from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
June 13, 2004
You never know how high you can jump until one day you're walking through the garden thinking about everything except where you're going, and almost step on a four-foot-long black snake glistening in the sunshine.
The aggravating thing is that I feel very comfortable with and friendly toward snakes. This jumping business is strictly innate behavior, stimulation-and-response, some kind of genetically based, deep-seated reflex reaction against the snake-form stimulus. Rationality exercises no control over the matter, and I don't like to be jerked around by my genes.
Actually the snake I almost stepped on Thursday -- a Speckled Kingsnake, LAMPROPELTIS GETULUS HOLBROOKI -- is an old friend, one I see regularly patrolling my garden perimeters, inspiring the anoles and fence lizards to shoot from the basil and spearmint like popcorn. It's true that kingsnakes eat lizards, and I'd regret losing a single lizard of the several I watch each day running along my gardens' fenceboards, but kingsnakes also eat other snakes, including rattlesnakes and Copperheads. This particular snake may be the reason the venomous species seem to have cleared from my living area, and I am thankful for that. Kingsnakes also eat mice, birds and eggs. You can see exactly what my snake looked like at www.snakeguys.com/Pages/SpeckledKing/speckled_kingsnake.htm
No other snake in our area is black with such conspicuous white dots. You just can't confuse it with any other species and that's good because everyone should keep in mind that the black snake generously sprinkled with white dots is a friend whose presence should be encouraged and appreciated. Happily, a goodly number of people do seem to appreciate kingsnakes. There's even a website dedicated to them, with a special kingsnake forum, at http://forums.kingsnake.com/forum.php?catid=75
The kingsnakes I grew up with in Kentucky were almost entirely black, with tiny dots only faintly visible. That was the same species we have here, but a different subspecies. The species ranges from coast to coast, through all of the southern half of the US, and as far south as central Mexico, but our beautifully speckled subspecies, holbrooki, occurs only from southern Iowa and western Illinois south to eastern Texas and western Alabama.
INKY-CAP MUSHROOMS IN THE COMPOST BIN
The first thing each morning when I go pee in the compost bin I'm greeted by one to several "inky-cap mushrooms" of the genus COPRINUS emerging from the hay in the bin. By dawn the mushrooms have already begun to deteriorate, the edges of their caps deliquescing into inky goo that curls, coagulates, and drips off as the entire caps disintegrate, and the mushrooms' slender stems collapse. These are among the most ephemeral of mushrooms. You can see a Coprinus similar to mine, with its cap edges just beginning to melt, here.
Most mushrooms reproduce with spores that fall from beneath their caps, and then are carried away on the wind. In contrast, the genus Coprinus has come up with the smart idea of mixing its spores into a bunch of smelly goo that sticks to the bodies of insects attracted by such stuff, and then the insects can carry the spores to new places.
Inky-caps are too small and insubstantial to think about eating. Still, I just like greeting them each morning, and I like thinking of their mycelium throughout the days and nights working its way through my compost bin helping break down the straw, weeds and my own excreta deposited there, into a rich compost that will be recycled into future gardens.
WHITEMARKED TUSSOCK MOTH
Monday morning I found a Whitemarked Tussock Moth, HEMEROCAMPA LEUCOSTIGMA, pursuing endless circles around the rim of my mug. Caterpillars tend to do this so the event by itself wasn't noteworthy. What causes me to bring up the matter is that Whitemarked Tussock Moths are so pretty, being equipped with stiff, white and black tufts of hair on a body richly marked with lines of yellow, black and white, and punctuated here and there with red spots. You can see all this at www.biology.duke.edu/dnhs/pics/Hemerocampa_leuc.JPG.
Whitemarked Tussock Moth caterpillars mainly chew up tree leaves, especially oaks. Occasionally they occur in epidemic numbers, but I've never seen more than a few each summer. You can read more about them at http://fhpr8.srs.fs.fed.us/idotis/insects/wmtusskm.html
It's often the case that spectacular caterpillars produce homely looking moths, and that's the case here. Adult male Whitemarked Tussock Moths are gray brown, with darker wavy bands and a modest white spot, while the whitish-gray female has no wings at all.
When I see an organism as pretty as the caterpillar, though, I just can't escape feeling that the Creative Force organizing the Universe exercises a certain flair. The Whitemarked Tussock Moth's ornamentations appear go far beyond purposes of mere camouflage the same way great music is more than a heavy beat with catchy lyrics. The Whitemarked Tussock Moth is a Bach fugue complete and perfect unto itself.
Just after dawn on Tuesday morning I realized that something was missing. For several days the Carolina Wrens had been carrying bugs to their second-hatched brood of the year. I'd grown accustomed to their perpetual flying in and out of the tool room across from my computer room in the barn. Tuesday morning all was quiet, so I knew that the nestlings had left their nest. In times past I've seen that once the nest is abandoned the whole family avoids me for a week or two.
However, in mid morning I heard a beseeching peep from inside the barn's garbage can. Inside was one of the nestlings barely keeping his head above the water pooled there after recent rains (leaky roof). I could imagine the whole sequence of events: One by one the nestlings had been coaxed to fly from their nest on the high shelf in the tool room and this one had made it out of the room as far as the trashcan's rim, but he'd bungled his first landing, tipping into the can. Once his feathers were wet he couldn't fly out. The family had gone on without him.
I dried him off and set him on the barn's cement floor outside my door where for a long time he just sat looking around. After an hour or so he began peeping and hopping about. Finally around noon one of the adults returned flying here and there and the classic Haiku by Issa came to mind:
Looking here, looking there.
You lose something?
A plaintive peep, a sturdy reply, a flutter of wings upward, and within moments an open beak was plugged with a green grasshopper.
After a few more feedings both birds disappeared the way wrens are supposed to on the first day of fledging.
ONLINE FLORA OF THE CAROLINAS, VIRGINIA & GEORGIA
Jarvis in North Carolina has let me know that Alan S. Weakley's almost-finished Flora of the Carolinas, Virginia & Georgia is now available online at www.herbarium.unc.edu/flora.htm
For those of us serious about identifying our Southeastern plants, this is wonderful. The work aspires to describing ALL the flowering plants as well as ferns, fern allies and gymnosperms found in the included states. The online edition has no illustrations and consists mainly of identification keys using a technical vocabulary. For example, to identify a certain stick-tight, Desmodium tortuosum, you have to plow through the description stating "Loment segments nearly symmetrical along the axis of the loment (the isthmi more or less equal above and below, thus each segment diamond-shaped, rounded- diamond-shaped, or essentially elliptical), each segment 3-3.5 mm long; plant an annual from a taproot."
There's no reason why anyone willing to learn some botany basics and some new terms can't use this or similar floras to identify all their local higher plants. Then once you have a name, on the Internet and in books you can look up what's interesting about the species. At my nature site I say a great deal about identifying things and then effectively using the names you come up with. You can learn more about using keys at www.backyardnature.net/keys.htm, and you can learn basic flower anatomy and technical terms at www.backyardnature.net/fl_stand.htm More information on the identification process in general, and using the names you come up with, can be found at www.backyardnature.net/listopen.htm
Few activities are more fun than walking around and figuring out what plants you have around you -- spending hours with your mind thrust into details of corolla, leaf, bark, plant form, ecology, etc. ...
I know several people who identify strongly with certain animals -- their "totem" animals. With men usually the animal is an eagle, hawk or wolf. A couple of women friends have designated turtles as their totems, confirming their fondness for curling up at home and just lying low. One of my closest friends from college days assures me that she was a Sea Otter in a former life. When on the northeast coast of Ireland one day I watched some otters offshore, I had to admit that their quick, playful mischievousness matched perfectly the nature of my friend.
If I had to choose my own totem, I think it would be the Sycamore. Sycamores are big-bodied and love to be next to water. Their trunks lack the rough, corky ridges that protect the trunks of most trees, so the Sycamore, despite its size, is somewhat vulnerable. Still, Sycamores have a wonderful staying power. Along Sandy Creek it's something to see how the recent flooding rode down some of them. However, now most are coming back, reissuing leaves and resprouting twigs as occasional rain washes mud off the old leaf-tatters, step by step -- coming to life again just like me after this or that of my own disasters.
Sycamore flowers are tiny things jammed together into small balls. Over summer the balls grow as closely packed fruits mature, and then the balls break open in the cold months, releasing the fruits. Once a winter storm caught me walking in a bayou and as the big Sycamores around me heaved and snapped their branches, fruit balls exploded one after another and the individual parachuted fruits launched into the storm and wafted skyward as if carried by the very hounds of Hell. I like that. I identify with the Sycamore's subdued approach, waiting for the right moment, maybe waiting so long, Buddhistically, that the right moment never comes, but, if it does come, willingly and with panache launching blindly into a perfect storm of hope.
I wonder if any Newsletter readers identify with a particular plant or animal? I'd enjoy hearing about it, and passing it on to others. My address is at the end of this newsletter.
My interest here is more than casual or literary. Sometimes I toy with the notion that an unknown number of "themes" (for want of a better word) flow through space and time. I visualize these "themes" as like long, colored, streaming ribbons in a perpetual wind. There's the "conservative theme," the "liberal theme," the themes of femininity and masculinity, and themes of aggression and peace, themes of parsimony and generosity, simplicity and ostentation... These themes sometimes "snap" the way a flag snaps in the wind and when there's a snap something is born, maybe a flower, maybe a song, maybe a romance or maybe a personality trait in a human. And the newborn thing always sings the song, in its own way, of its parent theme.
When we identify our totems, we are saying: "So, the theme from which I sprang has been there, too... "
Besides my nature website at www.backyardnature.net I produce a site at www.mexicanmercados.com dedicated to the traditional markets, or "Indian markets," of Mexico. I've been surprised that by far the most popular page at that site is one dealing with the history of traditional Mexican food of the kind often found in and around markets. That page is at www.mexicanmercados.com/food/foodhist.htm
A people's cuisine profoundly reflects its history. For example, the traditional cuisine of the state of Jalisco reflects the presence of Tlaxcalan and Otomí Indians -- though before the Conquest, other nations of indigenous people occupied that land. The deal is that those earlier people resisted the Spanish conquistadors and so, just like our own Natchez Indians, were enslaved, dispersed or simply exterminated. To repopulate the land with more docile people to serve them, the Spanish conquerors brought in Tlaxcalan and Otomí communities from other regions. You might be interested in reading a scholarly account of the encomienda system (an early form of trickle-down economics) the Spanish used to enslave the Indians, at http://muweb.millersville.edu/~columbus/papers/scott-m.html
I have often tried to imagine what it was like to be an indigenous American when the first Europeans arrived. Just think of the anguish the Indians must have felt seeing most of their people dying of introduced diseases, and then the remaining few enduring the atrocities history clearly describes. Perhaps it was even harder for them to see that the uncouth, self-absorbed, violent and arrogant people who dominated them, far from being punished by the gods, ended up living like kings on the land they'd stolen.
So, how does all this relate to a naturalist newsletter? It is because surely much of the ecosystem-destroying behavior around us today exists because so many people believe, at last subconsciously, that such horrible things could never happen to us. If our abuse of the land, water and air actually does begin to put an end to life on Earth, surely a big hand will come down from Heaven and save us. After all, "God is on our side."
Even more dangerous for life on Earth is the religious belief that "our Earthly life" is merely a test to see how scrupulously we adhere to the dogmas of our various religions. Those dogmas claim that if we do things just right, "real life" begins when we and everything else are all dead. The logical extension of this manner of thinking is that the sooner Armageddon is brought about, the sooner us good folks get to Heaven.
In such an atmosphere of twisted thought the consequence is that today it's not rare at all to see very pious people polluting and destroying prodigiously with their immoderate demands for air-conditioner energy and SUV gas.
Today not only can you eat Tlaxcalan-Indian food in Jalisco, though other Indian nations once claimed that region as their homeland, but also it's true that upland central Mexico once was mantled with noble forests of oak and pine, though today it is mostly arid, dusty desert. These facts suggest to me that, in the end, we humans end up living in the world we create, and destroy.
I wish more people would begin publicly ascribing to the belief that "real life" is here and now, and that the Creator has created something so wonderful on this Earth that we humans, being part of that creation, would do well to love and respect it NOW. Perhaps the most meaningful of all spiritual exercises is to consciously choose to live sustainably.