Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Losing Control of the Lawn

Most everyone has at least a little lawn, pleasant to walk upon, setting off the shrubs, or simply a default means of dealing with that rectangle of nature a homeowner inherits with the house. Collectively, lawns are a show of cultural unity in the form of a vast expression of control and uniformity, with growth kept within strict limits, each grass blade the same height. Oftentimes, the uniformity is enforced by noisy, machine-laden coiffeurs, akin to paramilitary outfits that land and deploy, then hasten away when the mission of growth-control has been achieved.

Early in spring, where chemicals aren't used, there can be small rebellions here and there in the lawn, instigated by the "early risers", e.g. assertive wild garlic, or star-of-bethlehem, forming an effect I call "lawn blotch". When the grass starts to catch up, there's a peaceful week or two of quiet conformity, the green spotted with the pleasant yellow of dandelion blossoms. And then, lulled by spring into reverie, proud of our environmental high road of chemical free lawn care, we wake up to the white, seedy roar of the dandelion, going rogue, letting its freak-flag fly, rocking the sea of green with its passion for propagation.

The photo, taken a week ago, is of my neighbor's lawn, a rental, but mine was "hearing the roar" as well. There may be approaches to organic lawn care that minimize the dandelions, but for most of us who do nothing beyond periodic mowing, the dandelions hold reign for a couple weeks each spring. The sense of losing control, though, is temporary, and though it may add to the number of dandelion seeds parachuting in to other yards, it has no ramifications for natural areas. Maybe the deer eat them, but for whatever reason, dandelions pose no threat to our stream corridors or nature preserves that I've noticed.

This contrasts with an introduced species like lesser celandine, whose rapid spread not only triggers feelings of having lost control of one's yard, but also threatens transformation of nearby preserved lands.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Tree Seedlings Everywhere, But Not a Street Tree To Plant

There's irony to be savored, or puzzled at, while pulling out the hundreds of trees sprouting through the woodchip mulch in my yard. The tradition of Arbor Day, which slipped past this year on April 29, is to encourage people to plant trees. Free trees are distributed, often spruce seedlings--a species more likely to be found growing naturally in cooler latitudes. Planting a tree is often mentioned as a small, partly symbolic but meaningful way to counter global warming. While serving on the Shade Tree Commission, I did some math and figured out that the 50-100 street trees being planted in Princeton were not even coming close to replacing the 250 trees being lost each year. The 2-3" caliper trees deemed most likely to survive and prosper cost $250 each, eating up the budget.

Clearly, there's a perceived and sometimes real need to nurture trees, and there's pleasure in watching a tree, planted in the right spot, grow with deceptive speed towards towering heights. What, then, to make, in meaning and utility, of these hundreds of red oak seedlings rising from the earth each spring?

Or the elm seeds that carpet the patio,

filling the drain,

and making an improbably lightweight but effective dam that needs to be cleared for our low-budget drainage to work. Thousands, perhaps millions, of achenes will soon follow, spinning earthward from the maples--red, silver and sugar--adding another layer of trees-to-be, and trees-to-be-pulled.

Those Arbor Day tree giveaways are a tradition that likely dates back to early in the past century, as fields slowly shifted back to forest. Now, with reforestation long since accomplished, trees in this neighborhood, at least, hardly need our help. When it comes to reproduction, they don't fool around, which is to say, fooling around is what they're doing a whole lot of.

The issue is more a matter of how to get the right tree growing in the right place. There is no lack of gaps in the street canopy to fill, no lack of parking lots where cars bake in the summer sun for lack of shade. And no lack of trees, free for the transplanting. There's also no lack of logistical issues--getting permission to plant them, hemming and hawing about which species would be best, watering the first year and protection for a few years after that, and so forth. Meanwhile, the trees are showing us how its done, on their own. So simple, and yet so much conspires to keep our world just as it is, filled with persistent problems side by side with an abundance of solutions. If future generations can find sustenance in irony, they will surely prosper.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

University Students Experience Mountain Lakes

Two weeks have flown since co-leading, with local writer and historian Clifford Zink, a tour of Mountain Lakes for a group of Princeton University students. All are taking a course taught by history professor Vera Candiani, who passionately believes that students need to break out of the academic bubble of campus and get acquainted with the world around them. Much of the university's emphasis in this regard has been to encourage students to study and experience distant continents. But Vera believes there is also a great deal to discover and perspective to be gained just a short walk or ride from campus.

On the premise that we leave our human legacy primarily through our "actions on matter", her students are learning to "'read' the material and landscape record that our species’ interaction with nature over time created."

"Actions on matter" at Mountain Lakes could include the double-walled ice houses built to store ice harvested from the lakes in the early decades of the 20th century. Or the pastures and plowed fields that had such a big impact on what plants grow there now, long after the fields grew up in trees.

While Clifford spoke about the dams and their restoration, I introduced the students to the aromas of spicebush and eastern red cedar, and explained how to crack the color codes of spring. A quick survey of red maples in the forest can be done by looking for the red hue they cast in spring, and woody species that evolved on other continents and climates can often be spotted as they green up earlier than most native shrubs and trees. This early greening can impact other species by preventing the spring ephemeral wildflowers beneath them from collecting enough solar energy to prepare for the following year. What looks like lush, healthy green, then, may actually be throwing a wrench in the ecological functioning of the landscape.

The students learned also to "read" the history of deer management in the growth pattern of a spicebush. I explained how the spicebush, now thriving in the preserve, had just 15 years ago been barely hanging on, as heavy deer browsing pressure prevented any new sprouts from growing up. Many spicebush shrubs held on through that era with only one stem high enough to escape the deer. When the town took action to fill the vital role of the absent wolves and other predators, by culling the deer, the spicebush were able to grow multiple stems up and beyond the reach of the deer. With these new "solar panels" in place, the shrubs quickly abandoned the old one--a once precious lifeline that was no longer needed. The photo shows one of those "heroic" old stems still standing in the middle of all the new ones.

A spigot sticking up in a floodplain meadow near Mountain Lake House hints at the prior existence of an olympic-sized pool, once used by the high school swim team for practices. Back when I worked for Friends of Princeton Open Space, we'd plant Hibiscus and other wildflowers in that field, finding shards of ornamental tile as we dug holes for the new plants.

Like pages torn out of what once was an epic poem, we saw a few scattered wildflowers--a trout lily near the path, or a Solomon's Seal hidden beneath a thick patch of winged euonymus. Call it a first step on a long return from the disruptions of the agricultural era a century ago. Though the students saw lots of areas where past plowing and pastures erased the native diversity, they also got to see the few spots that had somehow escaped those historic impacts, where otherwise rare species and lush native herbaceous growth has survived and prospered.

There was a pop quiz midway through to test the students' reading abilities. As Woody Guthrie says about a sign, "On the back side, it didn't say nothing."

Whenever I see the upper dam, I think of Clifford's insistence that the stone masons restore the dam's spillway to be as level as possible, so that water would spill evenly across its length.

It was a gorgeous day in a beautiful local preserve, with bright, inquisitive students who opened up to the peacefulness of the setting and all the stories it had to tell of past, present, and future, less than a mile from campus.

One idea Professor Candiani has, for expanding this connection of university students to the locale they call home for four years, is to make field trips like this a required part of the freshmen class's orientation, so that students can get to know each other and their new community at the same time.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Arbor Day Walk Today, and Other Events

Saturday April 30, 2-4pm: Friends of Princeton Nursery Lands invite you to an Arbor Day Celebration. Including planting of tree in memory of David Reed followed by a tree identification walk led by Bob Wells at Mapleton Preserve/ DR Canal State Park Headquarters, Princeton Nurseries Kingston Site, 145 Mapleton Road, Kingston, South Brunswick Township

Sunday May 1, 11-2: Native Plant Sale and Education at Whole Earth Center in Princeton. I'll be there to spread the good word, along with Wild Ridge Plants, the NJ Native Plant Society, and others.

Sunday May 1, 4-6: Gala Event at DR Greenway. My band, the Sustainable Jazz Ensemble, will be performing. This is a ticketed event. Check the website.

Saturday, May 8, 8am: Washington Crossing Audubon annual spring bird walk at the Institute Woods. Scroll down at this link for details.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Letter On Lesser Celandine Strikes a Nerve

A letter I sent recently to the Town Topics newspaper in Princeton struck a nerve. It was about a pretty but very aggressively spreading nonnative flower called lesser celandine. One reader, I was told, even printed the letter out and distributed it to her neighbors, in hopes that they would take a look in their yards, and take action before the plant took over the neighborhood's flower gardens and lawns. My next post on the subject was going to be a critique of You Bet Your Garden, the widely heard radio program, whose website posting on lesser celandine is full of misinformation. It's both fascinating and alarming to see how even a supposedly authoritative source like Mike McGrath can end up spouting nonsense, which then spreads to listeners, one of whom in turn further spread McGrath's misinformation in a response to my letter published in the Town Topics this week. As with climate change, the intimidating reality of invasive species has led many people to seek refuge in denial of either the problem or the solution, or both.

In the meantime, below is the letter I wrote:

If you’ve noticed a little yellow flower starting to take over your lawn and garden, you aren’t alone. Appreciation soon turns to distress as the plant spreads to become a form of green pavement, outcompeting other plants, then leaving the ground bare when it dies back in early summer. It has lots of names—lesser celandine, fig buttercup, figroot because of its fig-shaped underground tubers, or the scientific name Ficaria verna.

Like many introduced species, it gains competitive advantage by being inedible to the local wildlife. Along with nonnative shrubs that wildlife also avoid, like honeysuckle, winged euonymus, privet and multiflora rose, lesser celandine prevents solar energy from moving up the foodchain from plants to insects to birds. This foiling of natural processes effectively shrinks the acreage of functional open space Princeton has worked so hard to preserve.

The most dramatic example of this plant’s dominance locally is in Pettoranello Gardens, from where it has spread downstream into Mountain Lakes Preserve. That situation is beyond control, but in homeowners yards, and many local parks and preserves, early detection and treatment can nip invasions in the bud. I’ve been encouraging homeowners and the town rec. department to take this work seriously, because one small infestation can quickly spread to affect downhill neighbors, parks and preserves. Effective treatments can be found online, but typically consist of using 2% glyphosate, the active ingredient in products like Roundup, the wetland-safe Rodeo, and other similar formulations.

As with the abuse of antibiotics by the meat industry, glyphosate is now vastly overused to grow bio-engineered corn and soybeans. That abuse has in part driven a demonization of herbicides in general. But just as antibiotics remain a critical medicine, various herbicides remain a critical means of dealing with invasive plants. Personally, my avoidance of herbicides is nearly total, but in the case of lesser celandine, with its tuberous roots, no other approach is practical. Only if there are just a few plants can one dig them out, bag them up and throw them in the trash, not the compost.

Adding to the distress of these radical transformations of our landscapes is a strange narrative that is showing up in places like the New York Times and the radio show You Bet Your Garden. Through a denial of both the problem and the solution, reminiscent of climate change, it claims that we should learn to love invasive species, and hate those who dare to take action against them.

This view cheats us of the deep satisfaction of identifying a problem and working together to solve it. This past weekend, as part of my work for Friends of Herrontown Woods, I was able to convince a couple neighbors of the preserve to treat their lesser celandine. By doing so, they will not only spare their own yards but also the stream just down the hill.

As a bonus, I got to meet some new neighbors. By taking our local nature’s problems seriously, we also build community.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Conquering Backyard Ivy in an Ivy League Town

After weeks of inaction, paralyzed by inertia and wondering if once again the garden would bowl me over with its growing power, I finally ventured out with gloves, dirt-friendly clothing, and some clippers to take on some of the backyard's longstanding "issues". To my surprise, there was satisfying progress to be made, that actually built on progress past.

Many gardeners have "border issues", that is, plants invading their yards from their neighbors', or vice versa. A friend recently showed me how lesser celandine was continually spreading into his yard from his uphill neighbor, and there are many stories of bamboo's indifference to society's artificial boundaries.

For years, my yard had waves of english ivy coming in from three sides, but two of my neighbors, without my saying a word, got rid of all of theirs. And where my yard abuts the park in back, I was able to get rid of the parkside ivy by taking the liberty of mowing it, after which the parks crews apparently have been weedwhipping any resprouts.

Taking advantage of the soft soil after yesterday's rain, I finally took on the legacy of ivy on my side of the fence, using physical means. The first phase was an on-hands-and-knees approach, pulling and cutting off any ivy growing on the fence.

Ivy heading up a tree got cut at the bottom. No need to pull it down. Cutting at the base is enough, though some people find it more satisfying to pull it all off.

For phase two, large pieces of cardboard were placed along the fence, overlapping, and any ivy still exposed further in was pulled out and thrown on top of the cardboard, where it will dry out. Some native vines--virginia creeper, wild grape, and poison ivy--were pulled as well, though the main goal was to eliminate english ivy. Gloves, long sleeves, and periodic washing of any potentially exposed skin with water should be enough to avoid poison ivy's effects, but we'll see.

The chickens came over to inspect my work, and seemed satisfied. Phase three would be to cover up the cardboard with chips or some other organic material that will hide the cardboard and keep it from getting blown by the wind. But the cardboard will quickly disappear behind a screen of growth in the yard, and some exposed cardboard may prove instructive to park users, who may decide to try using cardboard to deal with their own border issues.

Elsewhere in the yard was additional proof of how even intimidating weeds can be controlled by timely intervention. Only a few garlic mustards came up this year, because they've been getting pulled each spring before they go to seed.

And the big bamboo patch that once was advancing across the fence on the north side is down to a few weak sprouts easily cut. Other weeds--the Canada thistle and the dandelions--got the undercut treatment with a shovel.

There is, of course, the option of eating the young leaves of garlic mustard, and I saw a chinese woman inspecting some bamboo clones across the street, in search of bamboo shoots.

Some of the more aggressive native species got a rebalancing. A native floodplain species of goldenrod that spreads via underground rhizomes got pulled out in places. In the photo is the base of a bottlebrush buckeye--a beautiful native shrub that can start grabbing territory once established. It was a relief to discover that its expansionist ambitions are realized via above ground stolons that can be easily cut.

Mixed with the pulling and digging and rebalancing was some appreciating, of the subtle pendulant blooms of a Bladdernut, a native shrub found in only a few isolated spots in Princeton.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Native Plant Event at Whole Earth Center

On Sunday, May 1, 11-2pm, the Whole Earth Center in Princeton will have a native plant shindig. That's what Alex Levine, Whole Earth's master artisan of deli cuisine calls it. The official title is "Landscaping With Native Plants", and will feature native plants for sale and free advice from some of us landscaper, native plant seller, naturalist types. There's more info and a pretty photo of Alex's wildflower garden at this link.

Unrelated to the sale, some flowers to be enjoyed this time of year, native species occurring in gardens but not in the wilds of Princeton, is this Fothergilla I planted in the raingarden in front of the Whole Earth Center,

and, if I can get the chicken out of the way,

some celandine poppy. Unrelated to the lesser celandine that's radically spreading through gardens, parks and natural areas of Princeton, the celandine poppy is in the poppy family, makes small mounds that look good even when they aren't blooming. New ones pop up nearby, but not in a way that threatens to take over or spread unwanted into the neighbor's.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Some Spring Views at Herrontown Woods

The unfolding of spring, slowed by cool weather, can be viewed within a short walk of the Veblen House at Herrontown Woods. There's the grand view from the cliff (careful, folks!),

and the domesticated view in front of the corncrib. Sally Tazelaar, of our Friends of Herrontown Woods nonprofit, cleared the multiflora rose that had obscured the daffodils for years.

One of my favorite views is very small and mundane-looking, belying its ecologically significance. Here's evidence that deer are browsing on the smaller shoots of winged euonymus, an all too dominating, nonnative species in some areas of the park. The winged euonymus has been outcompeting native shrubs in part because the wildlife tend not to eat it, but we've noticed that if we play the role of extinct megafauna, by cutting down the winged euonymus too big for the less-mega deer to reach, the deer will browse the resprouts and thus reduce the nonnative's unnatural competitive advantage. There's a good feeling in this collaboration with deer, though they don't seem to have developed a taste for privet or Asian photinia. For those, it's completely up to humans to do the browsing, if some semblance of ecological balance is to be restored.

Another quiet, welcome sight is water trickling out of a long-abandoned drainage pipe. It's a spring of sorts, fed by seepage from the ridge.

Typically one finds more native plant diversity in the vicinity of a spring, because it provides the stable soil moisture of a pre-drained America, where wetlands and all the native species adapted to them once prospered. Mosses, Equisetum, jewelweed, and even what looks like an iris, which would not be found in the more drought-prone, altered terrain elsewhere.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Sustainable Jazz at Communiversity and DR Greenway

We grow all sorts of things here at Princeton Nature Notes, including melodies. Here are some upcoming performances. Click on the links for more info.

COMMUNIVERSITY--Sunday, April 17, 2-2:30pm, Paul Robeson Stage
              Pianist Phil Orr and I will be dropped by solar powered helicopter into the midst of the Princeton Arts Council's Communiversity, for a half hour of locally sourced jazz. The stage is on Witherspoon Street, close to the Princeton Public Library and the Arts Council.

DR GREENWAY'S MAY DAY PICNIC FOR PRESERVATION--Sunday, May 1, 4-6pm, Johnson Education Center, 1 Preservation Place, Princeton
           Sustainable Jazz returns to DR Greenway's mission central to play as part of a gala event celebrating the preservation work of Wade R. Martin. Tickets available at this link.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Upcoming Events at Princeton's Rogers Refuge

Most people don't think of Princeton as having a large marsh to look out upon, but you can find such a view by taking Alexander Rd and West Drive to Rogers Refuge, down from Institute Woods. Though owned by the American Water Company, it is open to the public, with trails, a small parking lot, and observation towers.

This Sunday, April 10 at 10am, the group that cares for the marsh, the Friends of Rogers Refuge, will host a dedication to honor Louis Beck, "who, in his passion and enthusiasm for birds, inspired many to cherish birds and work for their preservation."

The dedication, like the marsh itself, is open to the public. Here's the announcement sent out by FORR president Fred Spar:

"As Bluebirds and Red-winged Blackbirds stake out nesting territory, and leaves begin to emerge on our row of willows, we are getting ready for spring migration at the Rogers Refuge. Thanks to the support of the Washington Crossing Audubon Society, we will soon be installing new informational signage and, in memory of our dear friend Lou Beck, setting up an extensive series of nesting sites for Purple Martins, Bluebirds, Wood Ducks, Tree Swallows and other cavity nesters.  
Please join us as we dedicate a memorial to Lou Beck and celebrate the coming of spring. On Sunday, April 10th at 10:00 A.M. we will convene at the main platform at the Refuge for a dedication ceremony, refreshments, and a walk around the marsh."
On May 8 at 8am, the Washington Crossing Audubon's Brad Merritt and Mark Witmer will lead the annual bird walk at Rogers Refuge. Details at this link.

The marsh is kept wet in the summer with the help of a pump that feeds the marsh extra water from the Stony Brook. It's a good example of how a volunteer Friends group can collaborate with town government and the private land owner, American Water, to sustain one of the finest birding spots in the area. The town maintains the pump, and its long-running deer management program has allowed spicebush and other native flora to rebound, greatly improving the nesting habitat for birds.

Take West Drive off of Alexander Road near the StonyBrook bridge, and keep left at the fork in the gravel road.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Kids and Chickens

There's a special transaction happening across this chain link fence that separates Potts Park from our backyard. The kids in the park have discovered our chickens. Maybe they heard the plaintive call of our duck, and came over to take a look. Though the park has some nice play equipment, a sandbox, ballcourt and a couple picnic tables, one parent told me the main attraction is now our four chickens.

I like to think that the chickens are teaching the kids to regard their surroundings with a keen eye, because a chicken is constantly scrutinizing the ground and plants around it, scratching the earth to see what's there. Are farms, gardens and chickens a gateway into the natural world? Follow an environmentalist's genealogy back a generation or two and you'll often find a farm.

Our chickens and duck have the run of the place all day, returning dutifully to the coop at dusk. I put some feed out, but mostly they forage for themselves, and so in a sense occupy a spot along the continuum between tame and wild. Such animals can serve as intermediaries, ambassadors, allowing a connection to that living world beyond neat yards and indoor pets, a bridge to the wild that the heart can traverse.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Princeton Environmental Film Festival--April 2-10

Check out the tenth annual environmental film festival at the Princeton Public Library. The festival begins today, then continues Tuesday through next Sunday. Films day and evening. Many of the films include discussions afterwards with makers of the films. Trailer for the festival below.

Princeton Environmental Film Festival 2016 Trailer from Princeton Public Library on Vimeo.

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.