from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
July 18, 2004
Walking in the fields and woods now feels completely different from just two or three weeks ago. Earlier there was a sense of outward-rushing blossoming wherever I looked, but now the feeling is more introspective, more mellow. Of course the catalyst is that now instead of the days getting longer, they're getting shorter.
The same kind of mood-shifting happens in music. The term "modulation" refers to the changing of musical keys, especially without breaking the melody. One moment the music sounds bright and simple, the next suddenly it's dark and foreboding, yet the tempo may remain the same, and the music may be neither louder nor softer -- just that the key has changed. The Key of C usually sounds cheerful and uncomplicated but the Key of E-flat Minor typically sounds dark, serious and pensive. Andrew Lloyd Webber really jerks our emotions around with his in-your-face modulations in "The Phantom of the Opera."
Maybe we humans are so vulnerable to musical modulations because we evolved to intensely feel the modulations in the seasons around us. Our ancestors' nervous systems must have developed exquisite sensitivities to variations in sunrises and sunsets, to how the earth's odor changed depending on its content of moisture and organic matter, etc.
If the Earth and all of Creation is the Creator's music, and the Universe's discrete things are analogous to tones in human music, then why shouldn't the profoundly significant modulations of the Earth's seasons delight and fulfill us in ways mere music never can?
I hope that you are feeling the current seasonal modulation, too.
This week afternoon temperatures rose as high as 97° F (36.1°C) and the humidity was so high that every few minutes I had to wipe the insides of my glasses to get the steam off. For some reason the usual afternoon storms didn't materialize to cool things off. In the afternoons the forests and fields were uncannily quiet. When the sun dropped a bit, usually the first bird to get back to work was a Mockingbird who came hopping in the grass next to my trailer.
Each afternoon that bird does something interesting. He makes three or four hops and then opens his wings about as far as they go, then closes them. He does this every five seconds or so, so there's a great deal of wing-flashing, really something to see.
Certain herons flash their wings to scare fish into revealing their positions. A while back I watched a Black Heron in Madagascar spread its wings forward and over its head so that the wings became a parasol cutting out the sky's reflection thus making it easier to see into the water. Therefore, my first thought was that this Mockingbird had learned to flash its wings to scare insects from their hiding places.
However, then I noticed that when the bird flashed its wings, it wasn't always paying attention to the grass. Sometimes it was looking around. Then I understood that the wing-flashing was probably just to cool off the bird.
Right after first noticing the Mockingbird a Ruby- throated Hummingbird landed atop the deer-fence around my garden and he began sticking out his tongue farther and for a longer time than usual. Well, such a slender, wet tongue with such a large surface area compared to its volume must dissipate a lot of heat when exposed to the air. I don't know that he was "cooling his tongue," but it sure looked that way.
Birds don't sweat, so panting with their beaks open is important to them. My wing-flashing Mockingbird keeps his beak wide open during all the hot afternoons. The topic of bird-cooling has been much studied because of the economics involved in growing huge numbers of chickens for the fast-food industry. Among chickens they've found that above 70% relative humidity it becomes hard for a chicken to cool off by panting. In our area 70% relative humidity sounds pretty dry, so our heat must be really hard on them. There's plenty of information about chickens' problems with heat at www.poultryindustrycouncil.ca/Factsheets/Factsheets/fact60.htm
In humans, about 75% of our cooling results from simple radiation of heat from our body, the same as might occur from a balloon filled with hot water. We get red when we're hot because the body brings our blood closer to the skin's surface, to cool. Of the 25% of the human body's remaining heat, only about 15% is lost through sweating and evaporation, and the last 10% escapes from our lungs as we breathe. If nothing else, these numbers show that taking off clothing to facilitate losing 3/4 of our heat through radiation makes a lot of sense.
Dogs, too, radiate about 75% of their heat but they hardly sweat at all because dogs have very few sweat glands. Of course they rid themselves of the remaining 25% by panting. Cats have more sweat glands than dogs, plus they lick themselves to get more cooling from evaporation. Rodents generally possess huge salivary glands so they get efficient cooling from licking themselves. Mice and rats also lose a surprising amount of heat through their tails. In general, warm- blooded animals who have evolved to deal with hot temperatures have long ears and necks, long limbs and long tails.
For us humans, however, nothing takes the place of using common sense. Don't move around so much, stay in the shade, sit where there's a good breeze, hose off the ground around you and let it evaporate, just don't dwell on the heat (think cool) and, above all, take off clothing. As I've managed to get through the last couple of winters with no artificial heating, so I've passed the summers without fans. However, I have indulged in a great deal of inexpensive, non- polluting, eminently old-fashioned, nicely sustainable nakedness.
In this heat and with our loess-based soil so compact and heavy, I have to water the garden every day, else my soil turns to brick and things die. I use plenty of mulch around many of my plants, and when I run water onto that mulch I'm always surprised to see the number of black, glistening, stubby-bodied field crickets fleeing the downpour.
Getting the cricket world organized in your head is not as easy as you might think. The boundary between grasshoppers and crickets is not at all clear. If you say that a cricket is whatever belongs to the Cricket Family, the Gryllidae, then you're ignoring cave crickets, Jerusalem crickets and some grasshoppers who look like crickets. The Cricket Family itself is divided into several subfamilies, including those incorporating numerous species of mole crickets, bush crickets, tree crickets, ground crickets, and field and house crickets. There's a page with illustrations helping us distinguish the main cricket groups at http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/2000/2066.html
I treasure the companionship of my field crickets, but the writer at the above site seems to have little good to say about them, pointing out that they "feed on nylon, wood, plastic fabrics, thin rubber goods and leather," and that "the 'chirping' of adult males can be irritating."
When I see how consistently the very things that please me most turn out to be regarded by others as bothersome or even needing to be destroyed, it worries me.
One of the prettiest corners of my gardens nowadays is the sweet-potato ridge, now carpeted with dark-green, glossy, heart-shaped leaves arising from slender stems sprawling several feet from the ridge, the stems often rooting at leaf nodes. In mid afternoon when the sun weighs so heavily on the landscape, if you stand near the vines you can almost hear the leaves singing their photosynthesis song as sunlight-energy magically compounds water and the air's carbon dioxide into the carbohydrates that will stored in soul-pleasing, good-tasting tubers.
One of my books says that up north sweet-potato vines seldom blossom. My vines are producing a lot of flowers. They are 1.5 inches wide (3.8 cm), pale pink and with deep-purple centers. They look just like morning-glory flowers, and there's a good reason for that: Sweet-potatoes ARE morning-glories. In other words, sweet-potato plants belong to the same genus as morning-glories, the genus IPOMOEA. A common garden morning-glory grown for its pretty flowers is IPOMOEA LEARI. Sweet-potatoes are IPOMOEA BATATAS.
I encourage two or three other species of Ipomoea to twine along my deer-fence, as well as a couple of "bindweed" or "dwarf morning-glory" species of the same family but of the genus CONVOLVULUS. Also my Moonflowers of the same family and the genus CALONYCTION are blossoming, and my scarlet-flowered Cypress-vines, or "Hummingbird flowers" are morning- glories of the genus QUAMOCLIT. Their many flowers are driving the hummingbirds to distraction. What a wonderful family this Morning-glory Family is, the Convolvulaceae.
SWEET-POTATOES & PINE VOLES
Despite my sweet-potato vines' luxuriant appearance, I am losing hope of later in the year enjoying a good harvest. This is a shame because nothing is more gratifying that digging up huge, well-formed, sweet- smelling sweet-potatoes. One of my most vivid gardening memories is of such a harvest when I was a kid in Kentucky. I dug them in October beneath a brilliant sky when the air was cool and nippy, right before the first big freeze. Sunshine on the dug tubers lying on the ground caused the air to be suffused with a fragrance so sweet and gummy you'd think that someone had cooked it up with inordinate amounts of butter and brown sugar.
Anyway, I doubt I'll have such a harvest here because lately I've been seeing Pine Voles, PITYMYS PINETORUM. These rodents look like large mice or small rats, with short tails. Their bodies minus the tail grow to about 4 inches long (10 cm), and the tail adds about another inch (2.5 cm).
During my first summer in Mississippi, in 1997, I invested an enormous amount of work converting part of an abandoned field into sweet-potato ridges, all surrounded by high deer-fences. The vines grew like crazy and sometimes during the summer I'd scratch away a little dirt around the base of the vines' main stem and see huge, well formed tubers that made my heart swell.
But the day I went to dig my sweet-potatoes I found that every single one had been eaten or hollowed out. Not even one tuber survived. It took me a couple of years to figure out that the culprit was the Pine Vole.
At my previous location during some years Pine Voles were so abundant you couldn't walk through the garden without scaring one up. Other years you saw only one or two the whole season. On bad vole years they would eat all my carrots, parsnips, most of my turnips, and if you set out a fruit tree, almost immediately it would be girdled right where the trunk entered the ground. Pine Voles can wipe out an orchard, and make a carrot disappear right before your eyes as it is dragged into the vole tunnel below it. Last year I didn't see a single Pine Vole here, so it looks like I arrived here at the bottom of a population cycle, but now they're coming back.
Moles are blamed for many violences committed by Pine Voles. Moles are carnivores, mostly eating earthworms, grubs and the like. However, Pine Voles sometimes use mole tunnels to get to the roots and tubers they like. You can see a museum specimen of a Pine Vole at www.ipm.msu.edu/CAT01_fruit/F09-25-01Voles.htm
CORN FLOWER STRUCTURE
Thanks to help from my neighbor Karen and her nifty digital camera, this week I was able to add a page to my nature site explaining how corn flowers work. If it's not clear to you that corn tassels are actually inflorescences of male flowers, and that "silks" are the styles of female corn flowers, with each silk running inside the shucks to a single corn grain, the female ovary, you might want to take a look at my new page at www.backyardnature.net/fl_corn.htm
MEXICAN BIRDS FINISHED
I've now posted all my notes and sketches from the 4- month birding trip I took in 1996 from one end of Mexico to the other. These can be accessed at www.backyardnature.net/mexbirds/
Bringing the material together has been such a pleasure that now I'm working on posting a small book I wrote some years ago about my experiences among the Tzotzil-speaking Indians of highland Chiapas, in extreme southern Mexico. I suspect that most of you will enjoy that even more than the bird notes. More on that later.
HOMOSEXUALITY IN NATURE
The other day one of my favorite local folks dropped by to share some of his delicious blueberries, and to chat for a bit. This time his remark that got me going was that I knew how progressive he was on matters BUT, when it came to gay marriages, he just couldn't take it, and surely nature doesn't put up with things such as that.
My first impulse was to not even react, for to do so would have been to walk into the trap set by the Bush Administration, the goal of which is to stir up fear and hatred among a certain sector of the electorate, to distract them from the fact that they are being asked to vote against their own economic interests.
However, I couldn't ignore my friend's assertion that nature doesn't put up with such things as homosexuality.
For, nothing is more experimental and broad-minded than Mother Nature. When you look at the Creation you clearly see that the Creator's plan is to create diversity at all levels of reality, and to evolve that diversity to ever higher levels of sophistication -- whether it's forming galaxies from hydrogen gas, or evolving life on Earth. Moreover, just about any strategy furthering those blossomings is acceptable.
Among plants, sometimes flowers possess both male and female sex organs, sometimes they are unisexual and on different plants, sometimes unisexual and on the same plants, sometimes flowers are designed so they can't self-pollinate, other times they have to pollinate themselves, and some plants skip the sex scene altogether by reproducing vegetatively.
Among animals we find everything from the male seahorse who carries the eggs, hatches them and takes care of the young, to the "polyandrous" Spotted Sandpiper whose females may lay up to four nests in a season, each equipped with a different male incubating the eggs. Of course the common earthworm is both male and female, and some snails sometimes mate with themselves, producing offspring.
The higher up the evolutionary scale you go, the kinkier it all gets. Among communities of mice and other mammals, when population density reaches a certain high level where diseases and famine threaten, not only does homosexual behavior appear but also parents begin killing their own offspring. It's always the case that the Creator chooses the welfare of the community over that of the individual. If you'd like to review online notes of a series of university lectures dealing with parent-offspring conflict, including infanticide and the effects of high population densities on higher mammals, go to http://www-personal.umich.edu/~phyl/weektwelve.html
If you have access to a science library or can use a search engine artfully, references to technical, academic papers detailing homosexual behaviors in a wide variety of primates, from langurs to orangutans to pit-tailed macaques can be accessed at www.androphile.org/preview/Library/Articles/Werner/Werner20.24.htm
Among human populations, homosexuality occurs at a certain rate in all populations. Thus homosexuality is natural and inevitable. Data suggests that homosexuality may be at least partly genetically determined. A semi-technical paper at the University of Texas with the title "Biological Correlates of being Gay - Biological Determinism?" is available at www.utexas.edu/courses/bio301d/Topics/Gay/Text.html
In short, it's simply wrong to say that homosexual behavior is never natural.
Why would the Creator create this state of affairs among humans? I don't know, but my own experience with human gays is that, on the average, they are more sensitive, insightful and caring than the rest of us, so maybe that's enough of an answer right there.
With regard to the morality of it all, I would say that at this time when so many young people desperately need love and care, and so many gay couples want to provide stable family structures for providing that love and care, the Bush doctrine of institutionalizing laws to prevent gay couples from enjoying the kind of legal and social support non-gay families already have, is immoral.
Moreover, since the Creator has made it so that among higher mammals homosexual behavior increases in populations under stress, and humanity right now, because of overpopulation and inequitable distribution of resources, is under enormous stress, the phenomenon of gays suddenly stepping forth to demand their right to establish stable family units while not themselves contributing to even greater overpopulation, can be seen to be not only natural but also, literally, a godsend.