from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
November 17, 2002
FIRST FROST OF THE SEASON
At dawn this Sunday morning the thermometer in my Waxmyrtle tree read 31° (-0.5°C) and here and there in the blackberry field patches of white frost showed up in the green grass. I am sitting here now visualizing ice-crystal splinters materializing inside the cells of many of my smaller neighbors, in the tissue of untold numbers of insects, spiders, ferns, wildflowers and other beings, crystals puncturing delicate cell membranes and shattering complex molecules needed for the most critical and persnickety of life's chemical reactions.
This morning I am celebrating these dying organisms' vigorous and beautiful summer blossomings and breedings. I feel no sadness about their passing but rather reflect on the fact that life includes such moments as these, and that the dignified beauty of the landscape this mornings proves that there's nothing bad about this kind of death.
During this next week I'll be looking closely at the changes this cold has wrought and I shall admire the cold-neutralizing adaptations of the beings who have survived.
In my own case my trailer is so small that I have placed over it a tarpaulin covering three sides and the top, so that this morning the temperature inside is 48° (9°C), and I am content. The afternoon sunlight will be gorgous and much appreciated as I sit reading surrounded by glowing tussocks of broomsedge in the blackberry field.
On Friday night two researchers with Mississippi State Government came to document the bat population in the cistern beneath the roof of my outside kitchen. In my latest census, reported in this year's August 4th Newsletter, 1,783 bats were counted entering the cistern at dawn. They are Southeastern Myotis, MYOTIS AUSTRORIPARIUS, and you can see pictures of the species and a map showing their distribution at www.batcon.org/discover/species/myaustr.html
This Friday, bats began emerging from the cistern's head around 5:30 PM, when there was barely enough light to see them. At first only a few came out but when it got completely dark we shined red light on them and watched them emerging too fast to count with confidence.
We caught about a dozen individuals with nets, weighed them, measured their forearms (part of their wing), then released them by simply opening the hand and letting them fly away. Some bat species need to drop from an elevation in order to catch air in their wings before then can begin flying, but that's not so with our species.
Mother bats of this species give birth once yearly, to twins. During the youngs' early days, when the mother flies out to forage at night, she carries her brood with her, and I find this fact enormously touching. I can imagine how the young feel clinging to their mother high in a moonlit sky, the all-encompassing wing-fluttering beating the air around them, the rush of the wind, the heat and odor of their mother's body in the chill night air, the sense of relief upon return to my cistern at dawn...
As bats go, Southeastern Myotises are small bats. In fact, when the researcher measuring their forearms found her gloves to be too clumsy she removed them and though the bats tried to bite her they just couldn't set their teeth in her too-big, too-tough fingers. Most of our captives didn't seem very upset with our handling and only a couple fluttered, made noises and fought. The sound was a rapid, woody click.
Populations of Southeastern Myotis are losing ground rapidly as their habitats are destroyed. The species is considered a "Species of Concern" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a step sometimes preceding an organism being placed on the Rare and Endangered List. I am astonished to learn that my population may be the second-largest known to occur in Mississippi. I feel honored to live next to these fabulous little creatures.
You can read more about the Southeastern Myotis's lifecycle at www.nsrl.ttu.edu/tmot1/myotaust.htm
ON THE PLEASURES OF SIMPLE TASTES #2
Last week's words "On the Pleasures of Simple Tastes" seem to have resonated with several Newsletter subscribers. I don't mind continuing on this topic because I consider it a relevant topic for a naturalist newsletter. That's because any good naturalist loves the wild plants and animals around him or her, and wants to protect them, and there is no greater threat to the existence of Earth's plants and animals than ever-increasing, unrestrained human appetites. The environmental impact of the production, marketing and sale of an average hamburger or a cellophane-wrapped Twinky is unconscionable.
Subscriber Amy Dunn in Texas wrote me that "today I have been eating more plain and beginning a type of fast from processed and sugared foods. I had delicious split pea soup and brown rice for lunch. Even rice is sweet!"
Larry Butts in Mississippi wrote asking what I thought about a certain diet. You may remember that in my early 20s I weighed 340 pounds (153 kilos). As a kid I tried every diet that came along and none worked. I had success only when I studied nutrition, learned what the body needed, then considered what foods I had and what I liked, built my own diet around those basic facts, and stuck to it.
That was maybe 20% of the battle. The other 80% consisted of changing my attitudes toward food, myself and the world around me. I changed my perception of myself from that of being a kind of victim enmeshed in an out-of-control environment, to that of being a free spirit able to choose from the world's offerings, and to reject and avoid what didn't please me. The main thing making this new attitude possible was becoming so interested in the real world (nature) that my new interests and projects took all my energies and kept me so busy that sometimes I'd simply forget to eat.
Everyone is different and you have to figure out for yourself how to change your attitudes. However, you can learn about basic nutrition from any good book or Web site on the matter (Avoid those hawking specific wonder-foods or supplements). The book I started with back in the 60s was "Diet for a Small Planet" by Francis Moore Lappe. You can review that little classic and buy it ($6.99) at Amazon.com (giving my EarthFoot operation a 15% referral fee at no extra cost to you) by clicking here.
One place on the Web to learn about basic nutrition is www.nutrition.gov/home/index.php3. The US government's famous "food pyramid" is explained at www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2000/document/build.htm#pyramid.
When I analyzed my current vegetarian hermit diet I found it to be low in the B vitamins, so each day I take a multivitamin -- the only medicine I use, except for Golden Seal powder for my frequent cuts.
You also may be interested in "The Simple Living Network" at www.simpleliving.net/
The "Vegetarianism in a Nutshell" site is at www.vrg.org/nutshell/
Those of you interested in this topic may want to exchange notes via our "Natnat Chat Forum." The bottom of this newsletter explains how to subscribe to that forum and send mail to it.
What a pleasure visualizing Amy in Texas at that moment when she realized that "Even rice is sweet!"
Recent rains have brought forth a rainbow of mushrooms and I've been adding several species to my morning omelets. Bushels of tan-colored, tightly clustered- together Stump Puffballs, LYCOPERDON PYRIFORME, about the size of very large grapes, grow on an old oak log rotting near my camp and nowadays most mornings I go pick a hatful. For one of my mushroom pages on the web, this week I scanned a picture of them showing how their white threads of hyphae migrate through the rotting wood, and you can see that interesting picture on the lower left at www.backyardnature.net/funghyph.htm
Stump Puffballs are common, often abundant. They should be picked when small, when they are pure white inside -- before the white flesh differentiates into spores. I break each puffball in two, then drop the sections into a bowl where I mix in two eggs and, from the garden, sliced garlic and peppers. Then I fry this in an oiled skillet over my campfire, and the results are painfully good. The puffballs themselves don't have much of a taste, but somehow they perform magic with garlic and other things in a skillet.
There's a story about the genus name for this puffball, Lycoperdon. "Lyco" in Greek means "wolf." "Perdon" in Greek means "to break wind." Sometimes book publishers provide English names based on direct translation of the Latin name, but in this case they have chosen the innocuous name "Stump Puffball." I'll bet Shakespeare would have stuck with the direct translation and gleefully referred to them as Wolf-fart Puffballs.
Most plant and animal species enjoy at least one moment during their lifecycle when they are simply spectacular. Most of the year they quietly blend in with their surroundings, an unnoticed citizen in a diverse and rambunctious ecosystem, but then on a certain day or night suddenly they undergo a transformation that causes us to stand and look. People can be like that, too.
That's the case right now with Carolina Moonseed, COCCULUS CAROLINUS. All year this modest vine has entangled itself in my garden fence and climbed up this and that tree at woods edges. In early summer it produced small clusters of modest little greenish- yellow flowers you'd hardly bother looking at, and all summer and fall pea-sized fruits have been slowly maturing. Now, among deep green leaves vaguely shaped like elephant heads with floppy ears, those fruits are as shiny and RED as the reddest lipstick. Against a blue fall sky, this red-and-green ensemble is a kind of perfection.
There's one spot in the forest near here where Chinaberry trees have taken over. Chinaberries lose their leaves early, perhaps to better display their basketball-size clusters of greenish-white, marble- size fruits. So now we have a clear view of the Carolina Moonseed vines that have twined up every Chinaberry's trunk, to the very top. You can see what Moonseed vine looks like growing much less spectacularly on a fence at www.nativesoftexas.com/Snails.jpg.
Though songbirds eat Carolina Moonseed fruits with gusto, all parts of the plant are said to be poisonous to humans. Nonetheless, if you run into this vine you should pick a fruit and rub it between your fingers to remove the red flesh. That's because the seed inside is something special. It looks like nothing more than a flattish, nicely ornamented snail shell. I'll bet the Indians regarded this plant with awe because of its poisonousness and mysterious-looking seeds.
SPARROW WITH ARTIFICIAL EYE
Thursday at dawn during my morning jog I found a White-throated Sparrow dead along the road. It had just migrated south from Canada or the nearby US borderland only to be hit by a car on our Lower Woodville Road. I needed an image of a foot of a perching bird for my bird-feet page on the Web so I brought the sparrow home and scanned a foot. While I had such a pretty bird I also scanned its head and placed it on my general-information page for birds. You can see that portrait at www.backyardnature.net/birds_gn.htm
Of course the eyes of the dead sparrow were milky and semi-closed when I found it, yet you will see that the eye of the bird at the above page is sparkly and clear. I scanned the open eye of a living White- throated Sparrow from a book and with PhotoShop 5.5 pasted the new eye over my dead bird's milky slit.
There's the germ of a metaphor here that could be developed, one appropriate for our times, but I am resisting it.
MISSISSIPPI'S "TEN WORST WEEDS"
In response to last week's notes about the Chinese Tallow Trees found here at Laurel Hill, Newsletter subscriber Jerry Litton in Jackson provided me with a photocopied paper entitled "Mississippi's Ten Worst Weeds." Here they are -- their English name, Latin name, and the Web address where you can see a picture of each:
Alligatorweed, ALTERNANTHERA PHILOXEROIDES http://aquat1.ifas.ufl.edu/altphi.jpg
Chinese Privet, LIGUSTRUM SINENSE
Chinese Tallow Tree, SAPIUM SEBIFERUM http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/mi15/mi15070.jpg
Cogongrass, IMPERATA CYLINDRICA http://www.hear.org/pier3/images/imcylp18.jpg
Japanese Honeysuckle, LONICERA JAPONICA http://www.inhs.uiuc.edu/edu/VMG/images/jhnysckl.gif
Johnsongrass, SORGHUM HALEPENSE http://uvalde.tamu.edu/herbarium/final/soha_sdh.jpg
Kudzu, PUERARIA LOBATA
Purple Loosestrife, LYTHRUM SALICARIA
Tropical Soda Apple, SOLANUM VIARUM http://www.hear.org/pier3/images/soviap32.jpg
Water Hyacinth, EICHHORNIA CRASSIPES http://www.anbg.gov.au/weeds/eichhornia-crassipes.jpg
A year or so ago Newsletter subscriber Greg Scott in Wisconsin stumbled over one of my sentences in which I used the word "weed," and rightly so. I cringe a little myself when I use that word, but I do it because of the need to communicate with a language that, like all languages, uses words whose meanings are only approximate, and too often reveal unfortunate cultural prejudices and misunderstandings.
American writer and transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson asked and answered: "What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered."
A more usual definition is that a weed is a plant growing where it's not wanted.
Thus, the Passion Flower rambling along the plantation manager's garden fence, with large blossoms among the prettiest of the plant kingdom and a prized guest in many greenhouses and gardens, is a weed to the plantation manager.
I even have trouble with the word "weed" in the above list of Mississippi's ten worst ones. In places right around my trailer Japanese Honeysuckle and Chinese Privet overwhelm the local flora. Not far away, Kudzu overtops every bush and tree, gradually killing them with shade. In my gardens Johnsongrass is a plague. Yet...
Who knows what these plants' value will be as global warming stresses our native plants and animals, and fractures our natural ecosystems? Eventually our "weeds" will evolve subspecies and new species more adapted to our local conditions, and maybe those new taxa will generously contribute to the local ecosystem and stabilize it by dealing with the new climate better than our native species. Already one sees bees contentedly visiting Kudzu blossoms, and we all know that nothing makes a hummingbird happier than a Japanese Honeysuckle blossom in June.
In a certain way, an alien "weed" introduced into an ecosystem of native organisms is like an African drum-rhythm suddenly intruded into a dreamy blues. For a moment there's confusion, but before long the singer "gets the African beat in his blood," wraps one of his old melodies around it, and eventually has something new more engaging than either the drum-beat or the old blues song.
I don't know what my final thoughts will be about "weeds." I do know that as time passes I find myself admiring and indentifying with "weeds" more and more. One reason is that in this world where natural things inevitably succumb to mall parking lots and other manifestations of unrestrained human appetites, on an emotional level it's always safer to invest one's emotional currency with weeds than with native trees and wildflowers.