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

August 10, 2006

WILDFLOWERS OF LATE SUMMER
Last Sunday I got hungry for something sweet so I waded through tick-infested, knee-high grass to the blackberry patch. But, it was too late, or maybe it's been too dry lately, for the berries were small, juiceless and almost bitter.

Passing through the fields, however, I was tickled to see new flowerings. I've spoken of how here we have distinct spring and fall wildflower-blossomings. Right now we're at the very beginning of the fall flowering period. Back in Mississippi when I stayed in one place for years I developed the notion that only two seasons exist, spring and fall. These new blossomings fill me with feelings of incipient fall.

The first goldenrod was out, SOLIDAGO GIGANTEA, with its golden yellow topknot, standing next to a reddish- purple-blossomed Ironweed, VERNONIA ALTISSIMA. There were blue-flowered Mistflower, EUPATORIUM COELESTINUM, white-flowered Wingstem, VERBESINA VIRGINICA, and a weedy fleabane called White-top because of its white flowers with yellow centers, ERIGERON STRIGOSUS. Maybe the most flamboyant presence was Wild Senna, CASSIA MARILANDICA, with clusters of bright yellow, ¾-inch- broad flowers at the tips of stems bearing emerald- green, locustlike leaves.

All these species are native. If somehow you could cause all the flowering non-native invasives to vanish -- the Queen-Anne's Lace, the clovers, the chicory -- the current flowering outburst would be even more striking.

As I went along I collected snippets of flower clusters to remind me of what I'd seen when I got back, because I'd brought a bag for blackberries, not a notebook. Trudging up the hill through shimmering heat to the old farmhouse I glanced at the impromptu bouquet and all I could think was, "How pretty." The green, the blue, the reddish purple, the white, the bright yellow, and all the various flower and leaf forms and textures, and the odor of crushed herbage, all arising from my sweaty, red, veiny, hairy hand.

How nice. Fall in coming. It's been a glorious summer, and still is. Green, blue, reddish purple... heat, fragrance, birdsong, breathing and sweating... up the hill slight weariness past the spring with its purple- flowering Spearmint and sun-glistening dragonflies... Alive, alive, alive...

*****

AT THE RED RIVER GORGE
The other day my friend Jarvis, whom I hadn't seen since the 1970s, passed through Kentucky and invited me on a daytrip to the Red River Gorge in Daniel Boone National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains about an hour east of here. Jarvis just retired as a professor of ornithology with the University of North Carolina system and for years has maintained an ecological study plot at the Gorge. While he gathered data at his plot I wandered around.

The gorge is a land of narrow sandstone ridges separated from one another by very steep to vertical slopes and deep valleys. Ridge forests largely of Chestnut Oak, Scarlet Oak, Blackgum, Tulip Poplar, Sourwood and Virginia Pine are dry and rather open while deep in the valleys the trees are much taller and closer together, with a lush and dense understory. Trees there include Hemlock, Beech, Tulip Poplar, Red Maple, Basswood and many other species. Rhododendron is conspicuous in the understory.

Sometimes rock falls away from the lower cliff faces of both sides of a very narrow ridge creating an open natural arch or "sky bridge." By luck I came upon one of the bigger ones, Gray's Arch, which you can see at http://www.pa.uky.edu/~trice/gorge/picts/grays.jpg.

I say "by luck" because the US Forest Service remains so underfunded that the area's signage is useless. More links to photos of the Gorge area can be found at http://www.pa.uky.edu/~trice/gorge/Photo_Gallery.html.

While natural arches are uncommon, very often rock material has fallen away from lower cliff faces to form "rock houses" which are large (house size and larger) holes. Overhanging rock keeps the big holes' floors dry and often the roomy openings are dark, with the walls encrusted with fragile ferns, mosses, lichens and the like. Many Native-American artifacts have been found in rock-house soil, and amateur potholing has destroyed most of these sites' archeological value.

*****

WHITE-HAIRED GOLDENROD
Approaching one such rock house I found the area beneath the overhanging sandstone fenced off, with conspicuous, foot-high announcement-papers hung along the fence every few feet. The posters said that the dimly lit, dry zone just beyond the fence, where just enough light and moisture reached for an herb layer to start forming, was the home of the White-haired Goldenrod, SOLIDAGO ALBOPILOSA, officially listed by the US Government as a threatened species. I saw plenty of the plant and you can see it too, as well as a map showing its entire worldwide distribution at http://www.biology.eku.edu/t&especies/whitehairedgoldenrod.html.

That distribution map shows clearly why the plant might be threatened. Kentucky, which is not a large state, has 120 counties, so the counties here are pretty small. The White-haired Goldenrod is found ONLY behind the dripline of sandstone rock-shelters and on rock ledges in three of Kentucky's little counties.

The fence protecting the populations was hip-high "chicken wire" that in some places had been knocked down. In one spot someone had built a campfire just behind the fence. Here is what the US Fish & Wildlife Service "Red Book" says about the species at http://www.fws.gov/endangered/i/q/saq4t.html.

The primary threat to the survival of white-haired goldenrod is the many visitors to rockshelters in the Red River Gorge area each year... Damage by visitors reached a peak in the 197O's ... During this period, 75 percent of the occurrences of this species were severely damaged, and 11 occurrences (3,422 individuals) were extirpated... One monitored occurrence declined from 415 stems to 85 stems, and another occurrence declined from 828 stems to 32 stems between the early 197O's and the mid-1980's... Another serious threat to the species is archaeological looters. Approximately half of the rockshelters in this area were once inhabited by Indian tribes."

One wonders how such a species came into existence. It appears to have evolved from the Broad-leaf Goldenrod, Solidago flexicaulis, which is a similar and much more common species often found on the forest floor outside the dim light and dry soil tolerated by the White- haired. A good guess might be that during the Ice Age most Broad-leaf Goldenrods were pushed southward but a few individuals found shelter in rock houses. During many centuries the rock-house dwellers gradually evolved adaptations -- such as its coat of white hairs -- to extreme Pleistocene conditions. By the time the glaciers to the north withdrew and forests with Broad- leafed Goldenrods migrated back to our latitudes the genetic differences between the two goldenrod populations had become so great that they could no longer exchange genetic information, or pollinate one another, so a new species had arisen.

But, that's just a guess.

Whatever the case, it was an honor to meet this rare, exquisitely evolved species.

The only other visitor I spoke to at the Gorge that day was someone scouting for cliffs to rappel from. When he asked me for suggestions I must have given him such a hard look, visualizing him rappelling onto a colony of White-haired Goldenrod, that he backed away, not waiting for an answer.

*****

SPROUTS OF AMERICAN CHESTNUTS
During my hike in the Gorge I saw several knee-high sprouts of American Chestnut trees, CASTANEA DENTATA. Typically two to four spindly switches arose from a woody crown buried below the leaf litter. The switches' leaves were longish, slender and glossy, with needle-pointed serrations along the margins. It's estimated that a hundred years ago one in four Appalachian trees may have been an American Chestnut. They were big, beautiful and useful trees, too, growing up to 100 feet high and 10 feet in diameter.

But then, probably in the late 1800s, a fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, was introduced into the US Northeast, possibly on imported Japanese Chestnut trees. The fungus spread and was first noticed at the Bronx Zoo in 1904. By 1950 billions of trees had been killed. Back in the 70s I still saw an occasional standing chestnut skeleton, but now I just find a few sprouts like this, though sometimes I hear of others who find mature trees that somehow have survived. The American Chestnut Foundation is working to restore the species, and you can read about their efforts at http://www.acf.org/.

You can see pictures and a map showing the species' former Eastern American distribution at http://www.acf.org/Chestnut_history.htm.

Back in my European days I spent part of a summer on the Mediterranean island of Corsica where the rugged mountains were mantled with a different chestnut species, Castanea sativa. It also grew to 100 feet high, and looked a lot like our American tree. I got to hike slopes mantled with stands of pure chestnut where sunlight filtering through yellowing chestnut leaves created a glowing goldness beautiful to walk through. I saw where the spiny husks of chestnut fruits littered the ground so thickly that I could only shake my head thinking of how many delicious chestnuts must have fallen there. I thought how wonderful it used to be to buy roasted chestnuts from Italian street vendors in Manhattan on cold winter days. A local Corsican country person showed me how to find the gourmet's favorite fungus, the subterranean truffle, not with pigs trained to sniff them out but by looking for a certain kind of fly that flew in a certain way above the truffles' locations.

Also I tried to imagine what a bounty the chestnut fall in America must have been for wild pigs, deer, rodents and so many other creatures. And what a trauma it must have been to the Eastern Forest ecosystem when the chestnuts suddenly disappeared -- all that delectable biomass just vanishing, being removed from wildlife's menu. What was the impact when wild pigs stopped rooting up the soil looking for nuts -- stopped aerating the soil and mingling organic and inorganic matter? When the seasonal fall of so much organic matter ended, how did it affect the vast metropolitan soil-zone of bacteria, fungi, vertebrates and invertebrates, and the larger plants and animals depending on the soil?

Today a hiker wouldn't know that just a hundred years ago the intact parts of the Appalachian forest had a completely different character, and were surely more species-diverse than today.

That's the thing about extinction, and destruction of any kind. Creation of the lost thing may have required millions of years of evolution but, once it's gone, it's simply gone, and the one who comes later never knows that the life being lived now isn't as rich and diverse as it could have been.

There's a lot of info and links to pictures and PowerPoint presentations on the American Chestnut at http://www2.vscc.cc.tn.us/jschibig/resurrectingthechestnut.htm.

*****

WRENS, AGAIN
Longtime readers may recall that at my camps in Mississippi each summer Carolina Wrens built nests in my outside kitchen and barn-room office. A few weeks ago when I walked into the indoor kitchen here and saw a wren peeping into the wall hole where a stovepipe once entered I knew what was going on. This old house is missing so many windows and screens that birds, bats, butterflies and other critters pretty much go and come as they please, basically ignoring me.

For several days I kept shooing the bird away, fearing that if a nest got going Lucian the carpenter might clear it out, since I've heard talk of tearing the old chimney down. Then one day I peeped into the nest and saw four wren eggs, so I gave up.

When the mama wren hears me get up from the computer in the next room planning to get some water from the kitchen, usually she decides to avoid me by flying across the kitchen and out the next room's window. What this means is that typically we pass one another as I enter the door leading into the kitchen. She flies right past my head, sometimes her wing feathers brushing my ear. If I wait a few extra seconds to let her go first, she tends to wait a few seconds as well, so we meet the same way. If I rush, she rushes. So, it's worked out that we just expect to meet in that door, and then she squawks and complains as she exits the window.

Maybe it's the male who comes for a visit, lands in the middle of the floor, and sings as robustly as possible. Because there's no furniture, no curtains or anything except bare wooden floor and bare wooden walls and ceiling, it's like an echo chamber. It sounds like a six-foot bird woopidy-woopidy- woopidying. When you've been sitting a long time absorbed in computer work, that sudden, shrill outbreak of woopidying can surprise you.

The German name for a wren is "Zaunkönig," which means "King of the Fence." That name suggests a familiarity with the fussy little wren's manner going back many generations. I can just imagine my ancient Germanic- tribe ancestors smilingly shaking their heads at their own audacious, noisy little brown birds complaining at them from boulders and rock fences. "Zaunkönig!" they laugh, and spit.

*****

BLACK NIGHTSHADE
A single, foot-high Black Nightshade, SOLANUM NIGRUM, grows in my weedy garden. This somewhat delicate- looking invasive from Europe, with its small, white flowers bearing long, yellow anthers can be seen at http://www.caf.wvu.edu/~forage/library/poisonous/page16.htm.

The above page is entitled "Poisonous Plants of the Southern United States," and it's true that many nightshades are poisonous. By "nightshades" I mean members of the Nightshade Family, the Solanaceae. Beside Black Nightshade, the Nightshade Family includes such shady characters as Belladonna, Mandrake, tobacco and Datura or Jimson Weed, as well as such delectables as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and green and red peppers, including jalapeños.

What makes certain members of the family poisonous is the alkaloid solanine, which enables the plants to wage chemical warfare with animals who would eat them. Solanine can be found in all parts of plants having it, but usually it's most concentrated in the fruit. Black Nightshade's fruits remain green and pea-sized for a long time, then turn juicy and glossy black. Solanine ingestion causes abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of coordination, weakness, depression, hallucinations, convulsions, and sometimes death.

When you leave white potatoes out and they develop green spots where the sun hits them, solanine concentrates in the green spots making them poisonous.

One good thing is that nightshades containing a lot of solanine are so bitter that you'd not want to eat much.

Often chemicals taken in one dosage are poisonous but used in lesser concentrations are medicinal. I've read that decoctions of Black Nightshade leaves have been used as eyewashes, and that such washes also tighten the gums when teeth are loose.

Chemically solanine is C45H73NO15. You can see a model of its molecular structure, like a Y with a bent handle, at http://www.3dchem.com/molecules.asp?ID=26.

On that page, if you have a fast connection and a fairly new computer operating system, you can click on the molecular model and then in a new window move around a 3D model of the molecule with your mouse, looking at it from all directions!

*****

ECHINACEA FLOWERS
My "Flower Types Good to Know" section at http://www.backyardnature.net/flowers.htm has become the most visited part of my backyard-nature website. This week Ruth's Echinaceas, or Purple Coneflowers (ECHINACEA PURPUREA), were blossoming so I added a new page describing the special anatomical features of Echinacea flowers. The new page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_echin.htm.

Echinaceas are native American plants growing mainly in dry, open woods, prairies and barrens west of the Eastern Deciduous Forest biome. Apparently at least three species are useful medicinally, including the ones planted in gardens. For over 400 years Native Americans used Echinacea to treat infections and wounds, and as a general cure-all. Today Echinacea is used mostly to reduce the symptoms and duration of the common cold and flu. Many herbalists also recommend it for boosting the immune system. Studies in Germany indicate that Echinacea won't prevent colds or flu, but it will diminish the symptoms by about one-third.

There's much more about Echinacea's medicinal value at the University of Maryland Medical Center's website at http://www.umm.edu/altmed/ConsHerbs/Echinaceach.html.

*****

JARVIS'S HAMBURGER
As Jarvis drove us back from the Red River Gorge we were both hungry and thirsty, and I was so appreciative of having been invited along that I proposed that we stop and I'd buy him a meal. I recalled that Jarvis hadn't been a vegetarian back in the 70s so I said I'd even buy him a hamburger if he wanted. I've been a vegetarian for about 35 years but I don't expect my friends to live according to my own beliefs. Jarvis cocked his eyebrow and said, "If I wanted to eat something from a domesticated animal, I wouldn't eat beef."

I had to know why not.

"I've read that in the US cattle are fed mostly on soybeans and corn. I regard that as a waste of land. It's an inefficient use of resources."

Jarvis also had his thoughts about the antibiotics, steroids and other things domestic animals meant for the table are pumped full of, but what so impressed me was that his first consideration had been an ethical one. Except for rightwing political types and preachers who are paid to talk about them, how often nowadays do you hear someone take a stand on an ethical issue, and practice what they believe? Now I started remembering why I liked Jarvis when we attended graduate school together.

I also started remembering that as a kid back in the 50s one day I got a look at the books read by the town druggist my mother worked for in the teeny, western- Kentucky town near our farm. Among other things he was reading Aristotle. I was told that he, the town doctor and the town lawyer discussed such topics as "what is virtuous" during their card-playing Friday nights. Moreover, my impression is that this was fairly typical for those times. Somehow a goodly percentage of people back then felt that what they thought and did made a difference, and that they had a citizen's duty to get their minds straight about complex issues.

I can just visualize Mr. Owens the pharmacist on a sultry, cricket-chirping summer night with the fan rattling in the background baiting his card buddies with the pronouncement, "I won't eat that hamburger because the cow was fed with soybeans, and that's an unethical use of natural resources."

"If you don't eat the hamburger, farmers won't get paid for their cattle or their beans, and then families will suffer, so what's ethical about that?" Mr. Thomas the lawyer retorts.

"If you're worried about families, Ollie," replies Dr. Edds in his gruff voice, "then keep that girl of yours away from those steroid-packed hamburgers or she'll end up going to the prom sprouting a handlebar mustache... "

For an academic overview of exactly what the field of environmental ethics is concerned with take a look at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-environmental/.

For a surprisingly thorough and readable analysis of "The Ethics of Meat Eating," where you can learn that "Meat animals of the world alone consume food equal to calorific needs of 9 billion people," see Wikipedia's http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethics_of_vegetarianism and the "opposing view" attending that page.

To put that "9 billion people" in context we can note that on the day I type this the Earth's population is estimated to be about 6.5 billion.

How many vibrant ecosystems and how many forms of life might be spared from the plow and agricultural pesticides if we all embraced Jarvis's ethical framework, and lived accordingly?

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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