from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
December 29, 2002
THE BIRDS OF CHRISTMAS
Christmas Day brought a nice surprise: All the hunters were gone. As soon as breakfast was finished I began hiking to the back of the plantation, to where the bluffs overlook the Mississippi River floodplain, keeping a list of the birds I saw.
Here are the species, in the order they appeared, and the Ws after the numbers denote those species which are winter residents here -- not present during summers:
This is a modest list which only a true birder could love. It's exactly what you'd expect to see when taking a walk here.
However, that's much of the charm of such a list -- to confirm that certain things in this world turn out to be exactly where they should be, doing exactly what you'd expect them to do.
When I see vultures circling in a blue sky above a broad field I feel a pang of nostalgia. When the Barred Owl escapes low and in a straight line away from me winging silently through swamp Sycamores, or the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker suddenly jerks up his tail and squirts out a stream of sparkling pee, or the Bluebird tremulously calls unseen from the woods' edge... somehow I feel like Emily in Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town."
When the White-throated Sparrow in the blackberry thicket calls with its liquid "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody... " I feel like the ghost Emily in the cemetery on the hill, looking down on Grover's Corners, choking on the beauty of ordinary things.
ROBINS, CARDINALS AND BEECH TREES
The highlight of last year's Christmas Walk was a glimpse of a Cooper's Hawk. This year no uncommon species made a guest appearance (three days earlier a mature Bald Eagle lazily circled over my garden one morning). Still, on this walk there were special highlights.
For one thing, earlier I've mentioned my surprise that so few American Robins are to be seen at Laurel Hill. I'd been told that years ago they were abundant here, yet during some years of my presence I've not seen a single one. On this walk, suddenly there were hundreds in numerous small flocks filtering through the treetops, pausing here and there to gorge on Sugarberries or to pick at Chinaberry fruits, and at every pond I found them noisily splashing and bathing. This is what I expect to see in a woods like ours at this time of year and it's a mystery as to why they've been absent until now.
Of course population cycles occur and probably local migratory routes change from year to year as well. Recently Newsletter subscriber Phyllis in central Ohio wrote telling how the Cardinal population in her suburban neighborhood appears to be diminishing or, as she put it, "My oilers take forever to go down." (It took me a while to figure out that "oiler" must be serious-bird-feeding-enthusiast talk meaning "a bird feeder dispensing oil-rich seed such as sunflower seed.") Of course Cardinals love such seed. Have other subscribers observed similar mysterious changes in their local bird populations?
Speaking of disappearing local species, the books say that one of the main tree species in forests of the loess zone (like ours) is Beech. I have never seen a single Beech at Laurel Hill, though I've found them in abundance in neighboring counties. I've often wondered whether they might have been extirpated locally by overcutting in the past. Dried Beech wood is one of the best for burning. Similarly, I've found only one White Oak tree, though I'd expect it to be abundant here. White Oak wood also is a great firewood.
But, back to the birds. If you were to ask, "What's the most common bird at Laurel Hill," I'd have to guess that, at least in the winter and in contrast to Phyllis's experience, it would be the Cardinal. During my walk they were just everywhere, deep in the forest, hopping in the middle of large fields, at woods' edges, in blackberry thickets... In the summer, maybe Red-eyed Vireos are most common, but possibly Cardinals are the most common then, too.
This week subscriber Larry Butts near Vicksburg wrote this to me:
"I was coming home from work this morning around 7:30 and about 1/4 mile from my mailbox a very large and healthy looking canine sprinted across the road in front of my car. It was black and gray and approximately 75 pounds in weight with a bushy tail. Years ago I ran over and killed a similar animal and a friend of mine took it to Jackson to a wildlife biologist and he identified it as a 'coydog.' We see the occasional mangy solid gray coyote on the place. This was something different."
A coydog is a cross between a coyote and a dog, and there's a world of controversy about them. Some specialists claim that they don't and can't exist, others say that they do but are extremely rare, and others will identify a coydog at the drop of a hat. A while back someone at the "Homesteading Today" forum on the Internet asked the question "Is there really such a thing as a coydog?" and a flood of responses resulted, taking every position. You might be interested in viewing that exchange archived at www.homesteadingtoday.com/homestead/Countryside/Wcf9513ed0f080.htm
FIRST NARCISSUS OF THE SEASON
This week a "Paper-white" Narcissus, NARCISSUS TAZETTA var. PAPYRACEUS, has been blossoming next to my trailer, and before long I should have a pretty row of them. Each year the plantation manager has me plant bags of narcissus around her home and whenever I encounter a bulb with a small secondary bulb developing, I break off the secondary bulb, slip it into my pocket and plant it here. With time, my narcissuses thrive better than hers because she has workers mow hers down soon after they've blossomed, when the leaves are still green and before the bulbs can store photosynthesized carbohydrate for the next year's growth. Of course I don't do that.
It's been a bit disorienting lying next to this little narcissus on sunny days, smelling its musky perfume. At this time of year one relates to the odors of pine resin and woodsmoke.
This odor, then, has catalyzed in me an overpowering spring feeling. Intellectually I knew that the new year had begun with the Winter Solstice, but it took the fragrance of this little white flower to convince my spirit that now fall is long past, and spring has begun.
GARDENERS ARE NICE PEOPLE
The other day Newsletter subscriber David Buttross wrote from Austin, Texas that he was coming to Natchez for a wedding and that he'd sure like some cuttings from the fig trees I've mentioned here several times. He and Mrs. Buttross arrived Friday afternoon and we got the cuttings.
David has just retired and Mrs. Buttross has hooked him on gardening. One thing she said was that "David is discovering that people who like gardening are really nice people."
Of course I agreed with that, and if we'd had more time I might have launched into my theories on the matter. I even suspect that if anyone begins gardening as an unsavory individual, eventually the earth and garden plants and critters will communicate into that person a mellowness and a wisdom that will improve them. I think that nearly all human behavior and attitudes are profoundly influenced by paradigms that invisibly share our space with us. A paradigm is a kind of pattern, and I think that a garden's abstract patterns imprint themselves into us.
In fact, I see the Earth itself as the appropriate working paradigm for any garden, and any productive and beautiful garden as the working paradigm for a healthy human soul. In the garden when we're hunched over pulling chickweed from our radishes or laboriously spading mulch into the soil, when we reach that level of communion with the garden in which we are no longer thinking of ourselves at all but rather simply doing our best to make our gardens beautiful and productive, a current of harmony begins flowing through the Earth --> garden --> human-spirit continuum. It is a good, healthy current charged with the spirits of mingled moist earth, flower perfume and human generosity, and it imparts to all it flows through delight and the fruits of delight.
Indeed, gardeners are nice people.