from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
April 27, 2003
The week saw the end to the forest's diffuse, yellow- greenness, the gauzy texture of half-expanded leaves on trees through which wind and light passed only half resisted. Now nearly all tree leaves are fully formed and the consequence is dark green shadows pooled in quiet places.
There's nothing more pleasing than a forest in repose with its rainbow of greens, its most salient leaves more yellow than green, and its innermost leaves more black than green. At the forest edge, white-flowering blackberry brambles surge into hayfields like green waves toped with white foam. If the hayfield is a beach onto which the shadowy forest-ocean transmits foamy blackberry-waves, then the too-sweet perfume of honeysuckles these moist late afternoons is saltspray that stings the soul with nostalgia.
In the winter when most trees are naked, the trees' straight and stiff limbs with interlocking twigs offer a paradigm for a cause-and-effect mechanical world: All branches are trunk-attached, and all trunks are Earth-attached, and the Earth itself is a perfect unity suspended in space.
But now shadows and heaps of leaves-of-all-hues-green cloak the limbs and confuse the woody patterns, leaving one with dreamy abstraction instead of certain geometry, and that honeysuckle odor does not make things more tangible.
At dusk this week shimmering tintinnabulations of night-calling insects began. I'm not sure what insect this is. Certainly not the raucous katydids who will come later, and I don't think they are loud enough to be crickets. Maybe some kind of grasshopper.
I go looking for the tintinnabulaters but they grow silent as I approach and they keep wisely and inscrutably to their shadows. The result is that the chiming just continues all around, like fog, always present but absolutely unapproachable. Light and shimmery like endless cycles, endless cycles, endless cycles of seasons of blackberry flower-foam and stabbing honeysuckle perfume, always whispering but always just beyond good understanding, just beyond grasp, just beyond belief.
I wrote to my Grandma Taylor in Calhoun, Kentucky that blackberry thickets here were just white with blossoms, and her reply was sad. She said she missed seeing blackberry thickets the way they used to be, missed seeing the pretty blossoms and going gathering the purple-staining berries.
It's more than that Grandma is in her 90s and can't negotiate the fields. The problem is that in my ancestral part of Kentucky small farms with hedgerows that used to separate fields have been absorbed into very large farm businesses, and the new corporate farmers are not the rabbit-hunting type so they just don't care that when they bulldoze the old field boundaries they wipe out habitat, which is another name for blackberry thickets. The fact is that my part of Kentucky has gotten cleaned up, neatened, sprayed to death, channelized and leveed, paved over, and generally ticky-tack-sprawled to death in the name of Wal-Mart and the right of people to be fat, have hypertension and buy big-screen TVs.
I can visualize the white-flowered blackberries in Grandma's fading memory, for they survive in full glory here with me now, healthy and spectacular at this very moment out in the field between here and the Hunters' Camp as I type these words.
If you could see Laurel Hill Plantation from the air, you'd see a large rectangle of forest surrounded on three sides by encroaching fields, pastures and suburban sprawl reaching out from Natchez 12 miles to the north. (St. Catherine Wildlife Refuge keeps swamp forest on the western boundary.) And it's funny to think why this island exists, why I'm able to live the life I have here with blackberries flowering just spitting distance away.
At the root of the reason is slavery, which enabled the plantation's first owner to prosper and pass on his property to many generations. And the reason now is that selling hunting rights is very important to the current plantation's owner, and my blackberry thicket makes fine deer browse and cover, and that makes the hunters happy, who pay to hunt here.
I owe my presence here, then -- and my nights of good sleep, my accomplishments on the Internet, my current writings, this Newsletter and the friends I've met because of it -- to the enslavement of Black folks, and to hunting.
As I have written before, The Creator has a fine sense of humor.
TULIP POPLARS FLOWERING
The star of the forest this week is the Tulip Popular, also known as Yellow Poplar, LIRIODENDRON TULIPIFERA.
Friday morning during my birding walk I saw a flock of 17 Cedar Waxwings wheel into the top of a large Yellow Poplar. Focusing my binoculars there, what a sight! Hundreds and hundreds of two-inch wide (5 cm) blossoms, the large, waxy petals yellowish green with brilliant orange splotches at their bases, and there among them hopping about like kids at a circus were those waxwings, as pretty themselves as any bird I saw that day! You can see a single Yellow Poplar blossom dissected and exhibited as a piece of photographic art at www.markcassino.com/galleries/botanical/0208p03.jpg
Tulip Poplars are majestic, wonderful trees. They're one of the largest in the eastern US forest, growing up to 200 feet (60 m). Their boles are straight and clean, and their pretty wood is comparatively soft, easily worked, light and yet strong, and has an ability to return to its normal shape after a bit of bending. Tulip Poplars are fast growing and make fine shadetrees. Seeing what pretty flowers they bear, it's like meeting a person who not only is very handsome or pretty, but also inordinately smart and talented. It's almost too much to find so many agreeable qualities in one species.
Tulip Poplars are members of the Magnolia Family. At first this might seem surprising but, then, if you think about it, what other forest trees than magnolias possess such large, showy flowers? One feature of twigs of members of the Magnolia Family is that they bear "stipular rings." A stipular ring is a scar completely encircling the twig, arising at the top of the leafscar or leaf petiole. If you have a Tulip Poplar or magnolia near you, just go look closely at the twigs and note those stipular rings.
The only other eastern North American tree I can think of with stipular rings is the Sycamore, so this is a good fieldmark for identification. The other day I ran across a Redbay tree, whose leaves look like a magnolia's, but as soon as I saw that it bore no stipular rings, I knew it wasn't in the Magnolia Family. The best picture of a stipular ring I can find on the Internet is my own, from the Sycamore outside my trailer, at www.backyardnature.net/pix/stipring.jpg
This week my Kingston neighbor Karen Wise sent a nice picture of a Doodlebug pit to add to my Neuroptera Page (Neuroptera is the name of an insect order). Having such a fine picture of a pit, I was encouraged to make a drawing showing how the Doodlebug positions itself inside the dust and sand at the pit's bottom, waiting to clamp its jaws around ants and other small victims who tumble into the pits.
Then having both a pit picture and a drawing, I saw that I needed to go out and in the dust of my outside kitchen dig into one of my own Doodlbug pits, extract the very upset larva, scan him, and then return him to the kitchen's dust floor. All this was done in good order and you can see all three resulting images at www.backyardnature.net/neuropte.htm
Most books call Doodlebugs by the less colorful name of Antlions. As a kid I never heard them called that. Once I mentioned Doodlebugs in this Newsletter and subscriber Tony Ball in Thailand wrote telling me that during WW II "Doodlebug" was one name Londoners gave to a kind of German rocket that periodically fell onto their city.
Lately the very pretty black-and-orange Harlequin Bugs have been making a mess of my mustard greens, radishes and other garden members of the Mustard Family. One good thing about it, though, is that I got a great scanning to add to my Hemiptera Page. Hemiptera is the name of the "True Bug" insect order. You can see that dandy image at www.backyardnature.net/hemipter.htm
One pleasure of producing this Newsletter is that I never know which of my remarks will encourage a reader to respond -- usually with something thought- provoking, informative, or just plain funny.
For example, my piece about urea and uric acid last week caused Leona Heitsch in Bourbon, Missouri to write "Oh, boy, I finally get to use this... ," referring to a piece of information she received in 1951, taking a biochemistry class at the University of Michigan. Here's Leona's gem of information:
"Dalmation dogs excrete uric acid."
If you remember, I'd pointed out that animals must rid themselves of the poisonous ammonia that accumulates in their bodies. Birds and reptiles convert the ammonia to pasty-white uric acid, but mammals convert it to urea, which they flush from their system in urine.
Naturally the first thing I did was to Google the situation. Turns out that mammal urine can indeed have small amounts of uric acid in it, and Dalmation pee is famous for containing exceptionally high amounts. One Web site dealing with lawn grass pointed out that Dalmation pee will "burn grass brown" much faster than the pee of any other dog breed.
The Cornell Veterinary Department has a special page on Dalmation pee because a standard urine test for animals measures uric acid levels. If there's too much uric acid, the dog should be considered ill. Vets must remember that regular dogs pee less than 100 mg of uric acid per day, but Dalmations produce 400 to 600 mg! I haven't a clue as to why this is so.
While Googling this matter, I also stumbled upon the answer to why birds and reptiles have evolved a more sophisticated ammonia-excretion mechanism than us mammals. It's because their young begin inside eggs. Embryos developing in eggs can't convert their ammonia to urea because urea itself is poisonous, though not as bad as ammonia. Therefore, egg-producing animals -- reptiles and birds -- had to evolve a system for converting ammonia to something completely nontoxic, and that was pasty white uric acid.
I also learned that fish, having all the fresh water circulating around them they need, excrete their ammonia directly into the water without converting it to anything. Frog tadpoles during their aquatic phase do the same thing, but when they metamorphose to the terrestrial frog stage, their internal biochemistry rearranges so as to produce urea!
BIRDS LEARNING FROM ONE ANOTHER
Except for what I can collect in buckets as rainwater off my outside kitchen's tin roof, I must carry all my water from the plantation's center, where there's a well. I transport it in plastic Purex jugs, on my bicycle. You can imagine that it's hard to keep clothing and myself clean.
Except for during rainy spells I just don't wash dishes. I wipe things off with a leaf or just let crud harden. That's what I do with the pot in which each morning I mix my cornbread batter. I scrape the pot out as well as I can, then hang the pot on a pole to dry.
For some time my resident Cardinals have been coming several times a day to peck off the dried batter inside the cornbread pot. Saturday a Prothonotary Warbler watched a Cardinal do this a couple of times, then himself flew into the pot, looked around, and flew away. Obviously, the Prothonotary figured that if the Cardinal was finding stuff to eat there, he might, too.
But Cardinals are mostly grain eaters, so you can imagine that they'd like dried cornbread batter, while Prothonotaries are insect eaters, so they'd find dried batter unappetizing.
Still, I found it striking that a species so entirely different from the Cardinal might be taking cues from the Cardinal, over a matter as exotic to them as a hermit's dried cornbread batter.
THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
In this week when forest shadows become deep and dark and honeysuckle perfume insinuated itself into every pore, on Friday, April 25, I spotted the following migratory birds:
WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE
4 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
17 Cedar Waxwing
SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED
2 Mississippi Kite
2 Yellow-billed Cuckoo
6 Chimney Swift
2 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
8 Great-crested Flycatcher
14 Acadian Flycatcher
5 Eastern Wood Pewee
7 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
2 Purple Martin
3 Wood Thrush
51 Red-eyed Vireo
15 White-eyed Vireo
12 Yellow-throated Vireo
13 Northern Parula
5 American Redstart
10 Hooded Warbler
1 Kentucky Warbler
2 Prothonotary Warbler
17 Tennessee Warbler
4 Yellow-breasted Chat
7 Orchard Oriole
9 Summer Tanager
13 Indigo Bunting
TRANSIENTS (just passing through)
7 Swainson's Thrush
2 Blue-winged Warbler
PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)
2 Wood Duck
3 Red-shouldered Hawk
2 Brown Thrasher
5 Eastern Towhee
4 Brown-headed Cowbird
This week's newly arrived species include the Swainson's Thrush, who winters from Mexico to South America, the Blue-winged Warbler from Central America, and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, coming all the way from South America.
FRIDAY'S NICEST MOMENTS
The nicest moment of Friday's walk was toward the end, atop a heavily wooded and shaded rise near my camp, where I walked into a cluster of Swainson's Thrushes, all singing their eerily beautiful, soft, fluty, upward-swinging songs. What a pretty song they have, and what an impression when several sing at the same time in those deep-forest spots. If your computer eats WAV files, you can hear the Swainson's Thrush song at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmwav/h7580so.wav
Here Swainson's Thrushes are just resting, for they summer mostly in Alaska, Canada, and mountains of the US Northeast and West. This summer they'll nest in boreal forests, so our warm, humid woods must feel very exotic to this bird most at home with northern conifers, Sugar Maples, willows and the like.
Maybe the biggest difference between this list and earlier ones is the complete absence of White-throated Sparrows. As recently as April 6 I counted 38! How I miss them hopping about my feet as if they enjoyed my orange-flamed breakfast fires as much as I. I have grown accustomed to their omnipresence in the fractured clutter left by the collapse of the big Pecan tree last fall during Hurricane Lili, and I miss their evening singing in the blackberry thicket.
During this walk I was astonished at how frequently I saw Red-eyed Vireos (51 of them), and how often these birds had little green caterpillars in their beaks, beating them against the limb until they "softened up" enough to swallow. Truly the forest is producing a prodigious number of little green caterpillars, and I dare not think what will happen here if someday the vireos and their kin don't arrive to take care of them.
This week the Tulip Poplar's wonderful flowers got me thinking about the relationship, if any, between their special beauty and the fact that, according to the fossil record, analysis of floral structure, and gene sequencing, the Magnolia Family to which the Tulip Poplar belongs has long been regarded as the most "primitive" of flowering plants. There were magnolias during dinosaur times about 130 million years ago.
Botanists point to many "primitive characters" exhibited by Magnolia Family members -- for example their woodiness, their simple and alternate leaves, and their showy flowers with long floral axes, poorly developed styles and stigmas, leaf-like stamens, spiral arrangement of parts, and their pistils being separate from one another. ("Modern" families include the sycamores, walnuts, oaks and dogwoods.)
Is there a connection between the beauty of species in the Magnolia Family, and their primitiveness?
About three years ago a shrub called Amborella, found only on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, suddenly became famous. Of all living flowering plants on Earth, it was revealed to be the most closely related to the very first flowering plants. Amborella is not in the Magnolia Family, nor are its flowers particularly large and showy. In habit it's a normal shrub. You can see Amborella's medium- size, rather unspectacular, cream-colored blossom at www.inhs.uiuc.edu/~karyla/angio/images/amborella.jpg, and a twig bearing its uninteresting-looking leaves at www.peripatus.gen.nz/paleontology/cstAmborellatrichopoda.jpg.
So, the magnolias are primitive, but apparently their great beauty isn't closely tied to their primitiveness. I have no regrets about learning this, for the unspoken, unwelcome corollary of the "primitive = beautiful" equation is this: That inevitable evolution perpetually nudges us all toward what is more efficient, but gray; toward what is more productive, but mediocre, and; toward what is more promiscuous, but less vital.
Now that I think about, when I look into the skies at night, or ruminate on the matter of subatomic particles, I find no paradigms in those worlds to support the notion that "primitive = beautiful," and I have to wonder wherever I got that idea. On the other hand, the facts that great things can arise from plain beginnings, and that special beauty can appear anyplace unexpectedly, do fit paradigms glimpsed in the cosmos and in the mathematics of the inner world.
Before, the Magnolia Family's beauty was to me like the beauty of Gauguin's Tahiti paintings. Magnolias seemed to support the idea that being unsophisticated, rustic, elemental -- in and of itself -- was reason enough to explain their beauty. But now I see this: Gauguin's paintings are wonderful not because the Polynesians were simple folk, but because Gauguin was a great artist. Likewise, being primitive doesn't make Earthly things beautiful. What does is the craftsmanship of the Universal Creative Force that produced them.
Step by step old prejudices and assumptions fall away, and new ideas and insights appear and evolve. This week it was the flowering Tulip Poplars who guided me.