from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
January 11, 2004
Weather this week has roller-coastered between unseasonably warm and unseasonably cold, roaring winds and calmness, and blue skies and days when it rained from dawn to dusk. Maybe that's why on Thursday morning, in a cold rain, I was drawn into the forest to examine buds on bushes and trees.
For, buds bespeak a steady, unhurried, elegant progression into spring, and I favor that approach in my own life. Buds keep a calm eye on the more profound aspects of existence, such as the season's cumulative warmth, and maybe a bit on day length, and from one day to the next pay little regard to fretful impulses of hot and cold. That's not to say that buds can't be fooled. We all know that Forsythia stems brought inside right now will blossom in advance of their season. Maybe that's another reason I like buds -- sometimes they can be fooled, just like the rest of us.
Even the Sweetgums, so common here as to be the most ordinary of things, bear very handsome buds. Their big, glossy, turbinate terminal-buds are clad with scales ranging in hue from yellow to rich mahogany- brown, depending on the individual tree. The slender twigs of Hophornbeams, abundant in our forest's understory, often are tipped with oversized, brownish flower-buds looking like 3/8-inch long (8 mm) pineapples. Behind the little pineapples, leafbuds alternate from one side of the stem to the other, fairly evenly spaced. Botanists refer to such a disposition of buds along a stem -- in two vertical rows instead of the more normal spiraling -- as "distichous."
Not only are oak buds distinguished by bearing a greater number of scales than usual, but also the buds themselves cluster toward the twig's tip. This is the best trick for identifying leafless oak trees -- unless oak leaves lie beneath the tree. Sometimes if you choose the right oak stem and cut across it with a very sharp blade, you can see its star-shaped pith.
Pine tree buds are generally longish and columnar. Clusters of chestnut-colored pine-tree buds look very cozy nestled among twig-tip tufts of glossy-green, good-smelling needles.
You might enjoy looking at my Web pages dealing with twig characteristics, with a special reference to leafscars, at www.backyardnature.net/woodtwig.htm
If you'd like to learn to identify plants in their winter condition and know about their special winter adaptations, take a look at my "Winter Botany" page. There you can click on the titles of a number of books dealing with the matter, available at Amazon.com. The page is at www.backyardnature.net/wintrbot.htm
UPLAND CHORUS FROGS THUMBING THEIR COMBS
The barn in which my "office" is located formerly was a "pig parlor." As such, the concrete floor slopes to a concrete trench draining into a little pond at the barn's corner. The pond is about 15 feet across and four feet deep. Pig manure used to settle in it but now it's just a dandy place for frogs.
Monday morning after a night of rain a coldfront was blowing in, and the temperature was dropping as the big Loblollies heaved beneath a dark, foreboding sky. That didn't keep the pond's Upland Chorus Frogs, PSEUDACRIS FERIARUM FERIARUM, from calling, however, though you could hear in their voices the discomfort of the growing cold, and the frogs' doubts about the approaching cold night. As with crickets in the fall, their calls were slower and lower-pitched than when it's warm. Chorus frogs are members of the Treefrog Family, and you can see what they look like at www.inhs.uiuc.edu/cbd/herpdist/species/ps_feriaru.html
Of the 19 or so frog and toad species likely to be found in the Natchez area, the calls of chorus frogs are among the easiest to recognize. They sound like a thumb being pulled across the teeth of a comb, starting with the big teeth first. The call is amazingly loud to be made by such a little frog -- not over 1.5 inch long (3.8 cm). Some evenings when the air is calm you can hear the calls from half a mile away. On the Internet you can listen to them at www.state.tn.us/twra/wchfrg.wav
The Boreal, Western and Southeastern Chorus Frogs were once considered to be a single variable species, but now each is recognized as a distinct species, and ours is the Southeastern Chorus. The Southeastern remains divided into two subspecies, one of which is our Upland Chorus Frog. You can see a map showing the distribution of each species and subspecies at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/narcam/idguide/range36.gif
That map shows that the northernmost chorus frog species makes it all the way into northern Canada, almost to the Arctic Circle. It'll be months before the chorus frog's thumb-combing call is heard up there. I like to visualize the friendly calls I'm hearing now as issuing northward across the landscape, confirming to all who will hear that soon all kinds of blossomings and birdsongs are to follow.
BIKING THE MIOCENE & PLIOCENE
Last Sunday, right after sending off the Newsletter, it was about 75° (24°C), windy and very springy feeling, so I took a bike ride on the gravel roads through the hills north of here, almost entirely within Homochitto National Forest. The roads followed ridgetops nearly the whole way, so not only did the winds howl around me but also I had some good views. The ridgetops averaged only about 100 feet higher (30 meters) than the Sandy Creek floodplain, but in this part of the world where real hills just don't exist, it's surprising how such modest uplands afford such good views. From the ridgetops mostly I saw a great deal of mixed oak-pine forest wrecked to the advantage of monocultured Loblolly Pine and weeds, by clearcutting.
The ridgetops were mantled with loess. In a few places sand and gravel lay beneath the loess. We know that the loess was deposited by wind at the end of the last Ice Age, some 18-25,000 years ago. I tell all about the geology of our loess at www.earthfoot.org/loess/geology.html
Sand and gravel are deposited by flowing water, so what is sand and gravel doing there on our ridgetops so high above any local floodplain? In fact, a characteristic feature of southern-Mississippi geology is that gravels and sands cap the region's highest hills.
A hint to the answer is that our hill-topping sands and gravels were deposited a long time ago. They are generally considered to be of Miocene age, making them 5.3-23.8 million years old. It's hard to know their precise age, though, because few fossils have been found in them. Geologists tell us that during the Miocene the Rocky Mountains were experiencing their most recent uplift, sending so much sand and gravel down the ancient Mississippi that Miocene sediments beneath New Orleans extend to a depth of 12,000 feet. In our area, these sediments formed a plain not far above sea level.
Then, 3.6-1.7 million years ago, during the subsequent Pliocene, southern Mississippi's landscape began rising as a consequence of "forces within the Earth." As our lowlands were raised, streams in our area speeded up, and with time the streams eroded away most of the landscape, just leaving some hills and ridgetops capped with with the sand and gravel deposited there before the uplift.
As I biked along our ridgetops last Sunday I tried to imagine what it was like here back during the Pliocene, when our hills were just coming into existence.
The Smithsonian's illustrated Pliocene page is at www.mnh.si.edu/anthro/humanorigins/faq/gt/cenozoic/pliocene.htm
You can read about the Pliocene climate, generally regarded as being warmer than today's, at www.giss.nasa.gov/research/paleo/pliocene/index.html
A map showing that during the Pliocene the part of Louisiana across the river from present-day Natchez was submerged beneath an arm of the Gulf of Mexico is at http://geochange.er.usgs.gov/pub/sea_level/
This week I added a mycorrhiza page to my nature-study site, at www.backyardnature.net/mycorhza.htm. At the top of that page there's a picture of some Loblolly Pine roots with and without mycorrhiza. The ones with mycorrhiza are much thicker than those without.
The word mycorrhiza is derived from classical Greek roots, "myco" meaning fungus and "rhiza" meaning root, so "mycorrhiza" literally means "fungus-root." If you dig into a forest's moldering leaf litter, you'll see white, cobwebby "hyphae" of fungi snaking through it. Hyphae constitute the vegetative part of a fungus. Mushrooms are just the reproductive structures that hyphae produce. When a fungus's hyphae grow so that they form special sheaths around roots of trees, bushes, grasses, etc., that association between the hyphae and the root is known as mycorrhiza -- fungus- root.
In a mycorrhizal association, the root helps the fungus by sharing its carbohydrates with it, and the fungus helps the plant by improving its ability to acquire mineral nutrients from the soil and to deal with droughts (the mycorrhiza acts as a sponge holding water for the plant after rain). Other benefits are detailed on my new page. On that page I also provide a drawing showing how mycorrhizal hyphae grow between a root's outer cells, but they don't invade the cells themselves.
Note that mycorrhiza is different from nitrogen-fixing nodules often seen on the roots of clover and other legumes. Those nodules are home to a bacteria, not a fungus.
Around here it's easy to find mycorrhiza-covered roots. Just go into the woods beneath a Loblolly Pine and dig into the black, crumbly zone between the leaf litter and the topsoil. Pine roots running through this zone can be dislodged with fingers. Mycorrhiza- covered roots are thick, with rounded tips, while roots without mycorrhiza are thin and sharp-pointed. I found roots with no, or poorly developed, mycorrhiza beneath a small Loblolly deep in our Loblolly Field, where generations of farming have demolished soil structure and soil ecology, leaving few mycorrhiza- causing fungal spores in the soil.
For the last couple of months, about twice a week I've been spending an hour or so in the afternoons cracking pecans. Once I get a goodly number of pecan halves in my can, I grind them into meal with the butt of my hammer's handle. Later when I'm cooking my cold- morning oatmeal porridge with its herbs and dribbled- in eggs, I throw in a handful of pecan meal. I find that the flavor of fresh pecan meal cooked in porridge is much more robust than that of raw pecans.
I enjoy my pecan-cracking sessions, and I regard that as a good sign. There have been periods in my life when my mind was too unsettled and my spirit too distracted to really enjoy simple, repetitive tasks. I think that two main changes in my life are responsible for my present pecan-cracking tranquility.
First, at age 56, fewer hormones are flowing in my body, so I no longer must deal with perpetual libidinal urges to go find a woman. How I pity young people whose hormones rage through their systems like mine used to, and older people who think they need to keep their hormones stirred up. Anyone who decides that he or she wants no more children -- or never wants them in the first place -- should have access to medicine that neutralizes sexual hormones. What a shame that so much creative human energy is so often distracted by the same impulses that give dogs in heat their general character.
Second, at last I am mostly rid of my addictions. When I was a kid on the Kentucky farm during the 50s and 60s, my family picked up hickory nuts each fall, and during the winters we spent long, contented hours cracking them. Then we got a TV. Soon we all craved junk food, the newest gimmicks, and we wanted to be like people on TV. Many old traditions ended, while our addictions to excess bore us all along as if we were leaves adrift on a river. Now I am out of that river and no longer feel the need to hustle to pay for my obsessions. The things I really like turn out to be very inexpensive, or even free.
Let me be clear. I've never been addicted to drugs, booze or cigarettes. My addictions were to such things as salty, greasy foods, TV programs, and owning flashy things.
So, every morning when I taste that wonderful pecan flavor in my steamy oatmeal porridge, and I feel the wholesome pecan essence suffusing through my body, I am so thankful that now, at long last, I can sit with a hammer and a rock and simply crack my pecans in peace.