from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
January 26, 2003
WIND ROAR ICE MOON
The cold front that moved through here late this week was an amazing thing to behold. On Tuesday the thermometer in my Waxmyrtle read 72°F (22°C) at noon. Then the wind rose into a roar and by Friday morning it was 15° (-9.4°C).
Wednesday night at midnight, embedded in the wind's howling, a persistent sound of an animal gnawing on plastic awakened me. I imagined the Opossum having finally succeeded in knocking my large thermal mug off its high perch, now eating away the mug's plastic cap to get at the hunk of cornbread stored there from the previous day. I abandoned my toasty sleeping bag and went to save the mug and cornbread.
But the mug stood in its place and the cornbread was safe. The gnawing issued from inside the woodpile where probably an Eastern Woodrat chiseled at a film cartridge left by the Newsweek photographers. Then I turned around, and above the trailer's roof in the frigid darkness I beheld a transfixing sight.
The gibbous Moon hung above the eastern horizon like a finely etched chunk of white ice. Three long, flat clouds lay below it, evenly spaced like stairs leading from Earth to Moon. The Pecan tree with its swaying Spanish Moss rose black-silhouetted to the left.
In recent years it's seemed to me that the blackness experienced when I close my eyes at night isn't as pure as the blackness remembered from childhood, and the same can be said of silence, and of the odors and tastes of things. The blackest blackness I can manage now is somehow a bit pale, and I never experience real silence, there always being a sort of ringing in my ears.
But Wednesday night the silence was palpable and pure, and the Pecan tree's silhouette against the moonlight- flooded sky was black as my childhood's blackest hole. The Moon dazzled not only with eye-hurting glare but also with a savage, cutting clarity. It erupted with glare, while the stair-step clouds were satiny black but with luminescent edges.
The wind roared, the sky cut, the Earth lay stunned into submission, and I stood there thinking this: That maybe the reason the senses dull as one grows older is that only children possess the stamina to survive glimpsing how exquisitely alone and vulnerable life on Earth really is.
COLDNESS BRINGS A MOOD
Several friends emailed me expressing concern about the cold weather, for they knew me well enough to guess that I'd try to make it through the freeze without using my space heater (which I did!). But, this cold snap was no problem at all. It brought a kind of mood worth savoring as it occurred.
During late afternoon before the night of the big freeze the sky spread over with a mysteriously heavy blueness that was so opaque and shadowy that when I looked into it, it seemed as if I heard a deep-bellied Ommmmmmmmmm. Deep in the night, alert to the coldness and quietness outside, I in my sleeping-bag cocoon imagined myself as an embryo in an egg suspended in distant empty space. Friday morning during my jog, chunks of ice coagulated in my beard, and I ran laughing, feeling the ice with my stuck-out tongue.
Later, sunlight slanting in from the east during breakfast was dazzlingly bright and clear, and how amazing it was that in such coldness the titmice should sing their spring song and my friend the Hermit Thrush should come looking at me just as he does on any warm day. The campfire blazed with orange flames and the smoke that drifted upward, having the last three mornings blown hard into my face as the wind streamed from the north, was nothing but friendly now.
Sometimes a taste of bitterness is required to remind us of the wonder of sweetness. This cold snap was bitter, and what comes now is pure sweetness.
SWEETGUM BALLS FALLING
The most common forest tree here is the Water Oak, but where old fields are reverting to forest, as around my trailer, and along roadsides, Sweetgum is more abundant. Nowadays the ground beneath Sweetgum trees is littered with Sweetgum balls knocked down by the coldfront's winds. You can see super-spiny Sweetgum balls, which are a bit smaller than golf balls, at a web site featuring dried cones, pods and such -- the kinds of durable natural things used as components of dry floral arrangements and handmade wreathes -- at www.pineconesandpodz.com/images/SweetgumLw.jpg
Sweetgum balls are often referred to as fruits of the tree, but really they are clusters of fruits. On Sweetgum trees, clusters of male and female flowers occur in different places on the same branch as the year's new growth expands in spring. You can see this arrangement on my Web page at www.backyardnature.net/fl_other.htm#sweet
In that picture, the spherical items comprising an upward spreading pyramid are clusters of male flowers, while the three drooping spherical items are clusters of female flowers. After pollination, the male flower clusters fall off and litter the ground, but the female ones expand during the entire summer, gradually turning into spiny balls. At first the balls are green but later they turn brown.
The actual Sweetgum fruit is a slender capsule with a long, pointed neck. Many such capsules are joined at their bases so that their pointed necks are directed outward in every direction, and this makes the spiny ball. In the Sweetgum-ball picture you can see that each capsule has opened up so that it's sort of like a bird's open beak. It has opened to release its seed, which is a small, papery thing a little like a pine seed. The Sweetgum balls falling now also are opened up, looking exactly as in that picture, and they are murder to step on if you're a tired jogger on a paved road!
If you have a pond or lake nearby and a magnifying glass -- especially a powerful handlens -- some sunny morning, even if it's a cold one, you should go to the pond's edge where decaying vegetation meets the water, lie on your stomach, and look very closely at the transition zone between the water and land.
Here you should see multitudes of tiny, dustlike items on the wet vegetation and on the water's surface. If you focus on just one of these miniscule things, it well may surprise you by simply vanishing in less than a blink of the eye. It'll be there one instant, then suddenly there'll be nothing but air.
The deal is that you are seeing a miniscule insect known as a Globular Springtail. Each springtail bears below it a bizarre springlike mechanism that, when sprung, bounces the creature out of view faster than the eye can follow and the mind can register. In general, Globular Springtails look like aphids, just much smaller. The larger ones are gray-cream colored but the smaller ones are quite pink. Some are so tiny that surely have just hatched, yet even they can spring.
Some 6000 species of springtail are known worldwide. I don't know which species or even which genus ours is, but it's in the family Sminthuridae. Keeping in mind that these critters are only about a hundredth of an inch long (0.25 mm), you can see some much magnified pictures along with diagrams of springtail anatomy at http://web.missouri.edu/~bioscish/sminth.html
Springtails are "living fossils." They evolved during the Devonian, 400 million years ago, long before there were dinosaurs and flowering plants or any kind of winged insect. When the first amphibians were just pulling themselves onto land, springtails were there to meet them. You can see some of this primitiveness in their life history. Instead of going through complete metamorphosis (egg-larva-pupa-adult) like modern insects such as butterflies and bees, freshly hatched springtails look just like adults, except smaller. Also springtail bodies have fewer abdominal segments than any other insect type.
During my springtail watching I often see two springtails head-to-head, one of them quiet and the other doing all the springing. I read that during courtship "the female carries the male balanced on her head," and I'll bet that that's what is going on.
Sringtails can exist in incredibly high population densities, even in cold weather -- even on snow, I've read!. At the pond's edge, if you have some springtails before you, draw back a little, blow a sharp puff of air over the vegetation, and you may see a veritable cloud of springtails springing, like a puffed-up cloud of dust. THOUSANDS and thousands of springtails... Whole springtail metropolises disrupted with a single puff!
The world of springtails is just another of those myriad worlds around us we don't even know exist until we make the effort to find them.
BUDS AND LEAF SCARS
Walking past a blackberry thicket I was surprised to see how large the buds were. Many blackberry leaves are still attached to the canes, some leaves being frostbitten crimson-to-purplish while others remain dark green with brown spots. Along the sides of last year's new canes arise slender, sharp-pointed, yellow- green buds 1/8-1/4 inch long (3-6mm). In fact, some of these buds already are sprouting. If you look closely with a handlens you can see the makings of compound leaves with 3 to 5 leaflets arising from one point like fingers from a hand. I think that deer must nibble on these buds and sprouts as they take shelter inside the big patches.
The buds on Sweetgum trees around my trailer are big, glossy and yellowish, and on the Hophornbeams the brown buds look as if they want to burst at any time. When standing looking at these buds, smelling the perfume from my Paper-white Narcissuses now in full blossom, how can I avoid springtime feelings?
Every tree and bush has its own kind of bud. On the Web I have a nice picture showing several bud types at www.backyardnature.net/budintro.htm
Immediately beneath most buds on deciduous trees and bushes there's a leafscar where last year's leaf petiole snapped off. This scar may be just as distinctive as the bud, and this also is shown in my bud-page picture. I have taken many winter walks with the goal of identifying all the trees I could just from their bud and leafscar characteristics. There are books to help with this. Maybe the most accessible is an old classic, still often in libraries and bookstores. It's William M. Harlow's "Fruit Key and Twig Key to Trees & Shrubs."
Nowadays when I stand looking at the Sweetgum's glossy yellow buds I vividly recall the pleasure of being a farm kid with my "winter botany" books, and with cold- numbed fingers and a handlens that steamed every time I put my eye close, discovering for the first time a rainbow of unexpected designs and colors on winter twigs.
My college buddy Jarvis Hudson, who now teaches Ornithology and Ecology at the University of North Carolina, keeps me updated about bird goings-on in his area. On Wednesday he emailed me this:
"This morning I saw a Brown Thasher sitting in a tree singing. That seems remarkable to me because it is only Jan. 22. It was freezing cold this morning and although there was no wind, it didn't seem like a spring day. The first day I heard a Brown Thrasher singing last year was Feb. 24. Maybe it's just an anomalous individual."
I like this. To most of us, hearing a Brown Thrasher singing would hardly make any impression at all, yet my friend Jarvis, who speaks in a gloriously deadpan and serious manner, regarded this little bird so "remarkable" that he was suspected of anomalousness.
So, this is the lesson: The world grows more wondrous when you pay attention, keep track of things and think about what's happening, even if what's at hand is only a little brown bird whistling in a bush on a cold day.