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

July 3, 2005

INTO THE CANYON
This week I hiked to the bottom of the canyon next to the house and camped overnight. The topography map shows the river, the South Fork of the American River, only about a quarter of a mile distant, but there's a drop of elevation of 1000 feet and getting there requires a lot of zigzagging, plowing through underbrush and scooting down smooth, house-size granite boulders too steeply inclined to walk down. When you reach the water's edge you feel like you've accomplished something, and you wonder if you'll be able to climb back out.

Phenologically, that 1000-ft drop carries you a good bit into the coming season. California Buckeyes, gloriously and fragrantly in full blossom at the house's elevation, in the canyon's bottom now have dropped most of their flowers and small buckeyes are forming. Late-season wildflowers are blossoming down there that up here haven't even produced flower buds.

A canyon has its own feeling and you have to get used to it. I think the unceasing roar of the water, amplified by the canyon's acoustics, would get on some people's nerves. Those house-size, granite boulders all ajumble but with hardly a flat place among them big enough to sit on toys with one's senses of equilibrium and scale, and make you nervous about the idea that one of them might roll onto you. This latter thought was especially on my mind since on the very day I went down we experienced a small earthquake.

But, nothing untoward happened. At dusk I wedged myself into a more-or-less level crack in a boulder and the boulder's stored-up solar energy warmed my body deep into the night. On the canyon's opposite wall it was wonderful watching fast-changing patterns of sunlight and shade at dusk and dawn. During the whole time there was never a second when something interesting and pretty wasn't happening worth paying attention to.

*****

CANYON BIRDS
It's striking how the boulder zone's bird population is so different from that of the wooded slope right above it. It's almost as if about 30 feet above the water's surface on both slopes a glass ceiling keeps out most slope birds, and keeps in a whole community of other species you don't see away from the canyon's bottom. Here are some canyon birds:

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WILDFLOWERS GALORE
I know that back in the Southeast right now the landscape is powerfully green. It's too late for spring flowers -- those big fields of yellow mustards and woods full of trilliums, violets and phlox -- but it's too early for fall wildflowers, mainly the many species of goldenrod and aster.

The slopes between here and the river are as prettily decked with wildflowers and graceful grasses as any alpine meadow. There's monkey-flower, mustang-clover, milkweed with its proper Monarch Butterfly caterpillars, tarweed, yarrow, and much more. Ascending the slope in low-slanting morning sunlight I came upon a meadow stunningly aglow with pink blossoms of CLARKIA BILOBA. My picture of it, without its perfect morning lighting, resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/sierras/clarkia.jpg. This species, abundant on the slopes where I live, is endemic to only California's northern and central Sierra Nevadas.

Composites -- members of the Sunflower Family -- are abundant. At first I was surprised because I'm used to composites being fall flowers. But then it occurred to me that here fall and even most of summer are far too dry for wildflowers. Therefore, our landscape is as wildflower rich as an alpine meadow for the same reason that alpine meadows are floriferous: All the year's flowering must be done during a brief season. In the Alps that means the brief period between the end of snow melt and the first frost, and here it means between the end of the cold rainy winter and when the dry season starts hurting -- around now.

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MEMORIES OF LEWIS & CLARK
The CLARKIA BILOBA mentioned above was named in honor of William Clark of Louis-and-Clark fame. Currently there's also a very conspicuous, 10-ft- high, much-branched bush gloriously adorned with large clusters of 25¢-size white flowers. It's a native species of mock orange, PHILADELPHUS LEWISII, named in honor of Meriwether Lewis of the same expedition.

Lewis & Clark introduced a goodly number of western North American plants to science. You might enjoy looking at the Academy of Natural Science's website for the historical Lewis & Clark herbarium at http://www.acnatsci.org/research/biodiv/lewis&clark/  

*****

GUMWEED & POISON OAK
One of those many, very pretty composites adorning our slopes is the Gumweed, GRINDELIA HIRSUTULA. Though common and almost weedlike it does something I've not seen other plants do.

First, on stems four to seven feet tall it produces clusters of green, spherical flower buds about the size of quarters. The buds' scales (involucral bracts) end in outwardly flaring, spinelike tips that might dissuade a browsing herbivore. The unusual thing, however, is that at the bud's very top there's always a sizable gob of very sticky, white latex, like milkweed milk. This gummy stuff keeps out bugs that might otherwise enter the bud and eat the all-important, tiny composite flowers. When the flower finally opens, the youngest immature flowers remain safely immersed in latex. Only when they mature to the point that they need pollinators to visit does the latex disappear, leaving normal- looking, dry flowers. You can see all this in a photo I took near my trailer at www.backyardnature.net/sierras/gumweed.jpg

When I saw this I had to go tell Fred. Of course he knew all about it, plus he informed me that he and Diana clip those gummy heads, put them into jars, pour alcohol over them and, once the alcohol turns dark green, the lotion is used as a treatment for Poison Oak. I can't test it because I'm not allergic, but it seems to work on others. You can see a jar of it Diana fixed up at www.backyardnature.net/sierras/gumwdjar.jpg

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WALKING THROUGH TALL GRASS
There's one major difference between the landscape here and the Southeast I need to mention. So far here I haven't suffered a single chigger bite, and ticks are rare. At this season during recent years in southern Mississippi often I'd want to tramp into the fields but not do so just because I couldn't stand the idea of dealing with all the chiggers and ticks, atop the heat and humidity.

Being able to climb up a grassy slope without even thinking about ticks and chiggers, much less fire ants, is just wonderful!

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CANNING APRICOTS
In this area it's apricot season. Our apricots aren't mature yet but at orchards across the canyon and lower in elevation you can buy crates of them pretty cheaply, and that's what Fred and Diana did the other day.

So this week and last Diana has been canning apricots using the cold-pack method. After washing the fruits she halves them, then half fills her jar, placing the halves face-down. Then she spoons in a dollop of dark brown, local honey provided by my friend Buck upslope, and finishes filling the jar with face-down halves. She adds water, cleans the jar's top, puts the lids on with rings, and then keeps the jars in a steamer of boiling water for about 25 minutes. Later that night when the jars are in the pantry cooling, the lids make homey plinking sounds, and that means that the jars are well sealed. There's a picture of Diana at work www.backyardnature.net/simple/canning.htm.

It's a pleasure to walk into the kitchen and see those pretty Mason jars lined up with golden apricot-halves inside, and when Diana is filling the jars and adding Buck's honey it sure smells good. It brings back memories of being a kid on the Kentucky farm when my mother canned tomatoes, green beans, peaches, and a lot more.

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THE WORD "APRICOT"
Each evening for recreation I read an hour or two in old French novels downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg at http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/. That word "apricot" looked a bit Frenchy to me so I looked up its etymology. Apparently it is indeed either derived from or shares roots with the French "abricot," which may be based on or share roots with the Catalan word "abercoc," which apparently derives from the Arabic "al-birquq," which arose from Byzantine Greek's "berikokkia," and those Greeks got it from Latin, where it was "præcoquum."

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SOLAR COOKER #2
Now it's too warm to make a wood fire in the kitchen each morning so I'm no longer preparing my meals inside. However, I've finished building my solar cooker so I still get my daily hot meals.

I used the same building method employed back in Mississippi: I got one of those ten-ft-across, outdated satellite dishes a neighbor wanted to get rid of and replaced the dish's metal webbing with highly reflective aluminum flashing. I'm gratified to report that this one works just as well as my Mississippi one, maybe even better. If it does indeed make more heat surely it's because our cloudless sky is less milky with humidity and we're higher in elevation so that there's less air above us to filter out the sun's rays.

The soil here proved too rocky to dig a hole for a pole to set the dish on, so I nailed together a kind of wooden structure on which I can easily manhandle the dish into different positions, following the sun across the sky. I hold the dish in place with a forked stick.

This dish isn't as pretty as my Mississippi edition, for one of the rolls of aluminum turned out to be so thin that it crinkled and curled, plus I couldn't get the last panel in. However, even without the last panel, I think it burns my meals faster than the last one did.

You can see and read about my Mississippi cooker at www.backyardnature.net/j/solardsh.htm.

You can see a picture of my new solar cooker at www.backyardnature.net/n/05/050703a.jpg.

You can see a picture of one of my typical solar- cooked meals -- a hodgepodge of garden produce, including beets, kale, carrots, broccoli, parsnips, bell peppers and onions, as well as millet, self- ground wheat flour and buckwheat, with an egg on top -- at www.backyardnature.net/n/05/050703b.jpg

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A THREE-SECOND EARTHQUAKE
Last Sunday afternoon I was working at the computer when for half a second I thought someone had walked up to my trailer and kicked it. It was an earthquake, and a good, solid jolt at that, reported as 4.8 on the Richter Scale, with an epicenter just the other side of Lake Tahoe.

I've been in lots of earthquakes. The one that scared me most was in Guatemala City. I was several stories up in a tall building that swayed like crazy and made an awful roar. The quake I enjoyed most was one day when I was leaning back on my backpack resting after hiking through a long mountain valley near Mexico City. That quake came in long, low rolls. It felt like lying in a waterbed. It went on so long that I got motion sick.

The one Sunday was notable for its sharpness and its brevity, lasting only about three seconds.

I don't mind the ones that come on slow and in long, low waves, but these sharp ones give me the creeps. It's just like someone kicks the chair -- a rude, aggressive shock that makes me angry before I realize it's best to be scared.

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HOUSE SPARROWS AND ALLEGIANCE
European House Sparrows were introduced into Brooklyn, New York, in 1851. By 1900 the species had spread to the Rocky Mountains. Across North America during the last century House Sparrows have evolved into genetically different geographical races. In general, the northern populations are larger than those in the south.

The House Sparrow species is doing something that happens again and again during biological evolution. That is, a particularly successful species spreads over a broad geographical area and then starts fracturing into genetically distinct populations -- first into intergrading races, then more distinctive subspecies, and finally distinct species.

Before Homo sapiens became so mobile our evolution was on the same track as the House Sparrows'. However, now humankind's biological evolution is taking a U-turn as the various races mingle and become less distinct.

Mother Nature never loses Her taste for diversity, however. Right now it looks as if She may have failed at fragmenting our species genetically, but there's every evidence that she has a chance to split us into mutually exclusive, mutually antagonistic, belief-system-based communities. Since humans are animals subject to natural laws like all living beings, humanity's Culture Wars and its ever- more-vicious religious wars represent Mother Nature enlisting Darwinian competition from the field of genetics to do its divisive work in the realm of human ideas.

The thing about powerful ideas is that they scatter across the Earth and take root in every major human community. National boundaries are meaningless when big ideas move about. Nowadays the leader who fights a war of ideas with strategies based on geography, misleads. The follower who unthinkingly stakes all his or her claims in geography...

In such a fast-evolving world, where does one's final allegiance lie? On one side there's the attraction of blood, land and tradition but on the other there's the direction pointed toward by Mother Nature and historical momentum, and where the individual infected with ideas not endemic to the home territory often feels more at home.

We humans have thwarted Mother Nature's efforts to fracture us into new subspecies and eventually distinct species by making a race-mingling U-turn that sparrows apparently can't make. With regard to our ideas, will we rise above "what's natural" and learn to follow the abstract Middle Path, mingling our ideas in a way that keeps us united?

I think we evolving humans are in an awkward transitional stage where, for instance, many of us can have hearts that say one thing while our minds say the opposite.

There is plenty to think about this weekend.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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