JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
temporarily issued from near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

October 31, 2004

GONE-WILD OKRA
Anyone familiar with growing okra can guess what my okra looked like when I returned from the California trip last week. Stems about seven feet high sprawled all over the place with the rangy branches ending in clusters of curved, brown fruit-pods up to eight inches long. Many of the pods were so mature that they were splitting lengthwise and they were so dry that when shaken you could hear the rattling inside.

I picked the most mature pods and it was an easy matter to remove the seeds. Holding them over a dishpan I gave each pod a twist, it came apart, and dozens of dark, BB-size seeds fell into the pan. Next morning when I had my campfire going I poured about a cup of seeds into my dry, un-oiled skillet, and parched them. My fire might have been a little too hot because before long they started popping just like popcorn. The idea is to parch, not to pop or char. The term "roast" is a general one embracing the idea of parching, which is basically scorching, or burning the surface of.

When most of the seeds were parched I poured them into a flat-bottomed pan and with the bottom of a bottle smashed them as best I could. Back when I lived on the Kentucky farm we had a sausage grinder, a simple affair that clamped onto a table's edge and was turned with a handle, and that did a good job grinding hard, parched seeds into something looking like coffee grounds.

In fact, the okra-seed grounds not only looked like coffee grounds, but they smelled a lot like them, and -- here's the point -- when steeped in piping-hot water, created a brew reminiscent of hot coffee! Add a little sweetener and maybe even some milk, and what you have can be pretty good. Most people would say it's not nearly as fine as a good cup of hot coffee, but if you think of it as it's own thing instead of a substitute for coffee, you might develop a taste for it.

Parched okra seeds have been used as a coffee substitute for a long time. On the Internet I found this recipe for okra-seed-coffee from back in Civil War days:

"Parch over a good fire and stir well until it is dark brown; then take off the fire and before the seed get cool put the white of one egg to two tea-cups full of okra, and mix well. Put the same quantity of seed in the coffee pot as you would coffee, boil well and settle as coffee. Recipe from: The Southern Banner [Athens, GA], February 11, 1863"

That and other coffee substitute recipes (sweet-potato coffee, sweet-potato-and-persimmon-seed coffee, beet coffee, boiling down molasses to use as an adulterant) can be found at www.thecookinginn.com/coffeesub.html

*****

MOON GLOW & GLOW WORM
Wednesday night our sky was clear, so that night's total lunar eclipse showed up very well here. I sat next to the trailer listening to a powerful chorus of insects calling as the moon gradually changed from cuttingly bright and silver, to something looking like a darkly bruised peach, then back to bright and silver, all during the course of a couple of hours.

Actually I don't get as excited about eclipses as many people seem to expect me to. Eclipses are all a matter of celestial physics, lifeless objects inevitably drifting in and out of shadows cast by one another, like clockwork. What inspires me most is the evolution of life and webs of life. An amber-colored moon is nothing compared to a simple bug, or a child learning to ride a bike.

In fact, I missed a good bit of the eclipse because I was distracted by a certain yellowish glow moving through the dewy grass at my feet. The glow was about as bright as a firefly's, but it didn't blink on and off, except when it moved behind a grassblade.

I figured it was a glow worm, but sometimes you're fooled. Sometimes it really is a firefly down in the grass and sometimes certain millipedes and centipedes as well as other critters produce bioluminescence. Once I saw millipede moving across a forest floor near here with each of its segments bearing two luminescent spots, so that it looked like a train with lighted windows passing in the night.

So, to be sure about what I was seeing, with a flashlight I got down on my hands and knees, and, sure enough, it was a glow worm. In other words, it was a member of the Glow Worm family of beetles, the Phengodidae. More precisely, it was a female glow worm, since males have wings and fly, but don't produce light. Females and larvae are wingless and do produce light. Females and larvae live under bark or beneath objects on the ground, where they prey on other insects. Glow worms are closely related to members of the Lightningbug Family and Soldier Beetle Family.

If you have just a passing familiarity with the insect world, your first impression of a female glow worm may be that not only is it not a worm, but also it's not an insect. The female glow worm looks a lot like a short, stubby centipede or millipede -- maybe a sowbug or a pillpug. That's because her body appears to possess many more segments than an insect is supposed to have. A female glow worm appearing to have its body consist of many segments is shown at http://home.clara.net/ammodytes/WILDLIFE2003Glowworm.jpg

However, it's easy to convince yourself that a female or larval glow worm is a standard insect and not some other kind of many-segmented arthropod. If you flip over your glow worm and count legs, you'll see that she has only six, exactly as an insect is supposed to have. Centipedes and millipedes have two or four legs per segment, respectively, with the total leg-count often adding up do dozens or hundreds, not just six. The glow worm shown at the above link clearly is a six-legger, with three legs on one side visible.

Wednesday night was a fine night, but I have to admit that, while the moon may have received all the press, I was just as happy to spend my time counting legs on my little glow worm.

*****

PURPLE POKEWEED FEELING
It's been a funny-feeling week, but it's hard to say how much of that feeling arose in Nature and how much came from myself. The weather may have had a lot to do with it. Usually by this late in the season it's chillier. The big weather fronts periodically dropping down from Canada this year just can't make it this far south.

To me the feeling of the season seems to be summed up by the Pokeweed, PHYTOLACCA AMERICANA, at my garden's edge. On the one hand, the plant itself, with its pulpy, falling-over, purple stems and worm-eaten, shriveling leaves, looks pretty forlorn. However, its droopy branches terminate in pretty, well-formed, grapelike clusters, or racemes, of shiny, juicy, pea- sized fruits so dark purple that they might as well be black. The plant is like an old, withered man holding a perfect child on his lap. I guess that that's the essence of autumn, a kind of purple feeling like that of the pokeweed's, for purple is basically a dark, somber hue of red, which is the gayest color. You can see a Pokeweed fruit cluster at www.cs-music.com/features/photos/pokeweed-IX.html

On that page the photographer writes "During the 19th century, Pokeberry juice was collected and used as both a dye and writing ink. Civil war soldiers are said to have written their letters home using a quill pen with the striking color of pokeberry ink. Walt Whitman, who towards the end of the war served as a nurse and helped wounded soldiers of both sides of the conflict compose their letters, must surely have been familiar with this plant and the ink made from it. Something to ponder on paths and trails as late summer gives way to the chill of fall."

The photographer also seems to have sensed the smiling melancholy in the purplish Pokeweed, or the Pokeweed's purplish season, or in what was purple about himself.

*****

PICTURE FROM THE PAST
Part of my current uprooting-from-Mississippi process involves having some old photos turn up. This week I ran into one taken in early February, 1988, showing Henry, my 1968 VW Beetle, parked in the desert at Big Bend National Park, Texas. It was during my "Spring Comes to the Desert Southwest" trip, notes from which can be read online at www.backyardnature.net/desert/

My notes describe the location in that picture as "...with no trees, no water and no garbage. Nothing but open, sun-baked, wind-swept barrenness. I turn off Henry's engine and hear wind whooshing around his corners. The sunlight is heavy and shadows are desperately black: dust, gravel, sunlight, wind... " The picture shows Henry with a blanket over his rear end, to keep dust from his engine compartment, and to prevent the terrible afternoon sunlight from stabbing through the back window, so I could have some shade. A can of gas atop Henry holds the blanket in place. Plastic Purex bottles of water stand next to the open door, and I remember what it was like when that water ran out.

In fact, seeing that picture reminds me of the whole texture of most of my adult life as a freelance writer -- too gritty to be respectable in the common sense of the word, always on the cheap, in a way always on the run, but always exploring what lay beneath the next rock, beyond the next hill, in the next biome, or in the next wind-and-sun-induced state of mind.

The picture is midway down the page at www.backyardnature.net/desert/07bigben.htm

*****

FUNNY SQUIRREL PICTURE
Speaking of pictures, right before I left on my California trip a Newsletter subscriber in Georgia, I think, sent me a fine picture showing an Eastern Gray Squirrel eating a Wood Duck egg. I was given permission to place the picture on the Web, and I've done so, but I've forgotten who sent the picture, and I want to give proper credit to the photographer. Would that person please drop me a line to remind me?

The picture makes you laugh because the egg shell is broken in such a way that the squirrel at first glance seems to possess long fangs. Since there's a rather wicked look in the squirrel's eye, he just looks meaner than you'd imagine any squirrel capable of being. You can see the picture at www.backyardnature.net/pix/sqrl-egg.jpg

*****

ROLLING UP MY GARDEN-FENCE PERFECTION
In this year's August 29th Newsletter I wrote about the "Garden-Fence Perfection" created by three kinds of morning glory twining beautifully in my garden fence. One of the tasks I needed to deal with this week was taking down and rolling up that fence, and getting it off this property. At the moment it's rolled up and leaning against the barn, with what remains of the morning glory vines constituting just so much brown, unsightly trash cluttering the wire.

What a thing it is to be a human, to be a spiritual soul in a biological body, with a mind structured so that, coming from one perspective, it views three kinds of morning glory as a kind of perfection, but, coming from another perspective, it is obliged to see those vines as just so much trash cluttering a wire fence, to be gotten rid of. Same mind, same vines, just different emotional/psychological/social/ political perspectives.

This week my ornithologist friend Jarvis in North Carolina sent the following blurb around to me and others of his nature-loving friends:

"A report published in April by the Center for Biological Diversity concludes that failure to implement the Endangered Species Act has contributed directly to the extinction of 107 species in the U.S. over the past 20 years. Over 3/4 of those species became extinct before they even made it onto the endangered species list. The current Bush administration has placed an average of nine species on the list per year. The Clinton administration averaged 65 listings per year and the administration of George Bush senior averaged 59 per year."

As sometimes my three kinds of morning glories have been seen as perfection, and other times as trash, also sometimes our leaders see other living things as worthy of protection, while other times they regard them mainly as impediments to further growth and development. Same government, same Earth, just different emotional/psychological/social/political perspectives.

However a person may come down on these issues, here is one point that shouldn't be overlooked:

It took a certain inspiration and months for my garden-fence perfection to develop, but only an hour or two to take the whole thing down, role it up, and lean the whole mess against the barn. Similarly, it may have taken the Creator millennia to evolve those species that went extinct, yet their extinction occurred in a blink of the eye. And "extinction is forever."

This week while I rolled up fences, knocked down trellises, dismantled the coldframe, dug up plantings, etc., often I've had the radio on, and of course there was plenty of election news. Things said by both sides are hardly worthy commenting on.

I would find it very comforting, however, if the results of the upcoming election could be interpreted as indicating that nowadays larger numbers of voters than before are thinking in terms of sustainability for Life on Earth instead of short-term gain and comfort for themselves; of long-term quality of life for all of us living things instead of immediate gross consumerism for themselves, and; of Creator-centered spiritual values instead of dogma- based religious ones.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers

Jim Conrad

Visit Jim's Backyard Nature site at www.backyardnature.net