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

May 25, 2003

LIFE IN A MAGNOLIA BLOSSOM
You pass by a magnolia tree -- Southern Magnolia, MAGNOLIA GRANDIFLORA -- and the lemony odor and glossy whiteness of its 8-inch wide blossoms (15 cm), the stateliness of its form, the moist coolness of its shadows... all invite you to step closer.

You draw near a blossom and its perfume makes you dizzy. You choose a young flower with petals just starting to open and a honeybee escapes. "And there's nectar inside as well?" you wonder. You part the petals and stick your face right into everything, probing with your tongue the base of the column of stamens and stigmas, down where the petals arise alternately with one another, and then, yes, after a first sensation of soapy bitterness, there's a hint of sweet nectar, too. You can see a close-up showing the flower's column of stamens and stigmas at www.botany.uwc.ac.za/ecotree/flowers/images/magnolia.jpg

There's a world of business going on there inside the blossom. Tiny, black, slender insects, maybe 1/8th of an inch long (3 mm), with strangely flexible abdomens segmented like cars on a kid's toy train skitter about, clearly upset by your disturbance. They are Rove Beetles of the family Staphylinidae, of which around 3,000 species are found just in the US. Under the handlens you see that Rove Beetles have powerful jaws, and this makes sense, for they mostly feed on other insects. You can see Rove Beetles yourself at research.amnh.org/entomology/blackrock/cpstaph.jpg

In fact, these tiny creatures turn out to be the giants of this blossom. Your botherings cause a large number of much smaller, cream-colored, winged beings to come skittering from beneath the clutter of used-up and discarded stamens littering the surface of the tilted flower's lowest petal. With the handlens you can barely see that the skitterers bear the same curious shape as the much larger Rove Beetles, and indeed they may be one of the other 3,000 species. However, they are too small and too fast for a sure identification.

You go to another blossom, this one not yet completely open, but with a worm hole through the middle of one of its petals. Inside the young blossom you find crumbs of pink caterpillar feces, and there's the caterpillar himself, one beautiful enough to live in a magnolia blossom, over an inch long (3 cm) and translucently, almost glowingly, pink. In this all- pale-cream blossom, what magic chemistry resolves itself to such vivid pinkness?

The next blossom is home to roundish mites, and the next one contains a miniscule pink worm curled into the shape of a C inside a droplet of dew. There's also some kind of shield-bug, and blossoms farther along reveal more and more kinds of life, always something new to know and think about.

Like the Earth itself, each magnolia blossom sustains a unique community of self-absorbed beings for whom the blossom amounts to the entire universe.

*****

ATTACKING CROWS
A while back I mentioned how most of us seem to have weak spots for one or more unusual things. One person has an inexplicable passion for rocks, another's obsession is for Chinese music, or maybe for cheese. Newsletter subscriber Karen Wise in nearby Kingston has a special feeling for birds. Not so much to identify them and watch their migrations as to have them near and take care of them.

So her button was really pushed the other day when she was driving down the road and saw crows attacking a very large Black Vulture with "such a look of despair on his face." Karen stopped her van, scattered the crows, and found herself before a vulture who had been rear-ended by a car.

"I checked his legs and his wings and found nothing broken. His head had peck marks on it. I knew I had to do something fast."

Naturally she put the vulture in the back of her van, and naturally the vulture vomited so that when she reached her destination and looked in the back "There sat the bird looking a little proud of himself, with his last meal splattered in various shapes and colors."

Certain ministering, words of encouragement, and no little wrestling finally led to his attempts to fly. The first efforts fell short, but then "He only flew a short way. So I walked over to where he landed. Looking at me again as if to say, no, I'm really OK, he lifted off again and flew up into some trees. That was the last I saw of the giant bird."

Then it was time for lots of cleaning and generous amounts of potpourri carpet powder.

Well, I find something beautiful about this encounter, as I do whenever any creature displays concern for another, whether it's across the species barrier or not.

That's not to say that I condemn the crows for having attacked their victim. Mother Nature has decided that crows must have their disposition, and if you think about it you can see why removing a wounded or sick individual may be best for the long-term welfare of certain kinds of communtiies. It may be "heartless," but it makes a certain cold, bottom-line sense.

Crows are famous for their attacks. When I Google the phrase "crows attacking" I get 133 pages of links referring to crows attacking owls, people, a Great Blue Heron, sheep, a fox, hoofed mammals, a baby Blue Jay in the middle of the road, large buteo hawks, "the building," someone called Bill Paxton...

*****

HARLEQUIN BUGS ON COLLARDS
The moment I ride up to my main garden and lean the bike against the deer fence I smell it: A kind of bruised, dark-green odor, heavy and somehow slightly sweet in the morning air. It's easy enough to see where the odor comes from because the moment I enter the gate the first things seen are the collards gone to flower, with their big leaves tattered like tobacco plants after the worst hailstorm imaginable.

The cause of the collards' ragged look is clear, too, because the plants are just covered with bright orange-and-black Harlequin Bugs, MURGANTIA HISTRIONICA. You can see what they look like on my Simple Metamorphosis Page at www.backyardnature.net/metasimp.htm

"Simple Metamorphosis... " If you'll remember, insects undergo either simple or complete metamorphosis. Simple Metamorphosis has this formula:

EGG » NYMPH » ADULT

Complete metamorphosis is like this:

EGG » LARVA » PUPA » ADULT

Therefore, the smaller bugs in my Harlequin Bug picture are nymphs -- small, undeveloped versions of the adult. When a Harlequin Bug egg hatches, instead of a caterpillar or other kind of larval form emerging, a nymph comes out.

Among the common insect orders undergoing COMPLETE metamorphosis are those containing beetles, moths, butterflies, flies, ants, wasps and bees.

It's neat to keep this straight in my head as I watch all those bugs chomping away at the collards.

*****

FIRST BLACKBERRIES
When I first came to Laurel Hill I called the big field next to my camp "the broomsedge field" because it was overgrown with that coarse, waist-high grass that turns bright straw-color to yellow-orange in the fall, sometimes called broomsedge. For the last year or so I've been calling the same field "the blackberry field," because in what seems a very brief time a blackberry thicket have moved in from the wood's edge. The thicket is practically impenetrable for anything larger than a rabbit, except that here and there the deer have kept some paths half open. Right now the canes on those blackberry plants are heavy with green berries. Last weekend's 3-inch rain came just in time to assure a bumper crop this year!

On Tuesday I noticed a male Cardinal drop into the bushes on the blackberry field's western edge. I raised my binoculars and was astonished to see that he was eating perfectly ripe blackberries! I went there and picked several handfuls myself.

After studying the matter I could see why the blackberries might be immature in one part of the field but ripe in another. It was a matter of there being two species.

The species with ripe fruits is sometimes called the Sand Blackberry, RUBUS CUNEIFOLIUS. It's a bit smaller and more compact than the field ones, which are sometimes called Southern or High-bush Blackberries, RUBUS ARGUTUS. The two species are very similar and the characters separating them often aren't too trustworthy.

In fact, blackberry species are often, maybe usually, hard or impossible to identify to a proper "book species." They intergrade a lot, and with about 26 Rubus species in the Southeast you can see how many possible gene combinations there might be.

You can see Sand Blackberries at about the stage I'm picking them at melanys.tripod.com/images/Brambles.jpg

*****

I AM LEAVING LAUREL HILL PLANTATION
This Monday I learned from Kathy Moody, the plantation manager, that I am obliged to leave my spot in the woods which I have occupied since 1998.

During my years here I have lived each day expecting exactly this at any moment, and that has been good, for it has caused me to appreciate exquisitely what I had. It's always like that when you live every moment anticipating the imminent loss of something beautiful.

I am very grateful to the owner of Laurel Hill Plantation, Pierce Butler, for the years I have spent here. Also, I owe a profound thanks to those who now, by conspiring for my departure, nudge me into a new life that I think will be even more delightful and fulfilling than what I have had here.

Because of a relationship with someone I met through this Newsletter, if all goes well, in a couple of weeks I should be moving to a new location about 15 miles ESE of Natchez. There I shall not only continue living as simply as I have at Laurel Hill, and be just as close to nature, but also at last I'll be able to garden and practice permaculture at a level far beyond what has been possible here.

But, more about all this later. I think it will be fun for you to watch....