Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the September 11, 2005 Newsletter issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills somewhat east of Placerville, California, USA
THISTLEDOWN & SPACE CRICKETS

The summer air at our 2600-ft elevation, relative to what we had in southern Mississippi, is exceedingly dry, so even when it's in the 90s a breeze beneath a shady tree can almost feel cool. Add in the perpetual cloudless sky and dazzling sunlight and it feels, relative to summery Mississippi, invigorating and pleasant to the point of being playful. People here are talking about the hot summer we've had, but they just don't know...

Climb up to the fir zone at 4300 feet and the feeling sharpens. The world is contrasty with black, perfectly defined shadows, and glare on pine needles and granite rock is like visual crushed glass. Breathing in the tangy, resiny, chill air and squinting into too much to see, the senses get juiced up. On this week's hike I carried a loaf of garlic and cheese bread and some sweet apples, and around noon I sat on a stump next to a clearcut slope eating them.

Imagine that mingling of tastes, the odors, the sounds of wind in pines and firs... Sunlight burned my skin but the back of my shirt, wet with sweat where the backpack had been, got so cold it almost hurt. The sweetness of the apples also almost hurt, and all that light, but the odor of the bread and its garlic and cheese mellowed things out and I wished for more and more of it all, just wanting to eat it all in, and bigger lungs to breathe in more air.

In clearcuts at that elevation the main weed to come in is a thistle, genus CARDUUS. You can see a thistle, gloriously spiny and with some heads with purple flowers and others fruiting, the stage ours is in, at http://herbarium.biology.colostate.edu/slides/carduus_nutans.html.

Down below me as I ate on that stump the early afternoon dry heat caused thistle heads to open up to release their seeds attached to silver-dollar-size puff-parachutes of thistledown. Breezes caught in the parachutes and the seeds attached to the down launched into the air. Since black forest stood in the background and the tawny thistledown exploded in sunlight, every airborne seed was exquisitely visible, every seed had a vivid identity, a remarkable presence.

When a breeze came along the thistledown bubbles circled and sailed erratically but when there was no breeze at all the bubbles rose straight up, a strange sight and surprising to see, just hundreds of thousands of brilliant points of light like bright bubbles in black Champaign.

Later as I hiked along the road great clumps of thistledown lay caught in weeds and spider webs, but not a parachute had a seed attached to it. I wondered if birds and rodents had eaten the seeds soon after they'd landed. Maybe that explains why so many millions of seeds could be issued by a single field in a single day, but only a few thousand plants would appear there the next year.

When I got back home I had an email from Jerry in Pelahatchie, Mississippi. He described his experiences with Hurricane Katrina, sitting in his office watching things fly by, watching wind eddies form and points of pressure explode. The experience touched in him something similar to what the swirling thistledown had touched in me. Still with his senses knocked cockeyed he wrote:

"I can imagine solar storms, black holes and space crickets, sky rocketing toward earth meteoroids, and unknown forces of more incredible energy, all relieving their forces, equally amazing."

How wonderful that space crickets can come out of a storm, that thistledown is like Champaign, and that an old hermit can perch on an afternoon stump and feel so alive and hungry with his bread and apples!