Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Battle is Joined,

The Enemies: English ivy (above) and vinca major.

 the die is cast, I have taken the field, and there is nothing to fear but fear itself.  I have begun to kill alien invasives. 

This follows a decade of neglect that began when my old love of sailing reignited, and became a passion for boatbuilding and making small sailing voyages.  Since finishing a twenty-foot two-masted sailboat in 2005, I have built an eleven-foot pram dinghy, a sixteen-foot two-seat kayak, a fifteen-foot enclosed cabin pram sailboat, and a skin-on-frame single-seat kayak.  Along the way, I sailed every part of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, much of the south coast of Massachusetts and Buzzards Bay, and made several trips to off-shore destinations like Block Island, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, Provincetown on Cape Cod, and Montauk, Long Island.  I've paddled and sailed nearly the entire Taunton River  Many of these trips lasted several days.

And when I wasn't sailing I was planning to sail, doing boat-building or maintenance, experimenting with improvements in boat or gear, or simply dreaming of sailing or paddling trips.

But lately my attention has turned back ashore as sailing opportunities have been curtailed by my need for summer employment and the necessities of family life.

And so I have begun once more to take my Wild Place in hand. 

When we first bought the property over fifteen years ago I--in my pride of ownership and environmental consciousness--determined to make it a worthy bit of urban nature.   I tore up the garden strip against the south side of the house and put in native grasses and forbs.  The back woods were bigger, so a bigger challenge.  My whole attention at that time was to do mortal combat with the English ivy that covered everything, and I put time into the project over several summers.  Then I put a few meadow plants into one clear spot, hoping for enough sunlight to keep them alive. 

But the meadow failed, and the woods were gradually overrun by ivy, and now also vinca.

Now I know a bit more than I did then.  I recognize Norway maple as a true invasive (rather than just an alien nuisance), I have spotted European buckthorn out there, and I have watched the vinca invade more and more.  I am now ready to put the Nature back into it, though at the cost of losing the true Wildness.  It is going to be a "managed" or "modified" natural place.  

Results of early battles.

 Standing wearily amid the dead, sword (figurative) hanging limply at my side.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

When is "Wild" not "Natural"?

Feeling a renewed proprietary interest in my little Wild Place, I am considering a plan to make it a bit more natural, if not wilder, than it is now.

The little bit of wood at the pointy back end of our wedge of land has little of beauty although the neighbors have a few nice trees.  Without any fence or other visible boundaries, I can enjoy the neighbor's trees almost as much as my own, they lending character simply by their nearness.  But two of the prettiest of these, twin red oaks of respectable size for the city, died some years back and both have fallen, leaving the lot more bush or scrub than woods. 

So I have decided to take it in hand.  Although the very definition of a Wild Place is one which is unkempt--not planted, landscaped, mowed or even raked--I think I can make a good case for intervention.  I reason thus: although Wild, my wood is no more than half native, being choked by at least three species of invasive alien plants. 

Norway Maple (Acer plantanoides)

First, there are the Norway maples, of European origin, first imported as street trees and still valuable for that purpose.  Norway maple (Acer platanoides) has three characteristics that make it dangerous in a wild setting: it casts very deep shade, so seedlings of other trees find it hard to get enough sunlight to survive; its roots are so close to the surface of the ground that they hog all the surface water, leaving too little even to grow grass; and it is prolific in reproduction, sending its children spinning down on their little wings to establish themselves in practically any environment.  Together, these talents spell TAKEOVER.  And that's pretty much what it has done on my land: many--especially of the younger--trees on my land are Norway maples.  I don't quite hate them.  No, not quite. 

English Ivy (Hedera helix)

The forest floor is dominated by English ivy that is as prolific in its way as A. plantanoides.  I first dealt with it by heroic efforts when we first bought the house.  This is the ivy whose climb up the brickwork of the hallowed halls of academia make them "ivy league."  If it simply stayed there, all would be well, but it has been spreading through the woods like Tolkien's goblins in the days of seeming peace, when I am lulled into a false sense of security.  English ivy (Hedera helix) also resembles A. platanoides in the depth and permanence of its shade: the plant has thick, dark green leaves that are evergreen. so that even the early wildflowers, with a strategy to emerge to capture sunlight through plants still bare of leaves, cannot get enough light.

Vinca minor

Another ground cover invading my land along a a broad front is Vinca (Vinca minor, I think).  It is coming in from the north edge, and is now advancing into the wood.  But it also got into my meadow garden, where I have worked each year to pull out any vines that dare to show.  I cannot eradicate it completely, since some of the plants are rooted in the middle of bunch grasses such as my big blue stem (Andropogon gerardii)--very secure hiding places, since I love my grasses.

European Buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula)

Finally, I recently realized I have a good many invasive buckthorn (Rhamnus) bushes in the woods.  Long ago I had misidentified it as a species in the Dogwood genus.  [Wrong again: it is in fact Gray Dogwood.]  I didn't paid much attention to them until I correctly identified it elsewhere as part of a biology review project, and then found it popping into my consciousness here at home.  I haven't yet tallied the number I have to deal with.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Cold Weather Contemplation

Equipping for cold weather contemplation: camera, long johns, street clothes, ski pants, insulated boots, down jacket, hat and gloves.

It was up to the twenties by the time I set out late this morning for the Wild Place I discovered not too long ago.  That might not sound cold for a tough, genuine outdoorsman like me, but one thing I've learned: if you want to be comfortable in cold weather over the long haul, you want to over-dress.  You don't want a walk in the woods curtailed by discomfort, and you don't want to find that you need always to be moving to stay warm. 

The opportunity arose to visit the new wild place this morning: I was free on a weekday morning, when there would be fewer homeowners to be suspicious of me.  I decided on a whim that I would spend less time exploring than contemplating, so once I came to the rocks that form a sort of focal point in the southern woods, I settled down, back against a rock, and just watched and listened.  --Oh, and I ran my camera, too.

Twelve minutes in which nothing happens.  Now THAT'S contemplation!

Three-and-a-half minutes in which almost nothing happens.  (And I'm not in the way.)

Seven-and-a-half minutes of white pine needles moving in the wind.

In watching white pines in the wind, I had a thought: I wonder how much of an evolutionary influence on the needle leaf form wind has been.  It seems to me that needles handle wind better than broad leaves partly because the wind produces very little twisting force on them.

Three minutes of beech leaves rattling in the wind.

Beats watching paint dry!

Of course, you can't record contemplation, only its conditions and its results.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Misconceptions of the Seasons

From Wikimedia, via

I was collapsing a cereal box last Wednesday for recycling when I noticed an explanation of the seasons on the back.  It had been quite a while since I'd noticed "educational packaging" of this sort, and here it was on a box of Shaws store brand (Essential Everyday) cold cereal. 

Does anyone pay attention to these things?  In this case I hope not.  Alas, Shaws disappointed: they got the importance of the axial tilt, but explained that the northern hemisphere warms in summer because it is "closer to the sun" than the southern hemisphere.  Out of a total earth-sun distance of 93,000,000 miles, that's only a difference of 0.0086% from one side of the earth to the other.  And that's the maximum possible distance; the actual difference between distances to the poles would be less than a tenth of that.

Here's a better explanation. 

The rest of the article--which isn't really about the seasons--interests me more.  It first explains the slow wobble in earth's axis, and its consequences.  Then it mentions seasons elsewhere in the solar system.  Finally it discusses the common misconception that our changing distance from the sun causes seasons. 

Three comments on these.

First, Uranus has extreme seasons because its axis is tipped nearly 90 degrees, so that its poles alternately face the sun directly--well and good; but what does it mean that Venus (with no seasons) has a tilt of 177 degrees?  Although Venus' axis is nearly upright, we know it was tipped completely over early in its history because it rotates in a direction opposite that of Earth and other planets.  That is, Earth, Mars, etc., both rotate and revolve in the same direction (counterclockwise viewed from above the north pole), while Venus rotates clockwise! 

Second, although Mars has a similar tilt to earth, unlike Earth its seasons really are caused by changing distance from the sun!  The reason is Mars' orbit is less circular than ours, a longer ellipse, so that the greater difference in distance overwhelms any seasonality related to axial tilt. 

Finally, two facts help refute the idea that earth's seasons are related to its distance from the sun: (1) the seasons are opposite in the northern and southern hemispheres, and (2) the earth is actually closest to the sun in early January.  The difference in energy received is simply overwhelmed by the difference in angle and daylength. 

It does make me wonder, though, whether southern hemisphere seasons are more extreme--with the effects added together--than those in similar latitudes and situations in the north.