JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
written and issued from the woods edge near Natchez, Mississippi, USA,
August 4, 2008

AN ARCHEOLOGICAL MORNING
Tuesday morning a car came inching down the lane and out stepped Dr. Ian Brown, professor at the University of Alabama and Curator of Gulf Coast Archaeology at the Alabama Museum of Natural History. With him was graduate student Daniel, doing fieldwork for a thesis on native communities in this area when the first Europeans arrived. Years ago I wrote a little about the matter, several pages of which you can access at http://www.backyardnature.net/loess/indians.htm.

The real expert here on artifacts to be found locally is Karen, and the men were tickled with the pottery shards and worked flint pieces she brought out for them. You can see Dr. Brown photographing projectile points, with Karen in the background scrounging for more treasures among her many tubs and cans of them, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080804br.jpg.

After Karen's collection had been documented we walked around the yard where artifacts had been found in the past, several chips and a pottery fragment turning up, and I got to ask Dr. Brown some questions.

Mainly I wanted to know current thinking on what happened to local indigenous cultures when the first Europeans entered the area. For, before the Europeans, southeastern North America supported a vibrant, densely populated mosaic of fairly highly developed indigenous cultures. Then on May 28, 1539, the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto landed with an army of 620 men and 223 horses in Florida, and set off across the Southeast looking for gold and a passage to China. Before he "discovered" the Mississippi River just south of Memphis in 1541, De Soto had led his army across the entire Southeast. Read about this march at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hernando_desoto.

This march accomplished something that was never mentioned in any history class I ever took, but which in terms of the early history of North America now is regarded as one of the most important events. For, sick men and animals were part of de Soto's group. They couldn't have done a better job waging germ warfare against the natives, who had no resistance to European diseases such as smallpox and measles. Moreover, de Soto's men destroyed many important cities along their route and robbed villages of food being saved for the coming winter, creating conditions that probably brought famine to the entire region.

"During famines, it's the very young and old who die off," Dr. Brown told me. "When the old die, they take with them the people's traditions."

At http://www.backyardnature.net/loess/ind_pox.htm I write:

With so many leaders and older wise people dying, the Indian nations must have lost all their sense of direction... Not only were the old medicines useless, but the gods themselves seemed to have given up on them. The prayers, chants, sacrifices, and talismans of their holy people now were clearly useless. The Indians had been forsaken in every way by every force of nature and the spirit world... As 80% of the Indian world lay down to die, physical pain and the unimaginable sorrow of the moment mingled with self-doubt and spiritual apprehension.

Two hundreds years after de Soto, when Europeans returned to the area to stay, they found the Southeast with much fewer inhabitants than de Soto's surviving troops had reported. Whole large cities and nations appeared to have disappeared. The Southeast's indigenous people were in no shape to defend themselves against the encroaching new culture.

You may enjoy my page about the Natchez Indians at http://www.backyardnature.net/loess/ind_natz.htm.

Read about the demise of our area's native cultures at http://www.backyardnature.net/loess/ind_fr&e.htm.

*****

KAREN'S TRILOBITE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080804tb.jpg you can see one of Karen's prized fossils. It's a tiny trilobite found inside a cracked-open chert pebble found in a gravel pit near Natchez. Trilobites are extinct arthropods that lived from Early Cambrian, about 540 millions years ago, until going extinct at the end of the Permian, about 250 million years ago. During much of the history of Life on Earth trilobites were among the most numerous and diverse forms of life, with some 17,000 known species spanning Paleozoic time.

Since the topmost gravel around Natchez was deposited during the Pleistocene only about 700,000 years ago, or 0.7 million years, Karen's trilobite, which couldn't have been fossilized less than 250 million years old, wasn't fossilized in place here. The pebble carrying the trilobite inside was transported to here as part of an enormous amount of gravel deposited here by meltwater from the retreating glacier in the north.

To get a name for Karen's trilobite I went to the nifty Fossil Forum at http://www.thefossilforum.com. This public forum for fossil fanciers includes a section on "Fossil ID." I registered for free, uploaded the picture linked to above, and before the day was over two experts had told me what they thought.

Solius in the central US wrote, "The pygidium looks like it could be a proetid, but it appears to have glabellar, and occipital lobes like a Ceraurus... It is a nice one, and probably fairly rare."

The genus Ceraurus occurred mostly during the Orodovician age (±488.3 to ±443.7 mya) and is most commonly found in strata outcropping in the lower Great Lakes region. That fact meshes nicely with what's said on my "Gravel Below the Loess" page at http://www.backyardnature.net/loess/citronel.htm:

... the topmost gravel [around Natchez] is of Ice- Age, or Pleistocene, age, in the general neighborhood of 700,000 years old. Earl Manning at Tulane makes the interesting comment that 'The reason that you can find agates in [the gravel] at Natchez, is that it's been washed south from the Lake Superior area (where the agates originally came from) by the Mississippi River.'

Beautiful how it all comes together...

*****

FISH CROWS
I've mentioned how Mississippi Kites seem to have undergone a population explosion in this area. The same may be true for Fish Crows, CORVUS OSSIFRAGUS. In my March 30th, 2003 Newsletter I wrote from my hermit camp near here that "American Crows usually are the most common, but at times Fish Crows are all over the place." During this stay I've heard American Crows very little, but Fish Crows, still, are "all over the place."

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology page on Fish Crows  says that the species has been expanding its range from coastal areas inland and up river valleys, using urban areas in its spread. I'll bet the "urban areas" provide the key to its expansion. In that 2003 Newsletter I reported on them hanging around the garbage bins of Natchez's Piggly Wiggly supermarket.

Just seeing crows flying overhead I can't tell Fish Crows from American Crows. However, their calls are very different, the Fish Crow issuing a hoarse, nasal call much softer than the American Crow's hard CAW! You can read about the differences and hear the different caws at a Cornell page called How do you tell a Fish Crow from an American Crow?.

*****

HIEROGLYPHIC CICADA
Loud, drawn-out, summer afternoon cicada or "jar fly" dronings aren't as noticeable here these days as they are some years, but you still hear and see cicadas from time to time. For example, look at the little one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080804ci.jpg.

That's a Hieroglyphic Cicada, NEOCICADA HIEROGLYPHICA, partial to oaks and conspicuously smaller than most cicadas we see here. Notice that its body length hardly extends across two finger tips. You can hear the species' song by clicking on the audio lin at the University of Connecticut's page on the species

About 3000 cicada species are recognized. Species of periodical cicadas who emerge every few years in great numbers are recognized by their red eyes and reddish wing-veins. Our Hieroglyphic Cicada, lacking those features, is clearly an annual cicada, appearing yearly and usually in much smaller numbers.

*****

MEXICAN PLUMS FRUITING
In my March 14th, 2004 Newsletter I wrote from my hermiting camp near here that our local Mexican Plums, PRUNUS MEXICANA, were flowering. Comparing them to the more common Chickasaw Plums, I wrote that the species "... doesn't form thickets, the flowers are much larger (1 inch across, 2.5 cm), and instead of its smaller branches being 'half twig, half spine,' as was the case with the Chickasaw Plum, this one's smaller twigs are "three-quarters twig, one-quarter spine." Also, the tree is larger, ±15-20 feet tall."

Nowadays frosted, reddish purple Mexican Plum plums are prettily forming on trees at woods edges, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080804pm.jpg.

The word "frosted" as used here, in more botanical terms, means "covered with a glaucous bloom." Glaucosity is the silvery sheen covering the fruits, which you can rub off with a finger. The inch-broad plums have thick, sweet, succulent flesh. The trees I see are about ten feet high.

*****

THE USDA PLANTS DATABASE
If you ever need to know the distribution of a vascular plant, moss, liverwort, hornwort, or lichen species of the U.S. or its territories, keep in mind the USDA PLANTS Database at http://plants.usda.gov/.

At that site you can type the name of the plant you're wondering about into the Search Box at the left. You have the option of typing either the common name or the scientific name. Typing in "Mexican Plum" you're taken to the species' "Plant Profile Page" where there's a picture, taxonomical info, and a map of North America showing in which US states and Canadian provinces the species occurs. Then click on your state and a map is shown displaying the counties in which the species has been officially registered.

If you are finding the species in your county but the map doesn't reflect its presence there, you can click on the "Distribution Update" link at the bottom of the state page to register and update the map.

*****

AMORPHA ON THE RIVERBANK
Wednesday I explored the Mississippi's muddy banks across the river from Natchez, on the Louisiana side. Riverbanks are always interesting not only because they constitute an extreme ecological situation where you might find organisms with special adaptations, but also you just never know what seed or other kind of propagule has floated down the river to take root beyond its normal distribution.

Where I was that day, at the river's very edge there was just mud and a few typical weeds, but then came a zone maybe 30 yards wide of slender bushes about ten feet high, and that zone transitioned above into remains of the former bottomland forest. The band of ten-ft-high bushes consisted of Sycamores and willows, and occasional pure patches of what you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080804af.jpg.

That shrub's leaves were similar to those of Black Locust but its dark, slender spikes weren't like anything commonly seen around here. Though the main flowering time already had past, a couple of shrubs still bore flowering spikes, a close-up shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080804ag.jpg.

The shrub's pinnately compound leaves probably cue you that the plant is a member of the Bean Family. However, the flowers don't have the typical bean- flower shape -- they're not papilionaceous, or "butterfly-like." In fact, each flower bears just a single petal, which you can make out arching partway atop and folding around the stamens' the filaments. Using Bean-Family-blossom terminology, one would say that the wings and keel are lacking, but the standard is well developed.

It's unusual to see a flower with just one petal, but that's typical of this genus of the Bean Family. The bush is AMORPHA FRUTICOSA, which seems to have no settled-on English name. False Indigo, Desert False Indigo, Indigo Bush Amorpha, Bastard Indigo... You're as likely to see it called by one name as another. The plant is similar to the real Indigo, but Indigo flowers (genus Indigofera) possess the normal five petals, and are papilionaceous. The Latin name amorpha is a good old Linnaean one, based on the Greek meaning "deformed," the deformation being that the flowers bear only one petal.

Amorpha fruticosa is widely distributed but usually not commonly encountered. It's pretty enough to be grown by some as an ornamental, and vigorous enough to be regarded as a potential invasive plant pest in some places.

*****

NATCHEZ UNDER THE HILL
While admiring Amorpha fruticosa from the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River I shot a picture across the river showing a steamboat docked below Natchez, next to the bars and restaurants of touristy "Natchez Under the Hill." You can see what that looked like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080804nz.jpg.

If you're curious about Natchez Under the Hill's notorious past, you can get a taste of it at http://www.natchezbelle.org/adams-ind/silver.htm.

*****

WHITE LYCOPERDON PUFFBALLS
Not many mushrooms are out nowadays. They'll come later, with fall rains. However, one fungus you can indeed find here and there is the White Lycoperdon, LYCOPERDON CANDIDUM, one of the puffballs. See it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080804ly.jpg.

The white puffball in the picture is about the size of a golf ball. The potato-like object at the right is an old fruiting body, after most of its dark, dustlike spores have escaped through the natural opening at the top. The white puffball on the left will grow a little more, but not much, as its white, marshmallow-textured flesh dries, darkens and forms a mass of spores.

As the spores near maturity the white, soft-spiny covering visible in the picture will crack into irregular plates and fall off, leaving a smooth, dark brown, fruiting body that eventually will develop a hole in its top for spores to escape from. At first the mature fruiting body will be only slightly larger than the white stage. However, after passing through a whole year of weather it'll swell up like a discarded phonebook after a year in the rain.

White Lycoperdons are widely distributed, fairly common, and edible, though I find them rather bland. If you sauté them in butter with black pepper, however, they're tasty, as is almost anything sautéed in butter with black pepper. They like to grow in sandy soil, which is exactly where I found the ones in the picture, along the gravel road through Homochitto National Forest.

I've told you before what the genus name Lycoperdon means, but it's worth repeating for new subscribers. In classical Greek, lyco meant "wolf," while perdon meant "to break wind." So these are "wolf- farts."

*****

SPLIT BRAINS #2
In the recent July 7th Newsletter I discussed a National Public Radio interview with a brain researcher who had lost half of her brain because of a stroke. Drawing upon her own experiences the researcher described the concept of the split brain: The left side is logical, practical, fact-oriented and verbal while the right hemisphere deals with feelings, beliefs, symbols, "the big picture," and is basically nonverbal.

That interview was so well received that this week the foremost researcher in the field was interviewed, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga. An essay by Dr. Gazzaniga, "The Split Brain Revisited," can be read here.

A classic experiment conducted by Dr. Gazzaniga is based on this fact: Images seen by the left eye are processed by the right brain hemisphere while images entering the right eye are processed by the left hemisphere. Moreover, our left hemisphere controls movement and feeling on the right side of our body, and vice versa.

Dr. Gazzanigo experimented with a person whose connection between his right and left brain hemispheres had been severed. A picture of an apple was flashed to his right eye, and the man said that he saw an apple. Then the same image was flashed to his left eye, and the man said that he didn't see anything.

The image from the right eye had gone to the left hemisphere, which is verbal, and thus the man could say what he saw. The image from the left eye, however, had gone to the right hemisphere, but that part of the brain couldn't articulate what was being seen.

Yet when presented with a bag holding several objects, the man knew to withdraw the apple. His right hemisphere couldn't articulate what was being seen but it could indeed instruct his left hand to reach for the thing seen. Holding the apple, as long as he didn't look at it, he still didn't know what it was. However, the moment he looked in his hand, his right eye sent the image to the verbal left hemisphere, and then instantly he could say that he was holding an apple.

At the "Listen Now" link atop the NPR page at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92944337 you can hear the 20-minute interview I heard.

A page from Australia's ABC Radio National providing numerous links relating to this issue (click on "show transcript" to read a fascinating interview) is at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/allinthemind/stories/2008/2276587.htm .

All this interesting information has catalyzed in me what feels like a new insight into what "I" am and what my role as a human is. The insight helps me fine-tune my belief system, elevate it to a whole new level.

But, I'll go into that the next time.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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