from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
September 12, 2004
LI PO WEATHER
It's been a beautiful week here -- mostly in the 80s and much less humidity than usual. Some nights I even had to use a blanket. If earlier the air was so humid and hot that it felt like breathing soup, now what's nice is to move in and out of contrasty black shadows and bright sunlight, the sunlight friendly upon the skin, and feeling a dawning sense of autumn nostalgia.
As a young man discovering nature back in Kentucky, "autumn nostalgia" was nearly an annually recurring debilitating disease with me. Part of it was being young as nature put on her colors, part was that back then when I fell "in love" for some reason it was usually in the fall, and part was the simple beauty of this particular season.
At that time I was also discovering classical Chinese literature, so I have vivid memories of walking along our gravel road through the bottomlands reading translations of ancient Chinese works. Maybe because of this association, the finest Chinese poems always feel autumny to me, even if they're about spring. Wisdom, elegance, solitude = autumn & Chinese poetry.
Maybe the most famous Chinese poet was Li Po, also known as Li Bai, who lived from AD 701 to 762. In one of his finest poems, "The River-Merchant's Wife," he wrote, according to Ezra Pound:
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind. The paired butterflies are already yellow with August Over the grass in the West garden; They hurt me. I grow older.
You can read the whole poem at http://homepages.wmich.edu/~cooneys/poems/li-po-pound.html
If you want an autumn nostalgia overload, one moonlit night pour yourself a little glass of wine (or grapejuice) and take a look at several of Li Po's poems at www.lingshidao.net/hanshi/libai.htm
NATURE'S PATTERNS & CAMBERED LEAVES
Apparently I'm not the only one whom this fallish weather nudges into a philosophical mood. This week Roger someplace in Cyberspace wrote "Isn't it fascinating to see how forms and patterns in nature repeat themselves over and over. This morning I was intrigued to see the NASA daily images with galaxies and hurricanes that are so similar."
In a similar vein, thanks to a book about Nature's engineering feats, "Cats' Paws and Catapults," Hillary on the Gulf Coast sent, I've been walking around noticing such things as "cambered" leaves.
Cambering is "an upward convexity of a deck or other surface." So, if you're on a ship's deck and it looks like it's bulged upward, that's cambering. I just walked around looking at leaves of Persimmon, Black Gum, Southern Magnolia and Sassafras, and they were all at least slightly cambered.
If you take hold of the base of a flat sheet of typing paper, it'll probably fall over. However, if you curve the sheet a little, suddenly it acquires so much rigidity that it won't collapse. In other words, cambering gives thin, flat surfaces structural strength. From an engineering perspective, cambering functionally thickens a flat surface, and you know that a thick sheet of paper is stiffer than a thin one of the same composition.
Leaf veins, besides conducting water and nutrients, also provide important structural support. It's interesting to notice that often the less distinct a leaf's veins are, the more cambered the leaf may be, and vice versa. The leaf doesn't care where it gets its stiffness, just so it has it.
Besides flitting through Li Po's poems, butterflies also continue visiting the three kinds of morning glories tangling themselves in my garden fences. Right now the butterfly called Cloudless Sulphur, PHOEBIS SENNAE, provides about 2/3rds of the butterfly activity. You can see this pretty species, its large wings so brightly yellow that you can understand how butterflies got their buttery name, at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/bflyusa/usa/758.htm
At the above address we read that "Males patrol with rapid flight, searching for receptive females." That must be what's happening when I see them darting over the barn's roof and swooping low into the garden like Kamikaze swallows. Mostly they peaceably flit among the morning glory flowers, but sometimes one emerges from the weeds and on very strong wings flies straight up the side of a big Loblolly Pine all the way to the top.
There's a great mystery surrounding this species. During the summer many of its numbers migrate northward far beyond their native grounds, which extend from southern California across the southern US through the Gulf States. "This butterfly's appearance in the Rockies or New York is a real event," a website says. Summer migrants can make it as far north as the Midwest and even into Canada.
It's no mystery that a butterfly should migrate, for each year Monarchs migrate even greater distances, to their wintering homes in the highlands of central Mexico. Here is the mystery: All these Cloudless Sulphur emigrants to the north will die without returning south...
How can such a behavior have evolved? Of what benefit is it to the species to have large numbers of its kind fly northward into oblivion?
Certainly these northern wanderers perform ecosystem service pollinating flowers and feeding birds who eat them, but it's hard to see how that helps the Cloudless Sulphur species survive in its southern homeland. One is almost tempted to think this may be an example of Gaia, the living Earth-Ecosystem-Unity, encouraging what is good for all, at the expense of a single species.
I don't really assume that that's the case, but how lovely it would be if it were true. Whether true or not, that's the way it appears to be working out.
SULPHURS, FRITILLARIES & CHECKERED SKIPPERS
Though the three kinds of morning glories along my garden fences reached their flowering peak a week or so ago, they are still spectacular, constituting a beautiful, frilly palette of green, purple, pink and scarlet delightfully animated by a zipping community of hummingbirds, several kinds of bees and wasp, and, most spectacularly, lots of butterflies.
As I said, foremost among the butterflies -- the brightest and maybe providing 2/3rds of the gross numbers -- are Cloudless Sulphurs. About 1/3 of the rest are Gulf Fritillaries, AGRAULIS VANILLAE (http://wisconsinbutterflies.org/species/158), a similarly large species, its wings orangish inside like a Monarch's, but brownish outside with many handsome, black-margined, white streaks.
Rarely Eastern Black Swallowtails, PAPILIO POLYXENES (http://wisconsinbutterflies.org/species/101), flit along the fence's crest. At the fence's base you might see a Common Checkered Skipper, PYRGUS COMMUNIS (http://wisconsinbutterflies.org/species/220), but if you watch that skipper closely you'll see that instead of visiting the morning glories it's searching out members of the Mallow Family. In my garden they find what they want in the overlooked, small-flowered little weed called Prickly Mallow, SIDA SPINOSA ( http://www.delawarewildflowers.org/1863.html ). Also among the weeds might be the clover-loving Orange Sulphur, COLIAS EURYTHEME, looking a lot like a smaller, oranger edition of the Cloudless Sulphur (www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/bflyusa/usa/728.htm)
Two or three other butterfly species have briefly visited the Morning Glory fence but, in the end, in terms of butterflies, that fence is the domain of Cloudless Sulphurs and Gulf Fritillaries, and not much else.
This is worth thinking about. My Audubon Field Guide to North American Butterflies says that about 700 butterfly species occur in North America north of Mexico. With so many species out there, how can it be that only two provide almost all the butterfly action among my morning glories?
There are two main answers. First, most of the 700 species are distributed in areas other than southwestern Mississippi. For example, many are restricted to west of the Rockies, or New England, or southern Florida. Second, the vast majority of the 700 species are found in habitats other than fences overgrown with morning glories. The Orseis Crescentspot occurs in "wooded mountain canyons undisturbed by civilization," so even if it occurred throughout the Southeast it wouldn't appear among my morning glories.
All the butterflies mentioned above, except for the canyon-loving Orseis Crescentspot, were also common at my earlier location. In fact, if you live in southwestern Mississippi and grow a few flowers, you're probably seeing them now, too. There are two points to be made with this observation:
First, our garden habitats constitute very distinct ecological niches.
Second, These distinct ecological niches not only ATTRACT a very few butterfly species, relative to the number of species out there, but also the niches EXCLUDE the vast majority of other butterfly species.
When we see bright butterflies in our gardens we may get the impression that our gardens are diverse habitats "open to all." However, the fact is that they represent just a single narrow niche among very many that Nature can offer when given a chance.
It's important to understand that because right now, from coast to coast, humanity is busy replacing untold numbers of local ecological niches -- and the organisms evolved to live nowhere else than in those ecological niches -- with this single human-garden niche. Every weed we pull represents the removal of yet another niche. In fact, we are WalMarting the landscape, and life in general, in many more ways than we can grasp.
Speaking of narrow ecological niches, the other day I opened a bag of mixed nuts still in their shells -- English walnuts, Brazil nuts, filberts and the like -- and they were all being converted to powder by little brown beetles ¼-inch long, and their maggoty larvae. Now there's an ecological niche -- a bag of nuts! The beetles were a kind of grain beetle of the family Cucujidae, most likely the genus ORYZAEPHILUS. You can see a much-magnified but rather dark picture of one at http://insects.tamu.edu/images/insects/common/images/b-txt/bimg157.html
Notice these two important identification features of grain beetles: First, the antennae enlarge toward their tips, and; second, the middle body segment, the thorax, bears ragged edges that look like saw-teeth when the beetle is viewed from above.
Of course grain beetles were around long before people were leaving bags of nuts and grains lying around. One natural habitat for these beetles must be where rodents such as squirrels cache nuts and grain. Grain beetles reproduce fairly fast -- four to six generations a year -- so that helps the species survive in what must be a very unstable environment. If a squirrel eats a stored nut, there goes the beetle's niche!
One interesting feature about this insect is that it is unable to enter healthy nuts and grains. It enters only those already damaged, with cracks in their seed coats, or holes made by other insects. Since they were inside each of my stored nuts, it looks like my nuts had had a hard life.
The Giant Ragweeds next to the barn continue to be an unending source of fascination. Among the varied citizens of this little metropolis is what is surely the most colorful (red, blue and green) leafhopper of all, the Red-banded Leafhopper, GRAPHOCEPHALA COCCINEA. You can see a great picture of one at http://troyb.com/photo/gallery/00005960.htm
The Leafhopper Family, the Cicadellidae, is a huge one, and just on my ragweeds I find three or four species. All of them tend to sit quietly, endlessly sucking juice through their strawlike proboscises. If you put your nose too close to them, however, in a blink of the eye they'll move sideways to the stem's other side. Put your finger behind the stem and they'll move back to your side. Most leafhoppers are drab and fairly well camouflaged, but this red-banded species seems to go out of its way to be gaudy.
A SWEETGUM-BALL MYSTERY
Our Sweetgum balls -- the spiny fruits you can see at www.salisbury.edu/arboretum/Liquida/LiSt/LiStFR.html - are now formed and about to begin dropping seeds.
If you view the pictures at the above link you'll see that a Sweetgum ball is actually a spiky cluster of many capsular fruits stuck together. Each pointy thing is a capsule-type fruit containing two flat, papery seeds. The picture at the bottom of the page shows the capsules open, after the seeds have been dropped.
The other day I picked a green fruit with all capsules still closed, put it on my desk, and the next day was surprised to see that not only had the capsules opened up but also lying all around the fruit were numerous pale-yellow "wax bodies" about the size of grains of sand or large cabbage-aphids, and two or three Sweetgum seeds. Either a mouse had shaken around the fruit, or the wax bodies and seeds had been ejected from the capsules by some interior force.
I'm sure all this is explained someplace but I can't find it on the Internet. Maybe this mystery would make a good science project for your favorite student.
My hypothesis is that those wax bodies somehow behave like little air-bags. Maybe the capsules mature to a point, develop a crack that lets in moist air, and the wax bodies expand rapidly to open the capsules further, or maybe even to eject the seeds. Someone just needs to pick a few mature but not-yet-open Sweetgum balls and watch them until they begin opening...
Then let me know what they figure out.
I AM LEAVING THIS LOCATION
Despite the continuing, unflagging and much, much appreciated, friendly generosity of the landowner who invited me to come to this location, and despite the fact that my time here has been among the most pleasant and productive of my life, I have decided to move on. There are several reasons, but one reason is that over the last year I have gone from feeling that I was pioneering a permaculture community, to being a barn-sitter mainly responsible for cutting weeds away from the barn.
Keeping weeds down around a barn is a miniscule price to pay for the right to live someplace. I have cut lots of weeds in my life and I understand the need to occasionally do so. What I cannot abide is the prospect of living day by day with my local, physical-body identity being that of a weed-chopping barn-sitter. If I am going to move this body around, I want it to be doing something I believe in.
I don't know where my next base will be and I invite suggestions from anyone who might be able to visualize a congenial niche for someone like myself. Already I have some exciting invitations that will enable me to continue living simply and close to nature, while continuing my environmental-education efforts on the Internet, and physically working a little each day toward what I regard as worthy goals. I see no particular need to remain in Mississippi, the South, or even the US.
Tomorrow, Monday the 13th, I am beginning a trip during which I will start looking for a new home. I'll not tell you where I'm going so that when you read the next Newsletter -- whenever it arrives -- you can have the fun of exploring with me the dawning possibilities of a brave new life.
Please note that the days of this Newsletter being issued promptly each Sunday morning most likely are over. Probably for some time I'll be unable to post newsletters at their archiving location on the Internet. Also, I am not sure when I'll be able to answer emails.
And probably my next Newsletter will bear the less alliterative but somewhat easier-to-pronounce name "Jim Conrad's Naturalist Newsletter."
If you want to try to contact me, remember to use the address you can access at www.backyardnature.net/j/writejim.htm