from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
August 31, 2003
LATE SUMMER DAYS
This week we've seen quintessential late summer days. More than once I've found myself gazing across the Loblolly Field into the cloudy sky savoring feelings associated with skin-crisping sunlight and hot humidity. Something there was in those moments powerfully and transcendently pleasing.
These days most mornings begin with fog beading among my beard and hair legs as I jog down Roxie Road. Toward the run's end the sun rises over the neighbor's pasture with a crimson glare. The smoke of my morning breakfast fire curls and recurls, not knowing how to mingle with fog. But soon the fog burns off, and then there's a brief chorus of hesitant birdcalls, the Towhee, the Cardinal, the Blue Jay, the White-eyed Vireo, the Hooded Warbler. Sometimes I glimpse these birds gorging on caterpillars, muscadines and Black Oak acorns, but after mid-morning usually they're not much seen or heard for the rest of the day.
In fact, the rest of the day would be almost silent but for the insects. Insects calling monotonously hour after hour almost define the feeling of these late summer days. Cicadas buzz-sawing from shadowy trees and, in tall grass, meadow grasshoppers bzzzzzz-zip- zip-zip-zip-bzzzzzzzzing...
By 10 AM cumulus clouds already mount into a sky that's more milky than blue. You see by the clouds' jaggedness that by afternoon they'll coalesce into thunderheads, and the only question is whether the thundering will begin early or late.
Afternoons are too hot to move through. Once the computer work is done, it's just enough to sit waiting for the storms. Sometimes it's hard to know whether the slate blue regions spreading across great regions of sky are blue sky or rain-filled storms. It's always storms, and usually the storms miss, but sometimes they hit. How cool and fresh those storm breezes are, and how welcome the rain, pouring off the barn's tin roof, the odor of mud and wet grass, the feeling of wet grass beneath my feet, the treefrogs calling.
At dusk I sit in my rocking chair reading, almost forgetting whether this day is today or some other rocking-chair dusk of long ago or tomorrow. It's all the same, endlessly the same, each day being a perfect example of exactly what it is.
Then at night what dreams a hermit has, awaking now and then to sounds matching dreams. The Screech Owl and Coyote, and hisses and thumpings and whoopings completely uninterpretable, hardly fitting into any sane world.
The air fairly scintillates with insect calls. Still, it's hard to track down which insects make what sounds, at least for me it is.
However, I'm learning the insect calls faster than ever before. That's because of the new sound card in my computer I told you about last week. I see an insect, identify it, then Google up an audio file on the Internet showing what that insect sounds like.
On Tuesday I found an insect on a tomato plant and with my field guide identified it as the Meadow Grasshopper, ORCHELIMUM VULGARE, which you can see at http://buzz.ifas.ufl.edu/k340pmk.htm.
Interestingly, some Internet pages call this insect a Meadow Katydid, not a Meadow Grasshopper. In other words, even the experts can't agree on where katydids end and grasshoppers begin.
When you hear this insect's call, you'll recognize it, and I'll bet that for you, too, the sound will evoke a certain late-summer feeling. You can hear this large, slowly downloading audio file at http://blb.biosci.ohio-state.edu/sounds/cmka.wav
GROUND SKINK WITH FORKED TAIL
Monday while working with the compost heap I uncovered a 4-inch long (10 cm) Ground Skink, SCINCELLA LATERALIS, with a forked tail. You can see exactly what I beheld at www.conservation.state.mo.us/nathis/herpetol/molizard/3.gif
Many skink species possess "fracture planes" between the main part of their bodies and their tails. This helps the tail break off easily when grabbed by a predator (or human kid), and that enables the skink to escape while the predator (or kid) is occupied (or horrified) by the loose, wildly squirming tail. When skink tails come off, new tails regenerate, though the new ones are usually a bit smaller than the original models. Sometimes when a tail only partially breaks loose, new tails sprout from the injured base of the old tail, forming a forked tail.
Ground Skinks have been seen to bite off their own tails and eat them, so this particular species, which is very common here, might be expected to have an unusual tail. In fact, when I went Googling, looking for a picture of a skink with a forked tail, the only fork-tailed species I found was the Ground Skink shown at the above link.
RUSTIC SPHINX MOTH AT THE FOUR O'CLOCKS
Last week I told you how the Carolina Sphinx Moth, MANDUCA SEXTA, came to my Four O'clocks as I waited for the Moonflower to open. One recent evening a friend came by with a digital camera, so at dusk we tried for a picture. We were lucky, for that night THREE sphinx moths appeared.
After a few failed attempts, just as we were giving up because it was getting too dark, we did get a good picture of a sphinx moth. Moreover, once we saw the picture, it was apparent that we had a sphinx moth other than the Carolina. Turns out that that night along with two Carolinas we also had a closely related Rustic Sphinx, MANDUCA RUSTICA.
Rustics are distributed from Virginia to south Florida, west to Arkansas, Texas, southern New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California, then south through Central America to Uruguay. In our area the species' caterpillars, instead of eating tomato vines like the Carolina Sphinx Moth, feed on members of the Vervain and Bignonia families. Our Loblolly field is thick with Brazilian Vervains, and our woods have many Cross- vines and Trumpet Creepers, which are members of the Bignonia Family. You can see a Rustic Sphinx moth at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/moths/usa/1080.htm
You can compare the picture on that page with the image we took at www.backyardnature.net/pix/mothsfnx.jpg
SQUIRREL TREEFROG AMONG ELEPHANT EARS
I wasn't sure whether Squirrel Treefrogs, HYLA SQUIRELLA, would be found in our area because my Audubon Field Guide shows us exactly on the northwestern boundary of their distribution. However, this Wednesday as the afternoon storm skirted by rattling the barn's tin roof with its booming thunder and I was weeding in the garden, a little muddy- yellow-green treefrog suddenly appeared on a big, glossy Elepant-ear leaf, and it was certainly a Squirrel Treefrog. You can see this species at http://wwknapp.home.mindspring.com/docs/squirrel.tfrog.html
The Squirrel Treefrog's main field mark is a white stripe along the top rim of its mouth. Green Treefrogs also have that, but their white stripes boldly continue along the sides of their bodies. Barking Treefrogs also have white-rimmed mouths, but their skins are granular like sandpaper, while similar frogs have smooth skins.
The field guide says of the Squirrel Treefrog that "it can frequently be seen catching insects around patio lights" and the guide further claims that during the day "it hides under roof flashing or in garden shrubs; sometimes dozens are found huddled together."
It sounds like this is one little frog who has found Deep-South suburban culture to its liking. Squirrel Treefrogs are among the most commonly heard treefrogs just before and during storms so if your computer eats MP3 files you should familiarize yourself with its call, as heard at http://jeknapp.home.mindspring.com/mp3s/Squirrel.Treefrog.mp3
MEADOW BEAUTY BLOSSOMING
Goldenrods are the most conspicuous flowering wildflowers in fields and along roadsides right now, but if you keep looking you'll see other species. One of the most spectacular is certainly the Meadow Beauty, RHEXIA VIRGINICA, of which there's a small colony in a marshy spot next to our pond.
The plants stand about knee high and the blossoms, which last for only a few hours, are spectacular -- about an inch across (2.5 cm) and of a bright, pinkish-violet hue that visually explodes against any green background. Moreover, curiously kinked, yellow anthers dangle from the blossom's center. You can see the splashy effect of this design at http://arthur_haines.tripod.com/images/Rhexia-virginica.jpg
This plant likes moist or wet areas and is found throughout most of the eastern US. It's a member of the Melastoma Family, which is richly represented in the American tropics, but rather rare in the Temperate Zone. American Indians have been known to steep in water the Meadow Beauty's leaves, flowers, and stem to produce a sour drink used as a gargle for sore throat.
ANCIENT INDIAN FISH WEIRS
Responding to last week's remarks about the inland fishes of Mississippi, Vicky C. over near McComb, Mississippi told me about John M. Connaway's discovery of the prehistoric "Sturdivant" fish weir (pronounced WEER) in the Homochitto River in Amite County, about 20 miles southeast of here. John is an archaeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
A fish weir is a kind of dam or trap that pools water or somehow concentrates fish, making catching the fish easier. On the Web you can read a Master's thesis by Allen Lutins entitled "Prehistoric Fishweirs in Eastern North America" (State University of New York at Binghamton, May 1992) at www.lutins.org/thesis.html
At that site we read that the Sturdivant fish weir is the best preserved weir of its type. Further, "It consisted of rows of stakes (314 were recovered, most of Yellow Pine), clearly worked with stone tools, which were interwoven with split cane mats. The weir is in the shape of a 'V', with a gap at the apex. Parallel rows of stakes attest to episodes of rebuilding, and the stakes were radiocarbon dated to the Late Mississippian/early Protohistoric period."
Radiocarbon dates for the stakes ranged from 1460 to 1685. "Yellow Pine" is a name sometimes used for Shortleaf Pine, Pinus echinata.
Just this month, August 2003, Vickie, John Connaway and Travis Easley, the latter a south-Mississippi history buff and outdoorsman, located yet another fish wier location in the Tickfaw River in eastern Amite County. This new discovery is described in John's "Fishweirs of Mississippi and Beyond," a manuscript on file at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
John wants to hear from anyone who knows the location of what might be another such ancient fish weir in Mississippi. If you know of one, please drop me a line and I'll pass on the info. If you live in another state and know of such an undocumented weir, Allen Lutins, the thesis writer, wants to hear from you. He's at firstname.lastname@example.org
MARS'S NEXT VISIT
My cousin Jeff in Kentucky is as enthusiastic about space exploration as you can get. After reading my last Newsletter, in which I referred to this week's close encounter between Earth and Mars, Jeff wrote saying that he hoped that by the next time Mars comes this close -- over two centuries from now -- humans will be busily colonizing new worlds.
I just wonder if such will be the case. In fact, sometimes I think that there may be a universal natural law as inescapable as E=MC2 that states this: When any evolving lifeform reaches a certain stage of dominance over its fellow creatures, because that lifeform's dominance will be a consequence of the aggression and self-centeredness encoded in its genetic heritage, that lifeform enevitably will destroy its own environment and therefore itself.
Maybe such a universal law doesn't exist, however. My hopefulness is based on how I feel when my body is in a steady state, my mind clear, and my thoughts turn to the grandness and beauty of the things around me -- the bugs, weeds, clouds, compost heap, people...
At those times, which are frequent, I feel that I enter a state of spirituality, or communion with the Creator, that empowers me to be more than the sum total of my body's hungers and mental predispositions. In that state, I drift in the opposite direction to being a collection of hungers needing to be satisfied.
In fact, maybe there's another law of nature that states this: Aggression and self-centeredness dissipate in direct proportion to the extent to which one nurtures his or her spirituality.
By the next time Mars rolls around, whether we're colonizing other worlds or not, maybe we humans will be saying to one another, "The last time this happened, back in 2003, we had wars and mindless, ecosystem-shattering consumerism instead of reverence for the beauty and sanctity of Earthly life; religions instead of spirituality directed our lives, and; we felt despair instead of the wonder and contentment we now know.