from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
December 1, 2002
This week was long hours of bone-chilling drizzle, afternoons of cottony puff-clouds in vultury skies, warmish nights with questioning cricket chirps, and colder nights silent as dead crystal. One sensed a thousand summery traditions drawing to their ends as the annual cycle returns to its Winter Solstice.
Thursday morning after jogging I sat next to my campfire heating a pot of water with a wad of garden spearmint in it, watching what the sunlight did out in the blackberry field. That morning we had the season's fourth or fifth spotty frost, and for the second or third time a crust of thin ice glimmered in my rainwater buckets. Out in the field what little frost we had was melting and every blackberry leaf was wet, every clump of broomsedge was steaming, and the yellow-leafed Sweetgums and Hophornbeams all glowed golden in the low-slanting sunlight. The field reminded me of a child's ornate cardboard theater in which every feature was gilt, the stage, the hall, everything golden and filigreed, every random form fixed in a frozen golden glow, and all the shadows were perfectly black, black with absolutely sharp edges, a whole world of pure gold highlighted with satiny black curlicues and Chinese brushstrokes.
As the campfire popped and hissed and steam and smoke wafted into the naked branches of the big Pecan tree overhead, I recalled that that day the outside world was celebrating its Thanksgiving. However, I couldn't see that the day was more special than any other, so I made a point of being no more thankful than usual.
The next morning, Friday, it was even colder, the thermometer in the Waxmyrtle read 27°F (-3°C), and the ice in my buckets was almost too thick to shatter with a knuckle. That morning the blackberry field was pure white and after an hour of in-slanting golden sunlight still white frost-patches lay here and there.
Toward the end of breakfast the forest and field were wet and glistening, and though no wind at all stirred, about every three seconds a leaf would simply break off a tree and float gracefully to the ground. Frost on the big Pecan tree above was melting, so for a time it sounded like a spring rain coming onto the kitchen's corrugated tin roof.
The leaves and the melt-rain cascading through dazzling sunlight, steam and woodsmoke rising up through it all, and the birds beginning to stir, and I sat there trying to keep track of every event, every change, but things simply happened too fast to keep up with... !
LEAFSCARS ON TWIGS
The afternoon blossoming out of that morning was splendid so I left my computer and embarked on a project I'd been saving for just such a day. I went looking for woody twigs showing a variety of leafscar patterns. Leafscars are the scars left on twigs when leaves fall off. The leafscars of every species are different from those of every other species, so you can use them to identify woody plants during their leafless winter condition. I needed these twigs to scan for my Twig Page on the Internet.
Needless to say, wandering the fields working along woods edges looking for perfect twigs was a happy time. I ate a piece of cornbread next to a pond where three large Red-eared Turtles basked in mid-day sunlight. The leafscar images turned out great, and you can see them at www.backyardnature.net/woodtwig.htm#t
BREWER'S BLACKBIRD AT BREAKFAST
Earlier in the week a morning had broken overcast, so that day's feeling was completely different from the golden ones. That morning during breakfast a diffuse cloud of blackbirds moved through the treetops surrounding my camp. It was a mixed flock with a lot of Grackles and some shorter-tailed blackbirds. Mixed flocks like this in our area often consist not only of Grackles but also Red-winged Blackbirds, Brewer's Blackbirds, the occasional Brown-headed Cowbirds, and I'm just not sure if Rusty Blackbirds sometimes join in.
A Brewer's Blackbird flew into the big Pecan tree right above my kitchen carrying something in his beak. The binoculars showed his meal to be nothing less than a limp little Green Anole, held by the neck so that his head drooped down, making the silhouette of his long-tailed body look like an upside-down J. The anole's four legs spraddled helplessly, the toes on each foot spread like the points of a star, and it was a pitiful thing to see.
I can't imagine how this bird captured a Green Anole so early in the morning, for the sun wasn't high enough for anoles to come out and bask in its rays. Whatever happened, now the blackbird beat the creature against the branch and flipped the body around and around, trying to get it in position so that it would slip down his gullet smoothly. However, maybe the anole was just too large because after five minutes the bird flew off to catch up with his flock, with the reptile still dangling from his beak.
On the one hand, I have to admire the vigor of these blackbirds as they just take over an area for a while. Their big flocks passing around me are like the Mongol hoards on half-wild horses surging irrepressibly across the Central Asian plains. On the other hand, it seems a shame for such a common bird who usually is content with a grain of corn to eat such a complex and neighborly creature as an anole. If a bird must eat my anoles, I'd rather an owl or a hawk do it, snatching it after a brilliant dive from the sky.
Distinguishing the various blackbird species isn't always easy. The Brewer's Blackbird is very similar to the Rusty Blackbird. However, the male Brewer's head shines with a purplish iridescence, while the Rusty's doesn't, and that morning the anole-eater's head shined with iridescence. The distribution map in my birding field guide places us so close to the Brewer's' eastern limit that I was a little insecure about naming the bird. However, on the Internet I found updated maps showing that this part of the country is actually a "Brewer's hotspot." These maps are wonderful and if you identify birds you should bookmark the site. The USGS Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter is found at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/infocenter.html, and the Brewer's distribution map is at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/CBCMap/ra5100.gif.
Monday I was pulling bamboo rhizomes from the garden when in a shaded, moist spot I came upon a mushroom similar to the Stinkhorn (Dog-pecker Mushroom) I told you about in this year's January 27th Newsletter. Monday's find was about the same size and color as the January Stinkhorn but instead of having a single, dog- pecker-looking head, the head was composed of three arms arising from a common base, spreading from one another, then reuniting at their tips, and right below where the three arms connected there was a greenish blob of very stinky spore mass called gleba.
This was the Stinky Squid, PSEUDOCOLUS FUSIFORMIS. Usually it's considered to be a tropical species rarely found in the US, so this was a pretty good find. You can see what Stinky Squids look like at www.bostonmycologicalclub.org/Stories/0015_Pseudocolus.png
As was the case with the fairly common January Stinkhorn, Stinky Squids arise from white, egglike structures about the size of guinea eggs. Also like the Stinkhorns, these fungi produce stinky gleba to encourage flies and other carrion-lovers to land, walk around in the stuff, then fly elsewhere, spreading spores as they go.
If I were exploring on the Moon and found this weird little beauty behind a rock, it would seem no less exotic and mysterious to me than it did in my garden. One looks at it marveling, just wondering at the Creator's kinky, joking streak.
WITCH HAZEL FLOWERING
Yesterday wildlife photographer Jerry Litton, of Jackson, and I spent the day at Clark Creek Natural Area about 40 miles south of here. Like here, Clark Creek is part of the rugged bluff zone along the eastern side of the Mississippi River. Trails lead to many deep ravines and picturesque little waterfalls.
For me the highlight of the trip was seeing the Witch Hazel, HAMAMELIS VIRGINIANA, in full flower. At Clark Creek Witch Hazel is located at the most southwestern point of its distribution. I'm accustomed to seeing the bush flowering about this time of year in Kentucky, but in Kentucky its yellow blossoms with strangely twisted petals appear on leafless branches. Here the Witch Hazel's flowers come right next to the current season's bright yellow leaves. You can view a picture of Witch Hazel blossoms on a more typical leafless twig at www.ne.jp/asahi/hana/monogatari/2000/02/image2-5.jpg
My grandparents put great store in "Witch Hazel extract" for just about any skin or muscle problem, including piles. If you got burned, scraped or bruised, Witch Hazel extract was the automatic best treatment. There may have been something to this. The American Indians made poultices of Witch Hazel leaves and bark for swellings and tumors.
Friday morning after the knuckle-busting freeze the basil in my gardens was shriveled into black heaps and the Elephant's Ears were collapsed into dark, slimy mush. The pepper plants, green beans and Castor Beans are still hanging on, however, and of course the mustard greens, kale, cabbage and turnips should remain green all winter.
Around my camp one wildflower continues blossoming as if it were still summer. Some books call it Frost Aster. It's ASTER PILOSUS, and you can see its small composite blossoms with yellow eyes and white rays at www.ct-botanical-society.org/galleries/finished_plants/asterpilo_pl.jpg
One thing about asters is that so many kinds of them exist. My old "Grays Manual of Botany" lists 68 species for the northeastern US. Radford's "Flora of the Carolinas" describes 41 in those two states. In my tiny home county in Kentucky I identified five species and surely there were more. It's just amazing how at first glance all asters look the same but, once you begin paying attention, there are subtle but exquisitely defined differences among them.
Frost Asters perfectly reflect the spirit of this precise time of year. Their coarse herbage and sprays of tiny, complex, composite-type flowers would be out of place in the forests of early spring. I think of spring wildflowers as being like the violets -- small, tender, waxy or at least glossy plants, and rather simple. As the year progresses, most wildflowers are larger, tougher, and their flowers are more complex. The milkweed is a good summer wildflower. And then in fall we have these large, scratchy plants bearing great numbers of tiny flowers with complexly fused parts -- not only asters but also goldenrods, eupatoriums, ragweeds, and big grasses like Johnsongrass and the plume grasses.
The transfixing element in all this is that this pattern -- from small, tender and simple to larger, tougher and more complex, often with fusion and reduction constituting a back-current within the general flow toward increasing complexity -- is a paradigm expressing itself again and again throughout the Universe and at every level of understanding.
Think of the Big Bang with its early, elegant little ball of pure hydrogen gas now expressing itself as a Universe of galaxies, black holes, unknown seas of antimatter, and of course all those aster-like stars ("aster" is Greek for "star). Think of your own life, the earliest crocus-like moments in your mother's arms, the middle time like an orchid in a summer ravine, and now this, being ever-larger, ever tougher, ever more complex.
Well, these diffuse, roughly hewed thoughts are themselves like the Frost Aster at my door. I sit here reflecting that the forest approaches the frost-killed Winter Solstice expressing itself in terms of aster sprays while I with my autumnal gray beard, time- wrinkled bag of memories and disjointed thoughts about stars and asters approach... what?