from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
February 2, 2003
FIVE TUFTED TITMICE AT BREAKFAST
Tuesday morning during breakfast five Tufted Titmice, PARUS BICOLOR, flew into the Sweetgum tree next to my trailer. They looked squarely at me and began fussing the way they do when the resident Corn Snake travels between the toilet and the woodpile.
I wondered if this were a family or a chance grouping of titmice, so on the Internet I Googled titmouse behavior. It turns out that during the winter family flocks of 2-5 birds stick together, the family normally consisting of parents and offspring of the previous season. Sometimes "unattached satellite birds" join such flocks, too.
During my Googling I ran into a study on titmouse behavior, done by some folks at Eastern Kentucky University. They captured 29 titmice in mist nets, banded them, and watched them through a winter. They found that the wider the black forehead patch on a titmouse's head, the more dominant it was in the flock. Also they confirmed that in a given flock the males typically dominate females, and adults dominate juveniles. It's also known that titmice observe strict pecking order -- every bird knows who can peck whom -- so there's no ambiguity about anyone's status in a flock. You can read the forehead-patch study at www.biology.eku.edu/KOS/titmice.html
A couple of years ago a storm blew over the big two- seater composting toilet the hippies used when I first visited Laurel Hill as a writer back in the early 80s. The community kept a suggestion box inside the toilet. Now most of the old building has disappeared into my campfires but I've strapped the suggestion box to that Sweetgum next to my trailer. I suspect that the titmice who scolded me during breakfast were making reference to that box. I think they said that the box would make a nifty nest, but they were a bit concerned about the commotion I made each morning. Titmice live in old woodpecker nests and other tree cavities, so this suggestion box must have looked like the Ritz to them.
Titmice belong in the same genus as chickadees, the genus Parus. In other words, a titmouse is to a chickadee as a Black Oak is to a White Oak -- pretty closely related. As a kid I couldn't understand how such different-looking birds could be so closely related, but when I began traveling I quickly saw what the deal was.
You can view a picture of a Tufted Titmouse at www.birding.com/images/6988ttm.jpg. In the uplands of northwestern Mexico the Bridled Titmouse looks just like our Tufted Titmouse except for its striking black and white facial markings (http://cavecreekranch.com/images/bridled-titmouse.jpg) Out West, the Mountain Chickadee has facial markings like the Bridled Titmouse's but it lacks the titmouse tuft (www.wildbirdphotos.com/images/birds/mountainchickadee.jpg) Then if you take a Mountain Chickadee and rearrange the black markings you get our Carolina Chickadee (http://pages.sbcglobal.net/whbauer/images/carchick.gif) Put all these species in a line and it's like viewing the individual images of an animation showing all the stages between a Tufted Titmouse and a Carolina Chickadee!
I've mentioned how in places our forest floor is covered with ferns, and that our two most abundant ferns are the Southern Shield-fern and the Christmas Fern. Last week's 15° (-9.4°C) caused most fronds of the Southern Shield-fern to collapse into brown messes (new ones will emerge in a few weeks), but Christmas Fern fronds remain healthy looking and green as ever, and are thus especially conspicuous now. You can see a typical Christmas Fern, POLYSTICHUM ACROSTICHOIDES, at www.casaflora.com/polysti_acrostichoides.jpg
Christmas Ferns are so named because they used to serve as green decoration during the Christmas season. The name makes more sense farther north where fewer green things can be found at that season. Really you have to admire this species. Not only is it tough enough to survive deep freezes, but also it inhabits a very large area -- from Nova Scotia and Wisconsin to Florida and Texas, and in Mexico. Moreover, throughout its distribution it's often the most common species. If you want to know the name of just one wild fern, you'll get the most mileage knowing this one.
If you find a Christmas Fern, look at the tips of its fronds. At this season probably the last few leaflets (fern frond subdivisions are called pinnae) will appear shriveled and brown, or maybe they'll have fallen off completely. That's because ferns reproduce by spores, and the lower surfaces of Christmas Fern frond-tip pinnae bear spore producing organs called sori. Once spores are produced, the pinnae bearing the sori shrivel and die. If you look closely at the bottom of the shriveling pinnae, you'll see brown, dusty stuff, and that's spores and dried, shattered sori. I have a page going into more detail about fern reproduction at www.earthfoot.org/backyard/ferns.html
This tendency for the terminal pinnae of Christmas Fern fronds to turn brown and shrivel during the spore producing season has kept this fern from being a favored potted plant. People think the fern has a disease. Stores sell a sterile variety of a very similar-looking fern, called Swordfern. Since this is a tropical species it dies completely after a freeze.
Several native fern species are similar to our Christmas Ferns, but Christmas Ferns are easy to distinguish because their pinnae have a special shape -- a bit like a Christmas stocking, actually. You can see a close-up showing this at www.hort.agri.umn.edu/links/Herb%201011/Ferns/polystichum%20acrostichoides%20close.JPG
THE JOURNEY NORTH WEB SITE
Newsletter subscriber Ana Franca von Berner in the Netherlands has written informing us of a new online Web site inviting North Americans to post our "first sightings of the year," so that everyone can watch spring inch its way northward. Among the records of first sightings being sought are those for the first frogs, hummingbirds, tulips, robins, loons, orioles, Barn Swallows, and Monarch butterflies.
You might enjoy familiarizing yourself with this site, then each time you witness a new spring arrival, contribute to the database. The site is at www.learner.org/jnorth/spring2003/species/index.html
I have some fine kinfolk in Kentucky who know what I like, so the other day my cousin Miles dug some sassafras root back behind his house and my cousin Eva Ray packaged it up and sent it to me. When the package arrived I could smell the sassafras through the cardboard.
My cousins had read in this Newsletter that we have Sassafras trees around here, but, at least within biking distance of Laurel Hill, it's so uncommon that I don't want to harass it by chopping at its roots. In contrast, in the hedgerow behind my cousins' homes in Kentucky, Sassafras grows like a weed. Same with Persimmons. Both Sassafras and Persimmon trees are abundant in Kentucky, but around here they're uncommon.
I got to drinking Sassafras tea when I was a kid. Each spring Papaw Conrad would say he needed some "to thin out the blood" after sitting inside all winter, and he'd always make sure I got my share. In fact, all the old folks around there spoke of needing their blood thinned at winter's end, and Sassafras tea was known as the drink that would thin it. In college my professors were of the mind that winter didn't thicken blood, and that Sassafras tea didn't thin it. They shrugged off my family's tradition as just another hillbilly superstition.
History books tell us that sassafras tea was once much used medicinally, first by native Americans, then by the colonists. It was believed that the tea made the body more resistant to diseases in general. Eventually our culture's affinity for synthesized name-brand medicines caused nearly all interest in sassafras to die away. Sassafras began making a comeback right before World War I when it was shown that people who drank sassafras root tea were more resistant to severe sore throat infections and colds than those who did not. Later it was found that sassafras has a general antiseptic power, and that it also induced the liver to cleanse toxins from the system. Is that "thinning the blood?"
The original natural flavor of root beer was sassafras root. Though I have seen chips of what appeared to be sassafras wood sold in US stores meant for making sassafras tea, on the Web I read that, because sassafras root contains the dangerous chemical safrole, the wood cannot be sold in the US for human consumption. Sassafras root bark can be sold because it contains less safrole than wood, so maybe the woodchips I saw were classified as bark, despite their appearance.
I can't say that sassafras tea makes me feel any better or keeps me healthy because I nearly always feel good and seldom get sick. But I can say that on a cold morning with an orange flame flickering beneath my pot of steeping sassafras root, a good cup of sassafras tea more than hits the spot. It evokes memories, spreads a sweet warmness all through my body, fills me with a sense of well being, and I'm pretty sure it thins my blood, too.
Before the package of Sassafras root arrived, cousin Eva Ray emailed me that the roots were still a little dirty but, she added, "It's Papaw's dirt."
What she meant was that the roots were dug from land that used to belong to Papaw Conrad, and therefore to us older folks in the family it was invested with a touch of sacredness. This was the dirt that Papaw plowed with a team of horses, the dirt on which he'd set his rabbit traps, and the dirt that stuck to his shoes when he just wandered around looking at things, which people used to do.
Maybe the two most profound ways to divide humanity into two parts are these:
In the old days nearly everyone fit into the "do" part of each grouping. Nowadays the trend is definitely toward the "don't" sides. That's too bad, for my impression is that people living in emotional solitude are generally unhappy and dysfunctional in one way or another. Similarly, those with no feeling for the land tend to live their lives without regard to the environmental consequences, the cumulative effects of which, done by so many who also have no feeling, is to threaten all life on Earth.
Of course there are remedies for this state of affairs, and they are simple and well known ones. Most religions, most philosophers, most Black mammies and backcountry Papaws all agree on them: "Live simply"; "don't be a hog"; "be decent to one another." But there's something in the human character that causes us to choose other paths.
Anyway, Papaw's dirt on the sassafras root was a double-barreled hello from my family and from the Earth. Many a good, hot cups of tea I have enjoyed this week ruminating on the thoughts these dirty roots stirred up.
VULTURES AND THE NITROGEN CYCLE
What a relief that the main deer-hunting season has finally ended. Each morning as I jog the gravel road leading into the plantation I witness one consequence of the past season: In a certain spot along the road about twenty vultures hang out, for below them there's the remains of a pretty doe whom the hunters wounded. She had pulled herself to behind a log beside the road, lain down and died.
It's a mixed flock attending the corpse -- both Turkey and Black Vultures, with more Black than Turkey. When I approach the flock the birds make a racket as their wings clumsily slap against tree limbs and make whooshing sounds lifting the heavy bodies upwards. Beneath the trees where the flock hangs out the ground is heavily splotched with white droppings.
When I jog, my body goes onto autopilot. I don't think about running, but rather the mind effervesces or obsesses on completely unpredictable topics. These days seeing the ground beneath the trees grow whiter morning after morning, my thought process usually goes something like this:
In my mind's eye I see the inept hunter wounding the doe, I am touched by the deer's fear and pain, and I see her lying down to die there behind the log. The vultures come, and then a process begins at at least two levels of comprehension.
The events of one of those levels are expressed in terms of vultures, the ripping apart and gorging of flesh, bird digestion and bird defecation.
The events of the other level are expressed in terms of nutrient cycling -- one of the most fundamental processes enabling evolving life on Earth.
As I jog, my mind replaces black images of vultures in winter trees with the pregnant thought that an atom of nitrogen lies at the heart of every molecule of every amino acid. And amino acids not only are the building blocks of protein, of which muscles and many other of the body's parts are made, but also they are the basic constituent of DNA, which carries the genetic code for all living things. Nitrogen atoms lie at the center of molecules of ADP and ATP, which enable energy transfer during photosynthesis. Obviously, without nitrogen, life as we know it on Earth is simply impossible!
So when the deer lay down to die, she bequeathed to her local ecosystem untold numbers of nitrogen atoms. Now the vultures are helping spread those atoms over the ground around the doe's body, and later when the rain comes dissolving the white splotches, the doe's nitrogen will seep into the ground. Comes spring, the grasses, vines, bushes and trees in that spot will be a little greener, will photosynthesize a little more lustily, because of this generous bequest. In my mind's eye, the ever-increasing numbers of white splotches of vulture shit are no less than spontaneous funereal blossoms appropriate for a dignified passing.
In fact, as I jog I understand that this is how I should like my own body to be received into death. In view of the fact that I have accomplished what insights I now have as a passenger inside this old beat-up body, it's clear that it would be disrespectful to discard this body it into the hands of those whose beliefs and behaviors are opposite to mine.
Please, if any reader ever hears of my passing, please do what you can to keep the morticians, preachers and politicians away from this body. At my death I wish to lie atop the ground and have my nitrogen received into vultures and ants exactly as has this deer, to have the wild boar and coyotes rejoice in gnawing my bones prior to redistributing my calcium to the earth from which it came. I do not want this honored body's final metamorphosis to be impeded by embalming fluid and I do not want my spirit insulted by the presence of any religion's formulated prayer or anybody's stock phrases at all. I wish my body to spontaneously sing in the wind as black wings rise, to become white rain that helps spring grass grow.
You might be interested in my page on the Nitrogen Cycle at www.earthfoot.org/backyard/econitro.html, and a diagram charting the Nitrogen Biogeochemical Cycle at www.earthfoot.org/backyard/nitrocyc.html