Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Forest canopy (1/10/2018)

As I mentioned before, I  am a reader of naturalist books an if you scan my reading list you know that one of the books I am currently reading is David Haskell's book: The Forrest Unseen, a year's watch in nature.

Haskell tells about visits to a permanent forest plot that he makes throughout the year.  He calls it his mandala. He writes small chapters about small subjects based on observations he sees on those days, and then goes into the rabbit hole of biology.  They are mostly good, only once or twice did I scratch my head and that was because it was in my expertise, so I knew more about it; but in general, he is good!

I really liked his chapter he called "November 21 - Twigs."  In it he starts out describing watching a squirrel high up in a tree trying to eating seeds and seeing a freshly broken twig in his mandala.  He goes on talking about how trees grow twigs at random, but shed most of them and only the strongest and most useful survive (survival of the fittest).  The shedding can happen any time, but especially when it is windy or when it is storming.  It made me think when I walk the woods.  My dog Jake (a male obviously) needs to stop at every fallen twig, especially when it has leaves on it and pee on them.  So yes, I am very aware of all those twigs and so is Jake, and almost every day, there is a new twig on the ground somewhere on my trail.  The struggle for existence is going on all the time.

Haskell takes it further to really big twigs, or trees going down in the woods.  He describes how the understory plants actually see with a chemical called phytochrome (this was all fun reading for me because this was all a big part of my Ph.D. work some 28 to 30 years ago).  This is particularly important when a gap opens up after a tree falls.  It is then, that all the seedlings of trees that have been waiting, get the message: "GROW!"  Grow like hell that is, it is again survival of the fittest, who can fill that gap first, wins.  Naturally, the mature trees on the border of the gap also want to fill in, so it is a race.  I described this a little in previous posts when I wrote about the dog hairs (ok, that post is overtly political as well) and when I wrote about some of my walks in the woods recently (here and here).

I am bringing this photograph back from a previous blog, but obviously this oak found the gap left by a tree that had fallen in the past.  Oaks typically do not like to grow in the understory and it seems that it waited for its time to spread it's wings (branches) really quickly.

I sometimes leave to beaten trail and "bush whack" in the woods behind my home.  During this parrticular walk I found this tree.  I never saw this beech before; evidence that walks in the woods are never boring.   It was a big tree that obviously did one of a few things, it either survived logging, it survived a fire, or it found a hole in the canopy.  Beech trees are shade tolerant and can survive in the understory for a long time and when a gap opens they can pounce! 
Like Haskell, I too spend my time in nature observing things, learning from it and just meditating over it.  Unlike Haskell who had his mandala, I wander and do my bathing that way.  In my eye, neither way is better; they are both great ways of improving yourself and gaining or maintaining sanity.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

This is not a self-help post (1/7/2018)

In my previous blog I discussed how 2017 was for me.  I can assure you that while I tried to convince you, dear reader, that my glass is half full, there are always stressful times intermingled in my life, and yes I lose it at times.  A friend of mine wrote on her Facebook page that when her glass is half empty she gets a smaller glass and pours the content of the larger glass in it.  Well that is a way of changing your expectations or outlook on life.

There are all kind of ways to deal with stress (no this is not a self-help post, but just something I feel like sharing).  Some can be destructive to the person or close ones.  I am talking about alcohol, drugs or other addictions.  I like my glass of (red) wine (I wrote a few reviews of the Virginia wineries I visited), my beers (IPAs and stouts in particular ... I need to do review of them once: microbreweries and bottled), my single malts (I have around 8 different ones), bourbons (I have a few laying around), and a good cognac or armagnac (but I do not make enough money to drink that regularly).  But I generally do not have more than one drink during the week and two on the weekends.  There are exceptions of course, but that is a general rule.

So what do I do to de-stress?  It gets somewhat difficult when I travel and teach.  On days that I travel to a place, I often hope to get a nature experience in.  When I travel to the western part of the state it often becomes an hour hike on the New River trail.  When traveling to Front Royal, I love the visit the State Arboretum or find a piece of the Appalachian Trail to walk on for an hour or so.  When there is no nature, a book store or even an outdoor's store like REI (in Fairfax) will often fit the bill, at least there I can dream of being outside.

After teaching, when I stay another night, I often end up back in my room taking a nap.  Teaching takes a lot out of me.  I follow this up with a nice dinner (and a drink) and then I write and read (I recently updated my reading list).  I may have a night cap.  I watch very little TV, but I may have the TV on for noise and when I do it usually is on the Food Channel (I love cooking and baking).  Again, when I am out west and have my bike with me I might go for a bike ride on one of the many rails to trail sites that they have out there.  I have been known to visit a micro-brewery at times.  For one reason or another I do not frequent wineries when traveling alone.  When going home after teaching I tend to find a Starbucks or other high test coffee so I can survive the trip and get the hell out of there.  As you can see, I live a boring life.

When not traveling my stress relief consists of my almost daily lunch walks that end up at Starbucks for a cup of coffee and some writing or reading (my daughter complaints that this is where my retirement savings are going ... for me it is sanity).  We have moved and now my office is right next to Starbucks and I am not sure how to adjust my walks accordingly.  Another issue is that the last time I was there, there were three ladies from our office; before I was only the only one and I like being incognito.

At home I do yoga once a week.  I like it and have been doing it for 5 years now.  You all know that I like to practice "forest bathing."  A walk in the woods behind our home does wonders for me.  I also play with my bonsais and just looking at them and imagining what to do to them or how to prune them is very calming to me.  Sailing and being on or near water is another way of getting rid of stress.  My wife knits, and that is her way of being in the moment; her way of meditating. 

Ithas been very cold here I south east Virginia. It has been below freezing for a week and we have had snow.  Still, this has not deterred me (us) from getting outside and walking in the woods.
We even went for a 10 pm hike in the woods during our "snow storm" or the beginning of it.  The photo was taken with my head lamp on.

I think the overall idea is to entertain the mind, to keep it busy to be in the flow and concentrate on things you enjoy and not on the things that stress you out.  I've written about this a lot, but found it important to write about it again and keep reminding myself about it.

Friday, December 29, 2017

2017, so be it! (12/29/2017)

Trying to keep up with my annual tradition of looking back at the past year and forward to the new, I like to reflect it was an interesting one behind me.  Whether it was just from a personal side, my political outlook on things or social.
Kind of my up-your's world photograph.  This branch obviously died but hung on and is slowly being encapsulated by the tree.  We can all criticize our life, the world, etc, but we are here and this is our only life.  We might as well enjoy it and make the best of it.  
Readers of my blog know I am a liberal, I attend a liberal church and most of my friends on my social networking sites are liberal.  A lot of those friends (or acquaintances) are very vocal and my wife and I joke sometimes that at times the stuff they post on their walls must be fake news.  I tend the shy away from expressing myself too strongly on my walls, or even here on my blog.  For a lot of my friends the sky is falling.  For me the glass is still half full, but as I mentioned in my blog, we need to be vigilant.  I am an environmentalist, a forest bather, and a lover of water.  As someone who has lived in Africa, Asia and the Middle East in countries ruled by dictators, I have seen what could happen if the press gets censored by demagogues.  My father fought the Nazis and had PTSD for life.  We need to protect what we have! So be it!

So how was 2017.  Hey, I grew older.  At work I taught more than 55 odd workshops during the past year.  That is more than one a week on average.  I usually do two per week, which means I was on the road, teaching somewhere almost every other week.  I really enjoy teaching, so it is OK.  A male colleague once told me that a successful day of teaching is like having good sex: "you are exhausted after it, but you feel oh-so satisfied."  The growing older comes in with the recovery time after a day of solo teaching and traveling, it takes a lot longer.  A perk is all the hotel points that I am accumulating, that is a nice fringe benefit.  So be it!

2018 does not look much different.  More teaching, but first getting used to cubicle life.  My office moved and I am going from an office with a door into a cubicle.  Which is why I got headphones, Amazon Prime music and Google Music to drown them all out.  But I get a desk that can be turned into a standing desk with a switch, and we learned last year that sitting is the new smoking.   The new location will also impact my lunch walks, but I'll adapt, so be it!

Environmentally we have taking a few steps back this past year.  But that is only as a country.  I learned that other countries are trying to step up to compensate for our regression.  I also know that a lot of individuals are stepping up to the plate.  I for one learned about forest bathing, and if you want to experience that then you'll have to be spiritual but also environmental.  In 2016 I championed the term "Nature Deficit Disorder."  This term encompasses forest bathing, or one way to address the disorder is by getting out there in nature.  We just need to take care of our little piece of nature since our elected government does want to do it right now.  All I can do is try to learn and grow.  So be it!

On the subject of learning.  I discovered a great website. is a great site with essays about a variety of subjects and even some short video presentations.   I find in refreshing and fun.  I am also listening to a fair number of podcasts.  I know I am scratching the surface here, but it is a great learning experience.  So much better than television or radio.  I particularly enjoy: The Hidden Brain and Reply All.  For the rest my Kindle App is a godsend, I read and write.  I will never stop learning and that will hold true for 2018.  So be it!

I have also really gotten back into my bonsai trees.  Some of them are almost 30 years old and have been ignored for some time.  Getting back into it has been really relaxing for me and it does wonders for my brain.  However, I hate to report that I have not sailed or biked enough.  There is just not enough time in the weekend to get all my hobbies in and mow the lawn.  I live a full life, I hardly have time to watch TV.  So be it!

In my study of trees, I was struck to see how this vine strangled this tree.  In bonsai we use wire to bend branches and we are always concerned about leaving wire marks.  Well this is the ultimate wire mark.  To me it also shows that too much training or restriction is not always the best, we need to go with the flow.  Don't let you preconceived ideas restrict you!
Even politically things are looking up.  I think people are seeing and understanding that civility is important in public discourse.  After a year of twitter barrages many of the voters are saying enough is enough.   I don't care if it is left or right, what I would like to see is compromise and dialogue.  If we need to do that through the ballot box in 2018, so be it!

Finally, at home.  We celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary this year with a trip to Newfoundland.  I wrote a few posts about it in late June and July.  Celebrating those achievements and our friends will be an important item in the future. That is what will keep us young and alive.  So be it!
I do not often show pictures of me and my family on my blog, but this is the happy 40-year married couple at the terracotta warrior exhibit in Richmond this week.
As you can see, my glass is half full.  Yes, it can be better, but I appreciate what I have, and look forward to what is ahead.  So be it!
These are the 9 pictures on my Instagram site that got the most likes in 2017.  As I mentioned in my post 7 had to do with nature,  two with water and boating, two with Newfoundland,  and 6 were taken in the woods behind our home.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Forest bathing II (12/22/2017)

The other night we went out into our back yard after dark to show my wife what had excited our dogs today.  We put on our trusty head lamps and went to take a look.  Right on the other side of the fence, in our neighbor’s yard were the dismembered guts of an animal and some fir laying in the leaves.  We surmised it was most likely a rabbit or a squirrel that had become prey of a hawk or an owl.  We do have coyotes in the woods behind our home, but they would have had to jump over the fence and there was very little disturbance of the leaves; much more likely that the guts were dropped from the tree above.  I am not sure if either a hawk or an owl does not eat the guts or if they simply had their fill.  Anyway, the smell of the (rotting) guts had excited the dogs earlier in the day.

Turning around, my wife spotted two very bright emerald sparks in the leaf matter at her feet: “Wow, crystals?”  On further investigation, there was a small black spider scurrying around the leaves and the light beam from our headlamp reflected from its eyes and those were the sparkles that she saw.  It was 38˚F (3˚C) and the spider was still active in the leaf litter.  I don’t know what the little guy was hunting for, as I write in my spider blog, most spiders are hunters, but he or she was pretty safe.  Come day time the spider may become the hunted by all the birds in our back yard that scurry through the leaf litter.  As you know that makes me so frustrated watching all these people bagging leaves.  They are so important in our ecological cycle.
One of our bagging neighbors.  In addition to mining nutrients, getting rid of nutrients for birds etc, they also are exposing their topsoil to erosive forces.  Yes, they may have less mice, ticks and chiggers, but at what cost?
 I have learned a lot of things in 2018.  I have learned a new term: “Forest Bathing.”  I used to use the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” and while they are closely related, I think forest bathing describes a more intimate nature experience.  You linger in nature, absorb it all, take it in.  I guess you can forest bath to take care of that nature deficit disorder; although I read that even nature wall paper on your computer screen may take care of the disorder to some extent and that is not forest bathing.

That little spider with its reflective emerald eyes was part of such a forest bathing experience.  So were the guts of a dead animal.  It can really only be 5 minutes of observations, but longer would be better.  When walking through the woods behind our home, I always discover something unique, something different; at least when I am not in a hurry (see the photos below).  Even our dog Jake finds new things.  He often happens to roll in something very stinky in these woodsWe regularly flush a barred owl in the area and now I wonder if an owl discards the guts of its prey and that is what Jake rolls in.  He also feasts on deer pellets or as we call it deer pro-biotics for dogs.  Oh well.  

Regular readers know my writings about the discoveries in woods behind our home.  I have written about Washington’s shovel.  Well, it is still there, I saw it this morning.  I wrote about the over population of deer and signs they leave behind, but just look at my keyword on deer and there is much more.

The photos below were taken on this morning’s walk in the woods.  Just a quiet slow walk, observing what is around me.  It is just great to be out there, to take it all in.  We were not in a hurry.  Jake (the dog) was apprehensive this morning, "what was daddy doing, just standing around looking at things, taking pictures and taking his time?"   We were observing.  Just read the caption with the pictures.  Go do your own forest bathing, it does not have to be spiritual or mystical to enjoy it or to learn from nature. Remember any nature is good. 

Lastly, if you enjoy this and some of my more naturalist posts, I am reading a great book by David George Haskell called “The Forest Unseen, A Year’s Watch in Nature.”  It is a great read and even this biologist is learning a lot

Most of the trees in the woods behind our home are sticks, indicating it is a fairly young forest, but this oak was able to take advantage of an opening in the canopy to spread out wide.

This pine appears to have been hit by lightning but as the next two pictures show it is holding on to life, unlike many trees that are hit do.  However there is a dead streak going up all the way.  The bark is pealed off and woodpeckers have been busy.
The dead streak going up.
And up.

I am not sure what happened to this maple but it is holding on too.  The hardwood is dead but it seems to be doing fine.  You can see the live vain thickening on both sides of the cavity.

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.