JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Polly's Bend, Garrard County,
in Kentucky's Bluegrass Region, USA

May 4, 2006

POISON HEMLOCK AND CORNCHIPS
The day Karen and I pulled up at the old white farmhouse at Polly's Bend we opened the doors to cold, rainy air with a rankly musky, somewhat oily odor. "Smells like cornchips," Karen said.

It took me a couple of days to decide that we were smelling Poison Hemlock, CONIUM MACULATUM, of the Parsley Family. It grew in pure stands all around the house, thousands of plants, their robust, ferny leaves only knee high, though later the plants will grow up to eight feet tall. You can see the ferny leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/060504y.jpg.

The plants weren't hard to identify, even though there were no flowers or fruits, and lots of members of the Parsley Family bear ferny leaves. The give-away was that Poison Hemlock's stems and leaf petioles are conspicuously purple-speckled. You can see a Poison Hemlock's speckled petiole in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/060504z.jpg.

Without those speckles it might have been easy to confuse this species with several others, and that could be disastrous. Eating this plant can kill you. Juice from Poison Hemlock is what the ancient Greeks gave Socrates for committing suicide. Unfortunately, not all Poison Hemlock stems and leaf petioles are always speckled. Back when people gathered food from the wild they sometimes died misidentifying Poison Hemlock's big taproot as parsnips, its leaves as parsley, and its fruits as anise. You can read about the symptoms of hemlock poisoning at http://www.vet.purdue.edu/depts/addl/toxic/plant28.htm.

Even livestock can die eating this plant, though it stinks so that it's hard to imagine an animal wanting to eat it. A horse has to eat four or five pounds of it, a cow can die after eating only one or two pounds, and sheep can survive no more than about half a pound. Besides killing us, Poison Hemlock can cause birth defects, especially cleft palates and spinal deformities.

I don't recall seeing Poison Hemlock in my home area of western Kentucky, so that makes its abundance here more striking. Actually, it's a pretty plant, producing clusters of tiny white flowers something like those of Queen Anne's Lace. However, it's an introduced alien, so I just wonder what pretty native plant it's displacing, and I wonder more just how much suffering and dying this plant has caused throughout history.

*****

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
At this time two years ago I was at Sandy Creek near Natchez in Mississippi writing to you about "untold hours of singing by an Orchard Oriole" with its "complex, bubbly, fluty call." Now it's the same thing here, except it's a Baltimore Oriole, and the song is different. Instead of bubbly and fluty, hour after hour these days I hear a phrase repeated endlessly, sung in the cadence of the question "HEY! What'll we EAT today?"

That phrase does a pretty good job, except that the "HEY!" sometimes sounds more like "BUCKWHEAT!" or maybe "BREET!" The first note can vary but that question "What'll we EAT today?" is asked as clearly as an owl asks "Who?"

Though to my mind the Orchard Oriole's song is more pleasing than the Baltimore's, the Baltimore's plumage is brighter and more agreeable to the eye. In fact, the most obvious physical difference between the two species is that the Orchard Oriole is darker than the vividly orange Baltimore. Also, the Orchard's tail is all black while the Baltimore's tail is edged with orange. You can compare them if you'd like. You can see the Baltimore's orange-edged tail at here, while an Orchard Oriole with its black tail can be seen here.

In Kentucky we only have these two orioles. Those of you who were with me in the Yucatan might remember my crowing about our seven oriole species there. Still, here nowadays so many Baltimores are so unrestrainedly singing from so many treetops that I don't feel any particular oriole paucity.

*****

THE ENTRENCHED KENTUCKY RIVER
The Kentucky River almost entirely encircling Polly's Bend with one of its loops is entrenched. That means that the river valley lies a good bit below the surrounding uplands, and the valley walls are more or less vertical. People here refer to the Kentucky River's vertical, white-limestone walls as "The Palisades." You can see what I'm talking about in a photograph by Kentucky photographer James Archambeault at http://www.jamesarchambeault.com/kentucky/wky20.htm.

Those palisades are quite something. I can't see them from the old farmhouse where I stay because they lie below my line of view. I can see, however, the top of the opposite valley walls as the river loops around us, and when I hike the road crossing Polly's Bend I get glimpses of them, all white and eroded, so incredibly ancient and solid. I don't think anyone could ever grow indifferent to them. They're majestic in a transcendent manner.

The odd thing is that it's the river's meanders themselves that are entrenched, not just the valley with the river meandering inside the valley. The meanders themselves cut down through pure limestone rock. The land inside a normal river meander loop is low and often swampy. Though Polly's Bend lies inside one of the river's meander loops, we're maybe 200 feet above the river's surface.

There's a debate as to how this happened. If you can deal with fairly dry, technical geological jargon you might enjoy reading an outline of the debate here.    

I'm most aware of the river's almost-encircling, entrenched meander-loop when I'm jogging at dawn on foggy mornings. The ring of fog-silveriness all around me looks like a ring of quicksilver pooled in a trench cut into the green, rolling landscape.

Usually when I turn around halfway through my run a sliver of the sun is just showing above the eastern horizon's fog. As I run and the whole sun gradually comes into view looking like an incandescent maraschino cherry, the fog's top surface rolls and billows in slow motion. Then for a moment the whole crest of the eastern fog blazes like a brushfire in the night.

On Friday as I dragged myself back to the old farmhouse still dazzled by what I'd seen two Canada Geese came honking, flying up from the fog-filled valley behind the house, coming out of the mists into the blue sky, flying exactly toward the crimson sun. All that day I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be one of those fog-geese seeing the sun right ahead, and me down below looking up at them, and the broad blue sky all around them, just waiting.

*****

BLACK LOCUSTS FLOWERING
When I left Natchez in southwestern Mississippi two weeks ago the Black Locusts, ROBINIA PSEUDOACACIA, were flowering down there. They're just now reaching their peak here, and what a sight they are! You can see a branch of Black Locust loaded with blossoms at http://www.uwex.edu/ces/wihort/Phenology/Blacklocust.html.

That page shows that the flowers look a lot like snapbean blossoms. That's because Black Locusts and snapbeans both belong to the Bean Family. The picture also shows how the Black Locust's leaves are pinnately compound -- each leaf divided into several oval leaflets arranged along a central stem, or rachis.

The Black Locusts here bear many more flowers than the ones I saw in Mississippi. According to my fieldguide to the trees, Black Locusts aren't native to southwestern Mississippi, so maybe that explains it -- the trees here are just happier in their native land.

In fact, Black Locusts are planted far beyond their native distribution. I've seen them planted along streets in towns, and often on land being reclaimed, especially land stripmined for coal. One reason for that is that Black Locusts grow well in disturbed soil, have extensive root systems that stabilize soil, and, being members of the Bean Family, introduce nitrogen into the soil.

If you are located far from this part of the world maybe you just can't imagine what a conspicuous and beautiful part of the landscape Black Locusts are here right now. First keep in mind that here the rolling hills and Kentucky-River cliffs are absolutely green, and there's all kinds of greenness, from the vivid, yellow-green of sunlight exploding inside new mulberry leaves, to the blackish, reserved green of Redcedars. And then there are the Black Locusts, so full of white blossoms that from a distance the trees look silvery.

These Black Locusts are simply smiles on the landscape. They make you happy just to look at them.

*****

THE OLD FARMHOUSE I'M LIVING IN
You can see the wonderful old farmhouse I'm living in at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/060504.jpg.

In that picture you'll note that there's no landscape in the background. That's because we're near a hilltop. Lately I've spent quite a few hours cleaning it up and slowly it's regaining some of the dignity it obviously once had. In recent years it's been pretty abused.

At the moment one idea about how to use the building is to declare it a "Simplicity Center" -- a kind of peaceful retreat people can visit with the main goal of rethinking their lives, reassessing their priorities, and getting back in touch with nature.

The basic idea is that simplifying one's life is usually an important step for solving almost any problem. My own interest in simplicity is largely based on the notion that when people simplify their lives they consume less, and that takes some pressure off the environment. When humans get back to the basics, Life on Earth stands a better chance of surviving.

Ruth and I have lots of ideas about the Center and I'll be sharing some of them later. Meanwhile, if any of you have any ideas about what a Simplicity Center should be like, and how it could serve humanity, let me know.

*****

DANDELION SALAD AND POKE
I'm lucky to have arrived in central Kentucky exactly when Dandelion leaves and Pokeweed shoots are perfect for eating. Several times since I've been here I've gathered fistfuls of Dandelion leaves, snipped them into stamp-size sections, poured oil and vinegar over them, sprinkled on a tiny bit of salt, mixed it all up, and, boy, it was good. I'd forgotten how good Dandelion salad tastes.

Dandelion connoisseurs often let their freshly picked leaves soak in saltwater about half an hour before composing their salad. Also, they tend to mix in other kinds of leaves on the premise that the pure Dandelion flavor is a little robust for refined tastes.

If you decide to pick some leaves for a salad, be sure they haven't been peed on by dogs, doused with herbicides, or coated with exhaust fumes from passing cars. Also, my experience is that once the big flush of fruiting heads -- the puffballs -- have lost their fuzz, the leaves are beginning to be bitter. At locations south of Kentucky it may be too late to enjoy the tasty salads I have. Finally, I wouldn't bother with the stunted kinds of dandelions found in most lawns because they might be too tough and bitter. The leaves I've been picking are from fields that haven't been touched for a while, and the leaves stand up like dark green, glossy rabbit ears at least a foot high.

Most of my life I've also picked Pokeweed shoots. I'd just take the top eight inches or so of the shoot, keeping in mind that the purple stem below the shoot is poisonous. I'd cook the shoots, then pour off the water, put the shoots onto a plate, add salt and pepper and, when I felt particularly affluent and skinny, smear it all with butter.

Well, one recent morning, since I don't yet have my campfire routines down pat, I decided to forego the boiling in water and just snip the shoots directly into my skillet, sauté them and then scramble my eggs into them.

That tasted pretty good but apparently skipping the parboiling wasn't a good idea. I think my shoots, even though they were just the green tops, retained enough poison in them -- which usually gets poured off with the water -- to make me sick. I lost that breakfast about five minutes after I ate it, and I didn't feel well the whole day.

So, there are insights here.

The first insight is that the Earth is bounteous and good. The second is that it's not enough to simply make the mental flip enabling you to appreciate things like Dandelions and Pokeweed. You also need to know the art of taking advantage of these gifts, without which you may end up poisoning yourself as I did. In the past this art was communicated to us through traditions passed down to us from our families.

Yet a third insight can be mentioned here. Not only have most people never learned about the wonderful things the Earth offers freely, but agencies within our culture actually cause people to despise them. Lately I've heard more than one person's disparaging words about Dandelions.

So, it seems that our culture has passed through three doors on its way to alienating itself so thoroughly from Nature's bounteousness.

The first door was losing the art of taking advantage of what was given freely.

The second was forgetting that there ever was something free in the first place.

The last was acquiring contempt for those things not hyped on TV and in magazines.

Well, maybe one way to start the journey back to the first door might be to go out and pick Dandelion leaves for a nice salad, and eat them with proper ceremony and thankfulness. Or have some nice buttery Pokeweed shoots.

Just remember to cook that poke, though, and then throw the water away!

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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