from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
December 8, 2002
SNAPPING LEAF & DUCK SEASON
Saturday morning the fields and trees around camp were white with frost, for the ground had been soaked by the rains of midweek, and the temperature inside my Waxmyrtle hovered at 27° F (-3° C). As the sun rose, black wet patches appeared here and there, and before long it was again a "golden day" of the kind I told you about last week, all gold etched finely with black shadows.
Also like last week, as warmth returned, despite there being no wind at all, leaves began falling. A leaf would be hanging in place where it had hung during mosquitoey months of honest service, then it would simply snap off and float to the ground. I was looking exactly at a bright yellow Sweetgum leaf in perfect repose when its petiole snapped from the twig and the leaf fell.
I needed that perfect moment, for my dawn had begun with unaccustomed racket. It's hunting season and the hunters here were just on a rampage.
Earlier that morning, when it had grown light enough to see a hand before the face, a barrage of shots awakened me, detonating like popcorn popping from St. Catherine Wildlife Refuge just to our west. When it was light enough to go outside, a pair of Wood Ducks circled overhead crying. At that time the hunters here at Laurel Hill were caravanning on their four-wheelers to their deer stands, filling the morning air with loud engine sounds, while guns at the property's edge were blasting.
I stood watching the circling Wood Ducks, hearing the anguish in their calls, and hearing the engines and the guns. I smelled the morning's ice and freshness, and the odor of engine exhaust fumes drifting across the broomsedge field from the hunters' camp. If I had not long ago worked out my feelings on these matters, I should have been very angry then, even despondent, because of my own helplessness. If you are unfamiliar with what a Wood Duck looks like you should look at a pair just like the ones that circled above my camp at www.birding.com/images/414wd.jpg
I have no more to say about this. Just that I was glad when the sun was fully up, the shooting trailed off, and the crystalline white world with its awful shatterings deliquesced into a quiet, golden one. And I was glad to be honored by being able to be a witness of that very moment when the Sweetgum leaf -- after a long, productive life and with no apparent reason -- snapped and simply floated to the ground.
Monday afternoon while working at the computer something caught my attention at the corner of my vision. Outside, about ten feet (3m) beyond my kitchen, there stood a Gray Fox, UROCYON CINEREOARGENTUES, sniffing at something on the forest floor. He raised his head, looked right at my door, I saw something click in his mind, and he silently and quickly slipped away and disappeared before I poked my head from the door. Gray Foxes are mostly nocturnal and very secretive, so it was something to see one so near my trailer at 3 PM. In this area they breed from December into March, so maybe romantic goings-on were afoot.
I've seen Red Foxes here before but this was my first good look at a Gray one. Actually during the last week I've been on the lookout for foxes because I've been seeing fox scats along the road -- black droppings with long tapered ends consisting of hairs of prey passing through the digestive system.
The coat of my Monday fox was thick and glossy and he gave every impression of being in full control of things, and in a good mood. His coat was strikingly two-toned -- dark gray above and dark red below. You can see this distinctive pattern at www.llnet.net/~heinatz/fox3.jpg
Though Gray and Red Foxes are in entirely different genera (Reds are members of the genus Vulpes), they can look a good bit alike. The most dependable fieldmark separating them is that Red Foxes have white tail tips while Gray Fox tail-tips are dark. Red Foxes have color phases and there's a "cross phase" between the "red" and the "black" that can look like a Gray Fox's coat, but the tail tips are always the giveaway. Red Foxes also have black feet, while a Gray Fox's feet are grayish or reddish.
Gray Foxes are famous for being able to climb trees, and I'd love to see that. I've read that they shinny up tree trunks to a limb, then jump from branch to branch as they go after squirrels and birds. Their toenails are longer, sharper, and more curved than the Red Fox's, which seldom goes into trees.
The winter diets of Gray Foxes in Texas have been shown to consist of:
- 56% small mammals (cottontails, rats, mice)
- 23% insects, largely grasshoppers
- 21% birds (doves, sparrows, blackbirds, towhees)
After glimpsing this beautiful animal I felt good the whole day.
WATER OAKS DROPPING ACORNS
For the last three or so weeks the Water Oaks, QUERCUS NIGRA, have been dropping their acorns. Other oaks are dropping their acorns, too, especially the Black Oaks and Southern Reds, but in the forest around the trailer Water Oaks are by far the main species.
Water Oak acorns announce themselves in two main ways. First, if you sit next to a woodland pond you can bet that within a minute or so they'll cause a kerplunk in the water nearby. Second, they lie in great numbers, squashed, on the roads. They are distinguished from the acorns of other oak species by being smaller, black instead of brownish, and inside them their "meat" is bright orange.
Water Oak acorns are especially noticeable as I jog on Lower Woodville Road each morning. The road's black asphalt is like a dark sky populated with thousands orange stars, the stars being tire-squashed Water Oak acorns. The orange color bespeaks a heavy concentration of tannin in the acorns. This tannin is what makes the acorn so bitter when you nibble on it. In the old days oak-derived tannin was much in demand for tanning leather and for astringent medicines. If I ever develop bad hemorrhoids I'm looking forward to making my own pile medicine by extracting pucker-causing tannin from the local Water Oaks.
In earlier Newsletters I've made the point that the forest here, because of the influences of the loessal soil, is surprisingly similar to the forests in which I came of age in western Kentucky. We're located toward the southern tip of a very long and very slender "peninsula" of oak-hickory forest extending south from western Kentucky and Tennessee, through this plantation area, into central Louisiana. Just to our west, Louisiana's swampy flatlands spread out, while just to our east the vast Southern Pine Forest appears.
Still, the oak-hickory forest here is not exactly like an oak-hickory forest in western Kentucky. Here are the most striking differences I've noticed:
- Spanish Moss doesn't dangle from Kentucky trees
- Wildflower diversity is greater in Kentucky woods
- There are no Southern Magnolias in Kentucky forests
- There are no Water Oaks in Kentucky
To me the fact that Water Oak can be so abundant here but completely absent from Kentucky is just mind-boggling. Apparently it's a matter of weather. The Water Oak's distribution map shows that not only is it limited in its northern extension, but also it is absent from the southern half of Florida and southern Louisiana. Water Oaks must be exquisitely fine-tuned for a very narrow range of weather conditions -- to just what we have here. You can see the tree's distribution map at www.na.fs.fed.us/spfo/pubs/silvics_manual/Volume_2/quercus/nigra.htm
What will become of Water Oaks after a few more decades of global warming? They don't extend far into Texas, so apparently they require a good bit of rainfall. If global warming causes their distribution to shift northward they will surely suffer because projections are that the area north of us will become so droughty that savannahs and grasslands will replace much forest area.
All this is too painful to think about. I am just glad to be alive at a time and a place with Water Oaks still magnificently alive and prolific, composing endless constellations of brilliantly orange stars as I jog Lower Woodville's black pavement these chilly mornings.
You can see a leafy Water Oak branch at www.virtualherbarium.org/lf/qnigra.jpg
BIRD NEST & NEWSWEEK PHOTOGRAPHERS
You may remember from this year's May 26 Newsletter that I found a bird nest and, using the Google search engine, identified it as having been built by a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher. On my Bird Nest Web page at www.backyardnature.net/birdnest.htm I wrote about the nest and my Googling experience.
A few weeks ago George Hackett, a Senior Editor at Newsweek magazine in New York, called me. He was writing a story about the wonders of the Google search engine, had found my page on the Internet (he'd "Googled it up"), and wanted to know more. As he gathered information he developed an interest in where I am and what I'm doing, and ended his call with the startling comment, "I'd better send a photographer down there."
Weeks passed and then this Tuesday I heard that a Newsweek photographer and his assistant were on their way. They arrived on stormy Wednesday. Over their cellular phone I got them onto Lower Woodville Road and finally through the gate to the hunters' camp, where I went to meet them. Based in Dallas, Texas, the photographer was Brent Humphreys (www.brenthumphreys.com), a very stylish-looking and gentlemanly man of about 30, and his assistant was a young Chinese woman named Theresa, about 21, with abundant energy, wit and humor, and bleached-white hair.
That rainy afternoon and evening, and the next very cold, windy morning, they took maybe 150 photos, nearly all of me sitting and standing in different ways. I can't imagine what will become of these shots. I'm hoping the idea is to show how a fellow can live a simple life close to nature and still be vigorously engaged in doing worthwhile things via the Internet, but I know there's always a chance that they'll end up indulging the world by showing yet another "weird Mississippi redneck dissipating in a shack in the woods," or maybe nothing at all will come of it.
Whatever the outcome, it was a pleasure receiving these guests. It was interesting seeing Brent's working technique and his equipment, which included infrared-synchronized flashes, ring flashes, an array of reflective screens that kept toppling in the blustery wind, and a very complex-looking camera that ate batteries like I eat cornbread. Theresa, who was smart and sharp beyond her years, described to me her love for photographing young men dressed as women, wearing very gaudy colors. In short, here were two different worlds colliding, yet somehow we all ended up feeling close to one another, feeling that we were alike.
Maybe the thing that united us was this: We were all desperately engaged in trying to open other people's eyes, to help them see past mere images into the vivid realities of things. Brent found profound beauty in the way people's environments and faces reflected what was inside them. Theresa longed to share with others the stark beauty of bright colors and of young men with soft edges and a certain flair. And of course what drives me is the need to have other people discover nature in intimate, meaningful ways. Something at one time or another has enchanted each of us, charmed us, made believers of us, and sent us charging into our respective milieus as true disciples.
Of course most of the time I think that my discipleship is the most urgent, on these grounds: Because if people continue to be blind to nature, they won't care enough about it to stop destroying it; then when the biosphere collapses, there'll simply be no more stage on which beautiful faces and gay young men wearing pink boas can perform.
But, then again, sometimes I wonder whether from the Creator's point of view it may not all be the same. Maybe, in the end, the delight of a young woman for the color red may be just as substantial and relevant as a fern in the woods. For, they are both evanescent, maybe even illusory.
The important thing, perhaps, is that at least for a certain moment in time a feeling blossoms -- that a genuine, glad, uncomplicated enthusiasm for something gushes forth, is felt by a living being who because of that something finds great joy just in existing himself or herself...