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 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

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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Just Talking About…Two Versions of the American Boulevard

Black-eyed Susans blooming on July 1.  Photo Kim Chapman

Black-eyed Susans blooming on July 1. Photo Kim Chapman

September 26, 2017.  Last summer my neighbor and I conspired to turn our shared boulevard (the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street in our Winona neighborhood parlance) from a crabgrass herbarium to a prairie.  We covered the sod in plastic to solarize the vegetation, then turned it over, burying the mostly dead weeds.  Finally in late fall we sowed a short statured prairie mix which had been recommended for city use—the plants would not grow so tall as to frighten the neighbors.

Come spring, not much happened.  A lot of weeds returned, spurges and queen Anne’s lace the like, but we didn’t see any sign of the prairie plants we had been hoping for.  When I asked Kim about this, he said to be patient—it takes up to three years for a prairie to establish itself.  We were about to give up when, mid-summer, suddenly we had a plethora of black-eyed Susans and our weedy boulevard was transformed into a riot of yellow blooms.

Jim's prairie displaying the yellow of black-eyed Susans less than a  year after it was seeded.  Untidy for some, but rich in resources for others.  Photo Jim Armstrong.

Jim’s prairie displaying the yellow of black-eyed Susans less than a year after it was seeded. Untidy for some, but rich in resources for others. Photo Jim Armstrong.

I have included photos comparing the boulevard prairie to the standard Winona grass boulevard.  Looking at them, you might prefer the grass version: so much more neat and tidy.  Our nascent prairie is a confusing welter of vegetation (and there is a rather intrusive milkweed on the right which is actually obstructing traffic—I tied it back with twine).  The grass boulevard is also easily traversed by those who park their cars by my house and wish to access the sidewalk.  One can certainly see why the city has regulations about care and upkeep of these spaces.

Tidy but ecologically impoverished boulevard in Winona, Minnesota.  Photo Jim Armstrong

Tidy but ecologically impoverished boulevard in Winona, Minnesota. Photo Jim Armstrong

However, the grass boulevard is a desert.  Its abstract sameness (so convenient to humans) is of no use to any other species.  One of the reasons my neighbor and I wanted the prairie is that we are concerned about the plight of pollinators.  Once you see your personal landscape as a shared space with other species, you begin to have a different aesthetic.  What I see when I look at the untidy prairie space I’ve created is the intense activity it supports: bees, birds, butterflies all visit regularly to harvest its nectar and pollen.  For example, I have seen goldfinches perched delicately on my black-eyed Susans—a brilliant yellow-and-black bird swaying atop a whorl of yellow petals, pecking seeds from the black center.  My urban space is a source of nourishment and sensual delight, not just a monochromatic mat board with which to frame my house.

Another factor to consider is the effort involved.  My prairie is very low maintenance.  Once it fully gets going I will only have to cut it once a year.  Because it is used to extremes, I don’t have to water it or replenish nutrients by fertilizing it.  My grass boulevard, however, has to be regularly groomed and wetted.

Ironically, emptiness takes work—nature, as the ancients say, abhors a vacuum.  Reduced diversity is against the inclination of the natural world, which is why agriculture—and by extension lawn care—is endless work.  Labor omnia vicit / improbus says the poet Virgil—steady work overcomes all things.  But nature’s motto is more like Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign slogan, “Stronger Together.”  The goal should be a richer community, not a simpler one. – Jim

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Just Talking About…The Little Things That Run The World

Alexander von Humboldt stands before Chimborazo, which he and Aimé Bonpland, seated, climbed in 1802--higher than any human for decades, and they didn't use special gear.  Painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch 1806.

Alexander von Humboldt stands before Chimborazo, which he and Aimé Bonpland, seated, climbed in 1802–higher than any human for decades, and they didn’t use special gear. Painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch 1806.

September 8, 2017.  It’s amazing to me how much of the world hinges on the workings of tiny things.  I’m reading about Alexander von Humboldt, the most famous man you’ve never heard of, who paid attention to those small things.  It’s not a stretch to say that Humboldt created or influenced most of the technical or scientifically rigorous disciplines of the modern age.  He was most active and influential in the first half of the 1800s.  He was a friend and correspondent of Thomas Jefferson, and a consultant to his and subsequent administrations.  For decades he was among all Earth’s inhabitants the one who’d been highest up a mountain, the volcanic Chimborazo in the Ecuadorian Andes.  (Although shorter than Everest measured from sea level, Chimborazo is actually higher into space due to the equatorial bulge in the Earth.)  He didn’t invent, but laid the foundations for my discipline, ecology, which emerged as a coherent field around 1900.  Add to that sociology, anthropology, meteorology, advances in geology, and several other lines of inquiry in the sciences and humanities.  He’s the most eponymously decorated person on the planet, with more places and things named for him than anybody alive or dead:  rivers, mountains, counties, colleges and high schools, various species, and, of course, the Humboldt Current.  In the mid-1800s he was an intellectual giant, and everybody knew who he was.

Back to tiny things running the world, Humboldt was a vigorous collector of data, not just species as he traversed the planet, but of atmospheric, geologic, chemical, and other data.  He formalized the art of combining all those data into a story of place, and that story entirely depended on vast amounts of data—big data, you might call it today.

It was the little things that Humboldt noticed and recorded, from flowers and trees to insects and rock types, to the minute pressure changes as he ascended mountains.  There’s a famous quote by J.B.S. Haldane who was asked what he could conclude from his biological studies about the nature of the divinity.  He answered, “God has an inordinate fondness for beetles”—because twenty-five percent of all species on Earth are beetles.  Recently we’ve learned how important bacteria are to our survival—not in a negative way, but as part of our body’s architecture, comprising half the cells in our body, with a dramatic influence on our health, depending on which species dominate our gut fauna.

Just a few of the millions of beetle species on the planet, each of which has a job to do.  Collections of the Harvard Museum of Natural History.  Photo Kim Chapman

Just a few of the millions of beetle species on the planet, each of which has a job to do. Collections of the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Photo Kim Chapman

Natural history as it relates to everything—culture, economics, quality of life, happiness, soulfulness—this “integral ecology” as Pope Francis calls it—Humboldt envisioned as the Cosmos, a word he reached back to ancient Greek for, in order to frame up the proper relationship among humanity, all the fields of study, and the seen and unseen physical world.  I learned recently that Thoreau and Whitman picked up on Humboldt’s theme and worked it out in their own American writings—trying to make of their own lives and thoughts an integral ecology.  By contrast, it is so easy to be swallowed up by the minutiae of our created world—from baseball statistics to hair care products, varieties of snack bars on grocery shelves, to makes of cars, the glitterati on screens, fashion in magazines—that we cannot see outside the opaque bubble we’ve created and notice all the small things supporting us, not just our gut bacteria, but the fungi and microorganisms that perfect the soil’s innate fertility and support 200 bushels an acre corn, and the plants which go about their lives and incidentally produce the oxygen that we breathe in order to live.

The shaggy Pholiota, just one of the five million different species of mushrooms working quietly in the background.  Without fungi, a lot of the world might be covered with dead wood several miles deep.  Photo by Keith Wendt

The shaggy Pholiota, just one of the five million different species of mushrooms working quietly in the background. Without fungi, a lot of the world might be covered with dead wood several miles deep. Photo by Keith Wendt

To the stream of this meandering essay, I offer a book title by the renowned ant biologist E.O. Wilson, The Little Things That Run The World.  Along these lines, I’m thinking about Jim’s essay on riffle beetles and the centuries of species collections housed in natural history museums around the world.  Collections used to be central to biology, but now it’s all about genomics, molecular biology, and CRSPR gene splicing—a technology people can invent new organisms with.  That’s where the money is, and that’s what biologists now train themselves to do.  But Jim’s discursive on the art of field collections exhibited at the Field Museum of Natural History cracked the door of a little used closet at the back of biology’s big warehouse.  Jim wrote about riffle beetles, bugs that spend most of their lives under water, except for a brief fling in the atmosphere after they emerge from their pupal cases.  I told him that riffle beetles are one of the key indicators of whether a stream is polluted or not.  You can go anywhere in the world, and if you find a riffle beetle, odds are that stream’s watershed is mostly forested or grassy, chock full of wetlands, with nobody piping in factory waste or sewer water.  In short, a healthy, resilient place…”alive with the grace of all that in the mind is fleckless, free, and naturally to be desired,” in the words of William Carlos Williams.

We’re talking Index of Biotic Integrity!  Dozens of scientists around the world have labored over thirty years to perfect this measuring stick that gauges the health of streams.  The EPA and state agencies charged with enforcing the 1972 Clean Water Act (which Republicans and Democrats jointly passed –how times have changed!)—they use the Index of Biotic Integrity to identify problems in our nation’s streams and rivers.  That whole evaluation system depends on little creatures like riffle beetles, on aerial acrobats like dragonflies and damselflies, and on the unreal swarming of mayflies which are food for trout and the model for a famous lure, the Adams, which is revered by fly fishermen for its ability to snag a fish.  Even the not-so-nice black flies—Simuliidae is their family name—are so necessary to a healthy stream ecosystem, and a food chain staple that brings us those trout.

Where the little things that run stream ecosystems on Earth fit into the picture.  the fish are just one small part, though a tasty one.  Image by US Environmental Protection Agency.

Where the little things that run stream ecosystems on Earth fit into the picture. the fish are just one small part, though a tasty one. Image by US Environmental Protection Agency.

All these species and more, invisible to us, as if locked away in a cast iron safe whose key was lost a century ago.  The human world operates as if such things don’t exist, and yet if they did not, our lives would be the poorer for it—not just emotionally or spiritually, but rather, in the added expense to keep our cultural-economic-techo bubble intact.  We’d need to spend more to substitute for the lost services that healthy ecosystems provide, like the water cleansing function of watersheds, as measured with tools like the Index of Biotic Integrity.

My personal nightmare is the idea of everything being used by people.  Not one square foot of the planet left to its own devices, to work out an evolutionary path over millennia, supremely adapted to the ever-changing world around it, able to withstand the buffets of change, unlike our own increasingly fragile, human-centric ecosystem, in which cracks appear from time to time, and which we, like those busiest of animals, the ants, repair at great expense and with an urgency born from a belief that we can’t depend on nature…it’s all on us.  But isn’t that exhausting? – Kim

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Just Talking About…Highway 62 Prairie Revisited

The circular blockhouse at Fort Snelling, defending against the noise of commuter traffic on Highway 5 where it crosses the Mississippi River.  Photo Kim Chapman

The circular blockhouse at Fort Snelling, defending against the noise of commuter traffic on Highway 5 where it crosses the Mississippi River. Photo Kim Chapman

September 3, 2007.  I passed this morning a postage stamp piece of the original, authentic Minnesota.  It’s just a little scrap of land wedged between two highways and the federal lands containing the Veterans’ facilities and other administrative chunks, all part of the former Fort Snelling Military Reservation established in 1805 by purchase of 155,000 acres from the local Dakota Indians for $4 million (2017 dollars), which was never fully paid, apparently.

As you drive this stretch of road you notice, if you’re paying attention, an oddly placed chain link fence.  This is an old fence, perhaps from when Highway 62, my commuting route, was punched through in the late 1960s.  When I first moved here thirty years ago, the little patch was mostly prairie grasses and sagebrush, and a succession of flowers starting in June with bergamot whose scent is the flavor of Earl Gray Tea, then black-eyed susans, drooping-petaled yellow coneflower, and finally the fall colors of goldenrod and aster.  The eternal grasses of the tallgrass prairie stood there in profusion through the winter—copper-colored big bluestem and Indian grass, and the yellowish prairie cordgrass with its graceful arched stems waving in a decent wind.

None of that is evident now because a thick growth of box elder, ash, diseased elms, and shrubs has taken over.

Mysterious fence around the Highway 62 prairie is quite evident in this air photo kindly provided by Google Earth.

Mysterious fence around the Highway 62 prairie is quite evident in this air photo kindly provided by Google Earth.

The reason I’m so obsessed with this patch of ground—besides the curiosity of a scientist in watching thirty years of plant succession—is that this place is a stone’s throw from the Mdewakanton Indians’ traditional place of origin.  This whole area, the military reservation the US Army established on the order of Thomas Jefferson, a time when soldiers wore nearly brimless blue top hats, was the center of local Dakota civilization.  There was a sacred spring, called Coldwater Spring by whites and Mni Owe Sni by the Dakota, on the bluff above the Mississippi River to which the soldiers moved after losing half their number to disease and starvation the first winter spent down by the river.  When Josiah Snelling showed up in 1820 to build a fort, the soldiers had moved to the flat, open plains by Clearwater Spring.

The soldiers quarried the bluff-topping Plattville limestone to build the fort, and you can still see those ancient workings today along a bike path that sits on an old road between the fort and Minneapolis.  Snelling’s lovely house for himself, wife and children looks east over the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.  From his back window he could see the hill the Dakota called Wotakaye Paha or Oheyawahi, and Pilot Knob by paddle-wheelers that steered by it.  Loosely translated, it meant “hill of the relatives”, or “hill that is visited often”.  This was a burial grounds as well as a place where Dakota met to discuss the important issues of the day and settle matters.  Josiah may have had inklings, given the history of his country’s dealings with Indians, that in the year 1851, seven years before statehood, a treaty would be signed here that gave for $42.3 million (2017 dollars) some 35 million acres of Dakota land to the United States government—a bargain at less than 2 cents an acre.  Between that not so great deal—much of the money was already spoken for by traders who sold Indians goods at inflationary prices on credit—and the Germans and Scandinavians who flooded the scene in the 1850s, topped off by the Civil War that caused the government to forget its treaty obligations to address more pressing matters—the tinder was laid to ignite the US-Dakota War of 1862.  That event unleashed such sorrow from which the state has not yet recovered.  You can read about this in the beautiful expository of Minnesota history by Mary Wingerd.  Yes, there are villains and heroes.

From Wotakaye Paha, which I am near when I bike the Mendota bridge where the Mississippi receives the Minnesota River—at Bdote, the place where two waters come together—you have a commanding view up and down both big rivers and can see in the distance the white sandstone cliffs where the Kapozha Indian village was, up the Minnesota to the Indian town of Black Dog, and on some days spy the mists at the thunderous cascade of St. Anthony’s Falls where the little village of St. Anthony was built to cut logs and grind grain for the soldiers’ construction projects and sustenance.  Louis Hennepin, the boastful Franciscan priest who made a name for himself in Paris with his travelogue about the Upper Midwest, was taken as a captive by the Dakota in the year 1680 and brought to the falls, which he named for a Franciscan friar and the patron saint of lost things and also of Hennepin himself.  (The falls already were sacred to the Dakota, so giving it a Catholic saint’s name didn’t embellish it at all.)  I occasionally bike the route of the portage he walked to view the falls—amazing how the past is still present, and not so long ago.

Bdote, where two waters meet...the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.  Wotakaye Paha, or Pilot Knob, is the hill on the horizon, and Fort Snelling is just off photo to right, on the opposite  bank.  Photo Kim Chapman

Bdote, where two waters meet…the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. Wotakaye Paha, or Pilot Knob, is the hill on the horizon, and Fort Snelling is just off photo to right, on the opposite bank. Photo Kim Chapman

Back to this little patch of prairie…on a map I saw briefly years ago, and which since has disappeared from the Internet, was marked the center of the Dakota’s world, its Garden of Eden.  The place was a distance south of the little prairie, at the edge of the airport, on a rise of land in the plains.  Now it is packed with little ranch houses and bisected by a big fence topped with barbed wire for national security reasons.  It’s the Twin Cities airport, after all.

R. Jones Colby's 1850 map of Fort Snelling and environs.  Pilot Knob is southwest of the fort, and the spring where soldiers camped while building the fort is just northwest of the fort.

R. Jones Colby’s 1850 map of Fort Snelling and environs. Pilot Knob is southwest of the fort, and the spring where soldiers camped while building the fort is just northwest of the fort.

I had a close call there the summer after 9-11 when I got it in my head to drive the neighborhood and find the place where the Dakota people’s world was centered.  I found the highest spot in the neighborhood and parked at the intersection of two streets, near the airport fence guarding the planes against another catastrophe—and naturally the neighbors called the police.  Before the police arrived, though, I’d worked my way east and had just turned the corner by the Fort Snelling parade grounds when I spied them driving way over the speed limit, headed to where I’d been seconds before.  Somehow they didn’t see me.  I took that as a cue to leave.  Back on Highway 62, I caught a glimpse of them racing down the frontage road in the opposite direction.  I was spared, perhaps by the same Great Spirit the Dakota put their faith in.

From Wotakaye Paha looking west to the fort.  The Mississippi River heads upstream on the right, and the Minnesota to the left.  The island is another important place to the Dakota, named Pike after the same Zebulon who never ascended Pike's Peak, but did buy 155,000 acres there from the Dakota on which to construct the fort.  Painting by Edward Thomas 1850.

From Wotakaye Paha looking west to the fort. The Mississippi River heads upstream on the right, and the Minnesota to the left. The island is another important place to the Dakota, named Pike after the same Zebulon who never ascended Pike’s Peak, but did buy 155,000 acres there from the Dakota on which to construct the fort. Painting by Edward Thomas 1850.  Collections of the Minnesota Institute of Arts.

I wonder what this all means, my mingling of the personal and factual, of the distant past and present day.  I suspect that this is the last unturned piece of soil hereabouts, still holding the same carbon from grass roots which grew here 10,000 years ago—a deep, black soil that made the Midwest the breadbasket of the world.  This organic-laden dirt, a few feet thick, created by millennia of lives that played out to their endings at this spot, is perhaps mingled with the blood and tears of a nearly vanquished people and occasionally the tears of newcomers who sympathize with their story.  Good thing there’s a fence.  – Kim

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Just Talking About…Britain Giving Up Coal For A Day

Water vapor and carbon dioxide aplenty at Drax Power Plant, Yorkshire, England, in 2007.  It has provided England with 7% of its energy needs, and is the biggest single emitter of CO2 in the country.  A CO2 capture scheme was investigated but deemed too costly without major government subsidies.  Photo by Paul Glazzard.

Water vapor and carbon dioxide aplenty at Drax Power Plant, Yorkshire, England, in 2007. It has provided England with 7% of its energy needs, and is the biggest single emitter of CO2 in the country.  A CO2 capture scheme was investigated but deemed too costly without major government subsidies. Photo by Paul Glazzard.

August 27, 2017.  A noteworthy moment in the history of the planet occurred with few of my countrymen noticing.  On Friday, April 21, 2017, the United Kingdom got all its energy needs without burning an ounce of coal.  Coal, as we know, is the most polluting of energy sources measured by carbon dioxide emissions—the greenhouse gas—and also soot, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide.  The last three pollutants used to cause smoggy days, lung irritation, asthma attacks and even early death (see the great London smog of 1952, for instance; or Beijing’s current situation).  That was before scrubbers were put on smokestacks beginning in the 1960s, and before sulfur dioxide trading began in the 1990s.

So now coal-fired power plants discharge mostly water vapor and a greenhouse gas, and coal produces a lot of that for the amount of energy gained compared to all other energy sources.  That extra dose of CO2 in the atmosphere is overtaxing the capacity of plants, soils and oceans to absorb it all, helping to drive up carbon dioxide concentrations measured at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii to over 400 parts per million.  (This is up by a good margin from the pre-industrial background level of 170-280 ppm, a level held constant by the planet for several hundred thousand years.)

Where did this incredible event I mentioned actually happen?  In the heart of the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain, which enthroned coal as the king of energy sources beginning in the early 1700s.  Here we are, 300 years later, with a lot of water over the dam (which is a renewable resource, by the way, along with wind through the turbine blades and sun on the solar panels).  In that time Britain threw its civilizing yoke on over half of humanity, becoming the most influential political entity the world had ever known until the United States took on that burden after WWII.

We too depended on coal to drive our industrial engine, manufacturing objects to extend our civilization from thirteen little colonies on the eastern seaboard to the California coast.  Not to mention fighting a civil war which killed more Americans that all our other wars combined, and the North winning it to abolish slavery and knock the landed southern aristocracy on its heels for a while, and along the way saving democracy from Germanic tyranny not once, but twice.  We couldn’t have done any of this without coal.

So coal, we loved you, we celebrated you, but like the lover who finally sees your toxicity to physical, if not mental health, we must bid you adieu.  You were good to us for a time, but that time has passed.  On that momentous day, April 21, 2017, we see the future.  Germany is farther along than Great Britain, but Great Britain’s industrial class has less of a communitarian spirit than Germany’s and has resisted the wishes of Britain’s people to revoke coal’s kingly status and relegate it to a minor lordship for now, until the time when it dies a natural death.

Coal's decline in England mirrors the uptick in the use of natural gas since 1991.  Energy conservation and renewables are adding to that trend.  Source:  "Economics Help" using World Bank data.

Coal’s decline in England mirrors the uptick in the use of natural gas since 1991. Energy conservation and renewables are adding to that trend. Source: “Economics Help” using World Bank data.

Meanwhile, in Germany, also this past spring, it was reported that on one sunny day 85 percent of that country’s mighty industrial workings and residential energy needs were met by renewables.  A scant 15 percent was fueled by coal, natural gas, and nuclear power.  Wow.  Keep your eyes on Germany, which for some decades now has put their money where their mouth is, finding ways to use energy more efficiently and to get all their energy needs from renewables.  This includes a commitment to shut down all nuclear power plants by 2022.  America with its wealth of German-descended engineers surely can do as well as Germany at leading us into the future of how energy is created and used.  – Kim

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