Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Outdoor Skating Time in Princeton

Today, at last, the magic thickness of 5 inches was reached, and town rec officials gave the go-ahead for skating on Carnegie Lake. Perhaps owing to the five year lull since Princeton's last skating day, many were caught skateless, but it didn't matter. Just to be out on the ice was exhilarating. The wind must have blown all the snow away, because the whole lake is clear. There's a bit of roughness, suggesting the wind was kicking up when the surface water froze, but not enough to take away the pleasure.

Each time the lake freezes, it offers up a new variety of enigmatic patterns. This time, it's distinctly two-tone, yet the colors appear to have nothing to do with the thickness of the ice.

Hard to say why the ice froze so squizzly,

or in streamers of white.

These markings are easier to explain. The geese have been busy, and the dark line going left-right is a seam that allows some give between two giant plates of ice.

Reaching out of the bleak obscurity of the woods on this grey afternoon is the tree where the cormorants traditionally roost, looking a little worse for wear.

A curious ice pattern imitates the trunk of a tree, or the meander of a stream.

Mentioned in a previous post, here are links to some of Lake Carnegie's more inspired craftings of ice from previous years, in 2007, 2009, and 2010.

With temperatures staying low, there's the promise of a skateful day tomorrow. Community Park North's pond was also declared safe today. Check the flag next to the lake daily for updates, or call 609-688-2054. Some more info and links assembled here.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Mysterious Hitchhiker From Argentina

Back in early September, walking down a hallway in our house, I happened to look up and saw a strange insect on the wall near the ceiling. My impulse is not to squash such things but to take a closer look. It had very long antennae and white spots on a black body. Preoccupied, I took a photo and thought nothing more of it.

A month or so later, I happened to move a wooden bowl on the wooden table that holds the TV. Beneath the bowl were miniature piles of sawdust, and two small holes where something had started to bore into the table. I guess we should dust more often, but who expects a miniature drilling operation to begin underneath a pretty souvenir?

We had bought the bowl in August at a tourist spot called Aripuca, in northern Argentina near Iguazu Falls. The site has a grassy open space surrounded by remarkable buildings built of wood.

This description of the main building is from Lonely Planet:
"Designed to 'capture the conscience of man' (an aripuca is a trap used by the GuaranĂ­ to catch small animals) this interesting structure is made entirely from the timber of 29 different endangered native tree species. While this might sound contradictory, the timber is all salvaged..."

A guide at the site showed us how the trap, whose shape the building imitates, is set by Guarani indians.

Scavenged wood from the forest is used to make all sorts of benches and tables, all of which are too big to bring home in a suitcase.

The store offered more portable objects hewn from the local wood. The Aripuca site has a strong emphasis on ecological stewardship of forests--something much needed since most of the Misiones forest has been destroyed. The famous Iguazu Falls is one of the few protected remnants.

Our selection, as mentioned, was the bowl with the attractive grain and markings. A week later, we carried it obliviously through U.S. customs, not knowing it was a Trojan Horse with little hitchhikers, a few of which would gnaw their way out the following month.

They emerged as adults, some in better shape than others. This inadvertent insect-smuggling can be a potential menace. Consider the Emerald Ash Borer, which has killed "tens of millions" of ash trees in the U.S. and Canada since it hitchhiked to the U.S. from Asia in wooden packing crates.

The long antennae on the beetles emerging from our bowl suggest it is, surprise, a longhorned beetle. The most notorious hitchhiker in this category is the Asian Longhorned Beetle. Nicknamed ALB, it should strike fear into even those who lack any fear of bugs. Readers may be unaware that the U.S. has been at war since the late 1990s with the ALB, which could decimate our forests if it spreads. Its favorite tree species are maples, which gives you a sense of what's at stake. The ALB, like the Emerald Ash Borer, comes from a climate similar to our own, so has been able to survive our winters.

Because ALB is slower to spread than the Emerald Ash Borer, there's been some success in eradicating it, but at considerable expense and sacrifice. All maple trees and some other species need to be removed in the vicinity of an infestation, which means many non-infested trees are destroyed to prevent spread. Current infestations are in Ohio, New York and Connecticut. Late 1990s infestations in Chicago and NJ were reportedly eradicated, though it's hard to be completely sure.

The longhorned beetles sprouting in our house had markings unlike the ALBs. There were just a few of them, and coming from a tropical area, they likely wouldn't be adapted to survive a NJ winter. Still, I wondered about the sawdust marks on the firewood in the living room.

And what was this substantial pile of sawdust, made visible as I burned the last of the logs? Probably the work of native insects that hitchhiked indoors from the backyard woodpile.

One morning in mid-December, we were greeted to the sight of two more emerging, as if the bowl was playing the role of Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. They didn't make it out, though, apparently stillborn in dry indoor conditions.

I've emailed Aripuca about the situation. A tourist from a climate similar to tropical northern Argentina could potentially spread the insects to new locales where they could escape and become established.

The biggest problem is the wooden pallets and shipping crates used in global commerce. Regulations now require fumigation of shipping crates. One has to wonder, though, what the automatic, indiscriminate budget cuts put in place by the sequester are doing to the nation's ability to adequately inspect shipments and continue to do battle with the infestations.

I'm the sort who, long aware of the threat invasives pose, will inspect my shoes before traveling out of NJ to make sure I'm not carrying seeds of Japanese stiltgrass or garlic mustard. So there's some irony in being an accidental vector for alien insects. The bowl is probably free of the beetles by this point, but we'll continue to keep an eye on it, and be more leery of bringing home interestingly marked wooden souvenirs in the future. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Cold Snap Creations and Copings

With the cold snap, the miracle molecule H2O had a chance to show some of its artistry, sometimes adopting the style of Escher,

sometimes sending out coniferous-like shoots. My pet theory in the 1980s was that window frost's frequent resemblance to foliage, particularly more ancient plants such as ferns, implies a deep kinship between the physical and biological worlds. A google search rocks with images of window frost, though in the non-digital world H20 is a struggling artist, finding ever fewer single pane windows and fewer frigid nights to work with.

The many tributaries of Harry's Brook, including a homeowner's sump pump that usually drains harmlessly onto the driveway, became frozen still lifes.

A felled tree offered bark, well-preserved in the chill waters under the thickening ice, to the local beavers. One of nature's finest frozen creations, a broad expanse of smooth ice, was coming tantalizingly close to skate-able thickness.

Meanwhile, in the backyard coop, the resident Pekin duck was hatching a theory that it was really friggin' cold outside.  In twilight that morning, the thermometer seemed to say 29 degrees. With more light, it said 2.9. The duck said quack. If it were a French duck looking on the brighter side, it might be thinking that tres froid is better than foie gras.

Climate scientists up the road at Rutgers had also been hatching a theory, well supported by the data--something to do with warming in the arctic causing the jet stream to slow and develop deeper meanders, which in turn causes deeper and more prolonged extremes in the weather. The jet stream, ringing the earth, usually keeps the polar air north of us. One report compares this slowing to the way a spinning top begins to wobble as it slows down, allowing a massive polar vortex to drop down into the States. My google search for "hernia and polar vortex" came up empty, so that looks to be a fresh analogy waiting to be exploited.

While the internet was teaming with news of the cold, the chickens were finding slim peckings along the frozen rivulet in the backyard.

It's not easy even for a subsidized animal when the rest of the world is in suspended animation. A period of deep cold deepens respect for wildlife that lack our carbon-subsidized comforts, and must face extremes of weather with nothing but their wits and whatever protection and food the habitat offers.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Controlling Nature in Paris

Periodic visits to Europe offer exposure to an approach to trimming trees that would be anathema in the U.S. In Paris's Luxembourg Gardens, for example, these trees look like they're shaking their fists at the local statuary.

That clenched fist look is the result of an annual pruning back of branches so that they remain the same size year after year. Though bringing to mind the foot binding that was prevalent in China until a century ago, the severe pruning is part practical, part cultural. In this particular case, the statuary, I'm sure, appreciates not being engulfed in the foliage of ambitious tree limbs.

In some parks, such as Place de Vosges, where Victor Hugo lived, the trees are squared off in the shape of cubes, the better to imitate the surrounding architecture and preserve views of the glorious buildings.

The flattop haircut for trees, which looks like it was achieved with the blades of a helicopter flying upside down, takes on a militaristic tone in the park leading to the French Military School. If soldiers can be made to march in rows, it's only fitting I suppose to subject the local foliage to the same discipline.

Along narrow streets and in tight squeezes between buildings, this pruning technique loses its formal and militaristic overtones and becomes merely a practical solution to an otherwise unsolvable dilemma. There is no other way a tree of this size could be sustained in such a constricted space.

My pet theory is that the control of tree growth originated in the vineyards, where grape vines need to be radically cut back each year to get maximum yield. This photo is of the last remaining vineyard in Paris, on the side of Montmartre.

All gradations of this form of disciplined growth can be found in Paris. Even in the highly formalized Luxembourg Gardens, the pruned and the unpruned intermingle.

There's an exploration of the history of French gardens on the Mt. Holyoke college website. In the 17th Century:

"The theory of the French garden was the formal subordination of nature to reason and order with a simultaneous romantic awareness of nature's freedom. Water was the perfect metaphor for this practice. Architects could alter the flow of water and could manipulate it in the form of fountains and pools, however, water always maintained a certain level of freedom with the light and images it reflected."

That's a useful context for appreciating the reflections in the Medici fountain. The London Plane trees on either side are allowed to grow unfettered.

Rousseau helped spur some changes in the 18th Century,:

"The overall appeal of the French garden to the bourgeoisie was the goal of a Rousseau-inspired escape to nature, while one remained in Paris. In Nicholas Green's article he quotes Jules Simon as having reminisced on how "in certain corners of the Luxembourg garden you could almost believe yourself in the countryside. There was nothing more delicious, after a wearying day, than to find yourself hidden among these great trees, to forget Paris in the center of Paris, to smell the invigorating scents of earth and vegetation."

With what looks to be a bare earth policy, they save a lot on lawnmowing, or on tending the sheep that have begun to replace lawnmowers elsewhere in Paris.

Nice to see that the French have no qualms about composting their leaves on-site.

Like the heavily pruned trees, the heads of the statuary also have little shoots.

Obviously, the local wildlife have not gotten the message the spiky hairdoos are meant to send. It would be interesting to study whether Paris pigeons have evolved longer legs, to cope with the spiky statues--the hypothesis being that long-legged pigeons able to land on prime perches have higher survival rates and/or are somehow more attractive to prospective mates, and thereby spread the long-legged gene through the population over time. Looks like another visit to Paris is needed, to expand the frontiers of knowledge.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Working With Nature to Shovel Snow

An article in the Princeton Packet on staying healthy in winter months warned that hard work in cold weather "exacerbates any underlying issue" with the heart, by constricting the blood vessels. Not having any underlying issues that I know of, I still found this a great additional excuse to take a number of breaks inside to warm fingers and fully digest the progress made.

Even when most of nature is dormant, there are plenty of ways to interact, collaborate, and finesse, rather than curse the whiteness. Sun is the great natural ally for snow shovelers. Get as much snow as possible off the car and pavement early in the day, and then let the sun do the rest of the work. As many sunbathing cars in the neighborhood demonstrated, once the sun's rays can reach inside the car, the greenhouse effect takes over to warm the interior and melt the remaining snow. If abundant, deceptively cheap energy hadn't dumbed down house design, our homes would be oriented and constructed to be excellent winter sunbathers as well, naturally providing much of the heat needed to keep the chill at bay.

I was smart enough to park the car close to the street, thereby limiting how much driveway had to be shoveled, but next time will remember to raise the windshield wipers before the storm hits.

Nature offers lots of other collaborative opportunities, inside the house. There's water's brilliant capacity to soften dirt on dishes left to soak in the sink, and the air's highly convenient and energy efficient way of stealing water from wet clothes hung on racks. The afternoon sun, streaming in what windows our house offers up, is sufficient to give the furnace a rest. And then there's the body's capacity to generate its own heat, which can collaborate well with the lightweight, insulating, fashionable clothing available today.

These are some of the ways to stay in touch with nature's generosity in and out of doors, through winter's dormancy.