from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
July 13, 2003
When forest is cut, Mother Nature instantly starts healing the wound. One thing she does is to send in seeds of plants that will stabilize the soil and add nutrients and organic matter. These seeds are usually light, small ones that wind can carry into the wound area. Around here, the trees providing this kind of seed are mainly Loblolly Pine and Sweetgum. In the big field next to the barn, Loblollies mostly provide the seeds, but right around the barn itself it's Sweetgum. You can see a picture of Sweetgum's star-shaped leaves, along with some immature, green, prickly fruits which also can be seen these days at http://biology.smsu.edu/Herbarium/TreesonCampus/images/Sweetgum.jpg
When I arrived here, in places near the barn, Sweetgums had grown up like cane -- dozens of thin, spindly saplings forming veritable walls. Because of the fire hazard I was asked to clean them out, and this I've done with the machete I used to cut tobacco when I was a farmboy in Kentucky. During recent mornings as I macheted the Sweetgums, the hot, profoundly humid air around me became suffused with odors of crushed herbage and sweet, oily balsam.
The balsam odor was associated with Sweetgum's "gum." If you damage a Sweetgum's trunk or stem, a resin is exuded that slowly thickens into an amber-colored gum, which eventually hardens into a pale yellow encrustation. The Sweetgum's Latin name is LIQUIDAMBAR STYRACIFLUA. In this case the genus name is beautifully descriptive, referring to the gummy "liquid amber."
Sweetgums belong to the Witch-hazel Family. Remembering Witch-hazel's medicinal value, and smelling the wonderful balsam odor of the gum, you might guess that Sweetgum also is medicinal. On the Internet I read that "The bark and leaves, boiled in milk or water, have been used to treat diarrhea and dysentery. The boiled leaves have been applied to cuts and used for treating sore feet. The aromatic drug resin storax, an expectorant and a weak antiseptic used for treating scabies, comes from this tree." Elsewhere I read that its gum has been used internally in the treatment of sore throats, coughs, asthma, cystitis, and dysentery, and externally for sores, wounds, piles and ringworm.
Some years ago I spent a winter writing a book based in the highlands of Chiapas, southern Mexico. High in the mountains just below the cloudforest zone, our Sweetgums mingled with Mexican oaks and pines. When the last Ice Age ended and things were warming up again, part of our Eastern North American forest, which had taken refuge there far in the South, followed the warm weather back northward. Another part of our exiled forest simply migrated up the mountain slopes, keeping within the weather regimen it liked. Today Sweetgum is only one of several such North American forest species finding refuge on isolated south-Mexico and Guatemalan mountaintops.
The Tzotzil-speaking Indians of that area have a high regard for Sweetgum. Often I've seen Indian children poking at Sweetgum trunks, nudging out gum to chew. In the markets you can buy granules and powder of dried Sweetgum gum for the preparation of incense. You make a small pile of wood shavings from a tree with aromatic wood such as the Cedro (Cedrela mexicana) mixed with granulations of dried Sweetgum gum, then set the pile to smoldering, not burning. The resulting white smoke makes an incense redolent of purity, mystery and deep history. In Oaxaca they call Sweetgum Ocozote. During the time of Montezuma and the Aztec civilization, southern Mexico supplied the great Mexican Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan with Quetzal feathers and Sweetgum resin, and both of these commodities were regarded as rare and wonderful.
I always feel bad about cutting a tree, even when it's a "weed tree" living where it shouldn't. When I cut trees, I try to maintain a ceremonial frame of mind out of respect for the lost tree-lives and because of all the potentials I am spoiling. This week it has seemed that the Sweetgums did their part to maintain the proper ceremonial ambiance.
In the forest these days something eye-catching is the fruiting of the Eastern Hophornbeam trees, OSTRYA VIRGINIANA. The fruits are held in clusters of maybe a dozen pale yellow-green, thumbnail-size, bag-like bladders. The seeds, about the size of small grape seeds, hang suspended inside the bladders. The air- filled bladders are blown by the wind, enabling the seeds to be dispersed into new areas. The "hop" in "hophornbeam" tells us that these fruits are similar to hops fruits (beer-making hops). You can see a cluster of hophornbeam fruits like those around me at www.hort.uconn.edu/plants/o/ostvir/ostvir01.jpg
Hophornbeams are among the most common trees in our local woods, yet they're among the least known. Probably that's because most of the year their leaves look a little like elm or beech leaves, so people just call them that and pass them by. However, teeth on the margins of hophornbeam leaves are much smaller and finer than on elm or beech leaves. You can see the hophornbeam's finely-toothed leaf margins at www.extension.iastate.edu/Pages/tree/ironwoodl.gif and compare them with the leaf of an American Elm at www.nps.gov/whmi/images/educate/ortrtg/amelm.jpg
All finely serrated, elm-like leaves are NOT hophornbeams. In our area there's a closely related, very common, fine-toothed tree called the American Hornbeam, but it has very different fruits. Since hornbeams are also fruiting right now, I'll tell you about them next week.
Though hophornbeams are usually smallish understory trees, they deserve more recognition. The map at http://wildwnc.org/trees/images/Ostrya_virginiana.jpg shows that hophornbeams are found throughout nearly the entire eastern US. In earlier days hophornbeam wood was highly regarded for its toughness and was often used as fenceposts, tool handles, mallets and the like. In fact, this member of the Birch Family is often known as Ironwood. If you can get into the woods within the next few days, look for its clusters of pale, yellow-green bladders conspicuous against the forest's dark green leaves.
Along the road between the barn and the mailbox I've planted Crepe Myrtles, Sweet Olive, Altheas and Gardenias. I hoped deer wouldn't bother them, but of course that was a vain notion. One morning a Gardenia was found nibbled to the ground, though the other things were not touched. I've built cages of chicken wire around them all now.
So far deer have avoided my unprotected azaleas and gardens, but maybe that's because these are right beside the barn. I won't attempt any gardening on a serious scale until I have fencing enough to surround the entire planting.
If you also have deer problems you might be interested in the list of "deer-resistant plants" posted at http://188.8.131.52/garden/tools_tips/99may-3.htm
If you view that list, be sure to notice the remark that "Deer will eat anything when natural food supplies are gone and they are hungry." That's about the only part of the page in which I have much confidence.
SOUTHERN FENCE LIZARD
During my first years in the woods near Natchez I saw plenty of skinks and anoles, but never a single Fence Lizard. Last year I spotted my first one hanging around a big, storm-toppled Water Oak. This spring, over at Laurel Hill, I was tickled when a Fence Lizard moved into my outside kitchen. At my new location the most common lizard is the Fence Lizard. Have I been witnessing the upswing in a natural population cycle, or a rebound from a previous disaster such as a cold winter or disease, or what?
Fence Lizards here don't look like the ones I grew up with in Kentucky. That's because either they are a different subspecies, or maybe an entirely different species. According to the Audubon Field Guide, what we have here is SCELOPORUS UNDULATUS UNDULATUS, while what we had in Kentucky was SCELOPORUS UNDULATUS HYACINTHINUS -- different subspecies. However, recent studies using genetic sequencing suggest the population may be a confused mixture of about four distinct species and numerous local, environment- influenced "ecomorphs." In other words, the best information at the moment is that we're not aways sure what's what.
What is indeed for sure is that our local Fence Lizard, historically known as the Southern Fence Lizard, is a gray lizard with wavy, dark crossbars on its back, and shockingly powder-blue patches on its belly and throat. The other day neighbor and Newsletter subscriber Karen Wise was here with her digital camera and took a picture of one on the barn door, and you can see that impressive image at the top of my lizard page at www.backyardnature.net/lizards.htm. Though the individual in that picture looks like a self-satisfied Komodo Dragon, he's only about 6 inches long (15 cm).
If I deposit a pile of lumber in one place for more than a day or two, a couple of Fence Lizards will take up residence there. In late afternoon they range the barn's concrete floor eating one large carpenter ant after another. They'll also eat almost any insect, spider, centipede or snail. Books claim that their favorite food is beetles.
I'm glad to have these lizards around for more than the usual reasons. You may recall that three or four years ago I contracted Lyme Disease after a tremendous spring outbreak of ticks. Our area seems to be a hotspot for Lyme Disease, or at least it was then. Well, ticks also infest Fence Lizards, and that's great because a protein recently discovered in the Fence Lizard's blood kills the bacteria causing Lyme Disease. I've even read that a tick infected with the Lyme bacteria, Borrelia birgdorferi, will be cleansed of that bacteria if it sucks lizard's blood.
The most common butterfly around here at the moment is the Silver-spotted Skipper, EPARGYREUS CLARUS. This species is easy to identify because it is a skipper (large, thick body and wide head but with small wings, and thick-tipped and somewhat hooked antennae, flits rapidly from spot to spot) with a large white blotch on its wings' undersurface. You can see one at www.naba.org/chapters/nabasl/bozzay/eparcla1.jpg
One reason for their abundance is that the recent rains have caused the Brazilian Vervains I told you about in the June 22 Newsletter to flower like crazy, and the skippers love those flowers. Also, my gardens are heavily mulched with dried pig-manure and hay cleaned from the barn, and the skippers spend a lot of time there enjoying the deliquescing pig turds.
I can't sit down without a Silver-spotted Skipper landing on my sweating body and ticklingly imbibing my sweat. If one lands on a spot of my body not adequately wet, it curls its abdomen beneath it and with its rear end deposits a droplet onto my skin, then with its straw-like proboscis sucks the droplet back up. I'm sure the sucked-up droplet contains the salts it wants from my evaporated sweat.
You may have seen the leaf shelters this species' caterpillars make. The caterpillar bends a leaf corner over to form an open-ended cylinder, then secures the corner in place with silk. You can see a skipper caterpillar constructing such a leaf-shelter at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/05/images/030516_skippercaterpillar.jpg
The most interesting part of the caterpillar's behavior comes later, however. It's been shown that a caterpillar's enemies are attracted to it by noticing its accumulated feces. Silver-spotted Skipper caterpillars solve this problem by firing their fecal pellets a distance of up to 40 times their body length away from their leaf shelters, at a speed of 4.2 feet (1.3 meters) per second. The equivalent distance for a 6-foot-tall (1.8 meter) human would be around 240 feet (73 meters).
For you Scrabble players, the word for this form of feces distribution is "scatapulting."
Our new scythe arrived this week. With a "high carbon, tempered-steel blade with heat-treated tangs" made in Styria, Austria, and a curved handle, or "snath," of Indiana White Ash, it's a beautiful thing to behold. You can see a scythe similar to ours at www.informallearning.com/archive/1999-0506-b-scythe.JPG
Our scythe's blade is a bit shorter and thicker than the one in the picture. Our blade is 26 inches long (66 cm), perfect for cutting weeds and blackberry canes. Longer, thinner blades are best for cutting tall grass for hay. Shorter, stouter blades are for cutting brush.
Until now I've been clearing gardening land using a machete and a shovel. This scythe represents an enormous technological upgrade. My work efficiency has at least tripled, plus it's easier.
In fact, sometimes as I'm scything, I think I may have settled into that level of technology best suited for the human body and spirit. I have advanced far beyond merely hacking at things and pulling with my hands, yet I'm not as divorced from what I'm doing as is a farmer on a huge tractor tearing through a bramble with a bush-hog. Too little technology keeps us living at a subsistence level with no time for anything other than animal survival. Too much technology leaves us weak and flabby, and severs our roots in reality, causing us to become disoriented on many levels.
But, clearing a plot of gardening land with a scythe is poetry. The air is fresh, the sunlight is dazzling, the body hums as honest work is performed with a view toward ultimately harvesting luscious and nutritious vegetables. During these moments of work the pace of passing time feels almost luxurious.
In my quest for the Tao's "Middle Path," maybe the "high carbon, tempered-steel bladed" scythe suggests an appropriate paradigm.