from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
December 21, 2003
SIGNS OF SPRING
Wednesday morning was a frosty one, with ice in the water bucket thick enough to sting my knuckles when I broke through it for breakfast water. However, the sky was clear so, as soon as the sun came out, warm currents of moist, mellow air smelling of water melted off of frosted grass began suffusing the air. But these currents of warmer air were slow to blend with lingering pools of cold night air. Even in my lungs it felt as if pockets of crystalline cold air coexisted with other pockets of balmy warm air. I had no name for a moment charmed with such frost-melt contrasts. And then I heard it:
"Peter, peter, peter... "
It was the Tufted Titmouse calling. The little bird recognized the feeling for which I sought a name, saying plainly that it was "spring." For, this was the titmouse's spring song. In a couple of months the woods will smile with untold numbers of clear-toned, friendly sounding "peter, peter, peters."
I myself whistled "peter, peter, peter" and before long two other titmice replied from different parts of the woods with their own petering.
At that very instant, on that brightly sunny, crystal- clear, good-smelling Wednesday morning, with no fanfare or existential ponderings to speak of, a certain gear in my brain switched from the fall mode to the spring mode. These words I write now are typed under the influence of a springy state of mind.
Those recent fallish days of dry leaf-curls, maturing goldenrod fields, and color in tree leaves were part of a different mental landscape from the one I am inhabiting now. Now this land and I are concerned with springy, not fallish, things. We recognize the presence of the former season's residual paraphernalia but what most transfixes us now is what's sprouting and opening up, what's singing, and what's new on the face of this rejuvenating Earth.
Of course, it takes more than a single birdcall to establish a season. On Wednesday morning I looked around and saw other signs as well. Up in a Water Oak one Eastern Bluebird chased another who seemed to enjoy being chased as much as the chaser enjoyed chasing. An American Robin gulped down a white Chinaberry fruit, then emitted a nasal peep good enough for any spring morning.
If you get down on your knees and look at the ground in your garden or maybe beneath the grass in your lawn, you'll see lots of green sprouting things -- the first ramblings of chickweed, and little rosettes of Bitter Cress, and innumerable other sproutings and germinations not yet so well developed that they can be identified. In the Loblolly Field, blackberry canes are ornamented with leaf- and flower-buds so plump they look like they could burst at any moment. In places down beneath last season's brown goldenrod stems new blades of grass grow so thickly and are so green that if the goldenrod stems were gone the field in some places could pass for a suburban lawn on Easter morning.
What a surprise! I'd been so busy making stem cuttings, stratifying seeds, and fiddling with HTML code for the Internet, that I'd almost forgotten how at this time of year spring comes tiptoeing. What a pleasure that this year I know the exact moment when its presence was realized, and exactly who brought the message to me:
"Peter, peter, peter... "
I must admit, however, that deep in the forest spring signs are less obvious, and in places it almost "looks like Christmas." For example, like the Possomhaw I told you about a couple of weeks ago, nowadays there's another small tree especially conspicuous and festive looking because of its bright red fruits. It's the Parsley Hawthorn, CRATAEGUS MARSHALLII. Being a member of the Rose Family, its fruits look like rose hips about 0.3 inch long (8 mm).
As with most hawthorns, the Parsley Hawthorn occupies the forest understory, and its branches are a little thorny. Its bark is prettily splotchy, rather like a sycamore's. Its leaves make it easy to identify because they are deeply cut like parsley leaves. In spring the tree produces white flowers similar to plum blossoms. You can see leaves and fruits at http://plants.usda.gov/cgi_bin/plant_profile.cgi?symbol=CRMA5
Parsley Hawthorn is mainly a southeastern tree, extending as far up the Mississippi River lowlands as southern Illinois. Over a hundred species of hawthorn occur in North America and they are often very hard to distinguish from one another. The ease with which we can identify Parsley Hawthorn, because of its unusual leaves, makes it an emotional favorite for field botanists.
This is one of a number of local trees so pretty that they deserve to be planted as ornamentals. I've collected Parsley Hawthorn fruits and am stratifying the seeds in hopes of getting seedlings next spring.
Most mornings nowadays a certain Sharp-shinned Hawk, ACCIPITER STRIATUS, visits during my campfire breakfasts. Sometimes he sails by at treetop level but other times he dips low and streaks down the alley between the barn and the wall of Loblolly Pine saplings, passing right by me. He's always traveling from north to south, so I suspect that each day he's just "making his rounds." You can see a pretty picture of this handsome bird as he appears from below at www.ccbirding.com/thw/id/SharpShinned_juv-female.JPG
The outstanding feature of this species is that it's so small. Its wingspan averages about 21 inches (53 cm), which is about half that of our most common hawk here, the Red-shouldered Hawk, and about the same as our smallest falcon, the Sparrow Hawk, or Kestrel. This small size enables the bird to make sharper turns in the air than other hawks and causes it to beat its wings faster in regular flight. Later in the day when it circles into the sky riding thermals, its circles are much tighter than those of other hawks. These features of flight are important to notice when trying to identify it, for its plumage very easily can be confused with that of the much larger, less nimble Cooper's Hawk.
This bird's summer and winter distribution maps are interesting. The USGS's summertime "Breeding Bird Survey (BBS)" map for Sharp-shinned Hawks is at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/BBSMap/ra3320.gif and its wintertime "Christmas Bird Count (CBC)" map is at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/CBCMap/ra3320.gif
These maps, more than indicating seasonal shifts of the species between north and south, show that during the summer the hawk is found in islands of populations across North America, with the closest island to us being in northeastern Alabama. But then in the winter the island-populations coalesce, so that it's found nearly throughout the US, and parts of southern Canada. This situation is very different from what's shown in my bird fieldguide. Whenever we want the most precise and updated distribution maps for migratory birds in our area, we would do well to go to www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm96/map617/all.html.
During summers Sharp-shinned Hawks prefer coniferous and mixed conifer-aspen-birch forests, so our wintry Loblollies must look friendly to them. Since their prey is small to medium-size birds, I expect my breakfast visitor mostly eats White-throated Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows, since these are the main species in our Loblolly Field. My field guide says "They take their prey in sudden, swift attacks from inconspicuous perches, or during fast, stealthy flights through the woods." I can attest to this latter fact, for several times I've been following a woodland trail when one came around the corner and surprised me as much as I surprised him.
The other day Stephanie up in Tennessee posted a note at our NatNat forum saying that her ten-year-old Ellen was hankering to chew some resin from her backyard pine, and Stephanie wanted to know if it was safe. Sue Nell in Louisiana replied that she wouldn't want to eat any, but she passed along a link with a story about the early settlers chewing on spruce resin, in which it was stated that "the sign of a true friend is the person who would chew your spruce resin long enough to get the killer taste out of it."
During my years of traveling as a freelance writer many times I stayed in Jeff Busby Campground on the Natchez Trace Parkway, up near Starkville, MS. Over the years the campground's maintenance man, "Tiny" McKinney, and I became good buddies. He was a Black fellow and he taught me some of the herbs poor Black folks sometimes used. Tiny claimed that he owed much of his good health and especially his "amazing virility" to "rosin pills."
Rosin pills are the dried remains of those hard, pale- yellowish drops of resin that form at wormholes and wounds on pine tree trunks. When the resin dries, it becomes so hard that you can smash it into a dry dust. Many times I've seen Tiny walk up to a pine, pry off a few "pills," and gulp them down. Occasionally I still do the same, mostly in Tiny's memory, and sometimes I even suck on the pills, letting them dissolve in my mouth producing a profound turpentine taste. And I have to say that sometimes I do feel a little friskier afterwards, though that may be because I'm remembering what a pleasure it used to be when Tiny dropped by my tent to tell me stories.
In the woods here, the most common and conspicuous fern is the Christmas Fern, which at this time of year is still green, and thus in the old days was collected as greenery for Christmas decoration. Now that the frost-intolerant species have died back, the second- most commonly seen fern is the Ebony Spleenwort, ASPLENIUM PLATYNEURON. You can see this smallish, fragile-looking fern with fronds often rising vertically like slender pagodas at www.esb.utexas.edu/philjs/stengl/images/Spleenwort.jpg
A close-up showing the leaflets' distinctive sori (the small structures in which spores are produced) can be viewed here.
An Ebony Spleenwort in a long-abandoned field up in Kentucky was the first fern I ever identified. That's because Ebony Spleenworts are distinctive and thus easy to identify. Their most striking feature, as the above pictures show, is their dark mahogany, almost black "midribs," or rachises, which very few other fern species have. All the other ferns I can think of with dark rachises are themselves other spleenwort species. About 720 known spleenwort species occur worldwide, though in the Natchez area the Ebony Spleenwort is the only common one. A couple of other spleenwort species could conceivably show up.
In our woods Ebony Spleenworts occur mainly where soil breaks through the leaf litter, as at bayou edges and on steep stream banks. They also grow in profusion on the moist, shaded, northern side of the barn here, right up against the foundation. When my mother was alive, Ebony Spleenworts grew on the northern side of her brick house, right against the foundation, well shaded by shrubby junipers. You might check the same habitat of your own home, and if you find a foot-tall, blackish-rachised fern, it'll almost undoubtedly be an Ebony Spleenwort.
"Spleenwort" is another nice botanical word worth paying attention to. The "spleen" part is fairly straightforward, because in ancient times the plant was used medicinally for the benefit of the spleen. This belief probably arose from the fact that the leaflets, or pinnae, of the common European spleenwort were shaped a little like a spleen, so the Doctrine of Signatures connected the fern with that organ.
"Wort" is a suffix found in many plant names, such as liverwort, moneywort, pennywort, navelwort, mugwort and ragwort. "Wort" derives from the Old English "wyrt," which simply meant "plant." The word goes back even further, to the common ancestor of English and German, to the Germanic "wurtiz." By the way, "wurtiz" evolved into the modern German word "Wurzel," meaning "root."
THOUGHTS FOR THE WINTER SOLSTICE
Back to that idea that spring is upon us.
In my opinion, tomorrow, the Winter Solstice, is the official first day of spring. Winter and summer just don't exist in my manner of reckoning. In past Newsletters I've described how I conceive of Nature at this latitude as "breathing out" the blossomings and new beginnings of spring, and "breathing in" the fruitings and dying backs of fall. Today is the last day of the current annual cycle's "breathing in."
A beautiful historical symmetry is manifesting itself at this very moment in the evolution of the human spirit, and the Solstice is the appropriate time to celebrate that. Right now, in our generation, just as the anachronisms and war-inciting tendencies of our religions are becoming so troubling, there is being revealed to us through science enough to inspire humanity to a whole new level of spirituality.
Our generation is the first in human history to recognize that we inhabit a fragile dewdrop of a planet orbiting a mediocre star in an average position in a run-of-the-mill galaxy among many billions of other galaxies, in a Universe that is not only expanding, but expanding at an increasing rate. Only in 1995 did we learn for sure that other stars beside our own sun have planets orbiting them. There must be many billions of planets harboring billions of forms of life, and life-like states throughout the Universe. Before our time, no human ever had an inkling that the Creator's works could be as enormous, complex, mysterious and BEAUTIFUL as now we see they really are.
Nowadays, to be "a believer," it is no longer necessary to claim to believe in any ancient mythology. Now, for the first time in human history, anyone can confirm for himself or herself that humankind is enmeshed in such unending intricacy managed with such awful precision that "That which created everything is the Creator, and the Creator is good... "
This simple belief is enough to inspire a new spirituality more profound and more satisfying than any ever experienced on the face of the Earth.
Tomorrow begins a new spring and a new year. Tomorrow, on the Winter Solstice, as the Earth once again tilts on its axis in a way that causes days at our latitude to begin growing longer, we are given a sign that the Creator of the Universe remains on the job, and that the Creator's will continues to be as it always has been, and always will be.
An implication of that sign is this: We humans still have a chance to continue living and loving on a gorgeous Earth in a perfectly wonderful corner of the Universe -- if only we can learn to live sustainably.
Happy Winter Solstice, everyone.