Monday, June 11, 2018

Depression sucks (6/11/2018)

Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, what news stories last week! It really bugs the cap out of me. I have a father who took his own life with a gun. He was depressed and took it out on his loved ones. I was an ocean and a continent removed, but still he did it on the day that I bought a new car to start my new job after two years of under and unemployment. I had called him the day before to tell him this and had no inkling about that he was about to pull the trigger. Did I resent him for that? Yes I did in some form or fashion. Was I hurt? Yes, I think as a family member of or close to someone who commits suicide it hurts, I'll never forget it. In a way I had expected it and had made peace with never seeing him again the last time they visited us, a half year earlier.

A number of years later I got the phone call from my brother that the person we considered one of our best friends committed suicide. My brother tried to convince me that he hurt more than I did. Who gives a shit about comparing hurt at such time or any time after that? Yes, as a younger brother he has always been in competition with me, and even in our friend’s death he tried to be better (more hurt) than me. 


A number of years ago, a good friend gave me credit for saving his life. He was about to do the same and it was me along with a few other close friends who were able to talk him off the ledge. Now every time I see a post of his on Facebook, I still let go a sigh of relief knowing he is still OK, or at least alive. I don't believe you (he) can ever be safe, but hopefully friends and family can help you (him) through your (his) darkest hours.

Growing up I learned that suicide is the most selfish thing you can do in life: “end your suffering but usually substantially increase the suffering of others.” Others say it is a cry for help, at least when people survive the attempt. I am not so sure anymore, I think that is probably mostly bullshit. It is depression, and that can be chemical but also just mental.

Depression is a scary thing, whatever the reason. I have been depressed, and have I ever thought about ending it? Absolutely, but only for a second and never really seriously. First as a teen when my parents pulled me away from my home in the sunny Caribbean and I ended up in damp cold Holland. I also thought about it at some other times in my adult life. Right now I am in a good place, so I have no worries, but I kind of know what depression is. Every time I had those thoughts of ending it, I knew they were ridiculous and would not solve anything, except solve my misery. However, I quickly realized that I would miss out on so much, or the rest of the story, and how hurt we were when our loved ones did it to us. I told myself to snap out of it. I realized that there was so much more to discover, to teach, to see, to photograph, to hobby and now to write about. I had and have so much more to say and (maybe my selfish way) to contribute to society. I forced myself to do one of those things I really enjoyed, like those I mentioned above, or some of the things I have mentioned in my blog like forest bathing, or walking in nature and exploring. It did not solve my depression instantly; yes, I stayed depressed, but every time depression set in I tried it and slowly the veil lifted and things started looking better again.

Here is a selfie of my ugly face on to of Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire.  We hiked it a couple of weeks ago.  Although the mountain kicked our ass (my knees still hurt two weeks later), it was an exhilarating thing; it lifted all our spirits, as it should.
Naturally, I had a few visits to a psychologist, I did not feel comfortable with the guy. But then I went to talk to him about another issue than depression, and he was OK in helping me with the issues at hand. For me it was a lot of working on myself and realizing that I was ridiculous and actually hurting my loved ones. I realize that I make it sound so damn easy, and it isn’t. I am also sure that I again will have periods of depression and hopefully will get through it.

As you can see, this week brought up a roller coaster of emotions for me. I still often think about my father and Rob, especially when there is another high profile suicide in the news. The first time it really hit home was when I heard about Robin Williams, although I have forgiven him, knowing what we know now. The other famous suicides will also eventually slide off my back as well. My father's suicide will never be easy to forget since he killed himself on Dr. Martin Luther King Day, January 15 and I will get a yearly reminder as long as I live.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Green Wall (6/7/2018)

Sitting in our gazebo and looking at the late May/early June woods behind our home, I am awestruck by what we euphemistically call our “green wall.” It is a pallet of different levels of green and different textures being contributed by different species of trees and shrubs. Sitting here I see a pyracantha that we are training up the gazebo. Behind it there is our red maple tree that survived hurricane Isabel in 2003 as a mere sapling, but now is a big tree. Next to it is a strange blue spruce that we got as a life Christmas tree one year and is completely out of place here in southeast Virginia. I also see azaleas, dogwoods, a redbud, a red tip, sassafras, a yellow popular (also known as a tulip poplar), white oaks, red oaks. more red maples, sweet gums, loblolly pines, American hollies, a winged sumac, beauty berries, paw paws, viburnums, one butterfly bush, a fringe tree, two magnolias, a Carolina jessamine, and a hawthorn bush. That is only in our small backyard; no wonder we had a shade garden. I am really hunting around to find sunny spots to put my bonsai trees. They really need sun to thrive. You can see that in the understory of our yard where we have a lot of ferns. However, in one sunny spot we have native sunflowers, goldenrod and milkweed. I hate to admit it, but we have a horrible invasion of Japanese stiltgrass.

Two photos from our back yard.  The bottom one gives the view from the gazebo.  As you can see it is pretty darn green out there,  with the sun peeking through the holes in the canopy, also known as sun flecks.   It is woods as far as they eyes can see.  The bottom photo may be a little fuzzy because the gazebo is screened in and I am taking the photo through the screen.
I am probably forgetting some plants in our yard, so be it. Our yard surely is not master piece of landscaping, that will come once we retire and can spend more time out there, and work on the design. But one thing will be for sure, I do not expect that we will change the aspect that our yard runs right into the woods behind our home. Having such a yard that runs into a forest, we hardly can see the edge between the two, and so does the wildlife and nature that lives in the woods behind our home. Although often frustrating, deer make our yard one of the first stopovers in their daily migration into our neighborhood. Tasty plants don’t stand a chance. Over the winter, they even pulled one of my azalea bonsais of the 5-foot-high table to nibble on. Oh well, they did to that tree what was long overdue and what I did not dare to do. In addition to all the plants and the deer, we have so many different bird species visiting our little plot; we have skinks everywhere, frogs, toads, a couple of snakes, bunnies, turtles, squirrels, mice, moles, voles, just to name a few. And let’s not talk about all those daddy longlegs that are out there in our yard right now.
This is the azalea bonsai that was pulled of the table this winter.  It is currently blooming, but as you can see the left side was completely defoliated by the deer that got to it before I got to the deer.  Anyway, the defoliation is probably long overdue.
But one thing is for sure, the green wall in our back yard is in contact and communication with the woods behind our home. Others in our neighborhood have cut all the trees in their yards, turned their yards into managed lawns, hit them with fertilizers and pesticides. They created a biological and ecological desert.

In his wonderful novel “The Overstory” Richard Powers writes a short story about a Ph.D. student who discovers how plants communicate with each other by releasing volatile chemicals in the air, warning each other of pending insect attacks. She gets vilified by the establishment to be proven correct years later after she has dropped out of science. While this is just a story or fiction, it probably comes very close to how communication between plants was discovered. It seems that the Soviet scientist Boris Tokin was the first to describe in the 1920s and 30s that trees gave off volatile chemicals. Boris had an inkling that this was for self-defense, but I do not think for communication between plants or as he called them “phytoncides.” On a side note, it seemed he was an interesting character and being a politically correct communist, he published about his effort of integrating the philosophies and thoughts about Darwin, Marx and Engels. As I mentioned in previous posts, researchers in Japan, among them Tomohide Akiyama and Dr. Qing Li discovered in the 1980s that some of these phytoncides were actually beneficial to humans and introduced the world to the concept of “forest bathing” or “shinrin-yoku.”

But it is not only through the air that plants communicate. We are finding that even through the roots and by way of mycorrhizal fungi plants can communicate with each other over large distances and even exchange messages and even food like carbohydrates with each other in times of need (watch this great YouTube video). I would therefore not be surprised if the trees or the plants in our yard are communicating with the others in the woods. I also wonder if people who put all those pesticides on their lawns, in particular fungicides are severing those connections and isolating the few remaining trees on their properties; making them weaker and more susceptible to insects and diseases, let alone weakening them by pumping chemicals into them.

I guess for right now I will not be able to prove any of this, but all I know, our backyard teams with biodiversity: the trees, shrubs, animal life, and as I described in one of my posts even the little spiders with their iridescent eyes that reflect light from our headlamps at night. I know that our backyard looks pretty darn healthy (with the exception of the stiltgrass); it has not seen many chemicals in a very long time and it seems that nature is thanking us.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The "Wild West" (5/20/2018)

During the past five weeks I had three trips to the western part of the state.  Truth be told, I really enjoy going out there, were it not for the long drive.  Folks in my office joke about it, how I supposedly like it out there.

First it was a drive to Christiansburg for a meeting, followed by a trip to the Roanoke area to teach two days.  This past week I spent four days in the Abingdon and Bristol area of the State, in other words the far western part.  This was again to teach, but since it is such a long drive I need to have a day of travel before and after the classes.


My visit to Christiansburg included some field demonstrations like this hydroseeder.  It was a cold day and I thin I ended up catching laryngitis that day.
It was particularly this last trip that I enjoyed a lot.  For one I was not in a hurry to get in the car and drive back.  I could therefore take my time to enjoy my surroundings.  I did my obligatory microbrewery visits, one I have visited a few times, in Abingdon, the Wolfhill Brewing Company; and a new one, Studio Brew in Bristol, Virginia.  Studio Brew might be the far western brewery in Virginia.


In addition to having the corporate party, it was open mic night at Wolhill brewery.  This guy was actually pretty good. 
At Wolfhill I was kind of lonely.  I just sat on a bench had a beer, ate my tacos for dinner and watched people.  Nothing wrong with that; being an introvert it can be nice to people watch.  There was an office party and whether she was the organizer, the office butterfly or more, I don't know, but this one lady was hugging all the men and being very nice.  Just interesting to see. It was also obvious who the boss was.  My guess it was either a law or an engineering firm.

At Studio Brew I had a great talk with the the owner brew master.  They make great food and some really interesting beers.  I just had a wonderful relaxing time after teaching a whole day.


This is the interior of Studio Brew.  These guys make some interesting high alcohol brews, and being so close to bourbon country a few barrel aged ones.  I was impressed!
Actually, when done teaching I did not run out to the bar.  Abingdon is such a great place!  It is situated at one end of the Virginia Creeper Trail.  This trail is a rails to trail park and the first thing I did after teaching was to get out on the trail, walk to mile marker 1 and then back to the car.  Most of the walk is through nature and fields.  It is nice and relaxing 2 mile walk.  It is a great way to come down after being up for 6+ hours or so.  At this time of the year the native cherry trees were in bloom and it rained cherry petals (something we don't have in coastal Virginia and I miss from living in the mid-west).  It was so nice to walk on the trail, look at the plants and trees growing along the trail, breathing in nature, after being cooped up in a class room all day.  Please don't misunderstand me, my students were great.  It was great to interact with them and it was so rewarding when they came up to me after the class to shake my hand and thank me for traveling all the way out there to give them the workshops.


Just a picture of a tree on the Creeper trail.  I really enjoyed the walk and some of the views, although there seems to be a huge construction project going on right next to the trail.
On the way home I could not help myself and stop over in Draper to go for a brief walk on the New River Trail.  This is an other rails to trail park that I have written about in the past.  It is one of my favorite and I quickly went for a 1.8 mile walk.  So nice to be out in nature, in the mountains.  In summary, three nights, four days, two microbreweries and three walks in nature.  The fringe benifits from being on the road; let my colleagues think I am partial to the mountains.  It is really not that bad there in the "Wild West."


Last but not least a miscellaneous picture from the New River Trail.  Very lush and green, although sections of the trail are invaded by Chinese privet, which is not really not a good thing!





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.