JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: Oregon to Mississippi

October 11, 2009

STARLINGS AT THE REST STOP
Last Monday afternoon Roland and Anita dropped me off at the Greyhound Station in Grants Pass, Oregon. Two hours later I was on a bus pulling into a fast-food resting area just off I-5, at Central Point Station. The sun had set, leaving a pink glow on the western horizon and a chilly feeling in the air. When I got off the bus to stretch my legs I saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091011st.jpg.

Hundreds of Starlings, STURNUS VULGARIS, the abundant invasive species introduced from Europe, perched on nearby power lines. I couldn't hear over the traffic's roar but I'll bet they were calling loudly with their strange, unmusical whistles and chatters.

Suddenly all the birds rose into the sky, leaving the lines oscillating up and down as if a heavy load of ice had just fallen off. The birds formed an ink-blot in the sky that circled the area, several times diving and soaring back up, fragmenting into two or three flocks, then merging into one big one again, like a graceful amoeba. The flock's boundaries were finely defined by hard-flying birds keeping exactly shoulder-to-shoulder with their companions, and I tried in vain to see who the leaders were, and especially to figure what the cue was that enabled them all to suddenly dive and soar in such perfect unison.

I was so engrossed that I simply forgot to take a picture of them pirouetting there in the pink sky. Then suddenly they all dove but this time they didn't veer back skyward, but rather flew full speed directly into a tall, dense planting of Bradford Pear trees beneath powerful halogen lights beamed downward from atop outlandishly tall poles. Other flocks who'd forgone the sky-waltzing flew fast and low from other trees and power lines into the same Bradford Pears, and who can say how so many Starlings could fit inside such a small grouping of trees?

A while I stood, reflecting how like the Starlings in their pink sky my own life has been, sometimes leaving whole big chunks of what and who I am behind, a lifestyle at once manifesting a certain penache, but in the end still just diffuse fluttering within well-defined boundaries, boundaries which from the inside you can't even make out.

It was a good start for this next new life, which was beginning that very day.

*****

PALMS AT THE GREYHOUND STATION IN LOS ANGELES
During the night our bus left completely behind the chilly, drizzly, mountainous, conifer-dominated landscape I've called home for the last half year. I awoke on the parched floor of California's Central Valley seeing from the window mile and after mile of irrigated farmland, mostly vineyards producing grapes for making raisins, but also orchards of Pecan trees and other fruits and vegetables.

Around noon we pulled into the Greyhound Station in Los Angeles, where I had five hours to kill before the connecting bus. I'd looked forward to that rest, though, not only because I needed to resettle my body after that first night on the bus, but also I knew that an afternoon in the sunny, windy little park next to the station always is a pleasant experience. You can see the majestic palms bestowing shade there at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091011wp.jpg.

Those are fan palms of the genus WASHINGTONIA. Two Washingtonia species are abundantly planted throughout the US Southwest -- the native California Fan Palm, Washingtonia filifera, and the Mexican Fan Palm, W. robusta. They're very similar and often hybridize. The ones in the picture appear to me to have features of both species so maybe they're hybrids. If you want to try your hand at differentiating them, a page with a chart comparing the two species is available at http://www.floridata.com/ref/w/wash_fil.cfm.

Washingtonias are recognized mostly by their fan-shaped fronds with no midrib and the "shag" of old, dried-up leaves dangling below the crown, covering the top part of the slender trunk.

Each palm in the park was heavily laden with thousands of fruits dangling in long, compound clusters, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091011wq.jpg.

Palm fruits often look like miniature coconuts, which of course are palm fruits themselves, but not these. Instead of being surrounded by a dry, hard, fibrous husk, like Coconut Palm "seeds," Washingtonia seeds are encased in the fleshy, bird-pleasing tissue shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091011wr.jpg.

In that picture the fleshy covering has been removed or partially removed from the very hard, brown seeds.

Washingtonia fruits technically are drupes, which means that a fleshy covering surrounds a single, hard-shelled seed, and the fruit does not split open when mature.

*****

"THE WALL" BETWEEN MEXICO & THE US
Just east of El Paso, Texas, I-10 runs right up against "The Wall" recently built to hinder Mexican immigrants from entering illegally there. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091011wl.jpg.

That picture, shot through the bus window, shows first the guardrail, then a shallow, dry canal, then a landscaped slope with a few tumbleweeds growing on it, then The Wall, which here is a steel-mesh fence. Just beyond that there's a short stretch of open area crossed by a Border Patrol dirt road and planted with poles holding high-power lights and cameras, and there's a power line. The Rio Grande here is little more than a shallow, cement-walled, straight canal, represented in the picture by the last straight line cutting across the picture. Beyond the Rio Grande lies Mexican territory, the outskirts of Juárez.

During recent months the Border Patrol all along the frontier has been beefed up tremendously. On Wednesday the bus was stopped and searched three times, even though hardly any passengers had gotten on preceding the second and third visits. At the first stop a man was taken off the bus, spread-eagled against the van right outside our windows, shackles were put on his arms and feet, and a long chain was wrapped around his waist as he was shoved into the van.

Undocumented aliens aren't the only targets. Thursday morning a bit before dawn, entering Louisiana at Shreveport, a Louisiana Drug Interdiction team entered the bus, their sniffer-dog going right to the old, fat, bald, Black man sitting next to me. They confiscated his small vial of marihuana as well as his California Medical Marihuana card, which made his small possession legal for medicinal use in California but not in Louisiana. Now he has to appear before a Louisiana judge.

*****

CENIZO AT THE VAN HORN REST AREA
Tuesday around midday we pulled into a big rest stop along I-10 deep in the west-Texas desert at Van Horn. From the parking lot I had a good view into the barren mountains all around, the Sierra Diablo to the north, Eagle Peak and the Sierra Vieja to the south. Desert scrub came right up to the edge of the parking lot and even the much manicured ornamental plantings surrounding the area were interesting. One of them, a chest-high shrub with silvery, furry-feeling leaves was in full flower, the inch-long lavender blossoms being slightly irregular or two-lipped, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091011cz.jpg.

This was an old friend from back in my desert- wandering days. My online book Spring Comes to the Desert at http://www.backyardnature.net/desert/ reminds me how I learned about this plant on the blustery, windy morning of January 1, 1988, deep in the desert near Del Rio, Texas, on the Mexican border.

An old fellow who lived in a ramshackle trailer at a rundown camp along Amistad Lake, wore his trousers so low you could see his crack between huge pink cheeks, whose clothing was gray-tinged with dog hair and who was belching beer-breath at 8 AM, tenderly took a fuzzy-leafed, ashy-white branch of the shrub next to him in his hand and told me that the plant was called Cenizo. He added, "The big beer-joint in town is called the Cenizo Inn, you might want to know. Well, the word cenizo in Spanish means 'ash colored,' I reckon." Cenizo is LEUCOPHYLLUM FRUTESCENS and you might guess from the flowers' shape that it belongs to the same family as snapdragons, the Scrophulariaceae.

In certain parts of the Chihuahuan Desert of southwestern Texas and north-central Mexico Cenizo forms horizon-to-horizon seas of silveriness. Traveling eastward across southern Texas near the Mexican border, first the landscape is dominated by olive-green Creosote Bush, then with lower elevation comes the Cenizo. Cenizo also is called Texas Ranger, Texas Sage, Purple Sage, Silverleaf, as well as Barometer Bush and other names. The name Barometer Bush comes about because its flowering is triggered by humidity or high soil moisture after rains. It must have rained recently in Van Horn because the parking area's many Cenizo bushes were putting on a real show with their flowers.

Because of its sheer numbers this is one of the most important plants of the Chihuahuan Desert Ecosystem, which covers much of north-central Mexico and extends into Texas along the Rio Grande. Because the bush flowers both in the spring and fall, and after rains at other seasons, you can imagine the value of its abundant flowers to hummingbirds and other nectar gatherers. Because of the frequent flowering, during must of the year fruiting capsules filled with small seeds are available to seed-eating birds and rodents. And the shrubs themselves provide cover for many creatures.

Cenizo is so hardy, attractive and prolifically flowering that it's sold in many garden shops in arid country. In fact several cultivars have been developed, and I wouldn't be surprised if the bush in the picture is one of those.

*****

LARGUS BUGS
Having left Oregon on Monday afternoon, finally I crossed the Mississippi River into Mississippi on Thursday afternoon. At the Vicksburg Greyhound station I had a 3-½ hour wait for the daily southbound bus. The wait was OK, though. It was in the lower 90s, the air was silky-humid, and after a rainless summer dry- season in Oregon, Vicksburg's green lushness was wonderful.

The station was a small one and several bugs of a certain kind were clustering around its trash barrel and door. You can see one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091011bu.jpg.

I'd been thinking of Mexico and this bug was vaguely similar to the Chagas-Disease-spreading Chinche Hocicona bug I've run into in the Yucatan, so I wondered if this might be an interesting find.

When later I had internet connection, Bea, my bug expert in Ontario, quickly dispelled that notion. It was a "Largus Bug," a member of the genus LARGUS, probably Largus succinctus, in the "True Bug" insect order, the Hemiptera, so this was one time it was perfectly accurate to refer to an insect as "a bug."

Largus Bugs are general feeders, never inserting their strawlike proboscises into human skin, but rather sucking juices from a variety of plants such as oak, wax myrtle and other woodland foliage or even "weeds." In general they cause little injury to the plants upon which they feed.

So, why were they so abundant that day around the Vicksburg Greyhound Station? I read that "... in the fall nymphs and adults leave their host plants and seek cracks and crevices in which to spend the winter. They can be common around the home during the fall, crawling randomly around the ground."

So, last Thursday up at Vicksburg, despite the hot, summery afternoon, the Largus Bugs were sensing fall in the air, were looking for nooks and crannies in which to overwinter, and the Vicksburg Greyhound Station apparently showed some possibilities for a lot of them!

*****

TALL GOLDENROD
Down a bank beside the Vicksburg bus station a wildflower was blossoming and I just couldn't take my eyes from it. Its robust growth and lush greenness was so refreshingly different from the parched, dry- crackly world I was coming from. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091011gd.jpg.

That's the Tall or Late Goldenrod, sometimes even called the Canada Goldenrod, though that name is best reserved for a closely related species. Tall Goldenrod is SOLIDAGO ALTISSIMA, the State Flower of my native state of Kentucky. It's very similar to several other big goldenrod species and I'm confident in the identification only because I collected some flowers and leaves, and "keyed out" the name in the online, free but unfinished "Flora of North America."

Among the field marks defining this species are its tallness, its narrow leaves with three dominant veins, its exceptionally small flowers, and the hairiness you can see on the flower-head pedicels, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091011ge.jpg.

Tall Goldenrod is native to most of North America, though absent from the northernmost areas, and most of the US northwestern states.

*****

BODY-SPIRIT
Having spent most of this week doing little more than transporting my body from one point to another, with more than the usual poignancy I've been impressed by the fact that "I" am riding around inside this biological body. This "dichotomy of self" became especially thought-provoking later in the trip when my body developed a head cold, which "I" didn't want anything to do with.

Until recently I simply accepted the common wisdom that the healthy, sustainable attitude toward humanity's twofold manner of being is to welcome and celebrate both conditions. That strategy is comforting in that it accepts an unavoidable condition. However, once I started thinking about it, I began doubting that we are to merely acquiesce before the situation.

For, the Creator hasn't shown Herself to be content with a static body/spirit condition. During biological evolution on Earth, life started out very humbly with bacteria-like organisms, which after much experimentation and diversification eventually led to the fishes, then these begat reptiles from whom we inherited our reptilian brain consisting of the upper part of the spinal cord and the basal ganglia, the diencephalon, then the mammalian brain was set over the reptilian brain like a helmet, then that early mammalian brain underwent further enhancements leading to the primate brain, and finally the brain of modern humans arose, maybe half a million years ago. Only fairly recently, in evolutionary terms, has a part of biological life on Earth become capable of thinking about its "spirit."

Clearly, there is direction in this evolution. The Creator appears to be evolving Life on Earth toward a goal, rushing from life of a purely biological nature to whatever spiritual state someday will be made possible by sophisticated brain use.

If you think like that, what does it mean for the way we live our everyday lives? That's the question I thought most about on the Greyhound this week. Just one insight developed before me head cold really set in around Pecos, Texas. Here it is:

If we are to harmonize our behavior with the Creator's evident "plan" -- the unknowable plan hinted at by the "direction" of biological evolution on Earth -- we do well when we seek "spiritual fulfillment" through brain use.

That insight seems harmless enough until you realize that it's in stark contrast to Western religious thought, especially thought incorporating the Protestant work ethic, which, from what I have experienced and been told by many religious people, regards busy-ness as a virtue in itself. "Idleness is the Devil's workshop," they say, and also it's been my experience that average religious people in our culture lump meditation, reflection and even the creation of "art" with "idleness."

Therefore, it seems to me that "the Devil's workshop" is when we're occupying our precious time with busywork -- sweeping floors that don't need sweeping, washing clothes that hardly are soiled, raking leaves from where leaves would better be left turning to mulch, etc. -- when we could be investing mental energies in working out the spiritual implications of living in a majestic, lustily evolving world.

And that's as far as my thinking got before my body's wretched head cold reduced all mental activity to being aware of a certain numbness behind the eyes. 

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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