NATCHEZ NATURALIST
NEWSLETTER:
from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

December 7, 2003

FRESH AIR
Sometimes deep in the night I awaken to find that the air has grown stale, maybe because my nose has worked up into a corner, or the sleeping bag's hood covers my face. At the back of the trailer, my sleeping platform stands level with the windows, so when I need fresh air I can just press my nose against the window's cold screen-wire, and breathe deeply. While the rest of my body luxuriates, glowing toastily inside the bag, frigid, well oxygenated air pours into my lungs. During the seconds of that first deep breath I do believe that I feel more alive, alert, and rejuvenated than at any other moment of any day or night.

Later as I prepare breakfast, my campfire again reminds me of the power of oxygen and fresh air. The blaze may be dying out, the flames withering to a lazy smoke, but all I have to do is to blow or fan the embers, bringing more oxygen into contact with them, and then bright orange flames instantly flare up with wonderful brightness and vitality. I wonder just how many people nowadays don't even know about the magical effects of blowing or fanning a blaze?

In fact, I worry about the world being taken over by young people who have not personally experienced the stab of pleasure and flash of being vividly alive that a perfectly timed jolt of unpolluted, well oxygenated air can provide.

*****

CARBON DIOXIDE & STORMS
Speaking of air, it's interesting to note that the atmosphere's composition is about 78% nitrogen and only 21% oxygen. Other gases such as hydrogen, carbon dioxide, ozone and water vapor compose only 1%.

Seeing what a small percentage of the atmosphere carbon dioxide contributes, we can understand the concern that suddenly humankind is dumping enormous quantities of it into the atmosphere. When electricity is produced by burning Kentucky coal, for instance, we are releasing all at once both energy and carbon that was stored when the swamp-muck predecessor of coal was deposited during the Pennsylvanian Period 323 to 290 million years ago. What took the Earth-ecosystem millions of years to accumulate and concentrate, now is being released in the matter of a few decades, leading to global warming.

By the way, right now the first named tropical storm ever recorded in the Caribbean in December is working its way into the Gulf of Mexico. Also, on Public Radio this week I heard that this year has been the most active tornado-year in history. It didn't seem that way because a large percentage of the tornadoes occurred during a period of only one week. This year in the Natchez area our weather has been about average, but when you look at data worldwide, you see that the extreme weather conditions predicted by those concerned about global warming are being realized.

*****

STRATIFYING & SCARIFYING
You wouldn't believe how busy life can be for an internetting, gardening hermit. A surprising number of new ecotour hosts, especially Asians, are asking to be presented on my ecotourism site at www.earthfoot.org. In the gardens, I'm way behind with planting seeds needing to be underground during the winter.

The situation with the seeds is that many of them, especially those of wild trees, must undergo a fairly long period of being cold and moist before they'll germinate in the spring. If you've ever saved some apple seeds indoors all winter, keeping them dry and warm in an envelope or teacup, then planted them in the spring, probably they didn't germinate. They needed to be "stratified."

The term "seed stratification" is derived from the old practice of preparing special outdoor seedbeds where alternating layers, or strata, of seeds and moist sand were maintained through the winter. Many seeds of wild plants are programmed by their genes to not germinate until winter is over -- until they've experienced a certain lengthy period of cold moistness. Stratification, then, is a method by which such seeds are convinced of winter's passage, but in a protected environment where the seeds won't get lost, and critters won't eat them. You might prefer to use the term "layering" instead of "stratifying" for this process, but "layering" is a term referring to another special plant-propagation process, and we'll talk about that later.

Nowadays instead of constructing special stratification pits or chambers, most gardeners mix seeds with moist peat moss, then during the winter store the mixture in polyethylene bags, either outside or in a refrigerator. I'm stratifying my seeds in pots and trays filled with organic-matter-rich muck dug from the bottom of a ditch, and kept in pots and trays inside an old rabbit cage constructed of chicken wire. I'm not sure seeds in a stratification pit would get cold enough this far south. About once a week I sprinkle the soil to keep it moist. During these cold snaps I'm gratified to think that my seeds must be benefiting.

Some seeds have such hard shells that I "scarify" them. For example, with a wood rasp I've scraped holes in the hard shells of each ginkgo seed I collected in Nashville during the September trip north. I've whacked each pecan and English walnut with a hammer, just enough to make a crack in the shell that'll let in water. Commercial growers often scarify seeds by soaking them in concentrated sulfuric acid.

Stratification and scarification are discussed on a page titled "Overcoming Seed Dormancy: Trees and Shrubs" at www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8704.html

*****

WAX FROM WAX MYRTLES
Wax Myrtles, also called Southern Bayberries, MYRICA CERIFERA, are common here, especially at woods edges and along hedgerows. This is a bush or much-branched small tree growing to 40 feet high (12 m), with narrow, evergreen leaves issuing an aromatic, spicy odor when crushed. In November our Wax Myrtles developed clusters of BB-size, pale bluish fruits that grew mingled with leaves at the ends of slender branches. You can see pictures of such fruit clusters at www.sms.si.edu/IRLSpec/Myrica_cerife.htm

This week I decided to confirm what I've read many times, that candle wax can be collected from Wax Myrtle berries. For instance, at one homesteading site I read the following:

"There's no reason why you couldn't make bayberry candles like our ancestors did, or at least make enough bayberry wax to scent tallow wax candles. Pick the berries around November 1 and boil them in water until the mixture reaches the consistency of thick syrup. Strain out the berry skins and seeds. When cooled the wax hardens, of course. Reheat and melt it for dipping candles."

I picked a handful of fruits for testing before making a major attempt at collecting wax. To my amazement, so little wax resulted that it didn't even form a continuous layer atop the cooled water. The pan had to be held in sunlight at a special angle just to see the thin, broken film formed there. Hillary on the Mississippi Gulf Coast tells me that he once boiled about a quart of fruits and got maybe three tablespoons of chaffy, dirty wax.

I read that it takes about 15 pounds (6.7 kilos) of waxmyrtle fruits to make one pound (0.45 kilo) of wax (A one-pound block of 100% bayberry wax costs $22.26 on the Internet). Beeswax and tallow from animal fat seem much more likely sources of our ancestors' candle wax. However, having smelled the pleasing aroma arising from the boiling fruits, I can easily imagine our ancestors and the Indians producing enough bayberry wax to scent candles made mostly from other sources.

According to tradition, a bayberry taper-candle burned all the way down on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve brings good luck for the coming year. A traditional saying is that

A bayberry candle
burned to the socket
brings food to the larder
and gold to the pocket.

*****

DADDY LONGLEGS SWAN SONG
Despite the freezes we've had, occasionally I still hear a cricket chirping, see a Monarch Butterfly flit by, or spot any number of other insects or arachnids. On warm afternoons, ladybugs continue to swarm. Spiderlings are still busy ballooning to new territory from atop goldenrod heads in the Loblolly Field.

Wednesday at dusk I found two harvestmen, also known as Daddy Longlegs, on a garden gate. They faced one another with their heads together, gently waving their front legs, sometimes the leg of one touching the leg of the other. The smaller one was a male and the larger a female, and I guess that they were engaged in courtship. Harvestmen only live for one year, dying in the winter, so I regarded this tĂȘte-Ă -tĂȘte as rather poignant, a sort of Daddy Longlegs swan song.

Harvestmen are vulnerable creatures whose legs come off if handled too roughly. Those long legs are so exquisitely complex and sensitive that a researcher once wrote that "A study of harvestmen is a study of legs." That's because the legs, especially the second pair, are this animal's main sources of information, serving as ears, nose, tongue, and perhaps even as supplementary "eyes." The legs are loaded with nerves and literally thousands of tiny sense organs that lie inside microscopic slits in the legs. The two harvestmen on the gate Wednesday were surely engaged in a sophisticated, profoundly intimate interaction, expressing themselves in chemicals we haven't learned about yet, and communicating on levels we humans can hardly imagine.

Some friends recently told me that they'd read that while harvestmen have mouths so small that they can't bite a human, their venom is the most poisonous in all the animal kingdom. This seems to be one of those "urban myths" going around, for harvestmen don't even have venom glands. There's an Australian species also called "harvestman" which is indeed venomous, so maybe that's where the confusion arises.

There's a page with nice pictures and basic information about harvestmen at www.fcps.k12.va.us/StratfordLandingES/Ecology/mpages/harvestman.htm

*****

APPLE BLOSSOMS IN NOVEMBER
Larry up near Vicksburg sends a newspaper clipping showing an old fellow standing next to an apple tree branch that was in full blossom just a few days ago. At Laurel Hill nearly every year we had some apple trees that did that, and of course the flowers' pistils -- the future apples -- always got killed by freezing. Obviously when apple trees flower at this time of year something has gone wrong.

Part of the explanation lies in the fact that in the Temperate Zone flower buds on fruit trees are normally developed during the season BEFORE the flowers open. One study of flower-bud development found that a new flower bud's first cells, the "primorida," were apparent in late June of the year before the buds burst. Calyx lobes were seen in early July and the male anthers about a week later. The female pistils formed in mid August and the cavities inside the pistils where ovules (the future seeds) develop formed in late September. Flower petals could be seen in mid November. Then the buds entered the winter resting stage and the ovules themselves and mature pollen did not appear until March of the following year. Finally flowers broke from the buds in early April.

Especially with our long summers you can imagine that certain flower buds might find time enough to complete their development before cold weather imposes a period of dormancy.

Another part of the answer surely lies in the fact that the recent evolution of apple trees has been directed by humans who had human priorities in mind, not by Mother Nature. In Nature, species evolve in response to untold numbers of influences, not to single human interests such as the desire to produce good-tasting, marketable fruits. In many ways, the differences between a naturally evolved tree and a human-evolved apple tree are similar to the differences between a wolf and a miniature poodle: Human-evolved varieties can be expected to sometimes behave illogically.

The old fellow in Vicksburg said that he thought his apple blossoms in November were a miracle. I also think they were a miracle, but no more a miracle than any cricket chirp, any rock or any bird in the sky.

*****

POSSUMHAW, OR DECIDUOUS HOLLY
Here and there along Sandy Creek and the stream running by the barn there's a small, inconspicuous understory tree that's been catching my eye. This tree, also found in moist-soiled thickets and woods throughout the southern half of eastern North America, in the summer produces easy-to-overlook, tiny white flowers along its slender, grayish twigs. However, nowadays the tree is beautifully decked with small clusters of pea-sized, bright red to reddish orange, spherical fruits. It's the Possumhaw, or Deciduous Holly, ILEX DECIDUA. You can see a close-up of a fruiting branch of this very pretty species at http://ridgwaydb.mobot.org/kemperweb/plantfinder/Plant.asp?code=K630

Possumhaw is a real holly, in the same genus as American Holly, so that explains the similarity between the bright red fruits of these two species. However, unlike the American Holly with its persistent, spiny-margined leaves, the Possumhaw's leaves are thin, spineless and they fall off during the winter.

Several small trees with bright red fruits appear at this time of year. Flowering Dogwoods are easy to distinguish because they have opposite leaves (two leaves at each stem joint, or node). Several species of hawthorn and crabapple also are producing bright red fruits but Hawthorn branches generally bear thorns or spiky branchlets, and crabapple fruits are usually larger than holly fruits. One way to distinguish the Possumhaw from these species is by its leafshape. In the picture at the above link, notice how the leaf is broadest above its middle, and how each leaf tapers to a long, gradually narrowing base. Most leaves with this general shape are broadest near their bases, not toward their tips.

Not all mature Possumhaw trees bear fruit. That's because most plants of this species bear either male or female flowers -- they are "dioecious" -- and naturally male trees don't produce fruits. Oddly, some Possumhaw trees produce "perfect flowers" containing both male and female parts.

Possumhaw fruits are bitter to humans, and seeds nearly fill them. Still, birds, deer and a variety of small mammals (including opossums as the name suggests) are attracted to the fruit.

*****

YOGIC BREATHING
Back to the topic of fresh air. In the mid 60s when I left the Kentucky farm for college and began figuring out what kind of person I wanted to be, the first important task I set for myself, beyond surviving my classes, was to get my spiritual state in order. Over the years the central question in my life evolved from being "Which Christian denomination should I belong to," to "Which religion should I belong to," to, finally, "How can I keep mankind's religions from distracting me from living in harmony with the Creator's works... ?"

Along the way I studied yoga as well as it could be studied from books, without a guru. One of the most delightful outcomes of that has been that I learned to pay attention to my breathing. By no means did I master breathing, but I did learn to focus on it, and do it more deeply and gratifyingly than I had ever imagined possible. I vividly recall one afternoon standing in line at a supermarket in Nashville, suffering from the loudness, confusion and press of humanity around me. It occurred to me to try one of the breathing exercises I had just read about.

The immediate effect was transforming. I seemed to lift from the floor amidst music and soft perfume. I discovered a sense of well being and magnanimity for the whole world, and its cause was nothing more than putting myself into a receptive state, and giving my body a shot of oxygen. Of course the people standing behind me as I hovered in my spot while I should have been placing boxes of oatmeal onto the moving belt might have defined it as something else.

To read about "Hatha Yoga breathing," go to http://abel.hive.no/oj/musikk/trompet/exercise/yoga.html