Friday, December 8, 2017

Leaves, leaves everywhere (12/8/2017)

Fall is almost over, and winter is about to start. Our neighborhood has all the icons of late fall mixed in with the signs of early winter.  The inflatable turkeys are being replaced by inflatable Santa’s, but worse, all over the side of the roads we see stacks and stacks of plastics bags filled with leaves.  People that live along the wood line in our neighborhood blow or dump the leaves in in the woods.  I guess they don’t realize that they create a fire trap for themselves.  They have piled up this huge layer of incendiary biomass that if it ever catches fire would create a spectacle with embers that would definitively fly everywhere (read their roofs).  Interestingly, I was teaching the people who maintain the trails back in the woods and I told them where I live. The first question they asked me was: “Are you one of those leaf dumpers?”  My emphatic answer was: “NO!”
It's all in a day's work!  Kids could really have fun with this, building forts, except they are a favorite target of many of the male dogs in our neighborhood.
During one of my workshops I teach a course on soil amendments where I talk about plant nutrition and compost.  I always get a few laughs and definitely a few smiles when I tell my students that plants are different than us bipeds or animals in general.  We humans need hamburgers and French-fries to sustain our selves (unless you are a vegetarian or a health nut, of course); but, I tell my students, plants make their own hamburger and French-fries.  All they need is sunshine, water and some boring minerals.  I pop up a list of all these boring minerals and discuss the three most important ones: Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium.  I tell my eager students what the function of these three elements is in the plants.  Nitrogen for leaf growth and protein production; Phosphorus for (root) growth, DNA and energy; and Potassium for flowering, and energy.  If you are a biologist, I know, this is very a very simplistic and rudimentary explanation, but so be it.
If plants needed to hamburgers and French-fries to survive they would need to look like this carnivorous mushroom.  Naturally this is completely fictitious!  Happy they don't exist, although meat eating plants or carnivorous plants do exist.
Maybe difficult to see, but these are pitcher plants hidden under the grass.  These plants are carnivorous and capture bugs.  I took this picture in June in Newfoundland, Canada.  
I tell the folks under my tutelage that in the fall trees shed a lot of Phosphorus in their leaves.  Leaves are full of DNA, RNA, Chlorophyll, Mitochondria, and ATP which all have their fair share of Phosphorus, and a lot of this Phosphorus rains down in the fall with the leaves.  Subsequently, a lot of people rake the leaves up and dispose them in a landfill (as I tell my students, their dumb neighbors do that, and I am sure they don’t).  The only way the trees get that phosphorus back in the leaves next spring, is by pulling it out of the soil (if there is still some left after all those years of carting leaves off to the landfill or dumping it in the woods somewhere).  In fact, people that bag their leaves, mine phosphorus out of their soil and the only way they could get it back is by paying the fertilizer companies or start a seagull colony in their backyard, but who wants to do that.  Alternatively, they could use a mulching mower and grind the leaves into small pieces so that the leaves can decompose and the Phosphorus can leach back into the soil.  Folks could also compost their own leaves and turn them in to black gold; use them as mulch; or send them to a composting facility.  However, they still would be mining Phosphorus when they send them to a composting facility, unless they buy compost and put it back in their yard.

In addition to returning the nutrients back to the soil (organically), the leaves in the flower beds provide habitat to the animals in the yard, especially the birds.  In my yard, the towhees, fox sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, juncos (in the winter) and the brown thrashers are running around the leaves and are scratching for bugs like chicken.  Whatever goes for a lawn in my yard has a lot of mole, vole or maybe even shrew tunnels.  I don't know if it is true but they say that chipping your leaves gives you a lot of soil insects, such as grubs, which attracts these critters.  Oh well, I rather have this than poisoning my environment.  We are harming our planet enough already that I think that all small things help, and we try to keep all poisons and chemical fertilizers out of our yard if we can.  I use chemical fertilizers on my bonsais but I use soapy water to fight off any bug infestation in my miniature trees.

We really should try to do our part for the environment even if it is a little bit.  A small steps help.  Thinking that your use of fertilizers or pesticides do not contribute much to the whole picture is erroneous; damage is cumulative, it all adds up.  All those small positive things add up too, and while we may not notice it in our life time, our kids or grand kids surely will.  We only have one blue marble to live on.

So let's not bury our leaves in landfills and mine nutrients from property to replenish them with artificial nutrients.  However, let's recycle, compost and reuse them.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Too many hobbies?: Bonsai lessons in the woods (11/28/2017)

When it comes to hobbies, I am multifarious.  My mother always complained that I knew a little about too many things: “A Jack of all trades, master of none.”  My mother was probably correct.  This is why our home is such a mess, there is always so much going on in our lives; but I guess that keeps life interesting.  We hardly have any time for TV watching.  I wrote about this a little bit in 2015, but after this weekend it is time to revisit this subject. 

My hobbies include nature and forest bathing, sailing, photography, bonsai, hiking and biking, to name a few.  This past weekend was Thanksgiving weekend and our daughter was visiting, which meant some intensive walking in the woods, or as we know it “#optoutside.”  Optoutside was started by an outdoor outfitter company as their answer to the shopping craze of Black Friday, where (I think) half of the U.S.A. goes absolutely crazy and goes shopping for deals and for Christmas gifts.  So, on Friday and Saturday morning we did a 3-mile walk in the woods, before lunch.
Taking the dogs for a walk, early in the morning before all the heavy walking later in the day.  However, it gave me the urge to look at the trail from the height of a dog's head.  Naturally they do not see red or green and have a greater sense of smell.
The two walks were a great excuse for me to combine a few of my hobbies:  hiking, bonsai growing, photography, nature and forest bathing.  The forest bathing part sometimes had to play second fiddle, my company became impatient at times with me lingering in the woods and taking it all up.  But I did have some time to assimilate it all, especially when they took our older dog on a shorter path home and I was allowed to take the longer trail with the younger dog.
During our walk I encountered this dead tree that was infested by termites and obviously, the woodpeckers had discovered them as well.

Jut a bit off the trail I noticed this tree with this large gall or growth.  At first I wondered if it was a swarm of bees or even a nest, but no it seemed to be solid wood.  I walk this trail a lot and it was the first time I noticed it.
I am trying to grow bonsai.  I wrote about that before, as well.  Some of my trees are as old as my daughter; they were started from seed by a friend of mine who was a native plant grower 30 years ago.  They are not perfect at all; I have ignored them for a long time and am finally getting back into them in the past 3 years or so.  They were root bound and in horrible shape; I am surprised that they survived my abuse (read neglect) for that long.  Some of my best specimens did die the 30 years of moving from New Mexico to Ohio and now the last 17 years in Virginia.  Since getting back into it, I have been following a few YouTube channels and blogs about growing them and learned a lot (I will post a list of the ones I follow below). 

In bonsai root over rock is a style.  During our walk we found a root over root.  Pretty cool how the dogwood roots are growing over the mature oak root.  I assume that the soil has eroded away, or maybe the oak root has pushed up as part of the growth process.
One of my favorite channels is the one of Nigel Saunders.  Nigel is very strong on developing a good evenly spreading root system and he encourages people to study the plants they grow in nature and try to copy them.  So, this weekend I spent a lot of time taking pictures of the bases of trees and studying how the roots come out of them (I also wrote about them before in that previous bonsai blog and in one specifically about roots).
One of my favorite examples of a well spread root system on an American beech.  There were lots of nice examples to look at during our walk.
Having little to no leaves on the trees, I was also able to study the branch structure in the canopy; although in our woods there is a lot of competition for light and the first 30 to 60 feet of most of the tree trunks are bare without many branches.  Still it was fun to look at.  Even in these situations did I see what Nigel alludes to about branching: the second set of branches coming out at about 2/3 the distance of the first set of branches; and that a trunk divides into two and then again divide into two, and so on.  All things to keep in mind when creating realistic miniature trees.  During our walk there was one slope where the trees had a particularly wild branching structure and I lingered in that area for a bit, and took a few pictures.
Last, a study photo of the branch structure in one of the trees during my walk.  Maybe something I can try to copy in the design of one of my trees.
After a long weekend like this I felt motivated and inspired to work on my trees.  I addition I feel rested but exercised, mentally recharged from being out in the woods, and I just feel good from bathing in the woods (figuratively that is, although I still would like to build an outdoor shower).  Naturally it helped that I got so many likes on some of the photographs that I posted on my Instagram site as well, for as the research shows even that give you an endorphin rush; you do not even need to go out into the woods and exercise to get a runners high!  However, nothing beats forest bathing.

Now for some of the YouTube channels that I follow:
Nigel Saunders
MikBonsai (he also has a great Facebook page)
Appalachian Bonsai 
Bonsai Talk
Bonsai & Killifish

Blogs that I follow:
Adam Levine (he has a great Instagram page)
Flemish Bonsai Blog
Robin Bonsai
Maros Bonsai Blog

I also love the work that Harry Harrington does.

Monday, November 13, 2017

I am a trainer: The classes that I teach (11/13/2017)

If you are a regular visitor, by now you should know that I give day long workshops throughout the state of Virginia.  I do it for a living and in general I do on to two day-long workshops each week.  I will detail the workshops below, but first a brief explanation.

Related image

We have a mandatory certification program for people working in Erosion and Sediment Control and in Stormwater Management.  In the distant past I used to be in charge of that program, and taught the certification classes.  However, the program was moved from one government department to another, and guess what?  I lost my job as manager of the program.  This is what usually happens with mergers, so it did not come as a surprise.  What surprised me was that they kept me, I was actually afraid of being laid-off or moved to a different job.  However, my current supervisor understood my love of course development, teaching, public speaking, and my life experience.  So, I am still allowed to do what I love to do these things: but especially teach.

Actually, one of the things I was asked to do was to step away from teaching the regular classes and to develop a number of classes that go deeper into the various subjects discussed in our certification classes.  We call these classes our Continuing Education classes; although the other day I called them the Special Ed. classes.  In my classes I stay away from my political opinion (although my regular readers now I have one), I am somewhat of a lecturer, but try to be Socratic at times.  So what classes did I develop and teach?

Integration of Erosion and Sediment Control and Stormwater Management Program – This was the first course I developed.  It dealt with the transition from one department to another and the adoption of the then new stormwater management regulations.  I talked about how the two laws and regulations interacted and complemented each other.  Many of the Erosion and Sediment Control professionals were all the sudden faced with having to deal with enforcing the new Stormwater regulations and having to deal with a new State agency.  This was a very intense 6-hour class; it also introduced a lot of controversial new regulatory issues.

Plan Review Using the Older Standards – Since the adoption of the new Stormwater Management Regulations there were a group of older (grandfathered) stormwater structures that needed to be reviewed by folks who had never reviewed them before.  We teach the review of the new Low Impact Development (LID) Best Management Structures (BMPs) in our regular classes, so this class was for the review of some of the older more traditional ones.  This was another intense 6-hour class.

Erosion and Sediment Control Inspector Refresher Class – Everyone needs a refresher class so now and then; to go back and to hear it all again.  I end this class with a Bingo game.  This is a fun filled, very interactive 5.5-hour class.

Native Plants for Stormwater and Erosion and Sediment Control – Being a Plant Ecologist by training, this class was my first real hobby class.  I love doing this class and people seem to enjoy it as well.  I will be redesigning it this winter a bit, and will de-emphasize the law and regulations a bit and add more discussion about the various plants (that is what I also one of the comments in the evaluations of the class I received).  One or two people have an issue with me bringing up evolution and natural selection in this class.  So be it.  This is a very intense 6-hour class.

Applied Soils for Erosion and Sediment Control and Stormwater Management Professionals – This is another one of my favorite courses.  I developed this with a dear friend of mine.  We taught it together until he left the department; and now I am on my own.  In this class I deal with soils in three ways.  I look at it from the agriculture (USDA) side, the hydrology side and the engineering (Unified Soil Classification) side.  Then I try to tie it in to our job in construction as it relates to erosion and stormwater management.  This is a great 5-hour class.

Wetlands for Erosion and Sediment Control and Stormwater Management Professionals – This is not a class intended to turn people into wetland delineators.  While I worked as a delineator for over 15 years, that is not the intent of this class.  What I do in this class is teach inspectors and plan reviewers to recognize “red flags” and know what to do when they see them.  I also want them to know how to react to sediment releases in wetlands.  This past week I taught the last of this class in its current format.  I will be redesigning it and taking a lot of the discussion on law and regulations out of it and putting it on-line.  For the rest, I again want to make it more hands-on and show pictures of plant species (invasive and typical wetland species) to get people more in to it.  This is a 6 to 6.5-hour class.

 SWPPP Inspections – This is the most interactive class of the bunch, with a class exercise.  We discuss the development of a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan, the different elements and the inspection of a site for compliance with the SWPPP and the Pollution Prevention Plan (P2).  This is a great 5-hour class.

Where the water goes – A class subtitled “Hydrology for Inspectors.”  A class that deals with the flow of water on a construction site.  How water behaves itself on slopes, why it matters and what we do to mitigate for its effect.  We discuss how we manage the flow of water on a site and examine a lot of “how-not-to” photographs.  I love this 6-hour course.

Soil Amendments for Erosion and Sediment Control and Stormwater Management Professionals – This is a 3-hour course divided into two parts.  The first part deals with the use of compost and fertilizers in the restoration after construction has been completed.  In the second part we discuss the use of special soil mixes for bio-retention areas.

Photography for Inspectors – This is also a 3-hour course that I usually do in combination with the previous course.  As readers of my blog may know, I am somewhat of a photographer and I have been trained in it.  I teach the do’s and don’ts for inspectors as well as some of the photographic theory. 

Finally, I am in the process of developing some more classes (no rest for the weary).  But it keeps my brain going, it keeps me young.  I often joke, that I roll out of my motel bed in the morning and look on my sign-in sheet what class I am teaching that day; for sure, never a boring day.

In addition to all these classes, I also do some workshops on request here and there that are hybrids between these classes.  As I tell my students, if you have ideas for classes let me know.
I will also entertain special requests to teach any of these classes or any workshop where ever you are.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Itsy bitsy spider (11/7/2017)

As an ex-field person, fall always reminds me of the times when I did field surveys in the woods and ran into spider webs or at least threads that were strung all over the woods.  The best were always running into nearly “invisible” webs, and them ending up on my glasses and having an imprint of them on my glasses for the rest of the day.  Something like a badge of honor.  Sometimes, at lunch time you took your glasses off and had a perfect imprint of a spider web on your glasses.  Also in the fall, you had these huge yellow garden spiders hanging around in the woods that everyone was afraid off.

A spiderweb in the woods, so difficult to see, so easy to walk into and get an imprint on your glasses or get the threads in your hair.  Here the sun angle was just right to see it and avoid it.
Arachnophobia or the fear of spiders affects approximately one in ten persons in the world.  That is kind of amazing when you come to think of it.  Why would people be afraid of spiders?  Some think the reason is that some spiders are venomous or poisonous and that this is why people are afraid of spiders and part of the population have become afraid of spiders over evolutionary time.  But there really does not seem to be a good reason for why some people are afraid of spiders when you look at their size.  The Goliath spider seems to be the largest spider in the world with a leg span of 12 inches (30 cm); maybe that is a reason to be scared of spiders.
Just a little spider hanging out on a thread in the woods, with all the leaves in the background it would be relatively easy to walk right into this gal (why gal? because a lot of gal spiders seem to consume their male mates after mating). 
I have been bitten by a black widow when I lived in New Mexico and picked up a six pack of beer.  As some of the websites about this spider describe, the bite of a black widow is seldom fatal, but there was no internet back then, and we immediately called a friend in town who was the emergency doctor at the local hospital.  Allan assured me that I would live and he told me to watch my vital signs the next few hours, but assured me that usually nothing would happen and that I did not need to come in.  He also told me I may get a skin reaction, which I did.  I got a brown spot on my arm the size of a silver dollar that remained visible for a year or more, but eventually faded.  Oh well that was my experience with spiders, which really wasn’t that bad.  My father-in-law’s run in with a brown recluse was much more interesting.  He got a huge blister from it that looked like it was ready to explode.  While I am still not afraid of spiders, he is or at least he has a lot of respect for them.
My more favorite pictures of the last few days.  This leave seems to hang weightless in the air.  Well, it is suspended from a silk thread spun by a spider and just hanging out there in the middle of the path, perfectly still, like frozen in place and time.  The threads spun by spiders are so strong that the military has been trying to genetic engineer goats to produce it instead of milk so they can make fiber from it (you cannot milk spiders) to make wire and cable.  
Spiders are pretty cool animals, or insects, actually no they are arthropods.  They’ve got eight legs, that can grab things; they have fangs that can inject venom; with the exception of one species that is an herbivore, spiders are predators; and many of them make webs to entangle their prey in.  Others lasso their prey or run them down, actually really cool.  When they catch their prey they inject them with enzymes to liquefy their interior so they can suck the nutrients out of them.  No wonder some of us are afraid of them.

At my home we consider spiders a sign of good luck.  We usually do move them outdoors, figuring that there is more prey out there than indoors.  We get a glass, put it over them and gently slide a piece of (stiff) paper under the glass, trying not to hurt the poor animal.  Then we take them outside where we set them free!  Not good riddance, but good hunting you little guys.
The famous garden spider weaving her web.  She is slightly bigger than a U.S. quarter.
I love walking through the damp woods on an early fall morning in particular.  The early morning dew has accumulated on many of the webs and you can really see them: the beautiful webs spun over the paths; the messy webs between the branches; the funnels of the trap door spiders in the tall grass; the big webs with the thick fuzzy thunderbolt-shaped thread in it that the garden spider weaves in the middle of their web; it is absolutely amazing all the different types of webs they weave.  Obviously, they all work they all have their specialized goal and all capture enough prey for them to survive generation after generation (and scare the living daylight out of some).  Walking in nature is so important.  Whether it is to observe the habits of the spiders, to watch birds, the rooting patterns of the trees, the way the light falls through the leaves, to absorb the smell of the woods, or just the solitude, get out it helps you recharge it makes you happier, live longer and maybe even ward off the diseases of old age like Alzheimer.  
The sun, the dew and an early fall morning makes the webs stand out on the trail.

Friday, November 3, 2017

On Islamophobia (11/3/2017)

So here I was planning to write my next blog post about spiders and the fear of spiders; however, you all will need to wait.  I feel the need to write about the need for another fear, Islamophobia.

I was teaching one of my workshops in Northern Virginia, this week.  It was two days after this 29-year-old nut from Uzbekistan drove a Home Depot truck over a bike path in New York City, killing eight and wounding more than a dozen.  My workshop is for inspectors that go on construction sites to make sure that the contractors follow the federal and state environmental laws and regulations; and local codes and ordinances.  I teach my students a module on situational awareness, as part of the class.  This ranges from a tripping hazards to aggressive people.

Northern Virginia is very diverse.  During breaks in my workshop I had a fun talk with a lady from Iran who works from one of the counties in the region, and with two guys from Nepal who had heard that I had lived and worked in Nepal and wanted to know more about me and my stay there.  My classes up there are always a fun multicultural mish-mash of people as opposed to other regions in Virginia where it is ethnically pretty boring.

My class had ended and I was approached by a middle-aged (50-ish) Arabic looking gentleman who wanted to ask me a question.  He spoke very softly and I had to ask him three times to repeat himself.  The first two times I understood that it had something to do about his arm.  Finally, the fourth time it came out: “are weapons allowed on a building site.”  So it was not about his arm but about the other definition of arms or weapons.

My “friend” had a building site that he was inspecting where the contractor was openly carrying a gun (yes we in Virginia have an open and a concealed carrying law).  The contractor would of course need to accompany the inspector on his round showing his gun and also inspect the most remote corners of the project.  You get my drift, the inspector felt very intimidated.  Being a Muslim, looking and sounding obviously Arabic, even in when dressed in western clothing, just having had the killing in New York, and having a Fox News and other conservative media whipping up the masses against Muslims and immigration (and people who carry can be assumed to be conservative), he was scared.  My heart broke!

Regular readers of my blog may know I worked in international development.  I took this picture during a wedding in a village in Yemen to which we were invited when I worked there in the mid 1980s.  Just before the ceremony the men went out to the border of the village to do a shooting competition/target practice.  It is all friendly, but everyone there was armed to the teeth (even during a friendly wedding).  To tell you the truth no one from the Arab world should be afraid of weapons, that makes this case I write about so remarkable.

When we arrived at the weeding we were welcomed by this sight.  We had an absolutely great time that day.  We were made welcome and there was no discrimination.
I had a long talk with him, gave him some solutions, and hopefully set him at ease, but obviously it kept bugging and eating at me.  I am just amazed that some of us still have to live in fear because of our ethnicity.  I realize that this is why we have the black lives matter movement and we still need to worry about civil rights.  There are still fringe groups in society that think they are better than others and they are the reason why we had gatherings like in Charlottesville that even the guy in our Whitehouse does not dare to condemn.  I see that today’s people in power are trying to erode our civil rights and try to silence us with terms like “fake news.”  Don’t let them do it, a lot of the news is real, my inspector friend made me realize that again this week.

Just a miscellaneous picture of a Yemeni village (town) somewhare in the desert.  My heart breaks again thinking about the civil war they have gone through in the past years.