Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Simple Food Chain

I have a beautyberry bush (Callicarpa americana) in my yard. I think it is comprised of more than one individual. I think I remember planting more than one. I wish now, as I look as the thick tangle of stems and downward-curving branches, that I had planted them farther apart. I got those plants from the side of a dirt road in Doyline. I was bird-watching, and had ventured down the road which I knew ended at a little open space at the edge of Lake Bistineau named "Tadpole" by the locals. The right fork of the road went to Tadpole; the left fork went to a really big house that was visible from Tadpole. Folks said that house belonged to Coach Roach's brother. Folks also said Mr. Roach didn't like people on his road.

I'd been to Tadpole dozens of times when I lived out there. I never saw anyone come or go on that road. Before this day, I'd always been on foot, and I never felt like walking an unknown distance to see a house that supposedly belonged to a mean hermit. But this day I was riding in a truck, so when we reached the fork and discovered that the path leading to Tadpole was overgrown and impassable, we decided to venture down Mr. Roach's forbidden driveway. The forest edge created by the dirt road made for incredible birding. We crept slowly down the road, stopping every so many yards to listen for something new. We got to the end of the drive to see an electronic gate, and beyond it the biggest house I've ever seen.

Seeing three cars parked up at the house, we figured we'd soon be explaining to someone what we were doing there, so we pulled to the side of the drive and continued pishing, kissing, and broadcasting a recording of a never-ending Screech Owl call in an attempt to illicit mobbing behavior from unsuspecting birds. Another vehicle came down the road and entered the gate. The driver waved to us as he passed. He came back out a few minutes later, and passed us by, waving again. Not long after that we decided we'd counted every bird we could from that location, and began to drive out. Going slowly so as to hear if something new was singing, we spotted some beautyberry sprouts right at the edge of the road. I got out and pulled a few plants up with my hands. I put the roots in a soda bottle with a little water, and went on with my birding adventure.

I planted the beautyberry that evening. I remember the stem of the biggest sprout had snapped and even though I thought it was lost, I tried to mend it with scotch tape. Three years later, I can still find the stem with the scotch tape bandage. The plants are loaded down with berries. The weight of the berries causes the branches to sag, giving the bush a sort of fountain-spray appearance. The mockingbird whom eats there daily finds it difficult to stay on the branch as he forages. He often falls, and catches himself on another branch, falls again, and so on and so forth until he either has had his fill of berries, or tired of the Mr. Bean routine. I don't know which.

I planted those plants specifically because I wanted birds to have berries to eat. I am happy when I see the mockingbird coming to the bush, but I'm also a little happy when he falls down…because I think he ate my Spicebush caterpillars.

I had collected two Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars and brought them to live on my spicebushes. I observed them daily (and nightly, since I read that's when they eat). I watched them morph from small blobs of bird droppings into green freaks with giant false eyespots. I watched them change from green freaks with giant false eyespots to orange freaks with giant false eyespots - one a day earlier than the other. And then they disappeared - one a day earlier than the other. I had hoped they had gone off to form their chrysalides. But when I saw the mockingbird shopping around my little spicebushes, I feared my little caterpillars had been somebody's dinner.

So I have mixed feelings about my neighbor the mockingbird. And I'm having second thoughts about the beautyberry's role in my 'landscaping plan.'

Friday, August 10, 2007


As a child I found lots of natural areas to explore right here in Shreveport. Some of them - like the Stoner Woods - I was forbidden to enter because caring adults feared the threat of strangers. (I did venture in there once, as an adult, accompanied by a dog, and I quickly discovered that my parents' concerns had merit.) Anyway, while in Shreveport, I enjoyed a happy medium between having woods to play in, and having friends to play with.

As you may have deduced from the foreshadowing, I did have to leave Shreveport during my childhood, and I was not a happy camper. We bought a nice house in Doyline for a ridiculously low price (location, location, location). I was forced to change schools, and convert my best friends into pen pals. The town of Doyline was picturesque enough, and there were two schools (K-5, and 6-12), but our house was two miles from those schools. Our house was also two miles from the nearest store. There was no park. The library was a single room building among the antique store fronts on the one road in town. It was only open one day a week for a few hours.

I scanned the houses and trailers for any child my age. I found none. As to add insult to injury, the really cool log-cabin house was surrounded by a desert of turf grass.

Overgrown turf grass.

(The trees were somebody else's property. Of course, I know now that the woods in Shreveport were somebody else's property, too, but back then, I had never before considered that somebody owned - or could own - the woods.)

The first day my family stayed in that house, my whole family was plagued with bug bites. My whole family...except for me. At first, my parents were convinced that they had been swarmed by mosquitoes. These country mosquitoes, however, went for skin covered by snug cloth and elastic bands. After two or three days, they were still miserable, as the bumps on their skin were still itchy, red, and swollen. Worse yet, good ole' calamine lotion gave them no comfort.

I couldn't help but think in was karmic: The people who forced me to leave civilization were now driven mad with some kind of skin parasites they encountered at their country paradise. But meanness aside, I held the biggest clue to the problem...I did not have any bites (or whatever they were).

So let's use deductive reasoning: The itching bumps appeared on Tuesday on three people, but not the fourth. On Tuesday, all four family members crossed the front yard, brought in boxes, and dwelled in the house. Three people ventured out among the tall grasses to explore their new backyard. The fourth walked the road following the woods to find a property owner. If the fourth person acted as a control, then the variable of the experiment is the overgrown grass - the one place the fourth person did not go.

Serves them right. Stupid grass.

But seriously, whatever they encountered were obviously not mosquitoes. They we were about to learn from the locals...chiggers.

Chiggers are little bitty red mites that have a parasitic stage of their life cycle. You may actually be able to see the adults (harvest mites) if you sense movement well and look really hard. The larvae walk so lightly that you don't feel them on you, but once they pierce your skin and inject you with a salivary secretion, you'll feel them alright! The secretion contains powerful, digestive enzymes that break down your skin cells so that the chiggers can ingest them.

To board a host, chiggers climb up plant stalks and wait for something or someone to brush by. They only hang around for about four days, then drop off to complete the rest of their life cycle as upstanding members of the environment. Sometimes the skin remains irritated for a few days after the parasite has gone, but the itching that results from having microscopic quantities of your skin liquified and sucked out is incredible. To alleviate it, people have come up with all kinds 'remedies.' Paint the bumps with nail polish, pour rubbing alcohol on them, bathe in oatmeal, bathe in bleach, coat your skin in oil - you name it - someone has probably tried it.

During my family's first days at the new house, I escaped a chigger infestation, but I have not always been so lucky. I have had my share of chigger bites. I have also tried many of the home remedies. I seem to remember a product called "Chig-a-rid" that I painted over the bumps. It definitely worked better than nail polish. Not too long ago, I took my chiggers to the dermatologist. I thought it was high time to get some professional advice and prescription-strength products. I was surprised to discover that the dermatologist's advice was to add one cup of bleach to a hot bath and soak. "You can tolerate it," she said, "They can't."