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

August 31, 2006

MOODY CRABAPPLE
Last spring I found an old apple tree about 20 feet tall way back near the cliffs, surrounded by an abandoned field being taken over by blackberry brambles. I figured the tree was a relict from back when Ruth's ancestors distilled peach brandy for sending down the river. An old house on a rotting log frame and with the roof collapsing stood a couple of fields away.

You can imagine my pleasure when I saw that the tree was loaded with little green apples. Over the summer the apples have grown exceedingly slowly, and still are green and only about the size of very large cherries. You can see what they look like now at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/060831.jpg.

I don't know what to expect from this tree. It's not aborting enough fruits for the ones there to grow to decent size. The tree seems intent on holding all of its apples, even if they are to stay cherry-size.

Nor can I figure out exactly what kind of apple tree it is. Its branches don't bear spiny spurs as do normal crabapples. If I had to guess, I'd theorize that it's mostly the Southern Crabapple, MALUS ANGUSTIFOLIA, a wild, native species, with some genes mixed in from the European apple, M. PUMILA, from which our market apples are derived.

Whatever its ancestry, this old tree out in its abandoned field feels about right to me, for this time of year, and for me being the way I am these days.

It's always been like this. Most of the year I feel compelled to work out what everything is I meet, know its taxonomy and significance exactly. But then along comes late summer and early fall and I find myself and the world around me tending toward abstraction. Things go gauzy, hard colors melt to pastels, urgencies lose their steam. I'm satisfied to sit and look at things, just let the old tree do what it wants. It's pretty standing there, deer bedding down beneath it when they wish, and that's enough.

Besides, I know that with the first chilly breeze hinting of winter suddenly I'll be my old self, identifying, list-making, getting things straight, despite myself.

*****

REDCEDARS
On my apple-tree walk I was gratified to see Eastern Redcedars, JUNIPERUS VIRGINIANA, with their graceful, dark-green forms just full of not-quite-mature, green, but already "glaucous" fruits. The mature fruits eventually will be blue, about 0.3 inch in diameter and even more "glaucous." See fruits on a tree at http://www.nps.gov/plants/pubs/chesapeake/plant/1260.htm.

That term "glaucous" comes in handy if you talk much about plant parts. Aloe vera leaves are somewhat glaucous, as are those of Daffodils, Blue Spruces and even cabbage leaves. Some plums are glaucous. Glaucous things are everywhere once you start looking for them. The word "glaucous" is a more precise, technical way of saying that something has a whitish or silvery cast to it -- a "bloom," or "frosting." Typically the glaucescence is a waxy, powdery coating that can be rubbed off. I suspect it mainly serves plants by reflecting sunlight from tissue that otherwise might be baked, and maybe it cuts down on dehydration and cold damage, too.

Throughout Kentucky redcedars are conspicuous on the landscape, especially in winter when their dark green forms show up starkly against the season's somber grays and browns. Here when a field is abandoned redcedars are often the first trees to invade because birds eat their pea-sized fruits, then redcedars get sowed from the sky, in bird poop. I can't see a redcedar without thinking of Christmas because as a kid our Christmas trees were redcedars cut from the fields. Redcedars have a pungent, clean smell that to me profoundly evokes the feelings of Christmas.

People out West would look at our redcedars and say that they're junipers, and they'd be right. Junipers are members of the genus Juniperus, and our redcedars are Juniperuses. This is another case when European pioneers arriving on North America's eastern coast didn't pay much attention when they named things. "Real cedars," or members of the genus CEDRUS, are similar to our redcedars but they produce woody cones instead of the fleshy, roundish fruits found on junipers such as our redcedars. Cedars of Lebanon are "real cedars." When you travel out West you'll see several juniper species, especially in rocky uplands. The Common Juniper is a sprawling, much-branched shrub; the Rocky Mountain Juniper grows up to 40 feet tall from several dividing trunks; the Alligator Juniper is a regular tree up to 60 feet high. My tree- guide lists eight juniper species for out West.

But, here in Kentucky we just have one, and people think of it as a cedar with wonderfully fragrant, richly red wood.

A map showing the Eastern Redcedar's distribution is found here.

*****

POMPOM FUNGUS
Last week's adventure of being poisoned by the Green- spored Parasol Mushroom had at least one good outcome: I wrote to Tom Volk, one of the nation's foremost mycologists (fungus experts), who produces a fine website about mushrooms at http://tomvolkfungi.net/. I wanted to impress on him that if he ever contributes to a mushroom-identification book he should report what I learned the hard way, and what other field guides don't mention: That Green-spored Parasols may not produce green spores or have green gills.

While I was writing to Tom I asked him for help identifying something Karen and I saw when we drove north to Kentucky last spring, in northeastern Mississippi. I wasn't even sure whether it was an insect gall or a fungus, though I suspected the latter. You can see the exact mystery item at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/toothfun.htm.

Tom wrote back that we'd met up with a "Pompom Mushroom" or "Lion's Mane," HERICIUM ERINACEUS. Tom says that it's great eating, and that many people cultivate it for food.

On my page at the above link I present the Pompom Mushroom as a good example of a "tooth fungus," as opposed to other kinds of fungus such as "gilled fungi," "pore fungi," "cup fungi," "jelly fungi," and other kinds. You might enjoy looking at my fungus section's index page to review fungus types, at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/2fungi.htm.

Basically, "tooth fungi" are very much like gilled mushrooms, only that instead of the spores being produced and released from gills, they fall from long, slender "teeth."

*****

POWDERY MILDEW ON SQUASH LEAVES
Speaking of fungi, my yellow crookneck squash plants have produced a bounty of good eating this summer, but now it's sad to see the vines because their big leaves are storm-tattered, bug-eaten and conspicuously covered with what looks like sprinklings of white powder. The white powder is a "powdery mildew" -- a fungus -- known by the name of GOLOVINOMYCES CICHORACEARUM. You can see a close-up of one of my squash-leaf's surface at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/squashpm.jpg.

The white powder on that leaf is composed of two main things. First, there's the fungus's white mycelium, which is the stringy fungal body looking more or less like fine, white roots. I have some nice pictures of mycelium -- the individual strands are called "hyphae" -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/funghyph.htm.

The other thing constituting the white powder on my squash leaves is many conidiophores bearing long chains of white conidia. Conidiophores look like the ends of hyphae, and the special thing about them is that occasionally they develop constrictions near their tips, then the roundish, cut-off parts fall off. The roundish, cut-off parts are conidia. These conidia are so light that they are blown away by the wind. When they land on the proper substrate they can germinate like a regular fungal spore and form new hyphae. Thus conidia enable the fungus to reproduce asexually -- no sex involved. This species also can reproduce sexually, but I'm not seeing that on my squash leaves, just white hyphae, conidiophores and conidia.

The powder looks very messy but if you had a powerful microscope you could see that at the microscopic level things are proceeding rather elegantly. You can see some photomicrographs (pictures taken with a microscope) of this species' conidiophores and conidia, as well as some shots of the sexual stage, here.

Powdery mildew is a very common disease on squash and other cucurbit crops (melons, cucumber, etc.), as well as sunflowers, peppers, potatoes, lettuce and many other things. The disease doesn't kill plants but it stresses them, robbing them of nutrients, impairing photosynthesis, and thus reducing crop yields by as much as 20 to 40%. It's estimated that crop losses caused by powdery mildews are greater than those caused by any other single kind of plant disease.

*****

A HORSE'S CHESTNUTS
Ruth is letting six of a neighbor's Mountain Horses pasture on her land and those critters are as pretty and good-natured as horses can be. Their coats are so sleek and perfect that the tiniest blemish shows up. Therefore it's not surprising that one might notice dark, scabby spots on the insides of their legs. Thing is, the spots are natural, and there's a fine story behind them. The spots are referred to as chestnuts, and you can see a close-up of a chestnut at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chestnut_(horse).

My attention was first drawn to horse chestnuts back in college days when we were studying horse evolution. It turns out that horse chestnuts are useless vestiges of the horse's evolutionary history, rather like human appendices and the useless, leftover leg-bones on boas and python snakes.

At http://www.bpeah.com/ThereBack.htm diagrams show how 55 million years ago the fox-sized horse ancestor called Hyracotherium had four-toed feet, the skeletal foot structure looking suspiciously like that of a chicken's. By the time Miohippus had emerged 35 million years ago the side toes were diminishing. By Merychippus time 17 million years ago the side toes were very modest appendages indeed and finally the bone structure of a modern horse shows that today's horses gallop about on the toe-nail of a single toe.

It's also a biological principle that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," which is reflected by the fact that developing human embryos show the gill slits of our fish ancestors, the tail of our later ancestors, and other such features before they are absorbed or reworked by the growing embryo. The above link also shows how developing modern-horse embryos start out with multi-toed feet but by birth the middle toe is the only one to see.

But, back to the chestnut. Chestnuts reside on the inside of the front legs just above the knee joint, and on the rear legs just below the hock, or main joint. Along with a similar horny feature called the ergot (a small outgrowth on the rear of the fetlock joint) chestnuts are considered to be remnants of pads such as are found on dogs and bears. In fact, if you touch a horse's rough-feeling chestnut, it might seem that its texture is just like the pad of a dog's foot. Think in terms of the pad migrating up the insides of horse legs during eons as the inside toe rose and finally disappeared.

"Hock," "ergot," "fetlock," "withers," "pastern," "dock," "stifle," "gaskin," "coronet," "frog" and a host of other horsy words swarm around horses like horseflies. A lot of them are short and hard-sounding words passed down direclty from our Anglosaxon ancestors without having been corrupted by vowel- piling-on Frenchification resulting from the lost Battle of Hastings in 1066. "Hock" is straight from Anglosaxon. "Fetlock" arose in Middle English. "Ergot" is from Old French, but the conquered Anglosaxons at least insisted on pronouncing the t at the end of the word, which the French don't. On and on horse-anatomy words go, mostly giving the impression that throughout history horse-words have been too important and too precious to be pompous with. You can review a list of horse-anatomy words about halfway down the long page at http://www.answers.com/topic/horse.

An entire dictionary just of horse words is at http://ultimatehorsesite.com/dictionary/dictionary.html.

Not too far from here at Lexington we have The International Museum of the Horse. Online the Museum presents a good "History of the Horse" section, from 56 million years ago to the present. That's at http://www.imh.org/imh/exh1.html.

*****

FOG
Some recent mornings have been among the foggiest I've ever seen. Probably being almost completely surrounded by a loop of the Kentucky River has something to do with it, maybe nudging the humidity a little higher than otherwise it would be.

Foggy mornings here are exceptionally picturesque because of our round-topped, pastured, small hills. These hilltops form dark islands dreamily emerging from great white lakes of morning fog, as they do in ancient Chinese landscape paintings. All that's needed to complete the picture are gnarly little pines silhouetted atop the hilltops, though we do have black cows.

Fog happens when air cools to a certain point. One way to visualize it is to remember that the more anything heats up, the more its molecules bounce around knocking into one another. When water gets really hot its molecules actually knock one another into free air, forming steam. Along the same vein, think of air with water molecules scattered throughout out. As the air cools, all the different molecules of the various gases calm down and bounce into one another with less violence and less frequency. Eventually the molecules are so sedate that the water molecules get so close to one another that they can join with hydrogen bonding. The cooler it gets -- to a certain point -- the more molecules join in, and the larger the suspended water droplet grows, until it's big enough to contribute to fog.

So, fog forms when air with water molecules suspended in it cools so that the molecules begin joining. The point at which this happens is known as the Dew Point. A nice home experiment using a jar and a rubber glove to make a fog chamber is described and explained at http://www.exploratorium.edu/snacks/fog_chamber.html.

Of course there are lots of footnotes to the process, and a whole taxonomy of fog types. In very salty air, as along the California coast where big waves break, sometimes fog forms in air with a relative humidity as low as 70%.

You can review the various kinds of fogs -- radiation fog, ground fog, advection fog, steam fog and more -- at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fog.

*****

CATERPILLAR & DIGITAL CAMERA
The other day Ruth got herself a digital camera, one of the Panasonic Lumix series. On the day she was learning how to snap simple pictures I suggested she try a close-up of a caterpillar of the Black Swallowtail Butterfly that happened to be on a fennel plant in her garden. With little more effort than pointing the camera at the caterpillar and snapping, she ended up with a wonderful picture, the one at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/b-swal-c.jpg.

The point is that digital cameras have gotten to the point where you can take amazingly good nature pictures, even when you don't know what you're doing. Work on a mediocre digital picture with a good graphics program such as PhotoShop and you can end up with professional-quality pictures. Nowadays you can keep digital insect collections on your computer without ever killing a bug. You can photograph all the mushrooms in your area, or fossils in rocks... A whole new arena of nature study and nature activity has opened up!

You can review my page on digital photography at http://www.backyardnature.net/digi-cam.htm and my other page on using graphics programs at http://www.backyardnature.net/graphix.htm.

If you ever decide to buy a camera or graphics program I hope you will consider purchasing it at Amazon.com via my own entry page, so that I can get a modest referral fee, which is needed to keep my websites paid for. It adds nothing to your cost. One of my Amazon.com entry pages is at http://www.backyardnature.net/amazon/index.htm.

*****

SNAKE IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN
When Ruth read my essay "Snake Brain" in the July 20th Newsletter she came up with a very interesting idea. That is, maybe this throws a whole new light on the Christian story about the Garden of Eden...

What I said in that essay was that in evolutionary history when mammals arose from reptiles the mammals inherited reptilian brains more or less intact, with new "mammalian brains" deposited atop the reptile one. When primates arose, "monkey brains" were set over the two previous brains.

As I said then, the reptilian brain is involved with circulation, respiration, digestion, elimination and mating. It also takes care of territorial behavior, pecking order, defense, aggression and the emotions of anger and fear. The more sophisticated mammalian brain is concerned with emotions of love, sadness, jealousy, and hope, and the "monkey brain" enables us humans to manifest the higher functions of imitation, speaking, writing, planning, symbolic reasoning and conceptualization.

So, maybe the "Snake in the Garden of Eden" story represents this situation: We humans have been offered, through the agency of evolution, the paradise possible with appropriate planning, reasoning and conceptualization, but somehow as a species we humans seem content dealing with the stuff of reptilian brains: "Circulation, respiration, digestion, elimination, mating, territoriality, pecking order, defense, aggression and the emotions of anger and fear."

I have often seen that myths represent situations and dynamics too complex, too dark and perverse for average minds to deal with, so I would not be surprised if the Snake in the Garden of Eden story comments directly on our human snake-brain condition.

If we are understanding things correctly here, then this unsettling question arises:

In a world where people let their snake-brain obsessions rule them, and vote on snake-brain issues, just how can society move toward more sustainable living patterns when that requires sophistication, empathy and rationality that only the mammalian and monkey brains are capable of providing?

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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

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