Giving Thanks for Our Miraculous Home–the Earth

November 20th, 2017

     How often do we think to be grateful for this earth?  At Thanksgiving time, we know to look around the table and give thanks for the people we love and the food we share.  And other cherished gifts like freedom and health.

     But we really ought not to take for granted this small planet whose very special properties have made possible this system of life of which we are a part.  Scientists have called Earth ‘the Goldilocks planet,’ just right for life.  If certain aspects of our planet were just a little bit different, life on Earth would be impossible.

     Several factors make Earth ‘just right’ for life:

Earth’s location in the ‘Goldilocks zone’

     The distance between Earth and the sun is just right.  If we were a little nearer the sun, like Venus, our planet could be a cloudy furnace.  And if we were a little farther from the sun, like Mars, Earth could be a cold desert.  

     Our Goldilocks position in relation to the sun means that Earth’s temperatures are just right for water to persist  in liquid form.  And liquid water has been essential to the development of life.  Water is capable of dissolving many substances, and the ingredients for life as we know it–proteins, DNA, etc., can move around in water and interact with each other. 

The sun’s ideal nature

     Our lives would be impossible were it not for the sun’s great longevity and stability.

     While many stars live for only a few million years, our sun is already well over four billion years old.  And scientists believe it is only about half-way through its life-span.  If our sun were a short-lived star, life on earth would not have had time to evolve to the point that it has.  For example, the oldest known organisms appeared on Earth 3.5 billion years ago.  And more complex life took much longer to evolve, with the first multi-celled animals appearing only some 600 million years ago.  The sun’s longevity has enabled the long process of evolution,  resulting in higher orders of life on Earth, like humans.

     And unlike many volatile stars, our sun is stable, with relatively little variation in its emission of radiation.  However, if the earth were in the orbit of an unstable star that emitted violent bursts of radiation, life could have been scoured from our planet long ago. 

The earth’s magnetic field

     Another essential ingredient in Earth’s hospitality to life is its magnetic field.  The earth’s molten metallic core creates a protective field, which emanates from the poles and encircles the planet.   Without this magnetic field, we would all be fried by cosmic rays and solar storms. 

Plate tectonics and the moon 

      Plate tectonics and the moon have also played important roles in the existence of life on Earth.

     The shell of the earth is broken into constantly moving plates.  And surface rocks, which have absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, are dragged downward, where they melt.  The molten rock eventually releases this carbon dioxide gas back into the atmosphere through volcanic activity.  Without this process, the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide would continue to be absorbed by rock until the planet would eventually freeze.

    And the earth’s tidal regions, where the moon’s gravitational tug (aided by the sun), has caused the regular ebb and flow of tides, may have been just right environment for life to begin.

So Are We Alone in the Universe?

      Clearly, an incredible combination of circumstances aligned perfectly for our planet to host life so abundantly.  Are there other planets that also host life?  Given the mind-boggling number of planets that exist in the universe, scientists have long thought that even if an infinitesimal proportion of them hosted life, there would still be other planets out there where life exists.

     But recent research that has caught the attention of the scientific community questions whether there are, in fact, any other planets anywhere, where life exists.   Astrophysicist Erik Zachrisson. at Uppsala University in Sweden, used recently available computer modeling to determine that out of 700 quintillion (that’s a seven followed by 20 zeroes!) planets in the universe, Earth is unique.  In fact, says Zachrisson, statistically speaking, even one planet like ours should not exist!

     The jury is still out.  We do not know if Earth is the only planet in the vast universe that hosts life.  But we do know that a planet like ours is not the ‘norm,’ that at the very least is very uncommon.

     And I am very thankful for all the circumstances that aligned to make Earth a planet that is filled with life, including mine and the lives of all those I love.–April Moore 

 

Our Plastic Future

October 31st, 2017

 

a remote South Pacific island

a remote South Pacific island

    Who among my fellow ’60-somethings’ doesn’t remember the scene in The Graduate when Dustin Hoffman, the newly-minted college grad, is given a single word of advice by a middle-aged businessman:  plastics.”  Plastics, according to the older man, were the wave of the future and the route to the young man’s career success.

     Well, in a sense, Hoffman’s would-be mentor was right.  Since The Graduate was filmed, back in 1967, the production of plastics has grown exponentially.   In 1967, fewer than 19 million metric tons of plastic were produced worldwide, but almost 50 years later, in 2015, global production was a whopping 322 million metric tons!

     Plastics are everywhere–single-use shopping bags, packaging for food and a zillion other products, toys, home building materials, car parts, medical supplies.  The list goes on and on.

     Since the very first plastics were developed more than 100 years ago, advances in chemical technology have led to an explosion of forms and uses.  Mass production of plastics began in the 1940s and production has been accelerating ever since.  About half of the more than eight billion metric tons of plastic that have been produced worldwide were made in just the last 13 years.

     Derived from petrochemicals like oil and coal, plastic gets its name from the adjective ‘plastic,’ meaning ‘malleable.’  This malleability, or plasticity, makes possible a huge variety of shapes and characteristics that can fulfill a vast array of purposes.

     And plastics have indeed proved useful in myriad ways.  But here’s the kicker.  Plastic doesn’t go away.  Most of the plastic ever made is still with us.  

     We may discard a plastic cup or straw, but that plastic waste has great staying power.  Unlike natural materials that decompose, plastic endures virtually forever.  The chemical composition of most plastics remains unchanged, even as the object may break into pieces so small they cannot be seen with the naked eye.

     Given the persistence of plastics in the environment, combined with the gargantuan quantities of plastic produced every year, plastics pose a huge problem.

     You see, proper disposal of these plastics is important, but it is not enough. Even if we all dispose of our trash properly, not all of it can be confined to landfills.  Because plastic is so light, it floats on water and is easily carried by the wind.  Plastics blow away from uncovered trash heaps, from streets and trash cans.  Rain washes plastic trash from the ground into storm drains and sewers, on into streams, rivers, and eventually into the ocean.

     In fact, 80% of the world’s marine pollution comes from land-based sources, and plastic accounts for 65-90% of it, according to the UN Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution.

     Every year eight million metric tons of plastic are added to our oceans.  This is equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world!  Swirled by  ocean currents, plastics and other debris accumulate at the center of major ocean vortices, where they form large and growing masses of floating debris.

     One such vortex is the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch.  It is an area the size of Texas, located in the northern Pacific Ocean.  This giant concentration of trash consists mostly of microscopic plastic particles and other debris.  Pieces of plastic that have made their way into the Pacific Ocean are drawn into the Patch by the  prevailing ocean currents.

    As these plastics fragment into smaller and smaller pieces, some release toxins into the seawater.  Sea creatures, from the largest to the smallest, are swallowing this seawater soup filled with toxic chemicals from plastic fragmenting, explains Maziar Movassaghi, former Director of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control.  And we humans eat fish that have eaten fish that have eaten toxin-saturated plastics. 

     Some of the land-based plastics that are carried into the ocean are spun out again by sea currents, and they wind up back on land, but not the land where they originated.  

      The remote Midway Atoll, for example, north of Hawaii and midway between North America and Asia, receives massive quantities of plastic debris every day.  Midway beaches are covered with this debris, and millions of very small plastic particles litter the beaches.  In fact, these tiny plastic particles can be found on beaches the world over.  Someone has given them the poignant name ‘mermaid’s tears.’

     Plastics in the environment are taking a huge toll on wildlife.  Midway, for example, is littered with thousands of  bird corpses.  And as these corpses decompose, piles of colorful plastics remain where stomachs once were.   Of 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses inhabiting Midway, all have plastic in their digestive system, scientists have discovered.  And for one-third of the chicks, plastic blockages proves deadly.  Witnesses report observing shorebirds eating pieces of colorful plastic on the beach.  

     The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that plastic debris kills an estimated 100,000 marine animals annually, as well as millions of birds and fishes.  And scientists estimate that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish, by weight, in our oceans.

     Clearly, there is a need to stem this plastic tide that is transforming our oceans.

WHAT CAN WE DO?
As individuals and as citizens of our state and nation, we can all take steps to address the serious problem of plastics in our oceans.  Here are just a few suggestions: 

  • Don’t accept plastic bags offered by store clerks;  bring your own reusable bags instead.  
  • Pick up litter.  There’s more at stake than a clean landscape.  You are helping keep plastics and other trash out of our oceans.
  • Say no to plastic straws in restaurants;  they’re not necessary.  
  • Don’t buy or accept bottled water.  A small investment in a metal water bottle will keep some plastic out of the environment and save you money at the same time.
  • Participate in clean-ups.  Many groups organize clean-up days to get trash out of a local stream or river or off a nearby beach.
  • Call on your state legislators to follow the example of Hawaii and California, states that have banned single use plastic bags in many kinds of stores.
  • Urge your Representative and Senators to work for federal legislation to address heavily littered items like plastic bags, food containers, and beverage bottles through a ban or fee.  And call on these lawmakers to establish a federal deposit/refund system for single use plastic bags and beverage bottles
  • Join forces with individuals, groups, businesses, and governments that are working to curtail the production of plastic, especially single-use plastics.  Click here to learn more about the Plastic Pollution Coalition. http://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org April Moore

In the Path of Totality

September 28th, 2017

eclipse-12

 

 

My dear sister, Tanya Bohlke, was one of the lucky millions who witnessed last month’s total eclipse of the sun.  She experienced it as a profound natural event, so I asked her to write about it here:

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     When I first read the phrase “in the path of totality,” I thought it sounded thrilling but perhaps a bit over the top.  However, I discovered that witnessing the total eclipse was so much more thrilling and amazing than even that phrase could describe.

     My daughter and I traveled from Virginia to Columbia, South Carolina, to view the eclipse on Saturday, August 19, two days before The Event.  We fell in love with the town, which sponsored so many different eclipse-related activities.  We went to the Science Museum with its IMAX show and Planetarium laser show, on the river, and a street festival featuring trees decorated with colorful yarn art, known as “yarn bombs.”

     There were no hotels available in Columbia after Saturday, so on Sunday we journeyed to  Orangeburg, also in the direct path of the eclipse and a community that welcomed us with its spectacular marching band.  There, on the stadium grounds of South Carolina State University, we awaited the eclipse.

     The grounds around the stadium were large enough so that even though there were many people, we found a lovely, quiet spot in the shade of a tree.  We could duck out, don our glasses to view the disappearing sun, and then move back to the shade  It took longer than we had anticipated to begin to see darkness and shadows, but soon there was an eerie quality in the air. . . .

     When totality arrived, people first cheered, then were stunned into an awed silence.  

     It was one of the most surreal things I have ever seen–the eerie shadows, then total dark, except for the brilliant corona, and in the background the croak of crickets, thinking it was nighttime!  

     It is easy to understand why ancient peoples thought a total eclipse meant the world was ending.  Totality lasted 2+ minutes, but it seemed like 30 seconds.  We wanted it to never end.–Tanya Bohlke

 

 

Mad for Orchids

August 27th, 2017

    Who knew that orchids are the world’s largest plant family?  Ten percent of all plant species are orchids!  

    I had always thought of orchids as exotic, even rare plants.  Until recently, that is, when my friend Laura invited me to watch a fascinating nature show with her, PLANTS BEHAVING BADLY.  What a title!  How can a plant behave badly? 

     Well, according to David Attenborough, the show’s host and one of my heroes, the title alludes to tricks some orchid species employ to lure the pollinators they need.  Certain conniving orchids draw in their pollinating insects with a promise of sex or food, and then fail to deliver.  

     A plant that promises sex?  

     Attenborough introduces us to the bee orchid flower.  The flower structure of this orchid greatly resembles a female bee.  So when male bees emerge from the ground after hibernation, eager to mate, many of them think they’ve spotted what they’re looking for in the orchids nearby.  

     Clasping the flower in a passionate embrace, the male bee is disappointed when he realizes that this is not a female bee after all.  When one or two more attempts to mate with flowers on the same plant result in failure, he flies off to try his luck with another orchid plant nearby.  

     So the bee’s disappointment is the orchid’s success.   When the bee gives up on an individual orchid plant and tries other orchid plants nearby, he spreads pollen more widely, a practice known as cross-pollination.  Cross-pollinations makes for greater genetic diversity   than does self-pollination, where the pollen remains on the same plant.  That clever orchid!

     And false promises of food?  Unlike most orchid species, which draw pollinators by producing nectar that they love, some orchids only appear to offer nectar.  Certain orchid species have evolved shape and coloring that strongly resemble the shape and coloring of orchid species that do offer nectar.   These trickster orchids fool insects into thinking they have found a source of nectar.  

     Not finding any nectar in the orchid flower, the insects quickly move on to another nearby plant.  This orchid strategy of disappointment again results in success for the plant!  It has tricked the insect into cross-pollinating.  What a trick to play on unsuspecting insects.

     While about a third of orchid species practice some form of deception to bend pollinators to their will, says Attenborough, most orchid species do deliver the nectar (but maybe not the sex) their pollinators are after. These thousands of orchid species have developed a vast range of features that include hairs, tails, horns, fans, crests, even teeth and warts–that are very attractive to the particular pollinators who have evolved with them.

     Perhaps the most astonishing orchid-pollinator match known, Attenborough tells us, has quite a history:  In 1862, Charles Darwin was sent an orchid from Madagascar.  Called Angraecum sesquipedale, this beautiful, star-shaped orchid had a nectary a foot long!  (The nectary is a tube, at the bottom of which is the nectar the pollinator wants, along with pollen the orchid wants the pollinator to take).

     Darwin was incredulous!  What insect could possibly have a proboscis long enough to pollinate such an orchid! Darwin surmised that there must be a moth that does have such an absurdly long proboscis.  But he never found the orchid’s pollinator. 

     Twenty years after Darwin’s death, in 1907, a moth was discovered in Madagascar that had a proboscis about as long as the Angraecum sesquipedale‘s nectary!  But it was not until 1992, 85 years later, that this moth, Xanthopan marginii praedicta was actually observed pollinating the orchid.  Attenborough treats us to thrilling night-time footage of the giant moth unfurling its incredibly long proboscis and inserting it into the orchid’s foot-long nectary!  Also wonderful, we see the photographer, the first to catch the action on film, dancing in joy!–April Moore

 

Stink Bugs 101

July 28th, 2017

stink-bug-1_wide-26d7617b282911366218978fd09f025a765c9dd9-s900-c85     

     It’s summer now.  But fall will be here soon, and with it the dreaded annual stink bug invasion.  

     Not very many years ago I had no idea what a brown marmorated stink bug was.  Now I am all too familiar with these hard-shelled, shield-shaped, repulsive little critters.

     I believe it was 2010 or 2011 when I first heard of stink bugs, of their voracious attacks on fruit and vegetable crops, of their intrusion into homes in our mid-Atlantic region.  And not long after that my husband and I began to experience for ourselves these bugs’ noisy buzzing, noxious odor, and the stains they left on curtains and lamp shades.  Gross.

     I decided recently to find out more about our unwanted, ugly little house guests.  Why do stink bugs show up every fall now, when they were unknown before?  How serious a problem are they, and will we have to put up with them forever?  

     I found that the brown marmorated stink bug is native to Asia.  It was first observed in the U.S. in eastern Pennsylvania in 1998.  The bug had apparently entered our country accidentally in packing material or machinery that had been shipped to the U.S. from Asia.

     While the U.S. is home to more than 250 stink bug species, these natives have never posed much of a problem because predators have evolved as well, and those predators keep native stink bugs’ numbers in check.  Likewise, the brown marmorated stink bug is not a problem in Asia, thanks to predatory wasps that have evolved there to eat stink bugs’ eggs.

     But the unwelcome Asian stowaway has no predators at all in the U.S.  So once introduced, the bug spread rapidly.  By 2009 the brown marmorated stink bug could be found throughout Pennsylvania, and had also reached Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Illinois.  By 2012, brown marmorated stink bugs could be found in 40 states.  And that year, there were 60% more of these invasive stink bugs in the U.S. than there had been in 2011, just one year earlier! 

     While my own experience with the stink bug is at the level of annoyance, the major impact of the stink bug’s  rapid spread and huge population growth is on agriculture.  Especially in the eastern U.S., stink bugs are going after a wide range of crops.  They start eating in the late spring, and proceed to feast on  peaches, apples, green beans, soybeans, cherries, raspberries, pears, and many more fruits and vegetables.  They are also very fond of ornamental trees and shrubs.

     The stink bug possesses mouth parts that enable it to pierce plant parts and suck out the juice.  The loss of plant fluid leads to deformed or destroyed seeds, destruction of fruiting structures, delayed plant maturation, and increased vulnerability to plant pathogens.  

     For good reason, stink bug control has become a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) priority.  But the brown marmorated stink bug is a formidable foe.  Not only does the lack of predators allow the bugs to spread and multiply, but they are very mobile.  A new generation of stink bugs can fly in after a resident population has been killed, making permanent removal almost impossible.

     And, unfortunately, the United States is proving an ideal environment for the brown marmorated stink bug.  There is no part of the U.S. where this stink bug cannot produce at least one new generation a year.  And in  warmer states like California, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, these bugs can produce as many as six generations in a single year! With overall temperatures rising as a result of climate change, reproductive conditions are becoming increasingly favorable throughout the country.  And the stink bug can survive long periods of cold as well as heat.

     Efforts to combat the brown marmorated stink bug have included the use of pesticides, but they have proven ineffective.  Scientists have looked at importing the stink bug’s natural predators from Asia as a way to keep their numbers in check here.  But introducing these wasps might result in yet another infestation.  Scientists hope that birds and other animals will eventually begin preying on stink bugs.

     Sadly, there is currently no known way to stem the increase of the brown marmorated stink bug in the U.S.  

     But at least there are steps we individuals can take to keep these bugs out of our homes in the fall, when the weather cools and the bugs are looking for a warm place to overwinter.

     Since insecticides have proven ineffective against the bugs, and may be harmful to humans besides, scientists recommend prevention.  Before fall arrives, cracks in walls, holes in screens, and spaces around air conditioners and utility boxes should be sealed.

     Despite one’s best efforts, some stink bugs will make it into the house.  And during a warm, sunny patch of winter, those who got into the house in the fall may awaken and start buzzing around.  ’Catch and release’ works okay, although if the bug is squad  a smelly emission can result.       

     Like many people, I throw stink bugs into the toilet.  That approach is less than satisfactory, since stink bugs are good swimmers, and some can make it to the side of the toilet bowl, where they crawl up to the rim.  Some people recommend keeping a bucket of soapy water at the ready and throwing bugs in.  I have not yet tried that approach.

     Sometimes during stink bug season, when I am reading on the couch in the evening, I keep a bowl of water, covered by a plate, on the end table beside me.  When I hear a loud buzz or spot one of those ugly critters on the lamp shade next to me, I grab it (not too tightly), lift the plate, plunge the bug into the water, and put the plate back on top.  The plate protects me from having to look at the bugs in the water, and it also ensures they can’t escape.  The next morning, without looking too closely at my catch, I toss the water and the dead bugs outside.

A FEW STINK BUG FACTS

  • The brown marmorated stink bug can be distinguished from other, noninvasive, stink bugs by dark and light bands on their antennae and by dark and light bands on the top outer edges of their abdomens. 
  • Between May and August, female stink bugs lay 20-30 eggs at a time under a leaf or on a plant stem.  
  • The bug’s stink glands are located on the bug’s underside, between the first and second pair of legs.
  • Adult stink bugs live from several months to a year.
  • While stink bugs are more annoying than harmful to humans, the odor can produce an allergic reaction in some individuals who are sensitive to the odors of cockroaches and ladybugs.  If a stink bug is smashed against exposed skin, dermatitis may result at the point of contact.–April Moore

 

 

 

 

When the Catbird’s Seat is the Bird Bath

June 24th, 2017

 

the bird bath awaits its next visitor

the bird bath awaits its next visitor

   There I sat, at a little table on our balcony, sipping wine and pondering stinkbugs.  Yes, stinkbugs.  Thinking others might share my curiosity about what the infestation of these annoying creatures is all about, I planned to do some research and then publish it on THE EARTH CONNECTION.  

     Then a solitary, distinctive ‘sploosh’ emerged from the late afternoon quiet.  Happy to set aside my joyless research, I craned my neck to see what was going on in the bird bath across the driveway from my perch.  

     Peering around balcony railing slats and between holly branches, I smiled to see an actual bird in the small, stone pool that rests in the grass just yards away.  

     There, in the nest-shaped bath a catbird stood up tall, his bearing almost kingly.  He nearly filled the bath, his private pool for the moment.  Then the dark grey bird’s wings became a blur, stirring up a summery spray of water.   He rose up even taller then, fluttered those wings again, and kicked up more spray.

     But the catbird did not linger in the bath.  After those two flurryings of wings, he hopped onto the pool’s rough stone rim, wiggled his tail feathers, turned, and hopped back into the water.  After another whirring or two of wings, he hopped onto the opposite rim, shook water from his tail, turned, and jumped back into the water.  Then he actually did linger for a bit before darting up to a maple branch, where he completed his ablutions–shaking wings, tail feathers, wings again, until satisfied that he was adequately dry.

     Since that serendipitous moment, I have been watching the bird bath for other visitors.  I have since seen shows put on by chickadees and robins.

     So why do birds visit bird baths?  Do birds need to bathe?  Is it for fun?  Do all birds like bird baths?

     It wasn’t hard to find answers to my questions.  Apparently, all birds need a source of clean water for bathing and drinking.  Hawks, warblers, owls, hummingbirds, and many other species will take advantage of a clean, fresh bird bath.

     I was surprised to learn that a shallow bath is much better for birds than a deep one.  Two to three inches at the deepest is recommended to ensure that birds do not drown.

     I was also surprised to learn about the importance of keeping a bird bath clean.  Stagnant water can harbor an unhealthy concentration of bacteria, which can cause avian diseases.  Thus, an improperly maintained bird bath can be a greater harm than a benefit to birds.

     Here are a few tips for keeping the bird bath clean and healthful for birds:

  • Dump out the old water before refilling.
  • Use the pressure of a hose to help remove slimy build-up.
  • A frequent scrubbing with a scrub brush helps keep the water clean.

    I am going to be paying attention to the bird bath this summer.  And I’ll be keeping it clean in order to entice more birds to come and entertain me.—April Moore

 

 


 

 

Namaste, Wood Thrush

May 24th, 2017
photo by Blaine Rothauser

photo by Blaine Rothauser

     Oh, wood thrush, how I love you.  

     To my ears, your song is the sweetest of all forest sounds.   Yet I almost never see you;  you hide yourself so well, deep among the leaves.  That gorgeous trilling music of yours is the only way I know you are near.  

     Although it is not yet June, you have already broken my heart–both with joy and with grief–this spring.  First, the joy of your arrival, when early on a morning in late April, I heard the clear, trilling notes of your song wafting through the open bathroom window.  ”You’re back!” I thought.  ”I’m so glad you’re here!” What pleasure to stand at that window, eyes closed, taking in the sweet song I had not heard since last summer.

     You weren’t the only wood thrush who had returned from the distant south, for later that very day I heard one of your relatives, musically trilling, as my  friend Leslie and I savored a rare opportunity to meet up and walk together along a forest trail.   Those pure, sweet notes added to the day’s pleasure.

     That day, when I knew the wood thrush was back, reminded of the time their forest music startled me and made me gasp.  It was January.  My husband and I were in Costa Rica, and I heard the wood thrush warbling in the dense tropical forest.  Oh yes, I suddenly realized.  Costa Rica is the ‘south’ where wood thrushes go when our temperate Virginia forest gets too chilly for them in the fall.

     And then there is the grief part of the story I mentioned.  I actually did see one of these elusive birds recently.  But the reason I could see it was a sad one;  it was dead.  I discovered the small spotted body about a foot outside the sliding glass door to our deck.  The little fellow must have been killed by flying into that  invisible yet unforgiving glass door, another casualty of our human desire to enjoy the view.

     The little bird must have died just a short time earlier because it lay so soft and pliant in my hand, not at all stiff.  I placed him gently on the ground, in the lee of a tree trunk.  And since I so seldom see a wood thrush, I took his picture.

photo

     If you would like to hear–and see–a wood thrush singing in the forest, you will find this YouTube video a treat.  Especially fascinating to me is the way the lower part of the beak vibrates up and down to make the trilling sounds.

     And so I say to every wood thrush I hear, in honor of the divine spark that animates it–and all of us– “namaste.”–April Moore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stopped in My Tracks

April 22nd, 2017

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     A few weeks ago, on one of my wanderings in the forest down the slope from our house, I saw a sight that stopped me in my tracks.  There, just inches above the ground were what looked for all the world like a pair of tiny breasts!  The two cream-colored globes, complete with perfectly placed, protruding nipples, seemed to have burst proudly from some gauzy-looking material.

     I stood and stared.  Then I noticed another one of these ‘breasts’ a few feet farther down the hill.  Then another and another, all within a small area.

     How could this be?  I have walked in this forest many, many times, in all seasons for 20 years, but have never seen anything like this!  Wouldn’t I have noticed?  Or could these ‘breasts’ have developed only this year, and not before?

     Of course I took pictures of them.  And since I had no idea what they could be, I sent a photo to my friend Chris, who knows far more about forest flora than I do.  She wrote me back, saying that they are likely ‘lattice puffballs,’ or, in Latin, colostoma lutescens.

     Now that I had a name to go on, I decided to do a little research. Chris was right.  These little ‘breasts’ are indeed a kind of puffball.  And puffballs are a type of fungus.  But unlike other forest fungi, such as mushrooms, whose spores are located on the outside of the fruiting body, puffballs’ spores are contained inside the fruiting body, in this case the little breast.

     When the spores inside this puffball mature, all that is needed is a little rain.  The drops exert sufficient pressure on the puffball to force the white powdery spores out through the ostiole, or what looks like the nipple.  Hence, the flecks of white powder I noticed here and there on the dead leaves surrounding the colostoma lutescens.  How I would love to be on hand sometime to see spores spewing from a puffball in the rain!

     I learned that these breast-like puffballs are mycorrizal, meaning they have a symbiotic relationship with plants.  In this case, the puffballs colonize the root system of the nearby oaks, increasing the trees’ absorption of water and nutrients.  The trees, in turn, provide the puffballs with carbohydrates the trees create during photosynthesis.

     A few days later, I went outside to see how the colostoma lutescens might have changed since I’d seen them.  Well, I could find no trace of them at all!  They had completely vanished.  I assumed they had completed their life cycle and dried up.  Still, I was surprised to see not even a hint of the previously fulsome little beings.  

     I wonder if I will ever see their like again!–April Moore 

 

Tiny Odes to Our Earth

March 18th, 2017

    I am greatly pleased to offer here several very short–and lovely– poems composed by my friend Fred Andrle.  

Hairpin Curve in the River Saar

the slow river
forks around the tiny island
forever

 

 

 

rain against window

thunder
slams against my window
spring obstreporous

 

 

dogs in park

new spring morning
park wide-greening
dog after dog after dog

 

 

too hot too cold

too hot, too cold
too damp, too dry
the seasons humanized

 

sun and fields

everywhere I go
mother sun
brethren fields

 

Fred is a poet, playwright, and journalist living in Columbus, Ohio. His most recent poetry collection is “What Counts,”  (XOXOX Press, Gambier, Ohio, 2012).  Fred’s poetry was featured in the anthology “Prayers to Protest: Poems that Center and Bless Us”  (Pudding House Press), and his poem “The Book”, was read by Garrison Keillor on his public radio series “The Writer’s Almanac.” 

Fred has received Ohio Public Broadcasting and Regional Emmy awards for his radio and television programs. He currently writes as an independent journalist. His opinion columns have appeared in newspapers nationwide.

 

Paradise for Birds and People

February 17th, 2017
photo by Andy Schmookler

photo by Andy Schmookler

 

Greetings from Israel!  My husband and I are exploring this fascinating and beautiful country.  Here is a short piece I wrote recently:

It is late afternoon now.  Andy and I just spent the last few hours glorying in the sights and sounds of thousands and thousands and thousands of cranes.  These graceful birds, with their long and very slender necks, made quite a scene in an agricultural field in the Hula Valley in the northern Galilee.

This field is part of a broad, green, marshy area called the Agamon HaHula. “A Paradise for Birds and People” reads the sign at the entrance, and that certainly is the case.

Clearly, the birds were in paradise.  As we stood watching, open-mouthed, thousands of cranes whirled around and around in the sky a few hundred meters from us.  And the object of this hubbub was a plain, simple-looking red tractor.  We watched it inch along a dirt road, stirring up thousands of squawking, flapping cranes as it went.  The giant mass of birds moved slowly along, continually mobbing the tractor.

And why do the cranes love this tractor so much?  It is the Corn Tractor.  As the Corn Tractor makes its regular rounds, it dispenses corn, which the birds love to eat.  The Corn Tractor feeds these birds well, dispensing 13,000-15,000 pounds of corn for them every day!  

Certainly the Agamon is a paradise for people too.  Smiling, excited tourists like us walked, biked, and drove golf carts around the 8.5 kilometer paved trail  that surrounds the fields, enjoying not only the cranes, but the many water fowl and small birds who are also attracted to the reserve.

Since the only moving object that evokes no fear in the cranes is the Corn Tractor, our LONELY PLANET book tells us, some clever person came up with a way to use a tractor to offer tourists a great way to watch the birds.  We saw several tractors pulling long trailers that were open on one side.  These trailers were filled with auditorium-style seating–three rows, with the back row highest and the front row lowest.  This mobile auditorium faced sideways.  The people riding in it  could get a close-up view of the cranes, who were not at all disturbed by their friend The Tractor rolling past.

The corn tractor is actually at the heart of what makes Agamon a grand and creative experiment.  In providing regular and abundant food for the cranes, the corn tractor is working hand in glove with the humans growing peanuts in the fields.  By devoting one field to the cranes and feeding them plenty of corn every day, the birds leave the nearby peanut fields alone.  The birds are happy, and so are the farmers.

This successful experiment, sponsored by the Jewish National Fund, represents an important restoration.  The Hula Valley was once a vast wetlands, far, far larger than it is today.  It was vital to the lives of millions of birds who migrate between Europe and Africa every year.  With the development of Israel as a nation in the 1950s, the Hula Valley wetlands were rapidly drained to make way for agriculture.

But the dramatic loss of wetland habitat proved devastating to the cranes and the many other birds who depended on the Hula Valley to provide nourishment and a safe resting place during migration.   In the late 1950s, conservationists sounded the alarm.  Efforts were launched to protect the remaining Hula Valley wetlands and the birds who depend on them.  And in 1964 Israel’s first national nature reserve was established, here in the Hula Valley.

This is a wonderful win-win-win story—for the birds, for agriculture, and for all of us who love birds.–April Moore

 

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