NATCHEZ NATURALIST
NEWSLETTER:
from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

May 11, 2003

RED MULBERRY
Biking the rough dirt track through the woods at the back of the plantation and watching the ground closely to avoid thorns and spoke-bending sticks I spotted penny-sized black smudges on the trail. A quick glance upward fulfilled my most optimistic hopes: Here stood a magnificent Red Mulberry tree, MORUS RUBRA, with limbs heavy with immature green fruits, half-mature red fruits, and perfectly ripe, purplish-black, glossy, succulent, ready-to-eat mulberries. You can see approximately what I saw -- though my tree bore many more ripe fruits -- at www.nbbd.com/godo/ef/edibles/image07.jpg

We have lots of mulberry trees at Laurel Hill but the birds, especially Cedar Waxwings, usually devour all fruits the moment they begin ripening. Apparently this tree's fruits were safe only because of its isolation deep in the woods, its anonymity among close-packed trees of other species.

This was the first time in my life that I'd been able to eat all the mulberries I wanted. I ate until my belly developed that certain you-better-watch-out cramp and my hands were comically stained dark purple, and probably my lips were, too. As I was pulling down the branches so I could reach the fruit it occurred to me that maybe this was why fibers of the inner bark of mulberry are so strong and stringy-- to keep limbs from snapping when large mammals graze the fruit, pulling down the limbs exactly as I was. I have read that Indians made clothing from fiber of the mulberry's inner bark. The Natchez Indians honored the mulberry by naming their sixth month, between the Month of Fishes and the Month of Great Corn, The Month of Mulberries.

There's no secret why mulberries are so delicious, for they belong to an aristocratic family famous for serving visitors fine food. Mulberries are in the Fig Family, which also is home to the wondrous tropical Breadfruit, Jackfruit, about 2,000 fig species, hops of beer-brewing fame, and cannabis hemp, the seeds of which make a fine, black substance like peanut butter.

*****

THREE-TOED BOX TURTLE
Having feasted, I didn't get far before I found a Three-toed Box Turtle, TERRAPENE CAROLINA TRIUNGUIS, right in the dusty middle of the trail. Box Turtles are known to have a passion for berries, so maybe he'd been hanging around the Red Mulberry, getting what fell to the ground. Box turtles also eat mushrooms poisonous to man, and I've read that turtle-eating people have died from eating box turtles who had recently dined on the wrong mushroom. This danger didn't keep New York Indians from causing the extinction of this species over large areas because of their passion for turtle meat -- also for their use of the shells as ceremonial rattles.

You might wonder why, of all the turtles available, New York Indians preferred box turtle shells for making rattles. One reason was surely that in New York box turtle shells were beautifully ornate. Much prettier than ours. In fact, the box turtles I grew up with in western Kentucky had the same colorful patterns as the New York Indians' turtles did. Shells of the box turtles we have around Natchez are very drab in comparison.

The deal is that the box turtle known as TERRAPENE CAROLINA is represented by four different-looking but interbreeding subspecies. Here they are:

The Eastern subspecies, which is the New York and Kentucky box turtle, has a brightly ornamented shell and is found from Maine to Georgia, west to Michigan, Illinois and Tennessee. The Gulf Coast one is more drab all over and lives along the coast from western Florida to Louisiana. The Florida subspecies has a brightly patterned shell with radiating lines, and a head with two stripes on it, and is found in lower Florida. Our Three-toed has a drab tan or olive shell but the head and front legs are prettily orange spotted, and it's found from Missouri to Alabama and Texas. The hind legs of the first two subspecies usually bear four toes, but the hind legs of the last two subspecies usually bear only three.

It's good to see how these subspecies blend into one another as one travels across the land. It feels as if we're observing the evolution of the species taking place before our eyes, discovering the species caught in the midst of fracturing into what someday -- if life on Earth survives -- may be four distinct new species with their own sovereign genomes. And one wonders why southern box turtles need only three toes on their hind legs!

*****

GREEN TREEFROG IN WASH BUCKET
During the last two or three weeks a good number of storms with high wind, a few tornadoes and lots of flooding have rampaged across northern and central Mississippi, but all of that has completely missed us. Though the forest and fields aren't turning brown yet, it definitely feels droughty here, and I spend a lot of time watering the gardens and carrying my own water in plastic Purex jugs on the bike.

One nice thing about this is that the mosquitoes aren't nearly as bad as usual for this time of year. It's also nice that the Green Treefrog, HYLA CINEREA, who hangs around my trailer, has taken to spending his nights in the plastic bucket where I wash my hands and face. He appears late in the day, positioning himself on the bucket's inner wall, with his butt just touching the water and his head straight up. He's still there when dawn breaks, but by the end of breakfast he's disappeared. He's a beautiful little creature, about 2 inches long (5 cm), bright green and with a sharply defined white stripe along his upper jaw and the side of his body. You can see one, with a map of his species' southeastern-US distribution, at http://reptile.new21.org/dk/amphimians/green%20treefrog.jpg

Sometimes he leaps from the bucket's rim to my trailer's aluminum siding, a distance of about 20 inches (50 cm). It's amazing how he lands head-up on the vertical siding and sticks to it. His croak, which I'm not hearing in this dry weather, is a nasal quank, quank. The other day I dribbled some water on him and he just sat there seeming to like it. Then I tried to imitate his quank, quank call and he (maybe a she?) hopped toward me, to within 6 inches of my face (15 cm). Getting the impression that (s)he was thinking about leaping right into my quanking mouth, I drew away, splashed a bit more water, and we both had a fine night.

If your computer handles MP3 audio files, you can hear a Green Treefrog quanking at http://frogcalls.home.mindspring.com/mp3s/Green.Treefrog.mp3

*****

CLIMBING HYDRANGEA IN FLOWER
On wooded, shaded slopes among the sandstone hills of my native western Kentucky, one of the prettiest spring-flowering plants is a shrub, the Wild Hydrangea, HYDRANGEA ARBORESCENS (www.ceinfo.unh.edu/common/graphics/hydarbor.jpg). Here at Laurel Hill we also have that species and seeing it evokes nice memories of the hills of my old Kentucky home.

At Laurel Hill, Kentucky's "wild hydrangea" isn't the most common hydrangea species, however. Our most common one is the Oak-leaf Hydrangea, HYDRANGEA QUERCIFOLIA, growing on shaded slopes in our loess gullies and along the bluff. This species is similar to the Kentucky one, except that its leaves are shaped like a Black Oak's, and its clusters of white flowers are elongated, not flat-topped like the Kentucky one. (www.beckered.lu/images/hp_fotos/hydrangea%20quercifolia.JPG)

At Laurel Hill we have yet a third species of "wild hydrangea," and if you believe that all hydrangeas have to be shrubby, this one will throw you for a loop because it's a seldom noticed woody vine -- the Climbing Hydrangea, DECUMARIA BARBARA (http://inspirezone.org/hiking/climbing.jpg)

The Climbing Hydrangea, a full-blooded member of the Hydrangea Family, bears aerial roots along its tree- climbing stems just like Poison Ivy or English Ivy. However, its flower clusters are like the other hydrangeas', composed of many small, papery flowers. When you see a hydrangea flower cluster in the dense shadows where they tend to occur, they almost seem to glow.

In fact, seeing how our hydrangeas' flower clusters glow among the shadows caused me to realize something. This moment of the year is surely when the forest is most deeply shadowed, so maybe that's the reason the hydrangeas with their large, white flower clusters blossom exactly now. Now they enjoy a competitive advantage over smaller or darker flowers for the attention of pollinators.

Two other conspicuously flowering trees at this time, like the hydrangeas, show up as large splotches of white among the shadows. The Southern Magnolia is absolutely splendid with its huge, perfumy flowers, and the Roughleaf Dogwood produces the same effect with compact clusters of many smaller white flowers.

*****

ANTLION EXPERIMENTS
A couple of Newsletters ago I wrote about Doodlebugs, or Antlions. In response I got a letter from Ellen and Cori McGuirk, ages 10 and 7-1/2, in Nashville, Tennessee, offering some of their own observations.

Ellen writes: "What it does is it has to snap several times before it can really get the ant. And the ant can pull itself up sometimes by the little bits of sand or gravel. Usually it falls back down but sometimes it manages to get back up. If the antlion does catch it, then it slowly pulls it back into its pit. If there's lots of ants, for example sixteen, then the antlion doesn't even bother to catch it."

Cory adds: "Once I got an ant and I put it in an antlion's hole and then I put an antlion beside the ant and it didn't do anything."

Then Ellen: "Also if you leave them down beside the ant then they don't bother to catch it, they don't even try. (Beside the ant, not in a pit.)"

These are such fine observations, and they are exactly right, and very thought provoking. What I especially like is their observation that if you put an ant and an antlion side-by-side, not in the usual way with the antlion beneath the sand pit, the antlion won't do anything.

This reminds me of some classic insect-behavior experiments by the great French naturalist J. Henri Fabre. Fabre noticed that wasps pulled their preys into their nests by the preys' antennae. He snipped off the antennae, and the wasps couldn't figure out to grab hold of any other parts of the preys' bodies. Fabre decided that his wasps had been born with the instinct to tug on their preys' antennae, but that they couldn't really think out what they were doing. There's more to this story at my Web page on insect behavior at www.backyardnature.net/bugbhav.htm.

Nowadays most who study the matter might say that antlions never "know" what they do at all. Many would say that insects are like small computers hardwired for a few specific tasks. Something happens that stimulates a response, and one thing automatically leads to another. Antlion larvae are "programmed" by the DNA in their genes to find dry dirt or sand deep enough for a pit, to dig a pit, to bury themselves in the sand beneath the pit, to clamp their jaws on whatever tumbles into the pit, and to suck the victim dry. If anything happens outside that scenario, the antlion isn't equipped mentally to deal with it. It's like when a computer freezes and you have to "hot boot it" -- turn it off and on -- and then it just sits there no wiser than ever, waiting for a command it can recognize.

Cory and Ellen have done some sophisticated experiments, and their observations were sharp and accurate. Hearing from folks like these is very encouraging.

*****

THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
In this week when magnolias, hydrangeas and Green Milkweeds flowered, on Friday, May 9, I spotted the following migratory birds:

WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE

26 Cedar Waxwing

SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED

2 Mississippi Kite
7 Yellow-billed Cuckoo
12 Chimney Swift
1 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
3 Great-crested Flycatcher
17 Acadian Flycatcher
4 Eastern Wood Pewee
5 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
30 Red-eyed Vireo
14 White-eyed Vireo
3 Yellow-throated Vireo
7 Northern Parula
3 American Redstart
2 Black-and-white Warbler
5 Hooded Warbler
1 Kentucky Warbler
1 Prothonotary Warbler
2 Yellow-throated Warbler
6 Yellow-breasted Chat
2 Yellowthroat
10 Summer Tanager
7 Indigo Bunting

TRANSIENTS (just passing through)

none

PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)

2 Wood Duck
1 Red-shouldered Hawk
7 Eastern Towhee
7 Brown-headed Cowbird

This is my last list of spring migrants for this year. The Carolina Wrens are already feeding their young. As soon as the mulberries give out, the Cedar Waxwings will depart, and then basically we'll have our summer birds in place.

This year I've not seen some species spotted in previous years and of course this worries me. Maybe it's because we're having a droughty spring. Maybe not only the mosquitoes have suffered a population collapse, but also thousands of other species of insects, spiders, and such on which migrants depend. If our next spring is rainy, maybe this year's no- shows will return.

*****

FRIDAY'S NICEST MOMENT
The most vivid moment of Friday's birding walk came as I crossed a hayfield. The wind, moist with morning dew, blew the tall ryegrass in waves, and felt good against my face and bare legs. A crow flew low across the field. Battling the wind, his flight dipped and soared, but he didn't seem to mind, and flew on silently, seeming to have a definite destination in mind. Behind him, low, dark clouds scudded northward, then high above them stately white cumulus clouds in a blue sky more sedately also sailed northward.

There was not anything more dramatic than that, yet these few elements of life complemented one another so prettily that I felt an enormous gladness to be standing there as part of the scene.

*****

THE MEANING OF LIFE
I've always mistrusted that phrase, "The meaning of life." It's because the word "meaning" carries with it an implied context of rationality. Yet, it seems to me that anyone who asks that question should be expecting a reply that is spiritual, if not mystical.

The Red Mulberry with its sweet, purple-staining fruits got me thinking about this. There I was in the cool twilight beneath the tree looking up through those big, sun-speckled mulberry leaves, seeing the pretty green, red and almost-black fruits, my sunburned, wrinkled, veiny hands among them plucking mulberries and getting purple-stained, and hearing the wind in the tree, and birds singing, seeing the animation of leaves in the wind, experiencing a kaleidoscopic, shimmering, wholly unexpectedly beautiful and perfect moment, and this thought came to me:

This tree's task was simply to create reproductive propagules (seeds) and to get them dispersed into new areas where its offspring might prosper. There were so many ways this goal could have been accomplished, yet the Red Mulberry's approach was to create a strategy involving all this sunlight, wind, birdsong and sweet fruit. How elegant! How original! How generous of the Creator to have settled on things this way!

If someone were to propose that "the meaning of the fruit is that the tree may reproduce itself," then all that was meaningful to me that day as I myself became the Red Mulberry's dispersal agent would be eliminated from the discussion. The word "meaning" is too narrow to use when considering something as wonderful as ripe mulberries.

In the same way, any statement beginning "The meaning of life is that... " automatically declares itself as an analysis too arid to listen to.