By Johnny Sain
Some things come naturally to Homo sapiens, and throwing an object ranks as one of the most natural. Babies start throwing stuff around the crib before they can sit up. Did anyone show you how to throw a rock? Sure, there are techniques involved with throwing specific objects, like split finger fastballs and the perfect spiral, but the general throwing motion is as natural as breathing. Load up power by cranking the arm back, a smooth rotation of the shoulder, arm extended and fingers release at just the right moment. Human bipedalism gives us a velocity boost as our hips swivel with the arm extension adding a zip to projectiles that other primates just can’t match. This advantage has served us well and led from chucking rocks to one of the deadliest primitive hunting weapons: the atlatl.
Atlatls are spear throwers. They were the hunting weapon of choice for over 25,000 years and thousands of years before the bow and arrow. The atlatl was a huge leap forward for primitive humans. It meant that big hairy and dangerous animals could now be dispatched, or at least some of the fight taken out of them, from a distance. Sticking a spear in a beast from 50 yards was a lot safer than driving a spear in at five yards.
I tried my hand at spear throwing via atlatl this weekend, and while the throwing motion might be natural, flinging the atlatl takes a little practice. Not as much as you’d think, though. With five throws to my credit I was throwing with some megatherium (giant ground sloth) killing velocity and getting very close to the small box used as a target. I never hit the box, but Arkansas Tech University anthropology professor, Dr. Eric Bowne, showed us how to do it. After a few warm-ups he hit the cardboard with a dead center killing shot. Impressive to say the least.
Mammoths, sloths, deer and woolly rhinos wouldn’t wait around for practice shots, but I’m thinking human hunters from 20,000 years ago wouldn’t have needed them.
I’m wanting an atlatl now. Though deer hunting with an atlatl isn’t legal in Arkansas, you never know when a woolly mammoth might wander into the back yard. It’s best to be prepared.
Once upon a time in Arkansas there weren’t very many deer, ducks or turkeys. Deer camp was for getting away from the wife and hanging out with your buddies. Duck hunting was jump shooting some wood ducks along the creek on your grandpa’s back forty. Turkey hunting was an exercise in futility. Trying to hunt the pitiful few turkeys around here was like trying to catch a fart in a hurricane. If you were a hunter your game was squirrel, rabbit and quail. The most serious hunters hunted quail.
Bobwhite quail were common everywhere, and so popular that a hunter didn’t need to use the word “quail” when talking about them. If you were a hunter and heard someone mention “birds” you knew exactly what they were talking about. Shotguns and bird dogs were discussed like compound bows and duck calls are today. But then things started to change.
Those big family farms in the countryside were chopped up into subdivisions and homes were built. The new homeowners wanted non-native grasses for their yards and kept those yards looking like a golf course. The farmers wanted neat and tidy fencerows so they killed all the brush with herbicides. That back pasture that grew up with native grasses was now a hay pasture seeded with fescue. Other changes were happening as well.
As the human population moved from rural to urban trapping became a thing of the past. Big apex predators had been killed out long before so now there was nothing to control the smaller mesopredators: the raccoon, skunk and opossum. The populations of small predators exploded. Fire ants moved up from Texas along with the armadillos. All of these animals prey on ground nesting birds and their eggs. It was doom for the bobwhite, and today we have lost about 98% of the quail numbers we enjoyed just a few decades ago.
Things can get better but we need to change our thinking and decide that habitat is more important than our vanity. A farm or yard with wildlife is far more appealing than a neat fencerow or a manicured lawn. Think about this when making decisions about your property. Plant native grasses and trees, leave a bushy corner in your yard, or if you own a farm, maybe leave a small field to grow naturally. All these little things add up.
I remember hearing the familiar “bob, bob, white” every spring and summer when I was a kid. I haven’t heard one now in two years, and early summer afternoons are poorer because of it. I’m hoping that my kids don’t need to find a recording to hear that cheerful sound when they are my age.
For more info about how you can help the bobwhite go to the Quail Unlimited.
A few months ago I wrote a post that included a word or two from Aldo Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac. The post was about knowing the names of various fish living in a local creek, but Leopold’s words were about knowing plant birthdays — when does a certain plant sprout, blossom and bloom. It might seem a stretch to link the two, but it really boils down to awareness.
I like to think that I’m tuned in to seasonal changes, and changes that accompany the subtle shift from late winter to early spring are highly anticipated. Spring peeper and cricket frog serenades in late February are the kickoff for other signals of the coming spring. But I’ve tied the annual beard shaving, after a winter of wooliness, to a silent harbinger of pre-spring stirrings. I decided to shave and cut my hair when the first trout lily bloomed, which happened early last week.
I won’t go into a species spotlight on trout lilies here. It might be something I do for next year. Or, who knows, I might do it later in the month, but the trout lily is more than a flower. It represents a milestone as we come out of winter. It symbolizes another spoke in the wheel as a year rolls along. The trout lily bloom means warm breezes blowing across my face are just around the corner. It means looking forward to gobbling turkeys, fresh corn on the cob and stringers full of bluegills in the coming weeks and months. It’s a plant birthday that starts the season of light, and it’s now part of a personal ritual that keeps me more in tune with nature.
The big white bird standing in the parking lot was drawing attention from the buggy-pushing crowd. Big white birds standing outside a pen, in Arkansas, are usually Tyson Foods escapees. This bird did not look like a chicken. It probably wouldn’t taste like chicken either. The bird was a ring-billed gull.
Ring-billed gulls are normally associated with saltwater beaches, but many live around freshwater in the interior of North America. Some never even see the ocean.
They nest in the northern United States and Canada. Arkansas and other southern states are visited in the winter.
The gulls are survivors said Karen Rowe, wildlife biologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
“Ring-billed gulls are the most commonly seen gull in Arkansas. They are opportunists and do not need beaches or oceans to survive. Arkansas’ river systems, man-made reservoirs as well as garbage dumps and parking lots – any place they can scavenge for food, all provide a home for ring-billed gulls.”
The gulls will hang around for another couple of months before migrating north for the breeding season. Migrating is where the gulls shine, and they utilize some interesting skills to navigate cross-country.
Gulls, like other migratory birds, are born with a navigation device. Chicks only two days old have been tested and show a preference for magnetic bearings that would lead them in the direction of the fall migration. Landmarks and high altitude wind help guide them as well. It’s probably way more complex than that, but it’s all that scientist know for now.
Another amazing skill is that many ring-billed gulls will return to the same nesting colony where they hatched. They return to this area every spring, often nesting within yards of where they nested the last year.
The Arkansas River is a prime migration route. Flocks of gulls along with other waterfowl are commonly seen around the lock and dam during the winter months. And, like the bird in the Wal-Mart parking lot, they show up in lots of other places too.
See those sprouts? Those are Cherokee purple tomatoes. They, along with an assortment of other seedlings, are nestled in a repurposed wicker bookshelf facing the sliding glass door on the southwest side of my house. The repurposed lunch meat containers filled with topsoil warm quickly in the sun here on the tag end of winter. I started the seeds only a week ago. A few other tentative chartreuse shoots are poking through the dirt as well. I notice some sage and basil along with butterfly weed and two other tomato varieties. Then there are sprouts I’m not sure about. Grass seeds are part of the hazard when you use topsoil from your compost heap, but there are some clues that help tell you if what’s sprouting is what you planted.
Hazy recollections from a long ago botany class come to my aid. Tomatoes are dicots, which means they have two cotyledon. Cotyledon are the first two tiny leaves that pop out on the stem as it breaks through the soil’s surface. Think of them as egg yolks, nourishing the young plant as it takes in it’s first rays of sunlight. They aren’t really leaves, true leaves grow on the stem after germination. Cotyledon have been with the seed since it developed within the fruit last summer. You can usually tell if a plant is a dicot, two cotyledon, or monocot, only one cotyledon, by looking at the seed. Dicot seeds have two halves with a cotyledon inside each half, and monocot seeds are not divided. Grasses are monocots. You can look at the seed of perhaps the most famous of grasses, corn, and easily see what I’m talking about. But enough about the science; what you’re really witnessing here is magic.
Tiny seeds developed and sheltered inside a fleshy fruit from last summer, fruit nurtured by sunlight and rain from months ago, are awakening. Energy stored inside this embryonic speck of life is now starting the cycle again. In only a few months the seed will be a vibrant green shrub producing flowers and then fruit of its own.
Think about all that when you slice into a juicy tomato this summer. Think about the energy and life encapsulated by those seeds suspended in the jelly. Life just waiting on the warm rays of a late winter sun to start the journey all over again.
The beauty of farm pond fishing is its simplicity. No boat trailering, no electronic fish finders and no waiting in line to hit your favorite spot. You will need only one rod and reel along with a pocketful of lures. In fact, early spring and late winter require only one lure, a spinnerbait.
Shallow waters warm fast as lengthening sunlight pushes us toward spring, and farm pond temperatures can be several degrees higher than nearby lakes. This leads to higher fish metabolism, which leads to hungrier fish, which leads to more strikes. But catching fish is only part of the equation.
Farm ponds provide opportunities for hands on interaction with nature beyond the fishing. Even today, as a forty-something, I’m compelled to catch cricket frogs for an up-close viewing. And watching bluegill and small bass fin around bright green moss and hoof tracks in the shallows is a dreamy way to pass time on a warm, late winter afternoon.
The pond is also a gateway to nostalgia. Take away the ponytail and glasses on my twelve-year-old daughter and you’re left with a reflection of me from 30 years ago. My how time flies, but it also stays grounded. Here, on the pond bank.
The Arkansas woodlands look mostly barren in February. Somber grays and browns are interrupted only by the evergreen pines and cedars along with twining honeysuckle vines in the creek bottoms. The viridescent forest is still a month away. Even the serviceberry, one of the earliest bloomers with its snow-white blossoms, won’t be showing off until March. But if you look closely along the creeks draining the highlands you’ll notice a very early – or very late, depending on your point of view – bloomer. The wine and saffron colored flowers blend in surprisingly well with the late winter woods. The shrub with the subtle blossom has an unforgettable name, though. It’s called Ozark witch hazel.
Ozark witch hazel blooms January through March. The pictures in this article were taken mid-February. This is odd timing for a flowering plant. There aren’t many pollinators out and about in winter, and bloom times are guided by the symbiotic relationship between pollinators and flowering plants. But southern winters, even winters like the one we’re just coming out of, are sprinkled with warm days. Rarely more than a couple weeks go by that you don’t see small bees, flies, moths or even a butterfly here in the south. Because winter pollinator visits are often spaced widely apart, the Ozark witch hazel holds on to its blossoms for several weeks. Probably also due to it’s need to attract the sparse numbers of winter pollinators, the flowers are quite fragrant. They’ve been described as smelling like honey and vanilla. My olfactory powers aren’t that discerning; after a big whiff the word that came to mind was simply “sweet.”
Witch hazel gets its name from the use of its branches in the old art of water witching. The branches would dip or twitch when the dowser, or water witch, walked over an underground water table. This method was also supposedly used to find minerals, oil and even unmarked gravesites. The “witch” part of the name comes from the Middle English word “wych” or “wiche,” depending on which etymology you believe, which means pliable or bendable. See what I did there?
Most of us have seen witch hazel in a bottle at the store, but the medicinal uses of this shrub stretch back to when only Native Americans were on this continent. The extract from witch hazel is an astringent and anti-oxidant used for a wide range of skin issues and injuries.
Another interesting aspect of this plant is the way it distributes seeds. When the seed capsule reaches maturity in the fall it forcibly “spits” the seeds, sometimes as far as 30 feet. Though I’ve not tried them, I’ve read that the seeds are edible and taste like pistachios. So if you’re hiking along an Ozark stream this autumn, and you get a hankering for pistachios, finding a fix is simple. Just listen for the sound of a spitting shrub.