from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
August 22, 2004
A PLEASURE OF INSECT SOUNDS
The constant background sound of calling insects has been growing week by week. This was the week, however, when the stridulating, ticking, clicking and general tintinnabulating mounted in such a crescendo that no longer was it mere background, but rather something substantial in itself. At first reckoning you could say that the landscape shimmered with these diffuse, insistent sounds, but the fact is that sometimes the din was the landscape itself, with everything else mere staging.
There's one particular cricket each night on a Persimmon limb right next to where my head lies on the sleeping platform. Concentrating closely on each chirp I think I hear ebbs and flows of cricket feelings. This, despite knowing that you can cut off a grasshopper's head and the grasshopper will still hop and wander around, so it's doubtful that insects have much feelings at all. Maybe crickets channel the night-spirit itself, chirps being pulsations in the veins of a brooding Earth-consciousness, of Gaia. Well, these are thoughts you have nodding off as a cricket calls next to you.
I became most vividly aware of this new level of insect calling one day this week when I went to the mailbox. The mailbox lies across the road, beside the property I've told you about where the owner has spent most of the summer having men "clean up" his newly purchased farm -- bulldozing hedgerow habitat and bush-hogging and lawn-mowing everything else, except what he converted to broad, brown, strips of naked soil with powerful herbicides.
At the mailbox I experienced that sensation you get when you walk out of a woods and realize you've grown accustomed to the continual rustle of tree leaves, and now you miss them. Or when you emerge from the ocean and regret leaving behind the sound of the surf. Beyond the mailbox, habitats of crickets, grasshoppers, katydids and everything else has been so single-mindedly obliterated that there the music simply ends.
In that German children's book I told you about a while back, where the hero Atréju flies over the land on his lucky-dragon, the enemy was a vast grayness inexorably spreading everywhere robbing all color and life from the landscape. Though the damage done by the enemy was all too clear, the enemy's exact nature and purposes never were quite understood.
I think I grasp at least a part of what real-life's grayness-spreading enemy is: It is that region of the human character that prefers short-cut lawn-grass to life-giving habitat. It is that part of the human character content to ally itself with bulldozers and herbicides, and not the gentle magic of cricket chimes.
THE WASPS OF SEPTEMBER
Several times over the years I've mentioned that around here we have an amber-colored, black-winged wasp that is so aggressive that it will sting a person sitting perfectly still.
A while back a real doctorfied wasp expert contacted me offering to help figure out that wasp's identity. After working on the matter for months we're still not sure, but we're guessing that it's the common Red Wasp, POLISTES CAROLINA, which you can see tugging at a caterpillar at www.bugguide.net/node/view/1712
The problem is that Red Wasps aren't supposed to be as aggressive as ours. Maybe in our area we are home to an unrecognized subspecies? This is just one of several local nature-mysteries I haven't resolved during my years in this region.
The mystery has, however, caused me to focus more on wasps in general. At www.backyardnature.net/wasps.htm I've set up a new page designed to give visitors an overview of the world of wasps. There you'll see that the behavior of the various kinds of wasp strongly relates to their family relationships. It's pleasing to consider wasps in this way because then you can visualize a point of time during the course of evolution when wasps divided into two great groups, the descendents of one branch henceforward making nests of paper, while the other branch made nests of mud, or placed them in tunnels in the ground or other natural cavities.
The prey a wasp seeks also largely reflects its ancestry. Members of the Potter-wasp Subfamily usually prey on caterpillars, for example, while members of the Organ-pipe Mud-dauber Subfamily prey on spiders.
The Polistes genus to which my mystery wasp belongs has a complex and interesting life cycle, which the wasp expert describes on my new page. Part of that history is that right now, especially in our fields of goldenrods and other weeds, we can find Red-Wasp queens mating. Moreover, as my expert writes, it's "the only time of year that you'll find males, and they look a lot like the females, only that their antennae are more curved and their faces tend to have lighter colors." Once mated, the queens will seek hibernation sites and then next spring build their paper nest... and you can read the rest of the interesting story on my wasp page.
SPOTTING SATYRS MENTALLY
One of my earliest and most cherished memories is from around 1950 when I was a small kid on the Kentucky farm. We hadn't yet worked out our drainage problems so whenever my mother washed clothes the discarded sudsy water pooled in a certain spot in the yard. The magic occurred when dozens if not hundreds of small, pale-violet butterflies gathered at those pools, probably harvesting the detergent's phosphorus.
After we lost the farm and I got my first butterfly field guide one of my first identification efforts was to figure out who that little violet butterfly had been. What I learned was that there's a whole rainbow of little violet butterfly species -- dozens in North America alone -- spread throughout several butterfly families. A good guess is that I was seeing the Eastern Tailed Blue, EVERES COMYNTAS, probably our most common little violet butterfly, but who knows? That species is at www.duke.edu/~cwcook/pix/etb.html
Lately I've been seeing a little violet butterfly in the grass late each afternoon as I listen to All Things Considered. So the other day when one individual seemed particularly content basking in the setting sun, I got my butterfly field guide, binoculars, and began slogging through the book's many species of little violet butterflies.
It was the Carolina Satyr, HERMEUPTYCHIA SOSYBIUS. According to my field guide this species is a specialist of "deciduous woodlands with standing water, pinelands, and shady meadows," and found from New Jersey to Florida and along the Gulf to Texas, north up the Mississippi Valley to western Kentucky. You can see some very nice pictures of it at www.duke.edu/~cwcook/pix/carolinasatyr.html
This species' caterpillars eat grasses. In fact, once I began paying more attention, it was very striking that other butterfly species flitted over my garden and among my flowers, but just the Carolina Satyrs remained in the grassy area between the gardens.
I'd been seeing this for weeks but somehow the satyrs' grass-living nature hadn't penetrated my consciousness. Now that I was seeing it AND what I was seeing made sense, it was like being granted a whole new perspective. Intellectually it was the difference between the image of a grape being flashed before me, and eating that grape.
This was just the latest of many such seeing-things- mentally experiences I've had in my life. Again and again I find myself being blind to what stands exactly before me, in full view, until someone or something unlocks my brain so I can really see the thing. In fact, this experience is so common with me that I believe firmly that really seeing something is a two-step process:
First, a sensory organ such as the eyes or ears must detect the thing in the physical world. Second, the mind must somehow be opened to receive and process that information to the point that what's seen acquires significance. I do genuinely believe that most of that reality standing right before all of us is never really seen.
THREE TOM TURKEYS AT WANDER TIME
Late Wednesday afternoon I'd gone into my trailer to check something in a book when I looked out my back window and saw three tom turkeys sauntering down the grassy road to the entrance, not ten feet away. Surely the turkeys' minds registered the strangeness of the barn with its open door, and my trailer with Beethoven playing on the radio, and the danger of being in an open area so close to the highway, but there they were.
I hadn't realized what large, otherworldly birds Wild Turkeys really are. Surely when they stood erect their heads were three feet high! Being hot, they walked with their beaks open and held their dark feathers so close to their bodies that the feathers looked like scales. In fact, the first thought I had seeing them was that it was true what a paleontologist recently said -- that the dinosaurs never went extinct. It was just that the scales of some dinosaur species elaborated into feathers, and those dinosaurs evolved into birds.
From the breasts of two of the birds arose slender, black, horsetail-like "beards" so long that they nearly touched the ground when the birds walked bent low, searching for grass seeds. The third had the beginning of a beard, about two inches long, which weirdly stuck straight out from its chest like a stiff, black finger. I read that "On the approach of the first winter the young males show a rudiment of the beard or fascicle of hairs on the breast, consisting of a mere tubercle, and attempt to strut and gobble; the second year the hairy tuft is about three inches long; in the third the turkey attains its full stature, although it certainly increases in size and beauty for several years longer."
This suggests that I was seeing three male toms, two in their third year and another in its second. However, it isn't clear from what part of the country the author wrote the above, and maybe our birds grow beards on a different schedule. Another source says that females rarely grow beards, so maybe the short- bearded one was a female?
Lots of information about Wild Turkey behavior is at http://birdsbybent.com/ch61-70/wturkey.html
Neighbors brought me more pears than I could eat before they spoiled, so one day this week I sliced up the excess and put them in an aluminum tray on my solar cooker. After three days I had some brown, leathery, curly things that tasted pretty good. They were sweeter than when fresh. Certainly it would be worthwhile to do this on a large scale, to go into the cold months with several large bags of dehydrated pears -- or apples, or peaches, or whatever... My solar cooker can handle only a small supply. I wish I had a number of discarded screen doors that could be mounted on cinderblocks, and bushels of fruit to dehydrate.
My drying pears did draw insects. On the first day fruit flies came, but by the second the fruits were too dry for them, and the fruit flies disappeared without leaving detectable damage. Throughout the process several kinds of bees gathered among the fruits but I couldn't see that they caused any problems.
You might enjoy looking at a chart listing drying times for various fruits, using various approaches, at www.logicsouth.com/~lcoble/jg/dehydra/dryfruit.html.
A discussion of dehydration techniques, including segments on "pre-drying treatments" such as sulfuring, the dehydration process itself, and "post-dehydration treatments" is available at www.techno-preneur.net/timeis/technology/SciTechAug03/fruits_veg.htm
SKIN WALKERS AND MULE DEER
This week I finished posting notes from my four-month 1988 naturalizing trip through the US Desert Southwest. In the notes, wherever I mention seeing a particular plant or animal, you can click on the name and see a picture of the thing seen, and often read more about it. These notes give a good idea of what most of my adult life has been like -- traveling, camping and writing.
They're at www.backyardnature.net/desert/index.htm
Some of the places visited during the trip include Big Bend National Park in Texas, California's Imperial Sand Dunes, the Salton Sea and Death Valley, Lake Mead and an anti-nuclear protest in Nevada, and Zion National Park in Utah.
One of the most poignant moments of the trip came one cold morning when I was camped in an ocean of Sagebrush in southern Utah's Great Basin Desert and I awoke and saw a herd of Mule Deer passing by, and followed it. That's Essay #47 at the above address.
If you like spooky stories, check out Essay #51, where I'm on the Navaho Indian Reservation and am told about the Navahos' Skin Walkers.
One of my favorite times of the day is late afternoon as soft, golden sunlight slants in low from the west illuminating my gardens. Illuminating my "weeds" might be a more honest way of saying it, for I don't deny that unless I have a definite reason for removing a weed, it gets to stay. Partly that's from my belief that diversity strengthens any complex system, even a garden (the Pokeweed draws a chat into the garden, who then also eats hornworms on my tomatoes), and another part is that I just like weeds, like looking at them, thinking about them.
One afternoon I was grinning at all the commotion in one of my weed patches -- all the bees going after their last nectar and pollen of the day, all the wasps looking for one more spider for provisioning their broods, all the hummingbirds getting one last sup at the Cypress Vines -- when a certain question occurred to me: If I had had children, would I have raised them like weeds? Would I have allowed my children the liberties to go where their inclinations led them, the way I permit my weeds to behave?
Probably my child-rearing philosophies would have changed over the years. Most of you know that I was a very fat kid, weighing 340 pounds the day I decided to take control of my life. I look back now at the self discipline and severe living regimens I imposed upon myself in those days and just shake my head, half amazed at the intensity of it all, and half ashamed at my unforgiving single-mindedness. I fear any child conceived during those years would have suffered from my strict formulas and rules.
I once had neighbors who raised their five kids like weeds. Basically the girls got pregnant in highschool and the boys ended up drug-heads and in jail. Weediness, Mother Nature teaches, is an effective strategy in chaotic, pioneer situations, but it's little appreciated in highly regulated, conformity-minded urban life.
Still, sometimes at dusk when the sunlight falls especially nicely in some particularly rank corner of one of my weed-jungles, it's almost as if the moment were wondering aloud what a weedy kid of mine might have been like.