from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
March 7, 2004
CHICKASAW PLUMS FLOWERING
Last Monday, on March 1st, the first blossoms of our Chickasaw Plums, PRUNUS ANGUSTIFOLIA, appeared. It was just two little, white blossoms inside an intricate tangle of spiny, dark stems, but what a pleasure it was to walk up to them, stick my nose next to them, and breathe in their perfume. What odor could be more pleasing than that of wild plum blossoms on a spring morning when the air was warm, moist, and also redolent of mud and crushed grass? Auburn University's Chickasaw Plum page, with pictures you can click on for enlargement, can be visited at www.sfws.auburn.edu/samuelson/dendrology/rosaceae_pg/chickasaw_plum.htm
This species' flowers appear before its leaves do. Sometime during the next couple of weeks, probably for just one or two days -- until a stiff breeze comes along -- our thicket of Chickasaw Plums will simply glow with white flowers, and if you go stand among them the perfume will throw you for a loop.
Chickasaw Plums are native throughout most of the southeastern quarter of the US, averaging maybe 10 feet tall (3 m), and bearing blossoms a bit smaller than those on cultivated plum trees -- only about 0.3 inch across (8 mm). On this property they form a thicket about 20 feet long and 10 feet broad, along a fence. I'll bet that the parent tree from which the other stems sprouted was "planted" there by a bird who upchucked a plum pit while perched on the fence's wire. Since I first noticed the blossoms as I was pulling up metal fenceposts from inside the thicket, I can also tell you that their interlocking branches bear slender, sharp-pointed items that are half twig and half spine, but which can puncture and scrape as if they were 100% spine.
Around the end of May these trees will produce bright red or yellow, lustrous, thin-skinned, juicy and a bit tart fruits about 1/2-inch in diameter (13 mm). Last fall, right after the trees lost their leaves, I dug up several sprouts, making sure to get plenty of their underground runners. Now the buds on those transplants are opening and I hope that this time next year we'll have several more plum thickets.
SPRING BURSTING OUT
Chickasaw Plum flowers are hardly the only vivid sign of spring. At the very tops of Black Oaks, the first yellow catkins of male flowers are already dangling, with insects darting among them. Bright red fruits (winged samaras) of Red Maples hang suspended on slender pedicels issuing from flower buds on leafless branches. Saturday morning I heard the first Black and White Warbler (you can hear this soft, high-pitched song at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmwav/h6360so.wav), and today I had to close the tool room's door to stop our resident Carolina Wrens from building a nest in a box of nails. Sap is flowing so copiously that the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers just rush from tree to tree, occasionally suddenly poking their tails skyward and squirting out crystal-clear streams of water. On the forest floor Southern Twayblade Orchids are in full blossom and the trilliums are just opening. About half a dozen butterfly species are active, the most spectacular showing up first on Thursday, the large, yellow-and-black Tiger Swallowtail. A Mourning Cloak has been flitting around this morning.
What an amazing thing to see and feel, this incipient flood of returning life. When I saw how franticly the bees and wasps darted among the Black Oaks' catkins I just had to laugh. I can hardly wait to see what wildflowers show up in the woods here, for this is my first spring at this location.
BARN OWLS AT THE BARN
Wednesday I was tickled to see two Barn Owls, TYTO ALBA, fly from the barn down near Sandy Creek. It's always a thrill to see this species, not only because they're a bit uncommon but also because they're such unique birds.
Barn Owls, not to be confused with brownish Barred Owls, are large, whitish birds. Snowy Owls also are white but they're something else entirely, and don't occur this far south. Instead of hooting, Barn Owls hiss and raspily screech. You can hear some screeches at www.barnowl.co.uk/interact/owlsounds/barn1.wav
The Barn Owl is the only of the several owl species found in our area that does not belong to the "Typical Owl Family," the Strigidae. Barn Owls belong to the Barn Owl Family, the Tytonidae. Among the adaptations setting them apart from other owls is that their large, black eyes are set inside a flattish, white, heart-shaped, mask-like facial area, or "facial disk," which helps gather sound as if it were a large ear. The facial disk directs sounds to the owl's ear holes, which can't be seen by casual observation. The Barn Owl's hearing is so acute that it can catch mice in total darkness. Each of its ears hears a different range of tones, enabling the owl to "triangulate" its prey's exact location.
At http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/DTrapp/barnowli.htm the "International Barn Owl Restoration Project"provides a huge amount of information about this species, some very nice pictures, and some designs in case you'd like to build a Barn Owl nest box.
BE WATCHING FOR CHIMNEY SWIFTS
It's about time for Chimney Swifts to show up. Swifts are having a hard time keeping their population numbers up so they need to be closely monitored and helped. You can report your first sighting of them to the North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project at www.concentric.net/~Dwa/page48.html
Last year the first swifts showed up in southern Texas on March 2nd. At the above link there's a US map you can watch as the season progresses, to see how close they're getting to your home area.
About a month ago a few sparrow-eye-size, four-lobed, purple blossoms showed up in grassy areas around the trailer and barn, in places where sunlight bounced off fenceposts, walls and such, redoubling its intensity. Now those little flowers are appearing everywhere on slender plants only about 2 inches high (5 cm). They're Bluets, HOUSTONIA PUSILLA, of the Coffee/ Gardenia Family, and they're native Americans, despite their being able to live in lawns. You can see them at www.missouriplants.com/Blueopp/Houstonia_pusilla_page.html
During the last few days yet a second Bluet species has appeared as a tiny weed in my garden. This one's flowers are even smaller, about 3/16ths inch across (4 mm) and they're white. It's the Southern Bluet, HOUSTANIA MICRANTHA, which you can see at http://botany.cs.tamu.edu/FLORA/dcs420/mi15/mi15057.jpg
Farther north in my home area of western Kentucky, the common Bluet is yet a third species, which is supposed to occur here, though I haven't seen it. It's also known as Bluet, but it is HOUSTONIA CAERULEA. This one is a lot like H. Pusilla, the most obvious difference between them being that H. caerulea's throat is yellow, not red like H. pusilla's, and its corolla tends to be light blue, not deep purple like H. pusilla's. You can see H. caerulea at www.missouriplants.com/Blueopp/Houstonia_caerulea_page.html.
Mississippi's "Checklist for Houstonia Species" at www.herbarium.olemiss.edu/echecklist.php?genus=Houstonia lists seven Bluet species for Mississippi, so when you come across any Bluet it's always interesting to notice which species you have. Bluets are favorites with wildflower lovers because they are such fragile- looking, colorful little beings, and flower so early. The one most common in my garden is especially pretty, its deep red throat very striking in the center of the deep-purple blossom.
Monday morning I glanced into my coldframe and was appalled to see that most of my pepper seedlings had been reduced to mere stems. If a seedling is lopped off below its first two leaves -- below its cotyledons -- that stem will just sit there and never produce anything. At first I suspected mice of having nibbled them down but as I retrieved the flats a little black slug got stuck to a finger, so my suspicions shifted to him. With my handlens I examined the decapitated seedlings and, sure enough, very fine, silvery strands of slug-slime connected most of the stem tops.
Of course slugs are mollusks, basically being snails without shells. And when I refer to my criminal slug as a "he" I am indulging in poetic license. I don't like referring to any animal as an "it" because our minds are wired in such a way that calling something an "it" tends to depersonalize the being. An "it" is something to use, to shuffle around, maybe even to abuse if you want to. A "he" or a "she," however, is understood to enjoy its own perspective and place in life, and therefore he or she demands more consideration.
Anyway, neither slugs nor snails can rightfully be referred to as either "he" or "she," because most are hermaphroditic -- individuals bear both male and female sex organs. To have sex, usually a couple line up next to one another and each operates as both male and female. Occasionally one may have sex with... "itself." (Well, in English it's hard to get around "it.") In case you can't visualize how hermaphroditic slug-sex might work, at the bottom of my snail & slug page at www.backyardnature.net/snail_sl.htm I have drawn a couple of snails mating.
In western Europe, where a climate much rainier than ours makes for slug heaven, many hundreds of miles I've hiked down moist forest trails, often seeing every few feet what the Germans call the Wegschnecke -- a slug 6 inches long (15 cm) coming in colors ranging from bright orange to coffee brown to black. It's ARION ATER, and you can see an orange one at www.herrenhorst1988.de/pflanzen_tiere/tiere/wegschnecke.htm When I gardened in rainy little Belgium, I do believe that sometimes my lettuce pickings by weight were more slugs than lettuce.
Of course the most famous slug control is the beer trap -- sink a small container half filled with beer into the ground, with the rim almost at ground level, and then slugs, attracted by the odor, fall in and drown. Probably the most efficient control, however, is to visit the garden right after dusk with a flashlight and remove them by hand. I do none of this. I just grow enough for everyone, then pick slugs off what I want to eat. Even having lost most of my pepper seedlings, I still have more than enough for the garden, for I'd supposed that something like this would happen...
HOMAGE TO BROOMSEDGES
Now is the perfect time to pay special attention to that waist-high, pale-brown-grayish-orangish, clumpy grass so common in fields abandoned for two or more years, and along some roadsides. Sometimes these grasses are known as plumegrass, sometimes broomsedge -- most people don't call them anything. In this property's large, abandoned fields, at this time of year they make a pale, orange-tinged ocean with innumerable green islands of Loblolly saplings rising up from among them. You can get an idea of what the grass looks like during our current season at www.grownative.org/image/plantlib/DETA-46.jpg
I'm referring to a GROUP of plants, not just one species. Here, around the barn and higher up, the species is Little Bluestem, ANDROPOGON SCOPARIUS. Down lower, where the land flattens out on its way to Sandy Creek, and the soil is alluvial instead of loess- based, Little Bluestem gives way to real Broomsedge, ANDROPOGON VIRGINICUS. On a ditch bank near Sandy Creek, surrounded by millions of Broomsedges, there's a single plant of Bushy Beardgrass, ANDROPOGON GLOMERATUS.
Thing is, at first glance these three species look the same. Notice that they are all in the genus ANDROPOGON. Differences between the species usually need to be pointed out before they're seen. At this time of year the differences are most pronounced -- slight differences in color and texture.
Still, these species are worth making the effort to sort out. Once you're tuned into them, it's a pleasure passing across the landscape seeing how the various species ebb and flow, how Broomsedge confesses the poor soil of an abused field, how Silver Beardgrass, A. saccharoides, shows up in rangeland, but only where it's not overgrazed, how Little Bluestem marches onto dry slopes converting them to dry prairie...
The plants in this group produce very deep-growing, abundantly branching, fibrous roots that not only enable the plants to survive during severe droughts, but also loosen up the soil. When the roots die, they leave organic matter deep underground, as well as channels in the soil along which air, water and earthworms can migrate.
These are clumpgrasses, so aboveground each species forms a large bouquet of long, arching leaves and stiff, upright stems. An astonishing community of insects and other animals live inside each clump. The clumps are like sponges that retain moisture and shade the ground. This enables seedlings of less drought- tolerant bushes and trees to get established so that, eventually, if the local climate supports it, the field or grassland will revert to forest. These grasses are perennials but year after year their blades die back after frost, thus adding organic matter to the soil, enriching it as nothing else can. You have heard how rich the American prairie's soil was. That soil would not have been nearly as rich if the plants of this group had not existed.
How I regret seeing farmers bush-hog their "broomsedges." In doing so they are exchanging some of our most valuable native grasses for "weed" grasses. Typically these weed grasses produce wiry rhizomes running atop the soil, with shallow roots and puny leaves that do little to enrich or even stabilize the soil. The weed grasses' main adaptation is that of growing so low that the next time the bush-hogger comes they escape the blade. Also, on this property, where our Little Bluestem and Broomsedge is thickest so that the soil is shaded and moist, you seldom find fire ants. However, our bush-hogged grassy paths through the fields are veritable fire ant freeways.
INFORMATION MANIPULATION AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Last week I described the effects on Earth's climate of the Global Thermohaline Conveyor Belt, and I discussed current consensus in the scientific community that there is a good chance that the Belt will "break," possibly at any time. I said that this week I would discuss a situation having even greater destructive potential.
Last month The Union of Concerned Scientists, a non- political, highly respected organization of scientists in many fields all over the world, published a document called "Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science."
Here are the main points about the Bush Administration made in that paper:
You can download in PDF format a 3-page SUMMARY of this paper at http://www2.ucsusa.org/publications/report.cfm?publicationID=729
You can download in PDF format the entire 46-page document with abundant documentation and references at http://www2.ucsusa.org/publications/report.cfm?publicationID=730
During my European years, every chance I got I visited German libraries and read newspapers and magazines published during the days leading up to World War Two. I wanted to know how a people such as the Germans -- with a genetic makeup same as my own and, during the 1930s, surely the most highly educated people on Earth -- could have allowed themselves to sink into the social insanity that enabled them to embrace Nazism and that political party's horrible policies.
Of the many causes, I believe that none was more important than this: The Nazis, with Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels in charge of propaganda, very artfully manipulated public sentiment through systematic, unceasing distortion of information, and outright lying. The Nazis found that if they repeated any lie often enough, loudly enough, in impressive enough surroundings, enough people eventually believed them for the Nazi Party to have its way.
If you download the full UCS report, note that a disproportionate part of the Bush Administration's information manipulation relates to environmental issues, particularly climate research. Distortions of information about mercury emissions from power plants, the Endangered Species Act, forest management, and lead poisoning also are documented. And of course issues of war and peace affect the environment as much as anything, and we all know of the distortions advanced by the Administration there.
The Nazis manipulated public sentiment by distorting the truth, and a horrible Holocaust resulted. It is clear to me that now a much more destructive worldwide ecological holocaust may be in the making, and part of the reason is that powerful people are distorting information for their own political gain.
What is an individual to do?
The part of the answer that I can see is this: Right now each of us must take a fresh look at his or her own life, believe what his or her own intelligence and instincts indicate, and become more self-reliant. The central paradigm around which our everyday working lives is structured must change from that of mindless consumerism, to another model which at least includes conscientious stewardship of the life-sustaining Earth ecosystem.
For, mindless consumerism is the engine powering and perpetuating the self-serving, ecosphere-destroying forces of the military/industrial/information complex. By exercising enlightened self discipline, an individual can at least partly disassociate from the enemy.
If we wear old shoes instead of buying new ones for vanity's sake, we win a little battle. If we grow some or all of our own food, we win a little battle. If we take care of our bodies and reduce our dependence on the bloated medical industry, we win a little battle. If we raise a child free of addictions and self- destructive behavior, we win a wonderful battle. If we triumph over our own destructive addictions and begin living simple lives, we win a big battle indeed.