Saturday, March 28, 2020

CO2 and You--What the Pandemic Teaches Us About Nature

The crisis with the COVID-19 coronavirus is teaching some hard lessons about the importance of national preparedness and collective action. With the economic shutdown and social distancing causing many to head to nature preserves for solace and exercise, the pandemic can also help us better understand our relationship to nature. As explained below, that relationship plays out in every breath we take.

The power of nature
For one, the virus's capacity to shut down an economy shows how powerful nature is, and the perils of placing all value on economic growth while taking nature for granted.

Internal vs. external threats
The pandemic also shows how much more seriously we take problems that affect us internally rather than externally. Coronavirus, which attacks us from the inside, has achieved in three months the sort of concerted action and acceptance of sacrifice for the greater good that an external threat like climate change has yet to spur in three decades. Environment by definition refers to what is all around us, and has historically achieved political priority only when the sight or smell of pollution caused in us a visceral response, or an invisible menace like radiation threatened us internally. A CO2 buildup in the atmosphere may threaten our collective future, but it is neither a direct threat to our senses nor our health.

The fallacy of individual innocence 
While posing a physical threat to our insides, this coronavirus is also changing our perceptions of ourselves. Because the virus can be asymptomatic, each of us could potentially, unwittingly put others in danger simply through proximity. It shows how our bodies and our actions can pose a threat despite a complete lack of intention.

Libertarianism, which opposes government interference and believes that people should "be free to live their lives and pursue their interests as they see fit as long as they do no harm to another," has long foundered on its second principal. We've known for many decades that it is impossible to "do no harm" to others when we each as individuals use machines whose exhaust is altering the atmosphere, radicalizing the weather and flooding coastal cities. Our lack of ill intent, our view of ourselves as good people, our noble motivations for using the machines--these have nothing to do with actual collective consequence. What each of us does has a small but collectively vast global impact. Again, coronavirus is teaching us in three months the lessons that many have resisted learning from climate change over three decades.

The biggest threats are not always the most lethal
Another lesson this particular coronavirus teaches is that the biggest threats are not always the most obviously lethal. There have been more deadly coronaviruses. SARS killed 10%, MERS more than 30% of those known to be infected, but their higher kill rates actually served to inhibit their spread. Though COVID-19 has a relatively low mortality rate, it has caused the most disruption. The most dangerous kind of coronavirus, it seems, is one that can spread rapidly by being very contagious but selectively lethal. Similarly, the biggest threat to the earth's climate is excess CO2, a molecule with less power than some but which has become dramatically more abundant and persistent in the atmosphere. Its lethal consequences--a superstorm here, a megafire there--are also selective, leaving many thus far unscathed.

The magic and power of CO2 in our bodies--how carbon serves as nature's battery
Coronavirus is additionally relevant to climate change through the mechanism by which it threatens people's lives. By inflaming the lungs and thickening their walls, the virus not only slows the transfer of oxygen from the air into the bloodstream, but also prevents CO2 from escaping from the body. Exhaling excess CO2 is just as important for our survival as inhaling oxygen.

It's worth taking a moment to explore the elegance and beauty behind the normal breathing we usually take for granted. Our breathing is part of a magic show that perfectly matches the plant world's own brand of magic. A plant takes invisible carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, strips the carbon of its oxygens and packs the carbons with energy from the sun, much like we charge a spent battery. The plant builds these energized carbons into visible tissues full of sugars, carbohydrates and fats. We in turn eat the visible food, extract the energy from the carbons, then send the spent carbons flying out of our mouths as CO2, now invisible and airborne, to fly back to plants on the wings of oxygen. Blow into your hand and feel the carbons you ate as food just hours before. Breathing is how we lose weight. Our consumption and respiration is the equivalent of "now you see it, now you don't."

Coronavirus causes CO2 to build up to dangerous levels in our bodies
Though the CO2 constantly building up in our bloodstreams is essentially exhaust, a bi-product of our internal combustion, nature in its brilliance makes use of what seems like mere waste. Our bodies use the CO2 to strictly regulate our blood's acidity and flow. Though the CO2 floating in the air all around us poses no threat to our bodies, CO2 in our bloodstream is a powerful molecule that must be carefully regulated. Any significant rise or drop in concentration could be life-threatening. Many thousands of times a day, the constant streaming of CO2 from cells into our bloodstream triggers an impulse to breathe, not only to take in more oxygen but to keep ridding the body of excess CO2 that otherwise could do damage. Coronavirus sabotages this beautiful, elegant, essential system, blocks the CO2's escape from the bloodstream, and thereby prevents our bodies from regulating themselves. Thus the critical need for ventilators.

The magic and power of CO2 in nature
The critical importance of regulating CO2 levels extends to nature. As soon as the CO2 exits our mouths, it loses its power over our bodies but becomes active in the earth's atmosphere. Nature, again in its brilliance, utilizes our exhaust not only as a convenient, ever-ready food for plants to build their bodies with, but also to regulate the temperature of the earth and the acidity of the oceans. As with a tiny coronavirus, CO2's invisibility is part of its power. Floating like an invisible blanket in the atmosphere, CO2 lets the sun's light energy reach the earth unimpeded. But when that light hits the earth, or the roof of our homes, or our skin, the light energy is transformed into heat. Our skin "burns" because of this instantaneous change of solar energy from light to heat. The CO2, which affects the earth like the glass windshield affects the inside of a parked car in the summer, lets light through but prevents the resultant heat from escaping. That's the greenhouse effect, and that, too, is a beautiful part of the earth's functioning until something--our machines--puts too much CO2 in the atmosphere, causing too much heat to be trapped.

Because the livable planet is only skin-deep, human activity beginning with the industrial revolution has increased the atmosphere's concentration of CO2 by nearly 50%. The earth heats up and radical changes in climate and sea level are set in motion. Like with our bodies, a change in overall temperature of even one degree can have consequences.

Nature as a body we live within
That is how I came to view nature--the plants, animals, oceans, air and soil--as a body, as much in need of careful regulation as our own bodies. The plants are the earth's lungs--whisking away excess CO2 and supplying oxygen. Animals are the earth's cells--constantly burning energy and releasing CO2. The atmosphere and oceans are the earth's circulatory system, carrying oxygen to the animals and CO2 to the plants in a mutually beneficial exchange. We live in this body, the body of nature, as if it were a womb that feeds us and, in past eras, conveniently absorbed and cleansed all our waste. It's a body that is not much more than a skin on the earth. That is how the famous "blue marble" photo of earth, said to have transformed our awareness of our place in space, is both informative and deceptive. The living earth is not a massive solid ball, but more like the skin of a balloon, barely penetrating into the ground, and rising only a morning's vertical walk into the sky. Our world is vast only when viewed horizontally. Look up or down and the boundaries of the living world are close at hand.

Like coronavirus, a fossil fueled economy causes CO2 to build up to dangerous levels in nature's body
What a glorious system--this thin-skinned body of a living earth--a system whose built-in stability and predictable cycling of the seasons has allowed all of life, including us, to thrive. And how are we unintentionally but knowingly and profoundly messing up that system? It is not us so much as our machines, not our machines so much as the combustion by which they are powered, and not so much their combustion as the nature of their fuel. Fossil fuel--I wish there were a better name, what with its forced, phoo-phoo doggy alliteration and wimpy consonants that defeat an emphatic delivery. But there it is. We're stuck with the name and increasingly stuck with the consequences. Fossil fuel means buried fossil life converted by intense pressure over eons into fuels deep underground. All that carbon safely sequestered down there in deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas. Wise it would be to leave it there, keep it out of action so that the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere remains within a stable range. But no. The stuff's just too good to leave alone, too extraordinary in its concentration of power, too useful.

Imagining nature's trauma in our own bodies
This is where viewing ourselves as inhabiting the body of nature can help us understand what our machines and the economy they supercharge are doing to the earth. Imagine your body were the living skin of the earth, and you were doing just fine, combusting and exhausting carbon, keeping your CO2 levels within a safe range, when an invasive civilization of microscopic creatures began constructing a whole new network of roads, airports, and homes inside your skin. And that tiny but expanding network had minute machines for mobility and comfort that began to emit a steady pulse of more CO2 into your body, so much that it outstripped your lungs' capacity to expel the excess. Your body, unable to accommodate this additional burden of exhaust, would be in mortal danger.

The body of nature needs a ventilator
This is what our coal- and oil- and natural gas-combusting economy has been doing to that surprisingly thin, skin-deep body of nature we live within. The plant world and the oceans cannot accommodate the extra load of CO2 constantly being emitted by the economy we have installed on this planet.

Though nature here is being portrayed as a body, I have not seen any evidence that nature is an entity that can intentionally communicate with us in any way. There have, however, been two crises that seemed uncanny in their timing. One was Hurricane Sandy, which arrived in the last week of the 2012 presidential election, during which climate change had gone nearly unmentioned. The other is the arrival of the COVID-19 coronavirus, which imposes on the human body an imbalance not unlike what is being perpetrated upon nature. It could be seen as a "See how it feels!" moment, meant to inject the perpetrators with a dose of empathy for the nature we inhabit and abuse, just before the 50th Earthday.

But my guess is that nature doesn't work that way. If portrayed as a character in a play, Nature's personality would be one that quietly serves while stoically enduring relentless mistreatment. As the play continued, Nature would increasingly lash out with randomly deployed superstorms and megafires. Maybe the other characters--people--would come to their senses, would extend to Nature the empathy they feel for each other, begin to give back to Nature and work with it, and most importantly, stop overwhelming its lungs with exhaust.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Lost Meadows of Maidenhead Meadows


Last week we happened upon an often passed but little known nature preserve just outside Princeton. It began with a spousal call for woodchip mulch for the garden, which meant a trip to the Lawrence Township Ecological Center out on Princeton Pike. The website said they're open until 2:30pm on weekdays, but I called to make sure. Two days later, we finally headed out there in my 94 Ford Ranger, which I launch like some old ship for strategic errands around town. A lot was changing day to day as towns responded to the spread of coronavirus, and sure enough, we arrived to find that even an outdoor operation like the composting center was closed. With my heightened awareness of climate change, I hate to waste even a short drive out of town, and was not happy at the prospect of returning home empty handed. A compostable expletive escaped my lips as I pulled into the driveway across from the Ecological Center.

Before I could turn around, though, we realized that the driveway I had just pulled into was the entryway for a park. Maidenhead Meadows, the sign said. Township of Lawrence. With the world shut down by a virus, we had time on our hands, so why not?


The broad, flat cinder trail winds through what some might call a second growth forest. But "second growth" assumes that there was a "first growth" forest here long ago, which is not necessarily the case. The name of the preserve stirred memory of a map seen many years back on the wall of Brearley House, the historic house that stands just a little further down Princeton Pike. Being an enthusiast of prairies, I had taken particular note of an expansive meadow on that map.

There's a widespread and persistent misconception that the eastern U.S. was one big forest prior to colonization. More likely it was a mosaic of woodlands, oak savannas and prairies, tended to by Native Americans and their horticultural tool of choice: fire. Evidence can be found along our gasline and powerline right of ways, where periodic mowing keeps trees at bay. There one can still see swaths of the same grasses munched on by bison out in the prairie states: Indian grass, switchgrass, little bluestem, purpletop, and an occasional big bluestem.

Below is a portion of the wonderful old 1776 map, showing the "Maidenhead Great Meadows"


A brief history of Brearley House is the only description I've found thus far of this great meadow that pre-existed colonial times. The 1761 Brearley House "was erected on the Great Meadow, a farming and grazing land of the first residents of Lawrence - the Leni-Lanapi People."

A little box of text on the old map gives more details about how this meadow was used by colonists.
 



There was a similarly large early America meadow, just west of Durham, NC, where I used to live, with stories of colonists harvesting hay from its fields. Years ago, Roger Hansard, a friend in the Natural Resource Conservation Service, took some of us out there once to see the big bluestem grasses surviving along a roadside--one last remnant of what once was a broad sweep of grassland habitat called Meadow Flats. Prairie enthusiasts spend a lot of time scrutinizing roadsides, especially under powerlines, because that's the only place prairie species have survived through a century or more of fire-deprivation and tree growth.


Back in NJ, the current state of Maidenhead Meadows reflects neither its history nor its name. Rows of trees offer evidence of an old nursery (these look like white birches struggling to hold on), and are a reminder that most trees planted in a nursery grow to unwieldy size before anyone can get around to transplanting them.



Someone took care long ago to plant the trees in impressively straight lines.

Maidenhead Meadows is worth a visit. It's a strange mix of abandoned tree nursery, mega-invasion of autumn olive, and some more natural-seeming woodland. Partway down the trail, I had my first sighting in NJ of sourwood in the wild, a tree that turns brilliant red in fall and is more common in the southeast U.S.. Hard to say whether it was part of the nursery.

Knowing that the site had once been a grassland, I wondered if they might attempt to make it so again. It certainly has the feel of a landscape that lost its way long ago. The writeup on Brearley House offers a partial answer as to what went awry after 1800:
"Over the next 150 years, the lack of natural drainage resulting from the construction of the DR Canal and the building of many major and secondary roads caused the Great Meadow to become a wooded wetlands."
In other words, the landscape's predisposition to be grassland was undermined by a change of hydrology. There's a poetry to how water moves through a landscape whose underlying drainage patterns have survived unaltered. I've seen it at Herrontown Woods, and in a few other headwaters over the years. Water flow drives a landscape, whether it's a backyard or a nature preserve.

Maidenhead Meadows may have lost some of its underlying poetry, but I hope they try to bring its historical identity back to life, particularly in the areas overrun by autumn olive. Mercer Meadows, five miles away, is an example of how management can restore these grassland habitats, and even bring back the fire that helped create and sustain them in centuries and millenia past.

Lawrence township has preserved a lot of cultural and natural heritage down Maidenhead way, accessible in part by bike via the towpath--Brearley House, the massive Brearley Oak down next to Bristol-Myers Squibb, and a system of trails that increasingly link it all together. Hopefully someone's cooking up an effort to reconnect the habitat to its past glory.

Woodchips remain on hold, but the open space still invites us to walk and dream.


Monday, March 23, 2020

Solace and Beauty, Peace and Quiet at Herrontown Woods


As a big economy is brought to its knees by a tiny virus, many of us larger species have been getting outdoors to find solace and beauty in a nature that quietly perseveres, largely unfazed by an economy's wild swings. With the machine world's background din newly subdued, there's a greater depth to the peace and quiet to be had during a walk in the woods.

At Herrontown Woods, we've made a few changes in response to the public health crisis. The popular walking sticks are now in storage for the duration,

and the chairs at Veblen House are practicing social distancing.

It can be reassuring to find simple pleasures in small things. Remnants of Elizabeth Veblen's english garden are being protected and restored. These are a few of the many daffodils planted last spring. Others of her own plantings are coming back, simply through our holding off on mowing until the leaves have had a chance to recharge the roots for next year's blooms.

A few snowdrop blossoms remain from the broad sweeps of blooms earlier in the spring.

I glanced up from work at the botanical garden next to the parking lot, and saw this blossom that finally revealed the identity of a mystery tree that has been growing there, tilted almost horizontally--a willow.

This small patch of frizzy grass growing near Veblen House looks to me like poverty oats grass--a native species of Danthonia. Most turf grasses are non-native, but I've long speculated about what a native lawn might look like, populated by Danthonia, Dichantheliums, and the soft fescue one can still find in older lawns.

Diminutive American hollies stand out in the winter woods. They remind me of the hemlocks in the New Hampshire forests that would remain small for decades in the dense shade, ready to launch a burst of growth if and when the death of a nearby tree allowed some sunlight to reach the ground.


These little leaves could easily be mistaken for some diminutive wildflower or weed, but they are the leaves of Hearts 'a Bustin', a shrub that can reach 10 feet high but which has been laid low by deer browsing. It's an old story: the nonnative Euonymus alata shrub dominates in much of the preserve, while this native Euonymus americana barely survives, all because deer prefer to eat the native. We've taken a few of these remnant nubbins and planted them in cages in the botanical garden, so people can see what they are supposed to look like.


It's hard to capture in a photo the expanding flower buds of a highbush blueberry. They tend to be loners in the understory, hard to tell from other shrubs unless you develop an eye for their fibrous, brownish bark low on the stem.


The hazelnuts we planted are already busy, with their male catkins hanging down. Blueberries, hazelnuts, pawpaws, plums, butternuts, persimmons--these are part of the edible forest concept that is appealing even though it has, so to speak, yet to bear fruit.

This rock, along the yellow trail, seemed to be looking back at me. Was it chance that gave it acorn eyes?


In March, it's very easy to see what I call the "second forest." Having come from different climates, introduced species tend to leaf out earlier than the natives. This photo shows a broad swath of privet leafing out in the understory, beneath native trees still in their dormant brown.

The "second forest" is also visible in the fall, when the nonnative privet, multiflora rose, and honeysuckle remain green after the natives have dropped their leaves.


The combination of winter forest and brightening days makes for a wonderful time of year to explore patterns, like this corky bark, unusual for an ash tree. This may be an example of a tree's bark getting more distinctive with age.

With nature as the consummate artist, each boulder in Herrontown Woods tells a story that weds life and stone, organic and inorganic, present and past.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Shedding Our Martian Ways: Coronavirus and H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds

A deserted airport. A civilization shut down by a virus. It makes me think of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, in which Martians conquer England with heat-rays and "black smoke", and seem unstoppable until, suddenly and surprisingly, they succumb to lowly pathogens to which they have no resistance.


We have watched as civilization has been taken over by forces alien to reality, as cold and unsympathetic as Wells' Martians, with a rigid ideology that aims all skepticism outward, and severs the links between combustion and climate change, between spending and taxation, present and future, self and responsibility, words and truth.

For those of us who imagine a civilization that goes beyond fossil fuels, an incremental shifting to renewable energy sources would have been the least disruptive, but the political opportunists and denialists foiled that approach. Failing an expedited incrementalism, the transition would begin instead like our response to the coronavirus, with a reset in which all unnecessary combustion is suspended. Then, in that unaccustomed quiet and new sympathy for nature and the people to come, there would be a surge of economic activity as we rapidly build up renewable forms of energy, remake our lives in a vastly saner and more stable economy, one that would give us mobility and comfort in the present without stealing our future.

COVID - 19 has shown that such a reset is possible. We are a fabulously adaptable, resilient, resourceful species, and are rallying to collectively survive this shutdown for a virus as we would survive a shutdown to finally stop abusing the planet. That would be the finest way to celebrate the 50th Earthday coming up in April, as we begin to build our way back to abundance--the right way this time--give back to nature as it has so generously given to us, and reclaim a shared future. Let us shed our Martian ways, and become more human and humane, more of and for this earth.

Postscript: Some of H.G. Wells' books deal with the power of invisibility. In "The War of the Worlds," it is invisible pathogens that achieve what all the fire power of the English military cannot. And in "The Invisible Man," Wells shows how invisibility can wreak havoc. Climate change is playing out like a slow motion science fiction novel, in which a seemingly benign, invisible, odorless molecule radically changes the world and civilization's destiny. Wells also shows how invasion plays out in the plant world. Martians in the War of the Worlds, very much like our global trade, bring with them an invasive plant, the Red Weed, which quickly runs roughshod over the native species.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Resurrecting the Butternut Tree



Of all the many silhouettes that trees cast against the winter sky, one that gives me particular pleasure is that of the butternut. Most people haven't heard of this tree, also called white walnut or the scientific Juglans cinerea, which was laid low by an imported canker disease beginning in the 1990s. The few surviving specimens in our area often lack the classic vertical ambitions of a tree, tending to grow in a gangly, everywhichway manner while other kinds of trees launch a bold ascent towards the sun. The less than graceful shape is for me still heroic, given the tree's battle with disease. The nut--oblong as opposed to the black walnut's round shape--is said to be very tasty, dense with oil and protein.

A couple resident Princetonians with deep tree knowledge made me aware of the tree's presence in town. One was Bill Sachs, a Princeton grad and editor of the Northern Nut Growers Association newsletter. He had been doing consulting for the Textile Research Institute on the east side of town when he noticed a couple native butternuts growing on their property. Given how few butternuts remain in Princeton, it was a significant find.

It takes cross-fertilization between two trees to make nuts, and one fall I helped him collect those two trees' offerings of about 50 nuts, which he carefully planted in pots and nurtured into young trees about a foot high. Those seedlings took on even greater significance when the two parent trees were lost--one to wind, the other to a saw when it got in the way, ironically enough, of an environmental remediation on the property.


If not for Bill's seedlings, the only thing left of butternuts in Princeton in coming years might have been a street sign at Princeton Community Village.


It was not necessarily easy to find a good place to plant the young trees. Butternuts won't grow in the shade, and most of our open space is heavily shaded by taller-growing trees the butternut can't compete with. In one of our early efforts, I served as assistant as Bill planted a few trees on the edge of a clearing near Veblen House in Herrontown Woods.

Elsewhere in town, some may have mourned the loss of a spruce/pine forest to hurricane winds at Mountain Lakes, but when the town cleared away the debris, Bill and I found ourselves with a clean slate into which to plant native species underrepresented in our dense preserved forests.

Bill carefully caged the trees to protect them from the deer.

My caged structures, as in the story of The Three Little Pigs, were less tall and sturdy, with deer sometimes getting the chance to play the role of a toothful wolf, setting the seedlings back until I reinforced the cages.



Some will say it's best to plant butternuts far from existing mature butternuts that might have the canker, but in a few spots, we took the approach of planting two young ones near a handful of mature butternuts still to be found in the wild. Arborist Bob Wells pointed us to two old loners up near Herrontown Woods, one growing at the edge of Stone Hill Church, and one in Autumn Hill Reservation.

With the blessing of the facilities manager at Stone Hill Church, it was relatively easy to find sunny spots on the church grounds,


but our efforts to plant two young trees next to the lone butternut in Autumn Hill turned into a real adventure. The only sunny spot available near the existing mature tree was a thicket of invasive shrubs and vines. Kurt Tazelaar and I hewed an opening in the rampant growth, discovering in the process the remains of a long abandoned farmstead from the early 20th century. It may well be that the butternut was part of the original farmstead, and had survived long enough to serve as a marker of sorts, leading us back to a bit of lost Princeton history.

Bill had found another lone native butternut in a valley at Mountain Lakes, and I found an opening nearby where we planted a couple more saplings. The older butternut was blown down soon thereafter, dashing our hopes that the new and old could cross pollinate, but the two young ones are now 20 feet tall,


and are being well taken care of by Mountain Lakes staff and volunteers.


Butternuts have a lot going against them. They are unable to compete against taller growing trees, which means a laissez-faire approach to nature would cause them to be shaded out. They are short-lived, which along with the imported disease may be why most of the remaining mature trees we knew of in town have been lost over the past decade.

They don't seem to be faring any better elsewhere. Bob Wells tells me that "Morris Arboretum had two Juglans cinerea up until Nov. 1 when the wind that night blew one lead of tree #1 into the second one totally destroying butternut #2! Now only one misshaped specimen left." The finest specimen he knows in central NJ is in Hightstown, which he describes as "20” DBH and 40-45 feet tall, somewhat scrappy looking but great for a white walnut."

We can be thankful that through Bill's initiative and caring, and assistance from Bob and others, a new generation has a chance in Princeton. Additional robust young trees now grow at TRI and at Harrison Street Park, where my friend Clifford played a role. With some followup care, sunlight, time and luck, the butternut's curious form and the highly touted taste may endure, and we'll get a chance to finally taste one.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Missing Mildfire in Australia

Repetition is a powerful force in our culture. For many people, a lie can be turned into the truth simply by saying it over and over. And one of the lies we are told over and over, even in well-intended daily news reporting, is that fire is the enemy of the forest. It's a lie of omission, a one-sided portrayal that leaves readers with a false impression, time and time again.

The reality is much more interesting. Many species are adapted to periodic fire, and languish without it. Pines of various kinds in the U.S. and eucalyptus in Australia have evolved clever adaptations to encourage and survive fire. Depending on the species, they may shed leaves or bark that resist decomposition, and thus accumulate on the forest floor to carry a fire along. Ever wonder why oak leaves are slower to decompose than maple leaves? Oaks gain advantage from periodic fire, and have thick bark to protect the trees from the fires that their persistent leaves promote. Many kinds of pines and eucalyptus have "serotinous" cones or capsules that release seeds only after being heated. The seeds drop to the ground after a fire has swept through, make contact with the newly exposed soil, and then the seedlings prosper in the ash fertilizer and more open conditions a fire leaves behind.

Fire-dependent trees and prairie grasses depend on periodic small scale fires. These mildfires, as I like to call them, burn cooler, so they don't sterilize the soil. They burn lower, so they don't spread to the canopy. Fire-dependent trees and herbaceous plants quickly spring back to life once the fire has swept through. Periodic burning makes the forest safe, by burning through fallen branches and leaves. If left unburned, these fuels can accumulate to dangerous levels and cause the truly destructive fires we've seen in California and Australia. Fire-dependent forests, then, accumulate a congestion of persistent leaves and other fuel that can become dangerous if not relieved by the cleansing and renewal that periodic mildfire brings. A parallel can be seen in people who lack a healthy outlet for feelings that otherwise build up.

Smokey Bear, then, needs to be fired, so to speak. At the same time, fire can be dangerous, and mustn't be casually started. How does one use a potentially dangerous tool to keep fire-adapted forests safe? In the U.S., people are trained to do carefully planned and prescribed "fuel-reduction" burns. It's a necessary but cumbersome approach, and the result is that many forests that need mildfire go unburned.

The situation is greatly complicated by irresponsible homeowners who build in fire-prone landscapes. A recent NY Times article offered an apt description:
" ... many people are putting themselves at risk by building homes in remote, fire-prone areas without taking essential steps to make the homes fire-resistant, like installing metal roofs. Extensive research shows that wildfires will usually leave properly built and maintained homes with little damage, but rural communities have hesitated to adopt strict building codes. 
“People like to do whatever they damn well please on their own land,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, a former firefighter who now runs an advocacy group,Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. “But when a wildfire comes, they’re calling Uncle Sam saying, ‘Please, come save me.’”

The article gave a portrait of a less cumbersome approach used by the aborigines in northern Australia. As was done in North America centuries ago, aborigines use mildfire to tame and stimulate the forests they inhabit.

The article carries an important message:
"Far from being calamities, fires are now seen by many experts as essential to improving the long-term health of the forests, thinning them and creating greater variability on the landscape. Yet that awareness has yet to penetrate the public consciousness. People still think forest fires are bad and expect the government to try to stamp them out, even in remote wilderness areas. Federal and state firefighting costs in some years approach $2 billion."
Why, as the article states, has the public remained unaware that these conflagrations are caused by a lack of beneficial fire in the landscape? I offered one reason in a comment on the article:
Since the massive Yellowstone fires of 1988, and probably well before, periodic articles such as this one have served as useful correctives, but they have had little impact on policy. One reason may be that the day to day reporting of wildfire continues to present fire as the enemy. That repetitive message has far more power than these periodic articles that say, "Oh, by the way, fire is actually an important part of fire ecology, and the real enemy is a dangerous buildup of fuel due to fire suppression."  
Nature is complex, while storylines are kept simple for easy consumption, and the result is a maintenance of the status quo that grows ever more costly and destructive. Knowing how important fire is for forest health, I read the daily reporting--which for some reason decides it's necessary to tell endless stories of victims while saying nothing about how nature works--and wonder how people are supposed to learn about fire ecology. The people who need to learn are not likely the ones reading this article. These periodic correctives are useful and important, but are not enough.
In a sense, the daily reporting that wrongly portrays fire as the enemy is like the accumulation of fuel on a forest floor that creates conditions for a periodic article whose insights into the ecological role of fire sweeps all the accumulated misconceptions away. This enduring cycle has its psychological satisfactions. It works for journalism, but works against the need for enlightened policy.

There's an important lesson about nature waiting to be learned by our culture. While the aborigines are immersed in nature, and see themselves as informed stewards of the complex forests they inhabit, we are largely disconnected from the natural world, and seek simple answers as to how nature works. Fire is categorized as bad, as is the carbon dioxide that is fueling the climate crisis. Yet fire and CO2 are important and elegant components of a functional nature. The real problem is too much of a good thing--fire so hot that it leaves in its wake a moonscape, and so much extra CO2 poured into the atmosphere that the planet becomes overheated and the oceans too acidic. Change, too, is a matter of amount. Though climate has changed through the eons, it is the unprecedentedly rapid pace of human-caused change that is proving particularly destructive. Journalism needs to find a way to convey these lessons, repeatedly, so that more than a peripheral few can learn.

I once heard a talk by the fire historian and author, Stephen Pyne. Grappling with a question about how best to time fire in the landscape, he stepped out of all the complexity of how to safely burn forests in populated areas, and imagined what he called a poet: someone off in a remote habitat, informed by knowledge, experience, and instinct, able to sense when the humidity, wind, and fuel loads of the forest were just right for a fire that would do the most good and the least harm. I often wondered who these poets might be. An article about how aborigines use fire may not change the world, but it offered evidence that the poets Stephen Pyne dreamed of are alive and well, if only clustered in one small part of Australia.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

68 Degrees on January 11


Flowers in January. We have a shrub that's easily fooled by the weather, which one friend describes as "weirdly, wrongly warm." It's the kind of day to split the heart in two. The warmth feels good, but the portent feels bad.

Hard to believe that just five years ago we were skating on Lake Carnegie in early January, appreciating the beauty and variability of all the crystalline patterns. But it's always possible that a pulse of arctic air will come our way and stay long enough to freeze the lake once again--just less and less likely.

If you google the NJ state climatologist webpage at Rutgers, you can find charts that show the warmest and coldest temperatures on record for any given day at various locations around NJ. Looks like the previous warmest temperature on 1.11 near Princeton was 65 degrees in 1975. Record highs for some of the days in January date back to the early 20th century, offering an opportunity for climate change deniers to cherry pick the data and claim the earth isn't warming after all. Only when you look at the data as a whole does a clear trend become apparent. For instance, in this century, this month, and this part of NJ, there have been 14 new records for warmest days and 4 new records for coldest.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

How To Bathe a Tortoise

This post could be entitled "Love and the Art of Pet Maintenance," for the uncanny skill and connection that loving pet owners can display. Below are examples of a tortoise and an abandoned baby rabbit. I also make mention of how love can inform the growing of less pet-like forms of life: a worm bin, or a tree or, I suppose, even the less charismatic life in a compost pile, for those of us whose passion sometimes lands lower on the evolutionary scale.

But because many readers are no doubt wondering, "Just how do you bathe a tortoise?," I will start with that.


I had stopped by for a kitchen table chat with my friend Mia when she disappeared into the living room and soon reemerged with a reptile, specifically a tortoise, and even more specifically a sulcata tortoise. She announced that it was a gift and she was in the process of house-training this new pet, then proceeded to set it in a tray in the kitchen sink and add a little water.

Some "why's" came to mind, in reverse order. Why water for a desert-dwelling creature? And, more fundamentally, why a tortoise?



My notion of tortoise care was formed long ago, in that primitive, information-deprived pre-internet era, while watching a film clip in which a hibernating tortoise was placed in a drawer, there to remain for a month or two until it awoke. I had had some bad experiences living with people who didn't take good care of their pets, so the idea of a pet one could leave for long periods in a drawer sounded appealing. A tortoise seemed to me a hybrid between the elemental and the biological--part rock, part animal.

All those misperceptions quickly evaporated as Mia lovingly gave the tortoise a rinse. She said it loves to have water poured on its belly, and I have to admit, it did look very happy as she held it under the faucet.



At this juncture, a photo of the tortoise getting that wonderful belly splash in loving hands would be fitting, but the scientist in me took over when she pointed to evidence that the house training is going well. Tortoise pee is more solid than liquid, owing of course to the desert dwelling tortoise's need to conserve water.

A sulcata tortoise can live up to 100 years and slowly grow beyond 100 pounds. Somehow I think Mia's up to the task.

She later sent me a link to a study showing that tortoises have good memories. This makes sense from multiple angles. What are 100 years good for if knowledge doesn't accumulate, and if one's going to move slowly, it's best to have a good memory for worthy destinations.


Another friend, Julie, who lives at the edge of Herrontown Woods, has an uncanny ability to raise abandoned animals. She hand-fed this baby rabbit a couple years ago for as long as it took to make it strong enough to return to the wild. Just from watching the interaction, it was clear there was a special connection--part instinct, part knowledge, part affection--that would insure better results than I could ever attain.

More recently, another friend, Tineke, offered us a small clinic on how to use a worm bin to make your food scraps into rich fertilizer. It would be a stretch to call these worms pets, but the same emotions support the insights and consistent, timely actions that insure success.

Love for a pet or a garden or even an inanimate building is like a beacon, a memory prompter, a sleuth. You can tell if someone is paying attention, remembering when to water, or digging for an answer when something goes wrong.

That's the sort of hardwired caring I wish could be bottled and distributed widely in this new decade.




Sunday, December 29, 2019

Opposing Views on Chipmunks


Though I can talk to someone for an hour and not notice what they are wearing, I do notice things in nature. Take this rock for instance, which was sitting unassumingly next to the sidewalk near the back entrance of the local supermarket. I noticed the rock, and then noticed that it wasn't a rock, really, but instead was made of plastic and just happened to be the size of those electronic rat traps you might see in NY alleyways. Sure enough, a closer look revealed round entry points of the appropriate size cut in the plastic.

Then a few days later, a supermarket employee was outside near the "rock", and I mentioned it to him. That was enough to get him talking about a chipmunk that lives in the bushes there. He obviously was fond of this chipmunk, showed me the hole in the ground into which he'd seen it disappear. He hoped it was smart enough to avoid the trap. "Rats may be smarter than chipmunks," I said, realizing I wasn't exactly feeding the wellsprings of hope.

He also told me that he'd seen the chipmunk duck into the store when the doors first open, snatch whatever it could find on the floor behind a counter, and then make it's escape to enjoy its gleanings back in its own private chipmunk preserve in the courtyard. It was a darling story of a cute and enterprising rodent, but might also explain the presence of the "rock."


On my next visit, I noticed pieces of bread scattered in the small plaza near the trap, too numerous to be accidental. In the photo, the bread crumbs are in the foreground, while the trap is a tiny speck across the sidewalk in the background.

The photo nicely captures the opposite views of chipmunks that can be found in my own family. Though I don't remember ever feeding them, I grew up loving chipmunks--their striped good looks, their perky manner and upbeat chirp, the comic but highly utilitarian way they'd stuff nuts into their cheeks. All through the intervening years, I have yet to be wronged by a chipmunk, and have cheered their periodic arrival in the yard--though a vulnerability to local predators may explain why they never seem to sustain a presence.

So it was a surprise to hear my sister in Cleveland describe them as the bane of her vegetable garden. Have Cleveland chipmunks gone rogue? Or might it be that her low opinion of chipmunks is due to a lack of sufficient predators to keep their numbers in check? Interesting to contemplate a predator being the guardian of a prey's reputation.

When it comes to liking or not liking, whether in nature or society, both the judge and the judged can easily get trapped. One positive trait can make people ignore all the negatives, and one negative trait can overshadow all the positives. Emotion seeks purity--a definitive judgement up or down--even as good and evil become increasingly intermixed. When it comes to chipmunks, for now I'm content to, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." I'll carry opposing ideas like a chipmunk carries nuts bulging in its cheeks, to be stored as future food for thought.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Are Foxes Poised for a Cyclical Decline?

Walking back towards the parking lot at Herrontown Woods the other day, I was surprised to see a fox up ahead, trotting in my direction. It turned down a side path before it reached me, seemingly unaware of my presence. The fox was showing the classic symptoms of mange, more specifically sarcoptic mange, having lost much of its fur, and you have to wonder what it's prospects are for the winter.

 
That sad, raggedly fox moving on down the trail, seemingly resigned to its fate, brought back memories of this photo sent to me years back by Christy and Brian Nann, taken at Greenway Meadows. The Mercer County Wildlife Center confirmed for me that it was a red fox stripped of fur by mange, with little chance of survival.

Typing "mange" into the search box for this blog, I was not surprised to find that the photo was taken in late 2008, roughly ten years ago.

That eleven year gap in sightings of mange may not be a matter of chance. Somewhere along the way, growing up in small town Wisconsin or reading wildlife magazines, I learned that foxes and their prey go through a ten year population cycle. There's a boom and then there's a bust.

In recent years, we've been witnessing the boom. Foxes have been flourishing in Princeton, moving up stream corridors into new urban areas. Certainly they've been making their presence known in our neighborhood. My wakeup call came two years ago, when a fox ambushed two of our last three chickens, consuming one and leaving the other stashed under a neighbor's bush for a future meal. Clearly, the local predators were upping their game. Earlier this year, during dogwalks at dusk, I would occasionally see a fox trotting confidently down the middle of the street before ducking behind a house. Late at night, I'd hear their baleful bark in our driveway. A few blocks away, a fox family had a large litter under a neighbor's porch, causing some controversy as to what if anything should be done. The most impressive sighting came last winter, when I was standing in the Herrontown Woods parking lot. Across the stream, a beautiful specimen was moving stealthily through the woods. It paused and went into a crouch, then pounced, penetrating through the few inches of snow with uncanny precision, then trotted off with a rodent in its mouth.

There's logic to the boom, and logic to the bust that may now be underway. When predators are few, rabbits and rodents increase, providing foxes with an abundant food source. Then, as the fox numbers increase, their skillful predation continues taking a toll on their food supply until the foxes find themselves with little to eat. The too numerous foxes begin to starve, and their weakening immune systems make them vulnerable to the burrowing mites that cause mange. The fox population crashes, the rabbits and rodents rebound, and the cycle begins anew. The internet is full of stories of this boom and bust, from Colorado to one out of Vermont that gives an especially detailed description of the biology behind the afflicted fox's misery. The Vermont post suggests that mange can be an isolated event, but also tells of how mange once precipitated a 95% drop in the fox population in a city in the UK.

There are lots of questions to ask. Has the boom cycle in foxes reduced Princeton's population of rats? Might it explain why there seem to be fewer squirrels around than in past years? Might predation of mice be expected to reduce the prevalence of ticks and lyme disease? Is there a ten year ebb and flow to fox raids on chicken coops?

Though rodents can survive a boom in the red fox population, less certain is the resilience of ground-nesting birds on the Jersey shore, like the endangered plover. Red foxes, it turns out, were introduced from Europe. The native gray foxes tend to stay deeper in the forest, and so the red foxes may pose a threat in more open habitat that the shorebirds have not evolved to defend themselves against.

To protect the birds, the state Division of Fish and Wildlife has been culling the red fox population along the shore. Residents outraged by the intentional killing of such beautiful animals managed to get 80,000 signatures on a petition demanding the state's trapping program end. If the petitioners were successful, however, the results might not be exactly humane. When an unfettered population of foxes ran out of endangered shorebirds and other prey to eat, it could succumb to mange--a painful and deadly condition that makes the government's trapping program look highly humane by comparison.

Of course, no enlightened fox is going to rise up and warn its brethren to have smaller litters in order to sustain adequate prey and avoid the epidemic of mange. It is humans who have that gift of foresight and sophisticated communication that can forestall calamity, and yet our special gifts are being spent not to limit our own boom and bust cycle--played out over centuries rather than decades--but to create the conditions for a bust of such global proportions that no life form will remain untouched. Whether it's CO2 or foxes, we live in an era when superficial views of nature predominate, when the misplaced sympathies of 80,000 people can be manipulated to oppose the one government action that could protect both the endangered birds and the foxes from calamity.

This is the journey of thought, back to my youth and forward to a shared future, that can spring from a chance sighting of a forlorn fox along a wooded trail.

Some useful links: 
Princeton's Animal Control officer
Mercer County Wildlife Center

From what I've read, mange in foxes poses little risk to people or pets

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Unexpected Bird Sightings -- Red-Headed Woodpecker, and a Displaced Woodcock

In my inbox recently were two remarkable bird sightings. The first was of a juvenile red-headed woodpecker, spotted Nov. 30 by Susan Miles at Rogers Refuge. This refuge, renowned among birders but not known to many other Princetonians, is on American Water property at the bottom of the Institute Woods, accessible via West Drive.


David Padulo took these excellent photos of the bird, which has been continuing its residency in a prominent snag in the woods.

Red-headed woodpeckers were a fairly common sight in the mature forest that I grew up next to in southeastern Wisconsin. Sightings became more rare when I moved to Durham, NC, where they seemed dependent on large congregations of snags created by flooding or fire.

The red-headed is the one species of woodpecker I have not seen since moving to Princeton, so it's good to hear that at least one juvenile has strayed into the area. One theory is that the tragic loss of ash trees due to the introduced Emerald ash borer may boost woodpecker numbers for as long as the snags last.



Melinda Varian offered the following directions for finding the woodpecker.

Walk along the Stony Brook, about 0.4 miles along the Blue Trail, going from the parking area through the water company and down along the brook. The best place to find it is to walk the Blue Trail to the area where we had to move the trail inland a couple of years ago because it was about to fall into the water.
Halfway along that new section, stand with your back to the brook and look for a light-colored, very tall snag that leans slightly to the right. The bird flies to the top few feet of that snag frequently before going to the other trees in the area. It makes a very recognizable sound that could be described as a sort of chuckling.

Susan Miles added that "the sound it makes could be confused with a Carolina Wren, but it's coming from high in the trees."

Lee and Melinda Varian are now leading the Friends of Rogers Refuge. Lee recently built a new trail--accessible by walking down the gravel road to the left of the water company buildings--in memory of Fred Spar, long-time leader of FORR. The trail helps provide better access to the lower marsh.

Years back, I wrote an ecological assessment and stewardship plan for the refuge, and still help out from time to time. FORR just received another grant from the Washington Crossing Audubon Society to continue invasive species control in the refuge.

The other unusual bird sighting that showed up in my inbox came from Mimi Mead-Hagen.
An odd occurrence happened to us when we were in Philly visiting our son at Penn. We were leaving the squash courts walking along a path when my 21 yr old son was almost hit by something…he ducked and there on the pavement landed this stunned bird. It had hit the ground in an awkward way then recovered to a sitting position as seen in the photo… 
Woodcocks sometimes migrate, and my guess is that this one hit a glass building and crash landed on the pavement. By the body language in the photo, there's some promise that it would recover. Thanks to Mimi for the photo (below).


Rogers Refuge happens to be one place to see the male woodcocks do their spectacular mating flight in February and March. Because the Alexander Rd bridge is closed, many drivers happen upon the refuge when they take West Drive in search of an alternative route to Route 1. There is no alternative route, however, and the water company said it would erect a sign to make clear that the gravel access drive to their buildings is private. You can still drive in there and park next to the observation tower to enjoy the refuge.