Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Hidden Life of Trees, and Other Deeply Flawed Books on Nature

There are some very misleading books, articles and opeds out there, claiming to give you the inside scoop on what nature is really like. Nature is very complex, involves a long learning curve to gain some understanding, and thus many readers prove vulnerable to cherry-picked evidence used to promote skewed points of view. 

Over the years, I've reviewed many of these false characterizations of nature, on another website and at Amazon and Goodreads, and reached out to some of the authors and editors. I'd like to think that I've played a role in diminishing the prevalence of one strand of skewed thinking: invasive species denial. I encountered it first in opinion pieces in the NY Times, then came across misleading books like The Rambunctious Garden, Beyond the War On Invasive Species, The New Wild, and Inheritors of the Earth. I also critiqued and reached out to the radio show, You Bet Your Garden, which was pretending that invasive species aren't a problem. 

Interestingly, one strand of invasive species denial springs from a blanket condemnation of pesticides, much as climate change denial is often motivated by a distaste for government. If the solution is objectionable, then deny the problem. Now, I don't like herbicides--Rodale's Organic Gardening Encyclopedia was my bible back when my interest in plants centered around growing food--but their targeted use is critical when dealing with invasive species on any meaningful scale. What works on an organic farm is not fully transferable to a nature preserve. There is an understandable desire for purity in our sullied world. Consider, though, the pragmatism with which we view western medicine and our own bodies. Just because antibiotics are abused by the meat industry doesn't mean we vilify all antibiotics everywhere, or refuse to take them if needed.

One book that's highly misleading is The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. Though it doesn't fit in the category of invasive species denial, it does use similar techniques to manipulate readers. It seems like a gentle book, but has an underlying logic that is not so pretty, as described here in a small excerpt from my review:

A book will garner more interest if it has an applecart to spill and an "Other" to dislike. In this case, the applecart is antiquated views of trees, and the "Others" to look down upon are narrow-minded scientists and commercial foresters. Another common ingredient is to let the reader off the hook by suggesting we as individuals need expend no energy to compensate for all the ways human activity has thrown nature out of balance.

Nearly all of these books are written by non-scientists and reviewed by non-scientists, leaving the public unprotected from any misinformation the books may carry.

Though invasive species denial seems to be fading, Wohlleben's book remains very popular. Many of these books get very high ratings on Amazon and elsewhere. Though the Amazon review section for a book is a useful place to break people's bubbles, I've noticed that the reviews that Amazon labels as "top critical review" are neither the strongest nor the most informative and recommended negative reviews on the site. Here's an example, in which the most highly recommended negative review is buried below others.

2020 has definitively demonstrated just how hard it is for truth to compete. In politics, a preponderance of the misinformation is being generated and consumed by the rightwing, but it's instructive to witness how those who care deeply about nature can also prove vulnerable to false narratives.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Piano Talk -- Original Compositions and Thoughts About Self and World

Maybe not everyone reading this blog knows that, in addition to botanizing and nonprofit leading, I've been a professional jazz musician and composer since college days. Though my main instruments are saxophone and clarinet, I started studying piano in my 20s and got good enough at it to compose music, and even taught piano for awhile to beginners/intermediates in Ann Arbor and later in Durham, NC. 

I've composed hundreds of tunes--ranging from jazz to latin, classical, and blues--and some of the shorter piano pieces I've started recording along with some thoughts on how the tunes work and what they mean to me. With the music comes personal stories, like how I started playing jazz, and thoughts on how the music speaks to our time. The videos are recorded in the unglamorous milieu of my "mancave", where decade-old newspapers are still waiting to be read.

Four of them can be found on my youtube station. Their names are Palindrome, which is built on a musical palindrome, Why Am I So Happy?, which explores how music can simultaneously carry happiness and sadness, Con-tin-u-ing, which is a musical portrayal of long unsolved problems in our world, and The Daughter's Song, which sounded when I wrote it like the theme for a daughter in a play about climate change. 




Diggings in the Lawn

Earlier in the fall my friend Gail reported that her backyard was getting torn up this year--something that had never happened before. One interesting  clue as to why this was happening now and not before was the death of three ash trees just across the fenceline in the neighbor's yard. This year, multiple experiences have made clear for me the dramatic impact active trees have on soil moisture. Trails at Herrontown Woods dried up as soon as the trees and shrubs leafed out and began drawing moisture from the ground. The death of many ash trees in Princeton is changing soil conditions, allowing sun to warm the ground and water from rains to remain in the soil longer. The dead tree roots are also a food source for underground organisms. 

I claim no expertise on which animal is doing the damage, nor on how to stop them. Here's an organic approach. The internet puts the blame mostly on raccoons and foxes, as they search for grubs and earthworms. Both have upped their game in Princeton in recent years. That, along with heavier rains, warmer weather, and the loss of trees could be leading to more digging. Skunks also dig, but are more precise in their digging, making smaller holes that limit damage to the lawn. The photo below is from another homeowner's lawn near my house. This damage was noticed only a couple weeks ago, late in the fall. 


Thursday, December 10, 2020

Towpath Nature Trail Loop in Late Fall

A walk along the towpaths's nature trail loop near Harrison Street a couple weeks ago had an unexpectedly uplifting effect on my spirit. Nature has played a big role this year in keeping people emotionally afloat through the pandemic, and even as nature shifts towards dormancy I felt gratitude for the patterns and small bits of color it still offered. 

The trail is not as wide as it was in years past, since there's been a breakdown in who is responsible for mowing, but foot traffic has kept it open. Just by walking along it, you do the trail a favor.

A splash of burgundy from a blackberry.


The remnants of a common milkweed's seedpod.
The deep lobes of pin oak leaves still bright.
Bright yellow of a solitary Norway maple. Gratefully, Norway maples haven't invaded natural areas in Princeton for the most part, though they do tend to take over along fencelines in people's backyards.
The stunted red leaves of a multiflora rose afflicted with rose rosette disease. For those of us who have had lots of run-ins with multiflora rose's barbed thorns, a little help from a disease to curb the aggressiveness of this shrub is good news.
Along the shore next to this memorial bench are some plants I always check out. 
Looks like the nightshade had a good year. It's related to tomatoes, but don't eat the berries.
The seeds of native Hibiscus are held suspended over Lake Carnegie in cup-like capsules. Its preferred habitat is the banks of streams, but it flourishes in a garden if there's enough sun.
Of the many shrub dogwoods adapted to wet ground, silky dogwood is the one found locally. It's less red than red osier dogwoods.

Even botanists can find grasses intimidating, but if you steer clear of the giant tomes with mind-boggling plant keys, and simply take note of their shapes and colors, the more common ones can be easily learned. It's like recognizing someone from a distance by the way they walk, even if their back is turned. Plants have body language that can be learned.

Wood reed is a common native grass in shady lowlands.
Broomsedge--it's a grass, not a sedge--takes on a nice bronze look in the fall. 
Deertongue grass is very common here along the trail, often growing in masses. Note the broad leaf.

Where the trail takes a sharp meander there's a wonderful gathering of hollow-stemmed Joe-Pye-Weed growing in the open shade of giant oaks. A few seeds still cling to their tops, taking the mind backwards to the bright flowers of July, and forwards towards new plants to come.

We're used to seeing a sharp division between open fields and dense forests where little ground vegetation can survive. What's special about this nature trail is that trees are more scattered, allowing sun-loving wildflowers to flourish underneath. This savanna-like habitat would have been much more common in the past, when trees were harvested more selectively, or fires were allowed to sweep through, killing some trees and leaving others to grow. In the more recent past, the state parks crews would mow this habitat once a year in late winter to limit woody growth, but the past few years I haven't had luck getting it done. The strategic, episodic maintenance needs of native habitats, e.g. mowing once a year, seem harder to integrate into maintenance crews' schedules than the recurrent once-a-week mowing regimes that are far more expensive but can be routinized.

There were some ornamental plantings done long ago, probably in the 1960s, and some of these persist. A row of fragrant honeysuckle makes super-fragrant little white flowers in February. Though other shrub honeysuckle species are invasive, I've never seen Lonicera fragrantissima spread beyond where it's planted.
The fluffy seeds of the nonnative vine autumn clematis are quite a sight when backlit. The native version, virgin's bower, is distinguished by its toothed leaves, and must be more tasty for wildlife than the nonnative version, given its relative rarity. 
Take the short stub trail to the lake and you find a stump suspended partway out over the water on a tangle of roots. This is the remains of a sweetgum tree that used to serve as a roost for dozens of cormorants. The site was impressive and haunting at the same time. The tree finally succumbed, whether from erosion of its roots by the lake, too much fertilizer from the birds, or some other cause. Not sure where the cormorants went.
Those horizontal lines in the bark are the prominent lenticels of an ornamental cherry tree.  
These giant ornamental cherry trees, evocative of the cherries in Washington, DC, remain from the university's plantings long ago. This one marks the western entrance to the loop trail, closer to Washington Road.

Learn to identify some plants, and even a walk through the stripped down nature of late fall can stir an energizing mix of recognition, memories and anticipations.