from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
October 19, 2003
DAYS OF PERFECTION
Let it be known that I am not one to become so absorbed in nature's intricacies and minutia that I ignore the broad, simple glories of perfect days arriving unannounced and unexpected. If I'm engrossed in the wing venation of a wasp or the exact nature of a leaf's margin, and it's an afternoon golden and balmy served up like a sweet apple on a silver platter, I will reach for that apple.
The nights this week have been glorious. A bright, waning moon and temperatures at dawn as low as 48° (9°C) made for cozy, profound sleeping. Awakening as the first light glowed in the east, sharp coldness sent me springing from the sleeping platform right into my jogging shoes, and within moments I was running through ghostly fog, water droplets coalescing in my beard. Every day this week friendly breakfast fires provided mugs of steaming mint tea, and my skillet-size cucumber "omelets" made with fresh dill and jalapeños always baked to a handsome brownness. I'd work in the garden as the sun burned off the fog, and then on the Internet I'd find my tasks pleasing and fulfilling. Sometimes I'd just wander around checking on seedlings, seeing whether the cuttings were taking root, and making sure the potted plants were healthy. Balmy, late afternoons were occupied with odd jobs and listening to All Things Considered on Public Radio, and then as the chill grew moment by moment I'd read into the night as the crickets grew ever more silent.
I am grateful for it all, grateful to be at a peak of sensitivity, grateful to be healthy, and to have discovered how hard manual labor mingled with creative thinking and freely given service to the broader community produce in me something like happiness. I am so grateful for everything that when I pray I never pray asking for favors, only to give thanks to the Great Unknown that puts the is in is.
Golden days, golden days...
EASTERN BACCHARIS MAKING BIG WHITE BOUQUETS
Yet this week has not been, in a sense, as golden as the last one. The peak of the "Canada Goldenrods'" flowering came last week, so this week the brilliantly yellow flowering heads were more subdued as they mature into brownish heads of fruits.
Now other species catch the eye instead. Along roadsides, in long-abandoned fields and cut-over forests, a much-branched shrub usually standing from head high to about 8 feet tall (2.5m) is just coming into its own. Most plants still are greenish white with immature flowers but others with mature flowers create spectacular white bouquets on the landscape. The books call this shrub the Eastern Baccharis, BACCHARIS HALIMIFOLIA, but it goes by a host of other English names, such as Tree Groundsel, Groundsel Baccharis, Groundsel Tree, Sea Myrtle, Manglier,and probably none of those names are what the local folks here call it. You can see a picture of it at www.biosurvey.ou.edu/okwild/images/gstree2.jpg and a botanical drawing showing leaf shapes and flowers at http://plants.usda.gov/gallery/large/baha_001_lvd.jpg
Botanically this woody bush is interesting because it's a member of the Composite Family, like goldenrods, sunflowers, daisies, asters and the like. In other words, it's a woody member of a family that's nearly always non-woody. In North America north of Mexico, the only two woody, tree-size Compositae are Big Sagebrush in the West, and our Eastern Baccharis. If you examine the flowers closely, you'll see that they are very similar to those of the Eupatoriums, such as the Blue Mist Flower discussed below. It's mainly a Coastal Plain species. We didn't have it in Kentucky.
Not everyone views Eastern Baccharis as a nice white bouquet. It's been introduced into Australia where it's spreading like a weed. A Web site there describes it as "Very invasive. Forms dense thickets. Prolific seeder. Has no feed value, reported as being toxic to stock in USA." In fact, over here, it's known to produce "colic, diarrhea, staggering, trembling" in animals that eat it.
BLUE MIST FLOWERS
The Blue Mist Flowers referred to above are EUPATORIUM COELESTINUM. I have a soft spot in my heart for them because each October they grew in profusion along the sides of the drainage ditch running by our farm in Kentucky, and my mother couldn't pass them without saying how pretty they were.
Like Eastern Baccharis this species is a member of the Composite Family but, unlike the baccharis, Blue Mist Flowers are herbaceous, usually stand only knee high, and of course the blossoms are blue to violet. They don't form big splashes of color in big fields, but rather congregate in little gatherings here and there, especially in moist soil on ditch banks, in woods, and at field edges. They spread with creeping rhizomes. They are common plants and I bet you'll recognize them when you see them at www.missouriplants.com/Blueopp/Eupatorium_coelestinum_page.html
Gardeners might notice that Blue Mist Flower greatly resembles the cultivated Ageratum. However, Ageratums don't have creeping rhizomes, their fruits aren't topped with parachute-like sets of bristles helping them disseminate in the wind, and Ageratums are non- native, while Blue Mist Flowers are good ol' native Southeasterners.
MEADOW MUSHROOM IN A GRASSY ROAD
It being fall and a few showers having come our way, mushrooms are popping up everywhere. I can't identify a lot of them, but this week a cluster of one species materialized between the tracks of the grassy road leading to the barn, and I recognized that one at first glance. When I lived just outside the little Waloonian town of Nivelles south of Brussels, Belgium, during two summers I frequently visited a certain nearby pasture where sometimes you could gather half a bushel of this species, or more. Here we call it the Meadow Mushroom, AGARICUS CAMPESTRIS. In French it was Rosé des Prés. You can see the species at http://online.sfsu.edu/~ded/Pastures/A_campestris.html
It has a bland taste and is thus perfect for slicing raw into salads, and for soaking up herbal flavors in sautéed dishes. Another good thing about it is that it's easy to identify. As the picture at the above link shows it's a white mushroom with pink gills that turn brown as the mushroom matures. The stem has a ring around it. The mushroom's white cap and stem ring cause it to be similar to some of the deadly Amanitas. However, Amanitas produce white spores while this Agaricus has dark brown ones, and not many mushrooms have dark brown spores.
Spore color is one of the most important field characteristics to pay attention to when identifying mushrooms. Mushroom spore colors range from white to black, through yellowish and gray and a host of brown hues, from cinnamon-brown and purple-brown to dark chocolate brown. If you've never made a spore print, you should, just for the fun of it. Place the cap of a mushroom in its early stages of maturity on a piece of paper and after a few hours you'll get a pretty star- burst pattern on the paper, consisting of spores released from the cap's gills. Just hope the spores don't turn out to be the same color as your paper. You can see one of my own spore prints at www.backyardnature.net/f/sporprnt.jpg
If words like spore, gill, and ring throw you for a loop, you should visit my mushroom page at www.backyardnature.net/f/mushroom.htm
OIL SPILL ON UNNAMED STREAM
Around Monday a tree fell on an oil pipeline crossing a stream a few minutes walk south of here, inside the National Forest, and oil from the resulting break ran down the stream into Sandy Creek, and then into the Homochitto River. On Tuesday men arrived looking for access to the polluted creek and at dusk a small plane circled surveying the spill. Wednesday morning at the edge of this property about 30 men, ten trucks and four boats stood waiting for someone to lead the cleanup. Before long the EPA, DEQ and oil men with license plates from Texas and Oklahoma arrived. I understand that they spread a boom across Sandy Creek to pool the oil, and strewed absorbent material along the stream to absorb it. I suspect that as much ecological damage or more has been done building access roads to the damaged pipe and polluted stream areas as was caused by the oil itself.
Of course this was all painful to see. I have often walked that stream congratulating it for being "safe" inside a national forest -- safe from everything but the massive clear-cutting all around it, causing it to dry up much of the year, and fill with sediment. Still, it was "safer" than most.
No diatribe here. In a world where leaders encourage the driving of SUVs in suburban environments, I'll just report that there was an oil spill here, that fish died, that many animals lost their source of drinking water, that the Web of Life that rests on microbes with semipermeable membranes that don't function when coated with oil now is hurt very badly, that the soil along the stream will be polluted for years to come, and that the odor of a crisp and peaceful fall has been replaced over a large area by the smell of oil.
Hiking through the mixed pine/broadleaf forest to go see the oil damage, I was happy to come across a special wildflower, a species known as Indian Pipe, MONOTROPA UNIFLORA. At a glance you can see one reason this wildflower is so extraordinary if you go to www.ontariowildflower.com/images/pipe.jpg
There you'll see that this plant is entirely white, as if it were related to mushrooms. However, it contains not a molecule of chlorophyll. Though you have to compare flowers and fruits to believe it, Indian Pipe is a flowering plant closely related to dogwoods, azaleas and blueberries. Still, instead of using solar energy to photosynthesize its food from air and water, it takes its food from other plants.
At first botanists thought that Indian Pipes parasitize tree roots. When they could find no evidence that its roots penetrated other roots, they decided that the species lived chiefly on the decaying parts of other plants -- that it was a saprophyte. But that's proved to be untrue, too. Fact is, they're still not sure how Indian Pipes get their food!
The best bet now is that Indian Pipes are "epiparasites" -- parasitic plants that form a relationship with other parasites to obtain their nutrients. It's been observed that underground fungi connect the Indian Pipe with roots of other species by means of fungal filaments. Beyond that, the whole story isn't known. It's a mystery. In fact, a great deal about Indian Pipe is mysterious and wonderful. There's an English-major-type article about the plant at www.acorn-online.com/hedge/pipe.htm
There you can learn that the plant was used by American Indians in eye lotions and for colds and fevers, plus you can read such quotations as Alice Morse Earle's "It is the weirdest flower that grows, so palpably ghastly that we feel almost a cheerful satisfaction in the perfection of its performance and our own responsive thrill, just as we do in a good ghost story."
RECYCLING MY OWN HUMANURE
At some point, the person wanting to reduce his or her own impact on the environment, and to live in a manner respecting the true value of things, has to confront this fact: Our own feces creates a real mess if handled wrongly, but has great value if handled right.
Our society's usual manner of handling it completely ignores its value, and flirts with suffering from its dangerousness. How many beaches are closed, how many miles of rivers are off limits to fishing, and how many tons of chlorine are dumped into our drinking water because of "fecal coliform bacteria" -- bacteria originating in the intestines of warm-blooded animals?
Last week I made the point that unless a person has a urinary tract disease, human urine is so sterile that it can be used to wash out wounds. In fact, Newsletter subscriber Leona Heitsch in Missouri wrote recalling that her mother once told her that "...when she was a kid, they used the contents of the chamber pot to balm their hands after picking up potatoes in the raw Michigan cold... it neutralized the effect of the cold earth on their hands and relieved dryness and cracking."
In contrast to urine's sterility, average human feces consists of about 25% bacteria, sometimes much more. If that bacteria contaminates human food, serious illness, sometimes even death, can occur.
Therefore, I've long felt ambivalent about what to do with my own manure. On the one hand I have read how important the use of human manure is in Asian agricutlure, and I have seen some of these practices myself in India. On the other hand, my mother was as neat and clean as they come, and she passed on her concepts to me the way any good mother does. My default attitude toward my own feces has been until now "flush and forget."
But, here, now, I don't allow myself the luxury of not examining the consequences -- the ethics -- of everything I do, and everything I think.
One catalyst in my deciding to confront the question of what to do with my own feces came when I read The Humanure Handbook, A Guide to Composting Human Manure by J.C. Jenkins. Happily, the entire book is available online at www.weblife.org/humanure/default.html
In this book we read that human manure, or humanure, by wet weight is 5-7% nitrogen, 3.5-4% phosphorus, 1- 2.5% potassium and 4-5% calcium. These are nutrients that living things need and they should not be flushed from local ecosystems.
For me the most striking part of the humanure book is a chart showing how much heat and time are needed to kill disease-causing bacteria. If you heat something at 113°F (45°C) for one week, not only disease-causing bacteria but also dangerous viruses, roundworms, amoebas and other such organisms will die. The same can be accomplished if you heat it at 145°F (63°C) for one HOUR. Figures applying best to composting are these: You'll kill disease-causing organisms if your compost heap maintains a temperature of 122° F (50°C) for just one day.
I have seen that my own heaps, when I do a good job building them, paying attention especially to the carbon/nitrogen ratio, cook along at about 140°F (60°C) for several days before starting to cool off slowly. In other words, if I should compost my own manure, the resulting compost should be free of disease-causing organisms.
In fact, for some time I been using the following system:
A "Porta Potti Continental," a kind of portable toilet, came with my little trailer. Basically it's a regular commode seat fixed atop a large, plastic container. When the container is full, the seat easily detaches and the container can be carried by its handle to where its contents can be poured out. I pour the contents onto my compost heap. You can see something resembling my Porta Potti at www.lewisgray.com/Sanitation_products/Portable_Toilets/TF_PortaPorti165.htm
Immediately upon dumping the Porta Potti's contents onto my heap, I scatter some already-prepared compost atop it, to "seed" it with composting bacteria. Then I spread about 6 inches of fresh straw or other organic material over that, effectively sealing the odor inside. During following days I pee atop the fresh straw, as described last week. In a couple of weeks the straw becomes saturated and it becomes time to dump the Porta Potti contents again. The Humanure book advises to NOT occasionally stir up the straw to aerate it. Just let it sit there and cook as long as it wants, and when the bin gets full (after about a year at my rate), then start another bin. A few weeks after finishing the first bin, you can begin gardening with the compost.
This systems works beautifully for me, but I'm not sure if it's transferable to other people. For one thing, I know that what comes out of vegetarian me has much less smell than that from others who eat animal flesh. Similarly, my diet is high in fiber, so what comes from me is much looser than what comes from people eating processed food. Each person needs to experiment with his or her local conditions.
It's all quite simple. And, when you think about it -- about taking control of this aspect of your life and making something good out of a waste -- it's even quite beautiful. No chemicals, no pollutants, no taxes, no costs at all, in fact ending up for free with a fine compost that makes flowers blossom, and vegetables grow like crazy.