Louisiana Flavored Natural History from the Edge of the D’Arbonne Swamp (with Books as Lagniappe)____________________________________________________________________
Bayou-Diversity (1 December 2013) GOOSE MYSTERY: The source of mysteries is not limited to the likes of Tony Hillerman or P.D. James. Nature also serves up some perplexing whodunits from time to time. On the evening of January 25th, 1983 several people called the Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Louisiana where I worked to report unusual snow goose mortality near Jennings. As the regional wildlife disease biologist I was responsible for looking into the matter. The affected site was a rural farming area about two miles wide and five miles long. Local residents reported first seeing dead geese on the morning of the 25th. Birds were found in yards, roads, and ditches as well as in open fields. I saw about 50 dead geese scattered at random lying belly up. They made indentations in the wet fields where they struck the ground, indicating that they became incapacitated while flying and fell from the sky. I estimated the total mortality to be 200 to 300.
I collected and necropsied several of the geese. No lesions characteristic of infectious diseases were found although all exhibited free blood in the heart and lung cavities. A definitive cause of death could not be established, but the pattern of mortality seemed to rule out diseases, parasites, or poisoning. No known waterfowl disease or parasite causes such a rapid death, and mortality from something like pesticide poisoning might be expected to emanate from a central focus where contact with the agent occurred. Such was not the case.
The National Weather Service station at Lake Charles and local residents reported heavy thunderstorms in the area the night before the first dead geese were seen. Although the carcasses showed no signs of lightning or hail strikes, I concluded that the mortality was weather related. Severe thunderstorms are known to spawn powerful updrafts capable of lifting aircraft thousands of feet. Coastal thunderheads often tower to seven miles above the earth. The barometric pressure and oxygen content of air at these heights are greatly reduced. It is feasible that a flock of geese caught in an updraft and carried rapidly to such heights will experience respiratory and circulatory problems similar to those found in the necropsied birds. This theory would also explain the distribution of carcasses as geese succumbed and fell out of the storm at slightly different times and places.
Geese have been observed flying at extreme altitudes in places such as the Himalayas. These heights were probably achieved over a period of hours thus allowing time for physiological adjustment. The Louisiana geese were likely carried aloft in a matter of only a few minutes, which precluded their acclimation and resulted in mortality. So, nature mystery solved. Well….at least in theory.
(Adapted from Bayou-Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country – LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (19 November 2013) Among the greatest ecological calamities of our times in north Louisiana has been the conversion of diverse upland forests in the hill country to pine plantation monoculture. One hardwood species that was historically common though never abundant is black walnut. Other than a few surviving trees planted in old farmsteads, walnuts have almost vanished from this region. They once grew to over one hundred feet tall and were cherished for their important wood and edible nuts. Still common in parts of the Midwest, walnut trees are so valuable, with individual trees worth thousands of dollars, that timber poaching is often a problem.
Walnut lumber is used to make high quality furniture, flooring, and coffins. It was once the most sought-after wood for beautiful gunstocks, but has been increasingly replaced by plastic for this use. Ironically, the petroleum that is processed into plastic is often produced using drilling fluids that have ground walnut hulls as a major component. The ground shells are also used in water filters, cosmetics, and abrasives.
Walnut fruits are nuts encased in a hard shell that is embedded in a softer green husk. The nutmeats are difficult to extract but have a unique, natural flavor much richer than that of English walnuts commonly found in grocery stores. Black walnuts are used in gourmet baked goods, ice cream, salads, and pasta dishes. The husks contain chemicals that were once used to make a dark brown dye. When I was a boy, local trappers would boil their steel traps in a tub filled with walnut husks to camouflage the traps and remove human scent.
The ecological role that black walnut played in Louisiana forests in unclear. Certainly, wildlife ate the nuts. Walnut leaves contain chemicals called “polyphenols” that repel insects. Roots produce another chemical that inhibits nearby competing plant growth. The vegetation under a black walnut tree looks different from that found under nearby trees. Whatever the function once provided by the scattered black walnuts in our natural forests, it has been supplanted by genetically modified pine trees that grow in nice straight rows.
Bayou-Diversity (6 November 2013) What does a chickadee at your bird feeder, a tyrannosaur that lived in northeastern China 175 million years ago, and a tragic 16th century play have in common? That the chickadee is covered with feathers is not surprising, but finding the richly detailed plumes on the fossil of a Jurassic dinosaur seems a bit incongruent. Feathers are made of a special group of proteins called keratins. During development, the proteins bond into twisted sheets that result in microscopic structures similar to but stronger than those found in the hair, claws, and horns of mammals. The job of feathers on modern birds is to provide insulation from cold temperatures in both air and water. Proto-feathers found on dinosaurs served the same function. Feathers allow birds the remarkable concept of sustained, controlled flight, a phenomenon shared only with bats and some insects. Feathers also play important behavioral roles in the lives of birds during courtship and defense of territory.
The significance of feathers for humans is cross-cultural and spans the globe. They have adorned the bodies of British queens, Aztec kings, and New York socialites. They are used in the religious ceremonies of Native Americans and in snakebite medicine by East Asians. Feathers are fashioned into fishing lures for anglers and regimental headdresses for generals. They have been stuffed into mattresses during times of peace and fletched on arrows for war. Feather quill pens yielded the U.S. Constitution, the novels of Jane Austen, and the complete works of Shakespeare. Paleontologists consider the discovery of feathered dinosaurs further evidence of kinship between those reptiles and the ancestors of birds, thus the connection between an oriental tyrannosaur, a Carolina chickadee, and incidentally Romeo and Juliet.
Bayou-Diversity (30 October 2013) In humans and other animals a covering of skin serves various functions including protecting the body within. In trees and other woody plants bark can be considered analogous to skin. Like skin, bark is comprised of several layers, some living and some non-living. The outermost layer is called cork and does not consist of living cells. It is usually impermeable to water and gases. Moving inward, specialized layers of living cells perform critical functions including the transport of nutrients. The nutrients are manufactured via photosynthesis in the leaves or needles and flow through sieve-like tubes throughout the rest of the plant.
Humans have been using bark products for thousands of years. The inner bark of some plants is edible. The spice we call cinnamon is finely ground bark of the cinnamon plant. Latex and resins are bark products used in chemicals. Tannin from oak bark was used to tan animal skins for centuries. Lifesaving medicines such as quinine and aspirin were made from bark. As a construction material bark is used as shingles and flooring. Native Americans made birch bark canoes, and today we grind it up to use as landscape mulch.
This discussion of bark would be incomplete without mentioning how we thoughtlessly abuse it even while cherishing the plant it protects. The invention of the gasoline-powered string trimmer has resulted in the unintentional and untimely deaths of countless landscape trees and shrubs. If a string trimmer has been used in your yard, I challenge you to look closely at the base of your woody plants. There is a very good chance they have been partially or completely girdled. Once the bark of a plant has been seriously damaged, the plant will never thrive to reach its potential and will often die. Besides destroying the nutrient transporting cells, bark wounds are prime entryways for pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and insects.
To view another bark-related travesty in our region, visit a public campground and consider the nearby trees that we love for their shade and aesthetic values. Most will likely be hacked, scored, burned, or carved with initials. Beech trees in particular are condemned if they are so unfortunate as to germinate in a public area. Considering the many benefits that we have reaped from bark over the centuries, what does this unnecessary destruction say about us?
Bayou-Diversity (24 October 2013) I claim to be the only person in Rocky Branch, Louisiana with a whale in an aquarium. He shares my living room tank with two moody zebra cichlids. Other than being unfailing stimulators of conversation among visiting friends, they have little in common.
The cichlids of course are fish and originated in Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, and I found the whale, a mammal, in the Bayou Dan Hills in Caldwell Parish. The main difference is that the fish are alive, and the whale breached and took his last breath about 40 million years ago. Less important details include the fish being four inches long and the whale nearly 70 feet in length. The fish are also intact in my aquarium, but unfortunately the whale consists of only a single tail vertebra that resembles a large, brown, petrified mushroom.
The bones of “Basilosaurus cetoides,” as paleontologists dub him, have been found in a band across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama where Eocene marine deposits are exposed. This layer surfaces near the community of Copenhagen in Caldwell Parish. Heavy rains occasionally erode whale bones, great white shark teeth, and coral from steep hillsides that were once the bottom of a warm shallow sea. Whale vertebrae were so common in some areas that settlers used them as fireplace andirons and blocks to support cabins. In 1843, Dr. Richard Harlan first described this species from bones collected in Caldwell Parish at bluffs along the Ouachita River. Thinking that he had the remains of a giant ocean-going reptile, Harlan named the animal Basilosaurus, which means “king of the lizards.” Later, another scientist found a complete skeleton in Alabama and recognized the creature as a primitive whale. An impressive specimen hangs from the rafters of the Smithsonian Institute today.
In his prime my whale had a stream-lined body that resembled a sea-serpent more than a modern whale. His head was five feet long with teeth-laden jaws that allowed him to capture and gulp down fish by the tub full. The cichlids don’t seem to worry much about this though, and his surviving tail bone is a constant reminder that indeed, “the times, they are a changing.”
*Adapted from Bayou-Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country (LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (9 October 2013) At the turn of the 20th century, Louisiana’s vast natural resources in the form of virgin forests and teeming wildlife were besieged by commercial interests and others lacking environmental mores. In this state of diminishing wilderness Ben Lilly emerged from the swamps of northeastern Louisiana to become a folk hero. His reputation as the best hunter of his day evolved as a result of his obsessive compulsion to kill bears and cougars. President Theodore Roosevelt hired him as his chief guide during his noted Louisiana bear hunt. Ironically, Lilly’s successful efforts in Louisiana and later out West contributed to the loss of a life style that he cherished.
Benjamin Vernon Lilly was born in Wilcox County, Alabama, in 1856. As a young man he settled on his uncle’s Morehouse Parish farm near Mer Rouge. He hated farming, and dabbled in the cattle and timber businesses. None of these occupations were satisfying. He discovered his passion in the local swamps of Bonne Idee and Boeuf after killing a bear with a knife. From that point forward his life centered on the pursuit of large predators. Accordingly, in 1901 he transferred his property to his wife and children and walked out of their lives.
Lilly soon learned that he could make a living as a hunter and became good at it. The U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey hired him to collect for the national museum. Over the years he sold them many skulls and skins. From Louisiana he shipped a cougar, five black bears, seven red wolves, and two rare ivory-billed woodpeckers. In 1906 Lilly decided to seek greener pastures and left Louisiana for the Big Thicket of east Texas. There he was successful in killing a number of bears and his reputation spread. He drifted into Mexico and spent many years in Arizona and New Mexico conducting predator control for ranchers and the gvernment.
Lilly’s legendary status was due in part to his peculiar looks and habits. President Roosevelt wrote of him:
“He has a wild, gentle face, with blue eyes and full beard; he is a religious fanatic and is as hardy as a bear or elk, literally caring nothing for fatigue and exposure which we couldn’t stand at all . . often he would be on the trail of his quarry for days at a time, lying down to sleep wherever night overtook him.”
Lilly would not raise a hand to work on Sunday. He never cursed, smoked, or drank alcohol or coffee. He was known to subsist for days in the wilderness with only a sack of corn meal. Ben preferred to sleep and eat outdoors even when amenities were available. Laden with bearskins and live cougar kittens, his brief and infrequent visits to towns only enhanced his enigmatic aura. Given the opportunity in a crowd, he was known to promote his own heroic folklore.
Lilly died in Grant County, New Mexico in 1936, about 80 years old. His epitaph in the Old Silver City Cemetery reads, “Ben Lilly – Lover of the Great Outdoors.” By modern standards, the inscription would contradict his lifestyle of the relentless pursuit of apex predators. He was, by any standard, cast of a different metal.
Monuments to Ben Lilly have been erected in Mer Rouge and in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Recently, the Ben Lilly Conservation Area was established in Morehouse Parish along Bayou Bartholomew. (adapted from: Ouchley, Kelby. “Ben Lilly.” KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. Dave Johnson. La. Endowment for the Humanities, 23 July 2013.)
Bayou-Diversity (19 August 2013) Is there a grown man in Louisiana who as a boy has not, in spite of dire warnings, chunked rocks at a wasp nest and paid the dear, dear price? I doubt it, myself included. Most types of social wasps aggressively defend their nest. Because the stinger is a modified egg-laying organ, only females can sting. Unlike some bees, which sacrifice their lives when they sting, wasps have a barbless stinger that can be used many times. During a sting, venom is injected into the skin of the victim, and nerve endings of pain receptors are promptly stimulated. Usually, a short burst of vigorous, aerobic exercise follows almost simultaneously. If the exercise results in a murdered wasp within a 15-foot radius of its nest, the situation quickly deteriorates. Dying wasps release a pheromone that attracts revenge-minded sisters. Retreat is always a better option. About two people out of a thousand are hypersensitive to wasp stings, and an encounter can be fatal if not treated promptly, usually with epinephrine. It’s important to remember that native wasps are a spoke in the wheel of our ecosystems. A few are pollinators, and most serve to keep in check various insect populations. Aldo Leopold, the father of modern wildlife conservation, once said, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of any plant or animal, ‘What good is it?’”
-Adapted from Bayou-Diversity (LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (14 August 2013) Okay, here’s the Louisiana bayou trivia question of the day. Just what are those softball-sized, jelly-like globs that are often seen attached to bayou trees and boat docks, especially after water levels fall? Impress your friends with this answer: Bryozoan Colony. These gray, gelatinous masses are actually colonies of thousands of individual animals called zooids. Each zooid is a microscopic creature complete with a mouth, digestive tract, muscles, and nerves. The jelly-like material serves as a protective matrix for the colony. Individuals feed by filtering tiny algae from the water through tentacles. Since algae don’t usually grow well in muddy water, the presence of bryozoan colonies in a stream can be an indicator of good water quality, at least in terms of turbidity. Colonies grow in size by budding from the adult zooids. New colonies are established from free-swimming larvae produced by the zooids. There are many species of bryozoans, but most live in salt-water environments. Of the approximately 20 freshwater species found in North America, most live in warmer regions.
Studies have shown that humans are much more susceptible to develop an affinity for animals that have soft, furry coats and large eyes than for creatures without backbones. So where does that leave the blind, slimy, bayou dwelling invertebrates that make up the bryozoan colony in terms of popularity? Well, as long as we don’t pollute all of our waterways, it probably doesn’t matter. Bryozoans have been around for 450 million years according to the fossil record and will probably be here long after we’ve stopped asking trivia questions.
[adapted from the book Bayou-Diversity, LSU Press]
Bayou-Diversity (6 August 2013) In 1976 while most of the nation was celebrating America’s bicentennial, the Louisiana state legislature was up to more important things. They were debating the designation of an official state fossil. Apparently the issue became contentious when one senator nominated a colleague for the title. Calm returned to the chamber floor only when the second senator declined in deference to age rather than beauty. Subsequently, the distinguished body voted unanimously to name petrified palm wood as the official state fossil.
Fossils in Louisiana are relatively scarce, and petrified wood was a good choice. Petrified wood is formed when any of several types of minerals replace buried woody tissue. Silica is the most common replacement mineral. In the western United States much of the petrified wood developed after being buried by volcanic activity. In Louisiana the wood was buried in the silts and sands of meandering rivers and streams that occurred on the Gulf Coastal Plain around 30 million years ago. The shore of the Gulf of Mexico was further north then explaining why most petrified wood is found in the northern half of the state.
The Louisiana state fossil is specifically petrified palm wood. Of the many types of petrified palms, those found in Louisiana are most commonly in the genus Palmoxylon. It is a favorite of rock collectors because of high silica content, well-defined rod-like structures, and variety of colors. Jewelers like it because it polishes well and for its durability. They follow in the tradition of Native Americans who used worked petrified wood as tools for thousands of years.
While some might argue that Louisiana politicians are indeed petrified at least in their thought processes, their efforts to recognize an interesting fossil should be considered on the educational merits. (from Bayou-Diversity – LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (15 July 2013) 150 years ago, New Orleans was occupied by Union forces during the Civil War. Some of the northern men discovered unanticipated environmental hazards as related by Private Isaac Jackson, 83rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, on August 16, 1864: “There was quite an accident happened to one of Co. F today. He was down to the river washing his shirt. . . . when a ‘Gar’ came up and caught hold of his hand. It nearly cut three of his fingers off. It nearly jerked his arm off, he said. The Alligator Gars are a savage looking fish. They have a very large mouth with a long bill running out in front. They look like they could take a man’s leg off at one snap. I will send you the scales of one I found on the river bank.”
The image is a rare photo of Union soldiers fishing. For more on this topic, see my “Flora and Fauna of the Civil War” (LSU Press).
Bayou-Diversity (8 July 2013) For many southern palates ambrosia can be defined as a home-grown, vine-ripened, freshly sliced tomato. In their long journey to domestication tomatoes have made a number of interesting stops around the world, none less so than the U.S. Supreme Court. This particular side trip began in 1883 when congress imposed a 10 percent tax on all imported vegetables. One disgruntled and botanically astute importer challenged the law on the grounds that tomatoes were technically fruits and not vegetables. He was correct according to accepted biological definitions. The justices though unanimously leaned in the direction of the common man’s vernacular, rejected the botanical truth, and the misconception was perpetuated along with the taxes.
The wild kinfolks of tomatoes grow in Central America and along the western coast of South America. From Peru an ancestor of the tomato may have migrated to Mexico where it was first domesticated. Aztec recipes using peppers, salt and tomatoes may have been the original salsa. These first tomatoes were small, cherry-like and grew on a creeping vine.
Very soon after Cortez’s infamous triumphs in Mexico in 1521 tomatoes turned up in Europe. Cultivation quickly became widespread after overcoming a few superstitious speed bumps. Often associated with other poisonous and hallucinogenic members in its nightshade family, tomatoes got a bad rap early on. In German folklore they were tied to werewolves, and the Latin scientific name for tomatoes translates to “edible wolf peach.” Tomatoes sailed back to North America with the colonists, but maintaining a shady reputation were largely considered as ornamentals. Suspicions of the tomatoes safety were not put to rest until the 19th century. It is a good thing. Who would we be without shrimp creole and BLTs?
Bayou-Diversity (5 June 2013) Hardwood giants reigned on the ridges of Lafourche Swamp until the rake of crosscut saws reduced their tight annular rings to a lifeless commodity. Large sweetgums such as this one were called “red gums” because of the carmine tint of the heartwood. The logs were quarter-sawn and veneered to become the cabinets of Singer sewing machines and the paneling of woody station wagons. . . so that we might experience progress.
Bayou-Diversity (25 May 2013) Screech owls are the smallest of four types of owls found in Louisiana. Their call is not a screech but a soft, mournful whinny that rises and falls down the scale. Renowned for superb night vision due to eyes with large retinas and a high concentration of light-gathering cells, owls have even more remarkable hearing. Large heads and ear openings with flat faces receive minute sounds not unlike a radar dish. These senses along with soft, serrated wing feathers for noiseless flight make owls unparalleled stealth predators of darkness. As adults, screech owls are about 10 inches long with ear tufts. They exhibit two color phases – gray and red, as shown by these babies in my nest box.
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.