Monday, May 25, 2020

Some May Wildflowers

A random assembly of May wildflowers, some seen here, some there.

Fringe tree is more like a shrub, but sometimes achieves the size of a small dogwood. Give it some sun and it will fill its form with lacy white in May. Native to the southeast U.S., I've seen it growing in the wild only once, in a preserve we created in Durham, NC. Some internet postings say it can be attacked by the emerald ash borer, but we have two that are flourishing thus far.

This black cherry was blooming conveniently next to a friend's front porch. Black cherries have "black potato chip" bark and little black cherries preferred more by birds than humans. They are common in backyards and in the wild, thriving on edges or in younger forests, before getting shaded out by larger trees.

Two other flowering trees easy to spot along roadsides this time of year are black locust, with its masses of white flowers, and princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa), an asian species with tubular purple flowers.

Another friend who was donating a tree to us happened to have a Leucothoe in his backyard. A good specimen like this can be attractive. There are native species--one that goes by the name "doghobble"--but I can't say I've ever actually seen them growing in the wild.

Big-leafed magnolia--relative of the very common tulip tree--is one of many seldom seen native magnolias. There are some growing in an area of the Institute Woods in Princeton, but I had also seen one growing in Herrontown Woods a few years ago, some distance off one of the trails, downslope from the ridge. Not remembering where it was exactly, I wondered if I'd ever encounter it again. Then one day recently my friend Kurt was showing me some trail work that he and his wife Sally were doing. Our conversation, which began shifting from trails into philosophy and history, took me out of my usual way of moving through that particular section of trail, and when I looked up I saw in the distance the big-leafed magnolia, twice the size it was before and in full bloom.

Each flower is like a candle centered on a platter of leaves.

Surprised to see cuckoo flower still blooming,

and rue anemone, too, is having a long season in this cool spring weather.

Mayflower can cover the ground in leaves but few flowers, as is the habit with trout lily earlier in the spring.

Each leaf of Jack-in-the-Pulpit has three leaflets. Males have one leaf, while the females, arising from a more robust root with enough stored energy to support production of seeds, has two. Each individual plant can change sex, year to year.

Jack-in-the-Pulpits are fairly common, in part because deer often leave them alone. If they do browse the leaves, it's more often of the females, whose leaves may be more nutritious.

Golden ragwort in the field next to Veblen House,

growing in what looks like a field of grass, but in this small patch there is no grass but instead something unidentified, more like a sedge or rush.

Wild geranium adds some color along trails.

Fairly rare is the wild comfrey, with a few small flowers lifted above a rosette of big velvety leaves, growing only on the special soils of the ridge.

This cool, wet spring is showing the showy orchid to be more widespread along the ridge than I had previously thought.

A bellwort with its yellow flower hanging like a bell.

A bit of a celebration here. These are the first blooms of a native azalea relocated to a sunny area of our botanical garden next to the parking lot at Herrontown Woods. This species, once common along the ridge, has long been prevented from blooming in the wild due to deer browsing and deep shade.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Primrose Past and Present

This post was supposed to be about the mystery flower in the photo, sent to me May 10, but its shape brought back memories of primrose past and shifted the writing to something more like memoire. Sometimes, sitting down with the intention of writing about one thing, something very much different pops out.

You can skip to the chase by scrolling down to the identification of this primrose found by Susan Michniewski during a walk in Woodfield Reservation, but first a primula-induced interlude that skips back to the 1970s.

When I was 16, my father left Yerkes Observatory to become chair of the astronomy department at the University of Michigan. For my family, that meant moving from small town Wisconsin to Ann Arbor, MI. It wasn't much of a move compared to the overall size of the universe, but for me it meant transitioning from a school with 50 kids per grade to one ten times larger. I don't recommend moving in the middle of high school, but at the time I was so introverted that one place was probably about as good as another. In retrospect, having made as yet no sense out of humanity or myself, I was well primed for connecting to the plant world.

During the house search that first year in Ann Arbor, we got lucky. My father had learned through the department that a deceased physicist had left behind his estate--a house and garden. It hadn't even gone on the market, and I remember our first magical visit to the empty house in the fall. The abandoned feel of the place stirred parts of my brain that must date back to a distant, less populated era, as when a wandering tribe might happen upon a long abandoned valley that nature had begun to reclaim, and feel a sense of forsaken treasure and possibilities.

A door to the back patio had been left open at one point, because autumn leaves lay scattered on the hardwood floor of the living room lined with metal casement windows and paneling made of sweetgum wood. The living room had a high ceiling, and we were told that it had been designed for music. The physicist, Walter Colby, I have recently learned via the internet, once dreamed of being a classical pianist. A few of his effects had been left behind--a brass inkwell, and green paper napkins that referred to the miniature valley behind the house as "Thorn Hollow." The house was embraced by a lovely english garden, and that first spring, the garden revealed its secrets--a salve for my lonely soul. Down in the hollow a venerable elm tree spread its graceful limbs over walkways lined with yellow primrose and Pulmonaria. Sweeps of Scilla and other bulbs ornamented the slopes. Native wildflowers--mayapples, Trillium, Solomon's seal--rose in the informal beds defined by the trails. A quince tree below the rock-walled terrace still bore fruit.

It seemed a timeless place, with balance and beauty, a peaceful coexistence of plant life, but over time that timelessness was put to the test. The elm tree succumbed to Dutch elm disease. The redbud became overgrown, losing its graceful shape. Maintaining balance in the garden beds involved many hours fighting the advances of garlic mustard and the goutweed that clung to the ground with a vengeance. In sunnier areas, pretty garden phlox began to pretty much take over. Myrtle proved a mixed blessing, too, embedding itself most everywhere.

The more I got interested in gardening, the more I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time dealing with a few bad actors that refused to play well with others. There were still joys, like when a pawpaw tree volunteered in one of the beds and ultimately bore fruit, its origins a mystery. Favoring practical plants, I started a vegetable garden. As trees closed the canopy, we moved the vegetables out front to the sunniest place remaining, between the sidewalk and the curb. Neighbors, at least the neighbors who commented, took delight in our unorthodox rethinking of the front yard.

The primrose in that garden were yellow--probably cowslip (Primula veris), native to Europe--and were about as docile and unadventurous as can be, not weedy in the least.

That's why I was surprised to hear that a primrose species was found this spring growing wild in Woodfield Reservation. It had the same rosette of leaves at the base as cowslip, with a burst of flowers like a circle of trumpets at the top of the stem. But the flowers were red or white rather than yellow, and this one was reportedly spreading along the streambank.

We decided it is Primula japonica. I checked in with Mike van Clef of the NJ Invasive Species Strike Team, who said he hadn't encountered it anywhere in NJ other than near the footbridge in Woodfield Reservation, and that it's worth keeping in mind if it seems like it's spreading.

Thanks to Susan Michniewski for sending photos, and to photographer Douglas Meckel.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Murder Hornets and Princeton's Cicada Killer

The scary reports about murder hornets offer an opportunity to write about invasive species and insects generally. "Murder hornet" is a nickname, but the insect's real name, Asian giant hornet, is not very reassuring. There have been some scary videos making the rounds. The NY Times article was less sensationalistic, and captured well the potential threat along with the actions being taken to counter it. Rutgers hastened to clarify that the insect isn't found in the northeastern U.S.. And it's still not clear whether the AGH (Asian giant hornet) has established a population in the northwest, and if so whether the population is still small enough to be eradicated.

Big insects are scary. One nightmare remembered from childhood was of an ant about two feet long. I had a memorable bike ride home one day with a wasp having perched on my shoulder. I decided to just let it sit there, and eventually it flew off. The more I learn, though, the less scary most insects become. Late last summer, I waded out into a lawn full of blue-winged wasps flying about, knowing they were harmless. Knowledge can lead to a gentle response to something seemingly dangerous in nature. When the fishhook-shaped thorn of a multiflora rose bush pricks the skin, the best thing to do is relax, move towards the shrub rather than away, calmly cut the stem to which the thorn is attached, or rotate so the thorn has a chance to slip back out of your clothing.

Learning more about the Asian giant hornet can bring at least a little reassurance. Along with the uncertainty of its establishment in the U.S., I heard via an invasives listserve that "AGH does not attack people unless it feels threatened", and though they do pose a threat to honey bees, they only "attack and kill other bees in the late summer when developing males and future queens need extra protein to complete their life cycle."

The largest wasp in the Princeton area is the cicada killer, which looks much scarier than it actually is. Like dragonflies, they can tackle insects in midair. Ten years ago, there was a colony of cicada killers living near the Princeton Community Pool. Cicada killers are large wasps in Princeton that dive-bomb cicadas in mid-flight, then haul them back to their underground nests to use as food for their young. They pose little danger, but the colony was exterminated by the parks department because the wasps alarmed people walking by in their bathing suits. (Photo is a dramatization featuring our local cicada killer and an unknown actor.)

While pointing out that some threatening looking insects can be benign, I've also long advocated for action on invasive species. As introduced plants like lesser celandine and porcelainberry spread their smothering growth across Princeton's open space and lawns, there is an opportunity to keep them out of some areas through proactive action. It's been very hard to get people to think strategically, however.

The Asian giant hornet is at least being taken seriously. Quick action could prevent it from getting established in the northwestern U.S., though usually an introduced species is already established by the time anyone sees it in the wild.

As with COVID-19, there are questions as to how the hornet would adapt to climate in the U.S. The L.A. Times questioned whether the AGH would adapt to California's cool summers and warm winters.

Some introduced insects become enduring pests, like Asian tiger mosquitoes that bite annoyingly during the daytime, and the Emerald ash borer that has decimated ash trees. On the other hand, we hear little about the killer bees that were touted as such a big threat in the 1980s. The best news would be that the Asian giant hornet hasn't become established after all.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Big Brains Vexed by the Tinies: Odorous House Ants

Tiny ants are a reminder of the power of the minuscule to vex us big-bodied, big-brained humans. Squash one on the kitchen counter, and others quickly appear, running in helter skelter patterns. A sense of futility quickly sets in, despite our vastly superior strength. As I write this, an ant crawls along the edge of my computer screen. The same dynamic plays out in the world beyond the kitchen window, as a powerful economy is laid low by a lowly coronavirus. A previous post compared tiny ants to "dust with legs." The closer nature gets to inanimate matter--a virus can barely be considered alive--the more it taps into the undeterrable laws of physics and chemistry. As a kid, I was impressed by big things, but relentlessness increases as size decreases, the most telling example being the carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere. Unlike our big-brained selves, CO2 doesn't sleep, or get discouraged, or conjure false realities to make itself feel better. It just does what it does, day after day.

On a far less tragic scale, our latest domestic iteration of David and Goliath began, I hear, with a harmless looking orchid plant that had sat forgotten in a corner of the living room for an unknown period of time. Taken to the kitchen sink, it was watered generously and left to drain while the family went for a walk.

Upon return, the kitchen counter was coated with tiny ants, most likely the odorous house ants that would normally not show up until later in the season.

I've tried various approaches to controlling ants over the years, including meticulous cleaning and borax-based solutions. Only ant poison worked. It's called a poison, but medicines are also toxic if taken in excess. The aim, whether treating inner or outer nature, is to be minimalist and targeted.

Though the ants seemed mostly gone by the next day, someone in the house discovered ant nests in the kitchen--one in the knife holder, the other in electric kettle.

Eggs had been laid in the tiny crevices of the electric wire's insulation in the kettle's base, requiring some dismantling to thoroughly clean.

While the parts dried (no water was put on the exposed wiring), we speculated that the ants had been dormant in the orchid pot, then launched a great escape upon being inundated in the kitchen sink. A similar dynamic can prompt ants to come inside during the summer after heavy rains. It's not clear if the nests in the electric kettle and knife holder were created by escapees of the orchid pot, or if they were already there. The queens can only lay one egg a day, apparently, which suggests it would take more than a day or two to make a nest.

Previous posts on how odorous house ants can quietly create a parallel world in your house--a covert medieval-like landscape dotted with kingdoms--are below.

Winter Ant Sleuthing

Ants in the Pantry, or Dust With Legs

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Becoming a Tree

A tree was spotted taking a selfie of its shadow with the Veblen House.

Yes, you can become a tree when the angle of the sun is right, and wave to the flowers growing below, and cast your mighty shadow across the expanse, to mingle with the land's many memories of the passing day.

A Honey Bee Swarm, and a Specialist Native Bee on Spring Beauty

A couple interesting sightings of bees in Herrontown Woods recently. Working on trails on April 12, I paused and heard what sound like a buzzing coming from somewhere nearby. With so many machines of transport shut down due to the pandemic, it was quiet enough in the woods to hear what turned out to be a swarm of honey bees 40 feet up in a snag, still erect but completely stripped of branches. They were flying around a hole in the trunk. I went to get another load of stepping stones from our stockpile, but by the time I returned a half hour later, they were gone.

Some internet research led me to an entomologist at Cornell University, Scott McArt, who was kind enough to reply:
"From what you describe, it’s very likely a colony that swarmed. During swarming, half of the bees will leave the hive with their old queen, while the other half of the bees will stay in the hive with a new queen. The exiting bees will typically leave the hive and congregate on a nearby branch for a few minutes or hours, then move on to the next branch (or their new home, once they’ve found it). It’s an impressive sight when thousands of bees assemble onto the branches and/or move en masse to the next location, hence why it’s called a “swarm”." 
"Mid-April is a bit early for swarming, but not unheard of, especially since there’s been some warm weather and flowers popping up over the past few weeks. Aside from a bear getting into the hive, it’s really the only reason you’d see thousands of bees up in a tree right now. So if you didn’t see a bear, I’d say you saw a swarm :)"

Another bee sighting was much more subtle. Over the past month, the most numerous spring ephemeral wildflower has been the spring beauty. Again working on a trail, I happened one day to look down and see a tiny bee visiting one. I was crouching down to catch a photo when the bee dropped off the flower and stood motionless among the dead leaves--reminiscent of the freezing behavior rabbits use when approached. The same happened another day when I again sought a photo.

I was able to find mention of a Spring Beauty Bee (a miner bee named Andrena erigeniae) in a list of specalist bees.

An article in the Baltimore Sun entitled "Searching the Forest for the Bees" describes the bee's lifestyle, which includes only a brief appearance in the spring. It's useful to know that honey bees are not native to America.
"Unlike honey bees, which congregate in hives, most of the forest bees are loners that spend the bulk of their lives in the ground. They emerge for just a few weeks in early spring to pollinate flowering plants, shrubs and trees before the forest leafs out and shades the understory from the sun.

Many are "specialists," Droege said, focusing on a particular type of plant or flower.

For example, he said, there's a bee that specializes in collecting nectar and pollen from spring beauty, a ground-hugging pink or white wildflower that's one of the earliest harbingers of spring. One can't exist without the other, he said. In fact, many flowers have features that attract particular pollinators, while discouraging or excluding others.

"Flowers were all designed by bees," Droege said, over millennia of co-evolution."
 As a botanist, I had naturally assumed that all bees were designed by plants.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Some Early Spring Flowers Along the Princeton Ridge

Though google was indicating that local nature preserves are closed due to the pandemic, my understanding is that only active recreation areas, e.g. playgrounds, tennis courts, etc., are closed. Hiking is still allowed. (photo of flyer should expand if you click on it)

Many people were out today enjoying the good weather and hiking in Herrontown Woods, Autumn Hill, and no doubt in other Princeton preserves well situated on the special soils of the ridge, like Witherspoon Woods, Woodfield Reservation, and higher elevations at Mountain Lakes.

Below are some photos of common flowers hikers are likely to encounter at Herrontown Woods and elsewhere.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is the most common, carpeting some areas. A couple times, when I noticed these were being pollinated by a tiny bee, I crouched down to take a photo only to have the bee drop down onto a dead leaf and stay still, as if trying to hide.

The tongue-shaped leaves of trout lily (Erythronium americanum) carpet some areas as well, and some of the leaves even produce the elegant yellow flowers.

You could say "Thalictrum thalictroides," or you could say rue anemone (Roo a-NEM-un-ee). The photo is a closeup. This is a little flower.

Mayapples emerge like a closed umbrella that then deploys, hiding the flower underneath the leaf.

Violets are a just starting to show up.

Bloodroots are less common, and have larger flowers than the others. Their latin name is Sanguinaria canadensis, in the poppy family. Their enthusiastic bloom always makes me feel sanguine when I see one. They power their flower with last year's energy. The flower is soon gone, after which the seeds mature and the leaf expands and deploys like a solar panel to collect energy for next year's bloom.

Skunk cabbage lines the streams with its big, odiferous, cabbage-like leaves.

There was a shrub, painted buckeye, that lined the streams in the North Carolina piedmont and greened up early in spring. Pilots were said to be able to navigate by the ribbons of green etched in the spring landscape by the buckeyes. It's possible skunk cabbage once played a similar role.

Here's the mighty roar of the skunk cabbage flower, which pops up very early in spring, before the foliage.

The wood anemones start blooming a few days later, carpeting some areas of the ridge. Latin name is Anemone quinquefolia, with the species name meaning 5-parted leaves.

That's about it for the early flowering natives that are most likely to be encountered. Others like toothwort, hepatica, and Virginia pennywort are seldom seen.

The wild geraniums have put out their leaves, but are in less of a hurry to get their flowers out there.

Jack in the Pulpit is also up, about to open up its pulpit with Jack inside.

Black cohosh will bloom much later, but is sending up leaves.

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 at risk 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 body 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.