Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Introvert in the woods (4/24/2018)

Of late, I have been wondering whether I am really an introvert as all the tests I have taken tell me I am.  For one, people close to me (my wife, daughter and friends) wonder about the same thing.  I tell them that I have learned to fake being an extrovert.  In my not so far distant past, being an introvert was really not a problem.  I was a field biologist and just doing field surveys alone or with a partner was just fine with me.  However, as my seniority and responsibility increased I became a manager; I had to go market my and my team’s skills, and that was difficult.  I had to learn to be an extrovert.  Honestly, I sucked at marketing and I really was never very successful.  

Now I am an instructor for the state.  When push comes to shove, this is not really a dream job either for an introvert.  But, I love teaching and love what I do.

Being an introvert does not mean that you do not like to talk to people or that we are anti-social.  Every person needs human interaction and so do introverts (well, unless you're the unabomber or so).  However, we introverts also need a lot of recovery time or me-time, as described in this blog.  

For example, I am literally exhausted after a day of (solo) teaching and that is not only because I stand in front of 20 to 40 folks and talk about stormwater or erosion and sediment control.  I usually give it my all, faking being an extrovert and be out all the time.  A recent student wrote on an evaluation: “Jan is dynamic and lively and the only person who is able to make a boring subject like stormwater and erosion and sediment control interesting and fun.”  As my supervisors describes it, I leave it all out there.  So, as you can imagine, when I am done teaching or interacting with people, I need to be alone, I am tired; for me I need that balance between human interaction and alone time, it is very important.  
Just to be out there, communicating with the trees, touching them, kissing them and through them, grounding myself with the earth.  This is so calming and it gives me balance in life.
My alone time is best spent outside hiking in the woods; sailing on my boat; or on the water in my kayak.  Alone would be great, but with my loved ones is great too, as long as they do not expect me to talk too much.  I just like to be in my own thought's.  As I mentioned in some of my previous posts, when I am sailing, I cannot think about much else than staying on course, the wind, keeping the wind in the sails and not running aground.  A little wind and a heel is absolutely exhilarating.  Kayaking is different, trying to cross a somewhat larger body of water when it is windy requires concentration, but some of the trips we have with friends where we have a flotilla of 10 or more kayaks is just plain fun.  Although, even there everyone is on their own and has to concentrate on the trip.  

But walking in the woods, just taking it all in, lingering among the trees, on or off the trail, exploring and absorbing nature is also very important to me.  John Muir wrote: "In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks."

Nature is where we all came from isn't it?
 We may now live in our wooden, or concrete structures and move through the world in our iron carriages, but in the not so far distant history our forefathers lived of the earth and moved on foot through nature.  They needed to be aware of their surroundings, the subtleties out there, otherwise they became saber-tooth tiger dinner.  

One of the things that upsets me the most is that is seems that nowadays when a kid is naughty the parents punish them by shutting down their computer or X-box or take away their smart phone and sending them outside.  In my days we were playing outside and punishment was going to your room.  Going outside and into the woods should not be punishment, it sends the wrong message.  But then on the other hand, breathing in the healing forest air may actually have calming effect on a kid or on people in general as I describe in some of my posts.  It brings me down, lowers my adrenaline and helps me center after having to step out and be a whole day among people faking to be an extrovert.  

Just early in the morning, on my way to work I drive and sometimes stop by Yorktown beach to take in nature, the water and everything around it.  This gets me ready for my day.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Species diversity (4/13/2018)

I am reading an interesting book, in it the author discusses how by the end of the 1700 people started doubting the creation story in the bible.  By that time, explorers and naturalists had fanned out all over the world and the sheer number of different species blew them away.  For example, the Duchess of Portland, Margaret Bentinc was a species collector and purchased samples from naturalists who returned from their exploratory travels. At her death she had thousands of species.  It seems that the auction of her collection in 1785 lasted 38 days.

It was therefore no surprise that around the 1800, people were starting to wonder how all these species could have fit on Noah's arc, let alone travel from all over the world to get there on time.  You get the message.  In a way, this together with what they found in the fossil record made them ready for a person like Charles Darwin.

No, I don't want to argue evolution in this post, but just the diversity of species in the woods behind my home. Although, I could talk about evolution to some extent since one of the plants back there is running cedar or ground pine (Diphasiastrum digitatum).  This plant is actually considered one of the older species alive in our area.  It was most likely here when the dinosaurs were roaming around.  How do we know?  Well, it is in our fossil record.   In addition, it has a very primitive way of sexually reproducing.  It actually produces spores (that used to be collected for use as flash powder) that, once they fell on the soil, grew subterranean and developed male and female parts.  The male parts would release a sperm cell with a tail and swim to the female part to fertilize it.  The sperm cell could only do that when it and the female part were submerged in water or had a water drop on it.  Only after fertilization did you get a plant that emerged out of the ground.  

That is pretty primitive isn't it?  Later on in evolutionary time, plants found a much more efficient way of doing this which was to produce pollen and make us all sneeze.  Only us animals never figured a better way to do it.  Or, maybe we did ... the male animals developed an organ (a.k.a. penis) to deposit the sperm cell pretty darn close to the egg cell or at least in an environment where it is nice, warm and wet and thus easy swimming for those little guys; no rain drops needed.

Running cedar is not the only evolutionary old plant in the woods behind our home.  Ferns are also among the oldest species, and actually they breed the same way as running cedar, through spores.  A minor exception is that their spores turn into moss and a lot of the moss we see is actually ferns that are waiting for the correct moment to get fertilized and become real ferns.  They all have the male and female parts and if a water drop (or more) would straddle a male and female sexual organ a sperm cell would also swim over and kaboom, we would get a new baby fern plant growing right in the middle of the moss.  This has happened in my bonsai pots, to my frustration, where I thought I had a nice moss carpet.  I also saw it on a bonsai channel I was watching on YouTube.  

Botanists have therefore lumped the ferns and the running cedars into one group called the Pteridophytes or plants that reproduce via spores.  Walking behind our home I often see Christmas fern, royal fern, cinnamon fern, New York Fern, lady fern and sensitive fern (6 different species). 

I think this is enough species diversity for one post, the Pteridophytes in the woods behind our home.  But just a quick update on a previous post.  The pines are in full bloom (if you are allowed to call it that).  There is pine pollen everywhere.  This means it is about on time or maybe a few days earlier than other years, even though we had a cold March.  Something to think about.  Not sure what other group of plants I'll write about next, (maybe the conifers) stay tuned!
It is pine pollen season alright (photo taken on 4/13/2018).  On my Instagram account I called it ring around the collar.  

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Law and order in the woods (4/3/2018)

I have joined a (sermon) writing class at my Unitarian Universalist Church (which is probably why I did not post anything in March). While one of my fellow writers is absolutely hilarious while at the same time being very philosophical, we are all different but good in our own way. Although I feel that they are in a different league (much higher than me), I have had a chance of surprising my fellow writers by some of my experiences and thoughts. I am of course am the naturalist of the group and have been milking experiences like being bit by a moccasin and the quote by John Muir about passing between two pines and entering into a different world that I used in my previous blog post. It will be something that I will be using in my sermon if I ever get brave enough to give one.

Brave enough may be a stretch, truth be told, as a teacher I stand in front of a class one to two days a week and often feel that I am not a teacher, but a motivational speaker. I am such a strong believer in doing right to the environments and in environmental ethics, in particular for future generations that I have no problem getting in front of people and talking about that at length. As I have often written, we as intelligent beings on this blue marble in space have the responsibility to keep it livable for our and future generations; simply said, there is no other place to go.

After my day-long solo workshops I often get an applause. It is the best feeling when one or two of my students come to me at the end of the class and shake my hand, thanking me for such a great instructive class. I honestly feel that maybe I have inspired at least those one or two errand souls to do right to the environment. However, I am told that I will need to read my sermon and as a dyslexic that can be a challenge. I am not afraid of public speaking, but I am afraid of public reading.

My fellow spiritual writing students are amazed when I tell them that I escape to nature to get some order in my life; that I do this to get away from this absolutely out of control society. The group (everyone is over 35 years old) looks at me like I am crazy. They see a jumbled mess of branches, crap on the forest floor, and more junk, while I see order, predictability, rhythm, peace and quiet. This difference in seeing and experiencing things really amazes them, as well as me.

Look at the rhythm of all those tree trunks, the repetition, yet different structure. 
So let’s look at it. Trivial as it may be it starts out with the sun coming up every morning, with the days lengthening in spring and shortening in fall. Seasons are so important in nature, but so is day length or even the color of the light hitting the seed. For example, in the past two years I have complained in my blogs about the pine pollen (on the 18th and 19th of April on two consecutive years). We had such a weird spring this year, so I wonder when it will be this year; stay tuned. But even after such a cold March my recent walk in the woods show that the buds or candles in the pines are starting to grow, so pollen season cannot be far behind. The water in the ponds behind our home comes up in late fall, early winter, to peak in early March and then to recede and dry up by July. This is what makes it possible for the salamanders and frogs to breed in these pools; although this is the second year that we have not heard many of them. Hopefully some of the things described in Elizabeth Kolbert’s book entitled “The Sixth Extinction” isn’t playing itself out behind out home. In one of the chapters of the book she describes how environmental pollution is reducing the reproductive success of amphibians like frogs, toads and salamanders. The trees in the pond have a yellow pollen ring around them from the flowering maples. This ring will become more intensely yellow when the pines drop their pollen.

Spring is coming, this high bush blueberry is starting to bloom and spreading its pollen 
When looking at trees in a forest, you will see that the canopy of trees will usually barely touch and that they generally will not intertwine. Yes there are exceptions, but they will tend to give each space. As I mentioned previously, plants will wait for a hole to open up and then they will pounce. They have a chemical called phytochrome to thank for this. I have written before about self thinning in the woods. There is a very specific rule, the ⅔ rule or the self thinning rule that guides this. Foresters use this when they mechanically thin the woods. The phytochrome also helps seeds to “see” that there is an opening in the canopy. When there are leaves on the trees, the light hitting the ground is green. When a tree falls over and there is a hole, the light becomes more red (less green). The phytochrome in seeds can detect this and this can be a trigger in the seed to start germinating. Even in spring it may tell some of the seeds that it is spring and a may be a good time to try to germinate instead of summer when the leaves are on the trees.

Some trees practice mathematics in a different way. They may have a orderly distribution of branches. If you look at how a branch comes off a trunk and examine where the first branch is located on that particular branch, the next one may come of about ⅔ the original distance past that (or the first branch come off at 3 feet from the trunk, the next one will come off at 2 feet or 3 + ⅔ x3 feet, the next one would be 2/3x2 or 1.3 feet after the previous branch, etc. (yes there is lots of math in the woods, wow). In addition, branches are rarely thicker than the trunk or branch they branch come off. The only time that I have seen this happen was in New Mexico when I was studying mistletoe infections in Douglas fir and branches that were infected with mistletoe were much thicker than others, often thicker than the trunk. Mistletoe produces a hormone that tells the tree to bring all the water and food to the infected branch, which is why it grows so thick.

These are not set rules, but they do frequently apply and it is fun just to walk in the woods and see if you can discover more patterns like it. There are so many more to discover, certain habits of plants, of birds or even of certain animals. For me even all those vertical trunks, that repetition of those trunks throughout the woods as far as I can see gives me a feeling of order and comfort. They are like an an ancient European cathedral with pillars and high ceilings. The sun shining through the leaves are like the stained glass windows.

To me it is so much fun to be out there in the woods; the fresh air, the patterns to be discovered, or just to be out there, meditative, deep in your own thoughts, breathing in the forest air; you name it.

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.