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

July 24, 2005

DUSK ATOP SLATE MOUNTAIN
Last Sunday at dusk once again I lay myself atop a flat outcrop of slate on Slate Mountain's bald ridge and watched the stars appear one by one. There were two evening stars, Venus nearest the Sun, then Jupiter, and then came the Moon maybe 75% full, and all those objects were almost evenly spaced in a broad arc across the sky, from Sun to Moon. My computer's sky program says that Saturn also was there, but it was so near the sun I couldn't see it.

All around me hundreds of dragonflies of different species darted about apparently catching things too small for me to see. Mosquitoes were bad, so maybe the dragonflies were eating mosquitoes. Still, on this windswept, bare peak far from any water, these were among the insects I'd have least expected -- except that I'd seen the same thing the last time I slept there.

The three bird species in that harsh habitat -- all making their appearances only briefly at dawn and dusk -- were the Rock Wren, Spotted Towhee and Mountain Quail. Hiding in the dense manzanita thicket framing the bald area they made the most tentative of calls -- just a token word to let the world know they were there, but nothing to really call attention to themselves. For, something in that utterly fractured, desolate-feeling, slate-rubble ridge made us all keep our voices low.

That night lying atop the slate, it happened that my body lay parallel with the ecliptic -- the path the sun, moon and planets take as they cross the sky. The Moon was rising so as I lay with my feet pointing eastward it seemed the Moon rose from between my legs, then during the night mounted to above my chest and face and, finally, as dawn approached, in my half- sleep, entered the mystical eye in my forehead's center, the eye some religions and sects say we all have, that lets us see, as in dreams, what our other two eyes can't.

*****

ROCK WREN
The bright moon wasn’t all that made it a good night for dreaming. Climbing up through the manzanita I’d gotten so hot and I'd sweated so much that when I finally reached the bald I was feeling airy-headed. At the edge of the manzanita I looked up across the rubble field and the glare and the heat were such that without thinking I unsnapped my backpack and collapsed onto the ground. When I saw that it was 104° in the shade I was more than willing to wait three hours until dusk, then climb to the ridge in cooler twilight.

I’m not one for “doing nothing” but that day for a solid three hours I just sheltered beneath a gnarly, dying, red-barked manzanita, leaning against my backpack and watching ants until I dozed off.

Once I awoke and a little brown wren with a longish, finely cross-barred tail and a brown eyebrow stood on the ground not three feet away staring sideways at me. He was a Rock Wren –- not the Canyon Wren I told you about a while ago, or a House Wren or any other of those wrens that often make a fuss around people’s houses. The way Canyon Wrens are specialists for canyons, Rock Wrens are exquisitely adapted for rocky areas like Slate Mountain's rubble-field ridge. You can see a Rock Wren and read about it at http://www.birdweb.org/birdweb/species.asp?id=337.

Though I’ve never seen anyone else on Slate Mountain I thought that maybe this bird was begging for food the way some creatures do around campgrounds. Why else would he be orbiting around me, now on the ground, now on a manzanita branch, staying just three feet away? Usually I don’t feed wildlife but I had to see if this bird would eat some oatmeal tossed his way.

He wouldn’t. He must have been coming so near merely to satisfy his curiosity. Eventually he grew bored with me, flew away and began energetically gleaning spiders and insects from the bushes, despite the 104°.

*****

INVERSIONS
I had expected it to be cooler atop Slate Mountain. However, when I told Fred how hot it had been up there he wasn't surprised. He said that that morning he'd been listening to the helicopter-based traffic man on the radio flying above Sacramento in the Central Valley below. At 6 AM it had been in the upper 60s in Sacramento but 1500 feet above the valley floor the thermometer had read 95°.

At http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/sto/CWA.php NOAA provides a website describing summer weather patterns in the Central Valley and adjacent foothills and mountains. There they explain Fred's numbers as resulting from a "nocturnal inversion formed due to downslope drainage flow from adjacent mountain ranges."

That downslope drainage is also why each morning at dawn we have this brisk wind around us whooshing through the pines.

*****

MARBLED CELLAR SPIDERS
One day this week while sitting next to my trailer I noticed a commotion between the trailer’s siding and my seat. Inside a rather messy looking spider web three large, long-legged spiders were applying white silk to a captured deerfly -– one that earlier I'd been swatting at. I got out my little Golden Nature Guide called "Spiders" and identified my companions to family level, then on the Internet I figured out the species. They were Marbled Cellar Spiders, HOLOCNEMUS PLUCHEI, and you can see one at http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/H/I-AR-HPLU-AD.001.html.  

Cellar spiders aren't normal spiders. For one thing, their legs are so long and slender they almost look like harvestmen, or daddy longlegs. But, insects have three body segments, spiders have two, and harvestmen have only one, so harvestmen aren't even considered to be spiders. These creatures next to me were definitely two-sectioned spiders. Sometimes cellar spiders are also called daddy longlegs, but that's confusing two entirely different kinds of critter. You can compare the above spider picture with harvestmen images at http://www.fcps.k12.va.us/StratfordLandingES/Ecology/mpages/harvestman.htm.

With other spiders usually you just see one spider in a web, though sometimes a male and a female share a web, or the female has her babies there. But here were three adult-size spiders apparently cooperating in subduing a fly. One spider would be adding silk, seem to get tired and draw back a little, then another would approach and bite the fly through the silk. They took turns doing things. When I left, all three had their fangs in the fly. I can't recall having ever seen such cooperation among three full-size spiders in a single web.

Google tells me that this is an introduced spider, one brought into California during the 1970s, and since then it's done a good job displacing the once-common Longbodied Cellar Spider, Pholcus phalangioides, which also was an invasive species. So now we're at the point of invasive species pushing aside invasive species...

Anyway, there's bad news and good news about this spider. The bad news is that its venom may be as deadly as any spider venom in the world. The good news is that cellar spiders bear such short fangs that they could never puncture the skin of a finger, so they can be considered harmless to humans.

*****

EARWIGS GALORE
Earwigs are strange-looking insects that until now I've always regarded as fairly uncommon. Around here, however, they're abundant.

I pick a peach and there's one in a hole earlier hollowed out by ants. I fill my water bottle and somehow an earwig has gotten into it and now I have to strain him out. Lift a plant pot from the ground and earwigs are inside the pot and under it. Flip a junk patch of carpet on the ground and dozens skitter away. Earwigs are simply all over the place here.

The thing about earwigs is that they have those two long appendages (cerci) at the tips of their abdomens looking like tweezers. That's why they're sometimes called pincher bugs. Of course all kids assume the cerci are deadly stingers and thus regard earwigs with awe. It's true that some species can pinch with their cerci but that's all, no venom or blood involved.

There are 22 species of earwigs in the United States of which over half are introduced. Only four or five species are common. I'm not sure which species we have here but it looks like the common one, the introduced European Earwig. You can see Earwig pictures and read all about them at http://www.ivyhall.district96.k12.il.us/4th/kkhp/1insects/earwig.html.

*****

ST. JOHN'S WORT GALORE
Yet another organism I've brushed shoulders with all my life but here is abundant beyond all expectation is the St. John's Wort, famous as an herbal medicine for depression. At http://www.hypericum.com/ the plant's medicinal value is much praised and of course you can buy several forms of it there. These folks even offer a free online book you can read called "Hypericum & Depression," at http://www.hypericum.com/toc.htm.

In contrast, the Quack-Watch site at http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/DSH/stjohn.html questions the science of studies touting the value of St. John's Wort for treating depression, plus it describes various ways the plant can actually interfere with other medical treatments. It concludes that "There is no published evidence that St. John's Wort is effective against severe depression, which, in any case, should receive professional help. For mild depression, psychotherapy directed at resolving the cause of the depression might be more prudent."

There are many species of St. John's Wort -- 350 worldwide. We have six in California, including HYPERICUM PERFORATUM, which is the species usually sold in herb stores for depression. This is a native of Europe but also a weed all across North America, sometimes called Klamathweed. You can see it at http://www.missouriplants.com/Yellowopp/Hypericum_perforatum_page.html.

The species growing so abundantly along our roads is the closely related HYPERICUM FORMOSUM var SCOULERI, a native of western North America. You can see it at http://www.timetotrack.com/jay/socal/stjohn.htm. On the web I read that, medicinally, this species can be used interchangeably with H. perforatum. H. formosum's fruits are 3-pointed at the top while H. perforatum's fruits are 1-pointed. The yellow petals of both species, however, are fringed with curious- looking black dots.

*****

SAN JUAN OK AFTER THE HURRICANE
Those of you thinking about visiting me this winter at Hacienda San Juan in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula will be glad to hear that Hurricane Emily didn't damage that area as much as she could have. Most of Emily's force was dissipated on the eastern coast in the Cozumel area. Therefore, my plans for being Naturalist in Residence there this winter remain on track (www.backyardnature.net/travel/sj.htm) and I hope to see many of you there.

*****

WATER
In the Central Valley below, on most afternoons the temperature rises well above 100º F, and sometimes it does here, too. It's a very dry heat, however, not feeling nearly as hot as an average summer day in Mississippi.

In such air your sweat evaporates very quickly, and you get thirsty fast. During the day's hottest hours, what a pleasure to simply sit in the shade and drink water, pure water, even water right out of the faucet.

I don't take my water for granted. In Mexico usually I spend more money on water than for food, having to buy it in big, clear-plastic bottles, and the number of those bottles cluttering Mexican roadsides proves that I'm not the only one buying it. When I return from long trips down there, the first few times I get drinkable water simply by turning any of a number of faucets in a house, I'm always struck with wonder.

Yet, the World Water Assessment Programme finds that during the next 20 years the average supply of water per person, worldwide, will DROP by one third. Over 2,700,000,000 people may face severe water shortage by 2025. We who have easily accessible, very cheap water should be savoring the experience each time we take some, for it won't be like this for long.

Maybe if we could see how little drinkable water is really available on Earth we'd take better care of our groundwater, lakes and rivers. Only 2.5% of the Earth's surface is covered with freshwater, and 2/3rds of that is trapped in polar icecaps. After adjusting for water lost in floods and to pollution, humans rely on a meager 0.08% of the planet's water. If I had to make a list of The Ten Most Egregious Sins a Human Can Commit, I'd include polluting groundwater on that list.

At http://www.grida.no/geo/geo3/english/265.htm the UN provides an overview of the Earth's water crises, giving the global perspective, and also breaking it down by continent.

*****

VIRTUE
When last week I went searching for the etymology of the word "dung" and brushed shoulders with a report on the Germans by Tacitus, that set off a series of memories, associations and thoughts that continue simmering in me today.

Back in the 60s the druggist for whom my mother worked as a clerk died. I was given several books from his library, and among them were well thumbed classics of Greek and Roman literature, Tacitus included. When I told my mother how surprised I was that a small-town druggist should read such books, she said that back before TV the town doctor, lawyer, furniture-store owner and a couple of highschool teachers every Friday night had gotten together, played cards and talked deep into the night, often about what they'd been reading in such books. I can see them now, sweating on sultry Kentucky summer nights, crickets roaring from heavy shadows beneath Main Street's maples, and those men sitting around a table with a rattling fan blowing on them, arguing over local politics and sports and sometimes, maybe, about Aristotle's concept of virtue.

In my lifetime we've gone from a culture producing such people by the millions in untold numbers of small towns all across America, to what we have now. I think I miss that cultural ambiance nearly as much as 50 years from now people will miss drinkable water rushing from average faucets.

A difference between groundwater and cultural ambiance, however, is that once pure groundwater is polluted it can take millennia to restore it. But cultural ambiance is what we make of it, and it can change overnight, as I saw with my own eyes in Eastern Europe after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

I propose this: At the "Ethics and Virtue" page at http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/ethicsandvirtue.html see if your mind finds any pleasure in the thoughts examined there. Do certain phrases and ideas on that page ignite little explosions inside you of recognition-of-truth, of wholesome curiosity, of brief but intense bursts of nostalgia for a time and a world where average people felt compelled to get their thoughts straight? If so, then nurture those good feelings by following up on the words that inspired them. In other words, study the issues that thinking people have always thought about, come to your own conclusions about them, and live your life according the principles you really believe in, after having really thought about them.

How do thoughts about ethics and virtue fit into a naturalist newsletter?

It is because I believe that when the great questions of classical times (such as, "What is virtue?") are reexamined in the light of what science now makes clear to us, it becomes apparent that the greatest virtue a person can possess is to aim to protect and live in harmony with the ecosystem that sustains all Life on Earth. And that the "community" at the heart of the "virtue approach to ethics" is, first and foremost, the community of living things on Earth, of which humanity is one beautiful part.

I think the time has come for us to return to the mindsets of the small-town pharmacist, doctor, lawyer, furniture-store owner and teachers of my childhood, who took pleasure in formulating their own concepts of such qualities as virtue, beauty, and honor, and who recognized and fulfilled the responsibility each of them had to strive for a classical excellence in their own lives.

It will be much easier and faster to return to that mindset than to restore the water table.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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