NATCHEZ NATURALIST NEWSLETTER:

March 30, 2003

KUDZU NOODLES, KUDZU PAPER, KUDZU TEA...
A while back Juanitta Baldwin of Kodak, Tennessee wrote asking if in a book she was writing she could use one of my pictures posted on the Internet. Her book was about Kudzu and my picture featured a Kudzu flower. This week Juanitta sent me a complementary copy of her new book, and it's been fascinating reading what people can do with Kudzu.

I knew that Kudzu produces large, edible roots, and I was tickled that Juanitta was honest enough to admit how hard it is to dig those things, and even harder to prepare them. But you can do other things with Kudzu.

For instance, you can make Kudzu tea, jelly, vinegar, syrup and wine from the flowers, and these should be delicious because the flowers smell a lot like grape juice. Cattle, donkeys, pigs and goats thrive eating Kudzu vines. Hay made of Kudzu contains 12 to 15% protein. Nutritious noodles can be made from Kudzu root-powder, which sells for about $30/pound. A tough, beautiful cloth and a delicate paper costing $3/sheet can be made from fibers extracted from Kudzu vines, and sturdy baskets can be woven from Kudzu vine stems.

Her book is skimpy on details on how to do all these things, though here and there she does give precise information when she has it. For example, when you're baling Kudzu hay, "Set your header 'low' and cut vines low. Then when you go back to bale, set the header 'high.' If a round baler is available, the kudzu twines itself and does not require baling twine."

Her book sells for $17 and, along with Kudzu jelly, Kudzu seeds and other Kudzu books, can be ordered at www.kudzukingdom.com.

If you've forgotten what Kudzu is capable of, JJ Anthony's page provides a hilarious and somewhat scary review at www.jjanthony.com/kudzu

*****

SLEEPING BENEATH THE STARS
This Monday I set up my mosquito net and moved my sleeping bag to the wooden platform in the woods. In years past I'd not slept there this early in the season. During the summer, tree leaves completely blot out the sky but, now, though most forest trees are leafing out, stars still show through the late-leafing Pecans' branches above my platform.

I had forgotten how beautiful it is to lie beneath the stars. With my feet toward the south, Orion stood to my right, the Big Dipper to my left, and right above me Jupiter shone like a coon hunter coming through the woods with a powerful beam.

It was good breathing the night's cool, fresh air. In the trailer, air pools in the night and it gets stuffy. There in the woods every breath seems to seep deep inside, energizing and cleaning away cold-weather sluggishness. I wondered how much some people would pay to experience what I was feeling -- though just about anyone can sleep outside, anytime they really want to, for free.

But, at 3:30 Wednesday morning I was reminded why some might not pay much to sleep outside. I was awakened when energizing, cleansing rain came pouring through my mosquito net!

*****

FISH CROWS AT THE PIGGLY WIGGLY
On my visit to the Piggly Wiggly to buy eggs this week I saw about a dozen Fish Crows hanging around the rear of the store where, I'll bet, there are garbage bins. I've been noticing Fish Crows there on and off for several years.

It happens that this week my old birding buddy, Jarvis Hudson, who teaches ornithology at the University of North Carolina, wrote me about seeing 75 to 80 Fish Crows on, around and above the big parking lot of a Kroger's in Fayetteville. It's gradually dawning on us that Fish Crows are developing an affinity for malls.

We have two crow species in our area -- the American Crow, CORVUS BRACHYRHYNCHOS, and the Fish Crow, CORVUS OSSIFRAGUS. At Laurel Hill American Crows usually are the most common, but at times Fish Crows are all over the place.

They look a lot alike, both being large, sleek- looking, entirely black birds, though the Fish Crow is a little smaller. The American Crow's call is the sharp, hard CAW-CAW-CAW we all know. The Fish Crow's call is much softer with a sort of nasal, croaky hoarseness. Confusingly, immature American Crows have a begging call sounding a lot like Fish Crow calls.

Basically you can guess that you have Fish Crows if there's a bunch of them and they're all calling with that nasal croak, and they look smallish. The "How do you tell a Fish Crow from an American Crow" Page is at www.birds.cornell.edu/crows/FishCrow.htm. You can hear a Fish Crow calling at www.birds.cornell.edu/BOW/AMECRO/amecro_ptrsnec.wav

Common Crows are found throughout most of North America, but Fish Crows just occur along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and then inland along the Mississippi as far north as southern Illinois. As a kid in western Kentucky I never saw one.

However, if this species is learning how to thrive around mall parking lots, we can expect it to expand its distribution fast!

*****

WASP QUEENS ESTABLISHING THEIR REIGNS
This week Newsletter subscriber Karen Wise in Kingston, near Natchez, sent me a picture of a paper wasp on her nest. It was a fine picture and you can see it at www.backyardnature.net/ins_life.htm

Nowadays most of us in this area can see the same thing just by stepping outside and looking under the eaves of our houses, or around sheds and barns. Last year a nest like the one in the picture was placed just outside one of my trailer's screened windows, so I was able to watch its development during several months.

There are 22 species of paper wasps in North America and approximately 700 species world-wide. Until I met the species in the picture, for many years I had told people that no wasp will sting you if you just sit quietly. Last summer I was sitting very quietly and this species did sting me. It's the most aggressive wasp species I've ever met here or in the tropics, and it aggravates me that I cannot identify it to species level, despite its being so abundant here.

Paper wasp society is thought provoking. At this time of year females who mated last fall emerge from winter hibernation, build small paper nests like the one in the picture, lay eggs in the cells, and when the eggs hatch the wasp will feed the larvae with prey she brings to them in their cells. Eventually adult female wasps will emerge from the cells, and at that point the wasp who built the nest will stop foraging, become a queen, and begin ruling her offspring, known as workers, by aggressively dominating them.

As a consequence of aggressive interactions, each individual in the community soon knows who dominates whom. If the queen dies or is otherwise lost, the most aggressive worker takes over. This worker begins laying eggs and continues to dominate all below her. As summer progresses, the nest is enlarged, more eggs are laid, more workers are produced, and the queen dominates more and more workers. Sometimes a wasp from outside the colony, usually a sister of the queen, will come and overthrow the queen and become queen herself.

In the fall, some males begin hatching, these mate and die, and with cold weather the unmated female workers also die. Just mated females overwinter, and then next spring each of them emerges and begins the whole cycle over again with their own nests.

So, paper wasps live in a society that most humans would regard as hard and oppressive. We would call the workers "slaves," and the queen a true tyrant. Some of us are even appalled to hear that an outsider can come in and assume government by sheer force.

However, that's the way the Creator has made the paper wasps, and I must say that the system seems to serve the species well at this particular moment in the evolution of its kind.

*****

RESEARCHERS, RESEARCHERS
Wednesday the bat researchers returned for their monthly measurements and weighings of bats in my cistern. Thursday the Mayapple researchers returned to harvest Mayapple leaves from their plots behind my trailer. I enjoy talking to these people and feel at home among them. Years ago I almost became a botanical researcher myself.

The Mayapple researchers are studying the viability of harvesting cultivated Mayapple tops for the extraction of podophyllotoxin, a chemical used in the production of other compounds thought to be useful in the treatment of certain cancers. If you're curious about the study and can deal with technical literature, you might enjoy downloading a paper by my Mayapple friends, in PDF format, at www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/ncnu02/pdf/moraes-527.pdf.

It's wonderful to think that our common and abundant Mississippi Mayapples produce this powerful compound. It's just as inspiring to realize that we humans have used our reason and that we've worked hard and built systematically upon one another's findings, so that important discoveries have become possible.

And yet, on the very day I learned about the wonders of Mayapple podophyllotoxin, I heard on National Public Radio that this is the first time in the history of US society that young people in our culture are expected to live shorter lives and be less healthy than people of their parents' generation. This is because today's young folks are, on the average, fatter and less exercised than their parents.

In my mind, these two facts constitute the parts of a kind of formula that reveals very much about our society, maybe even human nature in general, though I hope not.

A similarly balanced formulation is the one that goes "We can put men on the Moon but we can't... " say, we can't properly fund our schools, or assure dignity to most old people, or deal effectively with drug abuse. Also, as a society we absolutely dominate the world of science, yet also as a society we elect leaders who do what our leaders are doing now.

This week the Mayapple researchers and I didn't even talk about the war in Iraq. We just spoke of the beauty of spring in Mississippi, and of the joy of doing good work that might benefit someone, someplace, someday. But we could not keep the news from Iraq in the background from completing the disturbing formulation spoken of above.

*****

THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
On this week when the Dogwoods began flowering, this Saturday, March 28, a cold, windy day not good for birding, I spotted the following migratory birds:

WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE

1 Sharp-shinned Hawk
1 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
5 Hermit Thrush
4 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
5 Solitary Vireo
19 Yellow-rumped Warbler
18 White-throated Sparrow

SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED

1 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
1 Purple Martin
7 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
4 White-eyed Vireo
10 Yellow-throated Vireo
10 Northern Parula
2 Yellow-throated Warbler
7 Hooded Warbler

TRANSIENTS (just passing through)

none

PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)

7 Turkey Vulture
2 Red-tailed Hawk
1 Red-shouldered Hawk
1 Belted Kingfisher
4 Brown Thrasher
4 Eastern Towhee
14 Brown-headed Cowbird

*****

LITTLE GIRL NAMED RAIN
This weekend a big powwow is taking place at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians in Natchez. My nature- photographer friend Jerry Litton and I went to interview the Principle Peace Chief of the Natchez Nation, Chief Hutke Fields, whom I introduced in my recent March 9 Newsletter.

On Friday we just missed the Chief at the Village, but we were told that he and his group were camping at Natchez State Park north of Natchez. I was surprised that such an worthy guest would be camping. Jerry and I found the Chief, along with an elder woman, two men, a teenager and two children, in the primitive camping area. As this weekend's cold weather blew in and a light rain commenced, the group tried to heat refried beans over a tricky flame, for they had not had a meal since leaving their reservation in Oklahoma early that morning.

Since the powwow features Indians of cultural affinities different from the Natchez's, the Chief has not come to the powwow to be featured as a guest or even to make a presentation. His group just came to set up a booth and sell trinkets with the rest. On Friday, his people were the only ones I saw who actually looked like Indians.

The little girl among them was called Rain. With night coming on, the wind roaring in the pines above and a cold drizzle falling as they prepared to sleep in their already-stuffed cars, to Rain everything seemed to be in order, to be OK, for she had her people around her, and the Chief has a wonderful sense of humor.

On my "Loess Hills" Web site I tell what happened to the Indians of our area -- about the European- introduced diseases, the wars, massacres, and broken treaties -- at www.earthfoot.org/loess/indians.htm. My page on the culture of the Natchez Indians is found at www.earthfoot.org/loess/ind_natz.htm  

Now I have provided the most up-to-date news about them.

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