from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
March 2, 2003
PSEUDOSCORPION AT BREAKFAST
Early this week while tending the breakfast campfire I noticed something tiny moving around at the end of a burning twig, trying to escape the heat. The creature was only about 1/8th inch long (4 mm) but from the first I could see that it was something special.
Carrying before it two very conspicuous, crayfish-like claws, it looked like a miniature scorpion. The only way I knew it wasn't a real scorpion was that its rear end, instead of ending in a sharp, curled stinger, was rounded. You can see a good picture of exactly what I saw, except that mine was almost black while the one in the picture is honey-colored, at www.uku.fi/~holopain/stt/Pseudscorpion.jpg
Now, this creature wasn't an insect because it bore eight legs instead of six. It was an arachnid, like a spider, but it belonged to a different order than spiders. Among arachnid orders are the spider order, the mite and tick order, the daddy-longlegs order, the scorpion order, and the order to which my little discovery belonged, the pseudoscorpion order. I had found a pseudoscorpion! I'm not sure what it's complete name was. Over 2,000 pseudoscorpion species have been described.
Pseudoscorpions are too small to injure humans, but their claws bear poison glands that help them incapacitate insect prey. Being arachnids, like spiders they possess silk glands, and they use their silk to make chambers for overwintering, molting and brooding. When young pseudoscorpions hatch they ride on their mother awhile. Pseudoscorpions are often distributed over much larger geographical regions than would be expected, and this is often attributed to their special talent for hitchhiking on the bodies of larger animals.
Pseudoscorpions are often abundant in leaf litter, under stones, and the like, and some of them even turn up in people's houses, especially in bathrooms, to which they are attracted by the humidity. There's a page focusing on pseudoscorpion distribution and habitat preferences at http://insects.ummz.lsa.umich.edu/MES/notes/entnote16.html
Here and there in our woods, especially on moist, shaded banks, bright yellow blossoms adorn slender branches of the Spicebush, LINDERA BENZOIN. Among the native plants in our woods this is one of the most spectacular harbingers of spring. You can see a very pretty close-up of a flowering Spicebush twig at www.delawarewildflowers.org/lindera_benzoin.jpg
Spicebush grows throughout the eastern US but around here it isn't particularly common. In my old stomping grounds in Kentucky it often grew abundantly and more robustly than here. As a young man wandering the Kentucky forests often I chewed on Spicebush stems, for all parts of the plant are strongly spicy in odor and taste.
Spicebush is a member of the Laurel Family, so it's not surprising that its parts are so aromatic. In this same Laurel Family we also find Camphor, Cinnamon, Avocado trees, and my beloved Sassafras. Being in possession of such pungent chemical agents you might guess that Spicebush has been regarded as having medicinal value. American Indians used it for coughs, cramps, delayed menses, croup, and measles. They made tea of its bark to promote sweating, to purify the blood, and for colds, rheumatism, and anemia. The settlers used the berries as an Allspice substitute.
BLOSSOMING STINGING NETTLE
At certain spots in the forest, especially in rich soils where deer and wild boar gather in the night leaving the ground torn up and musky-smelling, another plant is flowering now. It's one of the Stinging Nettles, URTICA CHAMAEDRYOIDES. If a Stinging Nettle has ever gottenm to the tender part of the back of your leg, you know how it stings, and how the stings cause red and white, itching blotches.
It happens that this week I was enlarging my Web page on "plant hairs," so I brought a Stinging Nettle home and scanned its hairs. A nettle's hairs are amazing. For one thing, they are uncommonly stiff and sharp. When you brush against them, the sharp tip punctures the skin and breaks off. This sharp tip is like the top of a vial filled with poison, so when the top snaps off, the liquid contents of the vial empty into the skin puncture, causing the burning, itching wheals. You can see my scanning of some hairs at www.backyardnature.net/urtica.jpg
When I lived in Belgium a little field next to the old farmhouse each spring produced lots of Stinging Nettles beneath the cherry trees, though they were a different nettle species from ours at Laurel Hill. During those springs in Belgium, every few days I'd put on a long-sleeved shirt and gloves, and go pick the more tender nettles and cook them as greens. Once they were cooked, the spines either disintegrated or went soggy, and the plants cooked up just like turnip greens, though they had their own unique wholesome flavor. I used to love buying a big loaf of local bread, smearing it with rich local butter, and making thick Stinging Nettle sandwiches!
WAXMYRTLE FOR MOSQUITOES
After last week's remark about Chinaberry leaves being useful as a mosquito repellent, Newsletter subscriber Larry Kennedy on St. Simmons Island, Georgia wrote saying that for years he'd used Waxmyrtle leaves as a long-lasting repellent.
Waxmyrtle is abundant around Larry's place, on a lowland coastal barrier island. There are several Waxmyrtle species. The one we have, MYRICA CERIFERA, is sometimes called the Southern Bayberry. Though this species is common in our area, mainly it's restricted to the lowlands, especially alongside swamps. The ones around my upland trailer were surely planted. You can see a leafy Waxmyrtle twig at www.sciencebuff.org/BOTANYCATALOGUE/myrigale.jpg
So, there's Chinaberry and Waxmyrtle leaves as mosquito repellent. Anyone else have similar suggestions?
MISSISSIPPI BIRDING MAILING LIST
Newsletter subscriber Jerry Litton in Jackson has introduced me to the Mississippi Birding Mailing List maintained at Ole Miss. Lately this list has been generating two to five mails a day, and it's been fun "reading the mail." This list is for folks serious about birds, folks who wade into flooded cornfields, sneak through the deepest swamps, and drive long distances to spot special species, so probably most of the birds talked about in the list are unfamiliar to average bird-feeding enthusiasts.
For example, this week Marvin Davis spotted 66 Sandhill Cranes in a flooded field in the northern Delta. At a nearby catfish pond he identified one Snow Goose with Rudy Ducks and Scaup, a lone Bufflehead, Mallards and Pintails. Becky Ryder in Hattiesburg saw a male Painted Bunting in her backyard, which was very unusual for this time of year. Stephen Dinsmore at Bay Springs Lake saw an adult Red-throated Loon, a juvenile Pacific Loon and 176+ Common Loons.
If you'd like to join the list, send an email to
In this email, leave the subject box empty, but in the text area write only these two words:
It's important to follow these directions because the subscription process is handled entirely by a computer, so every empty space and letter must be correct for the computer to handle things properly.
This week's conversation on the birding mail-list drifted a bit off topic when someone wrote about seeing squirrels hanging around her backyard bird feeder being absolutely covered with large scabs and open sores. She was concerned that maybe the squirrels had a disease her birds might contract. Most list members who responded thought that probably the squirrels were infested with botfly larvae -- though it's a bit early in the year for that.
When I read that, my own body twitched and itched a bit. That's because back in the mid-70s when I was serving as a naturalist on archeology-focused ecotours in the Petén "jungle" of lowland northern Guatemala, I managed to get infested with botfly larvae myself. Fortunately, sitting around campfires at night talking with our Maya Indian helpers, I'd heard mention of how occasionally they got bots when they visited territory with bot-infested monkeys.
They told me how they first covered the botfly larva's breathing hole with chicle gum, then when the maggot was suffocated they'd place an upside-down Coke bottle over a sore, give the bottle a vigorous jolt with the palm of the hand, and the bot grub would pop up into the bottle. Once I was back in the US and discovered I had seven botfly larvae burrowing in my own body, I got most of them out "the Indian way," though using fingernail polish instead of chicle gum. Unfortunately, a tourist I'd been with also got bots, went to a specialist in New York, was misdiagnosed as having African River Blindness, and ended up spending thousands of dollars on fancy, pointless surgery.
When my grandfather Conrad squirrel hunted in Kentucky sometimes he'd just give up because his squirrels had so many botfly larvae in them. These larvae often are referred to as "warbles," but Papaw called them "wolves." And when he got a squirrel with wolves in it, he sort of lost his appetite for squirrel meat. One or two larvae don't seem to bother the squirrels themselves, but five or more weaken them, slow them down, and make them good candidates for being caught by hawks.
The deal is that there's a kind of fly resembling a Bumble Bee. The fly lays eggs in various corners of the squirrel's habitat, then when the squirrel comes along the eggs stick to the squirrel. Larvae hatching from the eggs then migrate to one of the animal's body openings -- may burrow through the membranes of the eye or be inadvertently licked into the mouth by the squirrel as it grooms itself. The larvae then travel through the squirrel's body for about a week before settling under the skin and using their two, pointed mouth hooks to cut breathing holes in the host's skin.
My warbles were white, about an inch long (2.4 cm), shaped like a tear, and at their bulging bottoms were adorned with concentric rows of black spines which were inserted as anchors into my flesh whenever I got hold of the slender top part with tweezers and pulled. During the days my bots just caused a mild itching, but as soon as I got into bed they would begin screwing around, causing an intense itching. To make the matter worse, one of them was on my scrotum, where the old Coke bottle trick wouldn't work at all. I ended up going at him with a razor and tweezers...
There's a page on the Web called The Amazing Bot Fly, which introduces the various kinds of botfly and gives other links, at http://botfly.quiik.com/about.html
LISTENING TO SPRING ODORS
This week the Spicebush got me to thinking about odors. In traditional Japanese culture there's a ceremony called "Listening to Incense." The idea is to refine one's sense of smell and to exercise one's ability to respond to odors of various incenses. I have read of one such ceremony during which the participants not only identified a large number of discreet fragrances and combination of fragrances, but also related the odors to specific occasions in ancient Japanese history and mythology.
When it's cold, things don't smell much, but heat and humidity nurture odors. During this spring's warmer, moister days, the sleeping bag in which I've slept all through the cold weeks has begun emanating a certain funky odor, as does the sweater and socktop I've worn a long time.
I don't hesitate to speak of this, though I know that in our culture we are programmed to be uncomfortable and unaccepting of nearly all odors that are not sweet or antiseptic. I believe that the degree to which most people in our culture are antiseptic, scrubbed and odorless, or even artificially perfumed, amounts to nothing less than an unhealthy obsessive neurosis.
Lately I've awakened several times deep in the night and I've made a point of just lying there cocooning in my sleeping bag, savoring odors blossoming up from the bag and of odors carried on the wet, velvety night air. I've been amazed at the richness of the experience.
There was the odor of mud, woodsmoke, crushed grass, wet feathers, Yellow Jessamine, my own oily skin, moist wool... There were cheesy, moldy, musty, musky, overripe odors -- purple, brownish-green and bruised- blue ones -- odors in minor keys, base-note odors and odors that neither laughed nor sneered but just came curling about like a sulky friend inviting attention.
You might want to try it. Unhitch your preconceptions and prejudices, close your eyes, turn off your ears, lie quietly, and just smell. Give a name to each odor that comes along, put it in a mental pigeonhole, then go to the next one. Quietly collect odors until you have a rainbow, then let yourself be drawn into your rainbow, experience it like walking in a flower garden, loving the dark blossoms as much as the bright.
There's a page describing the mechanics of conducting a real "Listening to Incense" ceremony at www.hikoshin.org/kodo/taste/monkoro.html
Back to the botflies. Back in the 70s my botfly larvae helped me understand something about nature, and reality in general.
I remember sitting quietly looking at one of the sores on my right forearm when the grub inside the sore extended its white neck to its breathing hole. The white object appearing at the hole forcefully made the point that a foreign creature had taken up residence inside my body, rather as a mouse might move into an old house. Until then I had imagined my body as being somehow inviolable with regard to such overt abuse.
Of course I knew that every human body is occupied by untold numbers of bacteria, viruses, amoebas, mites, worms and other lifeforms, but this was different. I was coming eye-to-eye with a creature who had its own needs and priorities without regard to my own mindset.
This situation clashed with the general notion that I think most of us have most of the time, and that is that since we are thinking beings with air conditioning and perfumed soap, we are excused from obeying the more messy laws of nature in general. Certainly the main Western religions teach that we humans have a touch of divinity in us, and that as such the Universe exists as a stage for the fulfillment of human destiny. My botfly maggots didn't seem to respect my spirituality.
In fact, my botfly larvae suggested that the Creator of the Universe is more interested in biological diversity -- more focused on the production and sustainability of a vast rainbow of mutually interacting species -- than in the momentary comfort or dignity of any individual organism, such as me.
During the years since my botfly revelation I have seen nothing to contradict that insight.
We all can see how human activity is impacting the Earth at this moment. Are not most of us in some kind of trancelike state of denial, believing that if we hike into the land of botflies, somehow we shall be exempt from getting bots ourselves? That if we spoil our Earth, somehow angels or a benevolent Creator will save us? Or even that spoiling the Earth is OK, because, when we all die, us good folks will go to Heaven?
One also wonder's how the current Administration's attitude toward the Endangered Species Act and environmental protection in general squares with the nature of our diversity-loving Creator.