Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Agree to disagree (2/14/2018)

Our local newspaper had an article that had a saying that was attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “The people to fear are not those who disagree with you, but those who disagree with you and are too cowardly to let you know. I am not really sure if Napoleon was really the first one who said it, but that quote got me thinking. 

A good healthy fight at work never hurt anyone, or did it?
The article was about workplace arguments. It made me wonder who has not been in one, or at least seen one. I've had my share, and I want to bet that when I ask anyone who reads this blog to raise their hand who has experienced a workplace disagreement, probably 80% of you will do so. But who has said afterwards: Thanks for disagreeing with me, it has made my project stronger being able to argue with you about it. As Napoleon put it, the worst is when someone goes behind your back and tries to sow doubt about your capabilities with your colleagues or superiors without your knowledge and ability to defend yourself. A long time ago I read a book written by Stephen Covey in which he wrote that one of the thing you absolutely should try to avoid is, to “confess someone else’s sins.” That phrase has stayed with me ever since I read it; doing such a thing should really lower your stature in people’s eyes.

Truthfully, I have sinned and have been sinned against. It is so difficult not to talk about others and to confess their sins. I like to argue in my mind that I have been sinned against more than I have sinned, but is that really true?  Who am I to cast the first stone? I have been guilty as well. There is a guy at work we call Lucifer. I know he deserves it, but still. Also, when an ex-supervisor of mine heard that a certain individual was coming to work with us he warned me: “this guy is going to make everybody do his work for him; he is lazy SOB, watch out!” Well, I told my colleagues and have felt guilty ever since. They ignored me, and guess what? They are now doing his work for him and our boss is finally seeing the light and slowly putting the brakes on, after 4 years. Do I feel vindicated? No, still guilty for telling on him, and every time I get together with him I feel like embarrassed. 

But some people thrive on it. They actually get ahead in the workplace and still sleep soundly at night. Oh well.

During my international development career of the late 1970s and in the first two thirds of the 1980s, I worked in three countries with totalitarian regimes. If you are a somewhat regular reader of my posts, you know I talk about Uganda, Nepal and (North) Yemen. Of all three countries, I worked in Uganda stood out as totalitarian. It had a ruthless ruler: Idi Amin, who I wrote about before. However, Nepal and Yemen were somewhat similar. In my days a king, who called himself the reincarnation of God, ruled Nepal. We did not experience him as being too bad, but there was a communist uprising and in general, the people of Nepal were miserable under the King. There was corruption and he was also funneling a lot of money into his coffers. The president of Yemen was known to be a dictator as well and we know how Yemen turned (or is turning) out. In these three countries I saw how dangerous it was to talk behind people’s back, both in the workplace but in particular in the private life of people.

The one thing that all three countries had in common and many other authoritarian countries as well was poverty; corruption; a ruling upper class that was funneling money off society for themselves and only looking out for themselves; lack of education and literacy; suppression of free press; the development of a tremendous propaganda apparatus in support of the ruler; and a buildup of the military and police. One of the scariest things I saw in these societies was how people were divided against each other. They were encouraged to spy on each other, to tell the government about it and be rewarded for it. You were potentially even afraid of your family. Even your children, brothers, sisters or relatives that were further removed could turn you into the police or local security agency for anything you said. They would get rewarded and in the worst case it cost you your head. Just a joke about the leader could cost you your life and you could end up cut up in a cardboard box in a sugarcane plantation or being fed to the crocodiles in the Nile as regularly happened in Uganda at the time. Everybody was afraid of each other.

What I will be showing you here are three photographs taken in the countries that I worked that show the opposite of arguments.   The first one here is from Uganda when we visited the home of friends in the village.
This picture was taken in Nepal of our firend Warren and me at a tea shop on the trail during one of our treks.
An nice idyllic picture of us camping with friends at the beach on the Red sea in Yemen.  The weather was always nice and the water was always warm (almost too warm).  We just hung mosquito netting between two palm trees and that's how we slept.

In these three or other totalitarian countries Napoleon’s words really ring true. It is better to argue with people about life, politics etc. and then part either as friends or agree to disagree, than to run to a higher authority or someone else and tell on them. Or maybe it is better not to talk about these issues at all. The results in some cases can be deadly. Actually it was better to shut up and keep all those thoughts to yourself and not say anything. Beware, when talking to your spouse, there may be someone sitting outside the door or window listening in (as we experienced in Nepal but that is a different story).

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Winter in the woods (2/6/2018)

It has been a cold January this year. In the newspaper this week people are complaining about their electricity bills; their heat pumps worked overtime. Our utility bills were not that bad, since we partially heat with wood and have gas heat.

The cold weather provides great opportunities to go walking out back in the woods or as we call it the outbacks.” We had good snow (especially for our area) and we are still talking about investing in some cross country skis, but we already have so many hobbies.

Jake is ready to go for another walk in the snowy woods behind our home.  I took this picture sometime in mid-January after another snowy day.

From the looks of it, I am sure that almost all but the weakest trees in the woods behind our home will have had no problem surviving the cold spell. They are well prepared for events like this. For one, it is not that this has never happened before, temperatures around 4 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Many of the trees are well over 50 years old, so they have seen this before. Moreover, it has been cold over evolutionary time, and the parents or grandparents of these trees went through cold spells like this, survived it and were able to reproduce. In other word, “been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.” It is what Darwin called “survival of the fittest.” The plants that survived historic cold spells survived, and produced offspring and they just went through this year’s wimpy cold spell.

Another good thing was that the cold snap happened in January, just when you would expect something like this to happen. The plants were in full dormancy. It might be a different story when this happens in November, March or April. Plants prepare themself for this by dropping their leaves and raising the sugar content in the cells. By doing so, the sugar acts like an antifreeze. Water in the space outside the cells does not have any sugar and freezes. When this water freezes it draws water out of the cells lowering the freezing point of the cell content even further. A pretty nifty system. But even if the content of the cells freeze, in preparation for winter, many plants move their DNA to the center of the cell and wrap it in fat, very much like things we wrap in bubble wrap, further insulating and protecting the most important parts from freezing and sharp ice crystals.

Even the small pine saplings seem to tolerate the cold and the weight of the freshly fallen snow.

Plants that keep their leaves, like the pines, cedars and the hollys, fill their leaves with chemicals like anthocyanins and vitamin C. Anthocyanins are also known as flavonoids which act like antioxidants. They turn the leaves dark, sometimes purplelish and as we’ll see that allows plants to do some photosynthesis when it is cold. Other plants that stay green in the winter increase their vitamin C content. Vitamin C also functions as an antioxidant. Antioxidants are important in winter since the chlorophyll in leaves will keep on capturing sunlight to make sugar, but the cold temperatures has slowed the sugar making process down to a crawl. The cells are loaded with electrons (oxidants) and plants need the antioxidants anthocyanins and vitamin C to neutralize them off. If they don’t do that, plants would be in trouble (if we humans get too many oxidants we get inflammation or worse, cancer).  Anthocyanins are important for us as well, they make blueberries purple, and they are also found in grapes, strawberries, red cabbage and other colorful vegetables.  In the plant world, anthocyanins have another function as well, it makes leaves look either unpalatable (purple) to insects or to others insects the leaves look like they are dead (not green). A good way to protect yourself from bugs.

But it has finally warmed up a bit, although it is all relative (night times around freezing and day times in the 40s and 50s). It was a great weekend to go out and explore. We just walked along the trail and decided to get off the trail at one point and bushwack over to the other side. Hoping to find something new and exciting. Somehow we are never disappointed when we do that. It was interesting to start out in an area covered with leaves of beech and swamp chestnut oak trees, going over to an area that was dominated by a mixture of loblolly pine, overcup oak, white oak and some red oak. This last area had a lot of ephemeral ponds in them as well. I never really studied the difference, or why these two areas are so different; I have to put it on my to do list.

Some interesting pictures from trees.  Not sure what happened here.  Maybe a branch that fell off and scarred over, maybe a gall, whatever, it looked like a nose to us with an eye above it.  Never a boring day in the woods. 

I have not the slightest idea what happened here but it is absolutely bizarre.  It looks like there were two branched growing on top of each other which is somewhat unnatural.  the top one was really heavy and seemed to have bent down.  Crazy.    

No, Jake is not marking the tree, just turning and coming to me.  He was fascinated by the smells around this tree.  I want to bet this hole is the home for a critter and that is what he was reacting to.

Finally, this weekend I attended a writing class at my church and we had to write haikus. I had never written one in my life, but felt inspired by my walk in the woods that morning. Moreover, my regular readers know my interest in forest bathing. No it is not a masterwork, but anyway I had fun doing it. So here I go:

I walk in the woods
A spy in the house of deer
Nature bathe over me


I breath forest air
Therefore I am a human
Walking in the woods

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Seeing the forest from the trees (1/24/2018)

Such a great expression. I am afraid the title says it all, that what many people imagine when they think about a forest: a group of trees. They see trees and they think they see a forest; however, there is so much more to it. So what is a forest? In this and in some of the next posts I would like to visit the world of forests with you, mostly by way of my back yard but with excursions elsewhere. If you are a regular reader, you have been out there with me already; in my most recent post I mentioned a few of them, but a search of my labels for forest, trees, nature deficit disorder, forest bathing, Newport News Park, and alike should you get an idea of some of the things I have written about. At the end of this post I have a list of some of the most relevant blog post where I discuss the biology or management of the forests behind our home. For the rest, I will revisit them and some new subjects.
I took this photograph on December 15 in the woods behind our home and to me it symbolizes the title of this post "seeing the forest from the trees." There are a lot of trees out there.

It was fascinating to see that the word “forest” and the word “foreign” seem to have the same root, they come from the Latin word “foris” which seems to mean outside. Boy here we can dive head first into the politics of today here already but I will restrain myself. This evolved to “forestem silvam” or "outside wood" and to the French “forĂȘt” translated as woods or forest. But as you see, it has to do something to do with wood (trees perhaps) and the outside. However, I do want to revisit the word foreign. I do think there has been this inherent fear of forests (hylophobia), or the dark forest especially at night or nyctohylophobia. We also have dendrophobia and xylophobia. Dendrophobia is the fear of trees and xylophobia is not the fear of xylophones but the fear of wood (wow doing research is fun).

Nyctohylophobia, it seems that according to a survey 18% of the U.S. population are afraid of dark wooded areas, while 41% would not want to spend time out alone at night in the woods. Not surprisingly women find the dark woods more scary than men (I got this information here). We all grew up with stories of big bad wolves living in the woods, and witches that imprisoned Hansel and Gretel. It is also where the criminal characters seem to hide. I learned this fascinating story how escaped slaves hid in the Great Dismal Swamp and created whole communities called maroons. They actually lived there relatively peaceful and sheltered away from the slave/bounty hunters until the end of slavery, no one dared to venture into the dark swampy woods.

I know the feeling, as a field biologist I felt apprehensive every time that I entered a stretch of forest for the very first time, never really sure what I would encounter. The slight feeling of fear would usually ebb away very quickly once I broke through the boundary of the woods and got into the interior and it was replaced with my curiosity and love for the area. In addition, we sometimes go night hiking in the woods behind our home (don’t tell the park rangers please). Yes, there is always this heightened alertness, a somewhat faster beating of the heart and that wonderment of wonder how many eyes are looking at us that we are not seeing. I particularly remember an early morning (5 am) hike, walks during snow storms, and a few hikes at night in the snow at full moon; they were exciting but scary to start with.
A photo I took during our evening "snow storm" hike in the woods behind our home. I used the head lamp to light-up the subject, although we hardly ever turn the lamp on. I really don't understand people who walk their dog at night with a flashlight, that would make me night blind and I just love to see the stars, clouds and even the deer trying to sneak away out of the yards.

I took this picture of our do Lucy during my 5 am hike through the woods. I used the head lamp again only to take this picture, going out is was dark, but it was so energizing. On the way back it was getting light.

The woods behind our home can be classified a number of ways: bottomland forest, coastal plain forest, mixed coniferous forest, you name it. Originally, they were not unlike some of the area of the Great Dismal Swamp. They were cleared in early colonial time to grow tobacco and then to fight all kinds of revolutionary and civil war battles. But does it all really matter? Parts are now a nature preserve and our yard runs into it. As I discussed in various posts the preserve was established for the Mabee salamanders which is an endangered species. These guys need ephemeral or vernal ponds and the woods behind our home are littered with them; we call them Grafton ponds.

Some of the common woody species we have back there include loblolly pine, Virginia pine, red maple, white oak, overcup oak, willow oak, black gum, tulip trees, tupelo, hickory, beech, sassafras, sourwood, holly, dogwoods, and blueberry. There are also a lot of ferns and a smattering of other plants. From the looks of it, these woods are approximately 50 to 100 years old. There are a few large trees around, a few oaks, tulip trees, and beech trees.

We have lived in our current home since 2000 and spent time in the woods ever since. It is a bit buggy out there in the summer months, and regretfully, we spend too little time back there in the period between mid-April and late September. Early spring there are too many ticks to be replaced by mosquitoes in the summer and early fall and supplemented by chiggers in August and September. Every year I promise myself to spray my legs, pants etc and ignore these critters and keep on enjoying the woods, but I just hate the smell of these sprays, and I hate having to leave the dogs at home; but they would be covered by ticks. I have gone out at times and I still love it, but if you have ever been bitten by chiggers, you know. We also bike through it so now and then in summer and that is a way to avoid them. Having said it, I do have a lot of experience with these and other forests in the area, having worked as a field biologist before my current job. I miss being out there, and that is why I spend a lot of my free time in the woods.

These are the most relevant blog posts about the woods behind our home that discuss something biological, ecological or management related:

Yorktown (11/8/2013) Bugs, Nature Deficit disorder, Walks with my dogs

Yorktown (12/15/2013) Shedding of branches, Trees

Yorktown (12/31/2013) Coyotes, Mabee salamanders

Yorktown (1/11/2014) Mabeee salamanders

Yorktown Battlefield (2/7/2014) Deer

Yorktown (2/16/2014) Birds

Yorktown (3/3/2014) Evolution, Mabee salamanders, Ephemeral ponds, Vernal pools

Yorktown Battlefield National Park (3/15/2014) Decay, Natural balance, Trees

Newport News Park (3/19/2014) Owls

Newport News Park (3/21/2014) Wetlands, Headwaters, Lowlands, Nature deficit disorder

Newport News Park (3/28/2014) Frogs, Mabee salamanders

Yorktown (4/19/2014) Pine pollen, Spring

Newport News Park (10/12/2014) Mushrooms, Mycorrhizae

Beautyberry (10/14/2014) Beautyberry

Newport News Park (10/19/2014) Moss, mushroom

Newport News Park (11/18/2014) Fall leaves, tree species deer

Yorktown (12/23/2014) Lichen

Newport News Park (1/4/2015) Deer, coyotes, wolves, biodiversity

Newport New Park (1/9/2015) Trees, salamanders, ephemeral ponds, Grafton ponds

Newport News Park (2/7/2015) Trees, beech, oak, forestry, salamander

Newport News Park (2/17/2015) Succession, birds, winter wren, winter, snow

Newport News Park (3/24/2015) Forest management, deer

Yorktown (11/11/2015) Fall, leaves, litter

A walk in the woods, the naturalists have it (Yorktown, 12/22/2016) Description of the woods behind my home

Dog-hairs in the woods (3/16/2017) Forest management, thinning, politics

No, it does not have to be perfect (10/13/2017) Photos, explanations

Too many hobbies?: Bonsai lessons in the woods (11/28/2017) Trees, roots, forest management, bonsai

Leaves, leaves everywhere (12/8/2017) Litter, fall, leaves

Forest bathing II (12/22/2017) Spider, trees, deer, birds, leaves, litter

Forest canopy (1/10/2018) Trees, forest management

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.