from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
June 27, 2004
A RAINY MORNING
Nearly everyone who writes to me says that the weather at their place is crazy, too much or too little rain, too cold or too hot. Here spring was about normal, but lately it's been decidedly on the rainy side.
Wednesday morning was certainly strange. Breakfast was interrupted by dramatically dark, low-slung storm- clouds rolling in fast from the west, bringing cold rain but no thunder. It was like a winter storm at the wrong season. I've seen storms like that sweeping in from the North Sea during summer when I biked across Denmark and northern Germany, but I've never witnessed such a thing in Mississippi, in late June.
When weather is abnormal, I walk in it. Strange weather throws everything off balance, retunes the senses, and you're likely to see things that at other times go unnoticed.
Through the sky's rain and mist, low over the Loblolly Field, came a V-formation of about 30 awkward-looking birds -- birds with outstretched long necks, long and downcurved bills, and long legs trailing afterwards. Appearing as silhouettes only, I had an idea what they were, but couldn't identify them positively. Whatever their identify, I'd not seen such flocks here before, so they only accentuated the morning's oddness.
Clouds of fog issued from the forest and drifted across the fields like big puffs of dense, white smoke. Moisture in the forest's warm air was condensing as it left the forest's shelter for the open, cooler field. You see this often in Appalachia's deep, wooded hollows, but I couldn't recall it happening on such a scale here.
I spooked a Coyote on the trail. He was so unnerved by my stepping from the mist that he turned and ran down the road in the opposite direction instead of quickly darting to the side and disappearing into bushes before I had a good chance to see him.
Inside the forest, next to a stream, Big-leafed Magnolias rose through misty shadowness with enormous, dark leaves shining with wetness, and with silvery rainwater dribbling off their leaf-tips. These trees, ungainly looking in clear weather, could not have appeared more in harmony with this primitive- feeling, otherworldly, hazy and out-of-whack environment. Here, their form and essential manner of being were perfect in every respect, finally understandable.
I emerged from the woods near the Field Pond, hoping that maybe the long-necked birds that had flown by in V-formation might have landed there. One of them had, and I got a good look at him as he flew away. Brown on top but with a white rump and a wingspread of about 38 inches (97 cm), long neck and legs, and a very long, down-turned beak, it was an immature White Ibis, EUDOCIMUS ALBUS. White Ibises are found from Peru to the coastal US Gulf and, during summer, a bit inland here, including the southern half of Mississippi. You can see Audubon's painting of the species showing both white adult and brown juvenile plumages at www.abirdshome.com/Audubon/VolVI/00616p1.gif
The White Ibis's favorite food is crustaceans, with crayfish at the top of the list. At the pond, crayfish inhabit a muddy spot with tall grass, so this juvenile was smart to have landed there. The diet also includes insects, snails, frogs, worms, snakes, and small fish. White Ibises forage by walking slowly in shallow water, sweeping the bill from side to side and probing at the bottom. You can read more about their life history at www.wakullacounty.com/wakulla-17.htm
CHANTERELLES & DESTROYING ANGELS
This week I could have loaded a pickup truck with the delicious, orange-colored, forest-floor-dwelling mushrooms shaped somewhat like thin ears, and called Chanterelles, genus CANTHARELLUS. You can see them at www.mit.edu/~jasonm/photos/Closeup/Chanterelle.jpg
During my German days my friends and I spent wonderful hours looking for Chanterelles, known in German as Pfifferlings. If we found a small sack of Pfifferlings we regarded ourselves as lucky. I don't think my friends ever did believe me when I told that here sometimes you can pick as many as I have this week. Our Chanterelles are larger than the German ones, but the German ones taste better, maybe because in the colder climate they grow much slower. Ours are still delicious, though. I sauté them with onion and garlic and scramble an egg or two into them with a bit of fresh basil. When you have butter to fry them in, that's the best of course.
Also fairly common in the woods right now, often quite near Chanterelles, are the Destroying Angels, AMANITA BISPORIGERA. Chanterelles usually grow in elongated colonies on the forest floor looking as if someone had thrown a dishpan of orange peels there, but Destroying Angels typically appear alone. Destroying Angels are very dignified in appearance -- pure white, with an elegant, flaring "ring" around its slender stem, and with the stem rising from a "cup" at the base, as at www.bluewillowpages.com/mushroomexpert/images/kuo/amanita_bisporigera_03.jpg
Destroying Angles have earned their name, for they are among the deadliest of all mushrooms, containing enough toxins to kill a healthy adult with just one bite. The main poison in them is an amatoxin, and the way amatoxins kill is as effective as the mushroom is beautiful.
Amatoxins kill by working at the genetic level of the cells in which the toxins are present. They interfere with messenger RNA synthesis. You'll remember that messenger RNA carries the coded information for making specific proteins from the DNA to ribosomes, where proteins are synthesized. Clearly, if an amatoxin stops this fundamental event necessary for all critical life functions, the cell will die. In human bodies, usually this means that amatoxins kill by destroying the liver and kidneys because these organs are among the first to deal with the food we eat. You can read more about the affects of amatoxins at www.maripoisoncenter.com/ctr/9901amanita_phalloides.html
MILKWEED FLOWER STRUCTURE
Of all the English names for plants, "Butterfly Weed" may be one of the most overused and therefore most confusing. The Butterfly Weed I'm thinking about now is the one flowering right now around here. It's a milkweed with brightly orange flowers, and it's so pretty that in places it's been exterminated because of people digging them up and transferring them to their yards, where they typically die. It's ASCLEPIAS TUBEROSA, and you can see how pretty it is at http://people.uis.edu/braeb1/uisprairieproject/images/butter2.jpg
Milkweed flowers are unique in they way they are structured and the way they manage to get themselves pollinated. Instead of making pollen in the usual powdery form, milkweed flowers produce very small, waxy masses of pollen, arranging two such masses on minute, upside-down-V-shaped structures called pollinaria. When an insect stumbles around on a flower trying to figure out how to get at the nectar, one of its legs catches on a pollinarium, rips the structure from the flower, carries it to another flower, and when the waxy masses touch the new flower's stigma, the flower is pollinated. Happily, my new page shows all the important parts of the flower making this highly evolved form of pollination possible. There's even a tiny pollinarium at the tip of a needle.
The new page is at www.backyardnature.net/fl_milkw.htm
Each freshly opened milkweed flower possesses five pollinaria. When you look closely at a new flower you see the heads of each pollinarium, looking like black specks. On older flowers, insects often will have removed all or some pollinaria. If you very gingerly place a pin point beneath the black speck and lift upwards, you can remove the entire upside-down-V- shaped polllinarium. You need decent eyes to see it, but it's something worth looking for.
After reading my remarks last week about seeing a Bobcat, Roger in Georgia wrote "I saw my bobcat the same morning as you! Mine was a very dark brown and I couldn't make out spots during our brief encounter, but there was only medium light as I was in the woods."
The next day I heard from Larry up at Vicksburg: "I saw a bobcat this evening at 5:00 crossing HWay 433 at a rapid clip... That is the first one I have seen in a long time. I don't know whether our sightings are coincidental or whether for some reason they are moving around a lot in the daylight."
Jerry near Jackson, MS, says he's seen Bobcats in daylight several times. Still, like Larry, I have to wonder why all of a sudden so many of us are seeing Bobcats crossing roads in broad daylight now.
MEXICAN BIRDS #2
Several readers wrote that they enjoyed reviewing the notes and drawings from my visit to the Dunes of Samalayuca in northern Chihuahua, during my four-month birding trip through Mexico in 1996. Now I've posted notes from my second and third stops, this time to a vast mesquite-grassland 130 miles further south, and among the Tarahumara Indians near Copper Canyon in southwestern Chihuahua. You can accesses these notes at www.backyardnature.net/mexbirds/index.htm
SITTING IN THE RAIN NAKED
One morning this week my campfire breakfast was interrupted by rain. It was a warm rain and I was wearing no more than jogging shorts, so I just slipped them off and sat in the rain naked. A sheet of tin over my fire kept breakfast going. It was nice sitting there feeling the rain on my back, and I don't think my breakfast, which consisted of fried eggs fixed with cayenne pepper, onion and garlic topped with juicy tomato -- all produce from the garden -- between two hot slabs of cornbread, could have been better. With a steamy mug of spearmint tea in one hand and my sandwich in the other, I listened to Public Radio's Morning Edition (I'm a dues-paying member of Mississippi Public Radio).
Sitting there hearing how the world was going, I just had to wonder if maybe someday soon each morning little twig-fire smokes like mine might not be announcing breakfasts all across the landscape. But instead of those smokes rising from beside isolated hermits rather enjoying themselves, they will be announcing clusters of desperate folks banded together for mutual defense and mutual support, and they'll be burning twigs because the energy grid will be destroyed. Of course, if things get bad, I won't be much better off than anyone else. A garden can be robbed as easily as a store, and mushrooms, while tasty, don't provide many calories.
I'm glad that I was born when I was, and that I've lived life the way I have. If I'd been born earlier I'd never have had access to the scientific knowledge that now reveals just how huge, complex and utterly intricately interconnected and beautiful the Universe is. I think my awe of the Creator must be greater than was ever possible for anyone who thought that the sun, moon and stars were just points of light suspended in the air not far overhead, and that living things were no more than what they looked like, instead of being evolving creations perpetually struggling toward ever higher levels of sophistication and self realization.
On the other hand, by living when I have, I've also experienced natural wonders that now are irretrievably lost to future generations (pristine coastlines, vast rainforests, mountain valleys before stripmining), and I've peacefully traveled in places where now it would be deadly to visit. None of today's young people will ever see or experience much of what I have, and I just wonder how that will affect them, how it will leave them less appreciative of the Creation and of life in general than I have grown to be.
I hope my forebodings about what's about to happen to this world are wrong. However, if I'm right, then all I can hope is that the next generation of folks sitting naked in the rain next to their little twig- fires may occasionally enjoy their breakfasts as much as I am now.