noses into the air. I moved not at all, so they did not see me. But they believed their noses and dove deeply and stayed below as I moved away.
GENTLE RAIN OF CATERPILLAR POOP
Except for when Isidore was passing through with her wind sounds in the trees, nowadays each day and night I hear a constant rain of caterpillar poop falling from the Pecan trees above me. Dried poop pellets accumulate atop my mosquito net and trailer and it falls into my dishpan, coloring the water brown. The pellets themselves are dry, brown, the size of BBs, and shaped like bell peppers.
The Walnut Caterpillar, DATANA INTEGERRIMA, is causing this perpetual rain. I read that this species eats only black walnut, pecan, hickory, and butternut. Certain large boughs among the Pecan trees above my trailer are completely defoliated. You can watch the caterpillars eat, often a dozen or more clustered on a few neighboring leaves. They begin eating a leaflet at its edge, then mechanically and quickly chomp their way into the leafblade, avoiding big veins. They are voracious. Seeing a bunch of caterpillars all working together, none skipping a beat, is almost spooky.
While lying listening to the gentle poop-rain it's easy to think of the forest as a giant stomach, and the sound of the droppings falling as the sound of the season's digestion, the autumnal intestinal coming-to- terms with the gorgings resulting from summer's huge appetites.
Anyway, in our area two generations of Walnut Caterpillar occur each year. The adult moths emerge from overwintering pupae in May and soon deposit eggs. The eggs hatch in 8 to 10 days, then the larvae feed until late June and pupate in the soil. Second- generation adults begin emerging in mid-July. Larvae from their eggs begin feeding by late July. Most of these larvae stop feeding and drop to the ground in September. That's the stage they're in now around my camp. Right now many caterpillars can be found wandering the ground, apparently preparing to go into the overwintering pupa stage, either underground or in leaf litter.
One peculiarity about these caterpillars is that they often cluster together on tree branches or trunks and molt simultaneously, leaving a large, messy-looking bunch of hairy cast skins adhering to the bark. It looks like a caterpillar mass suicide or a massacre where all the bodies have stuck together, but it's just the skins discarded as the caterpillars grew.
You can see this caterpillar and read all about it at www.na.fs.fed.us/spfo/pubs/fidls/Walnutcat/walnutfidl.htm
GOOD DAYS FOR YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOOS
This Sunday morning while preparing breakfast over the campfire I noticed in one big Pecan tree above me seven Yellow-billed Cuckoos busy at work. They were gorging themselves on Walnut Caterpillars.
Yellow-billed Cuckoos possess long tails so their flight is graceful and direct, not bobbing or erratic as with most small birds. They fly up to a leaf and in midair nab their caterpillar from it, then glide to a nearby branch. On the branch for maybe a minute they roughly massage the caterpillar in their beaks, maybe softening it up, or killing it so in the stomach it won't squirm around so much. Then in a snap the head is thrown back and the caterpillar is gulped down in one quick action.
Fall migration has begun. Soon my seven Yellow-billed Cuckoos will be wintering in South America. During the long flight before them they'll need the energy they're storing up now. I'll miss them, for a family of cuckoos has lived all summer around my camp and I've enjoyed watching them elegantly sail from tree to tree and raising their young. I'm tickled that the Pecan trees here are offering such a fine farewell gift by supporting this outbreak of Walnut Caterpillars.
You can see a Yellow-billed Cuckoo painting at www.baylink.org/wpc/images/cuckoo.jpeg
At this time of year the forest's "wild lemons" are ripening. On small trees seldom taller than fifteen feet (4.5m) with green, profoundly spiny limbs, the fuzzy little "lemons" are about the size of a guinea egg. You can make a tolerable lemonade from the juice, but the fruit is so seedy that you're lucky to squeeze more than a few drops from one.
Books call this species the Trifoliate Orange, PONCIRUS TRIFOLIATA, and it's another of those Asian species that's gone wild in our climes. Here at Laurel Hill large sections of the forest are completely overgrown with it. It forms spiny thickets so dense that a human or a deer can't get through them, though a rabbit can. You can see fruit and spiny branches at www-ang.kfunigraz.ac.at/~katzer/pictures/citr_05.jpg
Many years ago citrus crops were grown at Laurel Hill. It was known that better production could be accomplished if citrus trees were grafted atop Trifoliate Orange rootstock. Eventually diseases built up in the soil and possibly the climate changed so that citrus crops were no longer feasible here. However, the old Trifoliate Orange rootstocks survived, and the seeds germinate like crazy.
Now the trees look at home in our forest. Certain rodents and birds build their straw nests elevated inside the thickets. In the spring before leaves appear the barbarous-looking limbs put on very pretty, waxy-white, fragrant blossoms which attract pollinators when few other flowers are available. In the winter if you are walking through the woods and come upon a flock of foraging White-throated Sparrows on the forest floor, one of them will give a warning call and the whole flock will disappear into a Trifoliate Orange thicket. This is one invasive species that at least performs some services for the local community.
MY SLEEPING PLATFORM
Newsletter subscriber and friend "Cory" Jia in China has a demanding job in the huge China World Tower in Beijing. To relieve his tension he likes to look at peaceful pictures of nature. The other day he asked me to send him such a picture, so for several days I was thinking of what he might like.
I decided on a picture of my sleeping platform, the one in the woods with the mosquito net over it, where I have enjoyed some of the most peaceful sleeping and awakening of my life. You can see the picture I sent him at www.earthfoot.org/temp/sleep.jpg
In that picture, the platform with the net over it is at the far left. The image is taken from inside the woods and you can see just beyond the platform where my footpath opens into the often-mentioned Blackberry Field, the field I bike across each morning. The Hunters' Camp lies about 300 yards to the left. You can see a small blur of pink just below the net. That's the plastic box in which I store my glasses each night. Unfortunately mice still manage to eat off the glasses' nose pads. You can just make out the fact that the platform's feet are planted in black, plastic flower pots. These pots keep rodents from playing on crossed timbers supporting the platform. Before I placed them there, during the nights rodents, surely White-footed Mice, would run up and down those timbers hour after hour, keeping me awake! On many nights a coyote trots right past my platform as he makes his rounds.
A THOUGHT FOR ANA MARÍA
Isidore was not as gentle with everyone as she was with us. Before drifting inland in Louisiana as a tropical storm, she had ravaged Mexico's northern Yucatán Peninsula as a full-fledged hurricane.
Newsletter subscriber and close friend Ana María Palos writes me that for her little rancho, Komchén, directly over which the hurricane's eye passed, the storm was a disaster. Most buildings were damaged or demolished, great trees were felled, and precious furniture and books were soaked. I know how Ana María treasured the singing of birds in her big trees at dawn and dusk.
These are sad losses for which no words can compensate. However, here is a thought in case Ana María should decide to stay and rebuild.
When I came here my trailer was parked not in the center of a mature forest, but rather between an old pecan grove (like a forest) and a field that had been abandoned some years ago. The field was growing up with Sweetgum saplings and pines about thirty feet tall (9 m) with an impenetrable undergrowth of blackberry brambles. At first I was disappointed that I could not live in a mature forest, but with time I have found this spot to be fine.
For, the thirty-feet-tall wall of saplings, vines and brambles around me right now (also beneath the worn-out Pecan trees) emanate an aura of rebirth. There was destruction and exhaustion, and now the land renews itself. Each year these saplings, vines and brambles grow higher around me, every summer feels cooler because of their increasing shade, and every year the ecosystem grows more complex with the arrival of new butterfly or lizard or wildflower species joining the community for the first time seen since the original forest was destroyed. It's as if I were living inside a long- dormant, but now opening blossom.
Well, I know that all along Ana María has known that she was living inside the opening blossom of Komchén. Maybe this thought, though, can be like a bit of Chopin playing in the background as the struggle to sort things out begins.