from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
August 8, 2004
Early Tuesday morning before the dew had begun burning off I noticed a commotion at the forest's edge. That particular spot was very densely vegetated with Chinese Privet up through which grew blackberry canes and honeysuckle, and the whole thicket was topped with a canopy of grapevine.
My binoculars revealed a young Eastern Towhee still wearing his brown, streak-breasted juvenile plumage, and he was taking a dew bath. Systematically he'd pull himself up to the thicket's grapevine roof and then body-surf one or two feet down a downward-arching cascade of wet leaves or else he'd position himself atop the vegetation's surface and simply flutter his wings, twist his body, throw his head back, and let himself sink through the dew-slick herbage. After about ten minutes his feathers were dark with wetness and then he flew to a perch to preen exactly as if he'd taken a puddle-bath.
The young towhee's body language clearly indicated that he regarded his bath as a pleasure, not a task. It was the bird's first August and he was just learning how an August fog can coalesce into a blissfully cool, wet dew. What a revelation it would be if I could just see the world for a moment through the eyes and mind of that young bird rejoicing so prettily in his wet leaves.
I've seen a lot of dew bathing among birds and I'm surprised that it's seldom mentioned in the literature. In the November 11th, 2001 Newsletter (www.backyardnature.net/n/01/011111.htm) I wrote about a Brown Thrasher, a Cardinal and several Yellow- rumped Warblers dew-bathing among Sweetgum leaves in the Broomsedge Field. In the online notes from my 1996 birding trip in Mexico, I describe Clay-colored Sparrows appearing to teach Yellow-rumped Warblers how to dew-bathe on dew-wet Mesquite leaves (www.backyardnature.net/mexbirds/02mesqit.htm). Sometimes when I've been in the desert and low on water, I've dew-bathed myself, and it's surprising how effective and refreshing it can be.
Another powerful cold front barreled through here Thursday afternoon bringing a second shot of coolish air in two weeks. The storm announcing the front was impressive, a really dark one with a well-defined boundary between the rainfall below and the roiling clouds above.
Right during the windiest, darkest moments preceding the white curtain of rain's arrival here, a white- looking hawk came into view. The binoculars showed it to be a Red-tailed Hawk and really I can't say whether he was any paler than normal, or whether he just looked white because of the very dark background.
Whatever the case, that hawk presented a majestic, ghostly appearance. The wind must have been terrible where he was, for he was being blown before the storm like a sheet of newspaper high in the sky experiencing violent downdrafts, updrafts, and vortices. Not quite like a newspaper, though, because he had some control and -- this is the thing -- as with the young towhee, his body language told me that he was having a lot of fun.
On the ground other birds were frantically seeking shelter, flying hard and low, the sense of emergency clearly indicated in their demeanors. But that white specter in the fearful-looking sky for the few seconds he remained in view was like a teenager catching his first good wave with a surfboard. He had enough control to descend if he wanted, but this is the season when hawks get the wandering urge, so maybe he just didn't want to. Maybe this storm just struck some kind of chord in him that said "Instead of scrambling for shelter like a mouse, just latch onto this mightiness, go with it, and exult in being a free-sky hawk!"
It'd been one of those super-sultry afternoons when you have to fight to keep focused and busy, so that storm with its sudden gushes of coolness and powerful animations all around me, and that ghost-hawk performing one broad laugh all the way across the sky, was just what I needed.
Friday morning I saw that overnight a spider had constructed a very elegant little web among my beanpoles. I went looking for the spider but found that it was neither in its web nor on the surrounding poles. I was wondering what had happened to it when a hummingbird suddenly appeared on the other side of the web just inches from my face, and very deliberately examined the web's center. I think the bird had just breakfasted on the spider I'd been looking for, and he'd returned to see if there might be another.
Hummingbirds do occasionally eat small critters like spiders and gnats, especially females during nesting season. If you think about it you can understand why. Sugar-water in peoples' feeders contains only the elements hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. Flower nectar has other components, but it's also mainly hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. Yet every nucleus of every cell of every living thing on Earth must contain some phosphorus, because DNA, the molecules in which our genetic code is incorporated, has a sugar-phosphate "backbone." The amino acids attached to that "backbone" can't exist without atoms of nitrogen. There's a lengthy list of other elements just as absolutely necessary for the most basic life processes. No living thing can survive for long on a diet consisting of nothing but hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, no matter how many calories that diet provides.
The little hummer who came looking into the spiderweb was a juvenile, so his cells were dividing like crazy, his glands producing complex hormones, and I'll bet his body was just screaming for nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium and a host of other essential elements. And I'll bet he was disappointed to find that only one mineral-rich spider had been responsible for that nice web.
The other day a friend told me that some of her maturing ears of sweetcorn had developed golfball- size, white, tumorlike growths. She'd been horrified by what was apparently a disease and she'd cut down and composted the whole shebang.
I was horrified because she hadn't save her "tumors" for me, for they make some very fine eating, plus I wanted to feature them on a web page, and I needed some pictures.
The white growths, which under good conditions can get softball-size and larger, are indeed infections, but they are infections I have been trying to encourage in my own garden by frequently hosing down my corn plants. The infection is caused by the Corn Smut Fungus, USTILAGO ZEAE, a form of smut. The "tumors" are like puffballs in that when they mature they are filled with fungal spores. The white smut bodies are the fungus's reproductive structures.
I learned to eat corn smut among Indians of the southern Mexican highlands. Down there some farmers have learned to inoculate their immature corn ears with corn-smut spores, to assure a good infection, so they can sell their corn smut to local markets, receiving much more money than from an uninfected ear of corn. You can buy corn smut in traditional markets, and in the eating stalls in and around the markets you can order corn-smut tamales, corn-smut quesadillas, corn-smut soup... The Indians know corn smut as cuitlacoche or huitlacoche, depending on the dialect or language spoken.
You can read all about corn smut, see a picture of an infected ear of corn, and find a recipe for Quesadillas de Huitlacoche, in English, at www.agry.purdue.edu/ext/corn/cgg5/recipes.htm
There's another even tastier recipe at that site for Huitlacoche con Crema, but it's in Spanish. Its ingredients are Poblano peppers (bell peppers would do), onion, thick cream, fresh cheese, butter, cooking oil and salt. Basically you slice, crumble and sauté the hard stuff, add it to the wet stuff, cook it all for 10 minutes, and then you have something wonderful.
KUDZU & BLUE MISTFLOWERS
Throughout the US Southeast, Kudzu is flowering and where it's most rank the blossoms' grape-juice odor pools deliciously on the land. Kudzu flowers are good examples of "papilionaceous," or "butterfly-like," flowers typical of the Bean Family, so I have set up a new page interpreting Kudzu flowers at www.backyardnature.net/fl_kudzu.htm
Also Blue Mistflower, a purplish-blossomed member of the Daisy or Sunflower Family, and belonging to the large genus Eupatorium, is now appearing along roadsides, stream banks, fields and in woods from New Jersey to Kansas south to Texas and the Gulf Coast. Mistflowers, flowering in late summer and early fall, are harbingers of the wonderful fall flora soon to appear. I've also set up a page explaining Eupatorium/ Mistflower blossoms at www.backyardnature.net/fl_eupat.htm
HOMEMADE GLUTEN, OR "WHEAT-FLOUR MEAT"
Last week I told you about my online book focusing on Yerba Buena, a hospital-clinic in extreme southern Mexico's Indian territory. Some of you may be especially interested in Chapter 35, where I describe learning from Doña María how to make "wheat-flour meat," or gluten, using nothing but wheat flour and water.
Adventists believe in vegetarianism, so homemade gluten fits into their lives because it can be regarded as a "meat substitute" -- gluten is a protein. At Yerba Buena I have eaten gluten-based dishes so artfully seasoned and prepared that to me they tasted exactly like something made from animal flesh. The process of making gluten is laborious and time-consuming, but the results are astonishing, and I think making gluten would make a fine activity for kids learning about nutrition, cooking, etc.
You can access the Wheat-Flour Meat page at http://www.backyardnature.net/m/yb/35gluten.htm
While adding pictures to the Yerba Buena website I ran across the photograph now posted at www.mexicanmercados.com/yb/50g-lime.htm showing how limestone was burned to make lime, or quicklime. The resulting lime was used mostly for whitewashing buildings, but it also could have been used for making cement.
Anita, the young woman in the family who established Yerba Buena and who now lives in Oregon, tells me the following about that homemade lime:
"After the limestone was burned, water was added to make cal [Spanish for lime]. It is used mainly to whitewash the houses. As children we had a lot of fun making 'bombs' of limestone. We would put some burned stones in a Nido (powdered milk) can, pour in a quantity of water and slam on the lid and run! It always exploded! Or at least blow off the lid."
It's worth thinking about the fact that whitewash can be made so easily, and that lime, known technically as Calcium Oxide or Ca0, is such useful and powerful stuff. The Material Safety Data Sheet for calcium oxide for a cement company in Kansas carries this warning about it:
"Warning: Sufficient heat can be created during hydration to ignite paper, wood, rags or other combustible materials. CAUTION: Saturated water solutions of calcium oxide can have pH of 12- 12.49."
Here's what happens chemically when the simple limestone (CaCO3) poking from the ground of much of this country is heated to a high temperature:
CaCO3 <===> CaO + CO2
The CO2, being gaseous carbon dioxide, goes into the atmosphere, leaving behind white, powdery lime, CaO. When water is poured onto that CaO you get:
CaO + H2O ---> Ca(OH)2 + heat
If the heat is generated fast enough and in sufficient quantity, Anita's explosion results, or things catch fire. Of course the resulting explosions are pretty weak ones, so I'm not providing terrorists with any ideas here.
Now let's not only add water to the lime but also let it set long enough for carbon dioxide from the air to combine with it:
Ca(OH)2 + CO2 --> CaCO3 + H20
As water is shed, we end up with CaCO3 again, which is the limestone we started with. In short, we've made cement, and the cement dried out, producing something "hard as rock" because it IS limestone rock.
It's amazing how much simple and useful information like this most of us have forgotten. Also amazing that after so many chemistry classes in my life it was never made clear to me that these important reactions could be accomplished with just limestone, fire and water. It suggests that our accepted teaching techniques are so theoretical that the average student never makes a connection between "book knowledge" and "real life."
There's an interesting page about ancient Roman limestone-burning kilns in England at www.cumbria-industries.org.uk/limekilns.htm
This week my daily routines were somewhat disrupted. Over the phone I was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev in Los Angeles, for a show called "Public Radio Weekend," (http://publicradioweekend.publicradio.org/) which was aired Saturday afternoon. I have heard Barbara subbing for Terry Gross on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air."
Since the program is a new one, only a few affiliate stations have subscribed to it -- the closest one to here being a station in Orlando, Florida, so I didn't get to listen to the airing. They were interested in me because tomorrow, Monday, is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" and they wanted to talk to a real hermit-naturalist living today.
I don't believe the Public Radio people will do me the way Newsweek magazine did in 2002 when in their December 16th issue they published that picture of me in my beat-up trailer, without saying anything about my reasons for living as I do. Newsweek sought only to humor readers by indulging any negative stereotypes they may have had about backwoods Mississippians, and in the process they insulted both the state and me, and I feel bad about that.
Anyway, on the Wednesday night before the interview I didn't sleep well because possible interview scenarios kept playing in my head. The excitement of taping the program lingered for hours afterwards, and "I-should-have-said-this... " thoughts constantly nudged aside all others. My writing tasks scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday remained mostly undone.
This week's disruption reminds me that I am lucky to enjoy the peaceful, creative life I enjoy most of the time.
However, I'm really unclear on this: What percentage of people would prefer to have their current comforts, securities, and material goods, understanding that the headaches and heartaches they also have now are obligatory for enjoying such things? And how many people would opt for having my kind of tranquility, peace-of-mind, and creative opportunities, understanding that to do so it would be necessary to give up certain comforts, securities and material goods?
I just hope that no one is staying in the "comfort, security and wealth" world only because of a nebulous fear of change, or of "what the neighbors and family might think." I promise you that at least SOME of us are happier AND healthier AND of greater service to the broader community when we consciously and purposefully choose to live simple, low-impact, idealistic lives based on sustainable living patterns.