Thursday, March 31, 2016

Alert: Monitoring for Lesser Celandine

Memory was finally jogged that this is the time of year to be scouting Princeton's natural areas for the dreaded Ficaria verna, a.k.a. fig buttercup, or lesser celandine. Dreaded because it has an alluring yellow flower that makes one want to leave it be when it starts showing up in the yard or local preserves, but then quietly takes over, paving whole valleys. Pettoranello Gardens is carpeted with the plant. In Durham, NC, I once tracked an infestation upstream to a homeowner's yard. He was greatly relieved to find out what plant had taken over his garden, and proceeded over the next several years to completely eliminate it. Unfortunately, by then the plant had spread far downstream and would transform a whole watershed, from one small infestation in someone's yard. He was, however, able to remove some he had put in his son's yard elsewhere in town, before it had a chance to spread downstream. This is why it's so important to get the word out about these highly deceptive species.

When I was working at Mountain Lakes, I'd walk the valley leading down from Stuart School, searching for any small patches that could be eradicated before they expanded beyond remedy. It's satisfying to be able to nip invasions in the bud. Now that my focus is Herrontown Woods, the spring ritual is playing out there. Yesterday's walk yielded no sightings until the very end, when I checked the pawpaw patch we planted New Year's weekend, and headed back through the woods towards the parking lot. There, right where the groundwater seeps out of the ground in what originally may have been a primitive septic system, was a patch of lesser celandine. Already, it has spread down the ditch about fifty feet, but is still of a size that we can eradicate it before it spreads down the valley, beyond control.

Control options can be found at this link. A comparison of lesser celandine with other yellow spring flowers, such as marsh marigold and celandine poppy, can be found here. If possible, avoid hiking through an area with lesser celandine--there's a risk of inadvertently spreading it into new areas in the treads of your shoes.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Princeton Bamboo Battle Re-enactment Saturday

This Saturday afternoon, March 19, 1-4pm, the Princeton Battlefield Society will host its annual workday. Each year they do battle with the various invasive species on the property. In recent years, a big bamboo clone has expanded across a trail. Kudzu-like porcelainberry has been mobbing trees, large and small, bringing some of them down.

It's a worthy battle, and last year I made a suggestion about how to avoid having their hard work in the spring undone by the invasives' knack for rebounding through the summer. This past June, several of us returned to cut down the new bamboo shoots that had sprouted up since the spring workday. By timing our cutting so that the massive roots had invested heavily in new shoots without yet getting any return, we were able to deprive the root system of any replenishment. Tomorrow, they should see a much-weakened bamboo clone, and be able to divert some volunteers to some of the other infestations that are blocking trails elsewhere.

Other projects at the Princeton Battlefield that I've helped with are the native chestnuts planted by Bill Sachs, and an effort to save the dogwoods lining the north field from a host of aggressive vine species. Of course, it's not exactly a walk in the park to do battle with the vines, but the work is made rewarding by the thought of the people who took the time to plant them decades ago, the beauty they have to offer, and the berries the migratory birds won't find if the dogwoods have no sunlight to power their production.

It's notable that all of these motivations are driven by imagination: the people long gone, flowers yet to bloom and berries yet to be borne. It's an imagination honed by long experience and observation (helped by some digging to find the newspaper article that told of the bicentenial planting of dogwoods). The past and the future inform our sense of place. The present, with its dull winter mix of grays and browns, is deceiving. Taken at face value, the present offers little to inspire action. In that sense, a well-tempered imagination is as important for seeing reality as our eyes. It allows us to see the past and the future embedded in the present, and offers us reason to act.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Repeated Misrepresentation of Native Plant Advocates in NY Times

There's a narrative being pushed in books, on websites, and periodically in the NY Times, that attacks people who are concerned about invasive species. Are we all xenophobic, militaristic, hateful members of a religious cult? Who knew. I've written a couple detailed critiques of these misrepresentations, dissecting their tactics. The narrative about nature is being kidnapped by people who lack basic training in the natural sciences, and the results are deeply skewed. Below is a link, and an excerpt.

Skewed Logic Thrives in NY Times Article on Invasive Species

One expects quality from the NY Times, but for some reason it periodically weakens its standards to publish an oped or article attacking native plant advocates and biologists who study biological invasions. (See list and previous detailed critiques here.) The tactics are always the same: a blurring of important distinctions, a failure to explain to readers the basic concepts of invasive behavior in plants and animals, the creation and tearing apart of strawmen, an embedding of bias in word choice and sentence structure, and a lot of mean-spirited pejoratives. This curious, recurrent smearing of those who seek to understand and tend nature's garden is fueled, as best I can tell, by a never-ending stream of resentment emanating most stridently from a couple California-based websites, then given undeserved validation by journalists who lack training and field experience in biology and ecology.

The latest, by veteran science writer Erica Goode, is a polemic loosely disguised as an article in the Science section. Entitled "Invasive Species Aren’t Always Unwanted", it portrays invasion biology as a xenophobic, militaristic, quasi-religious cult that has invented a false enemy and caused people and governments to behave in violent ways. We are asked to accept this dark psychological portrait largely on faith.

Like attacks on climate science, the article claims to shake the foundations of a major area of scientific study while offering barely enough cherry-picked evidence to nibble around the edges.

Though readers are starved of information and distinctions basic to understanding the issue of invasive behavior, the article provides significant psychological payoffs. For the critics the article quotes, there's the pleasure of projecting onto others the negative qualities they themselves exemplify. Readers, in turn, are supplied a menacing "Other" to look down upon (invasion biologists), and the relief that comes from being told that a big problem our culture and global trade have created may not be so big after all. The vast unintentional damage we do to nature is viewed as largely inevitable, while the intentional efforts to mend the damage are attacked. (rest of post)

Friday, March 11, 2016

Sunday Tour/Workday at Veblen House Grounds

Stop by the Veblen House this Sunday, March 13, 2-5pm, where we'll be having a work day and can give you a tour of the grounds. The tour consists of telling stories about the many features of the grounds, and the remarkable people who lived there. Some projects are putting protective cages around the pawpaw seedlings in the pawpaw patch, clearing sticks and brush from ditches, and digging shallow diversions to divert runoff from the trails.

We'll provide cider and cookies, and I'll have "live stakes" of native elderberry, buttonbush and silky dogwood for anyone wishing to take one home to grow in the yard. Kids welcome.

Directions: Reach the Veblen House by entering the gravel driveway across from 443 Herrontown Road in Princeton (look for Rotary sign wrapped around a tree), or by taking the trail from the Herrontown Woods parking lot up to the farm cottage (cedar shingle siding) and taking a right through the fence. Veblen House appears as a small white square on this map, north of the parking lot.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

I Like Ice

This being an election year, I'm going to resurrect the "I Like Ike" campaign slogan from the Dwight Eisenhower 50's, with a slight twist to make it relevant to climate change.

One of the most expressive features of our backyard, in addition to the duck, the four chickens, and all the native wildflowers, is the collection of miniponds that capture runoff coming in from the neighbors up the hill. One pond in particular, eight feet wide, a foot deep, changes almost daily as temperatures range above and below freezing. Thaw serves as the eraser, and each freeze brings a new creation.

On Feb. 18th and 19th, the pond became a canvas for some particularly unusual patterns. Because the pond is unlined, water can slowly seep down through the semi-permeable clay underneath, creating stresses in the ice as it loses the support of the water beneath it. In one of these photos, one can see how on these particular days the ice actually had two layers, one a couple inches below the other, with ribs creating chambers between them.

The photos should expand for a better view if you click on them.

There were swirls and dots,

feathered edges and interactions between plants and ice,

bearded stars, and lines radiating out from a central point.

This breakaway shows the double deck ice, suspended over the slowly falling water level.

Some patterns were like suture lines in a stitched wound,

ice like sinews, or sinew-like ice,

more swirls and stars,

and a bending 'round the remains of sensitive fern.

From a distance, it looks far less impressive, and would have been missed altogether if I hadn't needed to make the daily morning jaunt to the coop to let the birds out.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

When Sticks Were Antlers and Kids were Moose

Sometimes, as someone devoted to preserving and restoring nature, I wonder why so much of the rest of the world isn't hardwired with the same sentiments. Why do I see a stick as highly useful, while others see them as litter? Our woodstove is one answer. Not everyone needs kindling.

But there's something deeper than that: an instinct to find value in nature's offerings, no matter how humble, a habit of thinking in which matter triggers imagination. Holding this stick today  brought back a memory of being maybe five years old. It was summer, I suppose, and a group of us neighborhood kids had formed a moose club. Not a fraternal organization that meets in a lodge every month and does good deeds in the community. We were playing as if we were actual moose, living in a tiny woodlot at the edge of the Yerkes Observatory grounds. Our clubhouse was a tree trunk bent close to the ground, making a sort of shelter. Periodically, we'd burst out of the woods and charge out across the lawn, screaming with such fierceness that the gophers living beneath our feet must surely have trembled in their burrows. On our heads would be a pair of sticks, propped up with our hands as makeshift antlers. I somehow gained the status of grandfather moose, so had the largest sticks. I remember those brave charges out across the green, roaring at the top of our lungs. We were no longer diminutive five year olds but transformed into ferocious giants by our imaginations and whatever we could glean from a tiny woodlot.

Maybe that's how nature gets hardwired into one's heart and soul, a lifelong legacy of child's play, when a stick was not just a stick but an extension of our bodies.