from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

June 1, 2003

I'm accustomed to a pair of Carolina Wrens nesting in my outside kitchen, but this is the first year since I've been here that Prothonotary Warblers have nested there. You can see one of these handsome birds at

That name, Prothonotary Warbler, should be changed to something like "Golden Swamp Warbler." The word prothonotary refers to the Catholics' "Prothonotaries Apostolic," who keep the records of consistories and canonizations, and who sign papal bulls. During ceremonies they wear bright orange-yellow garb more or less like our bird. I can't think of any association less appropriate for this backwoods, swamp-loving creature. The Prothonotary name was surely chosen by a New York fieldguide editor, not anyone who really knew the bird.

Anyway, in my experience you seldom see Prothonotaries far from swamps, so I'm astonished that this pair has taken up residence in my ridgetop kitchen, and that they fly in and out as I sit each morning preparing breakfast over the campfire. Their nest is in the cavity of a giant bamboo stem holding up the kitchen roof's corrugated tin sheets. Maybe one reason for their feeling so at ease here is that southwestern Mississippi is close to the center of their nesting area. You can see their summer-distribution map at

Novice birdwatchers may think that Prothonotaries look like the Goldfinches who visit local birdfeeders during the winter. However, if you view the bird's picture, notice how slender and sharp the Prothonotary's beak is, perfect for snapping up small insects. Goldfinches, being seed-eaters, need powerful bills for cracking seeds, so their bills are very thick and stubby.

Though Prothonotaries are a delight to see, the male's loud, piercing ZWEET ZWEET ZWEET ZWEET ZWEET can become a bit monotonous. If your computer can deal with WAV audio files, you can hear their song at


At a wildlife pond near my trailer the water's surface is completely covered, bank to bank, with Lesser Duckweed, LEMNA MINOR, of the Duckweed Family. The pond is about the size of a large house and the duckweeds extend far onto the sloping banks, for the water has been dropping since our 3-inch rain of May 17th. Floating at the water's surface, the individual duckweed plants are flat and oval, about 1/8th-inch long (4 mm), and since young plants bud from two "vegetative pouches" on the margin near the base of older plants, usually they grow in stuck-together "clonal clusters" of 2-5. You can see approximately what I saw at

Since duckweeds are flowering plants (the smallest flowering plants of all), you can imagine that their blossoms are miniscule and relatively simple. In fact, a mature duckweed produces three flowers from its "flowering pouch." Of these three flowers, two are male, composed of just one tiny stamen each, and the other is female, consisting of a single naked pistil. Usually the resulting fruit produces a single seed. This is one species putting just enough sex into life to occasionally mingle the genes, but otherwise it keeps things very simple. I've never seen duckweed flowers, but this summer I'm checking every population I find.

I'll bet that the day will come when, if you see a duckweed-covered pond like I did, you'll immediately skim the pond of its duckweed crop, dry it, maybe grind the dried duckweed into a flour, and then make something like highly nutritious duckweed flapjacks. Duckweed plants have so little structural fiber that, ounce-for-ounce, they contain twice the protein, fat, nitrogen, and phosphorus of other vascular plants.

Already there's a good bit of literature on duckweed as livestock and fish food. Feeding trials have shown that animals fed on duckweed are "tasty and nutritious for human consumption." You can read more about duckweed as livestock and fish food at


A Newsletter subscriber in McComb, MS writes that she understands what I was talking about a while back when I referred to these as horsefly days. "Walking in the woods is just not a whole lotta fun when you have to flail your arms or swat the air with a sweetgum limb the entire time you're walking," she writes.

She asks if horseflies are attracted to carbon dioxide the way mosquitoes are. This reminded me of a moment last weekend when I spent the night at my future base. As it began getting dark, horseflies swarmed over the white pickup truck that had taken us there, thumping into it again and again. They also hit against the barn's tin roof. The truck and barn roof weren't producing carbon dioxide, so something else was obviously the attraction. Of course the question of what attracts horseflies was made for Googling.

One Web site for fishermen provides all kinds of advice for outsmarting various blood-sucking insects -- except for horseflies. Of them it says, "Horseflies aren't smart enough to be confused. They have a steadfast mindset: find a human and bite its exposed flesh."

Another site in Canada focusing on problems canoeists face claims that "horseflies appear to be attracted visually, especially by bright or glittering surfaces. This may explain why they always appear to do their dirty work when we finish our swim and sit on the rocks, our bodies still covered in a reflective film of water." That would explain their attacking the white pickup truck and the shiny tin roof, but not their thumping into my dark mosquito net in the dim light of dawn and dusk.

Several Web sites selling insect traps using carbon dioxide as an attractant claim that just about every biting insect is attracted by carbon dioxide, including horseflies, but I'm not sure these claims can be trusted. I suspect that horseflies use a variety of cues to find their prey -- sight, odor, maybe carbon dioxide, maybe even infrared vision.

Whatever attracts horseflies, I feel sorry for their victims. A Web site in the UK claims that "50 horseflies feeding on livestock can remove 1/3 litre {quart} of blood per day." This site also points out that horseflies can transmit diseases such as the agents of anthrax (Bacillus anthracis) and tularaemia (Francisella tularensis). Plus, I can tell you that their bites hurt like the dickens!


Throughout the upland forest here one of the most frequently appearing wildflowers nowadays is a fairly homely, spindly plant about knee high and producing tiny burrs that stick to leg hairs. It's the Black Snakeroot, SANICULA CANADENSIS, a member of the Carrot Family, and you can see a picture of one at   A great close-up of a fruit with its hooked hairs is at

With a name like Black Snakeroot, you might guess that the plant has medicinal value. The genus name Sanicula is apparently from the Latin "sanare," to heal. I've read that the powdered root has been used as a heart remedy, to stimulate menses and to induce abortions. Also, the leaves have been used for making poultices for bruises and inflammation.


It seems that most plants I profile in the Newsletter turn out to have at least some medicinal value. For me this provides insight into the question "What is man's place in Nature."

I do not accept the view that "Every plant and animal was put here to serve humankind in some specific way." My opinion is practically the opposite of that. Instead of regarding humans as apart from and being served by nature, I see the human animal as absolutely enmeshed in the continuous web of all living things, each part of that web being appropriate and useful for its time and place.

The chemistry of life supports my view. For instance, most of the chemicals composing both yeast and man are practically identical. The proteins of both yeast and man are made of the same twenty amino acids, their nucleic acids of the same four purine and pyrimidine bases, and their carbohydrates of the same or similar sugars. The chemical pathway by which yeast ferments sugar to alcohol is identical with the pathway by which human muscle cells convert glucose to pyruvic acid. Combining ribosomes from microorganisms with the soluble fraction from a rabbit or a duck will synthesize protein all can use. In fact, at least when I went to school, the basic mechanisms of synthesizing and breaking down carbohydrate, fat and protein were considered to be identical in all forms of life known to exist.

With the above in mind, it's not surprising to read that 98.4% of our human genetic heritage is shared with chimpanzees, 75% is shared with mice, 30% with yeast, and 15% with the stomach-inhabiting bacterium E. coli.

These high percentages of shared genetic material indicate that the main work Mother Nature had to do in evolving all living things was to figure out such basic procedures as how to store energy in fats and carbohydrates, and how to tap that energy when it was needed. Once genes encoded that how-to information, later considerations -- such as whether an organism would have scales or feathers, or wear a shell or soft skin -- in many cases amounted to little more than tweaking an already-existing "general plan."

But, back to medicinal plants.

Plants and humans, then, in so many ways, are part of one big family, the Family of Living Things on Earth. We are related to one another by common ancestry and many shared features of existence. Since plants share so many problems with us, such as how to keep our tissue from rotting, how to keep the contents of our cells at a constant pH, and how to keep bugs from nibbling on us, through the eons they have evolved untold numbers of chemical solutions that might also work for us. We assume that certain tools are as useful when working on a nuclear reactor as on a bicycle, so why shouldn't a plant's chemical tools for survival sometimes be of value to us?

I find this view enormously satisfying. I like to reflect that Black Snakeroot, the Sassafras and the Pokeweed are all of the same stuff as I, that we are all "works in progress" being wrought during the same creative gesture, and all being constructed with the same building materials and tools.

On the other hand, this is also a scary thought when you think of all the broadband chemicals people release into the environment to kill "weeds" and other unwanted plant and animals. The chemical that throws a monkey wrench into the chemical pathways of mosquitoes and crabgrass may well be a monkey wrench in our own system.

If you can just forget for a moment about your neighbor's drifting and water-borne insecticides and herbicides, what a delight to reflect on all the ways we living things are united. We are all harmonizing notes in a grand, Earth-wide symphony.


The property where I hope to move this week, and which I visited last weekend, has overgrown fields thick with 15-ft-high (4.5 m) volunteer Loblolly Pines. Someday we hope that these same fields will support a congenial mingling of organic gardens and orchards, ponds, woodlots, open areas, hen houses, goat corrals, etc. Along the property's western boundary meanders a sandy-bottomed creek which during upcoming years I expect to provide me with endless pleasure and interesting discoveries. Clear water runs through it continually. In most places the water isn't over ankle deep, though there are pools deep enough to sit in and let the fish come nibble on your hairs.

Homochitto National Forest adjoins the property on the south side. The forest in this area is surprisingly different from what's here at Laurel Hill. This is to be expected since Laurel Hill occupies an area mantled with loess (wind-deposited dust from the Ice Age) perhaps 30 to 50 feet deep (9-15 m), but there, being about 15 miles (24 km) inland from the Mississippi River, the loess is only, I would guess, five to ten feet deep (1.5-3 m). In our area loess depth diminishes with distance from the river.

Thus gullies at the new place aren't nearly as deep as the shaded chasms at Laurel Hill, so the new place lacks the gardens of moisture-loving ferns and lichens of Laurel Hill's deep gully bottoms. The new place also lacks the genteel feeling of Laurel Hill because there are no big Live Oaks and giant magnolias draped with decades of accumulated Spanish Moss.

However, the new place (we haven't decided on its name yet), has a greater diversity of habitats than Laurel Hill, and I suspect that the forest will prove to have an even greater number of tree species. Already I have noticed some species not present at Laurel Hill.

The most spectacular so far is the Bigleaf Magnolia, MAGNOLIA MACROPHYLLA, a smallish tree of the understory with leaves 30 inches long (76 cm) bearing curiously "eared" bases, and which are deciduous. This species' flowers are even larger than the Southern Magnolia's, which I wrote about last week. The Bigleaf Magnolia's fragrant blossoms can be a full foot across (30.5 cm). Its creamy white petals bear rose-colored spots at their bases. You can see this tree at

This is a wonderful tree. With its huge, glossy-green leaves, and its shape like an overgrown umbrella, in the forest it looks improbably tropical, completely out of place among the surrounding pines, oaks, and Sweetgums. You want to just stand and look at it.

The moment I saw that this new forest is home to Bigleaf Magnolias, I, too, began feeling at home.


Because of my anticipated move this week my next Newsletter may or may not arrive at its usual time next weekend. I have no idea what difficulties will be encountered getting the new phone line installed and the computer set up. Whenever the next edition does arrive, it'll be coming from a new place, with a new view of things, and I can hardly wait to begin telling you all about it.