Monday, April 24, 2017

March for Science, Washington, D.C.


Friday morning--the day after returning from a three-day sailing adventure--an eight-hour drive to Washington, D.C., overnight with my sister-in-law's family in Falls Church, VA,* Metro to the National Mall, three hours of milling about and marching in the rain (water trickling down my sleeves as I hold my sign high) while swapping photo opportunities with other marchers, then drive back another eight hours in the night to make church the next morning.  And why?  Why drive sixteen hours in two days only to hang out in the rain with a bunch of scientists I don't know?

 The gathering itself was unprecedented: thousands upon thousands of scientists leaving the work that motivates them to march and show--what?  Solidarity?  That scientific knowledge is REAL?  That science MATTERS in the world?  That science is the only reasonable foundation for public policy?

HOW IS IT POSSIBLE THESE THINGS ARE NOT BEYOND OBVIOUS?

For decades, Congress has had a complicated relationship with the facts.  This has mainly been a problem of Republicans, perhaps because Republicans more commonly base their opinions on a conservative, traditional world-view that doesn't always take facts into account.  ("Reality has a well-established liberal bias." --Stephen Colbert)  Lately, anti-science bias has become a sort of tribal** position of the Republican Party, extending from the old bugaboo of the theory of evolution, to the more recent issue of climate change.  (The climate change debate is further complicated by the consequences for our economy of dealing with climate change in a serious way: conservatives see the needed changes to our energy use and future as a threat, and sometimes even a liberal "conspiracy.")

Climate change cases in point.  Two years ago Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) brought a snowball into the senate chamber as a visual aid to help explain that climate change isn't real.   (If you don't believe me, search "senator snowball.")  Only about a week ago, House Science and Technology chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) convened a hearing on climate change in which he hand-picked several climate scientists from the fringe three percent who doubt human-caused climate change, to debate a single climate scientist from the vast majority who don't.  (Senator Smith's science expertise? he once took a physics class--it made him feel inadequate.)  You may think Lamar Smith is an outlier, but remember that committee assignments are made by House leadership: presumably Lamar Smith remains as chair of that committee at House speaker Paul Ryan's pleasure.  EPA head Scott Pruitt, having told the Senate confirmation committee that human-caused climate change needs further looking in to, quickly reverted after his confirmation to the position that human-caused climate change isn't real.  (In this he took a page from president Trump, who insisted he would keep an open mind on the subject, but snapped it closed within days of his inauguration.)

Disregard for science--even reality itself--finds its most pathological expression in a president who, the day after his inauguration brought to bear all the influence he could muster to insist that his attendance had beaten Obama's; who insisted that his win in the electoral college had been unusually large despite readily available evidence to the contrary; who invented voter fraud on the scale of millions--denigrating the very foudations of our democracy--in order to justify his claim to have won the popular vote; who even now insists that the Russians did not interfere in the US election in direct and pointed opposition to the consensus of our own intelligence services. These are just a few of the more egregious examples.

Because of the way scientific investigation is structured and policed within the scientific community, scientific knowledge is the most reliable form of knowledge that exists.  There simply is no other type of knowledge that is as rigorously tested, cross-checked and critiqued as science is.  That does not make science perfect; it simply means that any other kind of knowledge is far less perfect.

Stopping for pizza for a hungry teenager allowed me to see more people
and signs than I otherwise would have.


*(Brunch the high-point of our visit: thank you niece Rachel and friend Bella!) 
**A "tribe" holds a belief as part of its identity.  Individuals hold that belief or risk being excluded from the group.  (It's human nature; but it sure complicates the search for truth!)

Monday, April 3, 2017

Ames Nowell State Park in a Nor'easter


Ames Nowell State Park had been in my mind in recent weeks, and the snow and wind of a building nor'easter reminded me that lately I hadn't seen much weather from the inside.  My job ending* Friday gave me the kick I needed, so Saturday afternoon I went for a walk there.

 I'm embarrassed to admit I didn't know Ames Nowell even existed until we'd lived in Brockton for a decade, and even then I'd never visited.  Besides being a bit out of the way of my usual rut, the park's reputation as a favorite among fishermen and dog walkers also slowed me down: I like people to appreciate nature, but prefer they do it someplace else. 

I like to preserve the possibility of adventure, even though my adventures are usually brief, tame, close-to-home affairs.  To that end I collect (low budget) Adventure Gear.  I have clothing for most of the weather I'm likely to encounter here.  One weather combination that concerns me is wet and cold, which together can become hazardous if water ruins the insulating properties that protect from cold--a situation I'd gotten into last fall.  So I took the opportunity to test a combination I hadn't: super-cheap Dri Ducks rain jacket over a medium-weight down jacket, and fleece-lined water-resistant pants from Gravel Gear.  A venerable canvas Tilley hat, kinda-waterproof, insulated gloves, and my old Lands End boots protected my ends.

The focus of the park is Cleveland Pond, a vaguely T-shaped body of water studded with islands.  American beech with pale winter leaves dangling are scattered among oaks and red maple.  Ground cover plants like prince's pine, striped wintergreen, and The forested land slopes now gently, now more steeply to the narrow pond that stretches on the west, islands of different sizes visible through the mist.  I took the trails that stayed closest to the water, making my way across the top of the T and back.  There were no tracks save mine, and those of one coyote or unaccompanied dog.  Precipitation couldn't make up its mind between rain, sleet and snow, but the temperature was always above freezing.  The walk was nice, though trails had become running brooks difficult to negotiate with leaking boots.

The rocky pond shore is shot through with trails that become streams, pond views, and clothed with forest with scattered American beech whose tan leaves last through the winter. 

Bridges are nice, but the folks who planned them didn't always know where the water would be.

American holly is more of a southern tree, but I see them around now and again.

Chimaphila maculata (above) and Gaultheria procumbens (below) are plants of long-undisturbed woods.  Though not closely-related, they are both often called "wintergreen."  Better names are spotted pipsissewa and American teaberry.  (Leaves and berries of teaberry have a mild minty flavor.)

Lycopodium dendroideum, prince's pine, is another plant of undisturbed woods.
Despite needle-like leaves, it is a spore-bearing plant--like ferns--rather than a conifer.

This may be a vernal pool that dries out in summer: since they do not support a fish population, vernal poos are refuges for frogs, salamanders and the like. 
A "hollow."  How do these distinctive landscape features form?

A silver maple that bloomed weeks ago is loosing its spent male flowers in the wind and sleet.

I took video of pond views, trails both dry and running with water, trees, and "hollows."  (The black borders that appear and disappear are the computer's attempt to compensate for my shaky hands.)

I aim for the "slightly-disreputable" look.

Outer clothing.  My next task is to figure out how to repair boots, which I cannot afford to replace.

My clothing got passing grades--except for boots that are coming apart.  My Dri Ducks--jacket and pants made of water-resistant paper and coming packed in a pouch for emergency use--are probably not very durable, and would not do for bushwhacking though briars, but serve well enough for those rainy occasions when carrying an umbrella isn't possible: say, when sailing or kayaking, or hiking in close woods.  (You need to be careful around briars.)  My lined pants are really nice: I wear them now whenever out in cold weather, and they didn't let much rain through.

*Not traumatic, mind you: I'm a substitute teacher, so my jobs usually only last two or three months before I'm on the prowl once more. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Essential Differences

Heard a bluebird about a week ago.  There are very few phenomena which can be described indifferently as occurring at different seasons of the year, for they will occur with some essential difference.  Journal, Nov 3, 1853

Henry David Thoreau's attempt to made a detailed seasonal nature calendar was probably doomed.  After my own "years of observation," I am astonished at how variable events can be.  Not only do the early-blooming trees vary year to year by more than a month, these trees have not been varying together, but each following its own mysterious impulses.

Henry David Thoreau is well-known among modern naturalists for his close, systematic, and long-continued observation of nature in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts.  Among his ambitions was to record the events of nature precisely enough to predict--almost on a daily basis--the flowering and fruiting of plants, arrival and departure of migrating birds, mating seasons, and other events of the season.  Although Thoreau's interests varied from year to year (one year he hatched and followed snapping turtles), he did one concentrated, conscientious "year of observation" around 1852 in which he determined to record every seasonal event.  He was building his own version of the seasonal calendars that were popular at that time.

I have been doing my own "years of observation" in my own little neighborhood over the last three years or so.  The wild swings of the last few springs have convinced me that nature is predictable only within wide limits.  Last year the warm winter brought out the early-blooming trees far earlier than the year before.  This year we had another warm winter--one of the warmest Februarys on record worldwide, and definitely the warmest ever in this region--and I looked for the same trees to bloom at about the same times as last year.  To my surprise, some bloomed earlier, but some bloomed later.  So nature is still less predictable than I'd thought. 

Silver maples began blooming April 4, 2015, but February 29, 2016 and February 23 this year!

Quaking aspens bloomed around April 10, 2015, but March 26th, 2016, and was in full bloom before March 22 this year.

 Red maples bloomed April 15, 2015, but March 11, 2016, and is just beginning to bloom as I write on March 25th.  (Males above, females below.)

But maybe it's better this way.  A predictable Nature would be a boring Nature.  In truth, the closer you look, the more Nature remains full of surprises.