from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
September 21, 2003
For about three weeks most nights have been almost chilly, making perfect sleeping weather. This week even the days were relatively cool. On Tuesday morning my thermometer read 57° (14°C), which was so cool that I wore a shirt during breakfast and heated my breakfast water for the first time in months. The morning dew numbed my toes as I walked through it. The days, with temperatures seldom breaking 85° (29.4°C), and a deep blue sky with abundant sunlight making crisp, black shadows, were perfect.
The dews these morning are spectacular, and you know how pretty spiderwebs can be on dewy mornings. Especially next to the barn where dense Loblolly saplings form a green wall 20 feet high, a vast community of webs among the pine boughs shows up brightly against the dark green background.
Most of the webs there, as well as among the goldenrods in the field where the pines thin out, are spherical, grapefruit-size constructions consisting of seemingly randomly arrayed silks, inside which are built horizontal sheetwebs shaped like shallow bowls. These special kinds of webs are made by the Bowl and Doily Spider, FRONTINELLA COMMUNIS. You can see a fine picture of such a web, taken by my neighbor Karen Wise, at www.backyardnature.net/websht2.jpg
As this spider's Latin name suggests (F. communis), this is a very common species throughout eastern and central North America. In bowl-and-doily webs, the male and female often hang upside down under the horizontal sheet inside the construction. If an insect gets entangled in the sheet, the spider bites it from below, pulls the prey through the sheet, and wraps it up. In Karen's picture you can see that sometimes a second sheetweb is built below the main one, which apparently helps shield the spiders from predators attacking from below.
The main prey I'm finding snared in these webs is winged aphids. I'm glad the spiders are helping keep these aphids out of my turnips and mustard greens.
Bowl-and-doily Spiders are mostly black, with conspicuous white or yellowish-white markings on their abdomens. From the side, the markings look like a scrawled "mc" -- an upside down "mc" when the spider hangs upside down, as is usually the case. The "c" opens toward the spider's front. I can't find a good picture of this species, but if you find a web looking like Karen's picture, and the spider in it has an "mc" on its abdomen, you have a Bowl-and-doily Spider.
SCREECH OWL WHINNYING
These cool nights are invigorating not only to me but also for an Eastern Screech Owl, OTUS ASIO, who most nights can be heard calling. Especially with the moon bright and the fog moving in, as has been the case most nights this week, this owl's call is eerie and evocative. You can hear a WAV file of one of its calls at www.cheekwood.org/nature/audio/screech/screech.wav
I often hear the owl "whinnying" as portrayed at the above link. However the main call it's making now is a one-tone, pulsating sound. I'm not sure what the difference is in terms of what the owl is communicating. I read that Screech Owls are poorly studied, so maybe no one knows.
Cornell University provides a fine Screech-owl page at http://birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse/bird_bios/speciesaccounts/easowl.html There you'll see that Eastern and Western Screech Owl species are recognized. A map shows the distribution of both. In the East, two "color morphs" exist -- owls are gray in the north, but rufous, or reddish, in our area.
Their mating habits are interesting. Males tend to be monogamous, but some take on more than one female, and thus are "polygynous." The degree of polygyny in a population depends on food availability and population density. Bonds are lifelong, but individuals take on a new mate if the other dies. Nests are typically found in natural cavities, abandoned woodpecker holes, and hollow stumps and limbs. Screech owls don't migrate, and they usually stay alone except during the breeding season.
That explains why I'm just hearing this one owl, and occasionally see it at dawn silently winging alone from among the Loblollies near my trailer.
Suddenly the fence along Liberty Road is pretty enough to stop and look at. That's because sections of it are overgrown with a morning-glory vine in full blossom. The thousands of flowers are 1.5 inch across (3.5 cm), mostly pinkish violet but in some places pure white, with other hues ranging toward blue, the hues mingling with one another along the fence. Flowers are funnel- shaped, flaring widely at the mouth, and leaves are deeply 3-lobed, like little fig leaves. In some places the much-branching, slender, twining vines climb seven or more feet up telephone poles and guy wires, and in such places the bright flowers against a background of dark green leaves and blue sky beyond is spectacular.
The vine causing this show is called the Ivy-leaved Morning-glory, IPOMOEA HEDERACEA. There's a great page all about it, with several photos, at www.missouriplants.com/Bluealt/Ipomoea_hederacea_page.html
Blossoms on the above-mentioned page are bright blue instead of our predominant pinkish-violet to white. Flower color in most flowering plants is pretty stable, so having a species whose flower color varies so much is special. The species' leaf-shape also is variable, for occasionally you find plants with nothing but heart-shaped leaves. This is just a free- spirited plant.
Ivy-leaved Morning-glory has been a close acquaintance of mine ever since I was a kid on the farm in Kentucky. I didn't much like it then, because every year it was an abundant weed in our tobacco patches. The plants tended to emerge from the soil so close to a tobacco plant's stem that you couldn't just chop it with a hoe, but, rather, hundreds of times each day you had to bend over and pull it up individually. Moreover, if you just yanked at the vine's stem, you were bound to shred a big tobacco leaf, and then you could just feel a nickel disappearing from your pocket. I was a very fat, rather lazy kid, so many hours of this life I have spent fuming over Ivy-leaved Morning Glories. Who'd ever have thought that as a white-beard, I'd be singing their praises?
Many plants are destined to speak and act modestly, in the shadows of other grander plants, or simply to be overlooked in jungly jumbles. The Buttonweed I'm thinking about is like that. It's such an unpresuming plant that even its English name, Buttonweed, is shared by several other equally modest species. Only botanists make an effort to distinguish them, using details most wouldn't notice or care about. The Buttonweed I'm thinking about is the one in Latin known as DIODIA TERES. It's a member of the mostly tropical Madder Family, the most famous member of which is the coffee tree. There's a page with very nice photos of this particular Buttonweed at www.missouriplants.com/Blueopp/Diodia_teres_page.html
These days I'm thinking about Buttonweed because often down in the tangle of grass in neglected lawns, along weedy roadsides -- just about anyplace where the soil is much disturbed, dry and maybe sandy -- it's flowering. You've probably seen it, too. The flower is white to pink, with four petals or lobes, and about the size of a pea. When you see its picture I think you'll say "Oh, I've seen that a lot," but you won't remember where.
The Buttonweed represents a whole world of nice but understated and usually underappreciated things that make up the bulk of our everyday experiences.
WEDNESDAY MORNING GALAXIES
Each morning I conduct a certain ritual. This ritual is a statement to myself that at that moment I am consciously and decisively stepping from my life as a gardener, naturalist, and general land-based hermit into the realm of cyberspace. One moment I'm a sweaty fellow wearing soiled clothing and with itching fire- ant sores on my ankles, and the next I'm the producer of the world's largest Web site devoted solely to the promotion of very small-scale, locally produced ecotours worldwide (www.earthfoot.org), as well as a nature-study site currently averaging 3,500 page-hits a day (www.backyardnature.net), and various other sites.
Thing is, as a gardener, the pleasures of moment-to-moment living are enough for a person to simply accept life as-is. But, to spend long hours in Cyberspace, with the body rebelling and the eyes glazing over, one needs more. What's needed is a spiritual context.
During those transitional moments in front of the dark computer screen I sit calmly, compose myself, and summon up the remembered feeling that occasionally flashes through me during those brief moments when I glimpse the majesty of The Creation, and a hint of my position in it. It's more a feeling than a definition, formula or explanation, though at a certain level it serves the purposes of those things. The feeling works in a similar manner to when you call up the memory of someone you love, when you need a reason to keep living from one moment to the next. If I begin the day's cyber-work visualizing myself as a certain appropriate blossoming in a majestic universe that has order and evolves with a definite spirit, my work takes on meaning.
As an aid in this perspective-gaining, each morning as soon as I am connected to the Internet I visit NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" at http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html. On Wednesday the day's offered picture was at first disappointing, but as I read about the image on my screen my perspective crystallized dramatically.
To understand what happened with me on Wednesday, first an appreciation is needed for what a galaxy is. A galaxy is a massive gathering of stars. Usually galaxies are portrayed as swirling, whirlpool-like structures suspended in space, though spirals represent only one galaxy type. Our sun is an average star in an average position in an average galaxy. Our sun is about 26,000 light years from our galaxy's center. With light traveling about 671 million miles per hour, it takes light some 80,000 years to pass from one side of our galaxy to the other. The number of other stars within 50,000 light years of us is about 200 billion. A galaxy is a mind-boggling thing. You can see a representation of our galaxy (known as the Milky Way) along with sky charts and various celestial data at www.anzwers.org/free/universe/galaxy.html
Last Wednesday the NASA picture was at first disappointing because it appeared to be nothing more than an image of thousands, if not millions, of stars. What took my breath was learning that most of those points of light before me were themselves galaxies... You can see that perspective-challenging picture at http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap030917.html
And, imagine, it can be assumed that planets orbit many or maybe most of the stars in each of the Universe's almost-innumerable galaxies, and that there is no reason why life would not find it just as easy to develop and evolve on many of those planets as it did here on Earth. Just think about it.
When years ago I myself began thinking about it, at first I was overpowered with a defeating sense of insignificance and irrelevance. But now I understand that by feeling awe for this grand Creation, and by loving what little I know of it, I somehow become part of it at a more significant and spirit-sustaining level than if I had no perspective beyond my everyday Earthly living. Once we become mature individuals, the more we struggle to understand, to see and to feel, the more our spirits shift into harmonizing with the majesty of the Universe.
If you view the above picture and want your mind and soul bent even a little more, you might try the number-crunching, Big-Bang-focusing, "Cosmology for Beginners" page at www.biols.susx.ac.uk/home/John_Gribbin/cosmo.htm#Groping
MY YEARLY VISIT TO KENTUCKY
Each year around this time I visit my family in Kentucky, where I stay with my Grandma Taylor in Calhoun, a little town in McLean County, in the western part of the state. Grandma is about 92, and she's my closest living relative, but I have lots of aunts, uncles and cousins in the area. My next Newsletter, in which I'll tell you about the trip, may arrive a little later than usual.