from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

November 9, 2003

A few Newsletters ago I spoke of the fossil collection amassed by Betty McKay of Natchez. She's spent many years scouring gravel deposits around town, especially along the bed of St. Catherine's Creek, which runs by her house. I don't know what keeps her front porch from collapsing from all the rocks and fossils stored there. Last weekend Mrs. McKay invited me and some friends to accompany her to one of her favorite gravel beds.

We didn't find anything super-spectacular, but during a very pleasant morning of poking about, we did fill our pockets with such commonly encountered fossils as little clam-like creatures called brachiopods, frond- like animals called bryozoans, and corals and crinoids. I found part of a trilobite and a section of something like a starfish. We also picked up petrified wood and a good bit of agate, banded chert, milky quartz, and the red, translucent, silicate mineral known as carnelian.

If you don't have someone like Betty McKay to teach you what these things are, it's fun to teach yourself using field guides. You can review and order several field guides for fossils at my Web page at

You can review and order guides for rocks and minerals at

It's a real buzz to think about where these fossils and the gravel itself came from. One clue to the fact that our gravel originated from someplace far away is that the individual gravel pebbles are smoothly rounded. They got that way by tumbling and bumping into other pebbles millions of times as they rolled along hundreds of miles of streambeds.

In fact, in southwest Mississippi we have gravel of two different types and ages, and both came from a long way away. One gravel, mostly found in the Mississippi River lowlands, was deposited during the various Ice Ages (of which there were three main ones) during the Pleistocene Epoch from about 10,000 years ago to some 1.7 million years ago. This Ice-Age gravel originated far to the north, where glaciers ground up the bedrock they passed over, carried the shattered stone along, and ultimately released it in torrents of meltwater that rushed southward in white- water streams to our area and beyond.

The other gravel has nothing to do with Ice Ages, and is mostly found in our loess-mantled uplands. This gravel is primarily of Pliocene age, deposited 1.7 to 5.3 million years ago. Back then, the southern half of Mississippi consisted of a broad alluvial plain covered with south-running "braided streams." Braided streams are like those seen today below melting glaciers in Alaska -- white water rapids running so fast that they carry gravel in them, the channels constantly branching and feeding into one another, forming a "braided" pattern.

The fast-running water that brought our Pliocene gravel here derived its energy from what was happening at that time hundreds of miles to the north. Forces from within the Earth were causing the land there to rise in several places -- the Ozark region, the southern Appalachians, and central Tennessee. For us gravel connoisseurs in southwestern Mississippi, the rising in central Tennessee was most important because that's where our gravel mainly comes from.

As central Tennessee buckled skyward (a process taking millions of years), water rushed away from the rising epicenter. During the erosion process, Central Tennessee's limestone leached away leaving resistant silicon-based minerals such as chert, agate and chalcedony -- the minerals comprising most of our gravel's pebbles. Our local gravel deposits associated with this rising of central Tennessee are often referred to by geologists as belonging to the "Citronelle Formation" or the "Upland Complex." The structural rising in central Tennessee is designated The Nashville Dome. Curiously, today the top of the "Dome" has eroded so completely that central Tennessee is a physiographic basin. You know it's a structural dome because all around it layers of bedrock slope away from the center. It's a STRUCTURAL dome but a PHYSIOGRAPHIC basin.

The neat thing is that some pebbles in our gravel from atop the Nashville Dome contain fossils of things living when the original rock was deposited in central Tennessee some 320 to 480 million years ago. Most of the fossils we found last weekend were marine ones because 320 to 480 million years ago central Tennessee was covered by a warm, shallow ocean. We also found a deer tooth and petrified wood, but these were much younger items washed into the stream locally, with no connection to the Nashville Dome.

A Web site describing fossils of the kind found in gravel eroded off the Nashville Dome, and outlining the processes of how our fossils got into it, is found at

A site with pictures of fossils typical of those eroding from the Ordovician limestone that once overlaid the Nashville Dome can be viewed at

If you live in a state other than Mississippi and want to know about your local gravel, use a search engine with the key words "gravel XXXXX," with "XXXXX" being your state's name. In the Southeast's easternmost states most gravel originated with the rising of the Southern Appalachians, and in most of northern Louisiana and eastern Oklahoma, mostly from the rising of the Ozark uplands. But our gravel is good Nashville Dome stuff.


As I've cleared away Loblolly Pine saplings for gardening space I've accumulated quite a pile of lopped-off limbs and tops. I save the trunks for beanpoles and the like, but the "slash" is too woody to compost, and makes too much of a fire hazard to let lie around. Wednesday morning we had a dense fog so things were wet, and I decided to burn the pile, which stood in the center of my newest garden. Of course I couldn't do this without thinking of how the burning affected local ecosystem dynamics.

In a broad sense, I was simply reversing what happens during photosynthesis. As the pines had grown, they had used sunlight energy to combine water and the carbon dioxide in air to form long molecules of carbohydrate, such as cellulose, of which most of a pine tree bodies were made. Now the burning slash released that stored sunlight energy, and as the pines' giant carbohydrate molecules broke apart, the water and carbon dioxide that earlier had been borrowed from the air were released back into it.

I felt bad about sending into the atmosphere so much global-warming-causing carbon dioxide. However, that carbon dioxide also would have entered the atmosphere if worms, fungi and bacteria had broken down the slash instead of my fire. It would have been a much slower process, and humus would have been formed instead of ashes, but the end results would have been pretty much the same.

So I was left with a good bit of ashes. I was glad to have them, for our soil has grown acidic over the years, and wood ashes raise a soil's pH. Moreover, ash contains nutrients my garden plants need. Wood ash contain 5 to 7 percent potassium and 1½ to 2 percent phosphorus. It also contains 25 to 50 percent calcium compounds. Unfortunate for my garden, hardwood ash contains more potassium than ash from softwood pines.

As soon as the fire was out, I set about spading the ashes into the soil, for I didn't want a heavy rain to wash nutrients away. Wood ashes lose a lot of their nutrients in rain because potassium and other water- soluble nutrients leach out.

How much wood ash is good for a garden? A site on the Web suggests 5 to 10 pounds per 100 square feet scattered on a freshly broken soil and raked in. It's best to apply ash 3 to 4 weeks in advance of planting. Ashes also can be sidedressed around growing plants or used as mulch.

A page titled "Using Wood Ashes In the Garden!" is at


I continue to enjoy watching the newly arrived Marsh Hawk I mentioned in last week's Newsletter. Those comments caused Greg Scott in Wisconsin, where the species spends its summers, to send the following notes:

"I photographed a family of marsh hawks several years back and was fascinated by the way the food was exchange between the male (who did most of the hunting) and the female at the nest. Instead of him dropping the food off at the nest as do most of the birds of prey that I've photographed, in the case of marsh hawks, she sees him coming and leaves the nest and flies up high in the sky near him, but underneath. He just drops the prey he has caught and she catches it in mid air. If she's still on eggs, she'll go off away from the nest and eat it. If the young have hatched, she'll bring it in to the nest and feed her young."

"In regard to whether or not the marsh hawk was really after the cat, I suspect not. Marsh hawks aren't really equipped for any prey of that size (a lot of young birds and rodents were what I saw them eating at the nest). But I wouldn't be surprised if the hawks had a nest near by and the swooping was more to drive the cat away than to actually try to make a meal of it."


You've seen that occasionally I pick poke greens, make sumac tea or talk about the medicinal affects of sassafras. I hope the impression is being made that wild greens, tea-makings, edible roots, berries, nuts and the like, and medicinal herbs are all over the place.

This week Newsletter subscriber Becky Sewell at nearly 9,000 feet (2,700 m) in Colorado posted a note at our forum listing some of the edible and medicinal wild plants in her area. A few items on her long list were White Yarrow, Mullein, rose hips, Wild Licorice Root, Bearberry, Wormwood, Stinging Nettle, Fetid Marigold, Yellow Coneflower, Elderberry, hawthorn berries, Chokecherries, juniper berries, Rabbit Brush... the list just went on and on.

"I've been using tea of the dried leaves of yarrow for colds and flu, and mullein for coughs and bronchitis - with some of that Poleo mint for flavor to mute the bitter yarrow - not only for myself, but for several of my friends and my son," she writes." All have proclaimed them beneficial, and one lady went so far as to say the tea acted on her congested head like a flushing toilet, removing the gunk!"

It's a real treat seeing someone as excited about natural foods and remedies as I am, and I encourage others to "get the bug." Here's one way you can get involved:

At you'll find my "Jim's 3 Steps to Discovering Nature." Central in my approach is learning how to identify your own local plants and animals using field guides, identification keys and the internet. Therefore, if you're a rank beginner wanting to learn about useful plants, my Web site can get you started.

Once you have a plant's name, here are some good Web sites for finding out the plant's uses:

For medicinal herbs, go to

For a page of links to many Web sites dealing with a broad spectrum of edible wild food, go to


Speaking of field guides, if you are thinking about gifts for the upcoming season, please take a look at my page at you can click on many topics related to natural history and summon up a page of book titles on that subject linked to Then you can read about the book and order it if you wish.

For a discussion on the use of binoculars in nature study and how to shop for them, you can go to my page at At the bottom of that page a link takes you to where you can review binocular specials and buy some if you want.

I receive a referral fee for everything purchased at through my Web pages. Usually for books I receive a 2.5% to 5% commission, rarely up to 15%. Anytime you purchase anything from, I'd appreciate your entering that company through my page. Once you've accessed via that page, you can then search for anything from books and DVDs to refrigerators and TVs.


Last weekend a filling fell from one of my molars so on Thursday I biked to town for an appointment with a dentist. A neighbor had offered to drive me, and other neighbors would have done so had I asked, but I don't like to be a bother, and if I have a real emergency I'll certainly ask.

Right after crossing Sandy Creek I was attacked by two large German Shepherds. One dog seemed content just chasing and barking but the other clamped down on my right leg and foot again and again. Having jogged for about 25 years and biked for about 50, I've been attacked by dogs plenty of times, but this was something far beyond anything I've ever experienced. The attack continued for nearly a quarter of a mile. Since I was biking uphill and much of the time the dog was pulling backward on my leg, finally I grew very tired and a bit dizzy. I've read enough Jane Goodall to know that the script called for them to bring me down, then go for the throat. It is a bit chilling to be aware that you are prey and that your attacker is getting the upper hand.

I managed to stop the bike with the dog hanging onto my leg, and as I began lifting the bike to hit the dog with it, he understood what was going on and retreated out of reach. Then a car came up from behind, the dogs slinked away and I continued on to town 12 miles away. I got about 15 puncture wounds from the affair and my best trousers were ruined with a tear and a large bloody spot. I bled onto the dentist's chair. At the Sheriff's Office I gave a report and said that I expected the dog owners to pay for a new pair of trousers and any medical expenses that develop. Friends tell me that here not only are there no leash laws but dogs are not required to have shots.

I wish I knew what would have happened if I had been a smaller, less fit person. Because of my hypoglycemia and the stress of the moment, if I had passed out, might they really have killed me? The one who kept attacking seemed to be absolutely crazed. I hit him in the face with my heel several times -- a kick that has sent other dogs rolling into the ditch -- but it only seemed to excite this one.

Web pages on canine behavior basically explain dog behavior in terms of "stimulus and response," with a pinch of pack-hierarchy dynamics thrown in. One fairly readable site surveying dog behavior is at

Maybe this is what happened to me Thursday: The dogs saw me pass by. Dogs are programmed to chase prey, so my passage was a stimulus that occasioned their response of running after me. The dominant dog, perhaps considering it his duty to lead the attack, to maintain his alpha position, bit me. My heel across his face was a stimulus leading to a "protective aggression response" and more attacks. Finally it was blind conflict at the most elemental level, them against me, to the natural end.

When I returned from town, blood still draining into my shoe, I carried something in size between a stick and a fencepost. When the dogs attacked this second time I jumped from the bike, steadied my feet, and called "Here, doggie, doggie, doggie... "

At some point the outside world always pushes the disciples of philosophy, liberality, the broad view of things and the spiritual quest... to the point where one must either yield up the right to exist in dignity, or else plant one's feet on solid ground and fight. It always happens, always throughout human history, at every level of existence, whether it be the Mongol Hoards, Nazis, fundamentalist fanatics, transnational captains of the military-industrial complex or just this backwoods family inflicting dogs like this onto the local community. Always.

But now these dogs would come no closer than 20 feet and I walked my bike past their home as they circled howling like savanna jackals just beyond a campfire's light. I understood stimulus and response, and that these were someone's pets, and that now with my stick I was Alpha Dog, and though it can bother me to swat a mosquito, if those miserable beings that had been bred by humans to express some of the most abhorrent of human tendencies had come just a little closer, with little ceremony I would have bashed their brains out.