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.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Jefferson Awards and a One-Minute Speech

Earlier this year, I received a Jefferson Award for public service, which involved a trip to Washington, D.C. to, among other things, give a one minute speech describing the community work I do. It's a challenge to edit one's work down to a minute, but recipients from across the country gave it a go. If you've noticed any shift by the nation onto a better trajectory in recent months, it just might be due to the transformative power of all those highly concentrated speeches.

If there's someone you'd like to nominate for a Jefferson Award, of any age, they're taking nominations through Jan. 31, 2014. My sense is that people doing environmental work are underrepresented in the Jefferson Awards. Here's a link for more information.

Locally, Sustainable Princeton is seeking nominations for its annual sustainable Princeton leadership awards through January 6, 2014. Here's the link for that.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Cooper's Hawk Pays a Holiday Visit

Yesterday, I looked out the back window to see our Pekin duck, Daisy, rotating her head to look skyward (haven't managed to capture that in a photo). Usually, that means there's something interesting up there.

This time it was a Coopers hawk perched thirty feet up in a silver maple tree near the back fence. The hawk, who I assumed was not auditioning for the role of Santa Claus, appeared in no hurry to take any action, so I decided to take some photos before bursting out the back door to scare it away.

The ducks had already gone back to foraging,

but our chicken Buffy continued to stand stock still under a bush. A female duck, with its sizable bill, is much more confident about defending itself than a hen. Buttons, our other chicken, was nowhere to be seen.

Only after I stepped out back, and the hawk flew away, did I notice Buttons, hiding behind Buffy. The Pekin duck may have been sufficiently intimidating in size and manner to give the hawk pause, and my entry on the scene will hopefully discourage the hawk from returning for awhile.

Egg production lately has been an egg each day from each of the ducks. The chickens are laying off egg laying, probably because we haven't given them supplementary lighting.

The ducks and chickens require no heating in their coop, though the watering can freezes up if there's no heating plate underneath it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Monarch Update, and the Empty Heartland

Other posts here on monarch butterflies have photos of the magical creature, but perhaps it's appropriate that this post does not. Having periodically searched this fall for updates on how many monarchs made it to their mountain sanctuary in Mexico for the winter, I finally found one. The news is not good. The monarchs didn't make their customary Nov. 1 arrival at their winter home, but instead began straggling in six days later, and now occupy only twelve trees. According to a NY Times article entitled "The year the monarch didn't appear", "Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year."

Researching the monarch, I had heard that climate change might render their high altitude winter home too warm by the end of the century. Another expert, Chip Taylor, suggested the miracle of their migration might come to an end as soon as thirty years from now. An oped by a NY Times editor, entitled "Monarchs fight for their lives", stated, "One recent study suggests that the long-term survival of the species may be in doubt." But so pervasive has been the displacement and destruction of their critical habitat in the central U.S. by corn fields and pesticide use that their survival from one year to the next can no longer be taken for granted. That they arrived late this year at their winter roost could have to do with weather patterns, or it could be evidence that dwindling numbers deprives the monarchs of the mass momentum that each individual must feel in a mass migration.

What could help? A shift away from GMO corn and soybeans, a return to growing these crops for food rather than ethanol, and a return to giving the monarch's critical food source, milkweed, room to grow along roadsides, between fields and on land set aside for erosion control. But just when might that happen?

Whatever we thought we had learned from the loss of the passenger pigeon early in the last century, the lesson obviously was not learned well enough. The corn and soy fields of Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois and other central states have long been considered largely barren of other life. The Chicago Wilderness initiative to restore the rich intersection of northern, western and eastern flora in the Chicago area demonstrated how urban development can host accidental or intentional sanctuaries for biodiversity that would have long since been lost to plow and spray in agricultural zones.

What we learn in the story of the monarchs is that until recently those agricultural lands were still harboring populations of weeds sufficient to sustain butterflies. Only in the past fifteen years or so, as Roundup Ready corn and soybeans came to dominate, and the subsidized demand for ethanol motivated farmers to plant right up to the edge of roads and fences, did the extermination of weeds like milkweed approach complete. The impression created is of the genetic cleansing of some 150 million agricultural acres, with nothing left, after the gassing of the last remnant gypsy weed populations, but the master race of crops marching in rows.

Other factors compound the monarch's vulnerability. Though most large-scale cutting of trees in their Mexican sanctuary has been stopped, locals still sneak in to cut trees here and there. The thinning out of the forest increases the monarchs' exposure to occasional snow and ice storms. Extreme and freak weather events, becoming more frequent as the climate changes, are all the more dangerous when a species' numbers have dwindled.

By far the most detailed update and perspective comes from Linda Moulton Howe's Earthfiles website. Interestingly, she interviews Lincoln Brower, a Princeton alum ('53) who has devoted much of his life to studying the monarch. He recounts a talk he gave at his 60th reunion earlier this year:
"I gave a lecture to my 60th reunion class at Princeton University. At the end of my talk, I'd spilled my guts out over the whole monarch situation and my history of studying it for now 55 years. One man in the audience asked me, 'Well, what difference would it make if we lost the monarch butterfly anyway?' I took a deep breath and I looked straight into his eyes and said, 'What difference would it make if we lost the Mona Lisa?' The audience went very silent. 
That's what we're up against is this superficial How Do We Make Money approach to the world and people have got to realize that we are dependent upon the biota for our own survival.”
My brother and his wife traveled this past summer to Iowa, to search graveyards for ancestors and see the landscape where her recently deceased mother grew up. Her mother's name was Lucille. She had spent her youth on a farm not far from the Mississippi, where the bluffs along the river transition into the great flat expanse of the plains. Back then, farms were small, within shouting distance of one another, and well populated by farm animals and people.

What they found on this trip was an eerie silence, a void filled only by endless fields of corn and soybeans. No animals, no people. Land is largely owned by descendants who have long since moved away and lease their land to be farmed as part of large scale operations. There's a flurry of activity in May, when massive machines prepare and plant the fields. Then little activity can be seen beyond an occasional spraying until fall harvest. Anyone wishing to open a business in the small towns would have their pick of many a shuttered building. To appreciate a monarch's predicament in such a landscape, think of Cary Grant in the cropduster scene in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.

This is America's empty heartland, the product of economic forces magnified by misguided government policies that drove people and nature from the land. And what sort of heart has a nation that would allow a miracle like the monarch's migration to teeter on the brink?

Managing Princeton's Open Space--a Nature Conservancy Model

A newsletter from the Pennsylvania chapter of the Nature Conservancy came in the mail. Did I send them money? Who knows. All sorts of newsletters keep coming, and sometimes they get read.

A case study on their recently acquired 640 Brush Mountain Preserve caught my eye. Princeton has similarly substantial preserved lands. The title was "Managing Forest Resources for People and Nature". Note that they put people before nature in the title. One of the higher ups at the Nature Conservancy spoke at Princeton University not long ago, and said they had found that their message went over much better if they emphasize people rather than such aspects as biological diversity.

In addition to emphasizing benefits to people by referring to forests and water as resources, they also call for active management: "The Conservancy is actively working ... to conserve forest and freshwater resources to benefit people and nature. Sustainable forest management is a key strategy to accomplish this goal." If sustainable forest management is a key strategy, what form might it take in Princeton's preserves?

This reciprocal relationship, in which nature sustains people and people help sustain nature, is particularly important given today's realities, when multiple negative human impacts are making nature less self-sustaining. "Protected areas require active management to maintain their natural resiliency--their ability to adapt to changing conditions and rebound from stressors." The stressors, except for the overabundance of deer, remain unidentified. Terms that set some people off, like climate change or invasive species, become "changing conditions" and "competing vegetation". Biodiversity is expressed through the word "resiliency".

Here are their four steps for active management:

  1. Increase light reaching the forest floor by controlling competing vegetation and reintroducing prescribed fire. (The non-native shrubs crowding Princeton's forest understory leaf out early in the spring, depriving the spring ephemeral wildflowers of the sunlight they need to store up energy for the next spring. Prescribed fire is an elegant way to open up the understory without killing the larger trees. In Princeton, we're doing some limited invasive species control, and there was an accidental but beneficial woodland fire at Mountain Lakes a couple years ago. Here's a post on prescribed burning being used elsewhere in NJ.)
  2. Protect priority seedlings by installing deer fencing and controlling deer population. (Deer eat native tree seedlings. Too many deer equals no forest regeneration. Princeton gets high marks for its deer control program instituted back in 2000. Some small sections of Mountain Lakes now are protected by deer fencing.)
  3. Plant as needed--for those species that face more extreme challenges. (American chestnut and butternut are two tree species that have been made rare in Princeton's forests, and need an assist to return. We've been actively growing and reintroducing these species on a small but meaningful scale.)
  4. Record and share results. (Always a nice sentiment, sometimes acted upon.)
The Conservancy's goal is to shift forest composition over time, and they use a very effective graphic to show the change they are aiming for, using the size of font to represent which species would be more prevalent:

For example, the composition in 2010, Chestnut Oak, Scarlet OakPitch Pine, White Pine, Birch, Red Maple, and Striped Maple

would become in 2050 Chestnut Oak, Red Oak, Scarlet Oak, Black OakPitch Pine, White Pine, Birch, Black Cherry, Red Maple, and American Chestnut.

The Nature Conservancy has multiple partners helping to inform this sustainable management: among them Audubon, the American Chestnut Foundation, the Pinchot Institute, universities and the state game commission. 

Looks like a useful model for when Princeton takes on active management to complement the acquisition of open space lands.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Farming Plus Clarinet

Here's a series called Around the Farm Table, with videos about sustainable farming that a former Princetonian, Joe Maurer, is filming in Wisconsin. They've had four shows on PBS thus far. I contribute clarinet improvs for Joe's original music. It's a show populated by upbeat people and very healthy plants and animals.

A segment called Picnic in the Pasture pays a visit to a farm that does "forest gardening", (four and a half minutes into the video) also known as permaculture, which breaks down the distinctions between forest, orchard and field. Food, fuel and medicines all grow in the same area. For fruits, there are red currants, elderberries, quince, saskatoon, honeyberries and kiwi. There's talk of guilds, defined as a "perennial polyculture of multipurpose plants" that grow well together.

In my twenties, into organic gardening and companion planting, with little interest in native plants, I had this dream of an acre of fruit trees and vegetables so auspiciously planted that each plant would prosper in just the right niche. Squash would spread in the light shade of asparagus or small trees. Beans would climb on corn or sunflowers. Weeds wouldn't have a chance in all the lush growth. The soil would be rich with organic matter, the work minimal. I would bask in the shade with a refreshing beverage, periodically venturing in to harvest what I needed. This show has that feel, though it's clear there's a lot of hard work behind the joy and bounty.

Accommodating Dynamic Tree Growth in a Static Urban Landscape

Street trees are spared the competition they'd face from other trees if growing in a woodland. Instead, they must contend with manmade constraints above and below. The urban landscape is a struggle between the dynamic nature of trees and the static nature of human infrastructure. What this street, Birch Avenue, needs is trees--though likely not birch trees--to provide cooling shade for the street, the parked cars and the houses in the summer. But any tree plant planted on the left side of the street has to deal with the overhead wires.

This pin oak is on the other side of the street, with no wires above, but faces considerable constriction at ground level, with sidewalk on one side and curb on the other.

It appears to be thriving nonetheless, but partly at the expense of the confining pavement. It has actually pushed up the pavement of the road, just enough to cause a potential hazard for snowplows whose blades could be damaged by any bumps in the road.

And the unevenness of the sidewalk presents a potential tripping hazard, particularly for elderly pedestrians. The tree's roots also caused some damage to a residential waterline. Should this improbably thriving tree come out, or is there some way to accommodate the needs of people, machines and tree? One big step forward was the recent decision by town council to take responsibility for care of sidewalks. The unevenness of the sidewalk can be smoothed out by grinding down the raised section of concrete.

This isn't an isolated issue. Here's another tree starting to push the curb out. Birch Ave. is providing a good test case for how to integrate trees into a very constricted landscape, so that all their benefits of shade, air conditioning, carbon sequestration and beauty can be enjoyed.