Friday, January 24, 2020

The Missing Mildfire in Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 11, 2020

68 Degrees on January 11

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

How To Bathe a Tortoise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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