Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Fetching the Year About

A single Red maple (Acer rubrum) from April to March.

April 1856  As I was measuring along the Marlborough road, a fine little slate-blue butterfly fluttered over the chain.  Even its feeble strength was required to fetch the year about.   --Journal  Henry David Thoreau

August 1853  I think that within the week I have heard the alder cricket,--a clearer and shriller sound from the leaves in low grounds, a clear shrilling out of a cool moist shade, an autumnal sound.  The year is in the grasp of the crickets, and they are hurling it round swiftly on its axle.  --Journal  Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau lived nearly all his life in Concord, Massachusetts.  Nearly every day, he spent hours wandering its beloved woods, fields and streams.   Besides studying the behavior of birds, turtles, and other animals, Thoreau recorded detailed observations of seasonal change over many years.1  These he gradually compiled into a nature calendar. Thoreau believed he could find an essential difference--a distinctive essence--to each day of the year, and that, in creating his calendar, he was doing his part to "fetch the year about."  It was almost as if he, like the butterfly or the cricket, were propelling the earth in its march around the year.

I feel this ambition, but confine myself mainly to observing trees I encounter in my walks.2  In this I have at least two advantages over Thoreau: a pocket camera, and the accumulation of a century-and-a-half of evolutionary thought.3  I aim to know the approximate dates and the order in which my trees flower, leaf out, drop their seeds, etc. and also the varied "habits" of these different species.  I hope to observe for enough years to get a rough idea of the year-to-year variation in these seasonal changes.  Someday I might earn the right to say, "I have traveled a good deal" in Brockton."4  Already I have almost enough observations, I think, that I might be tempted--in the doldrums of early spring, say--to open my calendar a bit early, get a good grip on the universe, and try to "fetch the year about" for myself.

 The growing season begins with just a few trees (above: red, Norway, sugar and silver maples down the left margin; below: quaking aspen, river birch and alder) in mid- to late April.  (January to April across the top of the pages.  Yellow shows timing and duration of flowering, green is leaf expansion.)

 May-August. By mid-May the party has really gotten going.
Yellow is flowering, green is leaf expansion, red is fruit/seed dispersal.
The vertical bars at the bottom of the page above are precipitation.

Postscript: I intended to post this in the doldrums of late winter or early spring a year ago--a time of year when little appears to be happening in the natural world.  Instead, I was surprised to find silver maples and quaking aspen beginning to flower, and that news displaced my intended post.  (Freezing weather later on doomed these blooms.)  After this year's unusually warm February, history looks like repeating itself: the fuzzy, pussy-willow-like inner buds of quaking aspen are showing, and silver maples appear on the point of flowering.  Since freezing weather is surely still ahead, this is unfortunate; I hope it's just a coincidence to have such warm weather in mid-winter two years running.

1 His observations were detailed and thorough enough to be used by modern researchers studying the effects climate change has had on different species of plants.

2 Though I couldn't help but notice the high-pitched chittering and aerobatics of the newly-arrived chimney swifts last May 11th!

3 Thoreau read Darwin's Origin of Species shortly after it was published in 1859, and was intrigued enough to begin experiments of his own.

4"I have traveled a good deal in Concord..."  -- Walden

Monday, February 13, 2017

Kayaking the Nemasket River in Winter

With fond memories of an earlier winter river trip, I've been planning and gearing-up for a two-night paddle down the Nemasket  and Taunton Rivers.  I am fussy about the weather though (temps not much below freezing, no rain in the daytime, light to no winds), and I haven't been able to make it work so far.  Then a good snowfall put it in my mind that a day-trip would be almost as much fun, and could include the whole lower Nemasket River from a very nice launch site at Oliver Mill Park down to its confluence with the big Taunton. 

I'd been down the Nemasket once before, with son Stephen several summers ago.  It was a very nice stream, though with a good number of obstacles in the form of fallen trees and shallows.  Recent precipitation would make the river pretty high and shallows few.  Fallen trees, and maybe ice, would be the wild cards.  In summer, any obstacle we could not get around meant wading, and hauling the kayaks over or around.  In winter, wading in water over galoshes-depth would mean dangerously cold, wet feet.  This, I decided, could be dealt with by having dry clothes in a dry bag--already a given in case the kayak upset for any reason.  Any problem beyond that would mean walking out: perfectly reasonable in populous southeastern Massachusetts.

I was also eager to try taking video with a head-mounted camera I jerried from my regular point-and-shoot camera and some aluminum strap.  I had a good time playing with the resulting videos, and will inflict them all here. 

The trip begins.  Beatrice helped me launch, and later rescued me from the roadside.


The last video.  (I stopped shooting due to inadequate light well before I ran into real trouble.)  I spotted a swimming muskrat, and several muskrat trails in the ice.  The video ends with the kayak wedged among rocks, but I eventually got free and recovered my paddle.

The trip began later than it should have.  I was able to maneuver around (or over) the trees and through some of the thinner, slushier ice, but more solid ice finally defeated me.  As darkness began to fall, I did finally walk out after completing about three-quarters of the trip, leaving my beloved home-built kayak Serendipity on the bank.  It was a quarter-mile slog through shin- to knee-deep snow in brush, swamp, meadow and woods in darkness to get to the nearest road: it turns out there are out-of-the-way places even here!  When it warms enough to melt the ice, I'll walk back in and finish the trip.

Postscript: boat rescued!  My son and I walked back to the river; he found the boat where someone else had carried it.  We paddled about three more miles, past the confluence with the Taunton River, and then to an overpass, where we pulled it out on the upstream side to avoid rapids below.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Oppose Scott Pruitt for EPA

I have opposed and still oppose Donald Trump on many levels--and for a host of reasons.  I exercise my rights as an ordinary citizen as best I can.  But in some things I have the special responsibility that comes from expertise.

 I am a science teacher trained in the biological sciences, and so know more about the workings of science in general and living things in particular than the average Joe.  I plainly know more about them than Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Trump's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency.  Granted that it might be difficult to find an environmental scientist willing to take the job.  But whoever leads EPA ought to be conversant with the philosophy and methods of science, and able to apply scientific findings to the writing and modification of environmental safeguards.  And of course he or should be committed to the protection of our environment.

I will take these two issues in reverse order.  As Attorney General of Oklahoma, Pruitt fought EPA safeguards on behalf of fossil fuel companies.  Notice: he did not fight ill-considered or overreaching regulations on behalf of the citizens of Oklahoma, whom he supposedly serves!  There might be rational arguments on both sides regarding the cost/benefit ratio for any given safeguard, but that cost/benefit ratio should be costs and benefits to the community, not to companies or industry.  In one case Pruitt sent a letter in support of legislation to ease regulations--which was actually an industry letter on which Pruitt slapped his own letter head.  Questioned about this in his Senate confirmation hearing, Pruitt justified this because he felt that industry and citizens interests were identical!

Plainly, Pruitt is being installed at EPA in order to diminish or destroy it, as the president plainly wants to do.  The point is often made that a little pollution isn't so bad if it means keeping jobs.  But jobs are always temporary, while the damage done to preserve them is much more permanent, and borne by our children and grandchildren.  Pruitt himself has commented that the EPA is no longer needed since its job is done.  He bases this, I suppose, on his belief that our air and water are adequately protected.  This is wildly at odds with the facts, since our environment continues to be degraded by development and habitat destruction, fossil fuel use, industry and its pollution, and of course climate change.  The result is an ongoing mass extinction that, if continued, may become comparable to that which wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.  

I am firmly convinced that driving a species to extinction is morally wrong (and we have done so many, many times), but I also know that humanity depends for its survival on functioning ecosystems for the "ecosystem services" that supply our breathable air, drinkable water, and food, to name a few.  And those ecosystems in turn are made up of many species of uncertain importance to the functioning of those ecosystems.  In other words, as species decline and become extinct, ecosystems become unstable; if loss of a species causes an ecosystem to change radically or collapse we belatedly recognize that species as a "keystone."  (And then mutter, "oopsie!")  A practical case of species decline directly affecting us: honeybee populations have been collapsing catastrophically for more than a decade.  There are many contributing causes, one of which is nicotinoid insecticides.  Because we depend on honeybees for much of crop pollination, this decline will cost big bucks--maybe that will get people's attention, and we will ban these insecticides!

I've saved the most serious issue for last.  Even a cynical industry shill like Pruitt might become convinced he had to act on behalf of citizens if science clearly said so--if in fact he believed in science.  Pruitt had a reputation as a climate-change denier, and  showed a complete lack of conviction in discussing climate change during his confirmation hearing, looking like a man only saying the right things in order to get the job.  Scott Pruitt's reluctance to credit the science of climate change shows a profound lack or understanding of how science works.  An anti-science feeling seems to have pervaded a large part--perhaps even the majority--of the Republican Party, and this is very very, scary to the rest of the world.  These people seem to believe that science is arrived at by scientists debating their opinions--probably opinions informed by political positions.

In fact, science proceeds on the basis of objective evidence, corroborated (or refuted) by the work of many other researchers, and built into the strong, dynamic structure that is our understanding--built up over decades and centuries--of how the universe works.  

It is true that scientists are human, have their own opinions and failings.  That's why the conclusions reached by workers in one lab are not taken very seriously until the same results can be replicated in other labs.  The "scientific consensus" that climate change is occurring and that human activity is at least partly responsible is the result of a great many measurements and experiments done by highly-trained scientists all over the world over decades.  That consensus is the surest and most reliable information we have about climate change.  The very idea that any person put his opinion up against knowledge arrived at so rigorously is ludicrous.  It would be as if you disputed the verdict of the dealership on what was wrong with your car--when you know nothing at all about cars.  (In fact, that example doesn't begin to be strong enough.)  The only way Pruitt would not look so ludicrous in his own eyes is if he simply didn't understand how science works.  No one with that depth of ignorance can be put in charge of an agency so important in protecting us all--not to mention millions of our fellow species.

As I have said before, science is the surest way we have of knowing anything, since it is far more rigorous than any other department of knowledge.  

For all these reasons, Scott Pruitt must be opposed for EPA chief when he is up for a vote by the full Senate on Wednesday.  PLEASE call your Senators and register your disapproval today!