from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
December 22, 2002
Most of this week has been breezy and unseasonably warm. It was good hearing crickets chirping in the full-moon nights and Spring Peepers peeping throughout the days. Before a cold front passed through on Thursday, deep in the nights I'd awaken and just lie listening to the whoosh of wind in the trees, and a small twig tapping against the trailer.
Usually as I work at the computer I listen to classical music on Public Radio. This week they've sprinkled fairly tired Christmas carols throughout their daily offerings so I've just kept the radio off. That resulting quietness reminded me of how nice it is to hear only the wind. It was a comfort, a "Joy to the World" in wind.
Maybe a hundred years from now sociologists and psychologists will shake their heads when they recall how today we tolerate in our lives such material, social and psychological clutter -- so many inelegant distractions. They will view us as we do London slum dwellers during the time of Dickens.
In my opinion, barking dogs, traffic noise, perpetually yammering radios and TVs, jets roaring overhead... they are more than inelegant: They are actually destructive to the healthy human spirit. Clutter, whatever the kind, fogs the vision, confuses the insight, mutes the music. Interminable distractions nibble at one's senses until mental fog, emotional numbness and spiritual torpor take over.
But, nature's sounds... the sound of breezes, the trickling water, surf at the beach, the heartbeat of a loved one... are actually therapeutic to a bruised soul. Maybe it's because these natural sounds remind us subliminally that a few solid realities do indeed exist, despite the evidence of the ever-shifting, choking clutter around us. Beyond the radio's inane noises, never-ending, majestically simple and powerful melodies stream throughout the Universe, and one sound of such a melody is that of wind deep in a warm night.
And just think: You can also walk in the fields and see the wind swirling through the broomsedge, and walk in the forests and behold that wind swaying tree limbs and sending down occasional sprays of bright leaves...
LONG MOON, LOW CLOUDS
The moon has been full this week, and the path it takes across the sky nowadays has kept it visible for a long time each night. Because of the way the Earth revolves around the Sun, when the Sun's daily path keeps it low in the wintry sky, as it is now, the Moon's path keeps it especially high. Six months from now it'll be just the opposite. I've heard these full moons near the Winter Solstice called "long moons."
Earlier this week when warm breezes from the south made sitting outside at dusk especially delicious, I watched the full moon rise exactly as the sun set. Later in the night the moon lit up low, fast-moving clouds scudding northward seemingly right above the treetops. The sky was black but the clouds were pale with luminous edges. As wind streamed through the trees the clouds were silent and ghostly and the moon shone through the silhouetted branches of the old Pecan tree just to the east. Those warm breezes caused long strands of Spanish Moss in the Pecan Trees to sway and undulate.
What a view that was! Just compose the picture in your own head: The scraggly tree silhouette with its gesticulating moss as black as satin, the rushing, silent clouds with glowing edges, and that solid moon so bright it almost hurt the eyes to look at it, so silver, silver, with those mysterious dark blotches, and the unending sounds of wind high in the sky...
SPANISH MOSS AND CHIGGERS
After last week's remarks on Spanish Moss, subscriber Larry Kennedy on St. Simons Island, Georgia wrote me that "Henry Ford stopped the use of Spanish moss in his T's and A's after receiving complaints from customers with red bumps on their fannies. Must have been history's first automotive recall."
Larry is referring to the fact that Spanish Moss, often used as seat stuffing material in the old days, is sometimes home to chiggers, or redbugs -- those little critters that burrow into the skin causing lots of itching. In Kentucky I've only heard of them referred to as chiggers but here in Mississippi I think people prefer the name redbugs.
I've had my share of chiggers. When I was about ten years old one summer day in Kentucky I went fishing with my parents. It was such a pretty stream (before the stripminers destroyed it) and the weather was so great that for a while I leaned back in the grass and watched the sky. That night the itching began. By bedtime it was awful. My mother had heard that putting a dab of fingernail polish atop the bump would help so she ornamented me with about a hundred little red dots. A lot of those dots were under my arms so the next morning I awoke with my arms firmly glued to my sides. Talk about whining and hollering as my arms were pried from my body one well-rooted hair at a time... I was a spoiled, only child. My poor mother.
When I was a kid a single chigger bite would form an awful red bump and the itching would be intense for two or three days. Now when I'm bitten there's hardly any redness or swelling at all, and not much itching, either. I'm not sure whether it's a matter of my skin having become tougher, or because after so many thousands of bites I've developed a kind of immunity. Are there Newsletter subscribers who have experienced the same thing?
Chiggers are so small that they are practically invisible. There's an amazing microscopy image of one at www.microscopy-today.com/images/DS-11.GIF
This Wednesday a friend at Tulane emailed me that he'd seen my photograph on page 50 of the current Newsweek Magazine, so there's the result of the visits I told you about a couple of weeks ago. I've only received two emails about the picture so it mustn't have been much of a presentation. Last week I was mentioned on "Newsweek Radio" and the hits at my Web sites skyrocketed. This week, with my picture appearing in Newsweek itself, there was no hit-bump at all.
Maybe this has been my "fifteen minutes of fame." Well, there are less impressive ways to gain fame than by having identified a birdnest using Google, as explained in the Newsletter.
BATS WHEN IT'S COLD
In this year's August 4th Newsletter I told you about counting 1,783 Southeastern Myotis bats in the old concrete cistern beneath my outside kitchen's roof.
The old cistern, which contains a foot or two of water, stays warm inside even when it's cold outside. On a recent morning when the thermometer in my Waxmyrtle stood at the freezing mark a thermometer I'd dangled on a string to near water level about 20 feet below the cistern's neck (6 meters), read 65° (18°C).
I've been watching to see what happens on cold evenings at the time when the bats emerge. Because I can hear their peeping, my impression is that at that time the whole colony is awake and active in its warmish home. At sundown the first few bats begin emerging but instead of all of them streaking off to parts unknown, a few do depart, but most flit about the kitchen awhile before returning into the cistern, and a few turn back the instant they feel how cold it is. As time passes, the great exodus of bats does not materialize but rather a few bats continue flitting through my kitchen as others fly into and out of the hole. Then for a while there is a general retreat back into the cistern, and before long all is quiet, and the long, cold night remains batless.
EASTERN PIPISTREL AND RAFINESQUE'S BIG-EARED BAT
During yesterday's Solstice walk I passed through a culvert I've visited dozens of times before and for the first time found sleeping bats in it. Two individuals were present, one hanging in the middle of the flat concrete ceiling making a brown, fuzzy ball about the size of a small guinea egg, and the other clinging to the concrete wall, a good deal larger and darker. The ceiling hanger was the Eastern Pipistrel, PIPISTRELLUS SUBFLAVUS, and the wall-clinger was the Rafinesque's Big-eared Bat, PLECOTUS RAFINESQEI.
Eastern Pipistrels are very similar to the Southeastern Myotises in my cistern and I would have assumed that the ceiling hanger was just another of them except that I was surprised to see one hanging alone. Therefore I took a good look at him. The way you distinguish the two species is by examining the shape of the "tragus," a little scoop-shaped appendage in their ears, looking like a smaller ear-flap arising inside the big ear. The myotis's tragus is sharp while the Eastern Pipistrel's is rounded. With a handlens I could clearly see the rounded tragus.
It's known that in or around May the mothers of this species give birth to two young, sometimes one, and that they carry their young of feeding flights for about a week after they are born. Later they are left hanging at the roost and begin flying on their own at about four weeks of age. You can see a great picture of an Eastern Pipistrel clearly showing the rounded, scoop-shaped tragus (the pale, small thing pointed upward and arising at the base of and inside the big ear) at www.batcon.org/discover/species/l8321502.jpg
I've been wanting to see a Rafinesque's Big-eared Bat for a long time, and it was worth the wait. I didn't see the full length of its ears because the tips were tucked behind its wings as it scrooched into a ball on the wall. The two main characteristics of this species are, first, that it has two large lumps atop its snout, and, second, that its big ears, instead of being widely separated by the crown of the head, join into a sharp V right above the snout. Strangely, this Big-eared's little black eyes were open so that when I placed my handlens less than an inch from his face I could clearly see my own silhouette in the eyes' sparkle, yet he never moved a hair. It was as if his brain were detached from his open eyes, and maybe they were.
There's an amazing but possibly hard-to-interpret photo of the Rafinesque's, clearly showing the lumps over the snout (if you can find the head... ), at www.sas.usace.army.mil/images/rafbat.jpg
This is exactly the time of year to pay attention to oaks because they still bear their leaves and their acorns are fully formed, often to be found on the ground beneath the trees. If you like to walk through the woods identifying your trees, you probably know that the subject of "oaks" can be a messy one. Here's why:
- Several look-alike species usually occur together
- Oak species hybridize, making intermediate forms
- You never know what uncommon species will pop up
Here at Laurel Hill I've identified nine oak species (the list is at www.earthfoot.org/places/usms01c.htm) and there may be one or two others hiding. Four of those species possess deeply lobed leaves, and the lobes end in sharp, needlelike, "bristle" tips, so the leaves of those four species can look a lot alike. The look-alike species are:
At this time of year the least common of the above four species, the Shumard Oak, is easy to pick out in the forest, and during this week's warm, sunny afternoons I've relished walking through the woods locating them. On such days Shumard Oaks show up as large, yellow-leafed trees with a certain airy, glossy look.
Of course the leaves are yellow only in late fall. They look "airy" because their leaves are very deeply lobed and the lobes are narrow, so more light passes through the branches than with other trees. The "glossy" look results because the undersurfaces of Shumard Oak leaves are hairless, and therefore a bit shiny. The other deeply lobed, bristle-tipped leaves are usually covered below with thin layers of velvety hairs which from a distance give the trees dull, ashy looks, not glossy. However, late in the season sometimes leaf hairs wear off, so "leaf hairiness" isn't always a dependable character. That's why it's so nice to have acorns available.
You know that the nut part of an acorn is produced atop a scaly "cup." Well, Shumard Oak acorns have "flat cups," while the cups of acorns of the other deeply lobed, bristle tipped species are much deeper, more like goblets.
You can see the Shumard Oak's deeply lobed leaves with bristly lobe-tips and its acorns' flat cups at www.cnr.vt.edu/dendro/dendrology/syllabus/qshumardii.htm You can compare the flat acorn cup there with the much deeper acorn cup of the Black Oak at www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/dcs420/c/hdw25109820s.jpg
Shumard Oaks are "programmed" by their genes to play a specific role in the development of the forest around them. The species' seedlings need full sunlight. This means that Shumards "help heal" a forest when it is damaged and light floods through its broken canopy. Once the forest is mature, then the Shumards selflessly disappear from the scene because their seedlings can't survive the healed forest's shade. At Laurel Hill, Shumards have had it easy because the forests here have a long history of being logged and relogged.
THE SKY IS BLUE
Yesterday, the Winter Solstice, I took my Solstice Walk. It was sunny and breezy, and the old fields here on the plantation with broomsedge and blackberry brambles encroaching from the woods' edges were brilliant in their thousand shades of rusty-brown and gray. Framed by such muted hues, the blue sky was simply overpowering with its dark blue.
The Solstice is a time to reflect, and after a while of hiking I found myself meditating on that blue sky. Is it not significant that the sky is blue?
Imagine all the colors the sky could be, yet it is blue, a color that sets the troubled mind at peace, that implies profundity and constancy. If you feel like lying on your back in the middle of a large field and letting the mind float, what color would you want the sky to be other than blue?
It's more than that we are simply accustomed to the sky being blue. I think the sky's blueness satisfies so profoundly because we humans have evolved beneath blue skies. Not only our simian ancestors on the African plains but also the little lemur-like first mammals and the first amphibian ancestors to pull themselves onto muddy shores -- first raised their heads to see a blue sky.
So what does it say that today the blue sky pleases us so? To me it implies that the Creator was not satisfied to just make a universe that worked well and looked good. It was important that those parts of creation evolved enough to have feelings -- we birds, coyotes and humans, for example -- could potentially feel content and be at peace where we are. Could indeed feel exultant just when walking around with the eyes open.
Having the sky blue, then, is a blessing and a confirmation, and I am using those terms in a spiritual context, certainly not a religious one.
Having a blue sky on the very day I celebrate the Solstice by taking a long walk in the fields is almost too wonderful to express.