Thursday, December 30, 2021

Native Chestnuts in Princeton--the Next Generation

Many of us have lived our whole lives without seeing a mature native American chestnut tree. An excellent NY Times Magazine article described it as a true gift of nature, the perfect tree, growing straight and tall, with rot-resistant wood, and bearing nuts that were easily gathered and eaten, sustaining wildlife and people alike. My first encounter with the American chestnut was the sight of their fallen trunks in a Massachusetts forest, 70 years after the fungus that causes chestnut blight was discovered in NY city in 1904. The massive trunks I saw, lying on a slope in the shade of young white pine, were among the billions that the accidentally imported fungus would ultimately kill in the U.S. Since the roots survive the fungus, there was still a living community of underground chestnut trees beneath our feet in that Massachusetts forest. One of the roots had sent up a sprout about twenty feet tall--promising, one would like to think, but its slim trunk was already ringed by the fungus, its fate sealed before it could bear nuts. 

One of the projects I'm involved in is reintroducing native chestnuts to Princeton. The initiative began in 2009 with an email from Bill Sachs, a Princetonian with considerable expertise when it comes to nut-bearing trees. Bill reported that Sandra Anagnostakis, "one of (if not the) world’s leading experts on the pathology of American chestnut," had agreed to supply us with disease-resistant, hybrid American chestnut trees. Sandra's efforts to breed resistant native chestnuts at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station over many decades was apparently unconnected to the American Chestnut Foundation. The trees were 15/16th native, and Bill with occasional help from me and others proceeded to plant them at the Princeton Battlefield, Harrison Street Park, the Textile Research Institute, Mountain Lakes and Herrontown Woods. 

Some fared better than others. Many, despite having been bred for resistance, nonetheless struggled with the blight that had laid the mighty tree low a century ago. This fall, however, paralleling our work to bring back native butternuts, one of the chestnut trees has borne fertile seeds.  

Bill made repeat visits to the tree to collect the nuts as they ripened. The deer likely got many, but he managed to gather quite a few, some of which he encouraged me to cold stratify. Stratification has always been an intimidating concept for me, suggesting sophisticated manipulation to get a seed to germinate, but in this case it turned out to be not much more than stuffing some seeds in a bag of moist peat moss and leaving it in the back of the refrigerator for awhile. 

The tree, hosted by TRI near Carnegie Lake in eastern Princeton, bore generously despite significant pruning by the periodical cicadas early in the growing season. 

This past summer a friend had sent me a photo of another chestnut tree that, being smaller, was much more affected by the cicadas' egg-laying activities. They cut into stems to lay their eggs, which ends up killing the foot or two of stem beyond where the eggs are deposited. 

We'll see how these various trees do over time, and if a second generation of these mostly native chestnuts comes into being. The NY Times article was mostly about efforts to develop a blight-resistant American chestnut through genetic modification. That thirty year project, with a geneticist named William Powell as the main protagonist, has been successful. They managed to find a gene in wheat that confers resistance when inserted into the chestnut's genome. 

Adding one gene would seem a much more precise and less intrusive means of correcting a century old wrong than adding many genes, most of which are irrelevant to improving resistance, from asian chestnuts. But don't expect these ever so slightly and efficiently modified native chestnuts to be available any time soon. There are strict regulatory hurdles that must be overcome. 

For me, the situation demonstrates two powerful forces in the human world. One is the fear of the slippery slope. Would an elegant genetic fix for the American chestnut open the doors to a wave of less admirable genetic modifications of our world? The other powerful force is our focus on regulating intentional change, while allowing unintentional change to run rampant. While the government spends years deliberating over one gene being added to the native chestnut tree, global trade is introducing an ongoing wave of new organisms to the country, any one of which could be the next emerald ash borer or spotted lanternfly. 

In the meantime, we'll be thankful for the mostly native chestnuts we have, and see what we can grow.

Below is more info I've taken from some of Bill Sachs' emails. Click on Read More. 

Monday, December 20, 2021

The Artistry of Local Environmentalist Liz Cutler

Update, Jan. 8, 2022: Liz sent me a link to her fascinating talk about the when, where, and how of her pressed flower arrangements. She describes how her first one was done as a gift to a neighbor who helped her out during the pandemic, and how the artwork has changed the way she looks at nature. 

Many of us who know Liz Cutler for her environmental initiatives in Princeton over the years got a nice surprise recently. It turns out that she is also a self-taught artist. Her beautiful pressed flower arrangements are on exhibit at the Princeton Public Library through the end of the year. You can also feast your eyes on a digital gallery

By putting her name into the search box on this website, I was able to bring up some of her many environmental initiatives. There's OASIS (Organizing Action on Sustainability in Schools), which is an extension of her role as Sustainability Director for Princeton Day School, where she also teaches english literature. 

This pressing is called "Oakleaf Hydrangia Gradient," referring apparently to the transition from dark to light and back to dark again as she captures the many shades of color that Oakleaf Hydrangias exhibit in the fall. 

I may have first met Liz back in 2007 when she brought some of her students to help me remove invasive species, back when I was resource manager at Mountain Lakes preserve. That group was called ENACT. If you're impressed with her talent for acronyms, it's even more telling that action is a recurrent theme. Liz is all about making things happen, particularly when it comes to engaging youth on environmental issues, as in her High School Eco-Conferences over the years. We also served together on the Princeton Environmental Film Festival committee.

To find the exhibit at the library, head up to the second floor, take a left and then a right. For anyone interested in buying either the originals or the prints, here is what Liz told me recently. I'm sure the library has additional information. Congratulations to Liz Cutler on this wonderful exhibit.
"Many pieces are sold, some are not. I'm also selling prints of them. The good thing about prints is the color never changes. The good thing about the originals, other than being 3D is their color evolves over time because they're organic and if you like that sort of thing about nature--which I do--then originals are best. Kind of depends on your point of view."


Sunday, December 19, 2021

Silent Fall -- A Question About Songbirds

There was a question earlier this fall about the scarcity of songbirds on birdfeeders. Casey, whom I've known since our days on the Princeton Environmental Commission, wrote me on October 21:

"I am curious about the lack of birds - any birds - in our yard and on our feeders. It has been a couple of days now since I've seen any at all. Even walking down on the boardwalk across from the Great Road was silent yesterday. Clearly worrisome. Do you have any thoughts or theories? I figure if anyone does it will be you!"

Well, though I am out in nature a lot, I'm pretty absorbed in plant life and don't tend to notice birds unless they make themselves heard or seen. Our backyard is full of native plants to offer seed and berries, but we don't get around to stocking the birdfeeder. There are times, though, this summer and fall, when I've wondered if past years had been so quiet. 

I reached out to some friends who are close observers of birdlife, and got contrasting responses. This from neighbor Pat Palmer, who is a keen observer of birds in her backyard:

"We have a variety of birds, but far fewer than in previous years. It is migration season, so I think we are not seeing as many migrants as in previous years, but may only be seeing our resident local birds (due to our feeder).

Two (I think) years ago, there were so few birds in fall that we were in despair, but some came back by winter and it has been moderate since then. I would say last year was more (in fall) than the previous year. And this year is less than last year.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is a sign of declining numbers of songbirds. Just about the saddest thing I can imagine. We diligently feed and groom our yard to be good songbird habitat, and still so very few. 

We have two bird houses that used to fully occupied 365 days a year. They sometimes have sparrows, sometimes wrens. This year, no occupants. That is ominous. We did have a wren but it was just passing through. We have a few sparrows but they don't use the houses.

We are watching the natural world start to suffer from all the pollution in the environment, as well as climate change, I think."
Laurie Larson, who maintains the website for Princeton's birding mecca, Rogers Refuge, sent a different take on the situation: 
"I have people asking me about that as well. This summer’s weather was good for growing natural bird food… In years of abundant fruit and seed production, birds prefer natural foods over feeders. Wait until the berries and rose hips are gone, and the birds will probably return.

And have you noticed a lot of Blue Jays this year? Not at feeders, but in the woods. Some parts of the state are enjoying a huge acorn crop, and that always attracts Blue Jays."
I don't see these two responses as contradictory, but as part of a larger phenomenon driven by the supercharging of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide--a 50% rise in CO2 concentration since the beginning of the industrial revolution. The warmer weather allows us to work outdoors deeper into fall and winter. Some species are benefitting from the abundant summer rains. And yet along with this autumn comfort and productivity there is a dread, a sense of foreboding, at the radical changes being unleashed. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Pulling Jetbead

When I first encountered this flower eight years ago, growing near the small red barn in Herrontown Woods, I didn't look very closely and thought it was mock orange. A few years ago, the town hired the Invasive Species Strike Team to treat some non-native species that are just starting to spread through local preserves. To my surprise, this small shrub, which they called jetbead, was one of their targets. The aim was to catch invasions early, so that a small problem wouldn't become a big problem later on.

Last week we were giving Princeton's new Open Space Manager, Cindy Taylor, a tour of Herrontown Woods, and as we approached the barn we happened to see this flush of green amidst the browns and grays of late fall. 
I took a closer look and realized that we were seeing seedlings of jetbead. The Strike Team had killed the mature shrubs, but there were seeds in the ground that had since sprouted. Though many invasive shrubs have spread throughout the preserve, this infestation of jetbead was only a couple hundred feet across. 

Yesterday, on our regular Sunday morning workday, volunteers pulled out every last jetbead we could find. The timing was perfect, because the seedlings were easy to spot and the soft soil made them easy to pull. A few more days and the leaves might have fallen off, making identification much more difficult.

Taking care of a nature preserve seldom provides such a clear sense of accomplishment. Usually the problems we face are overwhelming, and we can only chip away at the edges. It shows how important it can be to catch problems early and time interventions well.

After a morning of wild gardening, our spirits buoyed by a light-filled woodland and a sense of accomplishment, it was time to take pleasure not only in presence but also in absence.

Some notes:
Jetbead (Rhodotypos scandens) -- This NC State website also calls it "white Kerria", which fits, if you've ever seen Kerria.

Shrub honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.) is another invasive shrub that can still have a few green leaves this time of year, but its leaves are not toothed. 

Mock Orange (Philadelphus coronarius) -- I know mock orange as an ornamental shrub that can still be found occasionally in backyards. Not to be confused with osage orange, or orange, for that matter.