Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Television Bites Man

As I lean forward in my armchair, straining to filter the truth about some swollen, beer- gorged celebrity from the composite wisdom of six psychotherapists, one journalism major, and the obligatory, disbarred legal counsel, all expressed in manifold, high-rise discord, I am struck by the fact that this person has made a career out of convincing observers that he is someone other than he really is.

Now this has great implications, only one of which I am aware of. So long as I am convinced he is actually someone else, I would never really meet him, or her for that matter, despite having spoken to and glad-handed with his closest companion, who, sad to say, doesn't know the first thing about this person behind him making him do all of this prattle. Wait a second, aren't you taller in real life? Who speaks to me?

I will continue to bark at the television screen hoping for answers.

Well, then, the television screen barks back, and it is an argument again. Then I see this statement flash before me: 'Atmospheric CO2 enrichment is a boon to the biosphere and it brings prosperity and growth to both man and nature.' I fall back into my chair. Wow. Who said that? I think I get it: we are steadily improving our lot in life through the production of unique polymers, odorless gases, and inorganic wastes. Yes! The best is yet ahead! Wait until you see what we wheel out of our laboratory tomorrow!

Why, look, it's more of us!

This reminds me of the words of H. W. Campbell in his landmark work, Campbell's 1907 Soil Culture Manual - A Complete Guide To Scientific Agriculture as Adapted to the Semi-Arid Region. ¹ This was a book that inspired thousands of people in the early 20th century to migrate to the western Great Plains in the United States to farm the land. It gave detailed instructions on dryland farming technique. If one followed his instructions closely, Mr. Campbell claimed:

"Science in soil culture and the more perfect adaptation of scientific methods to farming would result in doubling the crops in the great semi-arid belt of America. In later years I have made the statement still stronger and have declared, to the amazement of some of the doubting ones, that crops have not been one-fourth of what they should have been in this region."

This sounds familiar. But there is more - his book is 320 pages long.

"God speed the day when the people will realize that these vast plains were not intended to be mere grazing lands for the few cattle companies, but that they will give support to many small herds and flock cared for by many men, and that all the grass and cereals of the best agricultural regions of the earth will be grown here in abundance."

Somewhere on earth, an alarm goes off. Wait, does he mean to say that this scientific method only works with the assistance of God? Was he ex-cathedra when he said this? I need to know.

"A few years hence and the so called 'plains' or 'Great American desert' of the map makers will be dotted with splendid farm houses and great red barns. There will be rows of trees for wind-breaks and shade. There will be orchards and gardens...Looking far into the future one may see this region dotted with fine farms, with countless herds of blooded animals grazing, with school houses in every township, with branch lines of railroads, with electric interurban trolley lines running in a thousand directions, with telephone systems innumerable, with rural mail routes reaching to every door. It is coming just as sure as the coming of another century. The key has been found and the door to riches has been unlocked. How many millions will be supported upon this region? Nobody knows. But the day will come when those who tell of the hesitancy of their forefathers about trying to subdue this region will have to modify the truth if they are to be believed."

Exhibit A:

I like to imagine that Mr. Campbell was never seen again. But if I were to meet him, I wouldn't recognize him anyway.

¹ No longer in print, rarely seen anywhere, but available from Internet Archive.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

All For Naught

I hear that they say that canoeists are released at staggered intervals when entering the Boundary Waters, in order to prevent an accumulation of canoeists at the entry points. This can be an unsightly mess. Yet, there are days that seem to drop off of the calendar from time to time and I have wondered if this would solve the problem. Would this improve canoe entanglement, traffic flow, rental shortages, even airplane arrival times? I use these events, or the absence of these events, to plan my week and I have found that it greatly reduces stress and eliminates a lot of work. So, having planned nothing every other day, a lot less than nothing gets done on my day off than were I to be working. This is why I hired myself, and, of course, to keep me company on off days.
So we were in North Dakota for the last half of September, shuffling about the relentless prairie. We never seem to find what we are looking for.

The Botanist, seeking absolutely nothing.

This is not always the case, but it is most often the case. Again, they say that 'the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.' I have wondered about this too. Suppose it is in a closed system, and all pieces of evidence are inspected and it is not found? Then what? Is it evidently absent? I don't know, but after walking though monocultures of invasive, adventive, noxious, introduced, and non-native species, I have to wonder, if it is not there, then is it not there? What should one expect in a field of Asiatic steppe grasses planted sixty years ago by terrified scientists? More terrified scientists? How rare are those?
As the fields turn white and shatter, and the soil blows along like a cat running from one's feet, and I see waves of heat rising from the prairie and the bones of bison protruding from a shale bank, I am terrified too; it seems that I am walking in the exact same steps that some agricultural agent did sixty years ago.
So I plod along talking to myself, while my wife listens in.

The Hired Hand, listening to absolutely nothing

Friday, September 14, 2007

Up From The Depths

Now what's going on.

This is how you do an aquatic plant survey on Lac Vieux Desert. Rake in hand, you latch onto the bottom and hoist a fresh salad of sea plants fit for a merman king. Lac Vieux Desert is a large shallow lake, known as the headwaters of the mighty Wisconsin River, historic ricing grounds for the Chippewa Indians, where terrifying storms, churning within rogue low pressure cells spawned over northern Canada, stir the lake, raising dark man-sized forms that twist and twirl for a moment, then slip out of view. Like a mouscallonge feeding on ducklings, the lake swallowed up many hapless voyageurs bobbing on the surface. The ducklings remain to this day.
And so does the terror. It was captured in the song of the voyageur, which, to my surprise, was reproduced with astonishing realism, pensive angst, and seething umbrage, by the journeyman musician Craig Schmoller. As the haunting melody drifted across the still waters, one could imagine that it was 1825. Many old-timers gathered on the shoreline. Many were weeping. Many waved vigorously, as if to warn us of danger. And many turned and raced up toward their houses, just as their forefathers did when the storms approached. As we listened to the sound of doors slamming and windows latching, we looked to the northwest, expecting to see dark clouds on the horizon. But as you can see, it was all blue sky. It was only our imagination.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

To Our Readers

People stop me on the street everyday and say, ''Dave, you cannot write." Yes, if I could understand what they were saying, I could agree, but they manage to read it anyhow. But then, if only they could read, I would not be writing this. So we are even.

Anyhow, I came across this paragraph the other day, from the book, Plant Ecology, by Dr. Ernst-Detlef Schulze, Dr. Erwin Beck, and Dr. Klaus Muller-Hohenstein:

The stable isotope 13C is another indicator showing that gases from fossil fuels enter the earth's atmosphere. In pre-industrial times, the so-called d13C value (atmospheric 13C/12C ratio compared with a standard) was -6.5%. Adding CO2, depleted in 13C , from fossil C-sources has decreased the d13C by ca. 1% in the last 40 years.

This quote, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, helps to explain:

Changes in the 13C/12C ratio of atmospheric CO2 thus indicate the extent to which concurrent CO2 variations can be ascribed to variations in biospheric uptake. The calculation also requires specification of the turnover times of carbon in the ocean and on land, because fossil fuel burning implies a continuous release of isotopically light carbon to the atmosphere. This leads to a lowering of the atmospheric 13C/12C isotope ratio, which takes years to centuries to work its way through the carbon cycle (Keeling et al., 1980; Tans et al., 1993; Ciais et al., 1995a,b).

As I watch the lakes up here sizzle, roil, and throw off steam and the lakeshores expand into lake basins and fish jump into the boat pre-cooked and ready to eat, I see this quote in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on August 7:

A drought stretching into its second year has dropped water tables so low in some areas of the state - particularly central and northern Wisconsin - that shorelines are growing daily, boats and motors are scraping bottom and docks sit idle...The problem is worst in what the Department of Natural Resources calls "seepage lakes," where there is no natural inlet or outlet of water. Also known as spring-fed lakes, water levels are regulated by rainfall and groundwater. Many of Wisconsin's 15,000-plus inland lakes are seepage lakes...It's no secret it's been dry in Wisconsin the past two years. Aside from a stingy number of raindrops, the drought has been compounded by a mild winter that left below-normal amounts of snow to melt and replenish groundwater tables. Plus warm winters meant lakes froze over later, allowing more water to evaporate, said Richard Lathrop, a DNR research limnologist.

And then this quote from a local paper, the Lakeland Times, on July 20:

Dr. John Magnuson, University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) professor emeritus, gave a lecture explaining how climate change affects fish and other aquatic life at the Lakeland Union High School (LUHS) distance learning lab July 11...Magnuson's expertise is in the field of limnology, or the study of fresh, inland waters...Perhaps the most critical point Magnuson made during his lecture is that if annual temperature averages continue to get warmer, the fish, plants and animals unique to the Northwoods will either die or leave. According to Magnuson, if this trend continues, living in Wisconsin in the future will be more like living in a southern state. Magnuson said a report on climate change in the Great Lakes region made a prediction "of what Wisconsin might be like by the end of this century, and they said, "Well where in the United States does that climate now occur?' It occurs in Arkansas."

Well, that is enough for one night. Our latest travels took us to the badlands in the western Dakotas. Here is Amy on duty:

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Jet Lag

I am unable to tolerate air travel well. It is the disorientation and dizziness. I can always tell when it will happen. Somewhere at about 30,000 feet, I will look out the porthole and see, on the starboard side, several men in orange vests waving metal signs. This is about the time the Dramamine has begun to take hold. Then we bank into a turn, the men wave goodbye, and we go round about some flaring thunderhead and head in the general direction of Baffin Island. Invariably, somewhere at this juncture, the plane begins to gently sway, like a crib. But cribs are penitentiaries for children! Free the children! At this moment, the captain comes on the intercom and everybody looks at each other and wonder why he is hissing so badly, but actually, his voice is scrambled by the static from the thunderstorm and the orange flames of Aurora Borealis arching above. He tosses out some statistics - speed, time of arrival, the elevation, the cabin pressure, his hat size, the number of men bouncing off of the windshield, the depth of the frozen hydrogen accumulating on the wings - and then all of the sudden, the plane goes into a steep dive. Fortunately, it is about then that I have fallen asleep, and I do never get to see how we pull out of it.
I think of this because the summers are sort of like that plane ride, only on the ground. I wake up in the middle of the night and I do not know where I am. The next day I drive to the survey site and all the vegetation is gone, stripped by a hailstorm the night before. I call Amy on the walkie talkie and she does not know who I am. Tomorrow I am expecting there will be rare invisible tornadoes and we will find that all of our movements during the day were worked out by two men playing chess in the coffee shop in town, both of whom have criminal records.
So, let it be that what that may be. What I mean is, a couple weeks ago we were experiencing this in Montana!

And then this!

The Castle Mountains and the Firehole River. As far as I can tell, I believe that is where we were.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Open Road

The difficulty lies in the absence of spare time and an unwillingness to abandon the exercise of my inalienable and fundamental human and civil right to ride a bicycle. There are some pleasant trails up in these northwoods, all of which skirt freshwater lakes, most of which are clear, cold, and radiant and pay no mind if an overheated cyclist misses a turn and plunges headlong into the water, joining the struggle for the right to swim. What prevents us from breathing underwater? Who shackles us with lungs? Who is to say we are not meant to live beneath the ice? Who says the water is just for fish? Lets overthrow these scaly louts and take the seas for ourselves! Live free and die!
So, I regress: After the spring ephemerals, in early June there was some work on the Little Missouri National Grasslands by the quaint village of Medora, North Dakota. Here is a view of Amy being swallowed up by the roiling prairie.

But then, it was over, and for a while in June I worked up by the Boundary Waters, in Minnesota, on the Superior National Forest. This can be found up there:

It's the Pigeon River Falls.
Where is my bike.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Spring Ephemerals

Well what do you know.
It is field season and my time is more limited than in other months, so it is counterproductive, galling, and disorienting for me to write at this time, so if this distorts and enfeebles my final reports, I can lay the blame squarely at my own two badly worn feet.
Anyhow, it is spring ephemeral time and this is some of what I have found:

Claytonia caroliniana - Carolina spring-beauty

Dicentra cucullaria - Dutchman's-breeches

Erythronium americanum - Troutlily

These were seen the past week in Sugar maple/Basswood forests in north central Wisconsin on the Chequamegon National Forest. The habitat type is - according to the Kotar Habitat Type Classification System definition key scheme system system - ATM, AH, and AOCa. A is for Acer, dominated by the Sugar maples. You can just make them out through the cloud of black flies.
If you want a definition of spring ephemerals, read this one from page 112 of John T. Curtis' masterpiece, The Vegetation of Wisconsin - An Ordination of Plant Communities:

"As the name implies, the ephemerals are of short duration, at least as far as their aboveground parts are concerned. They grow very rapidly in early spring, frequently while the last snows are still melting. Both flowers and leaves usually appear together. Full bloom and maximum leaf expansion occur before the trees have expanded their leaf buds. Fruits are ripened quickly, often within three weeks of anthesis. Photosynthesis must occur with great efficiency, since these plants make enough food to complete their life cycle and to provide reserves to last until the following spring in the brief period before the tree canopy develops. By the time the tree leaves are fully expanded in early June, the ephemerals have died back completely with no trace of leaves or fruit to be seen. All of them have some type of underground storage organ, either, a corm, a tuber, a bulb, or a fleshy rhizome."

Thus, the plant below is not a spring ephemeral, although it is out in force before the trees have leafed out. The problem is, it retains it's leaves past the spring season, and in so doing, shows that it is actually a shade plant rather than a spring ephemeral. The mockery! Knowing the distinction between true spring ephemerals and those that are mere shams is worth your while and will spare you a deluge of irate letters from the botanical elite. Anyhow, the impostor:

Trillium cernuum - Nodding trillium

That's all for now.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Very Big Shoulders

A few weeks ago we went to the big city of Chicago.
Under normal circumstances I have little reason to go down there, my parents notwithstanding. Although they have lived in the suburbs in the same house for some 53 years, they come up to the northwoods on regular and frequent intervals, sparing me the agony of a trip through urban blight. Yes, I admit it, some swear by the big cities, but I reserve my most bitter invective for them. I have little stomach for thrill of a high speed chase after a comfortable living that is just out of the reach of my increasingly diminished capacity, just like those shining lakes that appear in the distance on a highway in the hot summer sun and stay in the distance no matter how fast I drive or how long. Once darkness sets in, they elude me completely and by then, I am exhausted like all the other people who have been racing along, unaware that maybe they aren't running toward something, but away from something. And all that driving through a dense automobile matrix that displays no pattern, solution, or objective. At least any that I can determine, from my vantage.
So I digress and should have put that on the Parallel Planet, but the borders between these two blogs are inherently fuzzy; maybe this garden spot of the universe is no longer the place we imagine it to be.
Anyhow, this proved to be one of the most delightful trips to the Winded City that I can recall. And it was largely the result of a visit to the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum. And the company of some good friends, but I will spare you those details.
I had been to both places with Amy back in 1992, but I remember little from then. No matter, my memory has been filled with some astounding displays from both theatres. The Shedd gave a magnificent replication of the South American rain forest ecosystem, demonstrating the variances in ecology as the seasons progress from dry to wet. And the coral reef displays were great fun with sharks swimming overhead and bazillions of impossibly colorful fish. And plenty of knowledgeable volunteers and employees on hand. There were admirable attempts to educate the public about alien fish and plant species in North American waterways and lakes. We spoke with one staff member, Kurt Hettiger, who volunteered much information about his work in the aquarium and was enthusiastic about his projects dealing with the threat of alien species. Big thanks, Kurt.
Go, have a look.
The Field Museum was equally engaging, with Sue, the Tyrannosaurus rex fossil from South Dakota there to greet you with her big toothy smile as you enter the front doors. We had the pleasure of following a well-versed tour guide through the Egypt display. As a matter of course and professional interest, we gave time to the botanical, bird, and mammal displays. They hadn't changed much since 1992. This made me think about what it must cost to run the place. I noticed that a lot of the funding was voluntary. But the best displays of all were in the fossil alley, called the Evolving Planet. I could have stayed another day or two there if I had the time. They have some very impressive original and replica fossil dinosaurs there, from the Cretaceous period. Then there were the Megafauna, those super-sized Pleistocene epoch animals, many of which died off rather suddenly not many thousands of years ago. I stood before the Short Faced Bear and did not flinch. These were the marquee players. All were of interest to me because of our work in the western Dakota badlands where I have seen and handled both Pleistocene and Cretaceous fossils. I suppose this means that I can say that I have walked all the way to Hell Creek and back.
Go there too, if you can get through the gauntlet of traffic and haze. Maybe it isn't a big deal to you. Perhaps you have superior adaptive traits.
But my return to the city might be delayed for another 15 years. I realize that my metropolitan survival skills have atrophied through disuse and disinterest. In the concrete environment, being without natural defenses, I am vulnerable to many threats, much like the Mexican Hairless Dog that has wandered into the arctic tundra. Viral, animal, climatic, any force would overwhelm me. I tremble at the sight of a mere taxi. Voles gather at my feet. This is not good. There may be no place left to hide. As resources continue to dwindle, the monster of competitive economics will break out of the developed zone and lumber into this primitive landscape and tear apart my way of life. Doom peers over the horizon.
I should buy a factory-scented air freshener for my car.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Slim Buttes, South Dakota

This past weekend we spent a few days hoofing about on Slim Buttes, South Dakota, in search of wild game.
These buttes have history. On September 8, 1876, Captain Anson Mills and 150 soldiers stumbled upon a camp of 25 to 30 lodges of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians on the eastern slopes of Slim Buttes. They attacked the following morning. At least ten Sioux and two cavalrymen died. This was only 11 weeks after the Battle of Little Bighorn. The battle site is about 8 miles southeast of Reva Gap. It is on private land.
These buttes have geology. They are Tertiary rocks and feature an outlier of the White River group, an Oligocene age badlands geology, most of which are found in southern South Dakota, western Nebraska, and eastern Colorado. You may remember seeing these rocks in Badlands National Park, where they form the famous mounds, spires, pinnacles, and hoodoos that draw millions to gawk and bake beneath the infernal badlands sun. Many end up languishing in Wall Drug, sloshing about, bellies full of ice water. But I digress.
Here we find two formations of the White River group, the Chadron and Brule. Above them lies the Arikaree formation, of more recent origin, deposited during the Miocene age. The White River group is underlian by Paleocene age Ludlow formation. The Ludlow formation contains lignites, and these coal veins were mined during the 1950's and 1960's for the urnanium they contained. Ground and surface water still contain elevated levels of uranium and there is concern about health hazards. Residents cite increased incidents of cancer.
The Arikaree formation contains "concretionary, cross-bedded, calcareous sandstones, siltstones, silty claystones, carbonates, and tuffaceous beds"¹, which is to say it has a lot of fine white sandstone and volcanic ash. It is ledge-forming, that is, it forms the cliffs that characterize the buttes. It is dramatic, a Ponderosa pine forest rising above the golden plains, perched atop sheer cliffs. One writer ranks Slim Buttes as one of the loveliest landscapes in South Dakota.²
Them is buttes alright.

The storied, seasoned, game hunter, Perry Dexter, spotting absolutely nothing, but what does it matter.

The Castles in Slim Buttes, a National Landmark.

Beneath the Arikaree formation cliffs. Trusted camp-hand Jim Nauertz is the dot in the center, living large.

¹ Hoganson, John W., Edward C. Murphy, Nels F. Forsman. 2006. Lithostratigraphy, Paleontology, and Biochronology of the Chadron, Brule, and Arikaree Formations in North Dakota. North Dakota Geological Survey, Bismarck, ND.

² Hogan, Edward Patrick, 1995. The Geography of South Dakota. Pinehill Press, Inc., Freeman, S.D.