from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
October 26, 2003
Hiking along our property boundary with Homochitto National Forest, I was surprised when a tall, barrel- chested, ruddy-faced fellow in camouflage came stomping toward me. He carried no gun and was as surprised to see me as I was him. He said he was "scouting," and I told him I didn't know what that meant in our situation.
He explained that deer-hunting season soon begins, and that he was out looking for deer signs so that later he'd know where to hunt. The fellow, a member of the Sandy Creek Hunting Club and a resident of Louisiana, was very friendly, so I asked him what kinds of signs he was looking for.
He only had to bend over to show me how deer had been nibbling the tops off of an Elephantopus plant. About three steps away he pointed to little black pellets of deer manure I hadn't noticed. Not far from that he showed me where a buck had rubbed his head on a sapling trunk, and where one had pawed the ground and peed. He used fancy words like estrus, and spoke with such confidence and insight that it was a pleasure listening to him.
I'd been out there looking for mushrooms and unusual tree and bush species. I'd been listing the birds seen and trying to interpret crow calls and the cries of a group of jays. I had been thinking of myself as being perfectly tuned in to the exact nature of that little corner of the forest, yet the scout showed me that I'd been overlooking a whole theater of goings-on.
When we parted I walked through the woods a good bit wondering how many other ways I've let myself become insensitive and unnoticing. What other worlds have I allowed to slip by unseen? What profound insights have I dumbly walked past and, even as I write these words, how many degrees of ignorance and blindness afflict me?
The scout was not the only person to enrich my life this week. My description of recent "Days of Perfection" in last week's Newsletter inspired several Newsletter subscribers to share similar moments in their own lives.
Cindy Mead in upstate Michigan, where leaves already have changed color and been blown from the trees, writes that "It's kind of a melancholy season for me, when I hear large flocks of Canada Geese, Tundra and Trumpeter Swans, all making their way south -- some by moonlight, so close that I can hear their powerful wingbeats."
My longtime friend Jarvis Hudson, a biology prof in North Carolina, wrote that he "Saw a small flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers yesterday - first of the season." Leon Felkins up near Vicksburg described finding a Bearded Tooth mushroom: "Last week we had one for dinner and it was absolutely delicious. My wife cuts the thing up like steaks and stir fries it. Um, um. We found one a couple or years ago about a foot in width! They are usually on standing DEAD trees from ground level up to about 8 feet." And Larry Butts, also from near Vicksburg, writes that "There were five deer in the yard when dark descended. Down on highway 3 going toward Yazoo City wild sunflowers are the grandest thing in sight."
Leona Heitsch writes descriptive, friendly and downright beautiful letters from the Missouri hills, and this week she told me of "digging sweet potatoes, picking a few more hot peppers to mush and add to canola oil as a treatment for sore muscles and joints, and trying to convince the guinea hen to come out of the 'yurt,'" and then she told me about "Poor Old Chuck is so busy extracting honey in the basement while young Chuck is sorting apples on the porch (he is deaf) and he gets to chuckling, just enjoying being out, and harvest most over."
What a pleasure to be part of the community that has coalesced around this Newsletter! I am so enriched when I receive messages like these.
In fact, this week's batch of mail from all over has convinced me that we need to redefine and rededicate the "Natchez Naturalist Forum" I set up a while ago, after a reader requested it. Though a couple of very nice mails have been posted there, less than one out of 50 subscribers has even signed up.
Therefore, instead of saying that the forum is for "discussing topics raised in this Newsletter," which has been the case until now, let's say that the forum is a place where subscribers can share interesting and otherwise pleasant, nature-oriented experiences -- experiences like those passed on above.
Just think: If I hadn't quoted some of my mail, you'd have missed hearing about Larry's wild sunflowers on the way to Yazoo City, and young Chuck on the porch sorting apples, chuckling to himself just happy to be outside...
Information on how to join the forum and send your own comments to it appears at the end of each emailed Newsletter. If you are reading this online as an archived edition and want to subscribe, drop me a line. The process is roundabout because I'm trying to keep spammers filtered out.
Meeting the scout reminded me that I'd better start watching out for hunters who might mistake me for a deer. On the Internet I found a page listing Mississippi's hunting seasons and bag limits. It's at www.mdwfp.com/hunting_limits.asp
On that page I see that as of today, October 26th, in our "Zone 2," it's legal to hunt rabbit, squirrel, Opossum, Raccoon, Bobcat, deer (with bow & arrow), Moorhens, Gallinules, Clapper Rail, King Rail, Sora Rail, Virginia Rail, and Mourning Dove.
It's a bit jarring to see that it's perfectly legal to kill Bobcats. The marsh-birds known as Moorhens, Gallinules and the various rails are fairly rare and seldom seen. I know lots of birdwatchers, including myself, who would treasure the chance to glimpse these species. If someone knows the rationale of keeping such uncommon species on the hunting list, please let me know.
Even more surprising is that throughout the months of November through February, you can kill all the crows you want, as frequently as you wish.
CARDINAL FLOWERS BLOSSOMING
Nowadays in low-lying parts of the woods and along streambanks you see the occasional blossoming Cardinal Flower, LOBELIA CARDINALIS. These native wildflowers, distributed throughout most of eastern and central North America, provide such unexpectedly large, bright splashes of crimson that they are simply breathtaking. Unfortunately, people tend to dig them up for their own gardens, and in some places this has been hard on natural populations. You can see a close-up of the Cardinal Flower's brilliant blossoms at www.delawarewildflowers.org/lobelia_cardinalis.html and a shot of the whole plant at www.lter.umn.edu/flora/pictures/lobelia-cardinalis.html
In the flower picture, notice the curious floral anatomy. A typical lobelia flower has five equal petals or corolla lobes, two at the top and three at the bottom. One unusual characteristic is that lobelia flower stamens (the pollen-producing male parts) are united into tubes surrounding the styles (part of the female workings). If these terms are confusing, you might want to visit my flower-anatomy page at www.backyardnature.net/fl_stand.htm
Cardinal Flowers, being lobelias, are considered to be medicinal. Among other things they contain the piperidine alkaloid known as lobeline, which is a powerful respiratory stimulant. Lobelias used medicinally "... can depress the autonomic and central nervous systems as well as neuro-muscular functions. Primarily it is used in bronchitis and bronchial asthma." You can read this and more medicinal info at http://medicinegarden.com/Library/herbslobelia1.html
That page wisely ends by pointing out just how tricky using this plant can be. It says that the medicinal use of lobelias can cause "over-relaxation," which can be "counteracted by the stimulating actions of capsicum," capsicum being hot chili-pepper. They say that "without proper training, it can cause toxicity and even death."
Imagine, such a potentially violent or life-saving plant, so casually greeting us from among a lovely fall day's moist shadows and cricket-calling streamsides.
Maybe on the opposite side of the elegance spectrum from Cardinal Flowers is the Sensitive Fern, ONOCLEA SENSIBILIS, a fern distributed through most of eastern and central North America. Sensitive Ferns also like moist soil, so on Wednesday we saw several populations along the stream and in low wooded areas. Most fern fronds are frilly and graceful, but the triangular fronds of Sensitive Ferns are rather coarse, and their segments are irregularly, half-heartedly incised. On most ferns, reproductive spores occur in tiny "fruit dots," or sori, elegantly distributed on the frond's lower surface. In contrast, Sensitive Ferns send up stiff, clunky-looking items looking like runty, brown- seeded heads of millet. The whole impression of the fern is one of subdued primitiveness. You can see a botanical illustration showing all this at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/1999/vascplnt/species/gifs/onocsens.gif
My botany manuals suggest that Sensitive Ferns are "sensitive" only to early frost, and it's true that their fronds blacken with the first ice and finally crumple into pitiful-looking heaps.
The plant was used by Iroquois Indians to treat arthritis and infection, and the leaves were sometimes poulticed for deep cuts.
About once a day I have a sneezing fit good for five or six sneezes, just enough to have some fun out of it, and I suspect one cause is ragweed pollen. Ragweeds release their pollen when days start getting shorter, so this is the ragweed-pollen time of year. During Monday's sneezing it occurred to me that I should add a page on ragweed flowers at my nature- study site, so now you can see the nice scannings made for that page at www.backyardnature.net/fl_ragwd.htm
About 21 ragweed species exist, of which four might be expected in southwestern Mississippi, and of these only two species are common. On the above Web page, the one illustrated is the Common Ragweed, AMBROSIA ARTEMISIIFOLIA. The Common Ragweed is probably most commonly found in towns, while the Giant Ragweed, AMBROSIA TRIFIDA, is more typical of moist soil and waste places in the country. The two species are easy to distinguish. The Giant grows up to ten feet tall (sometimes over 30 feet -- 10 meters), much larger than the knee-high Common. Also the Giant's leaves are deeply 3- to 5-lobed, instead of finely dissected like the Common's. You can see the Giant Ragweed at www.missouriplants.com/Greenopp/Ambrosia_trifida_page.html
Earlier I made the point that goldenrod pollen is too heavy to float in the air and therefore doesn't cause allergies. No such defense can be made for ragweeds. Forty ragweed pollen grains lain end to end would span only about one millimeter, or 1/25ths of an inch. A single ragweed plant can produce a billion airborne pollen grains during an average season. Yet as few as 20 ragweed pollen grains per cubic meter (cubic yard) of air can trigger a sneezing fit!
And here's another reason to worry about the prodigious release of carbon dioxide, or CO2, into the atmosphere: A study showed that the greater the concentration of CO2 in the air, the more ragweed pollen gets produced. Ragweeds grown in growth chambers with CO2 concentrations typical of the early 1900s (about 280 parts per million) produced only about half the pollen that plants did grown in chambers with today's CO2 concentration (about 370 ppm). It's predicted that in the future CO2 concentration will be nearly double what it is today.
The vast majority of our worst "weeds" are species introduced from abroad, and it would be nice to blame ragweeds on the Europeans or Chinese. However, our ragweed species are native Americans. This doesn't keep my stodgy "Gray's Manual of Botany" from calling the Common Ragweed "A polymorphic and despised weed." Still, it shouldn't be overlooked that the ragweeds' nutlike or burlike fruits are favorite foods of Goldfinches, Juncos, Redwing Blackbirds, Bobwhites, White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows, and also certain small mammals.
PICKING UP BLACK WALNUTS
I've been picking up the nuts of Black Walnuts, JUGLANS NIGRA, for about three weeks now, and I suspect that this week is the peak of nut fall. I have a five-gallon bucket overflowing from one tree, and I'm hoping for about three buckets before they peter out. You can see what Black Walnut fruits look like at http://project.bio.iastate.edu/trees/campustrees/JuglansNig/Juglans_fruit.html
I'd like to eat these walnuts but I'm not because I hope to get from them seedlings for transplantation. I've been looking all over for Black Walnut trees where I might gather more nuts. However, though they are native here, as well as from Massachusetts to Minnesota, south to Florida and Texas, and grow very well here, they're amazingly hard to find. Local folks tell me that they've disappeared because of people selling them for their wood. In fact, a couple of people have said that they're surprised the one I know about hasn't been stolen!
One Web site I visited said that for good Black Walnut timber "$200 per thousand board feet (MBF) is an average stumpage price for sawtimber. For veneer logs, $800 per MBF is not too much to expect." I have no idea how many MBF is in an average good-size tree, but I suppose that "$800 per MBF" sounds good to anyone needing money. For a very good discussion about growing Black Walnut trees for sale, go to http://www.ext.vt.edu/pubs/forestry/446-602/446-602.html#L5b
While Googling around to see just how valuable Black Walnut timber is, I came upon a site at Ohio State University titled "Urban Walnut Trees: Their Value as Timber or Veneer." That page makes the point that most Black Walnuts around people's homes are not very valuable. The page shows a picture of a typical urban Black Walnut that wouldn't bring much, and a forest- grown tree that is quite valuable. It ends up by urging home-owners with trees on their properties to think hard about the value of a tree's shade, beauty, importance to wildlife, and the increased real-estate value provided before selling it for timber. This page is at http://ohioline.osu.edu/for-fact/0044.html
It's funny, but I can't walk past a Black Walnut tree without thinking of my former major professor at the University of Kentucky, Dr. Willem Meijer. He was a Dutchman with a fine accent. He always called me Yim. He possessed a wry and irrepressible sense of humor that usually got him in trouble wherever he went. In Dendrology Class each semester he'd get lots of mileage from referring to pine trees with his European pronunciation of the pines' genus name, which is Pinus. Americans rhyme "Pinus" with "minus," but Europeans call it the way it looks. "Girls, just look at that lovely Pinus outside the window," he'd say. He also made sure we all knew why Black Walnuts belong to the genus Juglans. That name is derived from the Latin expression "Jovis glans," which means, approximately, "God Jupiter's balls."
Dr. Meijer has been a huge impact in my life. I'm not sure that with my dissident views on botany and life in general I'd have acquired my degree with a less heretical, more straight-laced prof.
Dr. Meijer died this Wednesday at age 80, in Lexington. Friday, when I went gathering Jupiter's balls, it was almost as if I could hear his high cackling laugh in the dry leaves beneath the tree.
GOOGLING JIM CONRAD
The other day it occurred to me to Google myself. There appears to be lots of Jim Conrads, but at least the one I am came up at the top of the list. A sidebar at the edge of the page caught my eye. It said "Jim Conrad's Books." I was under the impression that all my books were out of print and outdated, and better forgotten. However, by golly, here indeed was a company offering five of my six published books for sale, new and used. If you're interested in seeing a bit of what I did before landing up here, click here.
OIL SPILL PHOTOGRAPHS & PHILOSOPHIES
Last week I reported on an oil spill in an unnamed stream in Homochitto National Forest, not far from this property. Wednesday, nine days after the spill occurred, neighbor Karen Wise brought over her dandy digital camera and we visited the spill area. You can read more about the spill and see the pictures we took at www.earthfoot.org/temp/oilspill.htm
In the September 7th Newsletter I made a point of being clear about my attitude toward hunters and hunting. Now I want to be clear about my attitude toward oil companies, pipeline operators and the like.
As I may have surprised some by saying that I prefer being with hunters more than with average carnivorous yuppies, maybe some will be surprised that I don't feel particularly antipathetical toward folks in the oil industry. All the people I've met during the oil- spill cleanup have been regular, hard-working, well-intentioned people just trying to do their jobs.
In fact, in most environmental conflicts I regret seeing "the industry" and "environmentalists" so emotionally attacking one another. Both sides in such conflicts are victims, offering themselves as targets while the true villain lurks unchallenged in the shadows. Industries are just abstract structures designed to provide goods and services for which people pay.
In my opinion, the true villain in most environmental disasters is this: The immoderate, irrational appetites of US, the "consumers." Frequent oil spills are an inevitable consequence of our gluttony. And I write this as a former 340-pound driver of an old Chevy that got nine miles to the gallon, back in the 60s, before I began thinking and caring about things.
So, with regard to hunting, if I have to sit down with someone, let it be a hunter who knows what a dying animal looks like, and not a yuppie who has not even considered the life sacrificed for the pound of ground beef neatly and antiseptically stored in his or her refrigerator. Similarly, if I have to be with someone involved in a wildlife-devastating oil spill, let it be the oilman who tramps through the woods to find the break, or a member of the cleanup crew raking up oil- soaked leaves and twigs, or the ranger with stick- tights on his trouser legs as he monitors the situation, but keep gas-guzzling-SUV-driving yuppies away from me, and don't even talk to me about the politicians these people elect.