Archive for October, 2010

Sweet Are the Uses of Adversity

Friday, October 29th, 2010

     Long ago, back in ninth grade, my English class read William Shakespeare’s As You Like It.  Then when the class attended a professional production of the play, I was enchanted.  I remember feeling a wistful pleasure as I watched the duke and his friends savor the pleasures they found from living in the forest.  

     Banished from the royal court by his evil brother the usurper, the kindly duke found rich and unexpected joys in his woodland existence.  Along with loving friends who had voluntarily joined him to live in the Forest of Arden, he grew to love living in forest exile.  The little group played and lounged in the trees’ leafy summer shade, and they delighted in watching the movements of their animal neighbors.  In fact, the  friends became so fond of the deer with whom they shared their wooded home that it pained them when they had to kill one of them for food.  The duke found he did not miss the wealth and pomp of the royal court, and he greatly preferred the simplicity of forest life to palace intrigue. 

     Even the cold winter winds had something to offer the duke.  “These chilling winds which blow upon my body are true counsellors,” he said.  “They do not flatter, but represent truly to me my condition;  and though they bite sharply, their tooth is nothing like so keen as that of unkindness and ingratitude.” 

     And then there is the duke’s famous soliloquy:    

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.”

     Over the last 40+ years, phrases from that soliloquy have floated pleasantly through my mind from time to time.  While living away from the comforts of civilization is assumed to imply adversity, that is not necessarily the case.  People may find different, and possibly deeper, pleasures in the forest than in the city.  The precious jewel in the soliloquy, apparently refers to a valued medicine that contrasts greatly with its source, the ‘ugly’ toad.  But my favorite part of the soliloquy is “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones.”  The alliteration is certainly pleasing.  But those phrases are also a gentle reminder to me that the natural world has so much to say to us, so much to teach us, and so much to give us. 

     Taking the time to pay attention, as the duke and his friends did for months on end, yields lessons that are not as readily available when one is immersed in an environment that is essentially human-made and human-centered.    

     Like the duke, I too live in a forest.  And also like the duke, I find it a refuge from the political toxicity of our times.  But unlike him, I also enjoy the comforts of living in a house.  And I consider myself very fortunate to be able to look out, and to go out, into the forest, at any time, to take in some of the many lessons and gifts the forest has to offer.–April Moore

 

Autumn Splendor

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

       As I look out my window, I see brilliant red leaves of the Virginia Creeper climbing a smoke tree whose leaves are still green.  And the nearby red maple is autumn  in progress.  While most of the maple’s leaves are mainly green, red is making prominent inroads.  The ends of the branches are reddening first, with the very tips the brightest red.  Closer in toward the trunk are a mass of leaves, all somewhere between orange and red.  And closest to the trunk are the greenest leaves.  But their green is now dull, a shadow of the bright green of summer.  And many of these leaves are showing hints of orange and red.  

     Who doesn’t love the reds, oranges, and yellows of fall?  Now that it is late October, and the colors are becoming dramatic, I try to remember what I learned long ago about why leaves from deciduous trees change color before they fall off the trees.  Since I’ve forgotten most of what I learned, I decided to consult a book that I like very much.  It is Mountain Nature:  A Seasonal Natural History of the Southern Appalachians by Jennifer Frick-Ruppert.  While the author, an associate professor of ecology and environmental science at Brevard College in North Carolina, focuses on the swath of mountains that extend from Virginia to Georgia, the processes she describes may be applied to color-changing deciduous trees  everywhere.

     The leaves of deciduous trees are green during most of their short lives (and being green seems pretty easy for them).  The chlorophyll contained in the leaves makes the leaves appear green because they reflect the green portion of the light spectrum, Frick-Ruppert explains.  Leaves contain other pigments as well–orange, yellow, and red, for example.  But those pigments are not visible to our eyes during the spring and summer months because the orange, red, and yellow portions of the light spectrum are absorbed by the leaves.  

     Chlorophyll is vitally important in the life of a tree because it converts light from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air into carbohydrates which the tree needs for nourishment.  Surprisingly to me, sunlight also degrades chlorophyll.  But in the fall, when days are shorter and colder, trees’ production of chlorophyll wanes.  And the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down.  As chlorophyll disappears from the leaves, the other pigments that were there all along–the reds, yellows, and oranges–then become visible.

     Frick-Ruppert answers a question I have long wondered.  Why are some falls more brilliant than others? 

     A warm, wet summer, she explains, “ensures that every leaf is packed with pigments and every tree is loaded with leaves, setting the stage for a spectacular show.”  An autumn cold snap can accentuate the colors, she says, because it causes a rapid breakdown of chlorophyll.  Dry weather can also intensify the colors, she says, because anthocyanin, a substance present in sap, becomes more concentrated as the water in the sap evaporates away.  And since sunlight also destroys chlorophyll, sunny fall weather can also add to fall brilliance.  So the best color show occurs during a fall that is dry, sunny, and cool at night, according to Frick-Ruppert.  “When these conditions are met,” she writes, “a short but spectacular show results, and it is the timing of the cold snap that determines when the show begins.”–April Moore  

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Thoreau’s October Observations

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

     Henry David Thoreau is well-known for his eloquent writings about the natural world around Walden Pond in Massachusetts.  Although he spent only a couple of years actually living in the cabin he built by the pond, Thoreau revisited the spot many times and wrote often about what he saw there between 1851 and 1858.

     Following are some observations he made 153 years ago today, on October 22, 1857.  I find them pleasing, and I enjoy sharing them here.–April Moore

     “The oaks stand browned & crisped (amid the pines) their bright color for the most part burnt out–like a loaf that is baked–& suggest an equal wholesomeness.The whole tree is now not only ripe but as it were, a fruit–perfectly cooked by the sun.  That same sun which called forth its leaves in the spring–has now aided by the frost–sealed up their fountains for the year–& withered them.  The order has gone forth for them to rest–As each tree casts its leaves it stands careless & free–like a horse freed from his harness–or like one who has done his years work–& now stands unnoticed but with concentrated strength & contentment–ready to brave the blasts of winter without a murmur–  

     “The birches have been steadily changing & falling for a long long time.  The lower most leaves turn golden & fall first–so their autumn change is like a fire which has steadily burned up higher & higher–consuming the fuel below–till now it has nearly reached their tops. 

     “These bright leaves are not the exception–but the rule–for I believe that all leaves even grasses. . . . .& mosses as sphagnum under favorable circumstances acquire brighter colors just before their fall–When you come to observe faithfully the changes of each humblest plant–you find it may be unexpectedly–that each has sooner or later its peculiar autumnal tint or tints–though it may be rare & unobserved–as many a plant is at all seasons–And if you undertake to make a complete list of the bright tints–your list will be as long as a catalogue of the plants in your vicinity.

     “Think how much the eyes of painters–both artisans & artists–& of the manufacturers of cloth & paper–& the paper stainers are to be educated by these autumnal colors.

     “The stationers envelopes may be of very various tints–yet not so various as those of the leaves of a single tree sometimes–If you want a different shade or tint of a particular color you have only to look further within or without the tree–or the wood.  The eye might thus be taught to distinguish color & appreciate a difference of shade or tint.”

 

Choosing Earth-Friendly Products Made Easier

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

     I often find shopping overwhelming.  With so many products to choose from, how can I tell which ones are relatively earth-friendly and which are not? 

     I am happy to share a website I just discovered that makes it much easier to choose the more benign products over the more harmful ones.  

     www.goodguide.com rates tens of thousands of products–foods, toys, and household and personal care products.  Each product receives an overall score of 0-10, with zero the worst and 10 the best.  A product’s score is an average of three measures–environmental, health, and social impact.  And those three component ratings are shown, as well as each product’s overall score.

      Having been wondering about the environmental impact of the shampoo I’ve been using for years, I went to the GoodGuide site and saw which shampoos had received the hightest ratings.  The top-rated shampoos, both environmentally and overall, scored between 8 and 9.  My shampoo, Suave, was not in that group.  Looking up my shampoo, I found it had received a middling 5 to 6 overall rating, but a higher environmental rating.  I could also readily learn which shampoos received the worst ratings.    A similar ‘study’ could be conducted for conditioners, soap, make-up, deodorant, and many, many other personal care and other products. 

    Browsing around the GoodGuide site, I saw that certain entire brands were evaluated.  The scores of all of a brand’s products were averaged to determine an overall score for particular companies.  I looked up Neutrogena, a brand I associate with high quality.  But its overall product score was an unimpressive 5.7.  Neutrogena’s overall score would have been even lower, had it not been for its relatively high 7.9 environmental rating.

     The vast number and variety of products rated makes GoodGuide a valuable resource.  For instance, more than 1,000 canned food products are rated.   More than 200 diapers, 1,000 household cleaners, more than 700 baby and toddler toys are rated.  For many categories, advice is included on what to look for when buying. 

     The site also offers an iPhone app that can be downloaded for use when in a store. 

     GoodGuide was founded in 2007.  Its mission is to provide authoritative information on the environmental, health, and social impacts of products and companies.   A GoodGuide team of scientists and technology experts works to acquire and organize high quality data, which it transforms into useable information for consumers.  Not operating as a commercial organization, GoodGuide is incorporated as a ‘for benefit’ organization.  GoodGuide is funded by several venture capital funds.  And GoodGuide information products are available by subscription to companies that want to understand how their products compare with competitors’.  “Neither our investors nor our paying corporate customers have any ability to influence GoodGuide ratings of a specific product or company,” GoodGuide states on its site.–April Moore 

    

 

 

 

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In the Glade

Friday, October 15th, 2010

     On a recent autumn morning, I took a stroll down into the forest.  After a minute or two, I noticed, about 100 yards farther on, a small sunny patch of ground, amid the surrounding forest shadows.  Drawn to the bright little spot, I walked down the hill to it.

     A few moments later, I was sitting happily among the dried leaves, enjoying the  warmth and cozy smallness of this island of sunshine.  The sunlight brightened the ground on which I sat, a textured blanket of dried leaves.  The blanket was mostly a faded brown, but included here and there yellowish hickory leaves and an occasional red tupelo leaf.  Eaten-out hickory nut shells were strewn about. 

     As I looked up, I noticed the leaves on the trees rustling faintly.  Their slight movement told me something I hadn’t realized;  the merest breeze was whispering through the forest.  Yes, a yellow leaf was  detouring this way and that in the breeze, on its route from high in the hickory tree to the mat of its fellows on the ground.  And nearby, the trunk of a dead tree rested, held up at an angle by its neighboring tall oak.  The dead tree was quite slender, having died while still young.

     As I took in the scene, the word ‘glade’ came to my mind.  It felt good to say it aloud, ‘glade.’  And then again more slowly, ’glade.’ 

     Do I ever hear the word ‘glade?’  Yes, but only as a chemical air freshener.  Never in terms of its actual meaning:  an open, sunny patch in the woods .  No, ‘glade’ is a word I think I’ve encountered only in books, and strictly old ones at that.  Nor do I ever come across the concept of a sunny place in the forest, even without the appellation ’glade.’  

    I wonder if the reason I never come across ‘glade’ as a word or a concept is that humans’ relationship with the forest has changed so greatly.  The world’s forests, once vast, have shrunk drastically.  Most of us now live far removed from any forest landscape.

     But in times past, it was much different.  Forests spread far and wide, and many were dense and dark.  Human settlements, usually tiny, were carved from the forest’s edge.  And the forest loomed large in people’s lives.  It was where they hunted for food, where they got their wood for building, cooking, and warmth.    

     Sitting there in the glade, I pictured those vast, deep forests of old.  I imagined how a hunter or a woodcutter coming upon a glade might feel happiness, how he might pause after his long walk through forest shade to rest, to sit and enjoy the warm sun on his face, how he might savor a respite from his work in the seemingly endless dark woods.–April Moore

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The Praying Mantis–Up Close and Personal

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

     A few weeks ago, I was working at my outdoor office (a table on the back deck, overlooking the forest), when I noticed something moving at the edge of the deck, about 10 feet from me.

     Back and forth, back and forth it went in small movements.  It was a praying mantis, I realized!  Then the bobbing ceased,  and the insect stood motionless.   

     I ran inside to get my camera.  And once back outside, I saw that the insect remained just as before, in the same statue-like pose.  

     But as I moved closer, crouching to get a good picture, the insect suddenly turned its large, well-defined head to the side, to face me.  Two green, bulbous eyes stared from the heart-shaped head.  As we looked at each other, I felt a little unnerved.  It seemed that the two of us were confronting each other, taking one another’s measure.  It was a sensation I’d never experienced with an insect.  After the praying mantis seemed to have gotten a good look at me, it turned its head forward again and resumed its motionless stance.

     After I got a few photos of the creature, it began bobbing again, only this time it rocked from side to side.  And as it rocked, the praying mantis gradually turned its body away from me.  After it had shifted its position about 90 degrees, it stopped moving.  Completely.

     The praying mantis, so large in the insect world, is a sight to behold.  And while I think of the praying mantis as green, this one was more brown than green.  Green seemed to protrude only along the insect’s sides, from under a layer of brown that covered the insect’s head and back.

     After my ‘encounter’ with the praying mantis, I wanted to know more.  So I did a little reading.  And here are some things I learned:

  • There are more than 1,800 praying mantis species in the world, 20 of them in North America.
  • Praying mantises are carnivores, eating insects, turtles, mice, frogs, even small birds!
  • The praying mantis strikes its pray in just 30-50 thousandths of a second, much faster than the human eye can follow.
  • The ability of the praying mantis to rotate its head from side to side is almost unseen among insects.
  • By moving its head, the praying mantis measures the distance between itself and another object.  This binocular triangulation is seen as proof of stereoscopic vision, which, except for the praying mantis, is found only in vertebrates.
  • The praying mantis’s swaying is not well-understood.  Its purpose may be to mimic wind-blown foliage.
  • The lifespan of the praying mantis extends from spring to fall of a single year.
  • After the famous late summer mating ritual (actually, most of the time the male does escape with his head intact), the female lays 30-300 eggs.  The egg case hardens to protect the contents from predators, and the nymphs hatch in the spring. –April Moore       

 

 

The praying mantis, mostly brown, with green along the sides

The praying mantis, mostly brown, with green along the sides

  

The praying mantis turns its head to look at me

The praying mantis turns its head to look at me

A Prairie Lament

Friday, October 8th, 2010

     I thank my friend Jeanie for forwarding me the following short essay.  And I thank the piece’s author, Karen Ott, for permission to reprint it here.  Her writing evokes for me a chilly, beautiful, autumn evening on the prairie.

A PRAIRIE LAMENT
by Karen Ott

For the past week I’ve hurried home from the tire shop, changed into my work clothes and headed, hay fork in hand, for the harvested bean field behind the house. I’m not interested in the pale cream bean straw littering the dry, clod-covered ground; I’m after piles of nightshade.

The cursed plants sprout mid-summer and mature, hidden beneath the bean foliage.  Come harvest, there’s nothing to do but separate them (by hand) from the beans before the crop is combined.  And that’s what we did…pulling the stringy weeds from the bean windrows and tossing them in piles between the rows…..hundreds of piles.

Now that the beans are combined, my job is to fork the noxious piles into the John Deere gator and haul them to the ever-growing ‘haystack’ in the back-yard to be burned.

It’s a tedious, dirty job……and I love it.

No television, phones, piles of paperwork, or childish demands, just me working a dusty field in the warm silence of a hazy Indian summer evening, where time slows to the pace of my footsteps, and cares of the day flutter to the ground like falling leaves.  Little by little and pile by pile, I’m soon me again….a woman who loves the land and the life she’s chosen, a gleaner of sorts who collects sights and sounds instead of stray pieces of grain to sustain her through the winter’s grey days.

Walk with me and see what I see…hear what I hear.

A skein of geese, silhouetted against the blushing sky, flies low overhead, wings whispering in the stillness like a prayer, while a meadowlark‘s call drifts on the dying wind, a plaintive farewell song to summer, a soulful goodbye to the prairies of his youth.  He’ll soon take wing; as much as he might like to stay, instinct urges him south…to warmer climates where snow and ice are mere fairy tales, and life is sweet.

The far-away rumble of a combine, muted by distance, intermingles with the raspy rustle of corn leaves, voices of autumn comforting in their familiarity.  I’ve heard them for as long as I can remember, and they are as recognizable as my mother’s voice. The field I walk grew pinto beans this year, but it still holds the distinctive sugar-smell of beet harvest in its heart.  The voices of generations past, farmer and work horse, however, can only be heard in one’s imagination.

One day my voice too will be stilled, my footsteps only a memory on this farm I love, but that’s of little consequence because once I was here.

And that’s all that matters.

photo by Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

photo by Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

 

 

 

Dramatic Utah Wilderness Protected

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

     In an unusual alliance of conservation organizations, oil and gas interests, and local governments, Utah’s dramatic Desolation Canyon has been saved from massive natural gas exploration.   

     One of the most remote and rugged stretches of riverland  in the American West, eastern Utah’s Desolation Canyon offers breathtaking views of red rock cliffs and multicolored rock spires.  This canyon, carved by the Green River, is a favorite of rafters and hikers.  And the largest existing collection of Native American rock art can be found along one of Desolation Canyon’s tributary canyons.

     Back in 1969, Desolation Canyon was designated a National Historic Landmark.  Even so, under the Bush administration, Desolation Canyon was one of many prized Utah public lands that were rushed to the oil and gas leasing block.  Environmental reviews were limited or bypassed altogether for many of these lands, including Desolation Canyon.  Consequently, the Denver-based Bill Barrett Corporation (BBC) obtained the rights to drill for natural gas on the western side of Desolation Canyon.  BBC planned to install 225 surface drill pads in the area, which would have  caused severe fragmentation of wildlife habitat, and would have resulted in heavy traffic and pollution in the area.

     But thanks to the recent historic agreement, hammered out after years of negotiation, BBC has agreed to develop only five locations in this wilderness land.  And all five sites will be underground, out of sght.  None of the five will be near the proposed Wilderness sections of the canyon, nor will any be near the canyon’s Native American archeological sites.    Measures will also be taken to protect the area’s air quality.   

     “We were able to convince the Bill Barrett Corporation to walk away from the vast majority of their leases and to agree to specific precautions in others so that these lands can be protected as designated wilderness someday,” says Laura Bailey of the Wilderness Society, one of the conservation groups that worked to forge the historic agreement.  “Without this agreement,” she says, “we would be continuing to fight drilling on every acre of this spectacular landscape rich with culture.”

     Conservationists are hopeful that Desolation Canyon will someday be designated Wilderness by Congress.  The recent agreement is a critical step toward that goal.  If the area were to be inundated with drills and industrial equipment, then it would not qualify for permanent Wilderness protections.

     Not only is the recent agreement a great victory for all who care about Utah’s rugged southwest canyons, but it is also a new and rare example of conservation groups, oil and gas interests, and local governments working together to balance energy development with conservation needs on public lands, according to the Wilderness Society.–April Moore

 

 

 

Desolation Canyon, Utah

Desolation Canyon, Utah

Sandpipers

Friday, October 1st, 2010

     I recently spent a wonderful week at North Carolina’s Outer Banks with my sister and my niece.  One of the joys for me of this special week was watching the sandpipers on the shore.

     It was a delight to walk along the beach and watch these industrious little fellows.  Unconcerned by my nearness, they vigorously pursued their hunt for mole crabs, tiny crustaceans that live deep in the sand at the water’s edge.  These shorebirds would scurry along the wet sand, moving so rapidly that their legs were a blur, and then stop to peck once or twice at the sand.  Then a few more hurried steps, another peck or two, and on and on.

     These little birds specialize in staying just beyond the lapping edge of the sea.  When the water’s rythmic ebb and flow brought the foamy edge farther up onto the sand, the little fellows adjusted, moving their hunt inland just enough to avoid a drenching.  Then the moment the ocean began to withdraw, the little sandpipers would quickly turn and scamper down the soaking sand,  careful to stay just a step or two behind the receding water.  And every few steps, the little seabirds would stop to peck at the sand.

     I was impressed by the birds’ skill at staying ahead of the water, since they were almost always right at the edge of the constantly shifting border between sea and sand.  But occasionally there would be a miscalculation, and a sandpiper would get splashed.  Those were among the few times when I saw these birds use their wings.  When hit by the water, a sandpiper would flutter its wings, fly a few feet inland, and position itself on the sand again, just out of the water’s reach. 

     Mostly, the birds seemed to peck randomly, now here, now there.  Occasionally, however, one of the little fellows would peck repeatedly in the same spot.  I assumed that such a sustained interest meant the bird had found a mole crab.  For all the sandpipers’ unrelenting efforts, it remained unclear to me just how successful they were in actually finding and eating the mole crabs they were seeking.  

     The sandpipers struck me as hard workers.  I never saw a single one take a break from the hunt.  Unlike the seagulls, who often stood still on the sand for minutes at a time, their small neighbors the sandpipers were constantly on the move.   

     And sandpipers appear to be solitary birds.  Not like the pelicans, who glided along just above the water, in groups of four or five, the sandpipers were strictly independent operators.  Each kept a good distance from the others.  The few times when I did see two of them in close proximity, the hostility of each was clear.  The two birds would stand facing each other, six or seven inches apart, and flap their wings, sometimes rising up a few inches off the sand.  One little bird, glaring at its competitor, waddled backward, and then ‘sat’ down on the sand.  The bird looked dug in, as if to say, “This is my territory!  Don’t come one step closer!”–April Moore

 

 

a sandpiper at the water's edge

a sandpiper at the water's edge

 

 

 

 

a sandpiper standoff

a sandpiper standoff

 

 

 

 

 

keeping one step ahead of the tide

keeping one step ahead of the tide

 

 

     

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