Just Talking About…The Climate That Was

Snowflake demonstrating that no two are the same, in Moscow, January 2013.  Photo Alexey Kljatov Snowflake demonstrating that no two are the same, in Moscow, January 2013. Photo Alexey Kljatov

Snowflake demonstrating that no two are the same, in Moscow, January 2013. Photo Alexey Kljatov

February 25, 2017.  The morning sun after a snowstorm, an iconic Minnesota sight.  The crisp air and glittering festoons of snow on every horizontal surface bring back my first memories of the state, which I saw when my family traveled from Indiana to Northfield one January in 1968.   I had never seen real winter, crystalline and vast; Southern Indiana winters are more like brief interludes, where the moist snow resembles shaved ice at carnivals and lasts a day or two, sitting heavily on the bushes and wet in the roads.  I remember, during that sojourn in the north, sleeping on a floor in a guest room under a down sleeping bag left over from our host’s army days and feeling the morning chill in the room like a palpable presence.  I remember the windows etched with frost and the impossible brilliance of sunrise (the Indiana winters were swathed in woolly clouds and plunged in monochrome).

View out my backyard this morning—snow on the garden and my neighbor’s roof catching the first light of day.  J. Armstrong

View out my backyard this morning—snow on the garden and my neighbor’s roof catching the first light of day. J. Armstrong

Years later we moved to Winona where I took a job at the university; we couldn’t have been happier.  When I went on the professorial market, my wife and I drew a line across the United States that we called the “snow line”—below which we would not go.  Winter without snow did not seem worth our trouble.  We arrived in Minnesota in 1999 in the midst of a heat wave—it was 105 degrees the day we moved in.  But my first purchase, once the boxes were all opened and decanted and the furniture put in place, was a brace of snow shovels—sturdy steel implements painted caution yellow.  I couldn’t wait for the plunge into the deep freeze.

How much climate defines us.  The outer surface of things becomes the language of our inner emotions–sunrise and sunset, the moaning of a blizzard in the house eaves, the call of a crow in the snowy top of a hackberry tree–all are embedded in our psychic and emotional life and populate our dreams.  To a great extent we become products of local weather, if we are at all alive to our senses.  Last week the temperatures rose into the 60s here; I heard robins singing their spring song and I saw open water on the lake.  To see the sights and sounds of early April in mid-February seemed sickening.  The south, which I had gladly fled, was invading the north.  And I knew why.  I knew that our profligate burning of fossil fuels was turning the climate into a chaotic pressure-cooker; I knew that even conservative predictions were saying Minnesota would fairly soon have the climate of Arkansas; that the winter I have come to love would become shorter and rarer.  I knew that the current administration in Washington was busy hastening that hellish crock-potting of the American climate.

All the more reason to rejoice in this reprieve—to revel in the glitter of the morning.  For a moment we have the Minnesota climate we fell in love with.  — Jim

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Just Talking About…Eagles–Back and Ready for Another Year

This bald eagle has something in mind--fly, chase, threaten?  Whatever it is, he's ready!  Photo USFWS Mountain-Prairie

This bald eagle has something in mind–fly, chase, threaten? Whatever it is, he’s ready! Photo USFWS Mountain-Prairie

January 29, 2017.  No matter whom you voted for in the recent election, or whether you are joyous or terrorized by our President’s first week in office, one thing remains constant–an eagle’s urge to bring the next generation into the world.  We’ve had a pair nesting down by the river for some years now–they used to live in the park at Hidden Falls, on the Mississippi River, but after the power company cleared around their high-tension wires, the eagles moved on.  They set up housekeeping on top of the bluffs, in the tony neighborhood facing the setting sun and overlooking the big river.  That sufficed for a couple of years, but something about the place didn’t suit them, and they hiked on downriver a half mile or so to a street off the main drag on the bluffline–where the houses are a little smaller but people are, presumably, a little happier because they don’t have to keep up with the Joneses so much.

Eagle at work on its nest in somebody's back yard--a very quiet construction job.  Photo K Chapman

Eagle at work on its nest in somebody’s back yard–a very quiet construction job. Photo K Chapman

This eagle pair is what wildlife biologists call “habituated.”  That means they can stand having us nearby.  A lot of other animals have learned over the years that, as long as they keep their heads down, we’ll let them live among us.  So cockroaches by the billions are largely unseen unless you step on one on your way to the bathroom late at night.  Raccoons and rats hide out in storm sewers until after dark.  We like it when the monarchs drift through on their southward flight in August.  Crows, starlings, geese, rock doves (the new name for pigeons) and the millions of other habituated birds can always fly down the block when we start to harass them for their messy ways.  And now eagles are habituated.

Former residence of the eagle pair--slightly upscale from where they live now, but still behind somebody's house.  Photo K. Chapman

Former residence of the eagle pair–slightly upscale from where they live now, but still behind somebody’s house. Photo K. Chapman

Not all of them.  You can still spook a pair off its nest, never to return, if you cut trees or build things within several hundred feet of it.  That’s why there is still a law to protect eagles, now that they’re off the endangered species list yet still our nation’s animal totem.  On the other hand, the eagle population in the Midwest gets bigger every years, a trend that began when DDT was banned around 1972, thanks to the work of the infant Environmental Protection Agency (formed in 1970) which argued persuasively that not only were eagles losing the race to stay relevant, hundreds of bird species around the world were taking it on the chin, too.  DDT, a potent insecticide, was getting into the bodies of eagles and other birds that ate animals–fish, in the case of bald eagles–and causing egg shells to be too thin to stand the weight of the mother trying to keep it warm.  Crack.  So this is a good thing, the growing eagle population, but now there is a balancing act between allowing some eagles to be killed accidentally during otherwise lawful activities, like energy production, and knowing that an eagle that is killed will quickly be replaced by one of the burgeoning population.

Our eagles, whom I can see any time I want, are clearly unfazed by elections, revocation of past executive orders, dissolution of agency mission statements, and the general turmoil in our political landscape.  Next time I feel a little unhinged by it all, I’ll take a stroll down the river bluff road and consider the eagles–who neither reap nor sow, yet in their quiet deliberation manage to replenish the earth with their kind every single year.  — Kim

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Just Talking About…Moose and 23 Degrees

A lady moose losing her winter pelt on June 1, in Ontario.  Nutritious new leaves are a big improvement over what she had to eat over the winter.  Photo B Cameron.

A lady moose losing her winter pelt on June 1, in Ontario. Nutritious new leaves are a big improvement over what she had to eat over the winter. Photo B Cameron.

July 13, 2016.  After some years of research the wildlife biologists at the University of Minnesota and Department of Natural Resources are sketching an outline of reasons for moose declines in northeastern Minnesota.  Thirty years ago on the other side of the state, in northwest Minnesota, moose numbered 4,000, but by 2008 for all intents and purposes they had gone AWOL there.  In northeast Minnesota, where you can still find them, numbers have fallen by half since 2009, to approximately 4,000.  My wife’s dearest dream has been to get a good, long look at a moose somewhere on the Gunflint Trail…or anywhere for that matter.  We drive the Gunflint two or three times a year, never sighting moose, and hear, of course, that the very next day a friend or acquaintance of a friend spotted a moose where we had been a scant 24 hours earlier.  Likewise, in the Boundary Waters or Quetico, despite hundreds of hours portaging, paddling, and camping there…never a moose.  How is this possible?

It’s the Fates, of course, deigning that we should be at a moose sighting location always some hours before the moose is scheduled to arrive.  Whether you believe in fate or not, or adhere more to the idea of the universe as a random number generator, not sighting moose might be related to moose numbers.  Something is going on to drive moose numbers down.  Everyone knows that.  It’s been measured.  People are not arguing that point.

What they are arguing about is the cause of declines because, once a problem is known, somebody will want to do something about it.  That is our way as a species—fix the problem, hopefully without unintended consequences.

Hunters for years have said, the cause is wolves, whose numbers have increased since the 1970s after protection began.  The argument is that wolves are gobbling up all the moose.  Fair enough, and it seems like a reasonable hypothesis.  Meanwhile, conservationists have pointed to the deer population, which is ten to twenty times higher today than in the 1800s when hunting was year-round and before the industrial-scale logging of the Lake States changed the forest.  Deer numbers were quite low in the 1800s because there really wasn’t much food to eat, especially in winter, the starving time.  With the cutting and conversion of a conifer-rich forest to an aspen-birch system with grassy openings, suddenly deer found conditions much more to their liking.  Even with today’s hunting, which removes several hundred thousand deer from the north woods each year, there still remain so many deer that moose come in contact with them quite often, and in so doing, seal their doom.  This is because deer are infected by a parasitic worm which lives benignly in their brain and spinal cord, and whose larvae are spread in the deer’s feces.  The intermediate host, snails and slugs, inadvertently pick up the larvae, and if a moose happens to eat one while feeding on plants, the worm move to the moose’s brain, but with much different results.  Moose have no tolerance for this organism, and eventually the worm causes disorientation and other behavior changes, and ultimately death.

Conservationists for decades have been saying, if you want a moose population in the Lake States, you have to have less aspen-birch forest and fewer deer.  This upsets hunters and loggers because they like a lot of aspen and birch and an overabundance of deer.  That also makes it possible to earn a living as a logger, cutting pulpwood for paper, or to ensure that one’s nephew or daughter nabs that buck on their first November hunt.

Big changes in the north woods from the late 1800s to now.  The yellow of aspen-birch forest in the modern map has replaced the greens of the conifer-rich forests of the presettlement map.  From Cole et al. 1999 USGS "Historical Landcover Changes in the Great Lakes Region".

Big changes in the north woods from the late 1800s to now. The yellow of aspen-birch forest in the modern map has replaced the greens of the conifer-rich forests on the presettlement map. From Cole et al. 1999 USGS “Historical Landcover Changes in the Great Lakes Region”.

Now into the political mix come the scientists—confounding the stories told at the kitchen table or around a campfire.  The scientists who most recently put radio-transmitting collars on moose now have a story that is more complex, as always in the real natural world.  People’s wish to latch onto a single explanation is universal.  We can understand it, we can tackle one cause by changing a law or putting in place a change in behavior or a best practice; but when you have an ecological system with multiple forces at work causing the decline of moose…well, where do you begin?  It’s simply too much for most people to deal with.  Part of the problem is that in American society there always has been a strong undercurrent of anti-intellectualism, described eloquently and persuasively by Richard Hofstadter in the 1960s as our democratic inheritance.  In a democracy, you don’t completely trust the experts because, what do they know about real life?  They’re eggheads, they live in ivory towers, they get mired in details, and they don’t use common sense.  But, in fact, the experts in our society have been quite helpful at raising our living standards and addressing society’s pressing needs.  Despite that, political movements that take advantage of the natural distrust of experts by the American (small “d”) democrat, have a consistent place in our nation’s history and development.

Be that as it may, scientists, those experts, are now getting into the act with a lot of data.  What they tell us is that changing weather patterns, disease and parasites, and the moose’s own physiology—its way of taking in food and regulating its internal biological processes to carry on life—are intertwined and responsible for the shrinking moose population.

In a nutshell, the story begins with 23 degrees Fahrenheit.  Winter temperature is a major driver of moose decline.  It’s been known for thirty years that 23 degrees is an important threshold in moose physiology, but it hasn’t yet been brought into the conversation.  Twenty-three degrees is the temperature at which moose start panting in the winter.  This is because moose, adapted as they are to a frigid northern climate, have a remarkably well-insulating winter pelt which they shed by summer.  When temperatures get above 23 F on a winter’s day, moose have to head for the shade, lie in snow to cool down, and stop moving around—to keep their body from heating up as they use their muscles.  But if they lie still to prevent overheating, the winter food they consume cannot support them.  In winter the only things to eat are buds and small twigs.  If you’ve walked around moose country after the snow melts, you find hard oval nuggets of moose scat all over—that’s the material which moose cannot digest, having extracted a tiny amount of nitrogen and other nutrition and passed the wood along.  If you’re a thousand pound moose, you need to eat 10-20 pounds of twigs daily to keep yourself going, and even then you’ll lose weight over the winter.  But as long as the temperature stays below 23 F in the daytime, a healthy moose can eat and digest enough food to make it to spring, when better food becomes available.  If above 23 F, it has to stop moving and lie in the snow to cool off—or it overheats.  When a moose heads for the shade, though, it’s not eating, but if it keeps eating, it uses precious energy to pant and stay cool.  If there are too many hours above 23 F for too many days, a moose will starve.

A moose went to a lot of trouble to relieve itself 300 feet up on Bell Mound, at the rest stop SE of Black River Falls.  These woody pellets can be seen in moose country, after snowmelt.  Photo K Chapman.

A moose went to a lot of trouble to relieve itself 300 feet up on Bell Mound, at the rest stop SE of Black River Falls. These woody pellets can be seen in moose country, after snowmelt. Photo K Chapman.

In this weakened state, the ticks that always cover moose begin to take their toll.  They’re removing blood, which in a healthy moose wouldn’t be a problem, but in a starving moose pushes it closer to death.  In a weakened state a moose is also less likely to escape a hungry wolf.  Lastly, coming out of the winter in an unhealthy state means that moose parents are less able to bear or care for young—it takes a lot of energy to fend off a hungry wolf intent on eating your calf.

These things are all interwoven in a complicated pattern, a pattern which speaks the truth about all species on earth.  Many factors cause species to survive or disappear, and humans cannot comprehend every species’ story—there simply isn’t the time.  Look at the millions of dollars spent to understand the decline of moose in the north woods, and the thousands of gallons of hot air expended talking about it, not to mention hundreds of pounds of ink shed to report everybody’s opinion on the matter.  What about the other ten million species on Earth—can we know their story and manage them all?

Just the facts, ma'am...winter temperatures are rising fastest in a region centered on Minnesota, says the US EPA.

Just the facts, ma’am…winter temperatures are rising fastest in a region centered on Minnesota, says the US EPA.

One final word from the scientists does not bode well for moose in northeast Minnesota:  they do not migrate.  You’d think moose would march north in pursuit of cooler temperatures, but they just slowly disappear, like candles burning out one by one at the front of a church.  They wink out in place.  That’s what happened in northwest Minnesota.  Now we’ve seen a decade’s decline in northeast Minnesota.  It is likely that in several decades, with a predicted temperature in the Lake Superior region of 5.5-8 degrees F higher than today, there will be no moose in Minnesota—especially since winter temperatures are increasing faster than summer ones.  This isn’t alarmist talk, it’s simply a statement of fact.  Why not know what is coming and adjust to it?  Simply acknowledge the story emerging from the data, and make a decision about what to do with that.  Do we or do we not want moose?  Or are the forces marshaled on either side of the issue so powerful and loud, that it comes down to who has the most power to force a decision?  It’s a simple decision—or rather, because it’s political, it’s more like a simple choice.  In the end it is a decision that will be made deliberately, or by default if we simply let nature take its course. – Kim

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Just Talking About…Frosted Oaks (Not Oats!)

Dead leaves on living oak trees in summer--how did that happen?  Photo K. Chapman

Dead leaves on living oak trees in summer–how did that happen? Photo K. Chapman

June 8, 2016.   Several weeks ago I drove from St. Paul to Alma, Michigan for the service of my wife Elizabeth’s step-brother who died recently.  I wrote a few words to open the service, which got me thinking about mortality and resurrection.

I was a bit surprised when, heading east on I-94 a short distance from the Twin Cities, I began seeing what I thought were dead oak trees. Not just one or two, but lots of them…dead.  What in the world was going on?  At first I wondered if there’d been a wildfire—but other trees and shrubs were leafing out so it wasn’t that.  Then I wondered if it was a disease; surely I would have heard about that from the swarm of wildlife biologists, foresters, and others managing our natural resources.  There actually is an oak blight on the West Coast, brought to us by an energetic global commerce spreading diseases and pests and helping the demise of many other tree species—chestnut, elm, hemlock, beech—but that’s a story for another day.

Then it hit me. The oaks weren’t dead, the oak leaves were dead.  There’d been a hard frost around May 13 east of my home, and the low ground I was now traversing had concentrated the cold.  I’d learned about that in an ecology course taught by Richard Brewer.  It’s always colder in a landscape’s low places than on the hilltops because cold air, being heavier than warm air, sinks to its lowest level.  It’s called “cold air drainage”—an obvious term, but one few have heard.  We actually measured it.  We walked from a hilltop in a field to a drainageway that led to trickling ditch in a thickety woods.  Sure enough the field at the top of the hill was hot, the ravine and then the woods were cooler—maybe four or five degrees Fahrenheit.  During the nights of May 12-14 the temperature across the upper Midwest plummeted and low areas got even colder because the heavy cold air rolled on down the drainageways and puddled up in the low places.  That explained the sharp lines of dead leaves on slopes—at the bottom all the leaves were brown (“and the sky was gray”), then part way up there was a sharp line with brown leaves below and green above, and on ridgetops the leaves were untouched.

The oaks below are in a low spot on the landscape.  Cold air drainage killed their leaves while leaves on higher ground kept on growing.  Photo K. Chapman

The oaks (tan area) are in a low spot on the landscape. Cold air drainage killed their leaves while leaves on higher ground kept on growing. Photo K. Chapman

I’d seen this before, in June 2000 while collecting bird data in the north Metro. Driving around my study area, all the oaks appeared dead—immense oaks, like brown lollypops in a green world.  There had been a leaf-killing frost on May 19 that year which hit the white and bur oaks hard.  Driving to Alma sixteen years later, I put two and two together.  Like the frost in 2000, this leaf-kill also followed a very warm spring.  This time, though, it was associated with the second strongest El Niño on record.  March 2016 was hotter than normal, stimulating the oak leaves to emerge early.  By May they’d grown beyond their protective leaf bud scales and become easy marks for Jack Frost.  Minnesota sits at the north and west edge of the range of every oak species in the eastern United States.  Bur oak—a dwarfed version of the giant found in Michigan’s river floodplains—makes it the farthest, but otherwise the oaks pretty much end in eastern Minnesota.  And I see why:  Minnesota is a volatile place, weather-wise, with a single-day temperature swing of 80 degrees happening every couple years or so.  On a broader scale, the greatest temperature rises since 1980 occurring in the lower 48 are happening in Minnesota.  We have the most to lose in terms of the Arctic air conditioning we’ve enjoyed as white settlers for a couple hundred years, and in the previous several thousand years as Indian settlers.  All us settlers arrived here in a benign climate (my daughter would point to our winters and argue with that word, “benign”); but our springs and falls are gorgeous and temperate.  That’s changing.  We’re seeing greater numbers of warmer nights and more frequent northerly deflection of cold air masses.  That means fewer strong Canadian cold fronts that clear out the humidity and give us those comfortable sub-70 Fahrenheit sleeping nights.  (Minneapolis on average has only ten 90+ degree days a year, compared to 34 in St. Louis.)  That means we’ll be running our AC a lot more, adding to the carbon burden of the atmosphere, and perversely making our nights even warmer.  And though people not from here find our winters bitterly cold, that cold has done us a great service by damping down outbreaks of viruses, bacteria, and pests that plague wildlife, livestock, crops, forests, and people alike.  We will lose that protective cushion and become like places farther south—besieged by Africanized honeybees, Zika and West Nile virus, kudzu, water hyacinth, fire ants, and the like.  It’s coming our way in the next fifty years.  We’ll have a climate like Missouri, with many 90-100 degree, high humidity days—unbearable weather forcing us to live in air conditioned houses and cars most of the time, as people do throughout the South. (A carbon-free AC set-up would help.)

These thoughts came to me driving by the frost-nipped oak leaves.  The good news is, after apparent death comes the resurrection.  Oaks have a storehouse of sugar in their roots, even after the first leaf-flush, allowing them to regrow leaves, survive another summer, and replenish energy stocks in their roots (though they may not fruit as abundantly for turkey, deer, blue jay and others that eat acorns).  As for climate change, in the long run the oaks will migrate north because weather patterns will become favorable there.  Where I live, May and June frosts may be extinguished once the Arctic ice is in scant supply, and parts of the northern forests will become farmland and peppered with deciduous trees.  Oaks will be happy, I’m sure.  But for people who like relative stability in climate and ecosystems, hold on to your hat.  – Kim

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Just Talking About…All Those Other Species

June 6, 2016.  I spent a week in June tromping through the water-logged landscape of northern Minnesota in pursuit of orchids.  Orchids are elusive things, hiding out in the nooks and crannies of cedar swamps and bogs far from logging, roads, cows and corn.  While I was out there I had plenty of time to think about the plants and animals surrounding me.  I was immersed in them.  Of course, there were the mosquitoes and black flies.  After a dosing of DEET and making sure pant hems were tugged into boots, shirt sleeve buttons fastened, hat on snug, you could reasonable expect to not be eaten alive.

Small yellow lady's-slippers showing off at the beginning of June in northern Minnesota.  Photo K. Chapman.

Small yellow lady’s-slippers showing off at the beginning of June in northern Minnesota. Photo K. Chapman.

Walking the soggy, boggy north woods, I had time to think about all the species around me, embedded as I was in their world and not one of human making.  People have certainly affected that world.  I saw, for instance, the scattered stumps of 600-year old white cedar trees cut one hundred years ago.  They were still there, tokens of a natural world before the industrial age was overlaid on the fabric of nature.  Some stumps were six feet across—very impressive in a backwards-looking way.

I know it’s possible to cut timber in a fashion that not only gives us what we want, but lets the forest keep on doing what it would do—which is put on new, green matter every year, sustain a thousand species in good numbers, bring forth the young of every year (even mosquitoes which are pollinators of orchids and food for dragonflies), and do all sorts of wonderful things we don’t even notice.  But of course, one hundred years ago, we had scant understanding of these things.  The word ecology had only been invented a couple decades earlier.

Surrounded by plants which spontaneously arose from the earth without human help, I also thought about their lineage, for some of them go back millions of years.  A version of the lady’s slipper orchid I was looking for is thought to have originated over a million years ago.  That is absolutely astounding.  Our lineage, Homo sapiens subsp. sapiens, extends only 200 thousand years or so to east Africa, with a few thousand people wandering about the savannas there.  Meanwhile, this orchid group has been on earth at least five times as long.  Do we owe a little respect to lady’s-slippers for having made it this far?

I’m reminded of two quotes, the first by Charles Darwin in answer to criticism by the Christian fundamentalist movement—then coalescing in the late 1800s in large part against Darwin’s idea of “descent by means of natural selection.”  He said, “When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.”  By that I think he meant, he saw behind each species the planet’s inexorable life force and a genius of some kind.  We can’t forget Darwin studied to become a minister before he embarked on his fateful voyage aboard the Beagle which resulted in his insights into the nature of speciation.  A spiritual foundation was part of his mindset.  In later years, though, Darwin was largely silent on the topic of God’s role in creation.  And that’s a good thing.  The separation of science and theology is a good thing.

The other quote I think of is from an editorial in the Detroit News.  The editorial from around 1974 or so was about the U.S. Endangered Species Act passed the year before.  Of course, it spoke in opposition to the law.  The argument it made was that no species cares about the demise of other species, and so why should we?  The quote went something like, “In a dog-eat-dog world, paying attention to the welfare of other species is not an evolutionarily successful strategy for species survival.”  Implicit here is that people will go extinct if they worry about and promote the persistence of other species.  It seems to me that many people either still speak that sentiment out loud or unconsciously believe it.  People generally don’t think we need other species—or rather, we only need some of them—our cows and chickens, our pigs to grow insulin and antibiotics, and one or two species of algae for those cutting-edge folks seeking to gasify high-fat algae into fuel.  We also need, of course, trees to build things and aspen for wood pulp to make paper, and corn and soybeans, and fish in the oceans whose stocks we’re depleting at an alarming rate.  We need all of those things, but they represent maybe a tenth of one percent of all the species out there—current count around ten million species.  The estimated rate of loss over the next 50 to 100 years is that a quarter to one half of those will disappear.  That’s a remarkable percentage of all living species—a change equivalent to the other five great extinction events over the last five hundred million years, including the most recent one that took out the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago.  A mini-spasm occurred most recently when humans dispersed across the globe, beginning about 45 thousand years ago.  This was the Pleistocene die-off, with American camels, giant ground sloths, massive birds, mammoths and mastodons among its victims.

So…as I walked through alder swamps, black spruce bogs, aspen woodlands, filled with yellow orchids—the lady’s-slippers with the little bowls, each like a ridged goblet—and I chanced upon one of those ancient orchids, these thoughts occurred.  I don’t know what to do with them—how do you bring into popular culture and everyday consciousness the idea of keeping all the species?  Some say that economics is part of the answer:  building an economic system around retaining species, rather than plowing ahead devil-may-care and consequences-be-damned, to use some old expressions.  Alternately, we could simply agree to co-exist with the other ten million species on the planet.  Are we big enough for that?  Is the human family smart and generous enough to start thinking about other species, all of them?

Which takes me to a third quote, this one from Aldo Leopold, the patron saint of ecological restoration (and inventor of wildlife biology, more or less) who used a watch-makers analogy:  “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”  Without every cog and wheel, the watch doesn’t run.  We know that ecosystems can and do unravel, leaving us with…deserts, dead zones, low-productivity forest, topsoil depleted of organic matter, and the rest of the litany of ills we know so well.  If ecologists ruled the world, we’d have a different economic system, I suspect.  Ecologists do speak frequently with our friends, the economists, and increasingly so.  We have, after all, the same root word naming our disciplines—“eco”, from the Greek oikos, meaning house or household.  Economists seek to manage it (nomos) and ecologists seek to know it (logos).  Both disciplines seem to me to be necessarily married so as to shepherd our planetary home through the bottleneck we will face. – Kim

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Just Talking About…Viennese Wasser Brunnen (Water Fountains)

One of hundreds of public drinking fountains, fed by alpine glacial meltwater, slaking the thirst of Vienna's citizenry and visitors.  Photo P. Armstrong.

One of hundreds of public drinking fountains, fed by alpine glacial meltwater, slaking the thirst of Vienna’s citizenry and visitors. Photo P. Armstrong.

July 13, 2016.  I just got back from a trip to Austria and the Czech Republic (my daughter was on tour with a youth choir and my wife and I were her groupies).  One of the most memorable moments along the way was standing in line to drink from one of Vienna’s civic fountains.  I am used to cities having fountains, but usually you are not encouraged to drink from them—in fact you are often told to stay out of them.  But Vienna, unique among the cities of the world, enshrines the right to pure water in its civic constitution.  The city receives 400,000 cubic meters of fresh spring water every day from two pipelines that lead up into the Austrian Alps.  There are 900 permanent fountains in the city and a number of portable ones that are put on line if the weather is hot and the city is crowded.  The Viennese are excessively proud of this:  they tell tourists constantly “remember, you can drink our water!  You don’t need to buy water!”

The roots of this go a long way back.  I visited the Roman Museum by the city center where you are treated to animated engineering diagrams of the Roman aqueducts that once fed Vindobona, the Roman border fort that preceded the modern city of Vienna.  The Romans were splendid plumbers (in fact the word plumber comes from Latin) and their military barracks had running water, as well as plumbed bathrooms and of course a Roman steam bath.  Modern Vienna simply repeats the strategy of piping in mountain water on a much vaster scale.

On the reverse side, for people who speak English, Vienna's public fountains urge you to stay well hydrated.  Photo P. Armstrong.

On the reverse side, for people who speak English, Vienna’s public fountains urge you to stay well hydrated. Photo P. Armstrong.

What moved me most about this was the assumption that this was a civic right—and a matter of civic pride.  In America we seem to have become incapable of taking pride in our infrastructure, in large part because infrastructure requires a communal effort—and after two or more decades of anti-governmental rhetoric we seem to have plunged ourselves into a spiral of anomie.  The ultimate result of this, of course, is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan (which Kim has written about).  In that shameful incident bureaucrats endangered the health of thousands to save some dollars.  The city of Flint essentially became a sacrifice zone for the neoliberal economics that informs Michigan’s governance.  But lesser examples of the same kind of thinking are everywhere, in every state:  Americans don’t want to pay for their cities, their roads, their schools, or their parks.  The American Society of Civil Engineers report card (http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org) gives our nation a “D” for drinking water—and in the wake of the Flint crisis new contaminated water systems are being discovered every day.

Vienna is not plagued by neoliberalism or fantasies of libertarianism—despite the fact that a lot of neoliberalism’s founding thinkers are from Vienna.  Vienna has always been part of one or another empire, so it has gloried in what can be accomplished by concerted human action.  The Viennese view their city as worth protecting and enjoying—and they also view it as connected to its natural surroundings.  The Viennese have mastered the art of urban living in a way that combines the pleasures of the natural world and the pleasures of human culture.  For instance, the famed Vienna Woods west of the city provide fresh air and plenty of space for outdoor recreation.  Organic and local farming is all the rage (the city runs the largest organic farm in Austria). Well-funded public transportation means that Viennese are able to go on foot, saving energy and improving health.  Vienna has been voted the best city in the world to live in several times—Americans could benefit from taking a look at their accomplishments. – Jim

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Just Talking About…Fire & Smoke

Fort McMurray residents evacuating via Highway 63 as the fire approaches.  Photo RD Darren

Fort McMurray residents evacuating via Highway 63 as the fire approaches. Photo RD Darren

June 9, 2016. The Fort McMurray wildfire in Saskatchewan, north of Calgary, the provincial capital and an oil producing mecca for decades—most recently using sand impregnated with bitumen and called “tar sands”—is the biggest disaster in Canadian history. It burned some 2,400 homes to cinders, caused the temporary shutdown of an oil production facility and burned up its housing complex, and sent 80,000 people scrambling for safety. This all happened in early May after a very warm, dry March and cool April. At the time of the fire, temperatures in the area hit 90 and humidity was extraordinarily low. The fall and winter meanwhile had been dry because this was an El Niño year—the second strongest on record. We had a similar set-up in 1988-1989, which I remember well because it gave us one of the best tomato crops we’d ever raised in our little garden in St. Paul, thanks to hot temperatures at the peak of the growing season—though we did have to water frequently. Our tomato bonus was the bane of many others—the ‘88-‘89 drought was among the worst natural disasters in the United States, ranking up there with Hurricane Katrina and the Dust Bowl era.

The Saskatchewan fire burned out of control for several days. It’s still burning because it’s so big that the fire fighters haven’t fully caged it, which will allow it to burn out on its own inside a safe ring of forest pre-ignited by the fire fighters. Of course, a fire of this size has happened before: think of the Yellowstone fires of 1988 which burned about half of the park and some adjacent landscape. Casting our thoughts back further, forgotten by most, we recall the terrible, city-devouring fires of the 1870-1910 logging era. At that time the practice of good forestry was to clear-cut an area of all merchantable timber, the results of which you can still see across the upper Midwest—immense stumps in pastures that haven’t grown up into thickets. Good management was also to pile and burn the slash from the tops of trees, the thought being that the plow followed the axe, despite the land’s poor soils and a growing season so short that few crops could support a farming industry. Somehow it would all work out, went the common wisdom. This idea extended back to the early forest-clearing days in New England and points east—and was exported to the Midwest and practiced by loggers and farmers alike.

The practice of burning slash, though, had its downside. First, it deprived the forest of nutrients. After taking the large logs away and sending the tops up in smoke, there wasn’t a lot of nutrition left in the soil to support a new crop of trees. Second, the fires often killed all the young pines that were waiting in the wings to grow up after the big pines had been taken away. Of course, the worst thing it did was to set the stage for catastrophic wildfires. Where these slash fires smoldered, all it took was weather conditions like those in Saskatchewan to ignite a firestorm.

If you ever get to Hinckley, Minnesota, there’s a museum dedicated to the devastating fires of 1894, which destroyed not only Hinckley but, in separate incidents, many other towns—Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and in Michigan, Holland, Manistee and Port Huron, to name a few—along with hundreds of thousands of acres of young timber. This set the region on a path to growing mostly aspen and birch, with scattered spruce and fir. Thus the original conifer-rich forest—full of pines, cedars, and hemlocks—was transformed in a couple decades to something very different. Hinckley’s survivors who fled north on a burning train and jumped into Skunk Lake—a shallow mudhole really—to escape the fire, spoke of three waves of flame passing overhead in the next several hours. The first was a true firestorm creating its own weather, with lightning, thunder, and a huge vacuuming of air to feed the flames—actually depriving people in the vicinity the oxygen to stay alive—many suffocated. This type of fire behavior was reported from Dresden, Germany, in the famous fire-bombing of that city, as well as above Fort McMurray in May. Picture this—massive cumulonimbus clouds towering over the fire, packed with energy due to the immense amount of heat being released, with thunder, lightning, and fast winds. Strange.

Cloud able to make its own weather, rising from the Birch Lake Complex Fires, NW Territories, Canada.  Smoke from these fires covered Minnesota in July 2014.  Photo Mike Gravel (from P. Huttner's Updraft Blog)

Cloud able to make its own weather, rising from the Birch Lake Complex Fires, NW Territories, Canada. Smoke from these fires covered Minnesota in July 2014. Photo Mike Gravel (from P. Huttner’s Updraft Blog)

The second and third fire waves the Hinckley survivors talked about swept through in the next few hours, perhaps using for fuel the tree trunks still standing, and perhaps also the humus of the forest floor, which would have been dried by the previous fire waves. People in our region have noted the low-productivity of many burned-over areas in the north woods, and perhaps this is part of the reason. In those days the forest floor was packed with material from partly decomposed fallen leaves, branches, and tree trunks, which, when dried out, make pretty good kindling. Think of dried peat, nothing but partly-decomposed plant parts, used as a fuel source for millennia in places with big peat bogs. The surface layer of peat is cut into bricks and dried for later burning. I saw it being done in Ireland years ago, using a tool called a “slawn”.

The Fort McMurray fire didn’t appear to have waves of flames—though there are stories of weird fire behavior. But it touched us personally. When it gets warm enough, we leave our windows open, especially when a big mass of Arctic air sweeps in, pushing far south into the Midwest. About a week after the Fort McMurray fire started, I woke up at three in the morning smelling smoke. We first thought something in the house was on fire. Then we thought something was burning outside—wood smoke from a chimney, somebody’s garage (which actually happened a few doors down!). Then it dawned on me—there was something familiar about the smell, something of the north woods in it, burning. I told Elizabeth, I think it’s just trees from somewhere far away. Sadly, we had to shut the windows because, with all that smoke swirling around the bedroom, we couldn’t sleep.

Smoke from the Fort McMurray fire covered Minnesota and points east in early May, 2016.  Image from NOAA.

Smoke from the Fort McMurray fire covered Minnesota and points east in early May, 2016. Image from NOAA.

I’d smelled this before, in August 2014, when our region was also blanketed with smoke from Canadian wildfires. It gave the world a strange look in the daytime. You couldn’t see clearly beyond half a mile—objects at that distance were oddly indistinct—and all surfaces, especially white ones, were tinged with pink because smoke scatters the sunlight in a certain way, letting mostly red hues show while the blues are muted. In any case, it’s a strange thing to live in a smoke-pallored place—the smell so pervasive it makes you feel a little claustrophobic until it clears out.

Some people want to directly connect the fires to global climate change, but truth be told, this thing has happened before due to many factors—suppression of wildfire and spraying for pest insects create the conditions that fuel megafires, for one. Maybe you can say that the record-setting El Niño set things up nicely for a catastrophic fire, which may be related to climate change. We won’t know for sure until a couple more decades of data have been gathered, parsed, and embedded in a computer model that matches what we see in the real world. What can be said is that the picture of regional drought being drawn by climate change models suggests that the number of fires will increase over time. If that turns out to be the future, we’ll have more firestorms and smoke-filled bedrooms. Beyond that, as a thoughtful scientist, I hesitate to speculate, but the poets among us could take it further in metaphor. My son-in-law, for instance, said to me, “Maybe you can think of it as the forest’s act of protest—self-immolation, like Buddhist monks protesting the Vietnam War.” That is an interesting idea—the planet itself rebelling against an authority it did not elect, one that is—intentionally or not—imposing its will on everything. – Kim

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Just Talking About…Bumblebees and City Hives

This very Bombus impatiens, gathering nectar from Jim's garden in Winona, is now immortalized in picture and word.  Photo by J. Armstrong

This very Bombus impatiens, gathering nectar from Jim’s garden in Winona, is now immortalized in picture and word. Photo by J. Armstrong

June 8, 2016.  I spent some time yesterday sitting in my front yard watching a bumblebee forage in the flowering pinks on the verge of our sidewalk. She was visiting not only the new blooms but also the nearly-expired ones, grabbing the withered blossoms and plunging her head deep into the faded stamens.  Why would she be attracted to this seemingly past-prime flower?  I went to the internet to look up what kind of bumble I was dealing with; thanks to the handy guide on the “befriending bumblebees” website, http://befriendingbumblebees.com/bumblebeesofMNweb.pdf, I was able to determine that this foraging worker was Bombus impatiens–the most common bumble in eastern North America.  B. impatiens, like other generalists such as robins and squirrels, do well in a variety of habitats, including suburbs and urban areas.  Their willingness to adapt to a variety of forage has led to their use by the greenhouse industry as a pollinator, and farmers use them to pollinate pumpkins, blueberries and tomatoes.  They were not historically common in Minnesota, but the fact that these bumbles perform an economic service has helped to spread their range.  At this point, with their cousins the honeybees in such decline, these bumblebees are now the most important pollinator species in North America.

Like most bumbles, B. impatiens colonies construct nests one to three feet below the ground, which they access through tunnels.  In the wild the bee is likely to be in wooded areas or meadows, as it depends on woodland flowers in the spring.  Upon learning this I wondered if the worker I was watching was from a local greenhouse, or from a wild hive that had survived the cold Minnesota winter.  I was surprised to read that B. impatiens lives in large groups of up to 450.  I was also interested to learn that my visiting bee was “traplining,” meaning that she had identified my flowery front yard as good forage and would return to it each day, along with other productive floral stops, taking the shortest route from her hive.  Bumblebees (along with many other species, such as hummingbirds) use this strategy to maximize the efficiency of their foraging (rather than randomly searching anew each day).  It was interesting to think this buzzing worker bee had memorized my yard and in fact was a local expert in exploiting its energy potential.  That would seem to explain why she was visiting past-prime flowers—she was mopping up every last bit of nectar.

She is not limited in her searches, however.  The traplining strategy includes the option to change foraging patterns: when the pinks in my yard stop giving nectar the bumble will notice and shift her location to a different and suitably plentiful source.  In this way, her hive is constantly learning and adapting as new information comes in from workers.

Another eusocial pollinator, bald-faced hornet (actually a vespid wasp) sips nectar in a wet meadow in late August near Bemidji, Minnesota.  Photo K. Chapman

Another eusocial pollinator, bald-faced hornet (actually a vespid wasp) sips nectar in a wet meadow in late August near Bemidji, Minnesota. Photo by K. Chapman

All this points to interesting parallels between insect hives and human cities.  Bees evolved to live in communal groups that are termed “eusocial,” meaning that most individuals in the hive don’t themselves reproduce.  In the bumblebee hive, some tend the larvae and feed them while others, like the bee in my yard, are tireless nectar-seekers.  The queen, of course, lays the eggs.  This frees up the others to become specialists and coordinate with each other—becoming much more powerful in aggregate than they would be as individuals.  While humans are not that self-sacrificing—so far we haven’t designated one female to bear all our progeny—our urban class structures share the same strategy of using job specialization and worker coordination to efficiently exploit resources in the environment, near and far.  And this implies, for both hives and cities, a special relationship to plants.

Bees and flowers co-evolved in the Cretaceous period, the product of an interesting symbiotic dance.  Flowers are essentially complicated bee-attractors, using their color and structure to entice insects to land on them and brush up against their pollen-producing stamens—so that the pollen will be carried to other flowers and accomplish sexual reproduction.  The bees get the nectar and pollen as bankable rewards for their labor—from the nectar they make honey, which with the pollen can be stored and enable colonies to survive the winter.  The flowers get genetic variation from cross-pollination, strengthening their gene pool.

Humans have similarly been able to stay in place and build communities because about 11,500 years ago they learned to successfully breed food plants (usually grains) to produce storable calories.  Unlike the bumblebees, however, the process was a conscious one, as humans noted which plants were most fruitful and through selective breeding encouraged them, year by year, to increase their yields.  The other aspect that makes the human strategy different is the scale at which humans are able to act in unison: the current global economy has essentially turned the entire earth into one big foraging field for the massive human population.  This makes us even more successful than B. impatiens because we have expanded our range and influence through our own energies, rather than being manipulated to greatness by a master bee-keeper.

My busy B. impatiens visitor also is lucky, in that she has for the moment entered into a kind of alliance with the human hive.  Many other pollinators are not so fortunate.  As pressure grows to convert land and water into calories for billions of humans, the important question becomes, will we be able to share our global and commercial traplines with the many other species on the planet? – Jim

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Just Talking About…Beauty and the Tyranny of Small Decisions

May 22, 2016.  Spring has come to Minnesota…well, we actually had summer back in March, then late winter a week ago, so I’d say spring has come twice to Minnesota, all in the same year.  And with spring there is a striking plant that’s putting on green biomass for its big show around July Fourth.  Together with fireworks, the large-leaved lupine (Lupinus heterophyllus) puts on quite a display.  Here’s a picture of it.

Large-leaved lupine stands at attention by a road in northern Minnesota.  The multi-colored flowers suggest George Russell's hybrid, for which the Royal Horticultural Society awarded him the Veitch Memorial Medal.  He disliked the original blue of the natural form, to which, sadly for horticulturalists, the hybrid reverts after a couple generations.  Photo K. Chapman

Large-leaved lupine stands at attention by a road in northern Minnesota. The multi-colored flowers suggest George Russell’s hybrid, for which the Royal Horticultural Society awarded him the Veitch Memorial Medal. He disliked the original blue of the natural form, to which, sadly for horticulturalists, the hybrid reverts after a couple generations. Photo K. Chapman

Just as in American democracy different personalities and life experiences produce different political outlooks and party platforms, so it is with people’s opinions about the natural world.  Here’s what some posted about large-leaved lupine at the excellent Minnesota Wildflowers website (https://www.minnesotawildflowers.info).

Broke my heart to read that this is not native. I have some in my garden! I guess it’s time to weed….

I LOVE THIS FLOWER!!! We first started seeing it in our area about 20 years ago. The seeds scatter themselves when they pop open, but we helped them along by collecting and scattering where we wanted them to grow. Now we have a huge area at our cabin north of Grand Marais that is just covered with them. They are so beautiful and the fragrance is delightful!!

This was a very big year for lupines in NE Minnesota all along Hwy 61 and inland. Although it is an invasive species I do think they are very pretty.

Is it legal to dig Lupine from ditches to replant in my yard?

If these are so invasive, then why in the heck are they being sold in seed packs at the store…where unknowing gardeners can mistakenly plant them? Sounds to me like DNR is not doing their job…!

We have the non-native lupines growing on our septic mound. We are trying to control by cutting the seeds but they are spreading too rapidly. Will this cause a problem for our septic mound? If so, do you have any ideas of how we can safely remove them?

What is the harmful effect that Lupine causes? The butterflies seem to love them. I have them in my garden and have a heck of a time trying to keep them alive! I love them, but I have not seen any large amounts anywhere. I am surprised that all the synthetic chemical spraying that is done doesn’t kill them in the roadsides. Thank you.

What a range of opinion!  How to decide who is right?  And once decided, what do you do about it?  A young woman who went to college for several years to get a master’s degree in natural resources management, and who for several years has watched the landscape change with the lupine, might have one opinion.  A woman with children who vacations up north, taking in the world through the lens of beauty and enjoyment—fishing, relaxing with family—she will have a different view.  Whose view is the trump card?

My economist friends would say, you can decide this by figuring out who benefits and who is harmed by the spread of large-leaved lupine.  If the dollar value of the benefits is greater than the dollar value of the harms, then go sow your wild oats, but if not, then pull the plant out by the roots.  Yes, but how do you put a value on these things?  How much does it cost the guy pulling lupine out of his yard versus the dollar value gained by the sight and smell of lupine at your cabin?

I don’t know how to do that math.  What I do know is that large-leaved lupine, brought from its natural streamside habitat of the Pacific Northwest, has free rein in the Midwest.  Its spread is, unchecked, very much like that of any contagion—Zika virus, Lyme disease, the common cold, you name it.  It starts with small points of infection, which grow and then start new infections nearby, which also expand and infect new places—until it is everywhere.  Over the last twenty-five years I have seen this plant first appear, then multiply and begin to coalesce from Duluth to Grand Portage, up the Gunflint Trail, and last summer I saw the first colonies south of Duluth along Interstate 35.  It has begun its march south to the Twin Cities.

The well-intentioned woman quoted above, along with other people who love its beauty and scent, have helped it along.  Here’s a picture of how the story begins—on two sides of a driveway back to a cabin in the woods.  Just pick some seeds from down the road, toss them into the corners of your drive, and you get an adornment, just like the two stone lions you see at the entry to estates.

Like entry monuments, these two patches of large-leaved lupine announce that a northwoods cabin is nearby.  Photo K. Chapman

Like entry monuments, these two patches of large-leaved lupine announce that a northwoods cabin is nearby. Photo K. Chapman

Do the people spreading lupine owe anything to the guy pulling it off of his septic mound?  Maybe.  That question is asked of a host of environment topics.  Do coal-powered plants around the globe, and people like me guzzling electrons as I type this, owe people who fish a payment for the mercury from power plant smokestacks which fish tissue takes up?  Do farmers in the Midwest owe the shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico because farm practices help create a Massachusetts-sized oxygen-free dead zone that has no shrimp?  What about the horticulturalists and botanists who brought us Dutch elm disease, European buckthorn, and my personal nemesis, creeping bellflower—what do they owe society for releasing invasive species into the environment?

These are heady questions and the answers elusive.  My opinion of the lupine is that it is capable of preventing other plants from growing, including seedlings of trees that are important timber trees, like white pine.  On the North Shore a couple decades ago I studied the reproductive success of white pine—the mainstay building material from Maine to Minnesota during the lumbering heyday from the mid-1800s to early 1900s. The tree already has problems bringing the next generation along, and it’s possible the spread of lupine into white pine stands will make things worse.  It certainly won’t make things better.  The most we can hope for is no effect—but who can know?

In the face of uncertainty about outcomes, do you double down on an action, or pause to consider?  Jim and I find endless fascination in the story of the starling’s introduction to North America by the American Acclimatization Society—a group dedicating to bringing to America all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works.  For people who enjoy Shakespeare, that’s a nice concept—completely divorced from any thought of consequences.  Today the starling is a genuine problem.  Did the enjoyment of the AAS members knowing starlings at last were living here trump the pains taken to get rid of them now?  After thousands of stories from around the world of species introductions for a good cause which turned bad in the end, you’d think we would be more thoughtful.  Oh for a little ecological education for everybody in high school!  Even if all we did was consider unintended consequences and take a precautionary approach, that would be a good start.  But in a democratic society, information doesn’t necessarily carry the day.  Deeply-held values and the heat of the moment—one’s economic pain, one’s urgent fear, one’s emotional reaction to a recent event—can swing the outcome one way or the other.

I would sum it up as, one set of values and an emotional tug are driving the expansion of a plant whose effects are unpredictable for others, but possibly will be negative.  So, what’s the choice? Until the majority of us have a more deeply engrained awareness of the ecology of North America, it may be that our best hope is awareness of this simple fact:  each individual, acting out of self interest or a sense of duty, with their own understanding of the situation, changes the world.  Each of us has that power, whether we feel it or not.  And because of that, don’t our actions require self-examination?  Don’t we owe it to our neighbors and children to pause and ask, what am I doing now that is changing the world in unexpected ways which may cause regret later on.  Those small decision—so tyrannical in their effect, so tyrannical in their demands on our wisdom—are the big ones, believe it or not. – Kim

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Just Talking About…The Tyranny of Small Decisions

Gray catbird with rusty rump--are those raspberries he's holding?  Photo Wolfgang Wander 2005.

Gray catbird with rusty rump–are those raspberries he’s holding? Photo Wolfgang Wander 2005.

April 21, 2016.  Our resident superstar, Prince, died this morning about thirty miles west of here, and I am pondering how decisions by each of us, individually, affect the big, beautiful, blue-green world.  His particular genius required he stay out of the common limelight, out of pop magazines, and in a purple world of his own creation—all the better to work his particular brand of magic.  Thinking of his enclave in Paisley Park reminded me of a lilac thicket at the main entry to the university’s St. Paul campus, a spot I passed daily walking to classes over a decade ago.  One May a gray catbird took up residence and stayed the summer.  Hundreds of cars and buses, thousands of students and college workers, passed there every day—and the catbird, sitting in the catbird seat deep in the lilacs, sang on.  If you’ve not heard a catbird, it makes an upward-downward ree-ayr, like a mewling cat, but the best thing it does is not repeat the same thing twice.  It takes bits of other bird songs and noises from wherever, adds odd notes here and there, and keeps you pretty engaged listening to it.  What a memory a catbird must have to produce that variety of sound.  It’s in a group called the Mimidae, or the mimics, which includes mockingbird and brown thrasher (the bird of a thousand songs).  The catbird is not all gray—there’s a rusty colored patch on its rump and males have a slightly dark cap.  Here’s a recording of a catbird I made on the Gateway Trail–biking with William.  (A song sparrow also occasionally pipes up.)

The catbird symphony, a regular part of my day, was not to last.  Some time later that summer the grounds crew was given the all clear to clear all the lilacs and replace them with a Big Ten-looking planting of showy flowers and scattered low shrubs.  Not surprisingly, no catbird after the change.  Nor one the next year, or the next.  That particular arrangement of lilacs and trees suited the catbird just fine, but the make-over didn’t.  In my wanderings about campus, I heard no other catbird—apparently that was the one place thereabouts where a catbird wanted to live.

The wish to alter one’s surroundings is universal–for an artist, it is to keep creativity flowing, and for ordinary folk it is to make life a little better.  My neighbors, for instance, have in the last year created a new world all around me—each making changes in his or her own yard to fit a personal vision.  One neighbor replaced tangled shrubs with small, neatly-arranged plants.  Another also removed the shrubs, including a rabbit-inhabited raspberry patch.  On three lots behind and nearby, large trees were cut to let more sun shine on the lawn, or because the trees were going to die anyway, someday.  I’ve not lifted a finger, yet the world around me has changed in ways I’d rather it hadn’t.

In the aftermath of my neighbors’ uncoordinated and entirely reasonable modifications, the tree canopy hereabouts has been lessened by a quarter.  Shrub cover—the big missing ingredient in urban ecosystems—has also shrunk.  Having studied bird responses to vegetation changes, I knew this would shake things up, as far as birds go.  To compensate, my wife and I went on a shrub-buying binge.  Most made it through the first winter, but they are small, despite their big price tag.  It will be a while before what was lost will be restored.

Each person making decisions until the entire world is changed.  That is how it is, and how it always has been at some level—though city planning and zoning regulations do help decisions get made according to agreed-on standards.  We’ve learned over time to prevent serious land use conflicts and have, through elected representatives, created a system of development rules mostly to protect the quality of people’s lives and their livelihoods.  What remains a distant mountain to climb is for everybody to have a basic understanding of ecology and to know the effect of their individual decisions on the environment.  That’s not much different than wanting everybody to know how American democracy works, or how to keep oneself healthy.  How to balance a checkbook, drive a car safely, and all the other routines of western civilization—it would be nice if ecology were part of that mix.  My neighbors might have known that to keep a catbird, house wren, or other wilder thing than house sparrow and robin, you need a little habitat on a few adjacent lots.  Instead, what my neighbors have accomplished, sensibly and with good intentions, may play out this spring unhappily for me.

Well…although bird activity seems diminished in my yard, the annual sapsucker pilgrimage still took place and the red pine was duly visited.  In a week or two we’ll see the first wave of warblers and other migrants from South and Central America.  Among them, I hope, will be a Swainson’s thrush.  I’ve heard one every year for over a dozen years.  He spends a few days in the back yard, running from shrub to shrub, perching momentarily on a low rock, and enchanting me with his double-noted, slurring song—a sound heard here for one week each year, because the rest of the time he lives south of the Gulf of Mexico or in the north woods.  Prince was lucky—he sat in his own catbird seat, surrounded by acres and acres of his envisioned world, buffered against the small decisions of his neighbors.  All his neighbors, making their isolated decisions, changing everything. – Kim



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