NATCHEZ NATURALIST
NEWSLETTER:
from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

September 5, 2004

MUSTARD-GREEN SPACESHIPS
A few days ago I sowed fall beds of mustard greens, kale and turnips, so now the beds are prettily green. When the seeds sprouted, first they produced two little leaves atop their stems opposite one another, and then the seedlings sat awhile before developing more growth. Technically those first two leaves are known as cotyledons. They have a special name because they're very different from the plants' other leaves, having been formed inside the seed before germination.

During that apparent resting stage between when the cotyledons appeared and when new growth developed, the young plants were actually working furiously, sending roots deep into the soil, and preparing for future shoot growth. During that quiet-looking stage I wasn't able to look at my pretty beds of greens, kale and turnips without visualizing spaceships orbiting the Earth.

For, both spaceships and seeds undergo voyages that are fundamentally alike. When they are launched or sowed, and activated either by signals from technicians on the ground or by moisture in the soil penetrating the seed's seedcoat, the first stirrings inside the module/seed are powered by stored energy -- energy stored in the spaceship's batteries, or among the seed's atomic bonds. Once the module reaches its orbit or the seed has sprouted, typically both have used up their stored energy. At that point both module and seedling do the same thing -- they tap into a new energy source by deploying solar collectors. The spaceship has its black solar panels and my mustard plants have their photosynthesizing green cotyledons.

To emphasize this similarity, atop my Photosynthesis Page at www.backyardnature.net/photosyn.htm I present a picture of the orbiting International Space Station, with most of its surface area consisting of solar panels. The Station looks both awkward and elegant, depending on where you put your head when you look at it. When I look at I tend to hear something close to "music of the spheres" -- which could be defined as the mentally perceived sound of real-world events harmonizing with the Universe's basic laws.

To me it's beautiful when humans and nature come to the same conclusion, even when the question is over such a simple matter as "Once something gets launched, then what?" The answer for spaceships, mustard greens, and humans with sustainable living on their minds is: "deploy solar collectors."

*****

LITTLE DRAGON WITH BIG PINCERS
Tuesday I picked up a board lying on the ground and found an amazing critter stuck to it. With long, slender, open pincers that looked like they could damage a caterpillar, it was nearly an inch long. It was structured very similarly to an antlion larva, or doodlebug -- the pit-diggers in dust and sand we've spoken of before -- but antlion larvae are much smaller and their pincers are less spectacular. Still, the similarity cued me to what my Tuesday discovery was. It was a closely related Owlfly larva. Last year neighbor Karen brought me an owlfly to identify, I scanned it, and now you can see both that adult owlfly and Tuesday's big-pincered owlfly larva midway down the page at www.backyardnature.net/neuropte.htm

Unlike antlion larvae, owlfly larvae don't dig pits. Instead they lie in wait for their prey. My larva was dead, possibly drowned by a recent rain, but still it was holding flat against its board, and its pincers were wide open, just as in the scanning. I read that owlfly larvae can be raised on crickets, so I can imagine a poor cricket wandering along the board's edge, right into the flat-lying owlfly larva's open pincers.

*****

LACEWING EGG ON A STALK
If you view the above owlfly page, notice the image at the page's bottom showing a tiny white egg atop a very slender white stalk. That whole structure is only about ¼-inch high (7mm) so in nature such stalked eggs are small and easy to overlook. This is a stalked lacewing egg. At this time of year often you find them attached to the margins of weed and grass leaves. The one on the page was found on the same board on which the owlfly larva was stuck.

Lacewing eggs are provided with stalks because the larvae hatching from them are such aggressive predators that if they could easily get to their siblings they might eat them! The favorite prey for lacewing larvae, which look a lot like owlfly and antlion larvae, is aphids. Therefore, lacewings and their stalked eggs should be welcome in any garden.

When you see the amazing pincers on owlfly larvae, understand why lacewing eggs are on stalks, and when you remember the tricky pits that antlions dig, you get the impression that this group of insects -- all members of the Order Neuroptera -- are very aggressive predators, and that's right. Still, probably they are no more aggressive about "making a living" than any other group of insects. It's just that their weaponry and hunting strategies are more impressive than usual.

*****

WHY NOT BECOME A SERIOUS IDENTIFIER?
We're entering that time of year when many animals reach their peak in numbers, and many plants produce an abundance of flowers and fruits. If you have been toying with the idea of getting more seriously involved in nature study, now is a perfect time for you to begin.

On my webpage "Three Steps to Discovering Nature," at www.backyardnature.net/listopen.htm I describe a three-step process enabling you to do exactly that.

The first step in that process is for you to identify the plants and animals in your own neighborhood. The identification process itself is a beautiful experience, almost a kind of meditation. You are obliged to look for and experience features of the unknown organism you never even dreamed existed. Worse ways there are to spend an hour or two than thrusting your mind into a blossom, to count stamens or look for nectar glands.

Once you know the name of something you can "look it up" in books and on the Internet. After you've looked something up and you've learned a lot about it, you can't avoid feeling that you're living in a more interesting and beautiful place than you'd thought. You'll be awed as you begin discovering that you are a part of a dynamic, gorgeously complex ecosystem. To prove this for yourself, why don't you Google, for example, the word "lacewing" and just see what kind of interesting information pops onto your screen.

If you have never made a serious effort at identifying organisms I suggest that as your first effort you acquire a field guide to the trees and set for yourself the goal of identifying all the trees in your backyard or neighborhood. One reason trees make a good subject for beginners is because there is such a small number of them. All commonly encountered North American trees can be included in a pocket-size book. In contrast, such a huge number of wildflowers, weeds, grasses, insects, and fungi exist that novice identifiers can be overwhelmed. Also, at this time of years many trees bear fruits, which helps during the identification process.

The numbers of reptiles and amphibians are also relatively small, but in most neighborhoods there will be so few species in these groups, if any, that one quickly runs out of subject matter. These groups become more engaging when you can travel to exotic habitats.

The numbers of bird species is even more congenial to the human mind than trees, but in fall so many birds wear confusing immature or fall plumages that many identification problems can arise. If it were spring, I'd advise starting with birds.

I provide an introduction to using field guides at www.backyardnature.net/fd_guide.htm

Another page describes the various kinds of field guides -- the Audubon Field Guides, the Peterson series, the Golden Nature Guides, etc. -- at www.backyardnature.net/fg-where.htm

*****

FREE SEEDS
This year I planted several kinds of tomatoes but it looks like my garden will not produce a single really nice tomato during the whole season -- except for my Yellow Pear tomatoes. The same happened at my earlier location south of Natchez. There, all tomato varieties succumbed to diseases, but year after year those Yellow Pears produced in abundance, and in the spring their seeds even germinated as volunteers, like weeds.

Lately I saw Yellow Pear tomato seeds being marketed as heirloom seeds, and fetching a fair price. Maybe they are indeed heirlooms, and maybe that explains why they are so resistant to diseases -- because genetically they are close enough to the wild stock to retain some of their natural resistances. If that's the case you might want to grow Yellow Pear tomatoes yourself, just to make sure diseases never wipe out your entire crop. I don't think Yellow Pear tomatoes taste exceptionally good, but they're better than no tomato, and they do look pretty sliced in salads.

If you'd like some seeds, send me a self-addressed and stamped envelope, and I'll send you some. You can use the following address, which is that of a neighbor:

SEEDS
73 Lost Creek Rd
Natchez, MS 39120
(offer expires October 6, 2004)

In fact, I have several things you might like. There's Cypress Vine, or Hummingbird Vine, with frilly leaves and many tubular, bright red blossoms that hummingbirds just love, and which can climb 15 and more feet. There's a similarly spectacular vine with smallish crimson flowers also favored by hummingbirds, the Red Morning Glory, plus there are those weedy, pink-flowered, Ivy-leafed Morning Glories I told you about last week. I have both yellow-flowered and purple-flowered Four-o'clocks, which produce a wonderful evening perfume attracting hummingbird moths (sphinx moths), and which around here grow head-high, at least in moist, rich soil during their second season. I have some large-flowered but rather rangy red hibiscuses, and I grow large plantings of Lemon Basil not because I use much Lemon Basil but because the plants flower prolifically all summer, attracting all kinds of bees and butterflies. The deer this year were hard on my Moonflowers, with their gigantic, very perfumy blossoms opening at dusk, but I have a few seeds of them I could share, too.

*****

THE LIFE-PARADIGM
This week I've been thinking about why so many people have a hard time being happy, or even functioning on a day-to-day basis. I have tried to come up with insights from my own life that might be of value to certain others. Here it is:

One's Life-Paradigm has a lot of influence on how happy a person is.

By "Life-Paradigm" (pronounced either PARA-dim or PARA-dime) I mean an abstract concept constituting a pattern against which one can construe his or her own life.

The Life-Paradigm I use derives from what I see in Nature. It seems to me that what's happening in Nature (everything in the Universe) constitutes an urgent, potent, speeding-up blossoming. In Nature, very much of what is dynamic and significant begins as something simple and highly constrained, evolves to be more diverse and complex, and as this happens parts of it become ever more interrelated and interdependent with everything else, while at the same time those parts acquire ever-greater personal "artfulness." This "artfulness" might be anything from ornamentation on a bug's back, to crystals in a rock, planets coalescing around stars, or a human maturing toward more enlightened insights and behavior.

Accepting "Nature as Bible," my theory is that if one harmonizes his or her life with this paradigm, then life acquires meaning and focus.

When you think about it, most normal lives already possess a great deal that is harmonious with this paradigm. Raising families, doing work you believe in, passing on information and traditions -- this is great, outward-surging blossoming, the kind of thing that will singingly and dancingly proliferate into eras and dimensions far beyond our own earthly experience. The value of the paradigm in such lives comes when you remember, for example, that in hugging a kid, not only are you doing something immediately gratifying to all, but also that what you are doing resonates with the flow of the Universe -- the Creator's "Word." There is profound significance and value in some of the most mundane, homey things we do every day.

Whenever I sink into a blue funk feeling bad about myself, in my mind's eye I summon my Life-Paradigm, visualize its gorgeous outward-surging and ever- diversifying workings, and then when I begin trying to harmonize my thoughts and behavior with that mental image, I... get happier.

It's irrational, but it works for me, like magic.