from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

August 17, 2003

As soon as we got well water I dug up the ground next to the barn where the blackberries had made such a tangle and the Pokeweed had come up in profusion, and sowed turnips. Within five days the bed was green with baby turnip plants.

At least ten times every day I visit the turnip bed, though I know there won't be much new to see since the last time. It's clear that I go there for purposes other than to garden. I think it's purely for the magic of it all.

The seeds I sowed had been two years old. They'd resided in a brown paper bag during the frosts and drizzly days of two winters, they'd sat inside a junked refrigerator in a dusty shed at my former residence through any number of spring storms, they'd smoldered through long dog-days of summer, they'd heard evening crickets and katydids on at least a hundred fall nights, and during nearly all that time I was forgetting that they were there.

But then one morning early last week I walked over freshly broken ground broadcasting those seeds, moving my arm back and forth like a magician over a hat. The seeds were so small I couldn't see them as they fell or hear them hit the ground, only feel them leaving my hand. I strewed mulch over them and watered the area, and then for a few nights and days I waited as each seed sought and found within its own private darkness the life inside it.

Eventually, being born, each plant struggled up through Earth's mineral clottings and debris, resulting in a bed of thousands of dark green little plants, each with it two first notched leaves (its cotyledons) being perfect solar panels elegantly aligned for gathering star-energy for the synthesis of carbohydrate -- which someday I shall take into my own body as good-tasting, soul-pleasing fuel.

It's all magic, all mystery, all perfection. How curious that reality should be constructed in such a manner that a mere hermit working in a barn should be able to delight in such majestic goings-on.


A common little insect around here these days is the Red-headed Bush Cricket, also called the Handsome Trig and a few other names. In Latin it's PHYLLOPALPUS PULCHELLUS, and you can see photos of it, its distribution map, and you can click on a link to an audio file for hearing its call at

At first, with its rusty head and thorax, and golden legs, I didn't even recognize this handsome little critter (3/8ths inch, 9 mm) as a cricket because it is so unlike the much larger, totally black field crickets with which I'm more familiar. Though the distribution map at the above link shows it occurring as far north as southern Iowa and New York, I can't recall ever seeing it in Kentucky. Certainly it's more common in the South than the North.

Even if you've never noticed it where you live, if you are located in the Southeast, I'll bet you'll recognize its sharp staccato call, which you can hear at When you listen to that, probably you'll do as I did and think, "Ah, so THAT'S what makes that sound... !"


The other day neighbors and Newsletter subscribers Karen & Jackie Wise gave me an old, broken-down computer they no longer wanted. I scavenged the sound card from it and now for the first time in my life I have a computer that makes sounds. I wanted sound so I could hear the calls of certain birds, frogs and insects. I've tried to track down the source of the Red-headed Bush Cricket's call many times, without success, but now I know whose call that is thanks to the Internet and the Wise's sound card.

Once the sound card was installed, the first thing I did was to fix my computer so that it stopped making all those whoosing, clicking and crashing sounds Microsoft thinks we need. However, I went further than that. Now as my computer comes to life it croaks like a Leopard Frog. When it goes off, the Red-headed Bush Cricket calls. I'm working on fixing it so that when new mail comes in, a Bullfrog announces it.

It's easy to do this. For example, let's say you want the bush cricket to call each time you exit Windows. Here's how I did it using Windows 98, and I hope that the process is similar for other Windows platforms.

First, use Google to find on the Internet an audio file you like (keywords maybe "frog calls audio"), then save the file in a subdirectory or folder on your own computer. For example, at the Red-headed Bush Cricket Web page at, place your cursor over one of the speaker icons (the bottom one is best) and click the right button on your mouse. When the new window appears, click on "Save Target As... ", then in the next window choose a subdirectory and save the audio file there. Be sure to remember which subdirectory you've chosen.

Now you must tell your computer where to find the saved audio file when it wants to make a sound. Click on "My Computer," which I assume is available on your desktop, then "Control Panel," and finally click on "Sounds." In the resulting "Events Window," choose the event you want to sound like a bush cricket -- in our case, "Exit Windows." Highlight "Exit Windows," left- click it, then left-click "Browse." Now you must show the Browse Window where your saved audio file is, using the little yellow file icon with a bent arrow in it. Once you have the name of the cricket audio file in the "File Name" window, click on OK, then "Apply" in the next window, and "OK." Now each time you exit Windows, you should hear a bush cricket.

One warning: Choose small files that are short of duration. When you must listen to long periods of something even as nice as a bullfrog again and again, it can get a little old.


Last week I told you how the little stream next to the barn was drying up and how the minnows in the few remaining pools were gasping for air as the pools gradually disappeared. Most of the remaining pools, including the one below the bridge which I visit each day, eventually did dry up, and of course every minnow in those pools died.

Then on Wednesday afternoon we got our first good rain in weeks, about half an inch (1.5 cm). Within fifteen minutes the stream went from being a dry bed of sand to a little torrent. At sundown, three hours after the rain, already minnows swam in the turbid water beneath the bridge. By Thursday afternoon the stream ran with clear water and a host of minnows darted about within the larger pools.

These new fish had plenty of food in their recently stirred-up water, and their water was oxygen rich, so they kept the water's surface electric with fast and frisky maneuvering. It was as if nothing had happened, as if whole colonies of minnows had never endured long days of asphyxiation, and then died gasping in the mud.


Here and there in that same sandy-bottomed stream passing by the barn the forest canopy opens enough to let in a little sunlight, and nowadays in some of those openings small colonies of Broad-leaved Arrowhead, SAGITTARIA LATIFOLIA, are flowering. This plant, which takes its name from its leaf shape, is a commonly distributed aquatic member of the Water- plantain Family, hardly related at all to the Water- lily Family. Arrowheads are distributed throughout the US, except for the Southwest. You can see some at

Besides being pretty plants, arrowheads are very important for wildlife, and our ancestors must have treasured them. That's because arrowheads produce thick, round, white or bluish tubers that can grow as large as chicken eggs, and these make fine eating. In some places the plant is referred to as Duck Potato, and it often has been planted along lakes to provide food for waterfowl. You can read how in late fall and winter tubers can be collected and prepared for eating at

I've begun transplanting some of these plants to our ponds and I hope that someday I'll be able to see hundreds growing along the banks. The ones in the stream are less than knee-high, but I've read that under optimum conditions they grow nearly five feet high (1.5 m). This is a plant I want to experiment with.

Another unusual thing about this species is that its leaves vary as much as any plant I know. Normal leaves are arrow-shaped but sometimes where colonies along a shore extend into water, the leaves of plants in deeper water are grasslike, with hardly any flat blade at all. Leaves with intermediate shapes also appear.


When I cut young Loblolly Pines to make way for garden space I lop off the branches and save the trunks for beanpoles and the like. These I store in the barn, leaning them against the walls. For the last month strange, rhythmic sounds have been emanating from these poles, sounding like someone grating their teeth while sleeping, at a rate of about a gnash a second. This sound can be heard from 15 or more feet away (4.5 m). Also, below the poles, slender wood shavings have piled up. From the beginning it was clear that some kind of larva was tunneling through the wood, but it took me a while to figure out how to identify the larva species.

As usual, Google came to the rescue when it occurred to me to do a search on the keywords "larvae pine tunnel sound." This quickly led me to pages describing the Southern Pine Sawyer, MONOCHAMUS TITILLATOR, a member of the Long-horned Beetle Family, the Cerambycidae. One of the best introductions to this species, along with several photos, can be found near the bottom of the long page at

One picture on the above web page shows that the maggot larvae of this species possess unusually large thoraxes. I confirmed this by splitting one of my bean poles down the middle and finding an inch-long (2.5 cm) grub with a large head exactly as in the photo. These grubs can grow much larger -- to 2-2/5 inches (60 mm) long. You can see what the adult beetles look like and read more about the species at

A while back the US Forest Service cut a broad swath through Homochitto National Forest adjoining this property in an effort to stop an outbreak of Pine Bark Beetles, which were killing large numbers of trees. I was afraid, then, that maybe the Pine Sawyers among my beanpoles represented the first of a new invasion that would decimate our Loblollies.

However, it turns out that Pine Sawyers attack only dead or almost-dead pines. My Loblolly beanpoles had been perfect habitat for them.


Back to those turnip seeds. Or any seeds, for that matter...

A seed is something Mother Nature thought up as an appropriate vessel for transferring information from one generation to the next. The transferal of this information is especially dramatic and artful because typically it involves a being at the end of one season handing off the information to an unknown being living at the beginning of a completely different season. Moreover, usually the two seasons are separated from one another by a deadly winter or dry season.

To really see a seed, your mind must penetrate the seedcase and bypass the endosperm, radicle and plumule, and focus on the coded abstraction set within the chromosomes. I mean the DNA code, the code spelled out in terms of nucleotide sequences, the code that gives instructions within cells on how to make living things and keep them alive. As far as life on Earth is concerned, there's no more important information than this.

Deep inside those seeds, how tiny and fragile are the slender, spiraling molecules on which the code is written. You can scramble or destroy the information coded there simply by exposing the seed to X-rays, alpha, beta or gamma rays, to war's mustard gas, great heat or cold, or a host of other environmental factors or pollutants.

One of the most interesting features about genetic material has been explored in Richard Dawkins's book, "The Selfish Gene." In that book Dawkins claims that "We animals exist for their {the genes'} preservation and are nothing more than their throwaway survival machines."

Among other things, it turns out that much genetic material consists of abundant repetitions of the same information. It's as if the coded information is aware of itself and rejoices in reproducing itself, even if the replicated information is of no value to us, the biological organisms carrying it.

To really see a seed, you have to make yourself vulnerable to the notion that maybe we biological entities are only notes on a sheet of music, and what's really important is the music, not the notes -- that the Creator rejoices less in us carriers of information, than in the information itself. After all, the Creator worked on us for only a few years, but the information held in any seed represents the crystallized results of experiments in life conducted during more eons than we can know.

To really see a seed, you must close your eyes and imagine a music in which the whole Earth is a single note in a vast melody that goes on and on.

Then, you get up and go look at your turnip patch and see all those little green plants with their solar panels directed toward the sun, and what can you do but laugh with delight?