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

September 7, 2006

FIELD CRICKET TINTINNABULATIONS
At this time of year, day and night, untold numbers of male field crickets chirp stereophonically from shadowy, dewy pockets in field grass, pastures, lawns, roadsides and even woods. In their ocean of sound you try to locate a single cricket but it's hard, for when you're close enough to discriminate one chirp from another the cricket grows silent. You wait for him to start up again but when he does he stops the moment you move forward. This way you know he's watching you -- if perceiving you through all those compound eyes and with a cricket's brain can be called "watching." You walk and walk and the chiming never diminishes. So many, so many, so many little black crickets in the dark green grass.

All those singers are males calling for females. What are we to think of a creation strung together so that for days and nights on end these little black, glisteny beings call and call just for the matter of copulation? And that their singing is so pretty?

Radiant energy erupts from the sun to flow 93 million miles through empty space and floods onto our Earth. Falling on green grass, magical chemistry powered by sunlight photosynthesizes carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrate stored in the grass. Crickets eat the grass and other green stuff, transferring the sun's energy into themselves, and now that energy powers tintinnabulations in grass, endless chiming, endless chirping, and the chiming is all for sex. Sunlight to sex and song.

Or maybe not. Maybe the sex and song just represent a bottleneck in the method, artifacts of life enabling information to keep flowing. The information, evolved by the Universal Creative Force over eons, is "How to Make a Field Cricket" and it's encoded in DNA that gets to make a trip from male cricket to female cricket, a trip in microscopic, wiggling tadpoles that instantly die if the environment of sex isn't just right and perfectly timed. What a funny thing that such important information ends up bottlenecked inside a squirmy little cricket sperm.

And so the dark green grass of fields, pastures, lawns, roadsides and even woods these days is full of shadows and song, and one just walks and walks, smiling, smiling, smiling.

*****

CANADA GEESE AT DAWN
Last spring I mentioned how some mornings a small flock of flying Canada Geese emerged from the dense, white ribbon of fog pooling atop the Kentucky River nearly completely encircling Polly's Bend's peninsula, and noisily sailed low over my campfire breakfasts. I've heard them on and off all summer. Lately they've been appearing regularly, but now the flock is a lot larger. I'm guessing that it's the same birds from this spring, now accompanied by this year's new crop of juveniles. They honk even louder now, as you might expect of parents up there telling kids to keep up and pay attention.

The distribution map for Canada Geese in my falling- apart, copyrighted-1966 field guide to the birds shows Canada Geese spending their summers in Canada and part of the northwestern US, overwintering in the southern states and along the coasts, and in this part of Kentucky and most of the rest of the US appearing only during migration. Obviously the map is out of date. Everyone knows that in much of the US Canada Geese populations remain year round.

When I was a kid in western Kentucky, our spring- and fall-migration sightings of Canada Geese always provided a thrill, for it was something majestic touching our humdrum lives. Now many Americans associate Canada Geese with the messes they make when overfed and staying in once place. The world of Canada Geese is rapidly evolving, accommodating human geography and human destruction of natural habitat. Canada Geese are almost like the Southern Hornets whose nests, until now seldom larger than basketballs and holding only one queen, are showing up half the size of a car, and with up to 70 queens.

Perdue University provides a good but possibly outdated introduction to Canada Geese at http://www.ces.purdue.edu/extmedia/FNR/FNR-129.html.

On that page you'll find a review of various races of Canada Geese -- dwarf, normal, and giant ones. The normal and dwarf races are supposed to nest only in the far north. The giant race, with a wingspread of up to six feet across, migrates only locally, so any goose family spending the summer in this area is supposed to be a Giant Canada Goose. The ones I'm seeing don't look that large, so I wonder if maybe the races are blending.

On the topic of global warming affecting bird distribution you might enjoy looking at an online paper from National Wildlife Magazine on the matter at http://www.nwf.org/nationalwildlife/article.cfm?articleid=706&issueid=58.

That article begins:

"By the late 21st century, says scientist Jeff Price, the distribution of North American birds will almost certainly look nothing like the species' range maps found in today's popular field guides. Some startling possibilities: State birds such as the Baltimore oriole (Maryland) and black-capped chickadee (Massachusetts) will have vanished from their official residences; there will be painted buntings in southern Minnesota but no bobolinks... "

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COYOTES HOWLING
Ever since I've been at Polly's Bend I've heard Coyotes howling. Coyotes were common at my Mississippi camps but I don't recall ever seeing one when I was a kid in western Kentucky. In fact, the distribution map in my 1964-copyright mammal field guide shows Coyotes completely absent from all of the US Southeast, except for a small area where they'd just crossed the Ohio River into northern Kentucky. At that time Coyotes were found from Alaska south through the western US through Mexico. They hadn't even come close to crossing the lower Mississippi River into the state of Mississippi.

Distribution maps now show Coyotes from Nicaragua to northernmost Alaska, in all the 48 contiguous states and all but northeastern Canada but, for some reason, they are absent in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. In other words, just in my lifetime coyotes have gone from nonexistent in the US Southeast to present, sometimes abundant. You can see the species' current distribution map midway down the page at http://www.canids.org/SPPACCTS/coyote.htm.

An interesting point made at the above link is that when Coyotes get established they drive out foxes, but Coyotes are absent where wolves survive.

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PERFECT PASSION-FLOWERS
Ruth has Passion-flower vines, PASSIFLORA INCARNATA, growing across her porch. The other day one blossom was so perfect that she just had to use her new digital camera to take a picture of it, and I just had to set up a new Passion-flower page using the image at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_passn.htm.

On that page you'll see that despite the Passion- flower's exotic-seeming anatomy, it's actually pretty easy to interpret, with the standard male anthers and filaments and female stigmas, styles and ovaries, only with a few extra things thrown in.

Passion-flower vines are the same as Maypops. The appropriateness of the "May" part of the name can be debated but the "pop" part is OK since it refers to the popable quality of the vines' yellow, lemon-sized fruits appearing on the ground in late summer and early fall. At least in the old days kids would stomp on them just to hear them explode. I used to think that only mean kids did that but now that it doesn't even occur to most young people to roam around in the fields in an unstructured, do-what-you-want-to manner, I think I'd almost get teary-eyed with affection if I saw a kid popping a Maypop.

Nowadays you can buy passion-flower fruits in supermarkets so you probably know about their perfumy taste and slimy, seedy pulp. What you buy is an imported, tropical species, but fruits of our wild species also are edible. However, you have to wait until the fruit's white, rather bitter pith has turned to an almost transparent gelatinous state before it's good. The edible pulp is filled with seeds, so either you have to do a lot of spitting or just chew the seeds and swallow, which I tend to do.

In some areas the Passion-flower species shown on my new page is quite common, almost weedy. There's a second species, known as the Yellow Passion-flower, which has much smaller flowers and fruits, and is hardly noticed by anyone. The big, common one, however, is so bodacious that it's hard to believe it's a common, native plant more or less holding its own against the invasive weeds.

*****

TALL REDTOP
The fall flowers are just about ready to erupt forth. Goldenrods and asters burgeon with knobby little green flower buds. Here and there where afternoon sunlight gathers in sheltered microclimates already you can find special blossomings. At this special late-summer time there's one grass already putting on a special show.

It's Tall Redtop, TRIODIA FLAVA. It's a big grass, with flower heads up to five feet high. What's eye catching is that the collection of flowers -- the inflorescence or "panicle" of spikelets -- is large, open, and the flower spikelets themselves are fairly big, reddish purple and on long, gracefully arching branches. A well-lighted inflorescence rising before a dark background is an essay in poise, symmetry and pliancy.

Moreover, Tall Redtop is a native species, which is remarkable in any disturbed, grassy landscape where Eurasian species predominate. Tall Redtop is distributed from New Hampshire to Minnesota and Nebraska southward.

You can see a close-up of part of a flowering head at http://davesgarden.com/pf/showimage/55310.html.

*****

INDIAN TOBACCO
I've run into a number of unrelated species called "Indian Tobacco" and one of them is flowering and fruiting now in our weedy fields. It's a member of the Lobelia Family, and a real lobelia itself, LOBELIA INFLATA.

If you taste an Indian Tobacco leaf you'll understand instantly why it's called tobacco. Back in the late 1960s an old lady-friend always on the lookout for new ways to make money asked me if I'd heard of Lobelia inflata. I told her it grew here and there as a weed on her farm in southern Kentucky north of Nashville. She was ecstatic. She'd read in a business magazine that new research proved that smoking was deadly, and that soon a whole new industry would open up, one helping people stop smoking. Moreover, a new nicotine substitute was on the market, called Nicoban, and lots of Lobelia inflata was needed. Anyone with much Lobelia inflata could make a fortune!

So she asked me to collect Lobelia inflata seeds, sow them, and see if the next summer we could harvest a few tons of nicotine substitute.

As soon as I saw how tiny the seeds were, like fine sawdust, I knew that getting them to germinate would be hard to impossible. I must have collected millions of seeds (easy because they were so small and numerous). I sowed them and then the next year we got a few plants, but not nearly enough to fool with. Now I know that first the seeds should be sowed in greenhouses and cultured in a special, labor-intensive way.

Indian Tobacco is easy to identify. Its flowers display the usual lobelia structure but are much, much smaller than the flowers of garden lobelias. The fruits quickly expand into egg-shaped, pea-sized pods. The plant is easy to identify, besides being fun to know and to taste. You can see what it looks like at http://www.missouriplants.com/Whitealt/Lobelia_inflata_page.html.

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STICKTIGHTS PREPARING TO STICK TIGHT
A common weed flowering along our roads and in fields right now is one of the "sticktights," BIDENS BIPINNATA. I've posted an image of one of its heads at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/bidens.jpg.

To understand what you're seeing in that picture first remember that "sticktights" are composite flowers. Therefore, you're not seeing one flower in the picture but rather a matured HEAD holding several developing fruits resulting from the head having contained several flowers. The special name of "achene" is used to refer to a dry composite fruit. If you don't know about the composites' unique flower structure you might enjoy reviewing my Composite-Flower Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_comps.htm.

Achenes of this particular species are long and slender, and topped with backward-barbed, sharp, needle-like spines. The idea is that when deer fur or hiker breeches come into contact with those fruits the spines attach to the moving critter and the achenes get a free ride into new territory where maybe next year they'll pioneer a new population of sticktights.

Some sticktight species, especially those known as Spanish Needles, produce large, flashy, orange-yellow ray flowers and occur in such abundance that they create broad splashes of yellow across whole weedy fields and miles and miles of weedy roadsides. However, our Bidens bipinnata is more modest, most of its modest heads bearing no rays at all. Still, it manages to get pollinated, and you can imagine how successfully those spine-topped achenes are scattered to parts unknown by unwitting seed-dispersal agents, such as me.

*****

NATURE, MAN & THE CREATIVE UNIVERSAL FORCE
I have placed another book online, this one with the above title. It's a collection of essays appropriate for the title extracted from newsletters issued over the years. Basically each essay says the same thing: "Nature is a blossoming of the Creative Universal Force, and I'm here inside the blossom watching it, agog."

The book can be downloaded in simple TXT format, in Microsoft Word format, and in Word for Macintosh format, along with my other books, at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/books/.

Even though they're free, I'm surprised so many people download these books. Just in August, for instance, over 300 people downloaded my "Spring Comes to the Desert," over 250 took my "Natchez Naturalist," and over 200 acquired my Mexican birding book. Curiously, most people choose the unformatted, text-only TXT versions with no drawings or photos.

I wonder if someone out there can explain some things to me? Why do most people prefer TXT format, which does not provide highlighted headings and such? Could it be that people are reading these books on hand-held computers that only accept TXT files? Also I would like advice on whether my TXT files would be better provided with or without end-of-line formatting. In other words, do people downloading my books in TXT format have readers configured for automatic "wrap-to-screen," or should I insert end-of-line formatting myself?

*****

SNAKE BRAIN, SPINOZA & SCIENTIFIC PANTHEISM
Back to last week's snake-brain train of thought. Remember that because of how evolution works humans have inherited a reptilian brain that sets atop each person's spinal column. That brain has been overgrown with later-evolved mammalian and primate brains. Our reptilian brain concerns itself with circulation, respiration, digestion, elimination, mating, territorial behavior, pecking order, defense, aggression and the emotions of anger and fear. Our more sophisticated, later-evolved mammalian brain deals with the emotions of love, sadness, jealousy, and hope, and our "monkey brain," crowning the other two brains, enables us to manifest the higher functions of imitation, speaking, writing, planning, symbolic reasoning and conceptualization.

I see profound significance in the general trends manifested in the above lists of brain functions. It is a beautiful example -- one of many -- of evolution trending from simple toward complex states; from a single beginning to a vast, interdependent diversity; from individual concerns to concerns of the community; from solid blood-and-guts issues toward abstraction; from automatic instinctual behaviors toward open-ended spiritual struggles.

I read a message in these trends, and the message is from the Universal Creative Force. Among other things, if I am to live in harmony with what the Nature-Bible tells me:

By no means am I special in entertaining these insights. Maybe the earliest Western philosopher to say something similar, but in different words and coming from a different perspective, was Benedict de Spinoza, born in Amsterdam to a Jewish family in 1632. He wrote:

"The more we understand particular things, the more we understand God."

There's much more about Spinoza at http://www.iep.utm.edu/s/spinoza.htm.

Spinoza is often regarded as a pantheist. At the heart of pantheism is reverence for the Universe. The natural Earth is regarded as sacred. There's a subset of pantheism that appeals to me, called Scientific Pantheism. You can introduce yourself to that at http://www.pantheism.net/paul/index.htm.

The other day I read in Neal Stephenson's Volume Two of "The Baroque Cycle" the German scientist Leibniz's statement quoted next, though I'm unclear as to whether the words come from the brain of Leibniz or Stephenson:

"Our use of knowledge progresses through successively higher levels of abstraction as we perfect civilization and draw nearer to the mentality of God."

Why are these matters appropriate for an old-time naturalist's newsletter? It is because I am in love with and revere the workings of the Universal Creative Force, especially Earth's plants and animals, which includes humanity. Humanity's mindset at the current stage in its evolution is destroying Life on Earth. The attitudes of average people are unsustainable, ugly and blasphemous.

Spinoza points us in the right direction. Scientific pantheism offers a community and a structure for those who need it as they reorient themselves into sustainable, beautiful, reverential living patterns.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim