from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

July 11, 2004

The view from the barn door is perfect for viewing clouds, and these days, especially in the afternoons, we have some gorgeous cloud displays. Typically mornings begin as fairly clear, by noon cottony cumulus clouds with gray bottoms and white tops contrast vividly with the blue sky behind them, and then all afternoon storms come and go, like gray elephants lumbering in and out of rooms otherwise occupied by white rabbits.

I can flip between three distinct cloud-viewing modes. The first mode was the one I was born with, which amounted to simply beholding clouds' shapes, colors and arrangement in the sky.

Even before I had flown in a jet I discovered a second mode, which consisted of developing a manner of "mental depth perception." Our human eyes are too close together to give us binocular vision when we look at clouds so we can't really appreciate how they gather at different atmospheric levels, and how they are positioned in the sky relative to one another. We see clouds in a flat plane, with only their shadowing suggesting their actual dimensionality. However, there's a certain mental lever I can click and then suddenly I "perceive," if not actually "see," the clouds' multidimensionality. This insight can be maintained only for a few seconds, but during those moments I can glimpse how vast, complex, and almost alive the sky really is.

My third mode is even more mental. It rests on understanding at least some of the clouds' physics and chemistry -- the warm, moist air pooled below, bubbling upward into thinner, cooler regions, the resulting dynamically interacting convection cells, the mutual effects of pressure, temperature, relative humidity, pollutants, making the atmosphere a kind of soup with its own profoundly complex but somewhat predictable reactions. I almost have to look at the sky, then close my eyes to accomplish this mode, because it requires an intense spark of broadband concentration. Probably doctors have learned to flip into and out of this mode when they look at human bodies. One moment you're a person, but to get at the root of why you feel bad, there must be a moment when you're seen as basically an ambulatory bag of water in which a rainbow of electrochemical processes accomplish profoundly complex and subtle tasks.

Except in a rather shallow way, I can't see clouds using all three modes at the same time. Unless I make an effort, my cloud-vision defaults to the first mode. I've never talked to anyone about this so I don't know if other people experience such modes, though I suspect they do. I'd like to hear from others about it.

The thing is that when I knew only the first way of viewing clouds, it never even occurred to me that other cloud-viewing mindsets might exist. Moreover, when I'm using the second or third mode, I regret spending so much of my life viewing the sky strictly in the first. But, here's the thing: Might not there be a fourth and maybe even more ways of viewing clouds?

I suspect that there are. I wish I had the power to enter and master that next level of cloud- appreciation. If I had to guess, I'd say that the next level is spiritually based.

How I wish I could see the clouds in the fourth mode.


Long-time subscribers to this Newsletter will remember that at my former location I conducted epic battles with packrats obsessed with the idea of stealing my few outside-kitchen utensils and anything else they could carry. Saturday morning I happened to see one here climbing into a tomato vine. With my binoculars focused right on him I saw him snip off a green tomato and run away with it. The books call this critter the Eastern Woodrat, NEOTOMA FLORIDANA, but "woodrat" is just the Easterner's name for "packrat."

Woodrats are easily distinguished from regular house rats, or Norway Rats, because Woodrats have bushy tails while house-rat tails are hairless. Also woodrat faces have bigger eyes and ears and are more chunky, so they don't look as slinky and insidious as those of house rats. You can see a congenial-faced Eastern Woodrat climbing about like my tomato-stealer at

The tomato I saw being stolen was a small, green "yellow pear" tomato. Though there was a cluster of tomatoes with one ripe one, the rat chose an immature, green one. Still, now I suppose I know who eats large chunks from my almost-ripe Big Boys, even though those vines are staked and the tomatoes are high off the ground. Woodrats can travel inside bushes and trees nearly as well as squirrels.


Last year on July 4th I walked around the plantation listing the 41 bird species I spotted. That list can be reviewed in my July 6th, 2003 Newsletter at

In a way it's a shame just to make lists. I've known birders who got so engrossed in traveling from place to place to add new names to their Life Lists of birds that in the end birding became for them a competitive sport. Also, bird names too often miss the point about the birds thusly named. If I were a bird, my name might be "Long-legged Baldy" or "White-bearded Hermit," and surely these names would detract from what I am, or am trying to be.

So, last Sunday, July 4th, right after sending out my Newsletter, I tried something different. Instead of merely listing the birds encountered, when I came upon one I stood for a while soaking up the location and details of what the bird was doing, trying to grasp what that individual bird at that very moment and place was telling me its name was. Beginning a bit before dawn and going through to mid-morning, here's what I came up with, with the traditional name on the left, the "self-given name" on the right, and listed in the order in which I noted them:


None of the above spottings pleased me more than the Blue Grosbeak as it gobbled up blackberries. It was simply a visual feast to behold that violently blue bird so alert and hungry among the blackberries' warm-green leaves and glossy black fruits.

I think most folks around here overlook Blue Grosbeaks, assuming that any vividly blue bird is either an Indigo Bunting or a Bluebird. Blue Grosbeaks are considerably larger than those species, but of course that's often hard to judge at a distance. The main fieldmark distinguishing Blue Grosbeaks from Indigo Buntings is that Blue Grosbeaks have brown wingbars and Indigo Buntings don't. Bluebirds are even easier to distinguish, since they have rusty chests and white underparts, while both the Indigo Bunting and Blue Grosbeak are entirely blue -- except for the grosbeak's brown wingbars. You can compare the birds here:




You can hear the Blue Grosbeak's rich warble, so common around here through our summer days, at

I'm just talking about the males here. The females and juveniles of all three species are mostly brown and gray. The female Blue Grosbeak almost looks like a female Brown-headed Cowbird. Of course brown and gray plumages of females and juveniles serve camouflage purposes. Usually the Blue Grosbeak's nest is placed near the ground in a clump of weeds, vine tangle or tree, so the female needs all the camouflage she can get.

When I was a kid in Kentucky I seldom saw Blue Grosbeaks. In recent years this is one species that seems to be expanding its range northward. Its preferred habitats are brushy roadside thickets, wet overgrown pastures and open woodlands, all of which are common around here. During summers the species is found throughout the southern half of the US, coast to coast, but then they spend their winters from Mexico to Panama, as well as in the Bahamas and Cuba.


About once a day I get stung by fire ants. People, especially gardeners, living outside the Deep South just don't know how lucky they are not having them.

I've experimented a good deal with treating my bites but I'm not sure I'm any wiser now than at the beginning. Early on I got the notion from someplace that when a fire ant stings you it injects acid beneath your skin, and this acid simply kills tissue so that an itching pustule results. Consequently it occurred to me to keep a box of baking soda handy, the idea being that if immediately upon being stung, if I very vigorously and roughly rubbed soda into the bites, the acid would be neutralized and the bites wouldn't hurt or develop pustules.

Moreover, this treatment seemed to work!

I had planned to announce my wonderful discovery in this Newsletter, but after doing some background study, suddenly I'm not so sure about my treatment. The problem is that fire ant venom turns out to be something other than an acid. One smart-looking website assures us that fire-ant venom is mostly "aqueous protein fractions," while another just as authoritatively asserts that it is "non-protein and contains dialkylpiperidine hemolytic factors (not acid)."

I wonder if anyone out there has a fire-ant-bite treatment that works? If you get bitten and don't know anything else to do, how about rubbing some baking soda onto the bites to see what happens? When I do it I scratch it in with my fingernails, making sure as much of the venom as possible is squeezed out, and as much baking soda as possible gets rubbed into the stings. Though baking soda appears to work with me, maybe what's really happening is that after so many years of frequent biting I've just developed an immunity, and the baking soda is doing nothing. I certainly don't react to chigger and mosquito bites the way I did as a kid. Now those "bites" hardly affect me at all.

By the way, fire-ant venom is injected with a stinger on the ant's rear end. Fire Ants do bite with their jaws, but the bites introduce no venom. It looks to me as if they're just getting a good hold so they can really dig that stinger at the other end deep into your poor skin.

Finally, in a recent issue of National Geographic the woodpecker known as Northern Flicker was profiled, and it was emphasized that flickers mostly eat ants. Well, I've always wondered why we have so few flickers around here because in Kentucky flickers were among the most common woodpecker species. Could it be because fire ants have driven out most of the native ants and flickers don't eat fire ants? Are flickers common anyplace where fire ants are thick? If anyone has an insight, please let me know.


Speaking of ants, while working in the garden I noticed a line of much-smaller-than-usual ants leading into a large squash blossom. I assumed that they were harvesting nectar or pollen, but you never know about these things so I went onto the Internet. I didn't find out much because I couldn't identify the ants without killing one and I didn't want to do that.

However, I did find a wonderful ant-identification website for when I do run into a dead ant. It's a site in Texas so it'll have our Southern ants, and also it's at a university, not a pest-management site, so it covers the region's ant world pretty well. This ant-identification "key" can be accessed at

So, let's say you have an ant. You go to the above page and you are asked to choose between two options. The choices are technical in nature, but very fine photographs with anatomical parts labeled are embedded in the key to help you decide, plus there's a glossary. The first options deal with whether there are one or two segments "between the alitrunk and the gaster." The photographs make this choice easy even if you don't know what the alitrunk and gaster are.

Once you identify an ant -- or any organism for that matter -- you can then use a search engine to look up that name, and you can bet that there'll be a world of information out there about it. Once you identify a few ants and learn their life histories, I guarantee that you'll be amazed that such complex and plain weird creatures share your everyday space with you.

One challenge with ant identification is that they are so tiny that you'll probably need magnification -- at least a good handlens.


What wonderful websites are appearing on the Internet! I suspect that right now we are lucky enough to be living during a brief moment in history when there's a lot of wonderful stuff out there, but the process of limiting access to that information to the rich and powerful has only just begun. We should savor and artfully use the information-gathering power while we have it.

One glorious website now free for all is The Great Smoky Mountains ATBI Species Index at

You go to that page and click on "ANIMALS" or "PLANTS" or "HABITATS." If you click on "ANIMALS" a new page appears where you might click on "VERTEBRATES." If you do that, on the new page you might click on "BIRDS." On the BIRDS page you can click on "CARDINALIDAE INDEX," which happens to be the family of birds such as cardinals, buntings and grosbeaks. And of course then on that page you can click on our "BLUE GROSBEAK," whereupon you are presented with a fine page filled with maps, photographs and all kinds of interesting information, with technical terms and concepts linked to excellent descriptions.

The site is only partly finished but already what's there is fascinating to browse through.


A couple of weeks ago a new person showed up in the neighborhood. What this means for me is that now each morning when I'm jogging and approach my turn-around point at a certain bridge there's a Doberman Pinscher there to bark at me. The dog simply goes wild, dances about yelping, but so far he's never bitten me. (Fang- marks from last year's dogbite still ornament my right calf.) Our daily encounter has become ritualized.

You can see it from the dog's point of view. In his mind he's fulfilling his watchdog task, and he gets to exercise his gut-felt aggression against territorial interlopers. Still, it's all pretty dumb. One wishes he would realize that, since I always turn around, such frenzied barking is wasted energy and that he actually looks a bit silly, even cowardly.

Here's the point I sometimes think about as I jog, though: Most humans, most of the time, at all levels of society, indulge in similar role playing and similar behaviors that in the short term are fun and self-serving but in the long term are destructive for themselves and others.

For example, a handful of international religious fanatics attacks the US, and our leadership, afraid of looking helpless, responds by attacking a country having nothing to do with the attack. The consequent war kills a lot of innocent people and stirs up the whole world against us, thus weakening our democracy and creating more danger for us in the future. However, right now the leaders get to look busy and tough. Bark, bark, bark!

Less easy to admit, but cumulatively more destructive in the long run, is that we all individually behave like this dog in our everyday lives, myself included. It's human nature to prefer to deal with superficial appearances and gut reactions instead of thinking things out and developing new living strategies. That latter approach is difficult, and most people oppose any kind of change. Consequently, most of us devote enormous parts of our lives to jobs in which we earn money to buy things that, for the most part, we don't need, and often don't really care about, and the production of which is environmentally, if not socially and spiritually, destructive.

And here I sit comfortably at the computer developing educational websites when surely it would be more to the point to befriend some local young people in need of adult influence. A local teacher in the public school here told me a while back that he had teenage students in Natchez who'd never seen the Mississippi River. That information haunts me, yet here I sit...

Each of us has a bit of the dog mindlessly, ridiculously and cowardly barking and dancing about at the end of the road. Maybe life is mainly about each of us gaining enough character to stop behaving like that, and redirect our behaviors onto more caring, sustainable paths.