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

August 3, 2003

DRILLING FOR WATER
This week a water well was dug here, and it's wonderful having all the pure, sweet-tasting water I need.

A crew of four came with an old drilling rig that formerly had seen service at a small town in Kentucky. First with a backhoe they dug a narrow pit about 8 feet deep, then they excavated an L-shaped trench leading into the pit. They filled the pit with water from a truck they'd brought with them, and finally they pulled the drilling rig up to the trench's head, raised the tower and began drilling. You can see a picture of the operation, (I'm the balding fellow in shorts & blue shirt), taken by neighbor Karen Wise, at www.earthfoot.org/temp/drillwll.jpg

As the bit ate into the earth, water from the pit was pumped down the hole so that it would gush back up carrying loose earth dislodged by the bit. Throughout the drilling, this water constantly circulated between the pit and the drilling hole.

At first as they drilled through the layer of loess mantling this area, nothing but silt came up with the water. At 15 feet (4.5 m) they hit sand, then at 30 feet (9 m) they came into gravel. At about 38 feet they encountered the water table. It would have been possible to have a well at that point, because what they look for is a layer of gravel or coarse sand below the water table. However, this gravel was so close to the surface that it was feared that if the nearby stream got polluted it would ruin our water supply. So, they drilled deeper.

Soon the bit passed into fine sand, and then for the next 170 feet (51 m) there was nothing but sand. During the entire drilling, as water gushed from the drilling hole into the trench leading into the pit, one worker constantly held a shovel in the water collecting mineral sediment. Every 30 seconds to a minute he'd raise the shovel so the foreman could examine the sediment, peering at it closely through the bottom lenses of his bifocals, and sometimes rubbing it between his fingers to feel the texture. He wanted to feel gravel or coarse sand because water flows faster through that, plus, if the sand was too small it would pass through the slits in the casing pipe that later would be inserted into the well. At the 200-ft depth (60 m) the sand became a little coarser, so finally it was figured that that was deep enough.

During the drilling process a worker occasionally shoveled from a sack a few pounds of dry powder they called "mud" into the circulating water. Words on the sack described the contents as "Premium Gel, 100% Wyoming Bentonite." It looked like gray talc. This "mud" served two purposes. First, it stabilized the well's sand walls, and; second, it made the water "thicker" so that debris dislodged by the bit would come out with the water easier.

Once the hole was drilled they inserted several 20-ft- long, 4.5-inch wide, plastic-looking casing pipes into the hole. Each pipe bore thousands of tiny slits, each slit being 1/10,000-ths of an inch wide (2.5 microns). Water can pass through such slits, but not sand grains. Water under pressure was forced into the hole to "flush it out," and then they forced air into it and measured the water pressure. Finally the water pump was inserted into the well not far from the ground's surface, a small retention tank was set next to the well head, the pump was connected to a 220-volt plug, and then we all stood by to see wonderful, cold, milky water begin gushing from a large black hose into the nearby pond. I let the water flow for 24 hours to get the residual "mud" out of the system.

I asked the foreman whether this drilling had been a typical job. His reply was, "Yeah,... sandy." So, it was pretty typical, but they'd run into more sand than they were used to. However, being so close to a little stream, this was normal.

*****
HYDROLOGY BASICS
The drilling-company owner told me beforehand that he guaranteed he'd strike water. I think that this had been a pretty safe bet, because in this area if you go deep enough you'll always strike water. In my home area of Kentucky that wasn't always the case, because in many places you might strike dry bedrock before encountering a water table. However, here there's little or no bedrock near the ground's surface and the elevation above sea level is so low that the water level is seldom far from the surface. In Kentucky, folks who can dowse for water are much in demand, but, here, dowsers don't seem to be part of the local culture.

If you'd like to learn more about your own local hydrology, you can find the basics at a great site on the Web developed by the US Geological Survey, called "Groundwater Atlas of the United States." It's at http://sr6capp.er.usgs.gov/gwa/index.html


There, the page providing a regional summary for the Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas area is found at http://sr6capp.er.usgs.gov/gwa/ch_f/index.html

Maps at this site show that the area around Natchez is located within the huge "Southeastern Coastal Plain aquifer system" and that here the system either outcrops at or near the ground's surface. This explains why the drilling-company owner could be so confident he'd strike water. The aquifer system here is about 5,000 feet deep (1500 m), as shown on a map at http://sr6capp.er.usgs.gov/gwa/ch_f/gif/F067.GIF

The driller told me that he thought our water was coming from the Citronelle Formation. The Citronelle is considered to have been deposited during the Pliocene Epoch 1.7 to 3.6 million years ago. If your computer can deal with PDF documents, you can download a page with a section about "Semiconsolidated Sand Aquifers" of the kind we have here at http://sr6capp.er.usgs.gov/gwa/pub/ch_a/Apg08.pdf

If you need a general brushing up on geology, don't forget my geology section on the Web at www.backyardnature.net/g/geology.htm. To get a grasp on geologic time, the Geologic Time Scale chart is presented at www.backyardnature.net/g/geo-time.htm

*****

GROUNDWATER POLLUTION
The driller told me that we were lucky because at the cabin about a 3-minute walk up the road the well water "is full of sulfur," and that many other water wells in our area are salty. He guessed that this is because of oil-drilling practices of the past. In the old days oil-drilling companies would pump their polluted water into the aquifer instead of disposing of it properly.

*****

ANOLES FIGHTING ON THE FENCEPOST
Thursday as I passed by my garden I noticed two male Green Anoles, ANOLIS CAROLINENSIS ("chameleon" lizards), circling one another on a fencepost. Clearly they were contesting territory. One was a little larger than the other, and the small one had about a quarter of his tail missing. The larger was slower but kept the high ground while the smaller was more aggressive and willing to attack. Both were bright green.


Finally they lunged at one another, their open mouths ending up crosswise to one another, each with a good bit of the other's upper or lower jaw in its own mouth. At first it appeared as if each was in an equally bad situation but then the larger one, in a matter of less than 30 seconds, turned dark brown- gray. During most or maybe all of the matings I've seen, the male remained bright green while the female turned a dark, leaden hue, so the thought occurred to me that maybe the big male sensed that he was at a disadvantage in the fight, and his darkening signaled his desperation or submission. Closer up I saw that the big one not only had one of his eyes inside the other's mouth, but also several of his head scales were dislodged, and he was breathing much faster than his smaller opponent. I think he considered himself to be losing the fight.


They remained locked together like this for ten minutes, the smaller one constantly shifting his body to get a better grip, the larger one just holding on. Finally they disengaged and the circling continued, the big one walking stiffly and seemingly dazed. Soon they attacked again and the same situation developed, except that this time no eye was covered by a jaw. After about ten more minutes the big one began turning green again and the small one started looking nervous, shifting his position more frequently but never improving his situation.


Somehow they came undone, circled one another some more, the big one always maintaining the highest position despite his swollen, wounded tongue hanging from his mouth's corner, and then they attacked again. The big one continued regaining his earlier bright green color and now the small one had as many loose scales and raw-looking spots as the big one. As they chewed at one another, sometimes one would lose his grip and the other would hold him in mid air while clinging to the side of the fencepost. Then the loose one would gain a grip, give a mighty twist and flip the other into the air. It was a tremendous fight.

After about 40 minutes from the beginning they disengaged, circled one another for a while, and then I saw it: The big one had returned to his former brilliant bright greenness but the small one now for the first time was darkening. And now the small one, for every five steps he'd take forward or sideways, would take six backwards. He still looked aggressive but unmistakably he was withdrawing from the fight as he grew darker and darker.


Finally just the bright green big one remained on the fencepost as the dark small one slinked away through the daylilies.

*****

BABY RABBITS
Newsletter subscriber and friend Ana María near Mérida in Mexico writes to me about the fun she's having with a new family of domesticated rabbits she's invited to live with her -- the parents being named Roberto and Chabela. Recently Chabela gave birth and Ana María wrote asking about nursing among rabbits. Soon Google had led me to the very nice Web site produced by the "House Rabbit Society" at www.rabbit.org. Information found there applies to domesticated "house rabbits," not necessarily to wild rabbits and cottontails.

I learned that when a rabbit mother gives birth, she doesn't stay on her nest, for this would attract the attention of predators. The babies burrow to the nest's bottom and hide until the mother returns for meal time. Usually, instead of nursing her young right after birth, the mother first feeds them the night after the birth, typically between midnight and 5:00 AM. On the average, the babies are fed every 24 hours.

When a mother rabbit nurses, she doesn't lie in the nest like a cat would, but stands over the babies. However, like a cat, when she's cleaning them she licks their bellies and bottoms to stimulate elimination.

One offshoot of what's said above is that when you find a nest of baby rabbits without a parent around you shouldn't assume that they have been abandoned and need your help. Just get away from the nest fast and don't bother them. If you have a nest of baby rabbits and want to be sure they are being cared for, check them the first thing each morning. If they are warm and their bellies are round, they're fine. An even more certain way is each morning at dawn to weigh them on a small postage scale or kitchen scale. If each day they gain 1/4 oz. or so (7.5 g), they're being fed.


There's a lot more information at the www.rabbit.org site, so if you have any rabbit affinities at all, this is a good site to bookmark.

*****

JAPANESE BEETLE UPDATE
My cousin Miles in Kentucky, who treasures his plants as much as I, writes this:

"The beetles are eating all the blooms and all the ripe fruit. They come in by the hundreds. They love sassafras leaves. When they get done with a tree you can see right through it, all that's left is the veins on the leaf. I hate these beetles."

This is the third summer I've told Newsletter readers about Japanese Beetles. Each summer I've referred you to a map on the Internet showing how these rapacious, introduced beetles are advancing westward and southward toward us in southwestern Mississippi. This year the map shows them established in parts of northeastern and eastern Mississippi, but still a few counties from Natchez. You can see the 2003 map at http://ceris.purdue.edu/napis/pests/jb/imap/jbmap.html

I've been telling everyone I can about the pending arrival of these beetles, especially since I heard that the Natchez City Council spent a good deal of money planting the streets in Crepe Myrtles, which happen to be among this beetle's favorite foods.


The USDA's main page on the biology and control of Japanese Beetles is at www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/housing/japanese-beetle/jbeetle.html

*****

FOWLER'S TOADS & AMERICAN TOADS
Lately I've been seeing plenty of toads. At dusk they hop onto the barn's concrete floor and work along the edges. They also like my gardens. It's been interesting figuring out which species they are.

Of course toads are squat, plump little critters with rough, warty skin, while regular frogs usually have smoother skin and are a little more streamlined. The wonderful USGS "National Atlas for Amphibian Distributions" found on the Internet at www.mp2-pwrc.usgs.gov/armiatlas/order.cfm?recordID=Anura informs us that Mississippi is home to five toad species. They are:

  • Fowler's Toad
  • American Toad
  • Coastal Plain Toad
  • Oak Toad
  • Southern Toad

Of these five species, only the Fowler's Toad, BUFO FOWLERI, and the American Toad, BUFO AMERICANUS, are listed for Adams County, though other species come awfully close. These two species are very similar. Pictures of Fowler's Toads can be viewed at www.biology.wustl.edu/tyson/faunaamphwdtoad.html You can see how similar the American Toad is at www.uri.edu/cels/nrs/paton/toad/EX_p-amto10_se.jpg

Until 1997, Fowler's Toad was considered to be a subspecies of Woodhouse's Toad.

American Toads and Fowler's Toads are so similar that sometimes I find it hard to distinguish them. The American's chest and forward part of the abdomen is cream-colored and speckled with small black flecks or spots while that part on the Fowler's is immaculately white with no dark flecking. On Americans, each of the larger spots contains 1-2 round warts but the Fowler's has 3-4 warts per spot.


But often I find in-between individuals. Then I have to check the "parotoids" and "cranial crests" on the head area. You can view a drawing identifying cranial crests (supraorbital and postorbital) at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/images/nature/wild/amphibia/key/toadfig4.gif
Cranial crests look like slender wires implanted just beneath the toad's skin, right behind the eyes. The parotoids (pa-ROW-toids) are tumor-like growths farther behind the eyes and about twice the size of the eyes. Parotoids secrete a viscous, white poison, which the toad smears in the mouths of predators trying to eat it, causing the predator to get sick, rarely even to die. You can see conspicuous parotoids on a Fowler's Toad, looking like beans implanted beneath the skin behind the eyes, at www.biology.wustl.edu/tyson/faunaamphwdtoad.html

The American's parotid glands are either separated from the cranial ridge behind the eye, or connected with it by a short spur. On Fowler's, the cranial ridges and parotid glands touch completely.

Beyond that, American Toads call with "a pleasant musical trill lasting up to 30 seconds" while Fowler's Toads call with a sound "like the bleat of a sheep with a cold."

*****
POKE GREENS IN AUGUST
Not long after I cleared away the blackberry thicket growing up against the barn, hundreds of little Pokeweeds began sprouting. The blackberry thicket had been a favorite overnight roosting spot for Pokeweed- eating birds, and those birds had sown Pokeweed seed there in their poop. Since usually Pokeweed sprouts are at their best for cooking as greens in late March, removing the blackberries has resulted in an out-of- season poke harvest for me.

They're good greens, too, as tasty now as if it were early spring. I put them in a pot with a little water and cooked them. A pot full cooks down to a piddling amount, but what's left is good, like spinach. Adding a bit of butter, salt and pepper makes a grand dish.

Pokeweed is a perennial arising from a large rootstock. I've read that in the old days people would dig pokeweed rootstocks in the fall, store them in their warm rootcellars, then eat the shoots as they sprouted through the winter. I've thought of doing that but to me Pokeweed is such a pretty plant and of such value to wildlife that I'd rather the plant do its own thing the next spring.

You can see an edible Pokeweed sprout along with the blackish fruits also now appearing at www.survivaliq.com/survival/PIC/img064.gif

*****

COMPOSTING THE DOMINANT PARADIGM
My dictionary's first definition of "poor" is, "Wanting in material riches or goods."

I wonder if the dictionary's editors meant to be as profound with their definition as it seems to me they were? For, in their choice of words they reflected this society's dominant consumerist paradigm by employing the term "wanting," when, in my mind, they should have written "needing... " A person is poor, I believe, when someone is "needing" of material riches or goods, not just "wanting" them...

I became especially sensitive to these opposing concepts of being poor this week while draining water into the bathtub prior to washing my Kentucky quilts for the first time in a long, long time. That morning as the water poured, I made my rounds seeing what new plants were blossoming or producing fruit, how high my Moonflower vine had grown in the night, whether new mushrooms had sprung up, how my anoles and fence lizards were doing, and I was feeling prosperous and fortunate beyond description.

Yet, I could probably qualify for welfare because my yearly income is so low. Despite my sense of affluence and despite my having much more than I really NEED, and certainly not WANTING more "material riches or goods," the world around me often classifies me as "poor." Moreover, many would be annoyed that on a weekday morning I myself was not in a car hurrying someplace to a paying job.

The crystalline, soul-pleasing water gushed from the ground joyously gurgling and splashing after long confinement in the aquifer. The sun sparkled in the water and I drank deeply and bathed in it, and watered my plants and compost heap with it. What enormous potential I envisioned for us -- me and this water -- and how many degrees of fulfillment I experienced at that moment!

Of course, drilling the well had been a major expense. However, if you figure the amount of service the well will provide during many years of operation, the cost will be seen to be almost negligible. To me, drilling a water well fits nicely with the Tao's "Middle Path" philosophy: It's not free, but it's hardly gross self- indulgence, either.

I wish I had a way to compost this culture's dominant motivating paradigm that assigns one to poverty simply if little money is at hand, and declares that one is wasting his or her time if not perpetually employed with earning a weekly salary. I should like to shred that paradigm and ceremoniously dump it into the straw and dried pig manure of history, then stand yodeling and lustily pee on it.

What pleasure it would be one morning to see it black and spongy, steamy in the morning air and smelling wholesome and well intentioned. If I could do that, I believe I should enrich the whole world many-fold, and happiness would emerge everywhere like well-formed mushrooms from perfect compost.