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

June 8, 2006

FIELD GARLIC ON A COLD DAY
Last Friday a cold front moved through and that afternoon, after some humid days with temperatures reaching over 90°, I found myself with a coat on, beneath a dark, raggedy, Decemberish sky, stalking through a weedy, abandoned field feeling more wintry than I have in a long time. Though I don't like cold weather, there's something about those kinds of blustery days that strikes a chord in me. Maybe it's my northern European genes feeling at home.

That day the fields were full of the plants most people call Wild Onions, but the books identify as Field Garlic, ALLIUM VENEALE. Their straight, slender, foot-tall stems topped by nickel-size, spherical clusters of purplish little bulbs, or more properly bulblets, bent beneath the wind. I got onto my knees and looked closely at a plant's bulblet cluster. A silvery, onionskin, pointy-topped cap that had protected the developing bulblets had been pushed to one side as the bulblets expanded. Now tiny leaves issued from each bulblet's top. You can see this at http://www.ukwildflowers.com/Web_pages/allium_vineale_crow_garlic.htm.

Field Garlic can produce sexually like other flowering plants, via flowers and seeds, but these bulblets provided another, asexual, method of reproduction. Also, when I pulled up a plant to look at its underground part I could see that its basal bulb was calving smaller bulbs from its sides just like regular garden-garlic bulbs. So, Field Garlic has these three ways of reproducing -- with flowers and seed-bearing fruits, with bulblets atop its stem, and with its basal bulb dividing into new bulbs. No wonder that some fields get overgrown with them!

But that day the Field Garlics around me bore no flowers, just stem-top bulblets. In fact, after standing there in the field staring at a bulblet cluster for a while something compelled me to just put the whole thing into my mouth and chew it -- even though I knew how sharp and garlicky the taste would be.

But, you know, something there was in the bitterly sharp taste and odor of that little weed's crunched bulblets that nicely complemented the raw sky, the cutting wind and the landscape's downright dismal mood. Something there was in that fumy garlickness that added stiffness to my spirit, caused me to squint and look sagely into the wind -- like a Viking into a stormy sea, maybe, or maybe like a mammoth-hunter studying the tundra. My teeth crunching the bulblets felt huge and flat, and my tongue thick, and for all I know my forehead may have receded to the profile of an Australopithecus.

That night lying cozily in my sleeping bag, the rims of my wet nostrils cold as ice, I dreamed of a great Elk climbing onto a jagged granite rock. He snorted, threw back his head so that his chin pointed at the sky and he bellowed so wonderfully that I awakened laughing because I'd seen it all so clearly.

*****

WALKING FERNS
Around my camp in Mississippi we had Climbing Ferns, which were twining vines. At Komchén in the Yucatan we had aquatic Water Ferns looking like salad lettuce strewn atop the water. Now here on limestone outcrops along the Kentucky River we have Walking Ferns. That's the name, "Walking Fern," ASPLENIUM RHIZOPHYLLUM. It's not frilly like a regular fern at all. It's like a green heart with a very long, pointed bottom. You can see what Walking Ferns look like at http://www.missouriplants.com/Ferns/Asplenium_rhizophyllum_page.html.

They "walk" when the "heart's" long-pointed tip touches soil, develops roots, and then from this rooting tip a whole new fern arises. Then the long- attenuate tip of the new frond does the same thing and yet another fern arises. In this way the fern "walks" across a rock's face. Sometimes you find three fern generations attached to one another.

Walking Ferns aren't uncommon throughout the deciduous forest region of eastern North America, from Canada and Minnesota south to Georgia and Mississippi west to Oklahoma and Kansas. You just need fairly moist and shaded rock outcrops. Still, most people don't recognize it as a fern when they see it.

*****

LATEX
My Polly's Bend garden is exactly at the stage the Yucatan garden was in when I left San Juan in April: The Collards are about a foot high, producing all I can eat, and the lettuce is at its peak of perfection. The lettuce will be getting bitter soon, so I'm eating all I can of it. Especially in mid afternoons when the leaves are warm and half wilted from the heavy sun I love to sit beside my lettuce bed and eat handfuls. My breath starts smelling like a hayfield, almost like a cow's.

Part of the beauty of the experience is thinking about the sun emitting radiant energy, that energy flowing 93,000,000 miles through space to Earth, flooding down from the sky and exploding inside my lettuce's gorgeously yellow-green, frilly-margined leaves, the miraculous process of photosynthesis then storing that sunlight energy among the bonds of the leaves' carbohydrate molecules, and then here I come almost immediately taking that sunlight energy into myself while the leaves are still warm, a true primary consumer, no Wal-Mart, no diesel-fuming semi truck barreling down an interstate between me and that lettuce leaf.

The lettuce leaves, when I snap the beautiful blades from their petioles, bleed milky juice from the petioles' severed plumbing. In fact, the various forms of garden lettuce are technically known as LACTUCA SATIVA. The species name "sativa" means "cultivated," and the genus name "Lactuca" is based on "lac," Latin for "milk." Lettuce plants are members of the Composite, or Daisy Family.

Lettuce's milky juice is so watery I'm not sure it qualifies as latex, but next to my lettuce bed a whole city of Common Milkweeds, ASCLEPIAS SYRIACA, stands about knee high, their pink flower buds promising to flower in a few days, and their broad, round-ended, opposite leaves stacked on their stiff, straight stems so regularly that the plants look like little green pagodas glowing in the sunlight. The milk in those milkweeds is so thick and white that I'm sure I can refer to it as latex.

A lot of plants have latex. Natural rubber is made from latex bled from the Rubber Tree's wounded stem. Euphorbias are usually full of latex, as are poppies. Before synthetics, chewing gum was made from latex of the Chicozapote tree I've written about from Mexico.

All the plants mentioned above having latex are members of different plant families and are not at all closely related. Thus latex has arisen in several branches of the evolving Tree of Life. I've read that some researchers suspect that free-living, latex- producing microbes were mutualistically incorporated into flowering-plant cells rather as were the ancestral forms of today's cellular mitochondria and chloroplasts, so maybe those ancestral latex-producing microbes simply cozied up with more than one species. I've also read that latex may have developed simply as a waste product from a host of chemical reactions. Who knows?

Why would a plant want latex in its veins to begin with?

One reason became apparent to me this week as I used chemical stripper to remove old paint from a building. The stripper softened the old paint to a latex state. When I used a wire brush to remove the latex, the wire bristles got uselessly gummy. In other words, when an insect bites into a leaf full of latex, the latex gums up the insect's chewing apparatus. Latex is often bitter, too.

Interestingly, some insects have developed the strategy of biting through the plumbing leading to leaves, resulting in low pressure in the leaf veins so that milk doesn't ooze out when the bug eats on the leaf.

When latex dries, like latex paint, it hardens. On a plant where latex has issued from a wound, the hardened latex plugs the wound like a scab.

I think about all this as I poke more and more milk- bleeding lettuce into my mouth, and somehow this makes my lettuce even sweeter.

*****

GLANDULAR HAIRS
While we're on the topic of plant defenses, this week while I was admiring a Spiny-leafed Sow Thistle, SONCHUS ASPER, growing peacefully along the road, I noticed that it bore exceptionally nice glandular hairs right beneath its inflorescence of yellow blossoms. Glandular hairs are hairs with glands at their tops. I scanned part of the stem with a good selection of glandular hairs and you can see that at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/gland-hr.jpg.

Some plants have glandular hairs with glands so sticky that sometimes you find insects stuck to them, especially aphids. Thus such glandular hairs protect the plant's delicate plumbing from certain bugs. Other times, though, I've seen hairs with glands that didn't seem sticky at all.

You might be surprised if you should take a magnifying glass and begin looking closely for hairs on every plant you come across. There's all kinds of them! Whole books can be written just about plant hairs.

In fact, I have a page about them with a number of interesting pictures, and a substantial list of words useful when talking about hairs -- from "acicular" to "villous" -- which you can access at http://www.backyardnature.net/hairs.htm

*****

SHARP-SHINNED HAWK & WOODLOUSE
You know, this thing we are doing with the Internet, you and I, is quite nice, and I still haven't figured out just where we're going.

This week Larry in Mississippi wrote to me about sitting on a rock near his house when a hawk landed in a tree not far away. He writes:

"Momentarily another hawk arrived and they mated right there in the top of that old snag. They flew in and out of the snag for about another hour. By looking at my book I identified them as Accipiter striatus or Sharp-shinned Hawk. Their square tails and coloring and small size gave them away."

After supplying a few more details Larry ends:

"What a sight! When you see something like that it makes you giddy. I would not trade this experience for a trip to Rome!"

Then a couple of days later Rachel someplace in cyberspace wrote to me because she'd found a woodlouse, wanted to know more about it, and Googled up one of my pages, where I told her a bit about it. She writes:

"When I read on your site that her species 'require moist habitats because their delicate gill-like breathing organs must be kept moist...' I immediately placed strips of napkin in her cup and drizzled them with a few drops of water, making it nice and soggy. I was astonished as she immediately calmed down, for she had been frantically scurrying for about half an hour straight."

Rachel continues the story, with the woodlouse eventually "giving birth" to 20-30 young ones. Rachel was simply blown away. She sums up her experience by writing:

"This has been one of the most beautiful experiences of my life!!!" and she signs herself as "an admirer of God's awesome design."

Well, how about that? Two people with their hearts open to living things have shared their experiences with me, and I'm just tickled.

Feelings, information, spirituality -- all mingling and blossoming, evolving and engendering new levels of awareness...

When I see what is happening and what the possibilities are if we can just keep from destroying ourselves, I almost start having a little hope...

*****

SHOULD WE HAVE A FORUM?
Several people have suggested that I establish an online forum where subscribers can share experiences such as those Larry and Rachel sent me.

Several years ago I did set up such a forum, when Newsletter subscribership was a fraction of what it is now. Several people seemed to enjoy it and posted very interesting and well written notes there. However, to keep the forum free of spam and other unwanted stuff I had to maintain it daily and, in the end, decided it was just too much of a distraction from my simple everyday life, so I pulled the plug.

If someone out there would enjoy moderating such a forum -- basically checking it once a day to guard against spam and other inappropriate posting -- I'd be glad to set up a forum again. I'd want the forum to stay focused on what people are seeing in their own home areas.

If you're interested, write to me by going to http://www.backyardnature.net/j/writejim.htm.

*****

FOG OVER THE RIVER
Breakfasts here are as pleasant as they were this winter at San Juan and at my previous camps in Mississippi. Immediately after jogging I build a campfire, get two liters of mint tea steaming, bake a large skillet of hermitbread (½ oatmeal, ¼ cornmeal, ¼ self-rising wheat flour, mixed with water), sauté a substantial mess of collard greens, fry two eggs, and then eat, drink and look around.

On most mornings white fog pools in the Kentucky River's deep, steep-walled valley almost encircling us with one of its meander loops. It's almost as if someone dug a trench around us, then filled it with whipped cream. Sometimes the fog pools deeply enough to turn the round-topped hills around us into green islands. Rarely it creeps up around the house itself, and me, condensing coldly in my beard and making the campfire cranky as a sick kitten.

As the sun rises the fog glows brighter and its placid upper surface starts heaving the way a calm sea does as wind begins to stir. As radiant energy floods into the fog the fog-pools start subsiding because the cold air in the valley and responsible for the fog's presence in the first place slowly warms up. But the sun's energy also causes the air in the valley to grow more turbulent. This means that even as the depth of the fog-pools diminishes, some of the fog-waves on the pools' upper surface splash higher than ever up the valley's walls, and troughs between fog-waves dip lower and lower. Finally the whole fog system becomes a swirling half-transparency, and then simply vanishes.

Often as my campfire crackles beside me I reflect on how this is a good demonstration of how global warming works: As energy enters the system -- whether its sunlight flooding into fog or radiant energy gathering in the atmosphere because of increasing carbon dioxide causing the greenhouse effect -- the system becomes unstable. Though warming is imperceptible from moment to moment, turbulence increases steadily. In the end, things fall apart: the fog swirls and vanishes; the Earth's cold waves grow colder, the heat waves grow hotter, and droughts, floods and cyclones grow ever more intense, until the Earth-ecosystem, the biosphere, collapses.

Sometimes I think I should invite the Bush Administration to have breakfast with me.

But, then, they'd just ruin my breakfast obsessing about gays, school prayer, and immigrants.

Well, I'm glad I'll die before the valleys no longer fill with cold fog at dawn.

*****

AL GORE'S "AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH"
By the way, you can access the website promoting Al Gore's global movie, with some basic facts about global warming, links to film excerpts, and more at http://www.climatecrisis.net/

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net