Wednesday, October 25, 2006

First frost

Fresh basil season is over. The first frost occurred a couple of nights ago and my ever-productive, never-failing basil plants are now big bushes of black, desiccated leaves. In the deep south, the first frost alters the sugars in collard and mustard greens, making them sweeter and easier to cook. Southerners who spend time in the woods associate first frost with the ripening of persimmons, but it's a disjunct association.

Persimmon trees, with their easily identifiable charcoal briquette-like bark (they remain one of the few trees I can identify in winter), are unjustly considered trash trees in southeast Missouri. Because raccoons and opossums eat persimmons more than people do, persimmon seeds are dispersed throughout the woods, on fencerows and in old fields. Persimmon trees are generally the first trees that show up in early successional woodlands. Leave an old field alone long enough and persimmon trees will shoot up above the goldenrods, asters and Johnson grass within the first year.

Diospyros virginiana, literally "fire colored fruit/wheat of the gods from Virginia," grows on average to 30-40 feet tall, but in southeast Missouri it averages 80-112 feet, sometimes towering over stately oaks and hickories. They are dioecious trees, which means they require male and female flowers to produce fruit. The fruit is 34% sugar, making it one of the sweetest native fruits in America. But bite into one before it's ripe and you'll never want to try one again. The astringency and bitterness of unripe persimmons can remind you of your younger sister rubbing deodorant on your braces during a sisterly fight.

The fruits ripen at the time when most animals are beginning to store fat for the winter. Unlike pawpaws, persimmons don't ripen all at once. On one tree, fruits can ripen as early as mid-September and as late as February. The lore that encourages waiting until the first frost is plain wrong. I waited until the after three successive nights of frost last year to pluck soft fruits from a laden tree only to be tricked again into a tongue-drying experience. Heavy frost damages the fruit, as does cooking the ripe pulp; heat brings back the astringency to ripe fruit. A lady in New Madrid makes excellent persimmon cookies. She waits until the fruits fall off the tree, often returning to the same tree for several days in a row to get the fruit before the animals do. She treats the persimmon pulp like pumpkin. While I don't think the fruit is pie-worthy, the cookies are great. Native Americans made a fruit "leather" out of persimmons; extract the pulp and spread it 1/4 inch thick over a log and let it dry (or put it on a cookie sheet in the oven with low heat for an hour). High in Vitamins C, A, E. Good source of fiber and trace minerals.

Native persimmons aren't available in produce aisles due to their fragility, but there are several Asian varieties that show up in select grocery stores in the fall. I don't think the Asian fruits are as fussy as the native ones, but being so far from a grocer, I'm going to try grabbing a few fruits before the raccoons get to them. The raccoons, with help from the opossums, managed to eat every single pawpaw in the county this year. I just want enough persimmons for a small batch of cookies and I'll throw the seeds to the fencerow.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Andiamo, Mets

So there's going to be a game 7 tomorrow night. I've loved the Mets since I was in New York. Since I was in high school, I've followed the White Sox. But when I lived in Brooklyn, you could take the F train from my Italian immigrant neighborhood to Shea Stadium, buy a ticket for 5$ and watch the Mets lose. It's a tricky situation now, where loyalty is with the Mets and if my friends in Jefferson City knew this I might be out of a job.

I'm not surrounded by sports fanatics of any type in southeast Missouri. You don't see Cardinals bumper stickers or even the honorary Dale Earnhardt "in memoriam" stickers on truck windows. High school football isn't a religion like it is in the south and I really don't know what the basketball season means down here. I'll be watching the "young, inexperienced" Blazers over internet satellite all winter.

The Showmakers visited me yesterday from Charleston. They come by about once a month when they make their "visiting" rounds to all the elderly folks on the road. They bring brainteaser toys that Mr. Showmaker makes in his wood shop or even little math puzzles, exercises in vector diagrams, to keep the old folks' brains busy. They remind me of my grandparents, always wearing their Sunday best to do their visiting. Mr. Showmaker wears these grand old ties in double Windsor knots and jingles change and keys in his pocket. Yesterday he wore a brand new Cardinals t-shirt that his son gave to him on top of his dress shirt. This was the first time I have seen any loyalty to a sports team since I have been down here, and Mr. Showmaker looked as uncomfortable as Al Gore in St. Louis in his starched t-shirt. Missouri voters rejected the proposal years ago that would require taxpayers to pay for the new Busch Stadium. To pay for the genuinely lovely new stadium, tickets to Cardinals games were really expensive during the season. Add to it the public desire to see a game in the new stadium and a good team, tickets to regular season home games were selling on EBay for $1,000, if they were available at all. My Brooklyn neighbors, most of whom came from Sicily after World War II, wrote letters to the Mets organization when they raised the cheap seats from $5 to $7.

Tomorrow night will be a big night in Queens. Even this week's New Yorker has a very 1930s illustration of a Mets player on the cover, while for the past few years they've featured the celebrated Yankees. Unlike my neighbors down here, I have a vague loyalty to the home state Cardinals, but for the sake of my neighbors in Brooklyn, I really hope the Mets win tomorrow night.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Benge Route

From the National Park Service:
In 1838, the United States government forcibly removed more than 16,000 Cherokee Indian people from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia, and sent them to Indian Territory (today known as Oklahoma).
The impact to the Cherokee was devastating. Hundreds of Cherokee died during their trip west, and thousands more perished from the consequences of relocation. This tragic chapter in American and Cherokee history became known as the Trail of Tears, and culminated the implementation of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which mandated the removal of all American Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River to lands in the West.

Before 2003, I think the average black bear knew more about the Trail of Tears than I did. I thought I had a great, balanced, liberal education. I took an 8 hour course on the French Revolution, I read a lot of Marx, I somehow ended up with a minor in Art History. How did the Trail of Tears, another U.S. government-sponsored expedition in ethnic cleansing, pass my radar screen without my typical outrage? More pathetic yet is that I learned more about the Treaty of New Echota from Sarah Vowell’s book of essays,Take the Cannoli, than I learned in years of structured education. In Take the Cannoli, the author and her sister follow the official Trail of Tears to their hometown of Talequah, Oklahoma. On the way, they stop at every commemorative marker, including, naturally, the one in Chattanooga where the trail started. The Chattanooga marker sits right in front of the public aquarium so that people can ponder it while listening to advertisements for the IMAX film. She stops at all the Trail of Tears State Parks (I think there are 4), including the one north of Cape Girardeau (park staff there are really devoted to their resource. Definitely worth a visit). All the while, Vowell deftly interjects her travelogue stories into the sad and sordid history of the forced removal.

The exodus of the Cherokee was unofficially divided into two camps, the forced and the "voluntary" removals. Aside from the official route that is now commemorated, there were other routes to the Indian Territory that passed through Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas. On October 1, 1838, a detachment of over 1,000 Cherokee led by John Benge departed Ft. Payne Alabama for the Indian Territory. Their route, later named the Benge Route, crossed state lines and ended in Arkansas and Oklahoma. They used a route south and west of the Northern Land Route to cross the Tennessee River. They passed through Paris, Tennessee, through Clinton, Kentucky, and then through Belmont, Missouri, now merely a shady fishing spot 5 miles from my house on the Mississippi River. Belmont was a thriving town in the 1830s and has a rich history related to the Civil War, which I’ll get into another time. But in 1838, when the Benge party crossed the Mississippi River from Columbus, Kentucky as part of the voluntary removal, Belmont was a large enough town that the local newspaper reported the Cherokee march through town. In fact, if it weren’t for small town newspaper records, modern day researchers wouldn’t know much at all about the Benge Route. The Arkansas Gazette, for example, reports that Cherokee camped at Smithville on December 12, 1838 and then went to Pokeville for wagon repairs on December 15. Without this kind of historical record, the group in charge of getting the Benge Route added to the National Historical Trail system would be up the proverbial creek. Land surveys, depressions in the road, oral history and private journals have also helped determine the exact route, just as they did the original Trail of Tears, the Old Spanish Trail and other nationally recognized trails. The Benge detachment finally arrived in Indian Territory in January 1839 and had the lowest attrition rate of any other detachment.

I recently attended a Vaughn family reunion in western Arkansas, an area that used to be the heart of Indian Territory. I traveled 6 hours with 2 goals in mind: to acquire as much verified family history as possible, and, well, to see my family. I had heard for years that my great grandmother was Cherokee and my great aunt was Naragansett but had not really seen any evidence of it. Lined up on a wall at the community center was a collection of photos of the Cherokee relatives (Allie Mixon, pictured). The Cherokee relatives were on the Benge Route, which is why the reunion was in western Arkansas rather than Talequah. I picked up a copy of one of the transcribed journals where an ancestor recounted the route--she describes passing over Crowley’s Ridge, over the Eleven Point River (at the present day USFS portage spot, Indian Ford), and through the Poteau Mountains. In someone’s attic is a collection of 40 years of journals from one of the Cherokee relatives, but no one can tell me exactly where this attic is.

The Indian Territory was initially advertised to the Cherokee as a great place to live. Articles from 1839 collected in a local historical society booklet describe Heavener, Arkansas and Poteau, Oklahoma as though they were the Elysian Fields: beautiful rivers, tillable farmland, an established grist mill and fine schools. Lots of research and documentation exists about the Trail of Tears and I’ll bet at least one dissertation has been written about the advertisement of Indian Territory to the tribes. Many relatives still live in that part of the country and the ones who left did so to work on railroads, a story that has certainly been repeated millions of times in America.

I was handed a lot of information during the reunion: one relative was labeled a “radical” and “socialist” in local newspapers. The Civil War soldier I had heard about was actually a deserter from the Confederate Army. We have his journals where he describes not only years on the run from the Texas Cavalry but how his “sympathie was with the union.” On one branch of the family tree is a relative who bought a land claim in the 1860s right around here in the area renamed “Sunken Timbers.” The earthquake-shattered land was considered worthless and under the Swamp Act of 1850, lots were sold for 1$/acre. Thanks to all the fires that consumed various incarnations of the county courthouse, most original land grants for Mississippi and New Madrid Counties don’t exist anymore. I read in family journals that shortly after Warren Vaughn bought the land at Sunken Timbers, he headed west. I don’t know how long he stayed or his exact reason for leaving the area. It’s a difficult place to live, even when it was a pristine wilderness. While I have a few things to accomplish professionally, I think I’ll follow the lead of my ancestors. I really should be able to live down here for at least a year and I’m not sure where I’ll go next, but it won’t be within the township and it won’t be Arkansas.

Reports in the Vaughn family history reminded me of several things: 1. Everyone has an interesting story. 2. When your grandfather is visiting you in the hospital day after day when you are four, there are more interesting questions you should ask than what he thinks about Sesame Street. 3. Keep a journal. I implore you, readers, all three of you, that regardless of how mundane you think your lives may be, journals are amazing records, even if they are not well-written.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Monarchy in southeastern Missouri

They must have come in the cover of night. Sunday afternoon, the asters and goldenrods were covered in checkered skippers and cloudy sulphurs--both smaller, pale-colored butterflies who have been around all summer. By Monday morning, there were no fewer than 40 monarchs floating outside the window and mobbing the tiny patch of goldenrod next to my office door. The annual monarch migration is underway in southeast Missouri and it's nothing less than spectacular. For two days I have felt like Ferdinand the Bull, trying to get work done but continuously distracted by the bright colors flying around.

East of the Rocky Mountains, the monarch (Danaus plexippus) follows a migratory path to a forested sanctuary in Michoacan, Mexico. Eight other species of butterfly make annual migrations, including the lovely Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), but they only have a lifespan of one week and don't have a directional preference during their migration. The other migratory species all fly in a general southern direction to stay ahead of the frost line but with no real wintering grounds in mind. Only the monarch lives 7 months to see a full migration in its lifetime. While most monarchs live on average 2 months, the ones that make the round-trip migration live longer than any other butterfly. The migrating generation doesn't reproduce until it leaves the mountains in Mexico and finds an area that has milkweed growing in it to lay its eggs.

Researchers still have a lot of questions about the monarch migration. How do successive generations "know" to return to a single wintering spot in the highlands of Mexico? In the past few years, researchers have offered tagging kits to butterfly enthusiasts, which include little stickers with numbers and codes to be affixed to the delicate wings of monarchs. Reports of tagged monarchs have resulted in a lot of interesting information regarding the migration, but not enough information to determine exactly how they make the annual migration.

Monarchs have had a hard time the past few years. Continuous drought in the upper Midwest has interrupted the bloom cycles of the host plant, milkweed (Asclepias sp.), making it harder for the butterflies to find it. Just about every habitat has a milkweed associated with it. There's the delicate swamp milkweed (A. perennis) that my boss simply adores, there's one that grows on glades (A. verticillata), there are several prairie species and the ones that show up in ditches throughout the Midwest. In the Deep South, the natural habitat has been so greatly degraded that the only milkweed that really performs well is an introduced Brazilian species, A. curassavica. The drought has reduced almost all of the watering and nectar sources for monarchs, including the flowering milkweeds. If it's not drought impacting the habitat, it's herbicide treatment of preferred weedy areas. The weedy wildflowers and grasses are a proverbial goldmine to monarchs and most other butterflies. Finally, in Mexico, illegal deforestation of oyamel fir trees has impacted the wintering monarch population. The butterflies depend on the foliage of these trees to protect them on cold and windy nights. Recent reforestation projects in the area have proven successful and the 2005-06 populations are healthier than the 2003-04 populations. The current, exceptional drought in the Midwest, Texas and Mexico could have a serious impact on the monarchs this fall. The recent rains in southeast Missouri, however, have caused a robust bloom of asters and goldenrods and certainly given the butterflies lots of room to mine for minerals in pools of mud.

There aren't a lot of weedy areas left in southeast Missouri; even turnrows are sprayed with RoundUp down here. I let my yard grow up with "weeds," of course, much to the dismay of colleagues. I recently helped a friend with a butterfly monitoring program and realized that even though the survey area was an exquisite forest on the Mississippi River, the best butterfly habitat was found along the edges of the forest where thistles and goldenrods bloomed. The patch of woods I work in is rich with asters and goldenrods. Both of these are plants a lot of people mow over, treat with herbicides or just ignore. Their prolific populations are essential to the migrating monarchs. There are over ten species of asters and four species of goldenrods native to southeast Missouri. This diversity might account for the high numbers of monarchs in the area right now; I honestly haven't seen this many since I left New Orleans, a town rich with weedy lots and butterfly gardens. Almost everyone in New Orleans had at least a handful of nectar sources growing in their yards. The tropical climate down there allows for a lot of wildflowers, zinnias and butterfly host plants.

While I am not getting a lot of work done in the woods because the monarchs and migratory birds are so distracting, I'm enjoying seeing how the butterflies relish the plants most people hate. Funny, that during the monarch migration the weedy, prolific bloomers are at their peak. How that intricate web of nature seems to work...