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

July 27, 2003

SOFT RUSH BY THE POND
"Soft Rush" not as in "gentle epiphany" but as in "the mud-loving member of the Rush Family known technically as JUNCUS EFFUSUS"... You may have no idea what a rush looks like, but once you see one you'll realize you've met them before, especially in wet soil. You can see a handsomely spiky, yard-tall (meter) Soft Rush, several of which grace our pond's banks, at www.agf.gov.bc.ca/cropprot/weedguid/images/43a.jpg

Rushes are good to know if only because to our ancestors they were so important for basket making, thatching, weaving mats, and the like. If you cut a Soft Rush stem and pull on it, you'll be surprised how strong it is. If you split the cylindrical stem you'll find it filled with what looks like white Styrofoam. This makes the harvested stem soft and pliable. Right now is the time of year when rush stems should be collected and prepared for weaving. A page on the preparation of rushes for basket weaving is found at www.allexperts.com/previousqv.asp?QuestionID=2571717

Another page with plenty of pictures detailing the making of a basket can be found at http://stu.wccnet.org/~cerdly/gdt200/FinalProject/basket.html

Twenty-one species of rush are listed for Florida, and in Mississippi we surely have that many, or more. The Soft Rush species is common throughout the eastern US and can be distinguished from most other kinds of rush by its large size, its stiff, cylindrical, sharp- pointed stems, and the manner by which the flower clusters appear to sprout from the side of the stems about 7/8ths of the distance up the stems. You can see this curious arrangement at http://linnaeus.nrm.se/flora/mono/junca/juncu/junceff1.jpg

I enjoy reading the journals of early explorers. Often I've read how when they were obliged to sleep on wet ground they'd look for rushes to cut and strew as a carpet atop mud. Since Soft Rush is one of the largest and most common of the rushes, I'm sure it has kept many of our ancestors dry through some rainy nights.

The Web even mentions medicinal uses for this fine plant. Supposedly it's good for "sore throats, jaundice, oedema, acute urinary tract infection and morbid crying of babies." Since some other sites mention that it may be poisonous to mammals who graze it, I'd be careful supplying it to morbidly crying babies.

*****

JENNY-WRENS & INDIAN HENS
The other night my neighbor Jim Thomas dropped by for an old-time chat. I enjoyed his stories from a long life in local fields and woods, and I got a kick from some of the names he used for local plants and animals.

From what I could gather, his name for what the books call Carolina Wren was "Jenny-wren." He referred to Pileated Woodpeckers as "Indian Hens." He spoke of "Upland Copperheads" but I couldn't figure out which snake that was.

Of course this wasn't the first time I've been confused by local names. Last week I told you about my father's Rain Crows, which the books call Yellow-billed Cuckoos. My Grandpa Conrad was the first to teach me the name of a tree. It was the Water Maple, which later I learned appeared in books as Silver Maple. Papaw also taught me my first bird and that was the Yellowhammer, which books now call Northern Flicker -- though when I was in college the books called the Yellow-shafted Flicker.

My confusion about Jim Thomas's names reminded me how hard it must be for most of you to handle the names used in this Newsletter. However, in my own life I've learned that it's worth the struggle to get names of things straight. Once you have a name you can look it up in books and on the Internet, and you can organize information around that name. Names are like magical keys that open up whole new worlds to you.

Names are so important that at my nature-study site I provide a whole section of pages with titles like "Names can be Tricky Things" and "On the Beauty of Scientific Names." The index page for that section is at www.backyardnature.net/names.htm

*****

A SPIDER SNAPS A TICK
One evening this week I was reading in the trailer when I noticed a tick crawling along the outside of my window screen, trying to get at me. As I watched, a small spider appeared and pounced on the tick. With its four legs the tick held onto the screen's wire so firmly that the spider couldn't pry it loose. Then the spider did something I've never seen or even read about.

It attached a silk to the tick's body, then extended the silk to the center of its diffuse web. The spider returned to the tick, attached another silk and also extended it to the web's center. This the spider did for maybe ten times, until a thick, white band of silk emanated from the tick's body toward a spot in the web's center, and I couldn't imagine what was going on.

Suddenly the tick snapped from its position on the screen and was instantly drawn into the web's center by the contracting white strand. Once the tick was suspended in space, the spider got a proper hold on it and quickly carried it to a hiding place at the window's edge.

The first thing I did when I was again on the Internet was to Google the key words "spider silk contraction prey." This query produced an article in the "International Journal of Biological Macromolecules" where I learned that certain spider dragline silk is thought to be "semi-crystalline, non-linear, viscoelastic biopolymer." When this silk is wetted, it "exhibits supercontraction with a large reduction in material stiffness."

So, if you wet certain spider silk, it contracts tremendously. Apparently the spider exuded wet silk that "supercontracted" the tick off the screen.

Has anyone out there seen anything similar?

*****

BIRD EAR
Monday morning at dawn as I jogged down Roxie Road I came upon a dead Pine Warbler lying on the asphalt, a male juvenile, apparently run over by a car. Whenever I find dead animals I try to imagine how I might use them to teach others, and it immediately occurred to me that here might be my chance to show kids on the Internet that birds really do have ears.

I brought the little bird home and with a pin carefully parted feathers on the head where I thought an ear should be. I had to search awhile because there wasn't the slightest visual hint where an ear was -- just smooth feathers. Finally the feathers parted in just the right way and I was astonished to see that the ear-hole actually was about as large as the bird's eye.

The picture turned out pretty well. You can see it at www.backyardnature.net/birdears.htm

*****

SQUASH FLOWERS & INDIAN MARKETS
One thing I miss about my traveling days is visiting Latin America's "Indian markets." My fascination with these places is so great that I produced the Web site "Mercados: Traditional Mexican Markets" at www.earthfoot.org/mercados/mer_menu.html.

Traditional markets offer profound sensory experiences. That's the main theme of my essay "One Day in The Life of A Mexican Mercado," which is about twenty-six single-spaced, typed pages long, found at www.earthfoot.org/mercados/1day.html  

I got to thinking about my mercado days this week while admiring the big yellow-orange blossoms on my summer-squash plants. In any good "Indian market" you can buy squash flowers for eating. Usually an old Indian lady squats before you, her piles of cleaned, prepared, flattened blossoms lying in little heaps atop a cloth. As you haggle, you hardly hear what she's saying because of the general cacophony. You hardly keep from crashing into her because of the jostling of the rushing masses, your head swirls from all the odors (dominated by those of celery, ripe mangoes, cantaloupes, and the butchers' odor of warm, dismembered flesh), and your eyes are dazzled by the flowers' bright splashes of yellow-orange mingling with kaleidoscopic bright designs in the old lady's blouse, the rainbow of wild mushrooms in a heap to the side, gaudy high piles of red tomatoes, green cucumbers and white onions...

If you want to try eating some of your own squash flowers you needn't worry about aborting a squash by pulling blossoms from your vines. Squash flowers are either male or female, and of course only the female blossoms produce fruit, so just pull the males. You can see the differences between male and female squash flowers on my "Squash Flowers Page" at www.backyardnature.net/fl_sqwsh.htm

My preparation of squash flowers is pretty simple. I remove the stiff parts -- the stamens -- then dip the corollas in a thinner-than-usual cornbread batter, fry them, and eat them. A well developed flower not fried too hard possesses a lemony flavor and the dish is especially good with ripe tomatoes and a jalapeƱo or two.

If you want a much fancier squash-flower recipe, check out the one called "Stuffed Squash Flowers with Pasta" at www.quantumslip.com/food/000417.php

*****

TOMATOES, EGGPLANTS, PEPPERS & POPPING JOINTS
About three summers ago I was returning to the US after working for 4 months in Germany. On my way to Mississippi from New York I visited my Grandma Taylor in Kentucky. Grandma's tomato crop was outstanding, so for a week I practically lived on tomato salad and tomato sandwiches. Somehow after four months of cold, rainy German weather and up-tight German society, I just couldn't resist going crazy over sweet, juicy tomatoes.

Right after I returned to my spot in the woods near Natchez one day I bent over and a sharp pain shot through my hip. The next day my wrists, fingers, and ankles popped with arthritis. I could barely roll from my sleeping platform and could walk only a few steps. It was about a week before I could properly mount my bicycle.

I suspected that somehow the tomatoes had "acidified my blood" or something like that. Since those days I've eaten very few tomatoes and my arthritis has practically disappeared. Until now. This summer I decided I must have been wrong about those tomatoes and during the last few weeks I've eaten a bunch of them. Generous neighbors also have supplied me with plenty of eggplants and peppers. And then early this week I bent over to pick up a pile of hay and that same sharp pain I felt three summers ago once again shot through the same hip joint. On Wednesday my wrists, fingers and ankles were swollen with arthritis and when I walked my joints popped. I felt 25 years older than just two days earlier.

Knowing that tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are all members of the same family, the Nightshade Family, I Googled the keywords "nightshade pain joints" and found many pages on the Web relating the eating of products of the Nightshade Family with arthritis. One such page can be found at www.lef.org/newsarchive/nutrition/2002/02/28/TUL/0000-2495-KEYWORD.Missing.html  

Though many experts claim that there's no proof that eating Nightshade plants affects arthritis, others are convinced that it does. The above Web page mentions a study in which 94 percent of arthritis sufferers who rigidly avoided eating produce from Nightshade plants reported complete or substantial relief. The problem with Nightshade plants appears to be that they contain the toxin solanine, which some researchers believe may interfere with proper enzyme function in muscles, leading to pain.

I seldom trust these kinds of dietary claims. However, maybe this one has something to it. It's a shame, but I'm cutting out all my Nightshade foods. Now on Sunday morning I'm feeling nearly as good as ever and my arthritis has nearly cleared up. Is there anyone out there pigging out on tomatoes right now suddenly finding their arthritis flaring up?

Our main edible garden members of the Nightshade Family, the Solanaceae, are tomatoes, potatoes, all green and red peppers (but not black pepper), eggplants, tree-tomatoes, husk-tomatoes or ground- cherries, and tomatillos.

*****

COMPOST PHILOSOPHY
This week I got access to a big pile of mowed grass so I built a compost bin to digest it. I filled it with alternating layers of grassblades and bone-dry pig manure and woodchips cleaned from the barn. I wetted the whole thing and every day I've been peeing on it. The result is a pile of compost working so well that when it's opened up steam comes out, and really it's so hot inside you can't keep your hand there for long. Of course I don't worry about putting my hand into a "nasty place" because at those temperatures pathogenic bacteria are killed off. Despite my several-times-a- day peeing there, there's no odor of urine, though one can indeed smell a sweetish ammonia.

I could have used the straw as straw mulch, and if I'd strewed the dry pig manure on my garden it would have fertilized the soil as well as it will as compost. However, I like the idea of composting. I like sharing my living space with a compost heap, knowing that inside it majestic happenings are going on -- a rainbow of chemical reactions, a vast, evolving society of interacting living organisms, a generous exposition of the laws of nature...

At the fundamental level, a compost heap is a system by which wrecked vegetative matter is reduced by degree to humus, nutrients and mineral matter. During the decomposition process a succession of different kinds of microorganisms inhabit the heap doing specialized jobs. The breaking-down process generates so much heat that it can even get so hot that the decomposition bacteria themselves die off -- which reduces the heat to where the organisms can make a come-back.

A page called "How a Compost Pile Works" is found at www.mastercomposter.com/archive/arc_pile.html

A good heap has to be well aerated so the bacteria can have their oxygen, and the composting material must be moist but not wet. A beautiful requirement a lot of people overlook is this: In the heap, there must be an appropriate ratio between carbon and nitrogen molecules, that of about 30:1. The carbon resides in the carbohydrate forming the decomposing organic matter. My heap of grassblades was nearly entirely carbohydrate. However, composting doesn't get done unless there is enough nitrogen to provide for the building of the protein-rich bodies of the microbes doing the decomposing. Remember that proteins are composed of amino acids, and every amino acid molecule has at its heart an atom of nitrogen. That nitrogen can come from added manure, or pee, certain kitchen scraps, or even from a bag of commercially produced nitrogen.

You can see how much carbon and nitrogen several common compost candidates possess at a Web page called "The All-Important Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio," found at www.organicgardening.com/library/compost_ratios.html

It's beautiful to think about a compost heap in such chemical terms, and beautiful to think about the flow of energy and the laws of thermodynamics. You take a heap of messy, sticky, grungy-looking, funny-smelling stuff of dubious origin and discover in it elegant formulas and laws of nature.

Naturally I can't walk past my new compost heap without wondering this: In this world on which we humans are making such a mess and where there are so many instances of decay and things coming undone -- are there elegant formulas and laws of nature in which to take delight?

Of course the answer is yes. For example, here are some lessons my peed-on compost pile immediately brings to mind:

# Recycling is necessary in complex, closed-system communities

# Certain resources are precious, should be identified and should not be squandered (carbon & nitrogen for the microorganisms, clean air & water for us humans)

# The welfare of the community supercedes that of the individual

# Since the mind can appreciate profound beauties even when the eye sees nothing but a heap of broken straw and manure, it's clear that reflection and decisive thought can be liberating