JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: Mississippi to Kentucky, USA

July 13, 2008

RIPE FIGS
Immediately after issuing the Newsletter last Monday Karen and I got into the truck and headed north on the Natchez Trace Parkway, the goal being to visit my assorted aunts, uncles and cousins in western Kentucky. Before leaving town we visited Karen's mom in Natchez where I was invited to see her big fig tree loaded with figs. You can see some of those figs at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080713fg.jpg.

The figs' voluptuous roundness, the ripe ones' handsome brownness glistening in the sunlight, their yielding touch, sweet taste, many figs with bird- peckings attesting to their desirability... In fact birds will get the vast majority of those figs, for once they get a taste they'll return again and again until they're all gone. What a gift to have such homey, mellow, good-humored fig thoughts as we rolled out of town.

Voluptuous, yes, that's the word, a sweet, ripe fig right off the tree melting in your mouth transcends the mere act of eating in the everyday sense. It's as if the Creator goes out of Her way to remind us of the bounty and beauty that sometimes come into our lives if we wait patiently and have sense enough to recognize bounty and beauty when they come along.

Last Monday, heading north up the Trace with pink Crape-Myrtle blossoms aflame on roadside bushes hoary with tangled Spanish Moss I glowed with fig feelings, inside and out, deeply satisfied to be on the road afterglowing from such roundness, sweetness, stickiness, the yielding flesh, the fruits' demure placement among rough, sun-gathering, profoundly green leaves...

*****

WHITE PELICANS LEFT BEHIND
Just north of Jackson in central Mississippi for eight miles the Natchez Trace runs along Ross Barnett Reservoir's western shore. Last Tuesday morning, after spending the night at a free campground on the Trace, we pulled up next to the fairly large lake's banks and were surprised to see four White Pelicans not far offshore. You can see three of them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080713pc.jpg.

Surprised, because White Pelicans overwinter in our area but breed much farther north and west, mostly in the US's upper western states and Canada's southern western provinces. The binoculars revealed the probably reason why White Pelicans would be so far south during their breeding season: One bird had a broken wing and the others' wings were malformed in various ways.

A pelican not appearing in the picture bore something conspicuous like a fleshy shark fin atop his massive, yellow-orange beak. At first I thought it must be yet another deformity, but then I read that breeding adult White Pelicans bear vertical plates rising from their bills, the plate playing a role in both courtship display and ritualized combat.

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MISSISSIPPI KITES GALORE
When I was hermiting in the woods near Natchez I regarded hawklike Mississippi Kites as very uncommon. Even during my brief spring-visit here two years ago they were uncommon. However, now all around Natchez and during the first hundred miles of traveling north on the Trace Mississippi Kites were frequently seen soaring, their silhouettes easily identifiable with their long, notched tails. Most hawk tails are rounded or squared.

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OAKLEAF HYDRANGEAS FLOWERING
At our first campground at Rocky Springs about 55 miles north of Natchez I'd been disappointed that the flowering Oakleaf Hydrangeas were past their prime, their spectacular pink or pinkish white flowers already faded. However, at Jeff Busby campground about 200 miles north of Natchez, thus phenologically closer to spring, flowers were still at their prime, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080713hy.jpg.

Oakleaf Hydrangeas, HYDRANGEA QUERCIFOLIA, distributed mostly in the US Deep South, are easily distinguishable from the species known as Wild Hydrangea, H. arborescens, common in rich woods throughout most of the forested eastern US. First, flowers of Wild Hydrangeas are distributed in flat- to round-toped inflorescences called corymbs, while you can see that blossoms of Oakleaf Hydrangeas are arranged in elongate clusters called panicles. Second, Wild Hydrangea leaves are unlobed, while Oakleaf Hydrangea's coarse, woolly-bottomed leaves are deeply incised, and lobed almost like Sugar Maple leaves.

In the hydrangea's flower cluster, the conspicuous items in the picture looking like large, white flowers with four petals are actually sterile, modified flowers consisting of nothing but calyx lobes. They serve the plant as if they were flowers, attracting pollinators to the inflorescence's much smaller, less conspicuous flowers. I took a picture of an inflorescence from directly above it, showing the sterile, modified calyxes on the outside and the densely packed actual flowers on the inside. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080713hz.jpg.

The inflated calyx lobes of some Oakleaf Hydrangeas are bright pink, while those in the picture are almost pure white. Whatever the color, the plant is very handsome. It does grace gardens here and there but it deserves far wider recognition as a valuable ornamental. Sometimes when it's planted farther north it escapes from cultivation, but seldom persists or reproduces for long.

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WILLOW OAKS
At a rest area in northern Mississippi we took a break beneath a large, sturdy shadetree bearing immature acorns on its branches, and with deciduous, slender, unlobed leaves rather like those of a willow. In fact, it was a Willow Oak, QUERCUS PHELLOS. You can see willowy leaves, immature acorns, and buds at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080713wo.jpg.

In the US Southeast most oak leaves are variously lobed and indented, so anyone in this area meeting a Willow Oak for the first time is bound to think of it as unusual because of its willow-like leaves. If you meet this tree and it's so young that it bears no acorns, how can you convince yourself that it's really an oak?

The quickest way is to notice the buds. In the picture, up at the top right, notice how the buds cluster toward the twig's tip. In most tree species buds are more evenly distributed along the twigs. Also, if you look closely at the buds themselves, they're covered with numerous overlapping bud scales. Many tree buds have markedly fewer scales or no scales at all.

In the wild, Willow Oaks are typical of bottomland soils of the US Southeast. However someone discovered that they can survive in cities, so today sometimes you find long rows of them along streets and providing shade and greenness in isolated little dirt-islands in vast parking lots at malls.

In our area oak species fall into one of two great subdivisions, the red and white oaks. Red oak leaves are bristle-tipped, the trees' acorns need two years in which to mature, acorn cups are velvety inside, and the acorns root in the spring. White oak leaves lack bristles, acorns mature in only a year, acorn cups are smooth inside, and acorns root in the fall. So, into which group does the Willow Oak fall?

In the picture you can see that leaf tips end in a single sharp bristle, so that's enough to prove that it falls in the red oak group.

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AT A ROADCUT IN CENTRAL TENNESSEE
In central Tennessee on our third day out we were in hilly country beholding something you don't see in southwestern Mississippi -- roadcuts exposing massive, horizontal layers of rock. In general, in southern Mississippi the geology is so recent, or young, that ground material consists of much dust, sand and gravel, but it hasn't had time to solidify into layers of hard rock.

The Peterson Field Guide "Geology of Eastern North America" indicated that exposed bedrock in our central Tennessee area was deposited either during the Ordovician Period or the Mississippian Epoch of the Carboniferous Period -- we were in the transition zone -- so ground material there definitely had had time to consolidate into rock. The rocks in our central Tennessee roadcut were between 488 and 299 million years old. Most roadcuts around Natchez cut through wind-deposited dust, or loess, from the last Ice Age, which was deposited only 18 to 25 THOUSAND years ago. You can see our roadcut's horizontal layers of bedrock, with Karen looking for fossils, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080713rc.jpg.

Finding fossils was our main goal. The Trace is Federal parkland so we couldn't carry fossils away, but we could see what was there, and take pictures. Some of the rock layers were very fossiliferous -- in fact consisting almost entirely of small, cemented- together, clamlike fossils, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080713rd.jpg.

Our Holt Guide to Minerals, Rocks and Fossils divides clamlike fossils into two big groups: BIVALVES, of which oysters, mussels and clams are living examples, and; BRACHIOPODS, most kinds of which have long been extinct. The top and bottom shells, or valves, of Bivalves are generally mirror images of one another, and the back connecting parts are usually bent toward one side. In contrast, a brachiopod's top valve is generally different in size and shape from the lower one, but the two valves are bilaterally symmetrical. Thus the fossils in the above picture appear to be brachiopods.

Though it's always special to hold fossils of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago, at this roadcut we didn't find anything really spectacular. However, I did find an elegant, thumbnail-size, snail- like gastropod form, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080713re.jpg...  

Karen shows off her favorite finds from that day at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080713rf.jpg.

If this has piqued your interest in fossil hunting, you might check out my fossil page, with several links to websites that can help you identify your finds, at http://www.backyardnature.net/g/fossils.htm.

An annotated timeline of the Earth's geological history, the Geological Time Scale, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/g/geo-time.htm.  

*****

HOMEY HOLLYHOCKS
Unlike folks who, when you first see them after a long absence, start telling you the latest gossip or about their illnesses, when we reached my home area in western Kentucky at each house we were welcomed by aunts and cousins who said something like, "So good to see you, come look at my plants."

Probably because my Grandma Conrad was so fond of them, to me Hollyhocks always evoked "old homeplace feelings." Cousin Miles grew lots of Hollyhocks. If you need to be reminded of a Hollyhock's appearance see http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080713ak.jpg.

I've always known Hollyhocks as Althaea rosea, but Weakley's 2008 update of the Flora of the Carolinas refers to them as ALCEA ROSEA, so it looks like Alcea, an old Linnaeus name, has been resurrected for Hollyhocks. Hollyhocks, which are members of the Mallow or Hibiscus Family, are native to Eurasia, and from time to time escape and reproduce a few seasons in North America.

Now, what is the interesting object you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080713al.jpg?

The segmented ring is a series of Hollyhock "seeds" that became visible when I tore away the dry, brown, paperlike remains of the calyx, which after the flower had been pollinated and the corolla had fallen away had expanded to enclose the "seeds" like a brown paper bag. I put quotation marks around "seeds" because each unit in the ring is actually a dry, one-seeded fruit.

Whatever the segments are called, you can plant one and a Hollyhock will germinate from it.

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DEPROGRAMMING
The other day National Public Radio reported on a study indicating that people, on the average, prefer to have part of something good now, instead of getting more of it later. Suggesting explanations, the researchers pointed out that during human evolution when people acquired food, more often than not, it made sense to gorge on it immediately, for later it might spoil or be taken from them by other hungry humans or animals.

Genetic programming rooted in evolutionary pressure on our early human ancestors can explain a lot of modern human behavior. For example, when we understand that our early ancestors needed to focus on high-energy foods such as animal fat so they wouldn't waste time chewing something like tree leaves, we can understand why today people prefer greasy hamburgers over celery sticks. When anthropologists tell us that, on the average, people automatically feel allegiance toward their own tribe, we understand better why so many modern citizens continue supporting their inept and reckless governments.

In fact, when I began thinking in terms of the genetic programming of our distant ancestors as explaining current human behavior my understanding of why people today do what they do made a quantum leap forward. However, I'm not aware of this manner of analyzing human behavior being taught in public schools. In fact, religious conservatives would protest mightily if it were. Yet what could be more important to Life on Earth than for humanity to begin living sustainably, and wouldn't that be easier if people at least understood the genetically encoded roots of their unsustainable behavior?

In my own life, once I identified my programmed, self-destructive behavior -- especially my bad eating habits -- it becomes easier to change those bad habits. Moreover, I've found that Nature supports us in our efforts to overcome programming that in modern life is self destructive: Nature supports us by giving us positive feedback when we overcome our programming.

It feels good to rationally make lifestyle decisions that result in our bodies getting back in shape. It feels good when one overcomes hoarding impulses and simplifies his or her life.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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