from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
January 5, 2003
COLD DAYS AT PEACE
This has been a chilly week with several frosty mornings. With the plastic tarpaulin over my trailer, the windows plugged with Styrofoam boards, and blankets draped over the ill-fitting door, inside the trailer I remain comfortable, even cozy. With windows and door-cracks sealed, it's dark inside and feels like a small cave.
At night I remain toasty inside a good sleeping bag and during days the heat of my computer and my own body keep the trailer's small space warm enough. I wear several layers of clothing and often work at the keyboard in fingerless gloves. My main problem is that sometimes the oxygen runs low and I must let in fresh air. Then heat escapes like a frightened wren.
This entire last summer I never once turned on a fan (most days I wore clothing only for jogging and working in the garden), and I'm hoping to make it through this winter without once using the small electric space-heater kept for emergencies. Some years I've managed, others I've needed the heater, though never for more than a few minutes each day. This week last year we had a 14° (-10°C) morning and I was glad to have the heater then.
I used to keep quiet about my living style, especially about my insistence on not wasting energy. I know that most people who see how I live regard me as being either despicably miserly or else mentally unstable. When our hunters meet me on a road some of them address me as if I were a child, or the village idiot. Though they can hear that I speak normally, they haven't the resources to interpret my appearance in any other way.
When I am in a regular US home and either the air conditioner or heat pump drones on and on, it weighs upon me. I cannot but keep thinking of the vast environmental destruction being caused in the name of my physical comfort. Land lost to coal mining, the production of greenhouse gases, radioactive wastes... all to produce energy to have me feel cooler or warmer without needing to add or remove clothing.
When at night I turn off my energy-efficient computer and my little 40-watt, high-intensity reading lamp, not an electron flows in my trailer. While I sleep, no ecological violence is committed on behalf of my comfort, and maybe that's one reason I sleep so soundly and awaken so glad.
BEECH TREES, MOONSHINE AND BRICKS
Last week I mentioned my surprise at there being no Beech trees at Laurel Hill, despite it seeming a perfect place for them, and despite their abundance in nearby counties. Larry Butts up near Vicksburg wrote the following about his own land, which seems to be very similar to ours:
"You can go in one hollow and it will be full of beech -- cross a ridge and there is not a beech in the next hollow. The reason for this is that up until the 1960's the moonshiners used beech almost exclusively for firewood because it makes a very hot fire and that is what is needed to make whiskey. It must have been a lot of stills in your neighborhood! ha-ha."
I haven't heard of moonshining here on a large scale, though there might have been. I think that in our case the explanation is probably that Beech and White Oak were cut to extinction locally during the plantation's brick-making days back in slavery times. Then, people here made and fired their own bricks. Around my trailer when I plant a tree or bulb, first I must remove a layer of broken bricks just below the leaf litter. Possibly I'm living where the plantation used to dump its broken bricks. The quantity of them is mind-boggling.
In the July 7th Newsletter of 2002 I described layers of very fine clay outcropping here and there at the plantation. I told how I made a cup with that clay, then fired it. The same clay may have been used for making bricks, and one consequence of that may be today's absence of Beech and White Oak.
In fact, the more I look at Laurel Hill's forest, the more I understand how abused it has been in the past. The great timber trees such as Beech and White Oak are gone and what's left is often-damaged, deformed, fast- growing trees such as Sweetgum and Water Oak. Except deep in the bayous on the steepest slopes, the most spectacular and fastidious wildflowers and ferns also are absent.
FIRE ANTS, QUAIL AND COYOTES
Continuing on the topic of species being absent where they should be, Larry Butts also writes that in his area "Quail are almost nonexistent. They were also plentiful in the 50's. I think the fire ants and the coyotes destroyed the quail."
It's the same there. At first I assumed that maybe quail just didn't like our climate. I should have known better than that, however, because I've seen Bobwhites, COLINUS VIRGINIANUS, all through Mexico into Guatemala, and they have lived in some awfully hot places, such as Veracruz along Mexico's Gulf Coast, and Sonora.
I'll bet that Larry is right. Imagine how hard it must be on any ground-nesting bird to deal with fire ants! The introduction of fire ants into this country has constituted nothing less than an ecological disaster, and we have only begun realizing the full extent of the tragedy.
HENBIT WITH A PINK-PURPLE FLOWER
Winter annuals are sprouting everywhere. Certain spots on the forest floor are green with the first sprouts of spring wildflowers such as Bedstraw, violets and Baby Blue-eyes. Parts of my gardens are green carpeted with Chickweed, Wild Geranium and Henbit.
In fact, on Friday the first Henbit flower appeared, a welcome little explosion of pink-purple atop a pagoda- shaped stem. Henbit, LAMIUM AMPLEXICAULE, is a member of the Mint Family, despite its not smelling like a mint. You can see what my garden Henbit looked like at http://linnaeus.nrm.se/flora/di/lamia/lamiu/lamiamp2.jpg
The above Web address takes you to a site in Sweden. That's not surprising, since Henbit is one of those hundreds of weedy plant species introduced from Europe and now perfectly at home in America. I've read that its name comes from the fact that hens will eat it. Books also say that you can boil Henbit and eat it as greens. I've tried that and indeed it can be boiled and eaten, but it's tough chewing and even tougher swallowing, with not much taste to recommend it. If you've tried eating boiled Henbit, you can truly appreciate Mustard Greens, Kale and Spinach.
THE PLANT HEAT-ZONE MAP
The mustard greens, kale, collards, arugala, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, turnips and all the rest are growing well in my gardens. Each morning it's a broad pleasure to open the gate and behold those large beds of leafy greenness framed by ridges of brown leaf- mulch trucked in from town. Seeing how fast things are growing has got me to thinking about the American Horticultural Society's new "Plant Heat-Zone Map."
This map was created because the old USDA "Plant Hardiness Zone Map," reproduced in untold numbers of gardening books and journals, on the backs of seed packages, etc., doesn't tell the whole gardening story. That map is based primarily on average annual LOW temperatures at different places. However, any gardener knows that the number of warm days and the heat's intensity also is important to plants. Thus the new "Plant Heat-Zone Map" is based on average HIGH temperatures. You can compare the two maps at www.goldsmithseeds.com/nav.do?s=ConsProducts&p=ConsZone
A close-up of the old Plant Hardiness Zone Map for the Southeast is at www.thegardenhelper.com/hzm-se1.html and you can download in PDF format the new Plant Heat- Zone Map at www.ahs.org/pdfs/heatmap.pdf
I'm not sure how precise these maps can be anymore, because of new weather patterns associated with global warming. In our region weather patterns are projected to grow more and more extreme as thermal energy continues to accumulate in the system. The more you heat a pot of water, the more violently the water inside the pot swirls around.
Therefore, while our average temperatures may increase in some small measure, we'll also be more likely to suffer occasional frontal systems producing brief periods of extremely cold temperature. And you know that it takes only one night of extreme cold to kill an apple tree's blossoms, or turn a nice bed of mustard greens into slimy mush.
Therefore I'm trying to not get too attached to my beautiful beds of greens. Right now they may be growing better than anyone would expect for January, but at any moment an Alberta Clipper can arrive that overnight will destroy everything.
In these new times of global warming, anyone susceptible to getting emotionally involved with plants would do well to stick to relating to crabgrass.
NEST BUILDING SQUIRREL
This morning as I campfired my breakfast into existence an Eastern Gray Squirrel made several trips up and down the trunk of the big Pecan tree over my trailer. Down he'd come and disappear into the clutter where the other big Pecan fell during Hurricane Lili. In a minute or two he'd appear back on the trunk, this time with his mouth crammed with a clump of leaves nearly as large as his head. Up and up he'd go, to 4/5ths of the tree's height. Then he'd disappear, apparently into a hole on the tree's far side, and before long he'd repeat the journey.
Much in contrast to recent years, many small flocks of American Robins continue circulating in the woods at Laurel Hill. Often small flocks cluster around my camp gorging themselves on the pea-size, black fruits of Alabama Supplejack vines, BERCHEMIA SCANDENS. These common woody vines twine into the very tops of tall trees. Supplejack fruits have been available for weeks, but apparently birds choose them only when the fruits of Poison Ivy vines are completely exhausted. Just about nothing makes a fruit-eating bird like a robin or a waxwing happier than a big Poison Ivy vine climbing up a tree, heavy with white fruit.
Around here Alabama Supplejack is abundant, though most folks have never heard of it. I suppose most people confuse it with other vines since superficially it looks like any of several species of greenbriar or sawbriar.
At this time of year Supplejack vines show up as wiry, leafless tangles in treetops, bearing small clusters of fruits. You can see a picture showing Supplejack leaves with their distinctive close-together, straight veins, and some immature green fruits, at www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/dcs420/b/hdw25059902s.jpg
Alabama Supplejack is basically a southern species. Despite its commonness here, it's listed as endangered in Illinois and threatened in Kentucky. When I did the "Flora of McLean County, Kentucky" for my M.Sc. degree, I never found it in my home county. It's a member of the Buckthorn Family, the family of the small Carolina Buckthorn tree that in July graces area woods edges with their handsome dark leaves and bright red fruits.
Sometimes woody Supplejack stems become two inches or more thick (>5cm). Often you find trees with deep scars spiraling up their trunks where a Supplejack wouldn't loosen its grip, so that the tree trunk grew only between the vine's coils. Sometimes you even find trees where a Supplejack has fallen away leaving a corkscrew-shaped trunk. Honeysuckle vines do the same thing to smaller trees.
COLLARLESS COLLARED EARTHSTARS
One of the most interesting fungi in our area arises from the ground looking like a dark brown, crusty, dirty, roundish tree-root knot about 3 inches across (8 cm). However, it easily breaks loose from the ground and if you crack it open you see that it's a kind of puffball with a thick, leathery, cream-colored "skin." Inside, it's composed of a spore mass that turns dark brown with age. If you don't bother the thing, in a few days its tough "skin" splits into 6-10 "arms," the "arms" peel back, and you have a classic earthstar fungus. With the reflexed "arms," the entire fungus reaches about 4.5 inches across (11.5 cm), and in earthstar terms, that's a very big species. It's the Collared Earthstar, GEASTRUM TRIPLEX, pictured at www.uoguelph.ca/~gbarron/GASTEROS/geast3tr.htm
You'd expect such a large, unique-looking, fairly common fungus to be easy to identify. However, I had problems.
Mainly, if you view the photograph at the above address, you'll see that the puffball part of the fungus is surrounded at its base by a very conspicuous, cuplike rim, or "collar." Our earthstars look exactly like the picture, except that ours bear no trace of a collar -- not a hint. Also, in the picture you'll see that unopened earthstars have pointed tops. Ours have perfectly rounded tops.
I found all this to be so confusing that I wrote to an earthstar expert at the University of Guelph in Canada. He replied that he felt sure I was dealing with Collard Earthstars. He thought that the species may not form its collar under the relatively warm and humid conditions we have here.
So, there you have it: Sometimes you just can't get comfortable identifications using books. Especially in our area it seems that the field guides designed to help us identify things are usually published by Northerners who are unfamiliar with or unconcerned about our species. All of my books picture Collared Earthstars with conspicuous collars.
Despite identification problems of the kind just alluded to, probably by now you've figured out that one of my greatest pleasures is identifying the plants and animals around me. One reason for that is that having the name of something is like possessing a key that opens a door to all kinds of new and interesting experiences and insights. I have a whole section on the Internet dedicated to the name-learning process at www.earthfoot.org/backyard/listopen.html
As that page explains, one way to identify things is by using special identification-oriented books called field guides. I tell all about field guides at www.earthfoot.org/backyard/fd_guide.html
Once you have the name of something, you can look up that name in books to find out more about it, or, often easier and more profitable during these days of the Google search engine, Google the name!
For example, when I was struggling to identify the Collared Earthstar mentioned above, at first all I knew for sure was that I had some kind of giant earthstar fungus. I went to Google at http://google.com, clicked on the IMAGE tab, typed in "earthstar," and got dozens of pictures of different earthstar species. A few of them matched what I had. I backtracked to the web pages on which the images appeared, got the name Collared Earthstar, then clicked on the regular Google WEB tab, and read all I could about it.
I still couldn't resolve the problem of my specimens not having collars, so now I redid the WEB search, this time looking for Web addresses apparently based at universities, hoping to find an earthstar expert. When I saw the www.uoguelph.ca address, I recognized that as being at the University of Guelph in Canada, so I went to that page and wrote to the university's earthstar expert. He answered the next day.
How wonderful to be a hermit in the woods, with access to Google! Is this not some kind of agreeable "Middle Path?"