from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
October 6, 2002
At 2:30 on Thursday morning Hurricane Lili announced her arrival much earlier than I had expected by sending rain through my mosquito net as I slept on the wooden platform. At 9 AM an FM station in Baton Rouge issued the current update. Winds had dropped to 100 mph (160 kph) as the eye crossed the Louisiana coastline. Lili's projected path was right up the Mississippi River, and Natchez and Vicksburg were specifically mentioned as in her path. She would reach here in mid-afternoon. The forecast ended by saying that winds were expected to be maintained 100 miles inland.
To me that said that in mid-afternoon we'd be seeing 100 mph winds here, and I knew that that would be disastrous. I stuffed my pockets with cornbread and pears and went rain-walking, for I wanted to view the proceedings.
To my astonishment, as the morning wore on, both rain and wind diminished. By mid-afternoon when the cataclysm was due it had stopped raining entirely and the winds were like simple spring breezes. I turned on the computer to work.
The moment the computer came to life I heard the sharp pops a big tree makes as it begins to fall. The pops came from the direction of the big Pecan overarching the trailer so I figured I'd better make a dash out the door. However, before I could undo myself from the rocking chair the poppings avalanched into a rampage of splitting and snapping. I bent over, hoping that if the trailer roof came down the bookshelves and table might slow it. I heard a growing whooshing sound and, most terrible, through the window I saw things getting dark fast, like the Hand of Doom descending over me. A tremendous bang rocked the trailer and I was amazed how long an instant could last as I ruminated on the fact that the next second in my life could easily determine how I lived the rest of my life, if I lived at all.
But that was it. I looked up and through the door's window I saw a general torrent of tattered leaves gracefully falling all around. It hadn't been the Pecan next to trailer but rather the next one over, the one in which Mississippi Kites nested this summer, and only its topmost branches had hit the trailer.
The big tree absolutely flattened the dense thicket of 30-foot-high Sweetgums on the trailer's eastern side. Now each morning as I prepare breakfast, instead of gazing into a green, shadowy Sweetgum wall, I'll have a clear view to the next Pecan tree some 100 yards (100 meters) away.
My closed-in, living-in-a-dense-forest feeling is gone. Now it's like occupying a recently logged forest, one in which some of the old trees still stand, now scarred and with waist-high splintered debris covering the ground all around. The balsamy odor of smashed Sweetgum still hangs strong in the air.
Last week I spoke of the living-in-an-opening-blossom feeling. Now that blossom is younger than before, is set back so that it has longer to go before reaching full bloom. There's nothing wrong with that, but I do mourn for the old tree, the home of the Mississippi Kites, of grand gardens of fern and Spanish moss on its massive, horizontal branches, of the thousands of insects and lizards and spiders that knew it as their entire universe.
THE BEAUTY OF RAGWEED
On Tuesday I had to bike to town to buy supplies. As always, the difference between here and beyond the plantation gate was shocking. Of course the plants and animals are very different. Also, I am always appalled by the massive, senseless destruction of ecosystems going on everywhere between here and town.
It's pointless to talk about the destruction, for this culture is settled on its foundation of exploitation and consumption. So I'll focus on the roadside weeds. Especially I was struck by the ragweeds along Lower Woodville Road.
In college for a time I specialized in studying plant succession in abandoned fields. For example, in abandoned agricultural fields on the Piedmont in North Carolina, during the first year after abandonment the field will be overgrown with Horseweed and Large Crabgrass. On the second year these plants will be succeeded by Frost Aster and Common Ragweed. On the third year, pine seedlings appear among Broomsedge. And so it goes, with one distinct plant community predictably succeeding another, until a forest replaces the herbs. At first the forest is mostly pines, but after about 200 years the dominant trees are oaks.
In plant succession, each plant community prepares for the next by stabilizing the soil with its roots, by contributing a certain measure of organic matter to the soil, by putting extra nutrients in play in the various nutrient cycles, by supporting more diverse communities of microbes and animals, etc..
As I peddled along Lower Woodville Road this Tuesday seeing the handsome populations of ragweed, I kept all this mind, like reciting a mantra to settle a disturbed soul. Seeing a favorite woodlot bulldozed into a gully, I focused on the beautifully symmetrical forms of the ragweeds, their exquisite flower structure (male flowers in pagodalike spires), and, especially, the role they play in plant succession, nursing the soil back to enough stability and integrity to support the community of living things that will succeed them. I forced myself to think of how these ragweeds worked so elegantly to save things, giving their all to provide for the future of life on Earth. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful I whispered to myself eyeing the ragweed as I peddled past recently sawed-down trees, scalped and eroding soil, new gravel parking lots and newly junked cars, and more and more roadside trash as I approached town.
Two ragweed species are abundant and conspicuous along Lower Woodville. Common Ragweed, AMBROSIA ARTEMISIIFOLIA, bears dissected leaves a little like those of a garden carrot, and grows to about 7 feet tall (2 m). The Giant Ragweed, AMBROSIA TRIFIDA, possesses broad, 3-lobed leaves and can get twice as large as the Common, though along the road usually it's not over 8 feet tall. There are four or five ragweed species in our area, but these are the common ones, and they are both native American species.
You can see Common Ragweed at linnaeus.nrm.se/flora/di/astera/ambro/ambrart2.jpg Giant Ragweed is at www.missouriplants.com/Greenopp/Ambrosia_trifida_plant.jpg
In a pond about a mile from the one in which last week I reported watching two River Otters, this week I found another pair, possibly the same, but I doubt it, since the bayou runs between the two ponds. Last week's otters were rambunctiously playful in the rain. The ones watched this week were seen at noon on a sunny day, and behaved very differently.
I emerged from a thicket of giant bamboo (an imported species) and took a seat as an otter noodled along the bank opposite me. In a minute or so he spotted me, but I didn't move so he wasn't sure what he was seeing. Surprisingly, now this otter began swimming toward me. In mid-pond he made a sharp blowing sound with his mouth, and that pfft! was instantly followed by a sound not unlike that of the sonorous snoring of a very fat man at peace, lasting for 3 seconds. As he swam toward me, two or three times he pfft!ed and snored, but when he got to within about 15 feet (4.5 m) he suddenly dove. I followed his trail of bubbles with my binoculars so I was focused on him when he emerged in a different corner of the pond to repeat the behavior. He did this maybe eight times, pfft!ing and snoring.
Then he swam into a dense thicket of overhanging Black Willow limbs where he snuggled next to his mate, who issued a high-pitched barking sound. They hid there about half an hour, then the first one returned to the pond and swam toward me pfft!ing and snoring again four times. Seeing that I was disturbing the couple, I melted back into the bamboo, thinking about what I'd seen.
I suspect that this was threatening behavior. Maybe he wanted to scare me away. I have to admit that as he was coming toward me the first time the thought crossed my mind that he just might continue to the water's edge, slog up to my leg and begin chewing on it.
I'm glad I saw the frolicking otters first, and not these, for these otters were secretive and aggressive, just the opposite to what I saw last week. Even among the things of nature, one should never be content with first impressions.
During my Thursday morning rain-walk waiting for Lili I returned to the pond where I'd seen this week's otters. This time no otters were observed but a large Cottonmouth swam about ten feet from shore.
I see many Cottonmouths here but this one was doing something I've never beheld before, and I'll bet that it was because it was raining. Maybe it's a behavior usually practiced only at night.
The snake would swim a while, its head stiffly held from the water about 8 inches high (20 cm) and at about a 75° angle, flicking its tongue in and out, sniffing the air. Then it would thrust its head below the water's surface to about the same depth it had held it into the air, and sway the submerged head back and forth as it swam forward. He gave every impression of looking for fish, for in such deep water I doubt he could have snatched anything from the mud.
The Cottonmouth's Latin name is AGKISTRODON PISCIVORUS. That "piscivorus" means "fish-eater." My Audubon Reptile Field Guide says that Cottonmouths eat "sirens, frogs, fishes, snakes, and birds." I'm not sure about the sirens, but now it's easier to believe the fish part.
Finding a garden pepper plant with its bottom eaten off and pulled into a hole got me thinking this week about my experience gardening here. When I first arrived at Laurel Hill I had three main gardening problems to learn about. First, the soil here is derived from loess with very small and uniform particle size, so, unless there's a good bit of organic matter in it, when the soil is wet it's like gravy, but as it dries out it turns to brick. Second, over the decades (centuries?) all kinds of disease organisms have accumulated in the soil so that most things planted in our gardens get diseased, especially tomatoes. Finally, we have Pine Voles.
Pine Voles, sometimes called Woodland Voles, MICROTUS PINETORUM, look a lot like regular House Mice, except that they are equipped with very short tails. You can see a picture of one at www.quickpix.com/instant/orchard/Applepest/thumb/029001/51.jpg
My introduction to Pine Voles took place my first spring here after I'd set out several rows of cabbage slips. From plastic Coke bottles I'd cut collars for every plant to protect against cutworms, so I wasn't prepared when on the first morning after planting the first 5 plants in my row were wilting. The next morning the next five plants were wilting, and the first 5 were obviously dead. The same thing happened the third morning. Finally I got the idea to tug on one of the wilting slips and to my surprise I found that the plant's entire base was simply absent. There was nothing but a stem with no roots stuck in the ground.
With a finger I began probing, looking for roots, but what I found was a tunnel passing down the row from one cabbage plant to the next. Clearly something was eating the plants from below.
With a shovel I began following the tunnel backwards. I dug into a network of tunnels covering an area the size of a car. In one spot I exhumed a nest from which a chubby, mouse-like critter tumbled. I didn't know what it was at first, but with such a short tail and a known passion for cabbage plants, later it was easy to identify it in my Field Guide to the Mammals.
Once I knew we had Pine Voles, then other mysteries were resolved. For instance, during the winter I'd planted some new apple trees but by spring they were all dead, with the stems girdled at ground level and all major roots completely skinned. Later I would know who was eating my big turnips from the bottom up, sometimes hollowing them out. They would devour my carrots, leaving nothing but wilted bouquets of ferny leaves aboveground. And this week I learned that they'll eat the roots and lower stems of pepper plants, leaving only the plant's upper part sticking from the soil like a bad joke.
In fact, I've learned that the only way I can plant a root crop is to "cage off" an area by setting wire mesh or corrugated tin roof sheets at least a foot deep in the ground all around. The rest of the garden I just overplant, knowing that the Pine Voles will take what they want, and hoping they'll leave a bit for me.
In North America there are about 20 species of voles, most of which are Western. In eastern North America, this is the most widely distributed and common one, and it's amazing -- especially in light of its impact on orchards and gardens -- that so few people know about it. I think most people, if they by chance see them, assume they are mice. If you spot a small rodent in your garden, look for that short tail. If it's short, that may explain what's been happening to your plants...