July 10, 2005
SMALL WATER SNAIL
This week I strapped on my backpack and headed into the mountains with my radar set for aquatic plants and animals. My first stop was the bullfrog pond I've spoken of. I lay in the grass at the pond's edge with my nose right up to the water, my handlens actually touching it, for I wanted to see things closely. This fair-sized pond is bordered by cattails and its surface is about 4/5ths overgrown with water milfoil so all that shade keeps down the algae. You can see several feet into the water, and your view ends not because of muddiness but because of watery shadows.
What caught my attention wasn't something poking its nose from deep shadows, however, but rather a slow-moving glisten ascending the side of a dislodged root floating at the water's surface.
The glisten-maker was an aquatic snail, brown, about ¼-inch long, and its transparent shell was so unusual that I thought I might be able to identify it. Instead of the shell gradually spiraling to its tip, the first loop accounted for about 5/6ths of the shell's length, with the remaining loops relegated to the tip. Sure enough, my books provided a picture of this one, not only because of its unusual shell but also because the species is so common. The name in my book was Small Water Snail, though another name for it on the Internet is Pewter Physa. It's PHYSA HETEROSTROPHA. You can see it at http://www.jaxshells.org/0328az.htm
Since the shell was transparent silvery air pockets and assorted blobs that might pass for organs were clearly visible. When the snail reached the water's surface it turned sideways and as it continued grazing the root's slimy surface two long antennae atop its head gracefully groped before it and two slender-stalked eyes below the antennae ogled the surface rolling beneath them. Then from beneath the shell's upper rim emerged a fleshy, earlike fold of elastic flesh that rolled itself into a coil.
The coil opened at the water's surface, and this was the reason the little snail had come to the water's surface -- to send up its snorkel for air. I saw a another silvery bubble form within its shell, then the snorkel was retracted and the snail turned back into deeper water. The whole operation went so smoothly, with the snail never pausing or changing its demeanor at all, that I felt like applauding its adroitness and savoir-faire. This was one cool little snail, and I was glad to have made its acquaintance.
COLD WATER AND A SLUG
About an hour later I was in a deep valley with steep slopes all around, next to a perfect little stream with a rocky bottom and cascades of frilly ferns along its bank. Here's where I'd spend the rest of the day wading upstream and down, turning over rocks and snooping in all the deeper pools. Off came my shoes and socks and... boy that water was cold!
In about ten minutes I had an ice-cream headache all over my body and my toes were so stiff they kept ramming into rocks. I hadn't expected this. Nowadays afternoon temperatures here nearly always get into the 90s, often above 100 in the Valley below. Later in the day when I was higher in elevation and the temperature was 87 I stuck my finger into the soil beneath a pine casting a heavy shadow and was amazed at how cold the soil was. I just need to keep telling myself I'm not in Mississippi anymore.
Making my way back to the backpack my feet were so numb I had to hold onto streamside trees to keep my balance. On a certain little alder's trunk I managed to place my hand right onto a very thought-provoking gob of spongy slime. I'd grabbed enough slugs in my life to know exactly what I had.
Earlier in the season when it still rained occasionally you'd often see six-inch-long, olive- green to brown slugs moving along the forest floor, but they'd disappeared lately and I'd figured they were now balled up in well protected underground slime cocoons. I suppose this little valley was so well protected from the sun and wind that slug season is longer here.
During my European years, especially in rainy little Belgium, big, colorful slugs were a major, inescapable feature of daily life. Sometimes it was hard to walk down our little country road without smashing them, and I just gave up planting lettuce. Here slugs are uncommon enough to want to look at them when they appear. Also, we have so few slug species that my books gave me this slug's name. It was ARIOLIMAX COLUMBIANUS, yellow forms of which are often called Banana Slugs, and you can see one at http://bayimages.net/animals/snails/i4343.html
As the above picture shows, a nice feature of this big slug is that the bottom fringe of its ample foot is ornamented with a narrow band of slender, alternating dark and light, vertical stripes. The effect is elegant, and I couldn't look at it without the usual thought: That the Creator always goes far beyond designing us living things with mere functionality in mind. Every organism I've ever seen, including us humans, has "something extra" about it that's particularly pleasing to the eye.
Undeniably, the Creator does Her work with a flair, and the implications of that are something I think about a lot.
LEARNING ABOUT MY SUPRAORBITAL VEIN
So, no more cold aquatic stuff. Now up I climbed, losing the trail several times and having to crash through more than the usual amount of manzanita thicket. Late in the day I reached Slate Mountain's windy, sun-beaten, naked-slate peak. My blood-sugar was low, the glare was oppressive, and inside a perfect storm of wind and sunlight I felt feathery and detached. I needed shade and something to eat.
At the edge of the bald there grew a low but widely spreading Canyon Live Oak so I headed for its shelter. Typical of live oaks, its lower branches arced nearly to the ground so to reach the shade I had to enter the tree by parting the leaves and branches before me, using my hands and arms as if I were doing the breaststroke.
Somehow my hands missed the sharp stub of a limb pointed directly at my head, and I walked right into it. Blood dribbled down my face. Soon my bandana was so soaked I had to wring it out. The ground all around was spattering at an alarming rate, and I started fainting. On the ground I was barely able to keep pressure on my forehead and stop the bleeding.
I think I was fainting because of low blood sugar. I'm hypoglycemic and more than once fairly mild shocks have sent me into episodes (the last time being when I stepped from a Belgian sauna and splashed myself with icy water...). After an hour of lying on the ground (lots of ants) I tried to stand up and again almost fainted. Step by step I got myself upright, managed to eat some granola, and finally at sunset made it into the bald area where I made camp atop a flat slab of slate comfortingly warm from the day's hammering sunlight.
The next morning I felt perfectly normal, my forehead was hardly sore, and when I finally got a look at my wound in the reflective metal of my handlens handle I was amazed and almost disappointed to see such a tiny scratch. How on Earth could this piddling injury have caused the previous day's drama?
A couple of days later I was back at the computer visiting Human Anatomy Online at http://www.innerbody.com/htm/body.html. I clicked "cardiovascular," then the head area, and finally I understood:
Two large veins carry deoxygenated blood downward from the top of the head, over the forehead, and apparently that Canyon Live Oak stub had made a direct hit on one of mine. It was all a matter of plumbing and of having the wrong pipe get whacked.
At http://www.bartleby.com/107/ I viewed those wonderful, classic drawings appearing in the 1918 edition of "Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body." Once again I went to the cardiovascular system, the head, and at http://www.bartleby.com/107/illus557.html the name of the two big, blue veins dropping down the forehead was clearly sketched in: "Supra-orbital," it said.
As usual, having the name gave me a sense of control. Now with that name you can bet that, habitually bumping into things as I do, henceforward I'll navigate through life keeping in mind those two supraorbitals stretched so vulnerably across my forehead.
From atop Slate Mountain I wandered a few miles to the northeast, deeper into El Dorado National Forest, to the spot where last fall we picked so many blackberries. Arriving there I was gratified to see abundant 20-ft long blackberry canes white with flowers. But, more than checking on the blackberries, this time I wanted to wander through the ruins.
For, in 1922 a hotel millionaire named A.P.T. Elder decided he could make some money by building a 250- room hotel at this very isolated and hard-to-reach spot, so he did just that. From up to 40 miles away he had hauled in 500,000 board feet of lumber and a thousand tons of material and equipment. The chimney alone needed 250 tons of stone. The building was called Hotel Bret Harte and the land on which it stood was known as Deer View. And that hotel never checked in a single paying guest.
Elder died just before its opening, his family wasn't interested in the project, the place was abandoned, and a 9.5-ft snow in December of 1936 caused the neglected, weakened hotel to collapse.
Now I walked among huge Douglas-firs growing up through what remained of the foundation. I passed between grand staircase ornaments next to big Sugar Pine trunks, down sidewalks that began nowhere and ended nowhere. I identified ferns on mossy stone walls that once had been the walls of a spacious basement.
I left pleased to see with what finesse a forest can reclaim a piece of land even as abused as this one had been, pleased to hear how peacefully a little stream can trickle where not long ago powerful men thought only in terms of flowing money.
Back at the house Daniel welcomed me with a present: A Southern Alligator Lizard, GERRHONOTUS MULTICARINATUS. I'd been looking for one of these because it's a bit unusual, despite the fact that it's abundant and frequently seen here, and it looks a lot like the normal fence lizard, which we also have.
In fact, at first I had a hard time distinguishing alligator lizards from fence lizards. It must be a case of convergent evolution because the two species are very unrelated, being in entirely different families and even suborders. You can see the taxonomic relationships among different kinds of lizards on my Lizard Classification Page at www.backyardnature.net/lizclass.htm.There you'll observe that alligator lizards are about as unrelated to average lizards (iguanid lizards) such as fence lizards and anoles, as are Gila Monsters.
Among the differences setting alligator lizards apart from "regular lizards" is their bony scales (osteoderms), which encase them so effectively that their bodies are fairly stiff. So stiff, in fact, that the critters would have a problem breathing were it not for a lengthwise flexible groove of soft granular scales along each of their sides.
That groove of soft granular scales is the reason I'd been looking for an alligator lizard, because I wanted to photograph it. As I held the lizard Daniel took a picture and it came out terrific. You can clearly see that band as well as the external ear opening at www.backyardnature.net/pix/lizallig.jpg
MISSISSIPPI WILDLIFE REHABILITATION
The other day I heard from the folks at the Mississippi Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in northwestern Mississippi. If ever you have questions about what to do with an injured animal there's good advice at this website, and it's advice relevant far beyond northwestern Mississippi. Their website is at http://www.mswildliferehab.org/.
I'm really gratified to see efforts like this. The operation is run by volunteers -- regular people just doing what they see needs to be done, doing it with all the heart and skill they can muster, and doing a pretty good job at it.
During recent months I've met someone who said they were "just an American housewife" who also happened to be the leading bird-expert for the Yucatan, and who organizes instruction for hundreds of Mexicans wanting to be nature-guides. Right now with my webmastering I'm helping yet another "housewife" develop a butterfly farm in Nicaragua.
To my mind, "housewives" and all other people who refer to themselves as "just a... " represent an underrated, important, potentially powerful resource. Once mobilized, regular people with no special training can accomplish all sorts of things falling under the topic of "saving life on Earth." It's just a matter of average people looking around themselves, then getting to work on what really needs to be done, not what others are telling them or expecting them to do.
If you're in northwestern Mississippi give these "just" people a pat on the back, and maybe give them a hand.
The whole day as I walked around exploring the ruins at Deer View that German word, Erholungsreisen, was on my mind.
During my German years sometimes hiking trails took me right through Erholungsreisen destinations -- peaceful, pretty places people went to for breathing clean air, eating wholesome food, exercising, and generally to get themselves back together. Sometimes the destinations were organized around thermal or mineral springs, beaches or grottos, but often they only offered a peaceful setting, fine food and plenty of hiking trails in nearby forests and fields.
The word "Erholungsreisen" literally means "recuperation travel," but the term carries a much broader meaning than that. Just using it establishes a context in which it's given that being in peaceful, natural surroundings doing healthy things is restorative.
A century ago European traditions were still strong enough in America for us to understand about Erholungsreisen, and I think that Erholungsreisen was at least partly on A.P.T. Elder's mind when he built Hotel Bret Harte at Deer View. He visualized harried folks from Sacramento and San Francisco coming up to our Sugar Pines -- where there was no casino, no scary rides, no Disneyland -- simply to mend bodies and spirits.
Why did we Americans forget about Erholungsreisen -- even as most Europeans did not? On my July 4th weekend in El Dorado National Forest the only people I saw were a few off-roaders intent on rampaging through the woods on expensive, foreign-made machines.
If a German says he or she is making an Erholungsreise to a Kurort (cure-place), no one thinks further about it. If an American would say that, someone would ask "What's wrong." In our minds a Kur, or cure, implies a disease or injury, and for us "illness" isn't real unless it has a fancy name, is treated with pricey medicines and is attended by an overworked, distracted doctor.
That's our mistake: Many facets of our humanity other than our bodies occasionally need to be cured, and many of the injuries and diseases we sustain can be cured in ways other than with Western medicine. Enlightened eating and drinking, good exercise and simple living always are the best medicines and as such we are our own best doctors.
In fact, I think the most devastating disease we Americans are subject to is the apparent notion that we have little responsibility for our own health. We believe that wellness, including our sense of well being, depends on products bought from stores. We as a people have forgotten that a rainbow of states of wellness naturally arcs through anyone's life if given half a chance.
Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,