from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
February 22, 2004
Last week I told you it would be good when the cold rain ended. The best moment of all when it did end was around this Wednesday at noon. A big skillet of cornbread baked on the solar satellite dish and when I stepped outside after computering all morning I smelled roasting cornmeal. I use the word roasting in the sense of "parching" -- to burn or scorch -- for actually the cornbread was charring a little at the edges, with little curls of white smoke puffing from beneath the lid. I like a cornbread's hard edges best, and nothing smells as wholesome and congenial as the odor of parched corn.
To top it off, on the radio Bach fugues were playing, and those buoyant, intertwining notes mingled with sparkling sunlight in the moist spring air.
I don't know how long it was before I realized I was standing in the middle of the open area between the solar dish and my trailer, like the fellow up in my mother's hometown in Kentucky, who sometimes forgets where he's going and what he wants to do, and just stands there until someone comes along and points him homeward. That day, at the end of the long, cold rain, for a good while I just stood there smelling cornbread and mud odors, hearing the Bach and birdcalls, feeling the sunlight and a spring breeze on my face and arms.
TOWHEES AT TEA TIME
One birdcall I heard that morning was the towhee's, and that's a call everyone should know, for few birdcalls are more neighborly sounding. Nowadays each morning while my campfire crackles I hear them all around, because towhees occur wherever there's bushy cover beneath which they can scratch and hide, even in towns with nothing but a few hedges. The towhee's call is one of the easiest of all birdcalls to learn. In spring it's sung loudly and clearly with a phraseology approximating the words "drink-your-teeeeeeeee...." At this time all I'm hearing is the "teeeeeeeee... " part but, as warming increases and towhee hormones flow, soon they'll break into the full-fledged, three-parted "drink-your-teeeeeeees." You can hear that very call at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmwav/h5870so.wav
Despite their full-bodied calls, often you hear towhees scratching in leaf litter before you see them or hear their calls. When they scratch, they kick both feet backward at once, stirring up bugs and seeds. Around here they love our blackberry thickets. Out West I've spotted towhees undercover in dense chaparral, and in Mexico and Guatemala I've found them shuffling leaves on shadowy floors of coffee plantations. You can see a painting showing the different plumages of male and female at www.yankeegardener.com/birds/towhee.htm
In the old days fieldguides referred to this bird as the Rufous-sided Towhee. Now after some taxonomic realignment it's called the Eastern Towhee, PIPILO ERYTHROPHTHALMUS. Some old-timers who learned their bird names from real people, not fieldguides, call towhees "Ground Robins," and that's a good name, because their rusty-colored sides make them look a little like American Robins, and they sure do love being on the ground.
With a distribution from Canada to Guatemala, you might guess that the species is rapidly evolving into many regional forms. That's the case. About 16 subspecies are formally recognized.
WIGGLETAILS IN THE FROG POND
The writing is on the wall: The Frog Pond next to the barn is just working with wiggletails, and since wiggletails are mosquito larvae, that means that as the biting cold ends, the biting insects begin. Well, I consider that a desirable trade.
If you run into some water with wiggletails in it, take a moment to watch them. Wiggletails move through water with an awkward-looking jerking motion. In fact, the jerking is so violent that it seems that Mother Nature would have provided them with a less energy- demanding manner of getting about. Notice that each wiggletail has a large, blunt end at the bottom. That's the head. The slender top ends with a siphon tube the larva uses as a snorkel. Since wiggletails live in water but breathe air, they constantly have to wiggle up to the water's surface, where they stick their tube up to the air and breathe through it. That's why a little oil dumped in the water kills them: the film of oil atop the water clogs their snorkels. Of course that oil also kills untold numbers of other species important to local ecology.
Wiggletails feed on micro-organisms and organic matter in the water. On their fourth molt the larva metamorphoses into a pupa. If you find a pool filled with wiggletails you should look for pupae. Pupae are similar to wiggletails, but noticeably larger, shaped like thick commas. One curious thing about mosquito pupae is that they don't eat. They stay pupae only for a couple of days or so before rising to the water's surface and metamorphosing into adult mosquitoes.
That's something else to look for, though you seldom see it -- the exact moment when the pupa rises to the water's surface and it's skin, or exoskeleton, splits open, enabling the winged adult mosquito to emerge into the air, leaving the discarded pupal exoskeleton behind.
You can see scannings I've made of both a wiggletail and a pupa halfway down my Diptera Page at www.backyardnature.net/diptera.htm
BROWN GARDEN SNAIL IN THE COLDFRAME?
The question mark at the end of the above title is there because many land-snail species exist, and I don't have a proper fieldguide for identifying them. I'm not absolutely sure that the snail I found gliding across the pepper seedlings in my coldframe is a Brown Garden Snail, or something else. I came up with that name by using the Google image option, doing a keyword search on "land snails" and matching the resulting thumbnail pictures with my snail, imprisoned in a moist paper cup next to my monitor. My snail, with its dark brown shell heavily mottled with light brown splotches, and spiraling in the right direction, looked just like Google's Brown Garden Snail, and the information on the summoned page agreed with what little I knew about my captive. You can see that page with its pictures and information at http://creatures.ifas.ufl.edu/misc/gastro/brown_garden_snail.htm
The Brown Garden Snail is an alien species introduced from Europe. In California it's become a pest on crops and ornamentals, and it's found in much smaller numbers throughout the US Southeast. I read that one of its favorite host plants is pansies, and that sounds right, because the other day neighbor Karen Wise noticed some abandoned pansies at a local garden shop, brought them to me, and I've been rehabilitating them for spring planting, in the coldframe. Maybe the snail hitched into the coldframe, riding on a pansy?
I first met Brown Garden Snails back in the 70s when I was backpacking in Spain. A fellow invited me to throw my tent in his garden. At dusk he suggested that we take a walk "to pick our supper." That entailed strolling down his garden's path, gathering silver-dollar-size snails. We got over a hundred. He dumped them all alive into a large pot of boiling water set up in his garden. The water immediately turned green as the snails' guts purged their contents. I was already a vegetarian by then, so that night I contented myself with wonderful local bread, cheese and wine. I was told that the cooked snails tasted like scrambled eggs.
HOW TO KNOW THE VIOLETS
The weedy lawn around the barn is now graced with violet blossoms rising from small tufts of dark green, heart-shaped leaves. What a pleasure seeing these dainty, pretty little plants! They are Common Blue Violets, VIOLA SORORIA, which you can see and read about at www.nearctica.com/flowers/viola/Vsororia.htm
Now consider this:
In other words, there's a world of violets out there, and it's great fun to know them. One approach to enjoying them is to learn the two or three very common species in your area and then, when you find a different species, figure out what's different about it! Worse ways there are to spend some hours in spring than thrusting your mind into the matters of fragrant, pretty little violets.
During most of my botanizing years I've had trouble with violets. That's because the specialists who wrote wildflower books and big technical floras hadn't yet figured out the violet world's proper classification. Notice that the Mississippi Checklist lists 22 species while the Nearctica page lists only 26 species for all of the eastern US. It isn't that Mississippi is a particular hotspot for violets, though we have our share. Rather, several species on the Mississippi list now have been "lumped" together, while other names have been demoted to varietal status. In short, now, for the first time, it's possible for us to really get a handle on which violets we have locally.
That site at www.nearctica.com/flowers/index.htm is wonderful. There, if you're in Eastern North America, you can "key out" your local violets and other local wildflower discoveries. For instance, to key out our Common Blue Violet, on the front page I clicked on "Flowers by Family, Genus, and Species," then "Violaceae" (the violet's technical family name), and then on the species-list page that appeared I clicked "Viola," which is the violets' genus name. This took me to www.nearctica.com/flowers/viola/violets.htm where there was an illustrated "Key to Species."
That key is provided with drawings and photos of great help for identification purposes. As we commence "keying out" our Common Blue Violet, the key's first page asks whether our violet's flowers are white, yellow, or blue to purple. Clicking the latter choice, the next page asks questions relating to stem type and leaf shape. Clicking the one for "stemless" and "heart-shaped leaves," we're taken to a page with drawings of eight species having those specific features. There you can read detailed descriptions and compare drawings and photos of the various species until something matches what you have. For online plant identification, it seldom gets much better than this.
This spring I hope that every time you see a violet you'll linger with it long enough to be sure you know just who it is and, if you're not sure, go to the Nearctica Viola page and "key it out." You'll be asked to notice such details as which petals have hairs on them, and what the shape of those hairs is. You'll discover differences among features you never even new a violet could have. And I'll bet that you find the process of filling your head with violet-thoughts to be pleasant enough.
ELM FLOWER CRYSTALOGRAPHY
Along Sandy Creek nowadays here and there among the tall, leafless trees you see broad smudges of diffuse reddish-brown. This delicate color consists of Winged Elm flowers. In the forest, sometimes you see trees standing between you and the rising or setting sun, with their limbs seemingly adorned with palely glowing, nickel-size orbs. The orbs also are clusters of Winged Elm flowers, with sunlight catching in the blossoms' slender, translucent, cream-colored stamen- filaments.
At www.bcen.org/images/imageone.jpg you can see someone's crude drawing of an elm's leaves, flower cluster, flower and fruit. I like this drawing because it reflects a student's concern with the elm flowers' basic structure and arrangement, which often aren't clear in nature. In real life, the elm flower's stamens tend to tangle with one another, hiding their number and disposition. In some elm species, for example the American Elm shown in the drawing, flower clusters are in "fascicles," with all the pedicels arising from one point. In other species, such as our Winged Elms, flower clusters are disposed in "racemes," with pedicels arising from a central stem- like axis. You can review the basic kinds of flower cluster arrangements (inflorescence types) on my page at www.backyardnature.net/inflorsc.htm
It's good to notice details like these because they define how each species fundamentally differs from every other species. Also, on an esthetic level, it's just nice to pay attention to natural "variations upon a theme."
In a way, flowers are like crystals: Every blossom aspires to its own innate geometry. In flowers of monocots such as grasses, irises and lilies, parts usually number 3 or multiples thereof. Thus trilliums (here trilliums are emerging but not yet flowering) have 3 sepals, 3 petals and 6 stamens. In flowers of dicots, such as roses, beans and elms, flower parts usually number 4 or 5, or multiples thereof. Thus violets have 5 sepals, 5 petals and 5 stamens. Sometimes blossoms wander from their given basic geometries. This is especially true among horticultural varieties. Wild roses have 5 petals, but among horticultural varieties stamens have been induced to form petals, so you get blossoms with many more than 5 petals. Sometimes in a cultivated rose blossom you can find items that are half petal, half stamen.
Elm flowers, though simple, usually can't be reduced to such 3-3-6 or 5-5-5 formulations. For one thing, on a single tree you might find flowers bearing both male and female parts, along with flowers with only male OR only female parts. Calyx lobe number can wander from 4-9, and stamen number from 3-9.
A while back I mentioned that unlike hexagonal quartz crystals and cubical salt crystal, ice crystals don't always manifest the same patterns. In the world of flower-crystals, elm blossoms are like ice. Like ice, elm blossoms conform to a geometry not as simple as the human mind seems to ask for -- yet, in the end, like ice, they manifest themselves with utmost elegance and effectiveness.
Maybe at every level reality is like that: Most things follow simple rules, but there's always something or someone along the fringes dancing to a different, hard-to-discern melody.
A MURDER OF CROWS, #2
The comment last week that my best Googling efforts hadn't turned up the etymology of the term "a murder of crows" was just the challenge needed by both Karla in Florida and Anita in Texas to locate that etymology. Though the Web sites on which the etymology was discovered were different, the explanation was the same -- word-for-word, in fact, because at both sites the etymology had been posted by the webmaster of the gloriously idiosyncratic "American Society of Crows and Ravens," at www.ascaronline.org/crowfaq.html Here's the etymology:
A 'murder' of crows is based on the persistent but fallacious folk tale that crows form tribunals to judge and punish the bad behavior of a member of the flock. If the verdict goes against the defendant, that bird is killed (murdered) by the flock. The basis in fact is probably that occasionally crows will kill a dying crow who doesn't belong in their territory or much more commonly feed on carcasses of dead crows. Also, both crows and ravens are associated with battlefields, medieval hospitals, execution sites and cemeteries (because they scavenged on human remains). In England, a tombstone is sometimes called a ravenstone.
A MURDER OF CROWS, #3
The "murder of crows" phrase also catalyzed a letter from Leona in Missouri, who was seething after reading an ad in her local newspaper. It announced a crow- shooting contest sponsored by "Wildlife Unlimited" of Cuba, Missouri. "Saturday Feb 21st No Entry Fee, Who can take the most Crows?" The winner was promised a New England Sportster Rifle.
When faced with attitudes like this, how is one to react? I just don't know. I can describe the floundered trajectory of my own thoughts, however.
If I should confront a crow-shooter with remarks about the crows' astonishing intelligence and sophisticated sociability, the shooter would just laugh and say he's providing a public service because crows eat farmers' corn. This would remind me that our government pays farmers to NOT grow certain crops, to keep prices profitably high -- despite the fact that a sizable portion of humankind desperately needs any kind of food at all. And all this in the context that right now life on Earth is undergoing the greatest wave of extinctions since the disappearance of the dinosaurs, because of human impact. Thought-associations evoked by this crow shooting ricochet back and forth and fold upon one another until there's a blue-funk ecology of the mind and, meanwhile, crows tumble from the sky.
Behold the laughing crow-shooter, bloated government, fat people and starving people, and crows tumbling from the sky. The images don't make a coherent story. Yet, if you stand in the countryside near Cuba, Missouri watching someone kill crows for fun, thought- associations coalesce into a mental collage that surprises and appalls by feeling so comfortably familiar. For, what better metaphor than this crow- murder collage could there be for our own society in general?
Walk up to George Bush and describe the effects of his trickle-down policies on the environment, on education, and on the fabric of society in general. He'll just laugh and say that it's all a public service.
At that point you can begin developing the metaphor your own way, plugging in your own local analogies, as dead birds trickle down from the sky.