Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world (2/21/2018)

It was Henry David Thoreau who wrote: “When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most impenetrable and to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum… I seemed to have reached a new world, so wild a place…far away from human society. What’s the need of visiting far-off mountains and bogs, if a half-hour’s walk will carry me into such wildness and novelty.” There is such a richness in this phrase that I want to sit back and take it apart.

The words “recreate myself” did he mean recreation as going on vacation or what we do in the present like going for a walk. Or, on the other hand, did he actually wanted to start from scratch and reinvent himself; did he have enough of it all and start all over again? Is this the same concept?

What did he do? He entered nature; the darkest woods, the thickest, and most impenetrable. Something he calls a sanctum sanctorum that is far away from human society, but only a half hour away.

It seems though, that this is what Thoreau needed to recharge when he needed to get away from the craziness of the world and everything around him. It is in those woods that he had his cabin and spend a year as a monk living and observing and writing about the novelty.

Nina Beth Cardin wrote in the Bay Journal about her changing views of nature, which she calls enchantment. Her love deepened after learning more about what she was actually seeing in her back yard. As she describes it the trees, lichens, fungi, and later on from splitting and burning wood.

The phrase “Knowledge is Power” is often attributed to Francis Bacon, and readers of my blog know that I have quoted him (and this particular phrase) before, but I think Ms. Cardin shows evidence of that. A deeper knowledge and understanding of what you see often enhances the enjoyment. I am sure this is what Thoreau experienced and many others do too when they learn more about a subject. Anyway, this is one of the objectives of my blog. While I do not want to be too school-teacher-like in my blogs, I do hope that I can help some of you understand some of my love for nature, for biology, ecology and the environment in general. The other night in yoga, we had to concentrate on a word on what we wanted to think about ourselves and the first word that came to mind was educator.

Why is this so important to me? I like to mirror what Ms. Cardin quoted the botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey who wrote 100 years ago: “One does not act rightly toward one’s fellows if one does not know how to act rightly toward the earth.” I too strongly believe in the importance of the inner connectedness that we humans have with the earth and nature. When stressed and upset, going into the woods is my way of de-stressing; forest bathing is such an important thing for me. Yes there are the volatile chemicals (phytoncides) breathe in, but there is so much more. John Muir wrote: “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” When I spend time in nature I enter a different place every step I take I enter that new world and I renew, recreate inside; the worries of world slide off my shoulders.

"Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world" (John Muir)
All I can say is: go out and enjoy nature. Yes, it is more fun when you know what you are looking at, but you don’t have to. More important is to let nature come over you. You may need to protect yourself against bugs, but in most cases that is the scariest thing you'll encounter. Go ahead ask me questions about nature, I will try to answer in the hope to increase your enjoyment of nature. But remember, you can enter that new world too and it does not have to be two pines!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

It better end soon my friends (2/20/2018)

Can't stand it no more
The people dying
Crying for help for so many years
But nobody hears
Better end soon my friend
It better end soon my friend

This is the first part of a song by Chicago (Transit Authority ... as they called themselves initially) self titled first album.  The song is titled "It better end soon my friends."  This is what came to mind after the latest high school shooting in southern Florida.  No shit, it better end soon, all those mass shootings!  

The song was a protest song against the Vietnam War and the police and national guard  actions against protest demonstrations, but boy does the text of this first verse hit home.  I really liked this tune when I grew up.  Not only because I was a pacifist and anti war, but just the composition.  It was one of those long tunes they did not play on the radio.  Being a Dutchman, I initially did not listen to the words, accept maybe the first verse.  Whatever, it is still appropriate to today's situation (except with the war reference may need to be replaced by the word guns or mass murders or school shootings).

Can't take it no more
The people hating
Hurting their brothers
They don't understand
They can't understand
Better end soon my friend
It better end soon

That verse could easily talk about those nuts hunting down their fellow man in mass shooting and about the unwillingness of people on both sides of the gun control dispute to talk with each other.  Folk, we need to do something about guns, especially about these assault weapons like the AR-15.  They are not used for hunting; they are only to kill your fellow human beings, to rip off pieces of human flesh.  The argument that we need to arm teachers does not hold; can you imagine a shoot-out between a teacher holding a 9 mm handgun and a killer with an assault weapon with panicking students in between?  Especially a teacher who is not trained?  This is SWAT team work, guys.  

We need to stand up, fight the NRA and get some sane gun control passed.  The tune ends like this:

No more dying!
No more killing
No more dying
No more fighting
We don't want to die
No, we don't want to die
Please let's change it all
Please let's make it all
Good for the present
And better for the future
Let's just love one another
Let's show peace for each other
We can make it happen
Let's just make it happen
We can change this world
Please let's change this world
Please let's make it happen for our children
For our women
Change the world
Please make it happen
Come on
Come on
Come on
It's up to me
It's up to you
So let's do it now
Do it now

Yes, maybe there are war reference in the tune that do not fit into the gun argument here, but I understand that some of the gun enthusiasts see this as a war against them, which it isn't.  Suffice it to say, this is still a great tune almost 50 years old and still relevant.  There is a lot in there that still applies to today.  Folks let's do something about it and save our children.  It better end soon my friends!

p.s. I'll get back and take you into the woods behind our home soon, I promise, as long as there is no other disaster or issue that I feel the need to write about.

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