from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
May 18, 2003
Our springtime drought may have ended with Saturday's glorious three-inch rain. We'll see now whether the mosquitoes make a comeback, for I've never seen so few at this time of year as now.
The drought certainly hasn't diminished the horseflies. Before it's light enough to see the ground clearly already they're thumping into the mosquito netting covering my sleeping platform. As I jog they circle me just like they do horses, and sometimes they manage to get onto a moving leg. Friday, one rammed hard into my left ear hole as I biked across the blackberry field. Of course he was too large to enter, but his sound effects were wonderful.
Horsefly watching brings to mind the general diversity of living strategies Mother Nature has come up with. These critters are not like dragonflies who flit elegantly over ponds, grabbing prey between their front legs, or spiders who wait patiently in their webs. Horseflies stampede in the general direction of their prey, knocking into things as they go and buzzing like one-cylinder engines. Sometimes when I give them hard thumps off my legs, they come right back as if they just didn't care.
Their rambunctious, hit-or-miss living strategy must serve them well, however, because horseflies are successful organisms, as their large numbers show. In fact, when I think of it, there are plenty of people who rampage through life knocking things over and bouncing off others, and often they're the ones who come out on top.
This week I've thought a lot about why Mother Nature feels the need to populate such a peaceful spot as this with obstreperous, ear-thumping, leg biting horseflies.
AQUATIC PLANTS AT PIPES LAKE
Last weekend on Saturday evening wildlife photographer Jerry Litton of Jackson dropped by and we decided to camp that night at Pipes Lake Campground in Homochitto National Forest, in the extreme southeastern corner of our county, about 15 miles east of here. It's a beautiful little place, a horseshoe-shaped lake with a tiny, hilly campground inside the horseshoe. The place is rundown with a non-functioning bathroom with a collapsed roof, but the lake is home to such interesting plants and animals that nosing around is always interesting. I've never heard so many kinds of frogs croaking as that night, though I didn't spot the alligator everyone says hangs around there.
Aquatic plants put on a real show. The first thing you notice when viewing the lake is that all along its edges there's usually a 2- to 10-foot deep floating mat of tangled, yellow-green aquatic plants bearing peanut-size balls of silvery, chaffy flowers. This is #1 on the "Mississippi's 10 Worst Invasive Weeds" page at msucares.com/pubs/misc/m1194.html.
It's Alligatorweed, ALTERNANTHERA PHILOXEROIDES, a member of the Amaranth Family. Because it crowds out native aquatic plants and the natural communities they support, a South American leaf-beetle was introduced in the 1980s in an attempt to control it biologically. The beetle slowed down its spread into new areas, but clearly it hasn't eliminated it. You can see a close- up of a section of a floating Alligatorweed entanglement at www.apms.org/plants/alligatorweed.jpg
Around the boatramp there was a similarly thick, floating raft of yet another invasive aquatic weed, though this one hasn't made it to the top-ten list. It's Parrot-feather, MYRIOPHYLLUM BRASILIENSE, a member of the Water-milfoil Family, and a citizen of Brazil. With its feathery, fine-dissected green leaves, it's such a pretty plant that it's often featured in aquaria and garden pools. Its prettiness doesn't keep it from endangering our fragile aquatic ecosystems, however. There's a close-up of one at home.swbell.net/collardm/images/parrots_feather.jpg
Happily, these foreign invaders haven't yet driven out all our native aquatics. In some areas Bur-reed, SPARGANIUM AMERICANUM, grows thickly as cattails do in drainage ditch bottoms. This plant has thick, grass- like leaves and spherical clusters of greenish to white flowers on a sometimes zigzagging flowering stem. It's such an unusual plant that has its own family, the Bur-weed Family. A plant is pictured at www.delawarewildflowers.org/sparganium_americanum.jpg
Here and there among the Sparganiums were delicate little flowers looking something like white snapdragons with purple spots in their throats. This was a native Water Willow, JUSTICIA OVATA, not a willow at all but rather an aquatic wildflower member of the Acanthus Family. You can see some at www.biosurvey.ou.edu/okwild/images/llwillow2.jpg
Out in the lake an old tree trunk emerged absolutely overgrown with aquatic plants, including a shrub with fingerlike clusters of tiny white flowers. It was the Virginia Willow, ITEA VIRGINICA, also not a willow, but rather a member of the Saxifrage Family, to which Gooseberries also belong. A close-up can be seen at www.floridata.com/ref/i/images/itea_vi2.jpg
My favorite discovery at Pipes Lake was a robust, dark green, 7-foot-tall (2.1 m) member of the Grass Family, growing in dark green clumps here and there along the lake's edge, in water about knee deep. It was Southern Wild Rice, or Water Millet, ZIZANIOPSIS MILIACEA. Though its grains weren't mature yet, already I could see that they would grow plump and rice-like, much larger than average grass grains. What a treasure this species must be to the lake's wildlife, and I'll bet the Indians gathered its grain, too. This grass is closely related to "Wild Rice," which northern Indians are known to have collected from their boats. Also, the young shoots are said to make fine eating, tasting like "half-ripe nut" when raw, and even better as an ingredient of stew. What a magnificent plant this is! You can see some blades and a flower cluster, with other Southern Wild Rices in the background, at www.biosurvey.ou.edu/okwild/images/cutgrass2.jpg
This week Newsletter subscriber Hillary Mesick on Mississippi's Gulf Coast wrote to me about how nice his old German shepherd, Heidrick, is. That got me thinking about the fine dogs of my own life, back when I lived on the Kentucky farm. When on Wednesday afternoon we got a little shower and a rainbow came out, the combination of dog-talk and rainbows brought to mind my online book, Walks with Red Dog. In that book there's a short chapter called Rainbow, where I describe the different ways Red Dog and I reacted to a certain rainbow many years ago. You can read it at www.backyardnature.net/r/reddog13.htm
In that story I mentioned the opinion current at that time that dogs were practically colorblind. Even back then I knew that this idea was a matter of debate, so I wondered whether by now the issue had been settled. With a bit of creative Googling I got my answer.
First of all, we need to remember that the postage- stamp-size region at the back of the eye receiving light through the lens and translating light energy into electrical impulses the brain can understand is called the retina. The retina is composed of millions of slender RODS and CONES stacked vertically like the fibers of a carpet.
Rods are for seeing in dim light and for detecting movement. They send the brain only gray, fuzzy images, but they can react to a single photon. Cones are a thousand times less sensitive then rods, but with enough light they enable us to see colors and fine detail.
It turns out that the dog's central retina area contains about 20% cones, while humans eyes in that area possess 100% cones. In other words, a dog's daylight vision is considerably less sharp than a human's, but its night vision and ability to notice movement is much better. In daylight, a dog's ability to see detail is around six times poorer than an average human's. All this makes sense when you recall that dog ancestors were mainly nocturnal hunters. Now to the colors.
As noted, colors are discerned by cones. Humans have three kinds of cones, which makes sense when you remember that all colors can be represented by mixing different combinations of the prime colors red, blue and green. Now, here's the thing: Dogs only have two kinds of cones, not three. Therefore, dogs can see some colors, but not all of them. The dog's world consists of yellows, blues, and grays -- no reds or greens.
After that storm many years ago Red Dog may have seen an arc of yellow light in the sky, tinged with a milky blue, but he observed no rainbow in all its glory the way I did. If you'd like more detail on dog vision check out www.uwsp.edu/psych/dog/LA/davis2.htm
OUR NARROW SLICE OF THE ELECTROMAGNETIC SPECTRUM
Digging into the facts about dog vision, I was reminded just how limited human vision is. The sun floods the Earth with energy in an electromagnetic spectrum ranging from gamma rays measuring no more than 0.000000000000006 of an inch to 18.5 miles in wavelength. Yet all the light we humans see falls within a range of 0.000012 to 0.000028 inch. The human eye sees only the merest sliver of the sun's great electromagnetic spectrum.
What if we could see currents of warmth and cold swirling through the wind, or the glow of warmth emanating from a lover's body in the night? What if we could look into the sky and behold the raging energies that sometimes ignite the aurora borealis, or if we could see the bursts of wall-penetrating energy that makes static on the radio when distant lightening sparks?
My guess is that we would be no more impressed with the Universe than we are now. If our X-ray vision habitually revealed the interiors of everything and everyone around us, we'd just wonder how long it was until the next coffee break. Similarly, from what I have seen, the blind who have never seen anything at all can live lives as enriched and informed as anyone.
Maybe the lesson is that the enriched life depends less on what is physically experienced than on what the mind and spirit do with whatever impressions of the world might be at hand, however limited those impressions are.
ADULT DOODLEBUG/ANTLION PICTURE
The other day subscriber/neighbor Karen Wise in Kingston emailed me a "bug picture." At first I thought it was a droopy damselfly but once I began noticing details I saw that it was something I've been looking for, an adult doodlebug, or antlion. You can see it, second picture from the top, at www.backyardnature.net/neuropte.htm
The most obvious feature distinguishing an antlion from a damselfly is the antlion's long antennae, with knobs at their tips.
LEARNING ABOUT EDIBLE PLANTS
Responding to last week's comments about Red Mulberries, Amy Joanne in Mount Pleasant, Texas wrote telling me what fun her 11-year-old son Aaron had had one day when he got hot and dry, noticed some Honeysuckle flowers, and supped the blossoms' sweet nectar! Amy Joanne wrote, "I wish we knew all that is really there in nature to sustain life. Somehow after all I've read and heard, I know there is so much more hidden."
That's right, and if you don't have someone to teach you, you can learn a lot from books and the Internet.
I learned much of my woods-eating from a book entitled "Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America" by M.L. Fernald. On the Internet, a good place to start learning is at www.foraging.com. You might also be interested in www.paleodiet.com, where the idea is that we humans evolved eating a certain diet much different from what most of us eat today, so if we try to approximate what our ancestors ate, our bodies will be more healthy.
The paleo-diet concept sounds right to me, though it doesn't address the idea that we humans can and possibly should rise above our animal instincts and programming. In my opinion, one consequence of a higher developed awareness of life is vegetarianism, which I doubt many of my ancestors practiced.
ONLINE FROG-CALL IDENTIFICATION
My friends at Frogwatch.org email me that we can now hear US frog calls on the Internet. Here's how:
You may need to download some free software from the Web that will allow you to hear the sounds on your computer. I can't confirm all this because my homebrew computer doesn't have sound capabilities.
Camping Saturday night at Pipes Lake was great. I got my old 3-person EUREKA! tent set up just a while before it grew too dark to see where all the poles went. No rain cover was needed so when I got inside and lay on the floor, above me the half-moon framed itself among silhouettes of Loblolly Pine.
From the late 70s to the early 90s I did a lot of camping. Back then I worked as a freelance writer making just enough money to fund my travels and basic living expenses. During the early years I mostly circled through the Southeast in my gray 1974 VW Beetle, Henry, camping in national forests, reservoir campgrounds, very often along the Natchez Trace -- just about anyplace where I figured no one would mind. After a few years I expanded my circles to include tours out West and into Mexico, where I loved camping in deserts. You might enjoy one of my essays called "Mule Deer," written sometime in the 1980s in the Utah desert, posted at www.earthfoot.org/lit_zone/muledeer.htm
In that essay I awaken in Henry, not my tent, because it had been freezing that night. When I got Henry, I removed all his seats except the driver's seat, and put a board inside where I could sleep with my feet beneath the glove compartment, and my head right beside the engine in the rear. Henry could carry lots of books, oatmeal, cornmeal, water, tools and camping equipment. Basically, Henry was a tent on wheels, not much different from the tiny trailer in which I live now.
In later years I exchanged Henry for a backpack and began spending summers in Europe, where I traveled with Eurrail Passes, and winters in tropical countries, where I used buses, and even then mainly I camped. I'd do my interviews and photographing, then take a local train or bus into the sticks, hike to someplace isolated, and set up the tent. In most years I'd spend more nights in my tent than sleeping in buildings. Trips usually lasted three or four months. Between trips I'd put together manuscripts and gather new assignments from my mother's home in Calhoun, Kentucky.
As a child I often fantasized about having my own home, of owning a closed, protected space where I'd accumulate things that were just mine, and which I'd share only with those I invited into my life. It's a long story about how that dream changed to a camping life, but I can tell you this now:
There's a kind of gratifying security, too, in mastering the art of camping, and there's a profound beauty in traveling into new parts of nature, in using your art daily to get and see what you want and then sleep peacefully that night, and have a new view when you awaken the next morning. You unzip your tent flap and sometimes there's a field outside, sometimes a forest, maybe an Alpine meadow, or maybe the sea with waves rolling right up to your door.
Saturday night as the frogs sang like crazy and the moon flooded my tent, I lay recalling those years. Long before I exhausted my list of very best camping experiences, I sank into a deep frog-serenaded sleep.