Monday, December 23, 2013

The Jefferson Awards and a One-Minute Speech

Earlier this year, I received a Jefferson Award for public service, which involved a trip to Washington, D.C. to, among other things, give a one minute speech describing the community work I do. It's a challenge to edit one's work down to a minute, but recipients from across the country gave it a go. If you've noticed any shift by the nation onto a better trajectory in recent months, it just might be due to the transformative power of all those highly concentrated speeches.

If there's someone you'd like to nominate for a Jefferson Award, of any age, they're taking nominations through Jan. 31, 2014. My sense is that people doing environmental work are underrepresented in the Jefferson Awards. Here's a link for more information.

Locally, Sustainable Princeton is seeking nominations for its annual sustainable Princeton leadership awards through January 6, 2014. Here's the link for that.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Cooper's Hawk Pays a Holiday Visit

Yesterday, I looked out the back window to see our Pekin duck, Daisy, rotating her head to look skyward (haven't managed to capture that in a photo). Usually, that means there's something interesting up there.

This time it was a Coopers hawk perched thirty feet up in a silver maple tree near the back fence. The hawk, who I assumed was not auditioning for the role of Santa Claus, appeared in no hurry to take any action, so I decided to take some photos before bursting out the back door to scare it away.

The ducks had already gone back to foraging,

but our chicken Buffy continued to stand stock still under a bush. A female duck, with its sizable bill, is much more confident about defending itself than a hen. Buttons, our other chicken, was nowhere to be seen.

Only after I stepped out back, and the hawk flew away, did I notice Buttons, hiding behind Buffy. The Pekin duck may have been sufficiently intimidating in size and manner to give the hawk pause, and my entry on the scene will hopefully discourage the hawk from returning for awhile.

Egg production lately has been an egg each day from each of the ducks. The chickens are laying off egg laying, probably because we haven't given them supplementary lighting.

The ducks and chickens require no heating in their coop, though the watering can freezes up if there's no heating plate underneath it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Monarch Update, and the Empty Heartland

Other posts here on monarch butterflies have photos of the magical creature, but perhaps it's appropriate that this post does not. Having periodically searched this fall for updates on how many monarchs made it to their mountain sanctuary in Mexico for the winter, I finally found one. The news is not good. The monarchs didn't make their customary Nov. 1 arrival at their winter home, but instead began straggling in six days later, and now occupy only twelve trees. According to a NY Times article entitled "The year the monarch didn't appear", "Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year."

Researching the monarch, I had heard that climate change might render their high altitude winter home too warm by the end of the century. Another expert, Chip Taylor, suggested the miracle of their migration might come to an end as soon as thirty years from now. An oped by a NY Times editor, entitled "Monarchs fight for their lives", stated, "One recent study suggests that the long-term survival of the species may be in doubt." But so pervasive has been the displacement and destruction of their critical habitat in the central U.S. by corn fields and pesticide use that their survival from one year to the next can no longer be taken for granted. That they arrived late this year at their winter roost could have to do with weather patterns, or it could be evidence that dwindling numbers deprives the monarchs of the mass momentum that each individual must feel in a mass migration.

What could help? A shift away from GMO corn and soybeans, a return to growing these crops for food rather than ethanol, and a return to giving the monarch's critical food source, milkweed, room to grow along roadsides, between fields and on land set aside for erosion control. But just when might that happen?

Whatever we thought we had learned from the loss of the passenger pigeon early in the last century, the lesson obviously was not learned well enough. The corn and soy fields of Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois and other central states have long been considered largely barren of other life. The Chicago Wilderness initiative to restore the rich intersection of northern, western and eastern flora in the Chicago area demonstrated how urban development can host accidental or intentional sanctuaries for biodiversity that would have long since been lost to plow and spray in agricultural zones.

What we learn in the story of the monarchs is that until recently those agricultural lands were still harboring populations of weeds sufficient to sustain butterflies. Only in the past fifteen years or so, as Roundup Ready corn and soybeans came to dominate, and the subsidized demand for ethanol motivated farmers to plant right up to the edge of roads and fences, did the extermination of weeds like milkweed approach complete. The impression created is of the genetic cleansing of some 150 million agricultural acres, with nothing left, after the gassing of the last remnant gypsy weed populations, but the master race of crops marching in rows.

Other factors compound the monarch's vulnerability. Though most large-scale cutting of trees in their Mexican sanctuary has been stopped, locals still sneak in to cut trees here and there. The thinning out of the forest increases the monarchs' exposure to occasional snow and ice storms. Extreme and freak weather events, becoming more frequent as the climate changes, are all the more dangerous when a species' numbers have dwindled.

By far the most detailed update and perspective comes from Linda Moulton Howe's Earthfiles website. Interestingly, she interviews Lincoln Brower, a Princeton alum ('53) who has devoted much of his life to studying the monarch. He recounts a talk he gave at his 60th reunion earlier this year:
"I gave a lecture to my 60th reunion class at Princeton University. At the end of my talk, I'd spilled my guts out over the whole monarch situation and my history of studying it for now 55 years. One man in the audience asked me, 'Well, what difference would it make if we lost the monarch butterfly anyway?' I took a deep breath and I looked straight into his eyes and said, 'What difference would it make if we lost the Mona Lisa?' The audience went very silent. 
That's what we're up against is this superficial How Do We Make Money approach to the world and people have got to realize that we are dependent upon the biota for our own survival.”
My brother and his wife traveled this past summer to Iowa, to search graveyards for ancestors and see the landscape where her recently deceased mother grew up. Her mother's name was Lucille. She had spent her youth on a farm not far from the Mississippi, where the bluffs along the river transition into the great flat expanse of the plains. Back then, farms were small, within shouting distance of one another, and well populated by farm animals and people.

What they found on this trip was an eerie silence, a void filled only by endless fields of corn and soybeans. No animals, no people. Land is largely owned by descendants who have long since moved away and lease their land to be farmed as part of large scale operations. There's a flurry of activity in May, when massive machines prepare and plant the fields. Then little activity can be seen beyond an occasional spraying until fall harvest. Anyone wishing to open a business in the small towns would have their pick of many a shuttered building. To appreciate a monarch's predicament in such a landscape, think of Cary Grant in the cropduster scene in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.

This is America's empty heartland, the product of economic forces magnified by misguided government policies that drove people and nature from the land. And what sort of heart has a nation that would allow a miracle like the monarch's migration to teeter on the brink?

Managing Princeton's Open Space--a Nature Conservancy Model

A newsletter from the Pennsylvania chapter of the Nature Conservancy came in the mail. Did I send them money? Who knows. All sorts of newsletters keep coming, and sometimes they get read.

A case study on their recently acquired 640 Brush Mountain Preserve caught my eye. Princeton has similarly substantial preserved lands. The title was "Managing Forest Resources for People and Nature". Note that they put people before nature in the title. One of the higher ups at the Nature Conservancy spoke at Princeton University not long ago, and said they had found that their message went over much better if they emphasize people rather than such aspects as biological diversity.

In addition to emphasizing benefits to people by referring to forests and water as resources, they also call for active management: "The Conservancy is actively working ... to conserve forest and freshwater resources to benefit people and nature. Sustainable forest management is a key strategy to accomplish this goal." If sustainable forest management is a key strategy, what form might it take in Princeton's preserves?

This reciprocal relationship, in which nature sustains people and people help sustain nature, is particularly important given today's realities, when multiple negative human impacts are making nature less self-sustaining. "Protected areas require active management to maintain their natural resiliency--their ability to adapt to changing conditions and rebound from stressors." The stressors, except for the overabundance of deer, remain unidentified. Terms that set some people off, like climate change or invasive species, become "changing conditions" and "competing vegetation". Biodiversity is expressed through the word "resiliency".

Here are their four steps for active management:

  1. Increase light reaching the forest floor by controlling competing vegetation and reintroducing prescribed fire. (The non-native shrubs crowding Princeton's forest understory leaf out early in the spring, depriving the spring ephemeral wildflowers of the sunlight they need to store up energy for the next spring. Prescribed fire is an elegant way to open up the understory without killing the larger trees. In Princeton, we're doing some limited invasive species control, and there was an accidental but beneficial woodland fire at Mountain Lakes a couple years ago. Here's a post on prescribed burning being used elsewhere in NJ.)
  2. Protect priority seedlings by installing deer fencing and controlling deer population. (Deer eat native tree seedlings. Too many deer equals no forest regeneration. Princeton gets high marks for its deer control program instituted back in 2000. Some small sections of Mountain Lakes now are protected by deer fencing.)
  3. Plant as needed--for those species that face more extreme challenges. (American chestnut and butternut are two tree species that have been made rare in Princeton's forests, and need an assist to return. We've been actively growing and reintroducing these species on a small but meaningful scale.)
  4. Record and share results. (Always a nice sentiment, sometimes acted upon.)
The Conservancy's goal is to shift forest composition over time, and they use a very effective graphic to show the change they are aiming for, using the size of font to represent which species would be more prevalent:

For example, the composition in 2010, Chestnut Oak, Scarlet OakPitch Pine, White Pine, Birch, Red Maple, and Striped Maple

would become in 2050 Chestnut Oak, Red Oak, Scarlet Oak, Black OakPitch Pine, White Pine, Birch, Black Cherry, Red Maple, and American Chestnut.

The Nature Conservancy has multiple partners helping to inform this sustainable management: among them Audubon, the American Chestnut Foundation, the Pinchot Institute, universities and the state game commission. 

Looks like a useful model for when Princeton takes on active management to complement the acquisition of open space lands.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Farming Plus Clarinet

Here's a series called Around the Farm Table, with videos about sustainable farming that a former Princetonian, Joe Maurer, is filming in Wisconsin. They've had four shows on PBS thus far. I contribute clarinet improvs for Joe's original music. It's a show populated by upbeat people and very healthy plants and animals.

A segment called Picnic in the Pasture pays a visit to a farm that does "forest gardening", (four and a half minutes into the video) also known as permaculture, which breaks down the distinctions between forest, orchard and field. Food, fuel and medicines all grow in the same area. For fruits, there are red currants, elderberries, quince, saskatoon, honeyberries and kiwi. There's talk of guilds, defined as a "perennial polyculture of multipurpose plants" that grow well together.

In my twenties, into organic gardening and companion planting, with little interest in native plants, I had this dream of an acre of fruit trees and vegetables so auspiciously planted that each plant would prosper in just the right niche. Squash would spread in the light shade of asparagus or small trees. Beans would climb on corn or sunflowers. Weeds wouldn't have a chance in all the lush growth. The soil would be rich with organic matter, the work minimal. I would bask in the shade with a refreshing beverage, periodically venturing in to harvest what I needed. This show has that feel, though it's clear there's a lot of hard work behind the joy and bounty.

Accommodating Dynamic Tree Growth in a Static Urban Landscape

Street trees are spared the competition they'd face from other trees if growing in a woodland. Instead, they must contend with manmade constraints above and below. The urban landscape is a struggle between the dynamic nature of trees and the static nature of human infrastructure. What this street, Birch Avenue, needs is trees--though likely not birch trees--to provide cooling shade for the street, the parked cars and the houses in the summer. But any tree plant planted on the left side of the street has to deal with the overhead wires.

This pin oak is on the other side of the street, with no wires above, but faces considerable constriction at ground level, with sidewalk on one side and curb on the other.

It appears to be thriving nonetheless, but partly at the expense of the confining pavement. It has actually pushed up the pavement of the road, just enough to cause a potential hazard for snowplows whose blades could be damaged by any bumps in the road.

And the unevenness of the sidewalk presents a potential tripping hazard, particularly for elderly pedestrians. The tree's roots also caused some damage to a residential waterline. Should this improbably thriving tree come out, or is there some way to accommodate the needs of people, machines and tree? One big step forward was the recent decision by town council to take responsibility for care of sidewalks. The unevenness of the sidewalk can be smoothed out by grinding down the raised section of concrete.

This isn't an isolated issue. Here's another tree starting to push the curb out. Birch Ave. is providing a good test case for how to integrate trees into a very constricted landscape, so that all their benefits of shade, air conditioning, carbon sequestration and beauty can be enjoyed.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Ducks in Snow

We didn't have tracks like these in the backyard last winter. What could they be?

No, not the robins, who paid a visit to the water tray the day before.

Not the wild turkey that surprised us with a visit last year.

Here they are. Not snowy owls or snowy egrets, but the great snow ducks of the notsonorth, heading for ...

minipond heaven, or at least haven, courtesy of the recent rains.

The ducks show far more courage than their coopmates, who are playing chicken in the warmest corner they can find.

Honey Locust Feeds Megaghosts

The Princeton Shopping Center has something for everyone, even extinct megafauna. Those lumbering megaconsumers extraordinaire have been no shows for more than 10,000 years, but that doesn't keep the honey locust in front of Bon Appetit from laying down an appealing spread of seedpods every year.

Munchables only a megafauna could love, perhaps, but a little internet browsing leads to the conclusion that the "honey" in honey locust comes not from its flowers but from the inner lining of its pods. In many legumes, including honey locust, this lining is edible, and may well have been eaten in some era before McCaffery's Market sprouted up across the street.

Passing by an even more opulent spread beneath a big honey locust in front of the university's engineering building, I found a pod that hadn't dried out yet, opened it up, and tasted the thick, honey-like paste inside. Sweet, and with a taste unlike anything else I could think of. There was a slightly bitter aftertaste, but that may have had to do with the timing of my harvest.

The honey locust, affectionately known by us botany types as Gleditsia triacanthos, is also ready in case some genetically reconstituted megafauna escapes from the laboratory (located in an unmarked warehouse on the outskirts of Princeton) and is not content with the tree's peace offering of pods.

Osage orange, written about last week, exhibits similarly archaic adaptations to the same ghostly clientele.

Friday, December 06, 2013

An Influx of Snowy Owls in New Jersey

Birders Lee and Melinda Varian tell me there's a major influx of snowy owls into New Jersey from the far north. My first thought was not appropriately celebratory, but rather of the pilot whales stranded in shallow water in a remote section of the Everglades, and whether these mass displacements of wildlife might be signs of the big changes coming down the pike. After all, the NY Times earlier in the week had hidden a major warning about global warming on page A24, citing a "risk of rapid, drastic changes in some human and natural systems", and, relevant to the whales, "the threat of immense dead zones in the ocean." Since snowy owls feed on lemmings, maybe they came down this way on the rumor that humans are exhibiting a lemming-like affinity for metaphorical cliffs.

Turns out, however, that this visit from snowy owls is not a new phenomenon. Melinda sent me links to a few posts on the subject. This post grapples with the question of why the snowy owls sometimes come down our way from the arctic. Some believe they come down because the lemming population up north has gone over a cliff (so to speak), but there's evidence that the incidence of snowy owls hereabouts is the product of a good breeding year for the owls (due to an abundance of lemmings), which means the young have to range farther for new habitat.

The freidaybird blog counts 26 snowy owls in New Jersey, a number it says is not likely to be equaled for a long time. Typing "snowy" in the searchbox at the upper left of the blog gets more posts on the owls.

They can sometimes run into trouble during visits to New Jersey and elsewhere (Melinda says one once showed up at the airport in Hawaii). They seek out flat, open, grassy areas that remind them of the arctic, which means they can sometimes gravitate to airports where they are considered a hazard. The beaches and dunes offer a much safer haven, where they can bask in the appreciative attention of birders.

Update--More from Melinda: "Here's the best yet video of one of this year's Snowy Owls. It is being dive-bombed by a pair of Peregrine Falcons, who aren't happy about the competition. The first half was taken through an iPhone to give the big picture and the second half was taken at the same time by digiscoping to show the owl up close:

Snowy Owl vs. Peregrine Falcon from Tom Johnson on Vimeo.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Herrontown Wood Revisited

It was a walk through the ages, as thirty people came on the first Friends of Herrontown Woods nature walk last weekend, to see the Veblen House and farmstead, and the newly restored trails through the 142 acre tree-and-boulder garden. There were kids, adults, and a cockapoo named Wynston, whose name was claimed to be the only one that rhymes with Princeton.

The walk began with the sound of a pileated woodpecker off in the distance, and there was a rare opportunity to see Kurt Tazelaar sitting down. Kurt--a force of nature, in nature--and Sally (with camera on right), had cleared this trail, which took us past evidence of past quarrying,

and the intimate embrace of trees and rock, as with this white oak. Some time ago, we counted the rings of another white oak that had finally succumbed to a windstorm in this mature section of forest above the cottage, and found it to be at least 150 years old. The trees and the boulders co-led this nature walk, speaking so eloquently of time and endurance.

The boulders got bigger as we climbed the slope of the ridge. Many of the boulders have natural fissures, some of which were broken apart back in the quarrying days. If you look closely, you can see a series of drill holes along the edges,

which Kurt had pointed out earlier. Peter Thompson later sent us a link explaining the stone splitting technique used back in the day.

In some places, the land is pockmarked, as if boulders had been extracted from the landscape like molars, leaving a broad hole in the ground.

How the broken off pieces were transported, and to what use they were put, is part of the unfolding story as Herrontown Woods undergoes a restoration that in some ways is like the restoring of a painting, at once timeless and dynamic. Time will tell if the past's story will be told.

Perhaps some of the quarried stones ended up in this circular horse run--a bit of culture overrun by horticulture, in the form of wisteria likely planted long ago by Elizabeth Veblen.

A major cultural fixture in this wild setting is the Veblen House, which drew lots of interest and discussion about how it could be used for meeting space and nature education. (photo's from a few weeks ago)

The walk benefited from all the collective wisdom assembled. Many came who work to sustain other parks and preserves--Marquand Park, Gulick Preserve, TRI, Mercer Meadows. A couple who had been active with a Friends of Herrontown Woods group in the 1970s came, ready to help with this new wave of energy and interest. It felt good to have Princeton's original nature preserve back in the fold, its arteries cleared and flowing with appreciative humanity once again.

Workday at Herrontown Woods Saturday, Dec. 7

The Princeton Rotary and the Friends of Herrontown Woods continue their partnership this Saturday with a workday at the Veblen House grounds in Herrontown Woods. Come by 452 Herrontown Road any time between 9am and 4pm to join in. Among tools, loppers are particularly useful, as we'll be cutting invasive shrubs that have encroached over the years on the landscaping and stone walls around the house. Shovels may come in handy, too. The Veblen site connects with the many preserve trails for those who want to explore the woods. 

To reach 452 Herrontown Road, head out Snowden Lane, past Smoyer Park, turn left where Snowden deadends at Herrontown Rd, then take the first driveway to the left, just where the small pasture ends and the woods begins.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Daylillies in December

These daylillies decided that late November was a good time to start growing. In that sense, they are carrying on the tradition my daughter started last year, choosing November for her lobbying campaign to get us to buy mail order ducklings.

The impulse for the daylillies to grow came from their position at the edge of a pile of fresh woodchips dumped there a month earlier. The heat of decomposition must have been enough to warm the soil. Hope they didn't blow all their root energy reserves on this false start.