Monday, November 25, 2013

A Moment in the Life of a Tree

Among the forgettable Norway maples making up most of the trees that lounge around my property, there are a few natives, including a tall, stately white ash.  When the wind was at its height two days ago, I found myself out in the backyard watching it sway and dance in gusts that surely topped 40 miles per hour.  I wondered how much of this the tree could take. Then I reflected on the life of a tree--a life of immobility, of standing against whatever came--unlike for most animals, for a tree there is no escape.

I don't know how old the tree is, no idea how many annual rings lie under that bark, but the tree is about two feet in diameter at chest height, and stands over sixty feet tall.  It has undoubtedly stood against dozens of storms stronger than this in its decades as a full-sized adult.  I relaxed.

How do I know she's over sixty feet?  The rake leaning against the base is six feet tall,
and I estimate the easily-measured part at ten rakes, and there is at least five or ten feet more.

Whenever you look at a big tree, you are necessarily looking at a survivor. You don't get to be a grand-dad like that if you can't take a bit of wind, the odd week of sub-zero cold, the ravages of winter moths, a month of severe drought now and again, and a few false springs that first encourage you to flower and then kill all your flowers. You don't get to be a grand-dad tree if you're merely human.



Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Citizen Science Phenology

Poking around the Web as I investigated the idea of phenology*--a preoccupation of Thoreau's and many 19th century contemporaries--I discovered that there is still data to be gathered--it's not simply a 19th century hobby--and WE CAN HELP.  The National Phenology Network (whoda thunk?) has a citizen science project called Nature's Notebook that allows anyone who is interested to enter a location they want to observe over time, choose species of plants and/or animals they want to collect data on, and then upload all this on a regular basis to their database.  The nature of the observations needed differs depending on the species.  If you were watching a white oak, for example, you would record any buds opening, leaves expanding, flowers blooming, leaves turning, and so on.  For an animal like the wooly bear caterpillar (which metamorphoses into a tiger moth), it might be the presence of caterpillars, their feeding, the presence of adults, their mating, and so on. 

Of what use is this data?  One urgent need is to track the effects of global warming on ecosystems, and because phenology records have been kept for a long time, these are particularly valuable.  (Henry Thoreau's own century-and-a-half-old records have even been pressed into service to show that spring temperatures have been arriving earlier than ever before.)  The Nature's Notebook site lists several recent discoveries made with their data.

I was so pleased to find usefulness for my interest in nature, that I immediately signed up; yesterday I uploaded my first observations.

If you'd like to get involved, here are some tips.

· Think about where you can observe (your site) that is very accessible and not too close to a building: you choose when you want to observe, and how intensively, but in times of rapid change (spring, fall) frequent observations (every few days) will be more useful in pinpointing timing. (I chose my own yard to avoid the time needed to travel.)

· When you begin to choose species to observe, you will notice that data is only being collected on certain species. (I was disappointed to discover I would not be able to enter data on my beautiful scarlet oak.) Some, called calibration species, are especially valuable to observe because they are widely distributed, and so allow comparisons over much of the US. In the case of plants, it may be valuable to observe several individuals (though not near neighbors). Of course, make sure you correctly identify what you will observe!

· Be careful not to get in over your head; choose just one or a few species to start with. (I blithely signed up for three tree species and two grasses, and was surprised to find out how long it took to observe all the details and then upload them; I'm hoping I get faster with practice!) When you have become familiar with the time commitment, you can always add more species, or more individuals of the same (plant) species.

· Finally, I had trouble getting through the site set-up process, maybe because I was using Internet Explorer; the website is optimized (I was told later) for Firefox and Google Chrome.

· Other questions you might have will probably be answered in the FAQ

To see the big picture, maybe figure out what is most needed in your area, you can use the Phrenology Visualization Tool to see where in your state and nationwide data is being collected, and on what species. (I found some surprises here.) You can even get data to analyze yourself. These pages are back at the original USA-NPN site.

NOTE that there are other citizen science initiatives that might interest you. Internet-based citizen science started years ago with Seti@home, which put idle home computers to work analyzing radio telescope data from space in search of intelligent extraterrestrial signals. A modern one I've participated in is Zooniverse, which began by putting peoples' eyes and minds to work classifying objects from the zillions of space telescope images, and which has now branched out in interesting ways. These do not get you outdoors the way Nature's Notebook will, though!

*Phenology refers to key seasonal changes in plants and animals from year to year—such as flowering, emergence of insects and migration of birds—especially their timing and relationship with weather and climate. --Nature's Notebook

Monday, November 18, 2013

Why do leaves turn color in the fall?

Poking around looking for a site on fall fall foliage, I lucked out to hit this on the first try.  It has good science, simply and concisely written.   --I know: I could take a lesson...

On the theme of blindness, today I "discovered" a scarlet oak on my very own property!  (No, at eighteen inches in diameter it isn't exactly inconspicuous, but I was never this interested in scarlet oaks until I read Thoreau, and I typically ignore my neighbor's trees; I recently realized that the property line is not where I'd thought it was, giving me a sliver more land and a few nice trees to boot!)

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Friday, November 15, 2013
Our two little dogs get a mile-long walk around the "block" most days.  Our "block" is an oddly-shaped bit of land, but the shortest loop by public roads that includes our house is an honest mile.  Lately my wife usually walks them; sometimes I do.  A week ago I decided to alter the route to take in a row of trees--oaks--still in color, so I could identify them up close then compare their foliage at a distance from home.  The dogs were overjoyed by having new places to nose around and explore and mark.

Remembering their pleasure, I decided to go in another direction last Friday.  The dogs were delighted--but so was I.  Almost instantly I was treated to new sights.  Houses of unfamiliar architecture.  A towering scarlet oak that dwarfed the front yard in which it stood.  A curiously designed housing complex.  A pretty little fixed-keel yacht in someone's driveway.  --all of this within blocks of my home.


This beauty, rising in tiers above the manicured lawn,
is about three feet across at chest height.

The experience reminded me what a rut I normally live in, taught me how unfamiliar is my own neighborhood. Tomorrow Golda, Linkin and I will explore further.

PS: I DID explore further just today.  My son Stephen came along, and obliged me by acting as a ruler, standing beside the tree so I could measure its height in a photo.  I make its height out to be about 65 feet, give or take five feet.  From a distance, it is clearly only one of several tall trees on that street.  Afterwards, we investigated new neighborhoods.

Stephen is the tiny figure in gray on the sidewalk.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Why is Sunset Red?

The sun gives off the full spectrum (rainbow) of wavelengths of light, from the longest (red) to the shortest (violet).  (We will ignore the infrared and ultraviolet also given off, since these are not visible to our eyes.)  Together, a pretty even mixture of these wavelengths appears as "white light."  Most of these light waves travel through air pretty much unchanged, but those near the violet end of the spectrum, because their short waves are similar in size to air molecules, are scattered in all directions.  That is why a clear daytime sky is blue: that blue glow is short-wave light scattered off air molecules.  As the earth rotates and causes the sun to approach the horizon, the direct light will appear reddish, since more blue light has been scattered out of it.

Now consider a sun setting behind a few clouds.  As the sun drops, the cloud tops, shining by indirect, scattered light, appear blue.  Meanwhile--at a critical moment--the bottoms of the clouds, where they get the direct light "left over" from scattering, reflect this reddened light to your eyes.  Together this color combination can make breath-taking sunsets. 

This limited time adds to the value of a sunset: the time when the angle between the sun and the earth at your location is allows the sunlight to sneak between clouds and ground lasts only a moment.  If, during a sunset you watch the sky to the east, you can often see where this moment has already past, and the clouds have gone blue, while in the east that moment is still to come.

I don't see sunsets often, because of the trees west of my home.  But I caught this sunset last evening as I was coming out of a store.  I actually regretted my impulse to get out my camera: the most glorious moment passed while I was fumbling with it, and the photo does not come close to capturing it.  I should have skipped the camera, and captured it in my memory.  Besides being "quicker on the draw" than a camera, the eye and mind can focus in on what's important and ignore distractions such as steet lights,  trees and power lines.

a nice simple source of info is:

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Kayaking Massasoit State Park

At work on Friday, I overheard a coworker recommended a pond in Massasoit State Park for canoing, and I determined to try it.  Saturday, November 3rd turned out to be unseasonably warm, so I grabbed the opportunity.  I and my middle son spent about an hour-and-a-
half on the water.  Lake Rico, less than a mile long and irregular in shape, is a beautiful place, and the fall colors made it more so. 

 The sky alone was the worth the price of admission.
A scarlet oak against white pines.
Yellow fall foliage of silver maple
(Acer saccharinum, or what Thoreau called white maple).
Identifying a few plants by fall foliage.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Venus with a Fingernail Moon

Walking into our polling place this evening, my wife pointed out one of the thinner crescent moons I've been blessed to see.  With Venus there, and a serene cloudscape, I needed a photo.  The aerial wires weren't exactly part of the plan--but I was running out of time to find a vantage point, so I grabbed the tripod and went out on our little bit of flat roof.  Not too bad for my little point-and-shoot camera, I think.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Paying Attention

Saturday, November 02, 2013

The commonplace also deserves our attention.  Taking the dogs around the block at midmorning, I came upon a red maple in full color.  I stopped, stood on the dogs' leashes, and took photos--some against the sun, others against a beautiful cloudscape, and at different distances--in an effort to capture this rarity.  Continuing on, I immediately encountered no fewer than three more, each as beautiful or more so than the first that I'd lavished attention on. 

I walk this same route regularly, yet was almost thunderstruck today by trees that must have been in their full glory on at least one earlier walk.  So what happened?  After reading in Autumn Tints, I "knew" that red maples are about the first to turn, and sugar maples only later.  I'd attended to sugar maples in full color, and then watched them drop their leaves.  I'd paid more attention to Thoreau's description of "reality" than the thing itself.  So I was surprised.  As well as paying more attention to the commonplace, I need to pay more attention, period.

The scarlet oaks I was disappointed of at Blue Hill
turn out to be fairly common in my neighborhood.
I liked the combination of colors here: sugar maple (I think) overhanging,
paper birch, then scarlet oak in the background.

Scarlet oak.