from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
August 15, 2004
This was the week when Elderberries reached their peak of perfection. In early July ten-foot-high bushes beside the plantation's gate issued dinner-plate-size, flat-topped inflorescences of tiny white flower. Most of the time since then the fruits have been hard, green, BB-size things, but now they are so dark purple they might as well be black, glossy in the sunlight, juicy, and the size of small peas.
A single Elderberry fruit isn't much to look at, but fruit clusters can be the size of basketballs. Branches bearing such impressive burdens bow earthward like so many smiling Confuciuses in flat-topped, dark purple hats. When the sun is heaviest and the air is hottest and most humid, you stand there looking at the great gobs of fruits and you know that, both literally and in an esthetic sense, there just couldn't be a more perfect crystallization of wild, unrestrained Augustness.
Elderberry fruits look like good eating but their taste is too rank to deal with. At least, right off the bush you don't want to nibble more than a few. It's another matter if you take the time to dry them. My solar cooker does a good job of that, but an old screen door set atop some cinderblocks in the sunlight should accomplish the same thing. During the drying process first they become like small, gummy raisins but if you let them dry long enough -- a full day on my cooker -- they become like smallish peppercorns, hard and crunchy. The drying process undoes most of the green elder taste, but the results are still pretty strong for most people's palates. If you ever get into a head where you like raunchy-smelling cheese, you'll probably love dried elderberries with their minor-key flavor tinted with Schadenfreude purple.
They're not bad just to nibble on, and I've read that you can make pies from them, treating them like raisins when making raisin pie. I haven't tried that sugary dish because of my hypoglycemia. I have indeed made deep-purple flapjacks with just flour, cornmeal and a couple cups of dried elderberries, and it was good. The tiny seeds were crunchy as in fig newtons, and the taste was something any person who likes hard sunlight and open spaces might like. I also have a recipe for "Elderberry Chutney," in case anyone is interested. Of course you can make wine from just about any fruit, and Elderberry wine used to enjoy favor in certain parts of the country.
To collect the fruits I hold a large aluminum pan of the type turkeys are baked in beneath a big cluster and not-too-roughly wiggle my fingers among the fruits, knocking the ripe ones into the pan. Once you get a mess you need to remove the few stems still attached to the fruits, and remove the green chinch bugs, who have a special fondness for elderberries.
You get purple fingers from this exercise but somehow that's part of the fun. You can see a medium-size cluster of Elderberry fruits at www.missouriplants.com/Whiteopp/Sambucus_canadensis_fruits.jpg
CATERPILLARS IN LEAF CURLS
The nine-foot-tall Giant Ragweeds bending into the barn's open doorway continue to supply endless little dramas. I told you about the Green Lynx spider. There have also been praying mantises, some very ornate leaf hoppers, all kinds of prowling and stalking by the Green Anoles, and much more. By now the ragweeds' big leaves are growing a bit tattered.
Maybe half of the larger leaves have two-inch-long sections of their margins curled under or over, and held in place by silk threads. If you look inside the resulting tunnels often you find green caterpillars sheltering within them.
I have scanned a ragweed leaf with a turned-under margin, and I even managed to show one end of the green caterpillar inside its tunnel. This newest masterpiece can be viewed online at www.backyardnature.net/caterpil.htm#curl
A DISCRIMINATING BLACK SWALLOWTAIL
The other day a pretty Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly, PAPILIO POLYXENES, flitted into one of my gardens and began zipping from plant to plant, briefly hovering immediately above each plant, never staying longer than a second in any one spot. When the butterfly got to my parsnips, suddenly she dropped down and in half a second touched her rear end to a parsnip leaflet -- never stopping beating her wings -- and then was off to other plants. She was clearly laying eggs.
The noteworthy thing was that she never laid her eggs on anything other than my parsnips, which had growing among them several weeds and some sprawling sweet- potato vines. She was moving too fast and low to identify leaves by vision so it was clear that she was choosing parsnip leaves by odor or some other means besides vision.
My books say that Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars are found on two plant groups: Members of the Carrot Family, and members of the Citrus family. My parsnips are proud members of the Carrot Family.
Seeing the Carrot Family and Citrus Family linked in this way, I remembered an ecology class from long ago in which it was pointed out that these two fairly unrelated families both contain three "essential oils" attractive to Black Swallowtail larvae. The oils are methyl chavicol, anethole and anisic aldehyde, and all have very similar molecular structure.
Just think of the mamma swallowtail flitting in the sunlight, so vulnerable to these invisible molecules of a certain magical shape that the merest whiff of them instantly causes her abdomen to convulse downward and her wings to momentarily hover, as an egg squirts out exactly on the spot where the molecules gather.
After the mamma had left I went and looked at my parsnip leaflets. Pinhead-size, oval, translucently yellowish-cream-colored eggs were evident all down my row of parsnips, but there wasn't a single egg on any non-parsnip leaf. You can see an Eastern Black Swallowtail, its caterpillar and an egg at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/bflyusa/ms/895.htm
A CONEHEADED GRASSHOPPER
Out by the water pump I've let nice pokeweeds, Brazilian Vervains, panic grass and other things burgeon into yet another little wonderland. This week while filling my water jugs and admiring the thicket I spotted a handsomely green cone-headed grasshopper, genus NEOCONOCEPHALUS, the likes of which you can see at http://buzz.ifas.ufl.edu/k340pck.htm
If you view that picture you'll see how this insect gets its name, for it really does have a pointy head. Also note its very long, slender antennae and grasshoppery legs. Nowadays the birds are quiet but insect sounds take their place, the whole landscape shimmering with their buzzings, lisps and ticks. You can hear the cone-headed grasshopper's contribution to the symphony -- it's a high-pitched, buzzy one -- by clicking here.
Some sites refer to my water-pump neighbor as a coneheaded katydid, not a coneheaded grasshopper. In fact the boundaries between grasshoppers, katydids and even crickets are not well defined, and maybe they're nonexistent. I call the coneheads grasshoppers only because my old Peterson field guide calls them that.
My water-pump friend was an immature female. I know she was immature because her wings were only half- formed, looking like little fingernails budding from her sides, not yet capable of fluttering. I know she was female because a swordlike "ovipositor" projected from the tip of her rear end. When her time comes to lay eggs she'll insert her ovipositor into whatever thing she wants her eggs to hatch in, well away from predators and surrounded by exactly the environment her offspring require.
PERFECT PRIVET LEAVES
Last week I mentioned the spot next to the barn that 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." The young towhee took dew-baths there. If you are near such a spot where the forest's native plants meet the mostly alien, weedy plants of a field or roadside, you might find it interesting to go there and notice that not all leaves are bug-eaten and fungusy. Often the leaves of introduced plants, mainly weeds, appear to have come through summer unscathed.
In my spot, nearly all the leaves of the Chinese Privet and most of the Japanese Honeysuckle leaves are still in perfect condition. These two plants are aliens, both introduced from Asia. Much in contrast, nearly all the blackberry and grapevine leaves show the results of relentless attacks from insects and fungi. Of course blackberries and grapevines are native plants.
So, this is a good time of the year to see with your own eyes the advantages introduced species often have over native ones. Our native plants evolved engaged in constant warfare with native insects and diseases, with one side never getting the complete upper hand over the other. But when alien species such as Chinese Privet and Japanese honeysuckle arrived in America, they left their hereditary enemies behind. Potential enemies here -- those bugs and fungi wanting to attack them -- found themselves exquisitely armed for continuing their attacks on the native flora, but many things about these invaders simply stymied them.
Eventually our bugs and fungi will evolve new weapons for attacking the invaders. In fact, I do find a few honeysuckle leaves turning yellow now with clear cases of fungal infection, but not many. For the most part, honeysuckles still enjoy the status of the Mongols who once conquered much of Europe. The Mongols were no smarter or stronger than the Europeans. It was just that it took a while for the Europeans to figure out how to deal with hoards of men using the unexpected war strategy of riding horses while wielding swords and spears.
The Mongols' time came, and in the same way eventually our Chinese Privet and Japanese Honeysuckles will become as bug-eaten as our blackberries and grapevine leaves already are.
My cannas are flowering and the blossoms remind me that hardly any flower has a more unusual structure than they. Our garden cannas are the products of so many hybridizations and other kinds of plant- breeding tricks that canna flowers at first glance just don't make sense.
The most interesting feature of canna flowers is that the three petals, which in most flowers constitute the eye-catching part, are small, inconspicuous affairs. In canna flowers, the large, gaudy items playing the role petals usually play are actually stamens -- the male sexual parts. Yet only one of these petal-like modified stamens shows any sexual urge at all, and it bears only half an anther. The style (a female part) also looks more like a petal than a style.
Well, this is hard to visualize, but you might guess that I've scanned all the parts and now have a canna- flower page at www.backyardnature.net/fl_canna.htm
BACKYARD CALCIUM CARBIDE PLANT
Last week's "Burning Limestone" piece caused Cavett up in Jackson to recall that his "grandfather had a calcium carbide 'plant' in the backyard of the farmhouse up in Noxubee County before electricity came. It was described to me as a container... dripping water into the calcium carbide below, with the carbide gas being piped off into the house for lighting... much like the miner's lantern I suppose."
The mention of carbide stirred my own childhood memories because our family farm was in coal country, and carbide was easily available in stores for underground miners using carbide lanterns. I often bought carbide in order to make "rockets." I'd form a water-holding crater in pond-bank mud, drop a few grains of carbide into the mud, stick an open-mouth tin can upside-down into the mud crater with its bubbling carbide, and after a second or two put a lighted match to the hole in the can's bottom, which was pointed at the sky. Inside the can the gas formed by water acting upon carbide would explode with such violence that the can would shoot skyward and send mud everyplace. It was a dangerous thing to do. More than once I got hurt with my rockets, but I made them anyway. Obviously, there's a lot of energy stored in the gas produced by water combining with carbide.
Cavett noted that his home area in Noxubee County is "underlain with several hundred feet of chalk," so he wondered if that chalk could be used to make carbide with which to light people's homes.
Probably you could indeed burn that chalk to get lime, CaO, and you do indeed use lime to make carbide, CaC2. To get carbide, you combine lime and carbon (C), and of course carbon is all over the place, as in wood ashes. Here's the formula for making carbide:
CaO + 3C --> CaC2 + CO
Lime + carbon --> carbide + carbon monoxide (gas)
The problem is that you must combine those simple ingredients in a very hot electric arc furnace. You need temperatures of 3632 to 3812°F (2000 to 2100°C). If you can accomplish that, you probably don't need to light your house by burning gas produced by carbide. Still, this house-lighting trick might be worth remembering, and carbide might be a useful thing to store in an emergency shelter.
FINE-TUNING THE MIDDLE PATH
Regularly I refer to the Middle Path, that Golden Mean of Living I aspire to between the extremes practiced by our consumption-oriented society, and pure back-to-natureism. For example, I do without air conditioning, concerned about the environmental destruction caused by mining the coal burned in power-generating stations, yet I use a computer and the Internet.
Newsletter subscriber Arjus in Holland writes pointing out that in real life it can be hard to figure out where the Middle Path is.
For example, right now the US electorate appears split right down the middle, half of us on the right of "average," and half of us on the left. Over the years our leadership more or less alternates between conservatives and liberals, so, are US policies and the lifestyles of our citizens in the long run averaging out to be following the Middle Path?
To answer that question you must choose a criterion for defining the Middle Path. For me the Middle Path is the direction taken that carries life farthest into the future. In other words, it is based on sustainability.
Thinking of the Middle Path like that, and seeing with my own eyes the effects of mining, clearcutting, prodigious use of pesticides, and all the other unsustainable practices required to maintain our level of consumption of goods -- I judge us to be a nation of extremists, departing in almost every way from the Middle Path.
Of course, well informed and well intentioned people can disagree on this matter.
If you would like to see some raw data about what the state of the world is in terms of the environment, population numbers, human health, and much more, with a special focus on how the US compares to the rest of the world, you can download eight pages of concentrated information in PDF format at www.prb.org/pdf/overview.pdf
The above document was current as of 1997. The 245- page book "State of the World 2004" with a special emphasis on "The Consumer Society," can be purchased for about $17 from the Worldwatch Institute at www.worldwatch.org/pubs/sow/2004/
This week I heard from Mournlight someplace in Cyberspace who told me how she was finding her own Middle Path. "I have a job I love most of the time... [It] provides me with the income necessary to pay for a piece of property which I dearly love, and which provides me great comfort." And she goes on to describe her stream, blackberry picking, and the Chuck-will's-widows calling at night. Most of the time she doesn't use air conditioning, and her house furniture is mostly stuff that's been thrown away by other people.
Hillary on the Gulf Coast uses fans and a water-filled livestock watering-tank for sitting in instead of air conditioning. In my book, every bead of sweat on that man's forehead has more value in a spiritual sense than a hundred SUV-driving fundamentalists' prayers.
I also heard from Mac up in Missouri who lives in an "earth contact house" that during cold months is heated by burning about a cord of wood a year. He also has a "sunroom greenhouse."
Mac used a nice phrase referring to the readers of this Newsletter: "Community of spirit." I like that. I think that much of the spirit uniting us is based on the fact that we tend to be folks trying in our own ways to identify and follow the Middle Path -- to do the best with what we have, while keeping in mind the impacts of our behaviors on all others, and Life on Earth itself.
Hearing from Mournlight, Hillary and Mac this week just tickled me a lot.
By the way, if you're curious about what an "earth contact house" is, there's information about them at www.undergroundhomes.com/home.html