JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills
somewhat east of Placerville, Califnornia, USA

May 8, 2005

BLACKTAIL JACKRABBITS AT DAWN
Every now and then as I'm jogging at dawn I round a corner, surprise a rabbit in the road, and he takes off running hard away from me. Just a glance at the critter is enough to convince me that he's not a cottontail. He's a lot larger, his much longer ears stand straight up as he runs, and his manner of running is also different -- less "hoppy" and more flat-footed-racy. He's a Blacktail Jackrabbit, what old timers sometimes call Jackass Rabbit, LEPUS CALIFORNICUS. You can see a Blacktail Jackrabbit at www.nps.gov/tont/nature/jackrabbit.htm

An Eastern Cottontail's head and body are 14-17 inches long while a Blacktail Jackrabbit's is 17-21. Cottontails weigh 2-4 pounds and jackrabbits 3-7. A cottontail's ears are 2«-3 inches long while a jackrabbit's are 6-7. When cottontails are spooked they tend to hide in nearby thickets or burrows, but jackrabbits hightail it overland. An escaping jackrabbit leaps two or three yards at a bound, touching the ground only with his toes.

Eastern Cottontails don't occur this far west but in the foothill valley bottoms we do have Mountain Cottontails, which look a lot like their Eastern cousins. We also have Whitetail Jackrabbits, even larger than Blacktails, found higher in elevation than here.

With all the lush nibblings available nowadays I think our jackrabbits must be thinking they have it made. However, soon the dry season will hit and the herbaceous layer will dry up fast. Then we'll see if the garden fence does its job keeping jackrabbits at bay.

*****

CANYON DIPPER
Friday I celebrated the end of two days of chilly drizzle by making an hour-long hike down to the bottom of the canyon, all the way to the river. What a pleasure lying on the smoothly abraded granite boulders at the water's edge, soaking up the sun, the high cliffs all around rising to a sky as dramatic with its clouds as the cliffs themselves. There's lots of white water there but the river is too full of boulders for canoeing and too cold for swimming.

When I'm in such an environment I always look for a special bird, and on Friday I saw him, perched atop a small boulder in midstream. One reason he's such a treat to see is that his habitat preference is so particular -- he needs cold, swift, permanent streams that remain unfrozen during winter, though also occasionally he's also found along lakeshores. He's a fairly common species in western North America but absent in the East. I'm referring to the Dipper, sometimes known as the Water Ouzel, CINCLUS MEXICANUS. You can see one at http://home.earthlink.net/~nicky- davis/h_dpr_amjuv9603.html

I'll never forget the first time I saw a Dipper, in 1984, in Oregon. He was perched on a small rock in midstream exactly like the one I saw Friday. Also like the one on Friday, the Oregon Dipper astonished me by simply hopping into the water and disappearing.

Of course I was used to ducks, grebes, loons and the like diving underwater, but this bird was different. He was a short-tailed songbird with no webbing on his feet, and a bill like a wren's. Moreover, that day in Oregon when I climbed onto a boulder for a better view, what I saw was hard to believe. There the little critter was walking beneath the water, just like a chicken, pecking here and there.

From what I could see, he also flew beneath the water. In fact, he didn't seem to notice or care whether he was above or below water. He was as adapted to the interface between air and water as an otter. Dippers even like to place their nests where they are moistened by spray -- behind waterfalls, for example.

If you were asked to design a bird who effortlessly could occupy the interface between sky and water, I'll bet you'd come up with something like a sleek swallow or a rainbow colored macaw. That's not what Mother Nature produced, however. Dippers are dumpy- looking little birds, all dark gray with very awkward looking, large, yellow feet.

Maybe that's the reason I like them so much, feel so brotherly toward them, and somehow find in them some hope for my own spraddle-toed existence.

*****

CALIFORNIA BROOMS (THE INVADERS)
Throughout history people have tied many kinds of plant branches at the end of poles to make brooms. Some of the plant species best suited for broom making came to be known by the name of "broom" themselves. That's the case with one head-high, yellow-flowered bush blooming in our area right now, Scotch Broom, CYTISUS SCOPARIUS, a member of the Bean Family. You can see its flowers at http://weeds.ippc.orst.edu/pnw/weeds?weeds/id/Scotch _broom--Cytisus_scoparius--f.html

As that picture shows, Scotch Broom is pretty. Sometimes you see whole slopes or fields of it and the effect of so much yellow beneath a blue sky is just breathtaking. You can see such a field at http://wdfw.wa.gov/gallery/view_photo.php?set_albumN ame=album25&id=broom_SW_1

The problem with Scotch Broom is that it's invasive, having been introduced from Europe. Its seedlings out-compete native tree seedlings and prevent reforestation. Those pretty thickets of broom have displaced native plants and animals. Moreover the plants burn like crazy, so a bunch of them is a real fire hazard. Finally, the plants contain quinolizidine alkaloids and can be toxic to livestock, though goats seem able to eat it.

Several species of prettily flowering, shrubby brooms are currently running amuck in California -- not only Scotch Broom but also French Broom and Spanish Broom -- all looking similar. A long page compares the various invasive California brooms at www.cdfa.ca.gov/phpps/ipc/weedinfo/brooms.htm

*****

FOOLED BY MUSTANG CLOVER
A while back on a walk with Fred -- he in his battery-powered, belt-tracked wheelchair -- we came upon a pretty bank of plants with very slender, unbranched stems bearing whorls of narrow, green leaves at their many stem nodes. Fred asked what they were and with a glance I said they looked like horsetails. "But I'm pretty sure I've seen this plant flowering," Fred replied, aware that horsetails, being very primitive spore producers, don't even bear flowers.

I took a closer look and, sure enough, flower buds were forming in the leaves' axils. Here was something unlike anything I'd ever seen. All I could do was to wait until flowers were produced.

This week the flowers appeared and I am just amazed. The instant I saw the clusters of pinkish white, salverform blossoms with tiny stamens attached to the corolla tube I knew I had something very near a Phlox. Knowing it was a member of the Phlox Family, the Polemoniaceae, it was easy to determine that the mystery plant was Mustang Clover, LINANTHUS MONTANUS. Of course Mustang Clover isn't a clover at all. This comes of cowboys and goldminers getting to name your plants. Anyway you can see the plant at www.mlode.com/~janetc/MustangClover.html

Time and time again since I've been here I've made such mistakes. A quick glance assures me that it's one thing, but then a closer look proves that it's another. In the same way that once you're into a new piece of music you can halfway guess what the rest of the piece will sound like, I've grown so used to how the Eastern Deciduous Forest Region puts itself together that I can make pretty good guesses about any new discoveries that come my way. But, here, the ecosystem's music tricks my expectations every chance it gets. It's like listening to a flute player in Timbuktu.

Well, it's good to be reminded to keep paying attention to things, not just assume things are what they seem, and to expect the world to throw me for a loop at any time. Moreover, I'm glad the reminder comes in the form of flower names and not something more organic or dangerous.

*****

PONDEROSA PINE JIGSAW-BARK
Pines dominate the slopes here and we have three pine species in the neighborhood. We're at the very uppermost elevation limit of Digger Pines and the very lowermost elevation limit of Sugar Pines. However we're in the center of the Ponderosa Pine zone, so those Ponderosas are the main tree around my trailer and the house. You can see two Ponderosas outside my window as I type this at www.backyardnature.net/sierras/pondlook.jpg

Young Ponderosas are very similar to Loblollies back in Mississippi, but the above picture shows that adult Ponderosas are more slender and open than Loblollies and have thicker, straighter trunks.

On mature Ponderosa trees the bark forms flat, elongate plates maybe as wide as your hand and running up the tree, separated from one another by deep ridges. A remarkable thing is that the surfaces of those flat plates exfoliate in jigsaw-puzzle designs. You can see a close-up of such a plate at www.backyardnature.net/sierras/pondbark.jpg

*****

SCALPING UP A GARDEN
Years and years ago when I was still more or less based in Kentucky, one day Grandma Taylor was saying how she missed having a garden since she'd moved to town. I asked her why I couldn't go out behind her house, dig up the crabgrass and put in a garden. Grandma was just enough of an unconventional small- towner to give me a hard squinty-eyed look and say "Thar ain't no reason!"

Both of us felt a little conspiratorial about the matter because the good people of Calhoun, Kentucky were and are as obsessed with manicured, grassy lawns as the rest of America. A non-standard lawn is a sign of a non-standard home, which, in people's minds, generally means lazy and un-American. But Grandma had enough old-time country-person gumption to not give a dang when it came to her having a garden.

During the next week, each afternoon I went with a sharp hoe and scalped away a bit of the sod. Eventually I laid bare a house-size patch of hard- packed dirt, which once had been trucked in as swamp-fill. The next week I dug up the whole thing one spade-turning at a time.

Then my Uncle Rock brought in a pickup truck load of horse manure, I planted things, and that summer we had a bodacious garden in which Grandma spent inordinate amounts of happy time, and from which she issued plenty of produce and bouquets to the neighbors.

I scalped gardens out of lawns and pastures when I moved to Belize and when I lived in Belgium. I did it at two locations near Natchez, Mississippi, and lately I've been doing it here. Here I'm actually digging in a garden, but the part I'm working on is so grown up with grass that it's like scalping a lawn.

Since I've been thinking about the matter, this week I've added a new section to my Backyard Nature site about converting lawns to gardens. For most of us there's no better entree to nature than gardening. You can see me demonstrating my scalping technique at www.backyardnature.net/simple/lawn2gar.htm

To be honest, the whole concept of mowed, grassy lawns rubs me the wrong way. It just tickles me to think I might be encouraging someone out there to dig up theirs.

*****

GOLD DOWNSLOPE
The California Goldrush had its epicenter in this area. There's even an old mine not far downslope. Its shaft dips downward following a vein into the hill's granite. Unfortunately the shaft is flooded, most of it completely filled with water, else someone would probably be working it, if only on a hobby basis.

It takes a while to follow the zigzagging trail down the slope to the mine, and when I take it I can't help cogitating on why the gold is there, and what the implications are.

Astrophysicists tell us that during the first three minutes of the existence of the Universe, immediately after the Big Bang, all the matter of the Universe existed in the form of atoms of the three lightest and most simple elements -- hydrogen, helium and lithium. These are the first three elements listed in the Periodic Chart. Today we recognize over 100 elements, and those 100+ elements contribute by far the greater part of the mass of everything we see and feel. Therefore, where did all the heavier elements, such as oxygen, carbon and this gold, come from?

Those elements were synthesized in stars that formed during millions and billions of years after the Big Bang. In certain large stars the simple elements (hydrogen, helium and a bit of lithium) were FUSED together in the process of NUCLEAR FUSION to form more complex, heavier elements. The minimum temperature required for the fusion of hydrogen is five million degrees. Elements with more protons in their nuclei require still higher temperatures. For instance, fusing carbon requires a temperature of about one billion degrees. Most of the heavy elements, from oxygen up through iron, are thought to be produced in stars containing at least ten times as much matter as our Sun, and gold is even heavier than iron.

The heavier elements are scattered throughout the Universe when the huge and very hot stars in which they are formed explode. The debris from those explosions coagulates into new systems containing heavier elements, such as our own Solar System. The term nucleosynthesis refers to this star-based formation of all the Universe's heavier elements. You can learn much more about nucleosynthesis at a NASA site at http://helios.gsfc.nasa.gov/nucleo.html

Therefore, you, I, and by far the greatest part of everything we see and feel on Earth are composed of stardust, and it's Johnny-come-lately dust at that.

Descending the trial into the canyon, I think more and more about the star-produced gold beneath my feet, and about the star-originated carbon and oxygen making up the lion's share of my own body and the bodies of all the beings of the forest around me, all us stardust beings mingling so deliciously in this fleeting, never-to-return ecosystem-moment on fragile little Earth.

The only way my mind can reconcile what I see around me with the insights provided by the discovery of nucleosynthesis is to conceive of the Universe as an unimaginably large, complex, churning, evolving and profoundly majestic presence with my own place in it basically being negligible, being that of a ghostly, ephemeral but contented observer.

Step by step I descend closer to the gold, and step by step I grow more vividly aware that I am in touch with the rest of the universe by way of a very limited number of sensory input devices (nose, ears, eyes... ) and that the information being received from these devices is being very clumsily digested by a computer completely inadequate for the job -- my brain. When I get to the mine, there's a hole full of water and lots of mud.

Then I begin the hike back upslope. There's just so far one can go and then there's a rock wall, of one form or another.

But, the hike back upslope is good. There are birds to hear and wildflowers to see. I'm not complaining that when I go to the mine the gold remains hidden, or that the only outcome for my mind is that it glimpses the exquisite humor in being imbedded in such transient bone and tissue as I call myself, and that I am filled me with a sense of reverential awe.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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