from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
April 6, 2003
THE DOGWOOD FLOWER'S FLOWERS
This week the Flowering Dogwoods, CORNUS FLORIDA, have been very pretty. Some of them look like big bouquets of white lace, and when the wind blows the white petals onto green grass... well, you can just imagine.
You probably know that dogwood flowers aren't really flowers, and that the "petals" the wind blows off aren't really petals. The big white things that look like flowers are actually clusters of flowers surrounded by four white "bracts," which are developed from modified leaves. The bracts serve the same purpose as flower petals -- attracting pollinators -- so the distinction is mostly an egg-headed one. This week I added a Dogwood Flower page to my nature site and the images turned out quite good. You can see what "real" dogwood flowers look like at www.backyardnature.net/fl_dogwd.htm
Speaking of flowers, many of the mustard greens, turnip and broccoli plants in my gardens have bolted so now patches of diffuse, yellow mustard flowers nodding in the wind and sunlight greet me each morning when I visit them. Lots of honeybees and butterflies flit among them. To keep down disease organisms and bugs I should turn these too-aged plants under, but I enjoy the flowers and critters too much.
By "mustard flowers" I mean flowers of plants that are members of the Mustard Family. That's a huge plant family with about 3,000 species, and of all the plant families the Mustard Family is one of the easiest to recognize. That's because nearly all flowers in this family hold to a very curious formula: They bear four petals instead of the more typical five, and they possess six stamens, of which two stamens are conspicuously shorter than the other four.
I'll never forget my first big plant-collecting expedition for the Missouri Botanical Garden back in the mid 1970s. I was high in the Peruvian Andes, nearly at the snowline, and the flora around this recently blossomed Kentucky farmboy seemed impossibly indecipherable. I hardly knew how to begin my work.
But then I noticed that a lot of the plants around me, though their vegetative parts may have been unlike anything I had ever seen, bore blossoms with four petals and six stamens, and that two of those six stamens were always shorter than the other four. Thus on that windswept slope the Mustard Family reached out and told me to just remember what I'd learned, and to proceed. This I did, and always since I've regarded mustards as special friends.
What a pleasure it is each morning to behold those good-looking blossoms, and to think of all the exotic places and of all the curious circumstances in which I've known mustard flowers. Their elegant little flower formula is like an old familiar tune that graciously emerges in the most unexpected places.
You can see a typical mustard flower, a Bok-Choy blossom from my garden, with one of the short stamens peeping out of the flower cup as four others soar, at www.backyardnature.net/fl_mustd.htm
Nowadays the world is filled with earnest nesters, and if I were the nervous sort I might be getting peeved at the whole thing.
Each morning a Carolina Chickadee comes tugging at loose threads on an old backpack hanging from the ceiling in my outside kitchen. This year the Carolina Wrens want to nest in my biking helmet, also hanging there. The other day I was outside reading with my legs crossed, felt something on my naked toe, and there was a wren with a straw in his beak apparently oblivious to the fact that he was tickling me.
The worst are the Eastern Woodrats. Each night they cause a huge racket thumping around in my kitchen and below my trailer. Twice this week I've negligently left my new ever-sharp knife on the kitchen table and twice the following morning I've had to crawl beneath my trailer to retrieve the knife from a foot-high heap of glittery nest-junk a woodrat is building there.
Well, actually I find it encouraging that spring has come and that once again such a homey, generous instinct as nesting is part of it.
CARPENTER BEES BUZZING
Many hours during these warm days a Large Carpenter Bee, XYLOCOPA VIRGINICUS, stations himself right outside my trailer door, buzzing loudly as he holds in one position about chest level above the ground. If a horsefly flies by, for a second the bee chases it, then immediately returns to his post. If another male carpenter bee streaks through, there's some kind of mid-air interaction too fast for my eyes to follow, then instantly my fellow is back in front of the door buzzing. If a female comes along, then there's a bit of sky-high buzzing and bumping about, all too fast for me to register. If I thump a woodchip in his general direction, he'll chase it, too, then return to his post. If I walk through his territory, he'll buzz and dodge and weave and buzz some more, sometimes even brushing my face, but he never stings.
Male Large Carpenter Bees will never sting because they bear no stingers. Females do have stingers, but they have to be roughed up pretty badly before they'll use them. You can tell males from females because males have large white or yellowish spots on their faces, while females don't.
These bees just fascinate me. At the Newsletter's "Insects Menu" at www.backyardnature.net/n/insect.htm you can find mention of them in earlier issues, doing such things as excavating tunnels in wood and ripping open flowers to steal nectar without bothering to pollinate the blossom.
Don't confuse Carpenter Bees with Bumble Bees. The rear ends, or abdomens, of Bumble Bees are mostly covered with yellow hairs, while the abdomens of Large Carpenter Bee are shiny and black with few or no yellow hairs. Also, the backs of Large Carpenter Bees bear shiny black spots, while the backs of Bumble Bees are fuzzy yellow. You can see a Large Carpenter Bee with its black-dotted back and black abdomen at www.backyardnature.net/names.htm
THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
In this week when the forest really became green, this Friday, April 4, I spotted the following migratory birds:
WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE
1 Brown Creeper
1 Hermit Thrush
10 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
5 Solitary Vireo
38 White-throated Sparrow
SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED
2 Mississippi Kite
1 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
2 Chimney Swift
9 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
1 Great-crested Flycatcher
1 Wood Thrush
11 Red-eyed Vireo
8 White-eyed Vireo
8 Yellow-throated Vireo
25 Northern Parula
5 Yellow-throated Warbler
6 Hooded Warbler
1 Summer Tanager
TRANSIENTS (just passing through)
PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)
4 Wood Duck
1 Turkey Vulture
1 Red-shouldered Hawk
5 Brown Thrasher
5 Eastern Towhee
5 Brown-headed Cowbird
The list of summer residents has enlarged considerably this week. Last week there were no Red-eyed Vireos but this Friday there were eleven. Mississippi Kites, Great-crested Flycatchers, Wood Thrushes, Prothonotary Warblers and Summer Tanagers all have come in. It's so good to hear the first call of the first arrival, announcing that once again the journey has been accomplished.
BROWN CREEPER CREEPING
Maybe the greatest surprise of this Friday's count was spotting a Brown Creeper, CERTHIA AMERICANA, quietly and furtively ascending a Loblolly's trunk. In Kentucky, any good winter walk will come across this species, and the distribution map shows Natchez as well within his winter range, yet this was the first time I've seen a Brown Creeper here at Laurel Hill. I have no idea why this has been so.
It was good seeing this old friend, which I hadn't spotted since Sigrid and I backpacked through the Smoky Mountains' higher zones in September, 2001. If you're not familiar with this bird you should look at its picture, for it's a strange little being, brown and with a decurved bill, and it spends nearly all its time creeping spirally up trees, gleaning insects from the bark. He's one of those mousy little folks who works obsessively and silently, and is so easy to overlook and underestimate. You can see one at www.stanford.edu/~petelat1/creeper.jpg
In the forest you seldom observe this bird flying more than a few feet -- typically from the mid-zone of a tree's trunk to the bottom of the next tree's trunk, which he methodically climbs halfway up, and then flies to the bottom of yet another tree's trunk, this again and again.
Yet some of these birds migrate long distances. The one seen Friday was probably on his way to Canada or the US's northernmost tier of states. You can see a map showing the species' summer distribution at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm96/map617/ra7260.html.
You just have to wonder what kind of psychological shift takes place in this little bird's brain for it to one day simply break off from his eternal creeping up tree trunks, one after another, day after day, and go flying hundreds of miles. The flying I've seen it do is jerky and seldom very far -- like a brown leaf being thrust to the ground by a fit of the wind.
He's such a queer little bird that in North America he's the only member of his family, the Creeper Family. In Europe I've seen two creeper species who look and behave almost exactly like ours, so the "creeper theme" in the greater symphony of birds is certainly a well established, though unimposing, one.
This week I've been grubbing Red Buckeye saplings from the hayfields and this has hardened the very slight calluses on my hands. I do just enough hoeing, scything and shoveling to keep respectable hints of calluses on my fingers and palms. These calluses got me remembering and thinking.
For two or three summers during the 80s I worked in Ulm, southern Germany, home to "Europe's tallest cathedral." You can see the cathedral, begun in 1377, at www.pbase.com/hkr2000/das_ulmer_muenster_ During my Ulm days, whenever I visited the cathedral I always went right to an obscure little carving in an out-of- the-way corner portraying a naked man absolutely shaggy with long fur. Apparently he was a famously pious hermit back in 1377, someone who swore off clothing and other of man's conventions, and in reaction to Germany's habitually cold and rainy weather grew long hair all over his body.
So, the body can react to harshness in some surprising ways. Corned feet once served our barefooted ancestors well. Long before humans had tools and worried much about clothing, maybe all humans looked like the shaggy hermit in Ulm's cathedral. For, the time since humankind emerged from the Stone Age is just a tiny flash at the end of many millennia of humans evolving in the context of small family or tribal units, on the open savannah and in the forest.
It's logical to think that today our inherited human genetic code continues producing humans meant to function in our ancestors' long-enduring world, not our recently appeared one.
Moreover, our minds, like our bodies, must react to stimuli and the lack of stimuli as if we were still in those distant times. But instead of protective calluses, corns, and shaggy hide, the mind must protect itself with mental armor. Much of my thinking this week has been about what that armor might be.
I think that maybe the most common mental armor is self delusion. Many of us have lost our identities as important members of any family or tribe, so our minds imagine us as centers of our own mental galaxies -- thus the "Me Generation" and the general decline of broader social structures depending on voluntary effort.
Similarly, today the mind reels before the complexity of the societies we humans have invented. I think that the mind's main "callus" protecting us from this is our tendency to withdraw into and identify with gross simplifications -- inflexible, black-and-white doctrines like racism, nationalism, communism and the trickle-down economic theory, and the world's many religions.
Grubbing up a Red Buckeye sapling in the middle of a sunny, windswept hayfield, I stare dumbly at the muddy, oversized root, and the sunburned, wrinkled hands holding the root. Crows call and I hear myself breathing. And more than a little I sense the out-of- whackness of being what I am, being just here, doing this, the way I am in all this greenness and blueness and odor of crushed grass and earth-smell on the wind and the oily smell of my own skin in the sunlight, the cool wetness in my mouth, the feeling of fresh air rushing into my lungs... indulging in the illusion that Red Buckeyes need to be grubbed out...
And what could I do but just laugh and keep grubbing?