Battling snakes on the Ghost River

DSC01617 DSC01622  DSC01656 DSC01660 DSC01705 DSC01716 DSC01717  DSC01731 DSC01732 I back-stroked my cheap orange kayak up to the bridge and away from the beached kayakers, including my own family. A quick scan of the bridge under surface revealed cliff swallow nests, vines, and a few lovely wasp nests. The big wasps jerked left and right, shuddering their large bodies across the heavily parasitized nest face. It seemed too early in the season for Chalcoela iphitalis to have so destroyed this lovely Polistes annularis nest. The parasitic moths could have come from the larger old nest right next to this new sprout, but that nest’s cells were unblemished by the cat eye slits the moth pupae leave in a wasp nest. I guess mid June really isn’t too early in the part of western Tennessee so close to Mississippi.

The start to any group river trip belies the tranquility to come. The trips always go from bridge to bridge. You park at the muddy take out, then wait for transport up river in those tippy 15 passenger vans. The drive for a day of paddling seldom takes more than 20 minutes. Loading into the kayaks is a confusion of life jackets, paddles, awkward attempts to hook water bottles and dry bags under elastic, ending with the struggle of beginners getting their soft bodies into the hard plastic and pushing off from the mud.

DSC01650Paddling the Ghost section of the Wolf river is one of those things my daughter wanted to do before leaving Memphis. We had a whole year to say goodbye to Houston, but Anna has only a few months to say goodbye to Memphis. She has done a lot more than we have, but we have also enjoyed Memphis, a 5 hour drive from St. Louis the way we do it. We have eaten at Fuel, Cafe Society, The Beauty Shop, Sweetgrass, Cafe Eclectic right around the corner from home, and even Bari. We’ve been to the Civil Rights Museum but Graceland, Beale Street, and all music we’ve missed, sadly. But now we can say we paddled the Ghost.

Much of the trip reminded me of the Cypress Wonderland, but that Texas treasure has a larger river, the Trinity, larger cypresses, and no clear route through without guides. A highlight of that trip was the history Tom and Linda told. We got no such stories on the Ghost, though it was in the Civil War. There was a still on it during prohibition, but is no more, though the folks at Ghost River Brewing take their water from it. We even ran into them at the lunch spot and were glad they shared a sour and a smoky beer from the kegs they canoed in.

Mark was our guide for the trip, from Ghost River Canoeing. The 8.5 mile water trail took me, Dave, Anna, Philip, and Becca nearly 6 hours, but we weren’t going for speed. We were looking for snakes and listening to birds. Birds included white-eyed vireos, parula warblers, prothonatary warblers, and blue gray gnatcatchers, with an occasional yellow crowned night heron, or murder of crows heard in the distance. On the river we saw none of the ominous hulks of social black vultures that we had seen on the drive along with the dead armadillos.IMG_6585

But what we really looked for was snakes, basking snakes, swimming snakes, water snakes, or cottonmouths, we wanted to see them all. I hoped Philip would not pick up a cottonmouth and he didn’t. The snake that bit him repeatedly till he bled, then showed its gaping and innocent snake mouth hoping for another bite was a water snake, some kind of Nerodia sipedon, most likely. Philip informed us we should not get too close to him, for the musk the snake released to stink him up was not water soluble.DSC01720

Mark and Philip were more clear on the differences between harmless water snakes and venemous cottonmouths, but my experience was not recent enough for me to feel sure from a distance. The one cottonmouth as promised did swim away heavily on the top of the water while the water snakes nearly submerged.

We paddled and paddled. We needed an early lunch break before the main lunch place takeout with a sandy bank, but it was after noon. We ate sandwiches and grapes and drank herbed water. We paddled as one should, pushing down with the top arm and pulling back with the lower arm. We dug deep and smooth into the nearly still water. We also fluttered the paddles, lazily pulling back with the lower arm. We twisted around the snags and ducked under poison ivy. We wondered how many parula and prothonotary warblers this swamp could possibly hold. We remembered the swamps have trees and marshes have only grasses. We dripped on our legs with every stroke, a welcome cooling, though it was not really too hot. We realized our whole family is gradually moving north and mourned for the dangerous Faulkner south of kudzu and torpid days. What is so interesting up there in the glittering north?

I paddled in the middle of the group, like bumper cars, my daughter said. I paddled to the tranquil front, hunting for snakes. I paddled in the back of the group on the second stretch when the ghostly channels had opened into a lake and we abandoned the trail as Mark took us past beaver lodges and through narrow cypress passages.

We had been competing for snake sitings and several of us were at about three when I saw them. Not any old snake siting, but an improbable one, massive 5 foot long coils as thick as ship rope hanging down from their tails like ripening meat. It was not one snake but a twist of two, evenly matched in size hanging so their shoving heads were just above the water. They twisted, they writhed, they ascended and uncoiled.

I called everyone back and rapidly they came, ungainly kayaks clunking together. Anna risked her camera and I risked my phone, unsheathing both from their plastic. The snakes continued to struggle, reminding me of what I love about animal behavior. It is so gripping, so real. That there is something to explain is clear, but what was it? Who were they? Was it love, sex, or war?

Philip quickly figured out that the snakes were not water snakes. But what would a rat or a corn snake be doing here on a tree in the middle of a swamp? We later identified them as gray rat snakes, famous for taking wood duck eggs, excellent at climbing trees, and even nesting in high cavities.

The snakes dropped into the water, swam away, then returned. One ascended before the other and dipped into a whole 15 feet up the tree. Oh, so that is the goal. But out she (or he?) quickly came. I guess it would take too long to eat an egg with the enemy snake right behind. They played the hanging and fighting game awhile longer, then swam away from the tree again. Clearly neither had forgotten about it. Neither thought to share.

We paddled on, noting the places where beaver had torn strips of bark from the cypresses. All too soon were were at the slippery take out. Mark refused a tip and urged us to instead make a donation to the Wolf River Conservancy. Without them, this timeless stretch would have been harvested in the 1990s, just as it had been half a century or more before.

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Leaving Memphis

IMG_6490  A mockingbird sang an eight-part song with no repeats, ceasing only at the insistent squeal of a fledgling. Now they are silent. Besides the basil and rosemary in the garden, my daughter has a fig tree and a crape myrtle. Next door is a pink mimosa, not the kind you drink. The air is heavy with the kind of Mississippi River humidity most Americans have not learned to love the way I do. Memphis is not Houston, but coming from the north, St. Louis, I might be fooled for a bit. The bungalows on my daughter’s street could be in Montrose, right in the heart of Houston. Ancient magnolias with their blown white flowers and rubber leaves grace the corner.

Memphis may not have the petroleum-based euphoria of Houston, but it may be just as misunderstood. It is much more than the town where our nation’s most tragic assassination occurred, at the now civil rights monument of the Lorraine Motel. It is a music and barbeque city, with much theater. It is the big city Faulkner’s characters flee to.

IMG_6498There is the Memphis of excellence, with St. Jude’s hospital for children, Autozone, and Fed Ex headquarters, along with universities, University of Memphis, and Rhodes College. But there is a lack of opportunity that is different from Houston. There are racial divides I do not know the scope of. Many flee to places with names like Germantown, but why do they not choose to live in colorful Cooper-Young, Vollintine/Evergreen or verdant Central Gardens or more generally midtown or downtown? There is a big park with zoo and plenty of green trails. Tomorrow we will kayak the Ghost River.

IMG_6492But this is not written as a travelogue for Memphis, city of contrasts. It is good bye. My daughter has spent four wonderful years at the University of Memphis where scholarship is celebrated and students who might otherwise not find higher education at all are cherished. She has found wonderful colleagues and lives on a city block where people look out for each other. They help with soup for the ill, dollies for moving, cat sitting and most of all many front porch parties. It is the kind of community that seems more easily found inside cities than out in the suburbs. It is a place where furniture is traded among neighbors. This block seems quiet now, before most have had their coffee, but later the neighbors will be out and chatting.

I wish I had looked at Wikipedia on this interesting city earlier. It was apparently purpose built on the bluffs over the Mississippi, on the fourth Chickasaw bluff, above the confluence of the Wolf and Mississippi rivers. Early it was a major city, just as St. Louis used to be. But they took their water from the Mississippi and suffered from swampy conditions that contributed to the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. The numbers I came across said there were 50,000 on 5 August 1878, then 30,000 fled, all those that could and of the 20,000 or so left, all but 2,000 got yellow fever and about 5,000 died.

Does a city that loses its leaders stumble forever, or do leaders as good as those before emerge from the masses the way my social amoebae can endlessly form a new front to its slug? What if there are plenty of great leaders, but the resources the others brought from outside changed it? Could Memphis have rivaled Atlanta? Might St. Louis have become Chicago had the railroads gone another way? Surely Galveston would have been what Houston is without the hurricanes of 1900 and 1915? I am not a historian, so I do not know how to answer these questions. I do know that saying goodbye to Memphis will be hard.

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Anything you say will be held against you

IMG_2185Anything you say will be held against you.
No, you are not among friends.
We do not like you.

Anything you say will be held against you.
What part of that do you not understand?
No, you do not fit here.

Anything you say will be held against you.
No, you may not explain.
We make all the decisions.

Anything you say will be held against you.
Yes, it is fine if you are quiet.
For remember, we do not like you.

Anything you say will be held against you.
No, we will not tell you the rules.
We do not need you.

And no, you may not judge us. We judge you.

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The bird sounds of Houston

Open your Houston windows to the soft, hot humidity early in the morning and listen. You may hear tires on asphalt of the West Loop, but you will also hear the birds. Just five species fill much of the sound canvas, white-winged doves, Carolina wrens, northern mockingbirds, great-tailed grackles, and northern cardinals. Learn these five, and see how long into your day it takes to hear all of them.

White-winged dove

White-winged doves are new, surging into Houston from a Galveston introduction only in the late 1980s. To me their sound was once exotic, typical of McAllen along with the chachalacas down on the border.  Is it global warming or human transport that has let them overwhelm the dove community of Houston? Their song is barred owl-like, but much softer, who cooks for you?

Carolina wrens are the noisy, tiny birds no one ever sees. Put a little wren house up in a scrubby corner of your yard and help these jewels out. They have the long wren tail at an angle and a defiant white eye stripe. Pay attention to this song, for you will realize it is one you hear daily. You might even spot a little wren disappearing into a brush pile, or atop the wooden fence built after Hurricane Ike took down the original one.

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Northern mockingbird

Of all the birds on this list, no doubt northern mockingbirds are the one you know. The males sing to their mates from up high, varying their song as they try for flamboyance. They will flutter up in fights as they divide Houston into mockingbird territories. Or they may be witnessed dancing along their borders, one hop after the other, as so many of my students discovered. If songs were tails, mockingbirds would be peacocks.

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Great-tailed grackle

 

Great-tailed grackles make improbable sounds resembling cars backing up or metal clashing when the males court the females, rushing them with ever closing circles of blue-black feathers. Then here they nest in the trees along freeway medians when parks are not available.

Northern cardinals may sing the way a child might imagine the arch typical bird to sing, in pure simple notes. They will be a backdrop to any Houston morning.

High above are the chimney swifts, seldom settling except when they swoop into their night time roosts. Spring is here when their chips are above us.

Dusk is for the night hawks, night for the screech owls, and the toads. So leave your windows open as long as you can, Houston, at least through May.

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Best place to stay in San Antonio

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Red-tailed hawk

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Great-tailed grackle

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Preparing for Dave’s 60th birthday!

DSC09995Across the street from our colorful casita a lonesome voice sang a corrido, strumming a slow guitar accompaniment. I could not tell if the song came from the balcony or the porch, obscured by bushes. The next night the sad songs repeated, echoing my youngest son’s anticipatory nostalgia on graduating from Trinity University, soon to leave San Antonio forever.
A couple of blocks down the street are  San Antonio’s oldest cemeteries, where a few paces separated a few graves of Bravos and Martinezes few decades old from the much older and more abundant Woefel and Spanseil and other German and English graves of the 1880s. This is what Ed Snyder says: “The City Cemeteries were the first public cemeteries in San Antonio  −  City Cemetery No. 1 was established in 1853, and the Alamo Masonic Cemetery next to it a year later. You really won’t find many tombstones dated before 1853, as Texas was only annexed to the United States in 1845.” You should read his whole post, though.
A pair of red tailed hawks endured attacks by great-tailed grackles and mockingbirds before soaring up. Next door five very small dogs attended to the street from behind the safety of their fence. Next door the other way two boys dolphined with delight in their above ground pool as their younger sister watched from the ladder, lifting her dress above her head to plunge in up to her panties.DSC09956DSC09968
Our house was as green as the youngest grass, encased in metal, doors and bars. The floor was glossy treated concrete, immaculately clean. Bedrooms flanked the living room, two left, one right, the master, with two closets. Behind was the kitchen and eating area, back towards the joyful voices of the splashing boys. The single bathroom was plenty, requiring only a little talking and  planning. Our intense green home was not a microhome now so popular, for it clearly had a family in mind.
Ours was one of several on the narrow lot with a parking lot out front. The pink home housed the maintenance man who told me the dogs in the neighborhood would not bother me, if that was God’s plan. Esther dressed, curled, combed, and cut hair in the front yellow building. I wondered what these homes once were before Esther found Airbnb. Was I living in a home where families had flourished, sons in the west bedroom and daughters in the east? Esther’s father built her these homes to rent out back in the eighties, she said, a little business on top of dressing hair.

Music, playing boys, curious dogs, ancient cemeteries, and wild birds make up this unique and central neighborhood. So the real question is, who would choose a soulless hotel in concrete  San Antonio when you could have your own snug casita with Esther’s glossy brown floors?

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Famous biologist Rich Kessin writes a novel with the best feminist twist I’ve read

Rich Kessin could almost be called a Houstonian since he loves the city and spends several periods a year with us. When he isn’t being a famous Columbia professor and mentor to the entire social amoeba community, it turns out he’s turned his hand to fiction. He’s now written a book that I could hardly put down as I read a late draft. It is called The Famine of Men and you can get it from his website, or from Amazon, though more funds go to Rich from his site.

Why do I like the book so much? Partly it is that it is by my friend, but that would not keep me going. Rich has a poetry with his words, an insight into what motivates people, a clear perspective on the complexities of research. But the book doesn’t get too technical. It has too cool a plot for that. It has mystery viruses, epidemics, mixed with love affairs, lab politics, and Amish religion and custom. It feels like I’ve entered a whole world, one I can snuggle into a comfortable chair and put out my own issues for awhile. But it isn’t too much of an escape, for the lab scenes are all too familiar.

Check out this great book and wonder it the world wouldn’t be a better place if the Kessin virus were reality!

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Don’t kill the ants in the lounge!

Leave some sugar out and there will be ants. Sugar ants, tramp ants, crazy ants, fire ants, you name it, we do not live in sterile environments and ants find food. If you bring in a plant, you may well bring in a happy, usually harmless colony of ants.

So why is it that people at the first sign of ants want to call in the dealers in poison, the chlorinated organophosphates and the like? Why are people not more afraid of these chemicals than of a few ants? What kind of environment do they imagine we have? Why can’t we just tolerate a few ants and use them as a reminder to be a little neater?

What if all the microbes on our bodies and our work areas were as visible as the ants?  What would we do then? Would we bathe and scrub with soap like Lady Macbeth, washing out stains that will not leave? Aren’t we doing more harm than good, turning our immune systems back on ourselves when they have nothing foreign to chew on? Why are we so obsessed with this form of purity?

Yes, we have a faculty lounge here at Wash U. It is largely unused because it is locked and only for faculty, to protect the free packeted coffee. And yes, there were ants in there today, the kind I call crazy ants, named for their speed. I bet I could get a great photo of them from Alex Wild. The poison guy was called. He wanted to put out a gel, just a gel, why not? Yes, it has something toxic in it. Yes is was manufactured somewhere. No, we don’t know what the standards for its manufacture were. What will it harm besides the ants?

The thing is, we don’t need it. We don’t need purity. What we need is nature and more of it. We need living things. We are extincting so much. How do these harmless little behaviors, so called, contribute? Where does the poison come from? Where does it go? What is the end?

I like the attitude of my wonderful Venezuelan friends, Juan and Simonetta Castillo. When the termites hatch and fly, the cats feast. When the army ants move through, everything is cleaned. Keep the house open to nature and accept what comes with the seasons. I need to get out of here for respite in the peaceful tropics. Ants, I love you!

Posted in Environment, Insects, Rice University | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment