JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: Mississippi to California

April 2, 2005

LOSING THE GRIP ON NATCHEZ
Last week both the cold months and I lost our grips on Natchez. Gaudy azaleas, lush and ragged patches of green grass, the season's first butterflies and moths (Tiger Swallowtails and Luna Moths among them), birds spring-singing all day (Purple Martins, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Chimney Swifts arriving from overwintering homes) and the warm, humid, laze- inducing feeling in the air that in the suburbs smells of freshly mowed lawns with wild-onion undertones - all sang the same song: Cold gone, spring is on the way.

I lose my own grip on the Natchez area more than ever with my latest leave-taking. Knowing I'm abandoning something comfortable and pleasant among friends in exchange for a lot of uncertainty, On Easter Sunday I leave Natchez anyway, this time on US 61 North, instead of South.

My friend Jerry drives me to Jackson, Mississippi's state capital, where we work late on some projects. At dawn on Monday morning we jog in Bridges Park on the south side of town and I'm surprised to see that spring here, though we're about 100 miles northeast of Natchez, is about as advanced as down there. Mayapples, phlox, violets and a white-flowered mustard are blossoming. There's just been a big rain so gracefully contoured lines of pink Redbud blossoms prettily delineate high-water marks along the black pavement we run on.

During the night a cold front has come through so on this Monday morning the air is so nippy that as I run along the air stings my legs and face. Sometimes I glance at the dark brown Mexican tan on my arms to assure myself that instead of being a silly person running from spring into winter, I'm still the one in gladful transit, and that along my way I may expect to continue blundering into things that make it worthwhile staying on the move.

*****

ACROSS THE TEXAS PANHANDLE
Monday evening I embark on a Greyhound bus heading west into the night. At dawn on Tuesday I'm at a rest stop in Bowie, northern Texas. Next to the highway the rumble of traffic is oppressive, plus a freight train is lumbering by, but still I can hear the raspy, homey call of the phoebe, as well as cacophonous whistles, snaps and crackles of Great-tailed Grackles, in trees across the street. I'm trying to stay in the spring spirit and the phoebe helps me, but those sassy grackles put me more in the mind of tropical Mexico than a Natchez spring.

Northwest of Bowie there's low and scrubby forest, mostly oak, averaging maybe 20 feet high. However, spring is clearly at hand, as attested to by super-green grass, gorgeously white-blossomed pear and plum trees, tenderly yellow-green, leafing-out willows, and a shaggy coyote inexplicably standing next to the highway wagging his tail and grinning.

Knee-high tumbleweeds roll against barbed-wire fences (www.ljworld.com/section/bigger_photo/75314) and a sleek Wild Turkey escapes into the brush. Entering Texas's Panhandle from the southeast, the land becomes a patchwork of desert scrub, pastureland and freshly tilled cotton fields. Notable in the scrub is pricklypear cactus and a small, low-growing yucca. The farther we go, the drier the climate becomes, and vegetation reflects the change. Gradually agricultural fields drop out, the pastures become sparse rangeland, and the scrub's nature changes, too. Right before Amarillo there's ashy-leafed cenizo and dark green juniper, with a bit of silvery-green sage and cespitose yucca.

Also there are lots of little towns, alike-looking with their low-key feed and fertilizer stores, dusty pickup trucks parked informally in gravel lots at ma-and-pa eateries, and inevitably neat and conspicuous signs pointing the ways to local cemeteries.

*****

ACROSS NEW MEXICO
I lose the thread of spring in New Mexico. I keep seeing spring signs but the landscape here is so wildly unlike anything east of the Mississippi River that it's pointless to keep relating things to what I'm leaving. New Mexico reminds me that traveling is about what IS and what is to be, not about what was.

Sometimes the land is grassland as flat and wide-horizoned as anyplace I've seen. Other times the land undulates with red boulders, cholla cactus and dark green scrub-junipers atop ridges, and dun-colored grassland down below - or some other combination of geology and species. Those chollas are much-branched, shrublike constructions of strung-together joints shaped like awfully spiny cucumbers. You can see a cholla at www.davidpride.com/USA/NewMexico/NM_04.htm.

The land breaks into a few high, isolated ridges, then farther west there are classical mesas with horizontal rock strata of varying erosionability picturesquely outcropping along their slopes. You can see a good mesa picture at www.rmusd.net/images/8,6/mesa.jpg. Eventually full-fledged mountains appear, some topped with snow. Most of the snow is new and powdery but glossy patches linger from winter's packs. At Albuquerque some snow patches occur near the valley floor.

At the Albuquerque Greyhound station two security guards show how the vaguely written Patriot Act can and will eventually translate at the local level. Nearly all of us re-entering the bus after an obligatory off-bus rest period have been traveling longer than 24 hours. We are fagged out and frowsy looking, kids are crying and old women complain of swollen ankles and aching feet. Two black-clad, sunglass-wearing men jangling guns, handcuffs, Billy clubs, cans of mace and radios begin barking orders, telling us to line up exactly THERE and to empty ALL our pockets of EVERYTHING AND I MEAN EVERYTHING, and then each of us is thoroughly frisked from the front and from the back, metal detectors are thrust between the legs and under the arms, and all bags are searched. Confiscated items such as fingernail files will be returned by mail for a $5 fee.

Later in the night at another rest stop at Gallup I'm outside gazing across a parking lot when a sudden gust of wind showers me with snow. For about 15 seconds there's a perfect storm, at least in the beam of a spotlight atop a store, and on my tropical-tender face. It's been a long time since I felt snow and saw it fall, and what a surprise and what pleasure this vagrant little gust of wind gives me.

*****

ACROSS ARIZONA
In Arizona we pass through Indian reservations, the Petrified Forest and a wonderfully fractured landscape. However, it's night and I sleep through it all.

At Phoenix we're all herded from the bus at 3 AM for refueling, then later, west of town, I see giant Saguaro cacti in the light of a half moon. This reminds me of delicious times when I slept in Saguaro deserts and now I wish I were out there again. You may be interested in reading my "Spring Comes to the Southwestern Desert" at www.backyardnature.net/desert/index.htm.

After Phoenix my journey follows the same route as taken last September when I traveled from Natchez to the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento, California. That trip is described in the September 19th, 2004 Newsletter archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/04/040919.htm.

One difference is that this time the wind is fierce. At one point near Palm Springs in California the bus is rocked with such violence that several passengers come up from their seats and yell questions to the driver. The driver explains about the bus is "high profile," has buoyant tires, and he assures us that he's well experienced handling such gusts.

*****

A GOOD YEAR FOR DESERT WILDFLOWERS
Several friends have heard that this year unusually heavy rains in the Southwest have caused "the desert to bloom" with wildflowers. I've been admonished to pay special attention to the matter and to report back.

I'd imagined vast regions mantled with many wildflower species of all colors, like summer meadow slopes in the Alps and Andes, but that's not what I saw. First the green grass and conspicuous wildflowers along my route didn't appear until about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Farther east, barren, rocky hills and dun-colored lowland grasslands in the winter mode prevailed.

Moreover, when the effects of rain did appear, usually just one or sometimes two wildflower species would be evident. I saw vast plains flowering with a white-blossomed primrose, and other wide expanses cloaked with a yellow-flowered mustard. Here and there other wildflower species occurred, but never as impressively as I'd imagined.

One desert bush deserves special mention - the Ocotillo, FOQUIERIA SPLENDENS, which consists of several woody, very spiny, whiplike, slightly arching branches angling outward from the base and rising up to 20 feet high.

In the past I've only seen Ocotillo leafless and without flowers. Now I'm seeing them not only with leaves but also topped with brilliantly red flames of blossoms. You can see Ocotillo flowers and read about the plant here.

*****

CALIFORNIA WASHINGTONIA PALMS
I take a 12-hour layover in Los Angeles. Greyhound provides a very nice little parklike affair with nine three-seated benches arrayed below 16 stately Fan Palms, genus WASHINGTONIA. It's sunny, warm and breezy, so this is where I sit reading and writing most of the day as purplish House Finches sing prettily from the palms.

LA is full of palms besides Washingtonias. The way you recognize a Washingtonia is first to notice that it's a fan palm, not one of the pinnate species. In other words, its fronds have subdivisions radiating from a single spot atop the frond petiole, instead of having them arise from along the frond's midrib, like pinnae from the shaft of a feather. Washingtonia fronds have digitately arranged subdivisions.

After that notice that the bases of old leaf petioles remain on much of the straight, slender stem, creating a kind of "shag" in which birds and other wildlife love to forage and sometimes overnight.

*****

THE VIEW FROM SACRAMENTO
I arrive in Sacramento, the capital of California, at dawn on Thursday. I strap on my backpack and hike a few blocks to the Amtrak Station, and note that though street trees look a bit more advanced into spring than those I'd left in Natchez, my thermometer registers only 42°.

The Amtrak Station's orange trees from which I gathered oranges last September still bear a heavy crop, plus now certain branches are flowering. When I call my friends in the Sierra Nevada foothills at 2,600 feet I'm astonished to hear that it's 47° up there, not cooler, which I'd anticipated because of the higher elevation.

"Temperature inversion," my friend suggests.

Orange trees fruiting at least from September through March, and being warmer at higher elevations than in the valley - clearly we're not in Natchez anymore...

My naturalist glands are just sizzling...

*****

DECISION JAZZ
I've been telling friends that on this trip across the country I'd try to come up with decisions and insights with regard to several projects that may or may not materialize.

Just how do I take advantage of the fact that now my nature site on the Internet receives up to 22,000 page-hits daily? What am I to make of new possibilities in the Yucatan and Chiapas? If I'm no longer a hermit, what am I? What shall I have to do with a George Bush America?

This isn't the first time I've designated intense thinking periods for making big decisions, nor the first time I've come up with the current results. In fact, it's nearly always like this.

By the time I'd experienced the 15-second snow shower in Gallup, I'd thought myself into a knot. Outside Phoenix, when I saw the giant Saguaros, round-headed and burry, holding their arms skyward in the moonlight, I recognized I wasn't on the right track. By the time I hit LA I was grooving on radio jazz and I jumped off the bus remembering this:

That things nearly always go best when I stop trying to intellectualize and just spend my time helping those things I care about speak for themselves.

Let the bass line go where it will, while I improvise as artfully and lovingly as I can...

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net