Louisiana Flavored Natural History from the Edge of the D’Arbonne Swamp (with Books as Lagniappe)____________________________________________________________________
Bayou-Diversity (22 April 2013) Nothing characterizes a southern swamp more than a giant moss draped cypress tree standing knee-deep in a backwater slough. Technically known as baldcypress, these survivors of ancient life forms once found across North America and Europe are now greatly restricted in range. In the United States they are native to river bottoms and swamps in the Deep South and along the eastern seaboard north to Delaware. In Louisiana, although the last large virgin stands are gone, cypresses can still be found in every parish.
Cypress trees once grew to 17 feet in diameter and 140 feet in height. They were the largest trees in the South and lived to be 400 to 600 years old. A few were estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. Even though cypresses commonly grow in wetlands, their seeds cannot germinate under water and young seedlings die very quickly if they are overtopped by floodwaters during the growing season. Older trees can adapt to intermittent flooding regimes and usually develop fluted trunks, but permanent flooding will eventually kill the trees.
Historically, cypresses have been very important to humans in Louisiana. The wood is easy to work and attractive, the heartwood having a reddish hue. The most prized characteristic is the durability and resistance to decay that develops in the wood of trees several hundred years old. Native Americans were the first to recognize this attribute and routinely used cypress for dugout canoes. Early colonists were quick to discover the trait. By the late 1800′s the demand for cypress lumber for boats, furniture, pilings, trim, shingles, siding and coffins was great. It was during this period that the vast virgin stands were logged over. By 1925 the once thriving cypress industry was in a spiraling decline as the last of the raw products were exhausted.
Most cypress stands today are second growth, but there still remain a few giants among us. They exist because they are hollow and thus not merchantable or because they grow in an area so remote as to make harvest unfeasible. They tower one hundred feet above the earth and laid down their first annular rings during the classical period of the Mayan culture. They germinated and grew into seedlings as Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman emperor. They were sound and mature when the sun gleamed from the swords of Hernando DeSoto’s men as they marched across the South in a fruitless search for gold. It is possible that their limbs were once laden with the weight of a thousand passenger pigeons and that their bark was probed by ivory-billed woodpeckers. Cougars and bears may have sought refuge in their hollows. If humans so choose, it is likely too that a few of these will still be greeting each spring with a fresh feathering of needle-like leaves in centuries to come.
Bayou-Diversity (5 April 2013) This from my field diary 40 years ago: ”17 Feb. 1973 –
observed 2 golden eagles and 3 bald eagles on McClemore Plantation [now part of Tensas River NWR] 13 miles south of Tallulah, La. All eagles were mature. 1 golden and 1 bald eagle were feeding on deer carcass hung in fence. Golden and bald eagles flew together in mock aerial battles.” This incident remains a highlight of my birding career. Although bald eagles are much more common today, golden eagles are still a rare sight in Louisiana.
Bayou-Diversity (18 March 2013) As is the case with most predators, gar are usually considered nuisances because they compete with man for other species. For many years fisheries biologists sought ways to exterminate gar including elaborate
shocking devices, traps and nets. They have no doubt been reduced in numbers, especially the larger individuals. What is not clear is the role that gar play in a natural aquatic ecosystem as they sit at the top of the food web. It is likely significant. In addition to controlling populations of other fish, they are known to be intermediate hosts in the larval stages of some freshwater mussels. Mussels are the natural filtration system in our lakes and rivers. No gar > No mussels > No filtered water. We don’t even know what we don’t know about Mother Nature.
Bayou-Diversity (7 March 2013) An early-spring blooming native, goldenclub is an excellent aquatic plant for home water gardens. The plant grows from a rhizome, and the bright yellow flowers are clustered on an odd-shaped spadix. In the 1800s it was called “never wets” because of the water shedding quality of the waxy leaves and was used medicinally to treat burns. Within Louisiana, it is found most commonly in the Florida parishes east of the Mississippi River and in the southwestern marshes.
Bayou-Diversity (2 March 2013) Many people have the idea that orchids are only found in exotic tropical jungles or in the local flower shop. They are surprised to learn that wild orchids grow in Louisiana. In fact at least 40 species grow in various habitats across the state. Some are rare like white-fringed orchid, which has been found only in one parish, and others are very common. The southern twayblade in this photo is most abundant in the northern half of the state and in the Florida parishes. It is blooming now!
Bayou-Diversity (21 February 2013) Mayhaws are blooming!
For those of us who might be considered unrefined epicureans, May is the month of ritual pleasures involving a wild gourmet treat. It is the season to gather mayhaw fruits and make one of the finest jellies to grace a buttermilk biscuit.
Born of southern swamps, mayhaws are small trees technically considered hawthorns in the rose family. They grow in wetlands across the Southeast and are usually found in soils that have a sandy component. Accordingly they are rare in the heavy clay soils near the Mississippi River and common along the Ouachita/Black River system and its tributaries.
The white mayhaw flowers occur in February and March and often present the first splash of spring color to local woodlands. Flowers usually occur before and during the emergence of leaves. Marble-size reddish fruits resemble small apples and ripen in May and June. An old axiom claims, “If mayhaws flower in the water, they will fall in the water.” This refers to the backwater flooding common to most mayhaw habitat. Studies have shown that trees standing in water have a delayed bloom period.
Mayhaws are an important food source for many kinds of wildlife. Deer, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, and several species of birds relish the fruits. Native Americans undoubtedly consumed them for thousands of years, and the first Europeans quickly learned of their value. One pioneer Louisiana diary account reveals that mayhaw gathering could be quite an adventure. Miss Caroline Poole, a schoolteacher in the frontier village of Monroe, writes in her entry of May 7, 1836, “Hunt for May-haws. Rode sixteen miles on horseback. Saw rattlesnake. Crossed bayous where the water was above the saddle skirts, thirty yards wide. Saw black snakes in abundance. Camped in the woods. Coffee. Bacon cooked on a stick. Enjoyed the day but very much fatigued.” A note in The Gazette of Farmerville on May 2, 1894 reads, “Mayhaws are ripening and the teeth of the small boy will soon ware a wire edge, but he will cut the mayhaws all the same.”
Currently, during years of abundant crops, hundreds of thousands of pounds of mayhaws are gathered from Louisiana swamps by individual connoisseurs. A commercial market has also been developed, and it’s now possible to enjoy a fine local mayhaw wine with the exquisite jelly on that buttermilk biscuit. Amen.
Bayou-Diversity (11 February 2013) In all likelihood when the first humans migrated into what is now Louisiana, domesticated dogs were in the vanguard leading the way, alerting the Native Americans to dangers, and helping them obtain food. At one time it was thought that the dogs of southeastern Indians were derived from local red wolves. Modern DNA work has disproved this notion by showing that genetics of prehistoric American dogs more closely resemble Old World canids than those found in the New World. The conclusion then is that people brought their dogs with them when they journeyed from Asia into North America.
Especially in Louisiana one breed exists that may have direct ties to the early dogs. The Catahoula Cur, also known as Catahoula Leopard Dog, is a distinctly American breed named after the Catahoula region of our state. Various theories explain the origins of the breed, one of the most romantic being that Indians bred their dogs with those of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto when he pillaged his way through the Southeast in the 16th century. The truth is buried in time and regardless of the actual genealogy, the result is a unique creolized canine.
Though highly variable in appearance, the stereotypical Catahoula Cur carries a merle gene that expresses itself in a mottled coat of dark gray, black, and white splashed about in a random manner. The most striking features of some individuals are their white, haunting eyes, often called “cracked glass” or “marbled glass” eyes. Early French settlers wrote of the strange looking dogs with glass eyes that were used by Indians for hunting in the swamps.
Jim Bowie is said to have slept with a Catahoula Cur at his feet. Teddy Roosevelt bear hunted with Catahoula Curs. In 1979 Governor Edwin Edwards legally proclaimed the Catahoula Cur the official state dog of Louisiana. Today Catahoula Curs are used for hunting and herding in addition to being demanding pets, and as Louisiana residents their tenure far exceeds ours.
Bayou-Diversity (1 February 2013) Nature, in order to bedizen a stark winter swamp, plants possumhaw (aka deciduous holly) on bayou banks in 62 of 64 Louisiana parishes. Her fruit (only the females produce the red berries) lingers into late winter when the likes of cedar waxwings, bluebirds, and hermit thrushes, having depleted more desirable fare, finally resort to the bitter but dazzling drupes.
Bayou-Diversity (26 January 2013) Eastern Mole – aggravator or aerator? Aldo Leopold, considered the founding father of wildlife conservation in America, was a forward thinking man with a deep understanding of human dependence on healthy, natural ecosystems. He once remarked, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’” The mole has been subject to this unmindful query along with a host of other species that are generally considered “pests” or “vermin” such as snakes and predators in general. For those who ask such questions, answers laden with aesthetic values are at right angles with their reality. They are only satisfied with a practical reason to exist. In this vein the mole serves as nature’s roto-tiller to aerate and form soil, and allow percolation of water to deeper roots. One might hope that, when educated, even the most pragmatic would not question the merit of keeping all the parts that maintain human life in good order.
Bayou-Diversity (16 January 2013)Good examples can be discovered in the most unexpected places. Catch a plane to the Central American country of Costa Rica and land at the capitol of San Jose. Get out of town quick because the traffic can be horrendous even with gas at five dollars a gallon. Take a bus northeastward through the vast and mountainous Braulio Carrillo National Park where crashed airplanes have gone undiscovered for weeks. Continue for fifty miles until the hard-surfaced road forks and becomes a narrow cobbled lane. Bounce over this bone-jarring side road for two hours through corporate banana plantations and steadily increasing heat and humidity until it ends on the bank of a roiling, muddy river. Here the tropical rainforests of a real jungle begin. Hire a rustic boat and motor north through a myriad of canals, rivers and lagoons for 27 more miles while flocks of parrots squawk overhead, and howler monkeys scream from somewhere inside the adjacent walls of chlorophyll. Finally, pull ashore at the small native village of Tortuguero. Located on the edge of a national park with the same name, the hamlet of Tortuguero sits astraddle a narrow spit of land bound on the east by the Caribbean Sea and on the west by the river. The people are dark-skinned and speak with a rich Jamaican patois. They thrive in an aquatic habitat where children are not allowed to swim in the ocean because of the sharks nor in the river because of crocodiles. The beaches of the area are best known for harboring the largest concentration of nesting green sea turtles in the western hemisphere. Walk down the wide sidewalk that serves as the main street of this roadless village until you pass the one-room police station. There in the heart of the settlement one can view a genuine “good example.” Four freshly painted containers under a small kiosk are labeled in Spanish for “paper,” “plastic,” “aluminum,” and “glass.” How is it that recycling can occur in the remotest jungle of a small, relatively poor, third-world country and not along the bayou cities and towns in most of Louisiana?
Bayou-Diversity (3 January 2013) Irruption! One of the joys of bird watching is the ever present chance of seeing something new – an unusual or perhaps rare species that suddenly appears unexpectedly. This is possible of course because many birds are great travelers, often flying thousands of miles in the mysterious wonder of migration. Especially in winter, bird watchers across the country hope for the arrival of avian visitors that don’t normally occur in their areas. When numbers of them do visit periodically, the phenomenon is termed an irruption. In North America the species most often associated with winter irruptions include pine and evening grosbeaks, crossbills, purple finches, pine siskins, and even snowy owls. Some of these birds usually spend their winters no farther south than southern Canada or the northern U.S. In the bayou state we are experiencing one such irruption right now. Red-breasted Nuthatches have abandoned their normal haunts in northern coniferous forests and are showing up throughout Deep South states this winter. Please be advised that they are not here for the sun and sand, and their arrival is not a portent for harsh winter ahead. The cyclic occurrences are driven by a scarcity of food on the normal wintering grounds. Red-breasted nuthatches are in Louisiana this year because of a cone crop failure in northern pines, spruces, firs, and larches. The small, short-tailed birds are dependent on seeds in the cones. Happy bird watchers are reporting seeing them all over the state, some at bird feeders stocked with sunflower seeds. As it may be years before they return, watch for these feathered Yankees while they’re here.
Bayou-Diversity (10 December 2012) A special wisdom will vanish with this man and his sort. Knowledge of wild things and their ways accumulated in the laminae of his bones, like tree rings, over a lifetime of seasons, backwaters, spawnings…, and dark moons. His insights are not to be found in the great libraries for they are wordless, and as antipodal examples hampered with the blinders of “education,” we cannot see the fish for the shimmering water. It is also likely that few of his kind will come our way again.
Bayou-Diversity (22 November 2012) SENSES OF THANKSGIVING:
Thank you, O Lord, in this bountiful season for the five senses to relish your world.
Thank you for the succulent smells of the fruits of the earth in the kitchens of our mothers and wives. Thank you for the odor of rich delta dirt on a warm, foggy winter morning. Thank you for the smell of wood smoke, especially that tinted with lightered pine. Thank you for the stew of odors distinct to our rivers and bayous— cypress needles, primal water, mud and decay, life and life to be.
Thank you for the sound of voices of those who came before us and those who will carry our legacies into the future— our parents, grandparents and our children. Thanks for the muffled wings of waterfowl above an overflow swamp and the belligerent snort of a doe at dusk. Thank you for haunting sounds of great horned owls and distant thunder.
Thank you for the taste of spring mayhaws and autumn muscadines in the jellies of a late November Thursday. Thank you for the abundance of other native flavors, subtle and brash— breast of teal, pecans, filet of bass. Thank you for the taste of contentment.
Thank you for the feel of a driving north wind as an Arctic front races for the gulf. Thanks for the textures of sweet gum balls, feathers, gumbo clay, and beech bark. Thank you for the heat of an open fire and the warmth of an open heart.
Thank you for the sight of falling leaves, fattening squirrels, and rising waters that foretell the change of seasons. As the sun approaches the solstice, thank you for lengthy shadows and longer sunsets. Thanks also for fleeting glimpses— of a bobcat at dawn, of a shooting star on a rawboned night, of curiosity on the face of a young grandson.
I pray also, O Lord, for a sixth sense. Grant us common sense to be good stewards of these treasures. Amen.
[Link to audio version:
Bayou-Diversity (18 November 2012) When you hear the wild cry of migrating geese in Louisiana, always look for them. It is your chance to gaze upon an enigma from deep time. Born of Arctic winds and reindeer moss, they drift for 3,000 miles with the tide of eons etched on their DNA that you might glimpse a mystery high above an autumn bayou.
Bayou-Diversity (12 November 2012) In order to save such things, well-meaning economists have tried to place monetary values on wild creatures and natural places. The worth of a bass dinner is calculable, but how does one assess a fresh coat of paint on the soul?
Bayou-Diversity (27 May 2012) Disquieting though it may be for the cloistered wood duck inside the nest box, old man barred owl is intent this morning on a crawfish breakfast from the pond below. He rolls up his britches’ legs to dive-bomb them in the shallows. Being a wise old bird, he prefers only the tails and litters his aerial perches with claws and carapaces like a Saturday night Cajun.
Bayou-Diversity (23 May 2012) Go Native! Stokes’ Aster is a native, perennial sunflower that grows wild in wet pine flatwoods, savannas, and bogs. It loves our acid soils and has evergreen leaves. Pull up a zinnia in your flower bed and plant a Stokes’ Aster.
Bayou-Diversity (17 May 2012) It is that time of the year on the creekbank of a free-flowing stream within the Mollicy Wetlands Restoration Project. As large as your
grandmother’s old enameled wash pan, this spiny softshell lays her ping-pong ball sized eggs on a sandbar once buried in muck because levees stymied the natural flow. Rusted gears of the emancipated ecosystem are beginning to turn once again.
Bayou-Diversity (20 April 2012) This, my favorite tree, is of ancient lineage in the botanical world. Her candelabra arms are seductive in their winter bareness, and oh those voluptuous summertime leaves! They fetch the passion of the tropics to a red clay hill and snare photons on a scale that obliges the buckeyes beneath to wilt with envy. Dressed for a day in the swamp, I don’t dare touch her nectarless flowers. She is from an epoch before proboscised bees and butterflies; her deportment permits pollination only by beetles in black dinner jackets.
Bayou-Diversity (22 March 2012) In 1971 I found a morel in Lincoln Parish that was said by my botany professor at the time to be the first scientific documentation of the mushroom in Louisiana. Today in Union Parish I found 3 more freshly erupted after yesterday’s deluge. They grow here only under upland hardwoods – a scarce commodity in the land of rowed up pine trees. For more than a moment I contemplated these gourmet treats sautéed in butter, but finally skulked away in hopes of a bumper crop next year.
Bayou-Diversity (2 March 2012) Honeysuckle it is not, so DON’T sip the nectar of yellow jasmine as you would the unrelated native coral honeysuckle or invasive Japanese honeysuckle. Yellow jasmine is laden with strychnine-kin alkaloids not conducive to sweet experiences.
Bayou-Diversity (23 February 2012) This damselfly, a fragile forktail, and her mate were photographed in north Louisiana on February 6, the earliest record in the year for this species in the state. Another anecdote in the climate change ledger…
Bayou-Diversity (6 February 2012) Rich in mythology, more than 40 species of crows around the world are considered among the smartest of birds. They are confirmed tool users and also have the ability to recognize individual humans. When addressed this hooded crow in Istanbul declared with a croak that he did not know me.
Bayou-Diversity(17 January 2012) They’re up! The first wildflowers of 2012, white violets display their goods as enticement for sunny day insects interested in an early sip of nectar in return for a bit of inadvertent pollination.
Bayou-Diversity(9 January 2012) Highly refractive crystals behind the retinas of
this gray fox result in eyeshine captured by a trail camera monitoring our compost pile. Her pupils appear to glow yellow as do those of visiting raccoons and stray cats. The scavenging possum, though, glares out of red eyes behind his devilish grin. With the aid of these specialized organs (called tapetum lucidum) many animals can see us much better than we can see them in the dark of the night – a fact that encouraged our ancestors to seek the light of a campfire as the sun set.
Bayou-Diversity (1 January 2012)This 3/4″ white oak acorn has the potential to develop into a living organism that will exceed 100 feet in height, 100,000 lbs. in weight, and 400 years in lifespan. Until just a few years ago white oak was a keystone species in the canopy of Louisiana hill country forests. As a nurturer of wildlife, it has few equals. Today it no longer grows on hundreds of thousands of acres, being replaced by genetically modified pine trees planted in rows and harvested in about 20 years. For a 2012 New Year resolution, perhaps we should strive to appreciate the value of life around us in species other than our own – and in units other than $$$ derived from the likes of pulpwood cords.
Bayou-Diversity (19 December 2011) The lower third of the Mississippi River
experienced the historical record flood this past spring. Spring floods often build on waters in the basin from the preceding winter. Today the Mississippi River at Vicksburg is 25 feet higher than it was a year ago. Just saying…
Bayou-Diversity (12 December 2011) Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, just so long as the beholder is another brown pelican. Officially designated Louisiana’s state bird in 1966, the species in a splash of irony vanished from within our borders that
year due to pesticide poisoning. Since recovered from that calamity, brown pelicans now keep a watchful eye out for signs of actual progress toward coastal restoration.
Bayou-Diversity (28 November 2011) Gray fox can climb trees to escape predators, search for bird nests, and in this case to snack on juniper berries. Earthbound red fox is perhaps more cunning but lacking the ability to climb trees must look up to his arboreal cousin.
Bayou-Diversity (11 April 2011) Louisiana marsh scene – NOT. This is Dalyan Delta on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey with phragmites, needlerush, bitterns, egrets and herons just the same. We call the streams that braid our vital wetlands bayous; there the term is “batakliki kol,” arms of the swamp.
Bayou-Diversity (13 March 2011) Past week’s developments as the angle between our hemisphere and the sun lessens: first damselfly (fragile forktail), first dragonfly (common baskettail), first carpenter bees, first fireflies, first anoles; flowers of pawpaw, sassafras, buckeye, and redbud; fronds of sensitive and cinnamon ferns – phenology all.
Bayou-Diversity (28 February 2011) Gone to garlic. A tenant shack on a former Red River plantation returns to earth. Two miles below the sagging joists the sweet odor of 150-million year old sea life enriches descendants of former landlords. For progeny of the sharecroppers, natural gas in the Haynesville shale formation is as pungent as the herb.
Bayou-Diversity (13 December 2010) Sunlight + Seasons = Autumn’s Water Oak Acorn > Spring’s Wind-thrown Oak > Summer’s Firewood > Winter’s Refuge
Bayou-Diversity (6 December 2010) Frozen Fright – Bayou grackles bedizened in sunlight enspirit a sandbar during daily ablutions. This vulnerable occasion requires vigilance. Was that the shadow of the small lightning hawk?
Bayou-Diversity (29 November 2010) On these dark nights they swim unnoticed down our bayous and rivers bound for a procreative rendezvous thousands of miles away in the Sargasso Sea. Only those American eels several years old and sexually mature feel the tug of the cosmos in every cell. For them it is now a one-way trip to their natal, spawning, and burial grounds. For us it is an enigma too profound to explain with science.