Just Talking About…Dream-Listers

The most famous dreamed bird, a phoenix, imagined by F J Bertuch in 1806, as the documentation of real birds was well underway.

The most famous dreamed bird, a phoenix, imagined by F J Bertuch in 1806, as the documentation of real birds was well underway.

May 24, 2020.  There are many birders, but fewer life-listers.  The former are serious enough bird watchers to stop dead in their tracks and look up when they hear the call of an uncommon bird passing overhead.  I’ve done that hundreds of times—just yesterday, in fact, while on a bike ride, and heard the call of a nighthawk.  I braked hard, looked up and scanned the sky—there it was, a small, undulating dot, giving off its buzzy “BEER” call after every upward slide of its roller-coaster flight path.  Second one I’d seen this year, and with its population dropping a couple percentage points each year, a member of that tribe was worth pausing for, just to appreciate its existence.

Then there are the life-listers.  The name says it all—life, list.  They have a written record of every different species of bird they’ve seen:  what, where, when, how, with whom—but not why.  The why is understood.  The thrill of the chase, the satisfaction of achievement, and, naturally—as is natural for our species and all others—to be better than the rest.  It is a competitive sport, this life-listing, as much as ping-pong, singles tennis, golf, and any individual contest against another.  I’m sure there are team life-listers that vie with rival teams, but the archetypal life-lister is a solitary act, planning the next weekend jaunt to the yet-unvisited state park or more arduous expedition to the Galapagos Islands.  Since there are some ten thousand species of birds on the planet, it would certainly take a lifetime to see them all—if you had time and money enough, and could track them all down, given the rarity of so many.  The world’s top life-lister is Claes-Göran Cederlund, a Swedish physician, who’s seen 9,675 of the world’s birds.  He is 72 years old.

Now there is another type of life-lister I just learned about.  At a socially-distanced dinner outdoors with friends on a chilly night in early May, one of them told us about a friend who is a dream-lister.  “What is that?” we asked.  Our friend explained.  While you are asleep, if you encounter a bird in a dream that is unlike any you’ve ever seen—a phantasmagorical creature, a chimera, something put together from parts of other birds you know but never before imagined until you, yourself, dreamed it—you must, upon waking, write down a description of the dreamed species and record its name, both common and scientific.  It is as if you were Alexander Wilson—a less-famous 19th century ornithologist than J.J. Audubon, but more scientifically-accomplished—and had shot a Tennessee warbler around Nashville in order to name it, describe it, and bring it to the attention of the scientific world in a publication that all could read.  (Wilson did, in fact, publish the first scientific description of the Tennessee warbler in 1811.)  So, just like Wilson and the welter of taxonomically-driven naturalists from Linnaeus to the present, the dream-lister documents and reports the new species of bird encountered in the dream, as if coming upon the pass in Darien, Panama, from which Balboa saw the Pacific Ocean, the first European to do so from its eastern rim.  (It was not Cortez, as Keats wrongly stated in his famous sonnet about the power of art:  Upon First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.)

More questions from our dinner party….  How many birds has he dreamed?  Over three hundred.  But there’s another dream-lister we heard of who’s up to five hundred imagined birds.  (Raised eyebrows all around.)  Are there any rules?  Yes, you must name the bird while dreaming, or it doesn’t count.  (Protests all around—you’d have to be a lucid dreamer, one of us complained, to pull that off.  I can’t even remember my dreams, let alone remember the name I gave an imaginary bird.)

You could say that the dream-lister is just a life-lister gone too far.  You could say that he or she has an extraordinarily competitive urge.  Neither is a charitable nor deep interpretation of what is going on.  Not having talked to a dream-lister, I don’t know the real reason, but I can, I think, relate to the impulse.

I remember one morning in graduate school waking to my wife laughing.  “What’s so funny?” I asked.  She told me that she and I had had a conversation that night, while I was asleep.  I’d been learning the names of insect families for an exam in entomology—repeating them in my mind while conjuring an image of a typical member of the family so that, when I saw the specimen in the lab, I’d know which family it belonged to.  Tenebrionidae, the darkling beetles, Corixidae, the water boatmen, Muscidae, the flies, and so on.  I can still remember them.  So immersed was I in that world of naming the world that it became as commonplace to me as the names of my schoolmates from grade school through college.  So that night, according to my wife, I sat up in bed and stared out into the darkness.  That woke her up and she sat up, too, then looked at me.  I asked her, “What family are you in?”  She knew I was studying insects and to humor me replied, “Diptera,” the flies.  I corrected her, “That’s not a family, that’s an order.”  “What family are you in?” she countered.  As she tells it, I paused and said firmly, “The Chapman family.”

I tell this story because it is funny, but also indicative of how deeply engrained the natural world can be in people like dream-listers, or frankly anyone who, day in and day out, focuses on one thing.  The author of a novel, a young car mechanic learning the trade, a farmer at planting or harvest time, the student of entomology learning families.  The subject matter just bubbles up from the unconscious, where it is simmering, fed by the fuel of daily exposure to the subject.  And the dream-listers?  Well, they just go with it.  If a never-before-described bird shows up in a dream, then, in the long tradition of taxonomists everywhere, you had better describe and name it.  The strange thing is, nobody will ever see the bird, and very likely neither will you again.  I would add that to the list of reasons—it is ephemerata of the most ephemeral kind—something dreamed that doesn’t exist, and, after falling back into the world, the dreamer must accept it for what it is—only a memory that will fade.  So naturally, you must write it down. – Kim

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Just Talking About…People in the Middle of Nowhere

November 7, 2019.  In the photo here your first thought is…not much.  That’s because, to our civilized eyes, there is nothing interesting to see.  The horizon line dominates the scene, not a building, road or cell tower to interrupt it.  There is sky, there is a green blanket below, and the horizon like a razor’s slice to separate them.

The green world of the Red Lake Peatlands in northern Minnesota are all nature, all the time.  Photo Jason Husveth, Critical Connections, Inc. (July 13, 2019).

The green world of the Red Lake Peatlands in northern Minnesota are all nature, all the time. Drone photo Jason Husveth, Critical Connections, Inc. (July 13, 2019).

Very soon, though, you spot the three figures, an afterthought in this scene, like spots of paint dripped on a vast canvas, so out of place and, you imagine, making slow progress.  You’d be right about that.  In these water-soaked peatlands, with spongy sphagnum beds and knee-high leatherleaf thickets, you’d be lucky to make one mile an hour.

Ten thousand years ago, at the dawn of agriculture and urban living—a blink in the long view of human evolution and the life of the planet—this would have been the normal situation across the globe—small groups of people barely discernible in an ocean of verdure.  In the ten millennia since, that situation is now reversed—signs of people are nearly everywhere, either overtly in the planetary lacework of roads, pipelines and power lines that connect our cities and towns, or less directly in the signs of harvest, and use of forests and mines, and in the hiss of jets high above the Sahara, icy mountaintops, or oceans.  The “nowhere” that once existed everywhere is now fully enclosed by people.

Into this now comes an idea from E.O. Wilson, preeminent conservationist and scientist, who has written a book, Half Earth, proposing an idea grounded in research from the fields of population biology (the study of how species perpetuate their numbers), landscape ecology (the study of how the Earth’s non-human species perpetuate themselves), and conservation biology (the study of how economic and cultural systems interact with the natural world).  In essence, the idea is to allow half the earth’s surface and waters to operate without much human interference, so as to stabilize the biosphere, the living skin of the planet.  Why?  Because, as much as we seem to prefer to forget this fact, that thin layer between the rock core of our planet and airless immensity of outer space supports human life and all the arts, sciences, cultural traditions, and, yes, all our families, too.  – Kim

(For a short interview with Dr. Wilson, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zq3w7cldgMU&feature=youtu.be.)

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Just Talking About…Derechos and Other Inconveniences in Nature

The July 4, 1999, derecho in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota turned a forest into a jumble of pick-up-sticks.  Photo Duluth News Tribune.

The July 4, 1999, derecho in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota turned a forest into a jumble of pick-up-sticks. Photo Duluth News Tribune.

July 4, 2019.  Twenty years ago to the day as I write this, winds spawned by a fast-moving weather front tore through Minnesota’s Boundary Waters and adjacent Quetico, Canada, at speeds of over 90 mph, snapping the tops off 200-year-old trees and knocking over eighty-foot tall pines like bowling pins.  The cause—a synergistic confluence of weather conditions called a derecho.

Although four people were killed—crushed by falling timber—the damage to the human-built world was miniscule—a few buildings knocked in, some roads blocked for several hours, a couple power lines down—not much happened, really, by human standards.

Twelve years ago in May a 76,000-acre wildfire torched areas of the same forest and then some, with no casualties (except a suicide a year later by the man who inadvertently started the fire)—though 150 buildings went up in smoke.

I just drove through those same forests and can report with absolute certainty that the wind-blasted and burned forests are filled with life and growing vigorously greener and lusher each year.

Meanwhile, consider the human-constructed world.  Years after the Haitian hurricane that so many responded to with often diffuse or misdirected goodwill, so much damage remains unrepaired.  Last year’s firestorm in Paradise—California, that is—left thousands of people without homes, and home-building since has hopelessly lagged behind the urgency of the situation.  In the slow-motion virtual disasters that are Detroit’s East Side and Chicago’s South—a legacy of disinvestment and occasional spasms of fiery violence—signs of society’s inability to heal are everywhere.  Even my little big town, Saint Paul, shows signs of incremental ruin in its potholed, crevassed streets, especially after a particularly hard winter like the last one.

When I worked as a land steward at The Nature Conservancy, as hard as it may have seemed to raise a million dollars from donors to buy land, how much harder it was to raise one-tenth that amount to manage the land once we owned it.  Let’s face it—taking care of things, maintenance—is tedious work, only a fraction as exciting as building something new.  Putting broken things back together likewise tries the patience.  Just think of all that unmended furniture and chipped heirloom dishware piling up in the basement that your children must someday toss, after you are trundled off to the assisted care facility.  Maintenance is always the last thing people want to think about, pay for, or, even worse, actually do.  Fortunately, the Chinese have solved that problem for us by manufacturing at much lower cost all the things Americans used to make—at such a low cost, in fact, that repair shops for most items are few and far between, if they exist at all, and when they do, it’s a warren of broken objects and parts for the items that workers there strive to repair.  From the looks of things, there’s no money in the repair business.  It is cheaper to buy new than repair, it seems, for most things except jet planes, motor vehicles, and homes.

Imagine facing the challenge of Christchurch, New Zealand’s third largest city and the largest on the South Island, in the weeks after a 6.2 earthquake in 2011 broke or rendered unusable most downtown buildings.  The people just walked away from the years of effort and massive expenditures necessary to put it aright again, leaving a strange, modern ghost town for Japanese tourists to snap photos of, as they also do in Detroit’s East Side, by the way.

Victoria Street in Christchurch, New Zealand, after the 2011 earthquake.  Photo Tom Schwede, Wikimedia Commons.

Victoria Street in Christchurch, New Zealand, after the 2011 earthquake. Photo Tom Schwede, Wikimedia Commons.

I draw this contrast between the resilience of the natural versus human-built world when beset by disasters—most natural but some of our own making—to make a point, of course.  Nature is self-repairing using only the energy of the sun, while humanity must set aside disaster relief funds in rich countries or rebuild with scavenged tin siding and plastic sheeting in poor ones.  Regardless of the means to be prepared for the worst, it takes time and extra resources to set things right again.  In the 1970s there were still eyeless buildings in London and Berlin from the bombing raids that ended in 1945, despite the billions of dollars in financial aid and investment poured into Europe after that terrible war.

Although some natural ecosystems when damaged don’t return to a semblance of their earlier selves—old growth sequoia and redwood groves after clear-cutting, for instance—they return to a green, vigorously growing state quite soon after a major disturbance.  A year after the Yellowstone fires of 1988 consumed nearly 800,000 acres of lodgepole pine forest and other vegetation, the ground was carpeted in grassy verdure and blooming wildflowers.  The system was not destroyed, only remade.  Did that happen at Christchurch?  Nope—that renewal required that people invest in the restoration of the human-built ecosystem, which stretched the financial means of that country, and so it has been slow to happen.  Speaking hypothetically, if that renewal were powered by the sun, perhaps something would have been done right away.

Wildflowers blooming the summer after the ferocious 1988 Yellowstone fire.  Photo Jim Peako, National Park Service.

Wildflowers blooming the summer after the ferocious 1988 Yellowstone fire. Photo Jim Peako, National Park Service.

I am in the business of trying to marry the healing power of nature to places where people live and work.  A marriage contract between the natural and human-built world was signed, in a manner of speaking, a few decades ago in the realm of stormwater management—regulating and cleaning the dirty, fast-moving wash from rains coming off roofs and streets.  Imagine civil engineers—meaning they deal with infrastructure, though they are often polite, too—intentionally building a wetland or prairie swale even as they dig trenches for sewer pipes.  This hybrid natural-engineered system to manage the rain and snowmelt coming off the land is called green infrastructure, and it usually costs less to build and maintain than a purely hardscaped system of gutters, drains, and pipes.  Cities have a strong incentive to install green infrastructure—namely, their capital and operating budgets.  To take just one case, Milwaukee did the math and learned that the city could manage stormwater runoff at a lower per gallon cost if it bought the lowlands of the upper Milwaukee River—and prevented them being filled for development—than if it built a Deep Tunnel project to carry runoff from the upper watershed to Lake Michigan.  More consequential for people, Deep Tunnel runoff is shunted largely uncleaned to the big lake.  The natural system, on the other hand, removes much more of those pollutants as runoff passes through.  A better outcome for the price of a cheaper approach.  Still, the hard engineers won out and the Deep Tunnel was built—though Milwaukee’s Greenseams program to buy up flood storage areas also moved ahead.

I am hopeful.  People are thinking about making the places we live, the cropland we plow, the pastures we graze, and all the rest…a little more connected to nature, a little less over-muscled in terms of human engineering, and a little more resilient in the face of what will certainly be a more disordered climate by 2050.  – Kim

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Just Talking About…Paying Attention & The Turtle Pilgrimage

A snapping turtle in Port Austin, Michigan, just out of the water--notice the wet shell.  Heading to a nesting spot?  Photo Kim Chapman

A snapping turtle in Port Austin, Michigan, just out of the water–notice the wet shell. Heading to a nesting spot? Photo Kim Chapman

August 1, 2019.  I have a reverse commute—starting in urban St. Paul, driving southwest through the suburbs, then into the countryside of Spring Lake Township south of Prior Lake.  It gets more and more pleasant the closer to the office I get.  I might see sandhill cranes grazing in a mowed field, see an eagle fly overhead, or hear a loon call from the lake across the street.  Perfect for a guy who needs to feel the thrum of life around him to feel good about the world.

The down side of a reverse commute for sixteen years is watching the inevitable creep of new homes and faster roads reaching, like the tendrils and leaves of a spreading vine, into the farms and fields of the southwest Metro.  Sometimes in the annual cycle, I feel a pang of regret at the human enterprise a little more than others.  The worst is mid-June to mid-July, when, having gathered enough of summer’s warmth at last, female turtles of all kinds emerge from the marshes and lakes where they spent the winter and walk up to a mile away to lay eggs in a sunny patch of ground.  Then they walk back to finish out the year fattening up before hibernating again.

Though I love the summer warmth and easy feeling it brings, I dread this time of year.  There’s always a turtle or two that I am lucky enough to spot, poised at a road verge, neck craned as if watching for a break in traffic—in which case, I stop and carry them to where they want to go.  Which is what I did around the Fourth of July.  There she was, a snapping turtle, wet mud and grass on her shell, neck out and watching the stream of traffic on 185th Street.  That highway had been upgraded about a decade ago to a four-lane divided—average speed, 60-65 mph in a 55 zone—obliterating a host of native plants that had colonized the edges of the older two-lane country road.  And now, with four lanes of speed incarnate to get across, the chance of safe passage for a turtle was much reduced.

I pulled onto the shoulder, blocking her from the dozens of vehicles passing every minute—rush hour density—and walked up to her.  Snappers are the hardest turtle to move.  The hawk-like beak is downright dangerous, but the hind legs with half-inch claws are almost as bad.  You must grip them slightly back of the shell’s center to avoid the terrifying beaked mouth at the end of a very flexible, long neck, and just forward of where their strong hind legs can take a swipe at you.  Even so, more than once those hind claws have clipped a hand and caused me to drop the turtle.  I am very careful about handling them, so much so, that this time I decided to put the turtle on the lid of a bin in the trunk that held my field gear.  It worked swell.  I carried her (pretty sure it was a her since the females do the long distance traveling at this time of year) across four lanes of fast traffic to the driveway of a horse farm.  I slid her off into the grass, waited a bit, and soon her head was fully extended and looking around, after which she walked slowing onward away from the highway towards a sunny, sandy patch of ground where the eggs would be laid.

I knew two things as I drove away—the hatchlings that survived the depredation of raccoons at the nest and of other animals as they wandered through the landscape, would have to cross this same road; and that she would, too.  The odds were low that a hatchling would find its way back to the mother’s pond given the obstacles—a convincing argument for the seemingly profligate 15-50 eggs that might be laid in a single clutch.  The odds also seemed low to me of the mother surviving the 185th Street crossing again.  What she had done and would do was, to a person, a crazy mission of hope—to a snapping turtle it was biological imperative, which passes for hope in non-humans.

A week later I found her, dead, a quarter mile down the highway.  How could I know it was her?  It was the same-sized turtle, with dried mud and grass on the shell, and at about the same place as before.  This time she’d walked to a high point of ground to cross the road and meet her end.  A tire appeared to have clipped the front of the shell while her head was tucked since it wasn’t crushed.  The shell was cracked and her head lay on the ground, outstretched, a bead of fresh blood at her nostril.  The collision had just happened, it seemed.  I carried her to the road ditch where, rather than bake on the hot pavement or be turned into a roadkill pancake, she would melt into the ground among the grass blades.  Actually, a snapping turtle that is crushed by a car doesn’t turn into a pancake—rather the shattered shell of a snapper resembles a bundle of dropped straws—a testimony to the sturdy construction of the shell.

Big highway + rush hour traffic = dead turtle.  185th Street is a tough neighborhood.  Photo Kim Chapman

Big highway + rush hour traffic = dead turtle. 185th Street is a tough neighborhood. Photo Kim Chapman

I wondered what she was doing at the top of a hill, then remembered I’d seen this before.  I encountered a snapper with a three-foot long shell at the top of a hill on 220th Street years before.  It, too, had tried to cross a busy road in early July.  Not a good idea, but it’s their best and oldest idea at that time of year.  It just so happened that the fast road post-dated that ingrained behavior.

Why does the death of a turtle by vehicle matter?  In the big scheme of things, with war, murder, starvation, wreckage from natural disasters, and other sadness abroad in the world, a turtle hit by a car is inconsequential.  That a man, an ecologist, should bother to think about such things, might be called silly and unrealistic.

On the other hand, it is both symbol and outcome of our civilization’s style, as embodied by the drivers of the several thousand cars using 185th Street every day.  Confronted with a turtle in my lane, my impulse is to stop and take it out of harm’s way.  Most other drivers just don’t see the turtle, lost as they are in their human bubble of concerns and urgencies.  They don’t notice the natural world because the press of the human world—their cares and schedules, families and friends, impulses and passions—crowd everything out and obscure their view as if a piece of gauze were pasted over their eyeballs.  Another group, an unfortunate one, may see the turtle, but circumstance prevents them from saving it.  The road is crowded and they are doing 65 mph—too dangerous to slow or swerve!  Or they may see it too late and not swerve quickly enough, even if swerving is safe—and they replay the sad event in their mind the rest of the way home.  Then there is the tiny minority that will swerve to hit the turtle—they like breaking things, because they themselves are broken somewhere inside.  We can only hope they encounter turtles very rarely.

With wetlands and lakes north and south, turtles are certain to cross 185th Street.  Two dead snappers were about a mile apart in early July.  Photo Kim Chapman

With wetlands and lakes north and south, turtles are certain to cross 185th Street. Two dead snappers were about a mile apart in early July. Photo Kim Chapman

So that’s it—meaning, wherever we put a fast road—the vanguard of our advance into ever-diminishing wild places—there will be death and mayhem.  That is the inevitable, unintended consequence of our civilizing project.  The wildlife crossing over interstate highways at Vail and elsewhere are a creative antidote, but are rare and expensive boons to wildlife.  Deer and elk crossings are posted with signs, but turtle and small animal crossings go unnoticed and nearly entirely unsigned, except where the casualties are massive or profound—like the Blanding’s turtle crossings marked at Weaver Dunes in southeast Minnesota.  (By the way, the antlers on deer signs are drawn backwards—a little known fact!)

Our civilizing project is so vast and relentless, though, a cure will only come when our minds make some room to consider, in every instance, the effect our actions have on the non-human-world–in other words, to pay just a little more attention.  – Kim

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Just Talking About…Wandering Sedge Mats

June 1, 2018.  Several years ago I skated across the lake near which my office sits and found a lovely patch of the ancient Midwest.  It was a sedge meadow—a place where life had gone on pretty much as it always had for several hundred years.  That’s a rare thing to say in America.  Everything changes so much and so fast that, to say something has stayed about the same for even a hundred years, or even a couple decades, is to make a bold claim.  It just doesn’t happen, except with government buildings, historical monuments, and iconic geological features like Half Dome in Yosemite.

Orange is rare color in nature, unless you're a Baltimore checkerspot, seen here on July 7, 2014, at Shirley's Bay in Ottawa, Canada.  Baltimore checkerspot's life depends on turtlehead, a plant of sedge meadows, wet prairies and bogs--and does even better when nearby upland meadows are full of wildflowers.  Photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

Orange is rare color in nature, unless you’re a Baltimore checkerspot, seen here on July 7, 2014, at Shirley’s Bay in Ottawa, Canada. Baltimore checkerspot’s life depends on turtlehead, a plant of sedge meadows, wet prairies and bogs–and does even better when nearby upland meadows are full of wildflowers. Photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

This little sedge meadow was wedged in a corner of McMahon Lake in Scott County, Minnesota.  When I saw it, covered in snow, the arching narrow leaves of its sedges frosted and glinting in the slant sunlight, I let out a whoop.  Nearly every wetland in the Midwest is the exact opposite of the sedge meadow I viewed that winter’s afternoon.  Wet meadows are usually blanketed in a uniform coat of one or a couple of plant species imported or blown in from elsewhere.  There’s the Southeast Asian blend of reed canary grass, hybridized in England to dominate wetlands with its vigorous growth so that North American farmers could hay it or graze it hard and long.  There’s narrow-leaved cattail and its giant hybrid formed by mixing genes with the local and well-behaved broad-leaved cattail.  Narrow-leaved cattail was borne hither on the coattails of commerce—up the St. Lawrence River from the Atlantic coast, spreading along the coastlines of the Great Lakes and up the rivers that penetrated the country’s heartland.  Wind, water, and moving objects—vehicles, people, animals—did the rest.  Then there’s giant reed, aptly named as it consumes thousands of acres of marshland by towering over and shading to the point of disappearance every other plant that might grow there.  Giant reed is cosmopolitan—growing on ocean coasts worldwide—but only becoming a global harm when commercial transportation of goods (again) inadvertently mixed and matched its genetic code to produce super-plants taking over the world’s coasts.

As you can imagine, when these plants get a toehold somewhere new—not only having escaped the pests and viruses of their old haunts, but being supercharged by fortuitous breeding—they outcompete everybody else.  These are not isolated cases, but a full-on assault against the natural biodiversity of the North American continent.  In the 1930s, with twin disasters of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl in full swing, the federal government sent agents of the Soil Conservation Service to scour the planet for plants to bring back and stabilize the Great Plains—whose topsoil inconveniently was being scooped up by ferocious winds every couple of months and delivered in layers across the Eastern United States as far as Washington DC and New York City.  (The cause of this was new technology married to speculative capital looking for a place to make money—but that’s another story.)  The federal agents brought back plants that were aggressive, could tolerate extreme conditions, and would spread like mad.  Voilà—designer invasive plants, like smooth brome grass, that were spread far and wide not only to stabilize soil, but as part and parcel of every development project thenceforth.

Not surprisingly, these introduced plants spread to places they were not intended for, like sedge meadows, native prairies, savannas, forests, and so on.  Yet, to return to me standing on my ice skates in subzero temperatures absorbed by the sight of sedge leaves shining, here they had not arrived.  How was this possible?  What a rare sight, then, and just minutes by skates, or seconds on a snowmobile, or perhaps ten or fifteen if swimming the Australian crawl…in short, just a little ways from my office, here it was.

Fast forward to this week.

In a hurry to reach my desk and start my day, I caught out of the corner of my eye an unfamiliar chunk of shoreline at the neighbor’s—a swatch of green pressing into the lake where I’d not recollected that chunk existing before.  “Wonder what happened there?  Did they clear the trees and shrubs and now we see that part of the shore?” I thought.  A couple hurried days later, coming around the downward-sloping curve in the road, I was surprised by a new island in the lake, offshore from the neighbor’s place.  What the heck!?  I slowed, pulled into the public boat launch, and got out.  What I saw astounded me.

Floating sedge mat in the foggy distance moving slowly northward.  In the foreground is a broken-off piece of it.  Photo Kim Chapman

Floating sedge mat in the foggy distance moving slowly northward. In the foreground is a broken-off piece of it. Photo Kim Chapman

I’d heard of this kind of thing happening.  I’d even seen something similar involving narrow-leaved cattails.  But never had I witnessed the magic of a once common natural phenomenon now rare or absent.  It was kin to experiencing the thunderous flow of a bison herd, rushing whoosh of a passenger pigeon flock, vast sweeping glow of a prairie fire at night, emergence of a hundred million seventeen-year cicadas, and the other massive natural events now dwindling on the planet as the human enterprise expands.  Ok…clearly not on that scale…but what I beheld was something you have never seen, and that I had never seen to that moment, but knew existed.  It was a floating sedge mat, or floating bog mat, broken free from its mother ship, like a calving iceberg, and now wandering around the lake looking for a shore to bond with.

I mentioned narrow-leaved cattail islands floating around.  I’d seen some break free from the shore, floating on air-filled roots that had tangled and gathered in dead stems from previous year’s growth—creating an integrated mat that moved around like a boat blown by the wind.  They eventually came to rest on some shoreline to bind with the vegetation there and begin anew.

Floating sedge mat stalled out offshore at  boat launch on McMahon Lake, Scott County MN.  Photo Kim Chapman

Floating sedge mat stalled out offshore at boat launch on McMahon Lake, Scott County MN. Photo Kim Chapman

I’d heard about bog islands, chock full of native plants, breaking free of their moorings on remote northern lakes.  Now here was a sedge mat, journeying from its home in the northeast corner of McMahon Lake, propelled by the wind to the opposite lake shore.  Crazy!  As I watched, it moved ever so slowly northward on the back of a south wind.  If the wind held, it would reach the northwest shore of the lake and make contact with a large prairie that the Soil and Water Conservation District had planted some years before.  If that came to pass, a wonder would appear not seen hereabouts for 150 years—namely, a piece of uplands dominated by native plants growing next to a piece of wetlands dominated by native plants.  That upland to wetland continuum used to be common as dirt…or more properly, as common as the millions of acres of prairie to sedge meadow continuum once was.  That is something to be happy about.

The reason is this.  So many animals depend on the hundreds of plants found in natural wetlands and nearby wild uplands.  Animals like certain butterflies and moths, frogs and toads, and others yet unknown.  (See https://wisconsinbutterflies.org/butterfly/species/80-baltimore-checkerspot for a stunner of a butterfly with this life story.)  If the sedge mat met the tallgrass prairie on the shores of McMahon Lake, it would be as if somebody had found the missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle lying unfinished on a card table for over a hundred years and put it where it belonged.  Imagine the feeling of satisfaction.  Imagine the relief!  Now you can stop fretting about that missing piece of the puzzle and get on with things.

The splendid variety of plants in a floating sedge mat:  marsh shield fern, wiregrass, tussock sedge, swamp candles, water dock, and broad-leaved cattail fitting in nicely as a well-behaved member of its community--to name a few.  Photo Kim Chapman

The splendid variety of plants in a floating sedge mat: marsh shield fern, wiregrass, tussock sedge, swamp candles, water dock, and broad-leaved cattail fitting in nicely as a well-behaved member of its community–to name a few. Photo Kim Chapman

Well, that’s about it.  I wanted to share with you a very unlikely happening, in hopes that maybe you’ll think it’s a little weird, too.  Or maybe you just think I’m a little weird for noticing such things.  You wouldn’t be the first.  A lot of us ecologists, naturalists, ornithologists, entomologists, mammalogists, ichthyologists, malacologists and so on—the people who notice what’s happening in the natural world—will always seem a little out of the mainstream.  Just like the natural phenomena we notice and study.  But so important, even if unnoticed, are the hidden things that run the world.  – Kim


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Just Talking About…Why Self-Driving Vehicles Are Just One More Bad Idea

A crowded highway in Germany where all those well-ordered drivers mostly stay in the right lane, letting the cars pass on the left.  Photo-taker unknown.

A crowded highway in Germany where all those well-ordered drivers mostly stay in the right lane, letting the cars pass on the left. Photo-taker unknown.

January 10, 2018.  I’m heading east on Interstate 90/94 towards Madison, watching truck wars play out all around me.  Truck wars are where one truck tries to pass another, but does so at such a slow pace that they are bound to hit a hill before the passing is complete.  At that point both trucks slow down and traffic backs up behind.  I’ve seen this at its worst:  eight or ten trucks in the left lane stacked behind each other, like railroad cars, going one or two miles an hour faster than the truck they are trying to pass.  They are determined to pass, no doubt about it, and will hang in that passing lane until they do.

It can get pretty bad sometimes.  Right now, for instance, here in the hilly Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin, two trucks have been battling for the right to be in front of the other one for several miles.  The interstate rises and drops through a series of eroded valleys in this ancient plateau as old as the Appalachian Mountains.  There is now a line of twenty to thirty cars, in both lanes, cooling their heels as the trucks duke it out.

Naturally, you’d expect me to curse the truckers and my unlucky fate to be trapped behind them, but you’d be wrong.  I don’t mind…much…because I know those trucks are just part of the rotary economic engine that requires, for its continued operation, things being moved here and there.  Truck drivers, moreover, are very good at doing that.  They are also paid well for somebody who usually has a high school education.  The trans-continental truckers can make over $70,000 a year, and more with bonuses—which far exceeds what I earned for decades despite letters from three degrees trailing after my name.

But the allure of the self-driving vehicle is always lurking.  The self-driving semi-truck and trailer outfit would not follow its fellow trucks so closely, nor bolt into the passing lane at 70 miles an hour as cars approached from behind.  The artificial intelligence inside that self-driving truck would scan the area around it, search for approaching and nearby objects, evaluate its vehicle’s gas usage, consider the incline—even predict future inclines using the elevation data its GPS system—and perform a host of calculations to decide if passing at this moment was reasonable or not.

I see the appeal.  I might have an easier time on the road with this kind of system, designed as it is to reduce the risk of collision to near zero and save money on fuel to boot.  I suppose it could even be programmed to also avoid inconveniencing the cars moving up from behind.

Now imagine 3.5 million people—the number of professional truck drivers in our country—making $70,000 and more suddenly put out of work by self-driving trucks.  We’d have to find 3.5 million new jobs for them at the same salary if they are to continue making mortgage and car payments, advancing their children’s education, taking vacations, buying a boat and trailer, and so on.  With a high school degree, their best option to stay financially even is manufacturing or mining.  If they settle for lower pay in retail or leisure and hospitality, they will have to eat out less, cut back on presents at Christmas and birthdays, not buy that new couch for the living room…you get the picture.  Self-driving vehicles—and all forms of automation that get rid of people with good-paying jobs, in the interest of reducing costs against the bottom line—shrink the economy by shrinking the income and spending of those put out of work.  Yes, the economy may grow in another area of transportation—design of self-driving vehicles, for example—but design takes many fewer people than trans-continental trucking with live drivers.  (About 1.5 million jobs of all kinds have been created on average each year since 1939—fewer in recent years—so it would take a while to get back the 3.5 million lost trucker jobs at a salary of $70,000 when the median income in the country is $59,000.)

It is an imperative of American businesses, especially those owned by strangers to a community and operating at a distance, including foreign countries, to seek cost-reductions in operations.  Those operations are greatly burdened by the cost of paying people to do things.  People are the biggest expense for any company—salary, vacation, 401k match, health insurance share, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid share—it all adds up.  How much could be saved by eliminating people!

The reason expenses must be cut is because the growth of businesses, after the fast-growing start-up phase, is only a few percentage points a year.  Inflation over the past 200 years has run at about two percent annually (three percent since 1929 due to a couple weirdly high periods).  Population growth has averaged one to two percent.  When you add those together, you might see three to four percent growth a year simply due to the momentum of existence.  If a business can find cost-savings of an additional two percent—in productivity gains by producing more with less or by cutting expenses—then they can eke out six percent annual growth.  That is pretty darned good anywhere in the world as a long term growth trajectory.  Many Fortune 500 companies have annual revenue growth from productivity gains and expansion of customers and services of five to six percent, and a net profit of less than that after expenses are accounted for.  (Net profit lets you buy equipment, give raises, and invest in new technology.)  It’s hard to make a decent net profit.  If somebody tells you that they can turn your dollar into a dollar twenty cents in one year, they’re offering something that is either illegal, hurting somebody or something, or of a highly speculative nature.

Given how hard it is to squeeze a few percentage points of profit out of a going concern, cost-cutting is the best tool in the corporate toolbox and it’s wielded effectively across our nation by firms both big and small who don’t value the experience or commitment of their employees.  That’s fine if your business uses people who only need basic skills—they must read, write, do simple math, greet people politely, operate simple pieces of equipment, and drive a car.  For a lot of good-paying jobs, however, you need at least a college education.  For some you need advanced training, which might be learned on the job, up to a point.  Other specialties need years of preparation—doctor, lawyer, teacher or college professor, engineer—and a license or certification.  To have a society with people who can do all the highly skilled, specialized tasks that need to be done, you must have firms where cost-cutting by layoffs is not the standard way of doing business.

Let’s get back to my dilemma on the highway.  There are those truckers ahead, fiercely fighting their truck war.  My car and fifty others are backed up, doing less than the speed limit.  Do I want those truckers replaced by an artificial brain so that traffic runs more smoothly?  I don’t.  I know if the 3.5 million truck drivers were let go—given that most have high school degrees, or less, or perhaps some college—it would be challenging to find a job paying $70,000 a year.  If you can’t find work in construction or mining, earning $70,000 requires a master’s in business, a college degree in chemical engineering or similar high-demand field, a JD or MD after your name—or a job in government in a technical role.  Policy-makers, upper-level managers, fund-raisers and marketing people can make that kind of money, too, with a college degree and a personality suited to marketing, sales, communication, policy, people management, and the like.  Most truckers aren’t that kind of person.

If you are driving a truck, what you may like is freedom and seeing new places.  You like not sitting at a desk.  You like the flexible schedule—interspersed with hard pushes.  You like the lifestyle that lets you do things in a business-like manner, but with your own style and preferences.  If you have scattered family, you can drop by and see them on one of your runs.  If you’ve had a hankering to visit Mount Rushmore, you can work that in.  Yes, the hours can be grueling.  A lot of truckers struggle to balance it all—some becoming dependent on amphetamines, or pain killers, or they just don’t see their families enough.

But for the most part, it’s a good life and it pays well.  Truckers live in families and towns and cities across the country.  They get their pay and spread it around their community.  There is something called agglomeration and the multiplier effect in our economy.  Agglomeration is the gradual accumulation of economic activity in one place—resulting in even more economic activity.  With a larger pool of cash washing around in a locale—more capital, in other words—more things can be done there.  There will be more tax revenue—enabling city managers to put up a nice entry sign, do a better job of landscaping streets and burnishing the community’s face to the world, and keep the potholes at bay.  They can put in a swimming pool or a community center.  That city investment makes it more likely that a young family won’t dismiss the town out of hand if offered a job there.  Which in turn makes it more likely that a business will get that highly-skilled person for the job that only a highly-skilled person can do—and which otherwise would be filled by lesser talent and make that business less competitive.  When that new hire arrives in town, they and their family will start spending money.  A snowball effect ensues—money breeds money, businesses breed other businesses, people breed other people (of course), and the town thrives.  The multiplier effect is well known:  a dollar that is spent and stays in a local economy spurs additional economic activity.  It’s magical how that happens, but somehow investment and spending in a community generates more investment and spending, multiplying the original expenditure by a big margin and expanding the size of a local economy.

As an ecologist I know that growth can go on only so long before the human enterprise behaves like a cancer, consuming resources beyond the ability of the surrounding environment (or planet) to sustain.  All I am saying here that agglomeration and the multiplier effect are important for the stability of communities and families.  That depends, though, on people keeping decent-paying jobs and raising families at a particular place using the income from that good job.  If they enjoy driving trucks and have a high school diploma, and even if smart and motivated, there aren’t many jobs they can do that pay as well.  Manufacturing used to be the go-to place for people with a high school education who wanted to earn at least $70,000—and over $100,000 with overtime—it was fantastic!  For all the reasons we know—automation, lower labor costs overseas, and exclusively bottom-line thinking on the part of owners, top managers and stock-holders—there aren’t enough manufacturing jobs to go around—shrinking as a percentage of our economy, replaced by jobs in the retail and service sectors.

If we put artificial intelligence in every tractor-trailer rig on the road, guess what—we will shrink the number of good-paying jobs in America for people with less than a college degree.  Manufacturing won’t pick up the slack.  Retail and service jobs are not as fulfilling for many, don’t pay nearly as much, and rarely offer benefits.  I call this the Walmartization of America.  The Walmart business model is based entirely on cost-cutting:  squeeze suppliers to reduce costs, make supply chains exceptionally efficient, and pay low wages with limited benefits.  (To be fair, perhaps half of Walmart’s employees–Walmart won’t say how many–who are full-time receive benefits and an average pay of $13-$14 an hour—a pay level forced in 2016 by criticism of its pay scale.)

With these practices, the capital available to community also shrinks—foreclosing revenue which could be invested to better itself—and goes as profit to Bentonville, Arkansas.  As a consequence, Walmart employees can’t afford to buy anywhere but Walmart—they are held captive by a weird replica of a coal miner’s company town, while boosting Walmart sales.  Meanwhile, if Walmart employees live in rural areas and small towns, their town suffers—only 15 cents of a dollar spent on a Walmart product contributes to their community’s well-being, but 45 cents of the dollar spent at a local store would remain in the community.  (My father-in-law owned general stores in small Michigan towns, and he provided benefits, while the world’s largest private employer, Walmart, for all its billions in market value, pays perhaps half of its employees $11 an hour with few benefits.  Eventually a Walmart was built in my father-in-law’s town and the general store closed.)

That is the Walmartization process, which other businesses have emulated to increase net profit.  They use that profit first and foremost to give larger bonuses and ever more divergent salaries to top managers—who earn 300 times what the average worker gets—and provide bigger share prices for stockholders who agree with the whole scheme.  (I admit, of necessity I own stocks as part of my retirement savings—but I’d be happy with a small rate of return and more ethical practices by the companies in my mutual funds.)

Self-driving vehicles are a page out of the Walmart playbook—reduce the people-cost of your business.  I reject that.  And so I sit here, content in a pack of fifty cars, while trucks jockey for supremacy and the honor of going 72 versus 70 miles an hour.  All I can say is, to use that wonderful 60s t-shirt slogan, keep on truckin’! – Kim

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Just Talking About…Cemetery Coyotes

Coyote watching the watcher in San Francisco, February 2016.  Photo Frank Schulenburg

Coyote watching the watcher in San Francisco, February 2016. Photo Frank Schulenburg

February 18, 2018.  Taking a walk through Graceland Cemetery at Clark and Irving Park in Chicago we watched a coyote watching us.  At a distance of a hundred yards and in poor light, we could only see its outline—in profile like a German shepherd without the rear end slump, maybe a little like a husky in the head.  It looked quite regal and, except for its moving, fit quite nicely among the various cenotaphs and monuments to the dead.

What the heck is a coyote doing in the middle of Chicago, city of big shoulders, hog butcher for the world, 2.7 million human souls swarming, even more cars, trucks and buses, at a cemetery surrounded by three major roads and the screeching El bulging with commuters?

Among the monuments to the dead in Graceland Cemetery, the coyotes run free.  Photo Kim Chapman

Among the monuments to the dead in Graceland Cemetery, the coyotes run free. Photo Kim Chapman

You hear of urban wildlife—the much-watched red-tailed hawk nesting on a building overlooking New York’s Central Park comes to mind (at least, to my mind).  I myself have seen eagles nesting in people’s backyards along the Mississippi River.  A pileated woodpecker recently caught my attention outside the neighborhood liquor store, and a short while later in my neighbor’s green ash tree.  Then there was that lone (and lonely?) turkey in the back yard last month—standing on the porch staring at our storm door.  I almost let it in the house.  Bears wander periodically through some Minnesota towns, policemen have shot a cougar along the Minnesota River by the airport, frantic deer have smashed through a family’s front picture window in my neighborhood, red-tailed hawks watch the morning commuters from lampposts across the Cities…I could go on.

I guess the basic idea is this…if given half a chance, nature finds a way into the human domain.  Some find that frightening, some merely irritating.  There are a few for whom the idea of nature and people mixing it up feels just plain wrong—undoing our centuries-long American project to bring nature fully to heel.  But I take heart in the evidence that these old ways of thinking are fading.  So many cities and neighborhoods are making wild places ordinary.  So many are assessing their open spaces and realizing that there’s not a lot of it left—and what’s left needs to be protected as the rare natural resource it is.  Park departments, city planning departments, urban redevelopment teams—I have worked with them all and see in many a recognition that frequent and close contact with the natural world completes the human experience.  My own opinion is that so many of our behavioral and social ills found in urban spaces, especially poorer ones, would be helped by more green space.  I encourage you to read Richard Luov’s Last Child in the Woods if you’d like to learn more.

Coyote making tracks and a beeline to its destination.  Photo Kim Chapman

Coyote making tracks and a beeline to its destination. Photo Kim Chapman

Back to the cemetery coyotes…knowing they are there doesn’t faze my daughter and son-in-law, nor me for that matter.  They watch us from a respectful distance—although my daughter told me that on one stroll a coyote seemed to be trailing them.  Coyote attacks on people, mostly children, happen but are several orders of magnitude less likely than getting hit by a vehicle in the Loop.  As with any wild animal, caution is in order.  Still, my heart gave a little leap when I saw that coyote…or see any wild thing out of place in the human world.  That turkey, for instance, roosting in our red pine, or a Swainson’s thrush with its flutelike song that I count on hearing in spring migration—ah, happy am I that the world is full of other life and I am in it! – Kim

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Just Talking About…Coincidence, Significance, and the Super Blue Blood Moon

The super, blue, blood moon captured in stills at is arcs across the morning sky in Virginia, Minnesota on 31 January, 2018.  Photo Matt Herberg (https://mattherbergphotography.shootproof.com)

The super, blue, blood moon captured in stills as it arcs across the morning sky in Virginia, Minnesota on 31 January, 2018. Photo Matt Herberg (https://mattherbergphotography.shootproof.com)

February 1, 2018.  I’d been anticipating it for a week, so yesterday I woke up in my usual fog, made coffee and a lunch, forgot to shave, and hustled out the door to -7 F temperatures and a car dusted with snow.  Why the hurry?  Are you kidding me!?  It was the super, blue, blood moon!  The last time it occurred, March 1866, the Civil War had recently ended, merciful Lincoln was dead, an oppressive Reconstruction was in full swing, and a resentful South was slouching towards the Klan’s terror and a century of Jim Crow.  That same momentous celestial and natural event of 1866 was taking place today…and I was late to the party.

What the heck is a super, blue, blood moon?  Not “blue-blood” certainly—born to wealth and pedigree.  No, “blue” because it was the second full moon in the month, and “blood” because in the total lunar eclipse the earth would shade the moon from the sun and give the moon a blood-orange cast from the light refracted through the earth’s atmosphere.  It was “super” because it was about as close as it could come to the earth without throwing the whole orbiting operation out of whack.  The moon would appear about 30 percent brighter because it was that much nearer to us.

Such a convergence of individual natural events occurs once in a blue moon—(which isn’t actually that rare, but it’s fun to say)—and never in the last 152 years.  How could one not want to see it?  It would not happen again in your lifetime, or the lifetime of your children or even your grandchildren.  Your great-grandchildren, in their ancient dotage, might get the chance.  Imagine my disappointment when, down by the river with a clear view to the west, I didn’t see a thing.  I’d arrived in time, I thought, but something wasn’t right.  It was a couple minutes past 7 am, and the full phase started at 6:53 am, but nothing was there.  Was it a cloud bank at the horizon, the obscuring haze of the city?  Did it already set?  Whatever the case, I missed it along with most of the rest of the planet’s inhabitants.  So it goes.

The full moon by my favorite oak grove, the morning after the super, blue, blood moon.  The rising sun gave the little hill a bit of a blood-orange cast, reminding me of what I missed yesterday.  Photo Kim Chapman

The full moon by my favorite oak grove, the morning after the super, blue, blood moon. The rising sun gave the little hill a bit of a blood-orange cast, reminding me of what I missed yesterday. Photo Kim Chapman

What to make of the hullaballoo around a super, blue, blood moon?  Any of the three elements occur fairly regularly, and the combination of two of them can be expected several times in a lifetime.  Stack three lunar oddities, though, and it takes on significance.  There is something of the curiosity-seeker in it, certainly.  The bearded lady of sideshows, a child prodigy churning through Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, New Hampshire’s Old Stone Face etched in a granite cliff—all fascinate because that’s not something you see every day.  Next there’s the timeline—152 years!  We are blessed and special to be given the chance to view something our great-grandparents saw, we think.  There’s a connection back to a world somewhat unlike ours, peopled by individuals who thought a little differently than us, who lived in a divided time perhaps similar to ours but having survived the most momentous period in our country’s history.  There is a pull to that realization.  Lastly, though, is the significance of it all.  When my family hauled itself to Ravenna, Nebraska last August and watched the solar eclipse, I sensed something in the event that felt like significance.  But that feeling came as much from knowing that a shadow 239,000 miles long was tracing a narrow line across a 7,900 mile diameter planet—with me at the shadow’s center—as it did from my emotional reaction to seeing a sunset at midday.  The birds flocking as if to roost for the night, the crickets that took up a frenzied chorus in the dimming light, the oddly-shaped shadows all around—yes, those worked on the senses, adding to a feeling of significance.

In less scientific times, the solar eclipse was feared, and the lunar eclipse wasn’t far behind.  Both indicated dire things a-comin’.  By 1866, the last super, blue, blood moon, perhaps a few said, well, that’s surely a symbol of what just happened—the war.  Today…I doubt none but a handful read God’s wrath or the universe’s displeasure in the coincidence of three regular events.  Its time had simply come.

My master’s degree advisor, Richard Brewer, does not confuse coincidence with significance, unless it conferred luck or fate were cruel.  That view sees coincidence as direct agent, affecting those it acted on, rather than coincidence being a sign from a powerful entity operating behind the scenes.  This is the scientist’s objectivity at work, rather than the medieval peasant’s superstitions that held one in thrall.  I wonder if anybody saw the latter kind of significance yesterday morning.

I have to admit, though, that having done everything right to see it, I was mildly disappointed to have missed it.  It would have given me bragging rights to my grandchildren—“Did you know,” he said with a wheeze, “that I saw a super, blue, blood moon once?  Yep, that’s right.  Saw it with my own two eyes.”  So, because I actually didn’t, I’m now on the hunt for another amazing coincidence that, while not significant, will still make me pause, wonder a bit, and give me something to talk about in old age.  – Kim

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Just Talking About…Roads As Self-Fulfilling Prophesies, Part 2

"Après moi, le déluge" - Poor decapitated Louis the 15th could just as well have been talking about the re-construction of Highway 8, rather than the French Revolution.  Signs promising a bounty of 2.5+ acre homesites have sprung up since the road was finished.  Photo by Kim Chapman

“Après moi, le déluge” – Poor decapitated Louis the 16th could just as well have been talking about the re-construction of Highway 8, rather than the French Revolution. Signs promising a bounty of 2.5+ acre homesites have sprung up since the road was finished. Photo by Kim Chapman

December 27, 2017.  It’s been fifteen years since I started commuting from St. Paul to my country office, and it’s time to take stock.  In that time Highway 8—or 220th Street in the extended Minneapolis street grid system (evidence of the grand vision the city fathers had)—has acquired these items.

  • A six-lane bridge with cloverleaf over Interstate 35
  • A wider, straighter thoroughfare through rolling, wetland-studded countryside
  • A two-lane roundabout
  • A bike trail

On the heels of each anticipated or actual transportation upgrade came development.

  • Half a dozen subdivisions with one-half to one-acre lots
  • A couple dozen homes of the exurban variety (2.5 to 10 acre lots)
  • A 26-home subdivision on 2.5 acre lots (down the street from our building)
  • A hotel
  • A multiplex theater
  • A Walmart
  • A gas station with car wash
  • Several miscellaneous businesses and eateries

In the same period the natural world lost a few things.

  • Tens of thousands of wild plants of a few dozen species rare in these parts and selling for $4 a pot at your local native plant nursery (if you can find them)
  • A population of cream gentian, an extremely rare plant across the Midwest and denizen of an almost extinct ecosystem, oak savanna
  • A distinctly pleasant drive, with woods closing around the road and gentle slopes leading away
  • Woodland edges fringed with attractive sunflowers, dogwoods and plums, set against the aspens and oaks
  • A grass-fed herd of cattle
  • A goat and horse farm
  • Several buildings around one hundred years of age
  • Dozens of oaks approaching 200 years of age
The rare, savanna-dwelling cream gentian growing next to Highway 8 once upon a time--a casualty of road widening.  Photo   by Kim Chapman

The rare, savanna-dwelling cream gentian growing next to Highway 8 once upon a time–a casualty of road widening. Photo
by Kim Chapman

That makes for an interesting balance sheet.  The human dominated space expanded, the natural space (to which people belong, though we always forget we do) shrank to compensate.  This has been the way of the world for several millennia now, with no sign of stopping until the mid 22nd Century when, the United States Census Bureau tells us, the human population will stop growing.  And roads, those ribbons of speed, those lassoes tossed outward as an extension of our inspirational will, those simple engines of economic activity and landscape transformation—the roads made it all come true.  They were the advance guard, rushing forward to clear the way, or speed the onward push of a realm where what comes from us, the people, is what one mostly gets.

It doesn’t take much to understand how roads are the most civilizing force we wield—moreso than the missionary’s religious zeal to the heathen, moreso than the telephone and satellite television for the remote inhabitant, moreso than cell phones in the Serengeti.  In a case most of us have heard of, tropical deforestation, you can see on satellite images from the 1960s to the present a perfect match-up between a new road and the jungle clearing on both sides of it…followed by settlements, cattle ranches, and soybean fields.  On my commuting route, Highway 8, the abandonment of farming operations and appearance of for sale signs and subdivision placards happened simultaneously with the most recent road upgrade.  For people wanting a country home, land became more valuable with the faster road to speed their commute to the Cities, and for others their property became less livable or usable with the faster road nearby—more noise and congestion now knocking at the front door.

For about a century, from 1840s to the 1930s, railroads were our nation’s roads.  Actual roads were in terrible shape by comparison…rutted, often flooded, narrow or steep, dangerous in hilly and mountainous terrain—as recently as the 1910s it took weeks to traverse the country by road.  That all changed beginning in the 1920s when the “Good Roads” movement seized the imaginations of government planners.  A slow disinvestment in railroads took hold, offset by a huge ramp-up in road building and road improvement.  Engineering schools in Michigan—ground zero for the car industry—began an innovation and training jag that spread nation-wide and continues today.  By now several generations of road-builders have perfected the art of laying down concrete and asphalt, erecting bridges, and designing for the most efficient movement of vehicles from point A to point B.  At the risk of being labeled a curmudgeon (oh…I’ve already been labeled that?), I will say I’m not a fan of roads, but not for the reason you’d think.  I like roads that are put in the right place, serving the right purpose, and constructed in a reasonable fashion to minimize damage to people and nature.  What I don’t like, and what prevails today, is roads put in the wrong places, roads built in part to serve a narrow idea of what represents progress, roads that are over-designed or dully designed by rote standards applied in a one-size-fits-all fashion—reminding one that, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything you fix looks like a nail.

Attending a conference a few years back, I met an energetic young man who had been arguing with the US Department of Transportation and the state of North Carolina about the re-routing of a major highway near Asheville.  This is in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.  He and a partner had intelligently designed an alternate route which reduced the road length, reduced the amount of blasting and earth moving, preserved more forest and natural slopes (which in turn protects streams below those slopes), and still met the stringent federal safety standards.  In other words, their road design would have saved money and nature.  From the sounds of it, theirs was a losing battle.  The imagination of those with their hands on the levers of power could not accommodate the vision of these two young men.

Woodland sunflower fringing a woods cleared for Highway 8 reconstruction.  In pots, these would cost $4 each.  Photo by Kim Chapman

Woodland sunflower fringing a woods cleared for Highway 8 reconstruction. In pots, these would cost $4 each. Photo by Kim Chapman

When you speak with the road planners about their effects, they say, “Oh, no, we don’t pick winners and losers…we just respond to current and reliably predictable future growth.”  This is not true.  Perhaps they don’t intend to pick winners and losers, but the unintended consequence of their decisions is to pick winners and losers.  Why is it so hard to believe that establishing a new or better way to move people and things around draws more people and things to it?  This has been the history of transportation.  Development nicely follows new or improved transportation routes when a route is penciled in on a map.  This happened with the railroads.  When they were being built in the Midwest, speculators used the maps of the future railroad locations to buy up land and sell it to settlers and business people from the East.  If you look at where the towns are, they are strung along railroad lines at distances about equal to a half-day’s horse-drawn wagon ride…so farmers could get their grain to the railroad station in town and make it back home by nightfall.

Likewise in the interstate-building period…the placement of interstate highway interchanges contributed much to the shift in commercial activity from the center of towns to their edges.  The hollowing out of Midwestern downtowns was helped along by fast roads that got you in and out of town quickly.  Shifting the through-traffic to an interstate or major highway often precipitated a town’s death spiral, especially towns smaller than 10,000 people.  (Towns lucky enough to have a college or a few major businesses did better.)

The counter proposal is just as true.  Taking a recent example from my current home, Minneapolis-St. Paul, when light-rail transit lines were proposed, two or three years before they were built, developers began rehabbing the warehouses and building massive apartment buildings to respond to the inevitable demand for housing near the transit lines.  University Avenue, the ten-mile long connecting road between the two downtowns, is hardly recognizable today compared to fifteen years ago—so many new buildings, upgraded restaurants and shops…so many more people walking the sidewalks.  Transit picked the winners and decided the losers in the regional game of attracting people and generating economic activity, just as I-494 stimulated the third ring of suburban growth around the metro.  The same thing with railroads 150 years ago…where the tracks went, villages grew, and where they did not, those villages faded away.

Several years ago I wrote a grant proposal addressing this issue.  It wasn’t funded—the sponsors got skittish at the last minute.  The gist of the proposal was that roads exist to serve people.  The planners would say, that’s what we believe, too.  Perhaps so, but the way that roads are planned suggests that the opposite in fact is true—roads are kingdoms unto themselves, planned and designed with a set of principles that have more to do with connecting point A to B using a universal standard that doesn’t apply to local conditions.

In other words, people must adapt to roads, as they are conceived of by people trained to build roads.  Those same people are not trained to understand what makes a livable community, what preserves an ecologically vital place, what brings beauty to a space.  They are trained to build roads, with the cultural, ecological, and aesthetic considerations tacked on in the process to meet regulatory requirements.  My proposal was simply this:

  1. Design an ecologically healthy configuration of ecosystems that can withstand the buffets of change over the next century,
  2. Design an environment for people’s cultural and economic aspirations within that ecological framework, and
  3. Design a transportation network that supports the first two plans.  In other words, roads would go to to the back of the planning line, not the front.  Not the usual way road planning and building are done.  No wonder the sponsors pulled the plug at the last minute.
Highway 8 reconstruction underway.  The new road will go between the solitary tree in the photo's center--once at the edge of the forest there--and the new treeline on the right.  Gotta move that hill first.  Photo Kim Chapman

Highway 8 reconstruction underway. The new road will go between the solitary tree in the photo’s center–once at the edge of the forest there–and the new treeline on the right. Gotta move that hill first. Photo Kim Chapman

If we built or upgraded roads using this simple approach, perhaps the regulations to protect the environment, culture, and beauty of our world could be scaled back.  Instead, road building and improvement could actually be put to good use improving the environment, culture, and beauty of the world, rather than being an engine of degradation.

In a surprising burst of creativity, the US Department of Transportation during the Obama years attempted to do just that.  The USDOT leadership convened a series of meetings with the leadership of all other federal government agencies to develop guidelines as if the ecological and cultural elements of the world really mattered.  It laid out a planning framework in which roads would, indeed, be built and revamped with nature and human communities in mind.  They called the initiative “Eco-Logical” because, of course, it was the logical way to go.  (Great idea, but the name…ouch.)  In any case, marketing caché aside, the Eco-Logical approach was a great start.  Judging from what I’ve seen on Highway 8, it’s not taken hold yet.

The ideas in the Eco-Logical approach are pretty good.  Among them: avoid damaging the environment by having good advance data and taking creative approaches to road construction; and use the construction project to improve the environment—clean up dirty road runoff, plant hardy natives, and restore habitat.  All positive moves.

Until we fundamentally change how we view roads—making roads serve people and treat nature benignly, rather than force people and nature to adapt to roads—all will not be well.  We have another hundred years of population growth and development ahead of us before our human family’s expansion greatly slows down.  Will the result be more loss and degradation of the environment, disruption of human communities, greater long term maintenance costs which we cannot afford…or something better than that?  I’m convinced we can do better, and I’ve got a couple more decades in me to watch that come to pass.  Time will tell. – Kim

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Just Thinking About…Roads As Self-Fulfilling Prophesies, Part 1

The US Highway System--interstates and federal roads--have got us covered, except for a few pesky white spots where people are few.  Courtesy US Dept. Transportation

The US Highway System–interstates and federal roads–have got us covered, except for a few pesky white spots where people are few. Courtesy US Dept. Transportation

October 25, 2017. Years ago in a former job and former life, there was a man in the volunteer leadership of the organization I worked for who was a transportation planner and engineer. He was also highly placed in the Twin Cities transportation community. He and I hit it off and would talk about the topics of the day, one of which was public transit—buses, light rail, streetcars. Being a transportation expert who came of age in the car-driven planning era of the 1950s and 1960s, he saw no need to invest in public transit, and in fact felt that public transit was a dying form of transportation to be supplanted eventually I suppose by individual car-pods that would be controlled by computers, pick you up at your back door, and let you off at your destination.  (And yet, now he seems prescient…as we stand on the threshold of self-driving vehicles.)

One of his arguments against public transit was that our cities had outgrown the need. Most people, he said, lived in suburbs where densities couldn’t support a cost-effective public transit system, nobody lived downtown, and the areas of urbanity in between were best served by car. I pointed out that higher urban densities justified investments in public transit just as great distances in rural areas justified investments in interstate highways. Interstate highways didn’t pay their way, I argued. User taxes—gas tax, special taxes on trucks—don’t pay the full cost of building and maintaining the road network; the rest is paid by general funds, making roads a type of public transport.

He would then counter with the cost per passenger mile to construct and maintain the different systems. His argument was always that cars were more efficient than public transit on a per passenger mile basis. This was long before $4 a gallon gas—when gas prices were as low as in the 1970s, adjusting for inflation. Back in the 70s, when I first started driving, we paid 25 cents a gallon at “gas war corners”. (Gas war corners:  where two or three gas stations at the same intersection tried to undercut each other’s price. Everybody in that part of Dearborn and Dearborn Heights bought gas there.)

I couldn’t argue the point because I didn’t realize that the rock-bottom price of gas was subsidizing the low cost per passenger mile. And I didn’t have the presence of mind to point out that bikes, with no energy cost but your breakfast, were the most efficient way to move around. I also know now that, to use just one example, trains are much more cost-effective than trucks at delivering goods to market—a ton of freight can be moved 400-500 miles on one gallon of fuel. Sailing ships would be amazingly cost-effective if people would accept the extra couple days to receive their toaster from China. Trucks and cars, then, aren’t the cheapest way to move things around, they are just convenient at the moment.

If you want to be really efficient in how you use energy to get around, ride a bike or walk.  If you don't, hop a plane.  (Missing from the picture..gondolas and catamarans, among other things.)   Chart from Sustainable Transport and Public Policy (2009) by David Banister, from the intriguingly titled book Transportation Engineering and Planning, Volume II (part of the equally intriguing Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems).

If you want to be really efficient in how you use energy to get around, ride a bike or walk. If you don’t, hop a plane. (Missing from the picture..gondolas and catamarans, among other things.) Chart from Sustainable Transport and Public Policy (2009) by David Banister, from the intriguingly titled book Transportation Engineering and Planning, Volume II (part of the equally intriguing Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems).

At some point we wound up at the chicken-egg conundrum of new road construction. He believed that roads merely responded to trends, anticipating and serving future growth, while I maintained that they stimulated growth—my opinion was backed by a couple of decades watching the process unfold across the Midwest. We wound up at loggerheads every time. In my travels I’d seen the tell-tale signs of future road work—the black hoses laid across the roads counting cars, or pink wetland delineation flags—and a couple years later, a wider road appeared…or a new road or bigger intersection went in…after which development blossomed.

If we’d been talking a few years later, I’d have brought up Atlanta.  In the late 1990s road construction in the city of Atlanta was effectively halted because the city had tried and failed to build its way out of traffic congestion. They had already installed two ring roads—the first in the 1950s and 1960s for inner ring suburbs, the second in the 80s and 90s to serve the second suburban ring because the roads around the first were choked with traffic. Atlanta planned to build a third ring road, but in 1998 the US Environmental Protection Agency, citing the region’s deepening air pollution problem, cut off federal transportation funds until Atlanta took a different approach to solve its congestion. As it had before, another ring road would simply cause development to leap outward and fill that road up, too, with extra emissions to boot.

I argued against a similar proposal here in the Twin Cities, in a 1990 Star Tribune Commentary.  In the Twin Cities, the flickering flames of third ring road enthusiasm were doused by sensible people before the idea became a conflagration. Good sense prevailed also in the early 2000s, when the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council—an institution for pooling the region’s resources around transportation planning and other regional needs—introduced the idea of centers and corridors of growth—“smart growth”—as opposed to metastasizing growth across the region wherever roads or buildings would fit. Those centers of growth were to be on existing major transportation routes, where other ways of getting around could also develop—bus rapid transit, light rail, commuter bike routes, and ride-sharing lanes.

All this was yet to come, but at the time my colleague stuck to his guns, especially on the issue of roads not promoting low density development. Sadly, my friend died in the early 2000s and I could no longer annoy him with my arguments (or give him the floor to argue against my views, including this essay). I would have told him, for instance,  that I am witnessing firsthand the transformation of a mosaic of forests, wetlands, pastures and cropland to an exurban suburbia of big homes and vast lawns after major road upgrades were planned and executed by the highway department using data from those little black hoses they place on roads . − Kim

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