Almanack Contributor Paul Hetzler

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at PaulHetzlerNature.org or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World


Thursday, April 11, 2024

Why Spring Smells So Good

Raindrops fall on a plant

As the soil warms up in April and May and green plants spring forth once again, a delicate aroma hangs in the air, apart from any floral scent wafting on the breeze. It’s earthy and fresh, and I find it almost intoxicating. It turns out that spring’s special perfume has some fun and quirky root causes. 

Spring’s perfume has long intrigued humans, to the point that sixty years ago, Australian scientists gave it a name: “petrichor.” Greek in origin, this word means “smells like a rock.” Or something like that. Not long after the wondrous bouquet of spring got its official name, British scientists in the UK found its main source, a tertiary alcohol they dubbed “geosmin,” another Greek-based term. Roughly translated, it means “smells like a rock.” 

» Continue Reading.


Friday, February 23, 2024

Got Biogas?

Small-scale methane digeste

Even if its precise definition isn’t at the tip of your tongue, most everyone gets the drift of what’s meant by the term ‘biogas.’ There is biology involved, and the result is gas. One example might be the funk in the air on the bus carrying the sauerkraut-eating team home after a weekend competition. Another type of biogas is cow belches, and the rotten-egg stink-bubbles that swarm to the surface when your boot disappears into swamp mud.

Those are all kinds of biogas, which is composed primarily of methane, CH4, at concentrations ranging from 50% to 60%. Methane is highly combustible, and can be used in place of natural gas for heat, or to run internal-combustion engines for the generation of electricity and other applications. 

» Continue Reading.


Thursday, February 8, 2024

Think Snow – Gardens and Forests Need It

Heavy snow on trees

In her poem “It Sifts from Leaden Sieves,” Emily Dickinson lauds the sublime beauty of snow – gossamer flakes that garnish a forest, wispy grains that infiltrate nooks and crannies, and wind-sculpted rings of snow around fence posts. Given that the poet lived in a time before cars and stayed in her bedroom for 20 years, she never had to shovel snow, trudge through it, or drive in it. One is less apt to admire “alabaster wool” when the plow wings a mountain of it onto the driveway you just shoveled.

» Continue Reading.


Thursday, February 1, 2024

Again?

Punxsutawney Phil

I watched the 1993 film Groundhog Day featuring Bill Murray at least a dozen times. Or maybe it just felt that way. Just as February 2 was on a nonstop loop in the film, this year’s iteration of Groundhog Day is likely to feel roughly the same as all the previous ones. I think it’s a good metaphor for this time of year, as we stumble out each morning in the semi-dark to defrost the car, not even sure what day of the week it is. We probably don’t have the energy for an exciting holiday right now.

The notion that sunshine on the second day in February portends a late spring is an idea that began in ancient Europe. The date marks the pagan festival of Imbolc , halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. In the Celtic world, Imbolc was dedicated to the goddess Brigid (Brigit), the traditional patroness of healing, poetry, hearth and home, agriculture and fertility. She was also a fierce warrior who killed adversaries like a champ. As Christianity spread, Imbolc was supplanted by Candlemas Day , but both traditions embrace the “sunnyequals more winter, and cloudy means spring” theme. » Continue Reading.


Monday, January 8, 2024

Food Webs and Tapestries

tapestry weaving: credit of Maximo Laura, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Connecting the Dots
Back in primary school in the ‘70s, we learned about nature’s “food chain.” In this linear model, which I assume was devised by surveyors who normally lay out rail lines and utility corridors, a tiny creature, let’s say a minnow, gets eaten by a bigger fish, and so on until the biggest fish of all eventually dies and its rotting carcass is maybe nibbled on by vengeful small fish.

After a while, someone recognized that life on Earth was probably more complex than a straight line, and thus the “food web” template was born. The food web, which preceded the world-wide web, was meant to fully explain how nature worked, or at the very least, how spiders make a living.

Scottish-American naturalist John Muir, who founded The Sierra Club and helped create the U.S. National Park system, wrote about nature’s interconnectedness more than a century ago. In 1911 he famously said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” This suggests something more complicated than a web – a tapestry, for instance. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Super Modeling

female model on runway

Weather modeling has become quite a big deal in recent decades, with meteorologists falling all over themselves to report what the latest models say. It sounds like a fun job, and I’m trying to find out how to apply to become a weather modeler. If it involves appearing in a swimsuit, though, forget it.

I love it when a radio announcer chirps “clear and sunny” during a storm because they read the outlook without first going to the window to have a look out. Funny how reality can boost the accuracy of weather reports. So, when you can’t even bank on today’s forecast, it’s normal to view long-range projections with a skeptical eye.

However, seasonal models are very good at foreseeing key trends such as droughts or severe hurricane seasons. You can depend on models if they call for above-average precipitation this winter. But if you want to know if it will snow on a given day next week, you’ll have to listen to the radio. Or flip a coin.

» Continue Reading.


Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Great Pumpkins

Linus, the precocious, blanket-toting character from the “Peanuts” world, which by the way is now a Canadian franchise, waited faithfully for “The Great Pumpkin” each Halloween night from 1950 to 1999. If anyone else had been stood-up that many times by the same character, they’d have thrown in the towel (or blanket) for sure. Perhaps Linus’ resolute faith that the mythical pumpkin would show up was spurred on by the fact that almost every year brings the world a bigger “great pumpkin” of the sort one can measure, and – at least potentially – eat. » Continue Reading.


Friday, October 20, 2023

Red Alert: Leaf Color Indicates Maple Distress

Sugar maple leaves

The dearth of red fall color in sugar maples, a broad regional trend first noted around 2018, is unrelated to fall weather or to the growing conditions in a given season. It’s a troubling sign that sugar maples as a species may have entered a long-term decline. Although every fall is beautiful, some years are notably vibrant, while others – like 2023 – are more subdued. We know that weather is the main factor that determines the brilliance of the autumn leaf display.

An unusually wet spring /early summer will favour the growth of leaf pathogens like shot-hole fungi, anthracnose, and bacterial leaf spot, all of which cause brown patches on leaves. Conversely, in drought years, trees are starved for water and nutrients, which curbs overall pigment production. Even after a strong growing season, protracted fall rains can tone-down color intensity, and early hard frosts or violent windstorms will truncate the “leaf peeper” season.

» Continue Reading.


Friday, September 22, 2023

Animal House

Humans take pride in their unique, perhaps exalted, place among creatures. We’re the only animal that can point to triumphs like space travel, nerve gas, for-profit prisons, and plastic- filled oceans. Until recent times, we also thought we stood alone in our taste for addling our brains with drugs. Alas, we can no longer claim that distinction: Dolphins, dogs, wallabies,waxwings, and loads of other species like to get loaded. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, September 10, 2023

Anarchy is Bad for Picnics

yellowjackets

I’m not one to shed a tear when authoritarian rulers die, but once they’re gone, picnics become a lot more dangerous. As summer wanes, the original queen in every yellowjacket wasp colony dies – having a few thousand babies in the course of one season is enough to tire any Queen Mum to death.

The colony raises new queens as the old one starts to forget the names of her offspring and where she left her reading glasses. But when the feisty new regals emerge, the young queens
run off with the nearest male wasps for a mating orgy, after which they hide in rotten logs or nearby attics for the winter. » Continue Reading.


Friday, August 25, 2023

Tree Sign Language: Early Fall Color Spells Trouble

early fall color, by Melissa Hart

early fall color

 

Each fall deciduous trees, ice-cream stands, and marinas close for the same reason: as daylight dwindles and cold creeps in, they become less profitable. When income dips down to equal the cost of doing business, a wise proprietor will turn off the lights and lock the doors until spring.

Some enterprising holdouts stay solvent longer than others who are in the same business. Perhaps they have less competition or a better location. Conversely, a few businesses close
their shops at the first whiff of autumn. Those are the ones that just barely scrape by at the height of summer. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, August 10, 2023

The Golden Rule

Goldenrod and New England Aster – David D Taylor US Forest ServiceUnless you have bees up your nose on a regular basis, don’t blame late-season allergies on goldenrod. However, if you do find bees in your schnozz, seek medical (and perhaps entomological) help immediately.

While most plants respond to the shrinking hours of daylight in the late summer by starting to wind down their business for the season, goldenrod is a “short-day” plant, the type that is stimulated to bloom by dwindling light. It is a perennial in the aster family, and is widespread across North America. Continent-wide, we have something on the order of 130 species of goldenrod in the genus Solidago.

As one of the most abundant blooms of late summer and autumn, this native wildflower is for many pollinators, including numerous bee species, a vital source of nectar and nutritious pollen. Unfortunately, this latter item has given goldenrod a black eye (but not a black-eyed Susan) among allergy sufferers.
Goldenrod’s showy yellow flowers are in full view along roadsides and in meadows and pastures at about the same time one of the more intense waves of seasonal hay fever typically begins.
So it’s understandable that goldenrod has been blamed for the red itchy eyes, sinus congestion, sneezing, and general histamine-soaked misery that many folks experience this time of year. But it turns out that goldenrod pollen is innocent of all charges. Goldenrod can’t be guilty because its pollen is heavy. That’s a relative term, I suppose, since it’s light enough that bees manage to cart away loads of it. But in the pollen realm it weighs a ton, and thus cannot blow far from the plant. It isn’t that goldenrod pollen is incapable of eliciting an allergic response; it’s just that to do so, something – a bee, for instance – would have to deliver it to your nasal passages. » Continue Reading.


Friday, August 4, 2023

Fly Research Yields Possible Trauma Treatment

Though the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” is a decades-old caution for techies to be mindful when writing code or entering data, I thought my mom invented it. It was her stock retort when we kids asked why two hours of Saturday cartoons was plenty. “Garbage in, garbage out. Fill your heads with foolishness, and you’ll act that way.” I guess she was afraid we’d start chasing roadrunners across the
desert, which typically leads to sprinting off cliffs and being struck by falling anvils.

It turns out she had a point. Numerous studies confirm that exposure to graphic TV violence raises a child’s level of aggression and anxiety in the short term, and is a sound predicter of hostile behavior as an adult. Disturbing images, whether on-screen or in real life, can have a profound impact on us if viewed frequently enough. People who moderate online content, for example, evaluate and remove hundreds of appalling photos and videos daily. In 2021, Facebook paid $85 million to settle a US class-action lawsuit brought by 10,000 of its content arbiters who were suffering from work-related trauma.

» Continue Reading.


Tuesday, July 11, 2023

White Pines: Colossal in Many Ways

white pine

The eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) isn’t really a crop-bearing tree, but it has borne priceless “fruit” for American democracy. Physically as well as culturally massive, there are many accounts from the early 1800s of white pines over 200 feet tall being harvested. One credible report pegs a white pine at 247 feet, and unverified accounts have claimed that 300-foot-tall leviathans were cut back then. It’s a long-lived species, with 400 years considered a rough maximum. Working for a tree service in the Adirondacks in the early ‘90s, I once tallied 450 rings on a storm-thrown specimen.

The white pine is the official tree of Maine and Michigan, with the current U.S. champion standing at 180 feet, 10 inches in Cook Forest State Park in Pennsylvania. Sadly, one of New York State’s tallest white pines, which I visited several times, toppled in 2021. At 160 feet, 10 inches, it was in a stand of old-growth habitat near Paul Smith’s College. In today’s second- and third-growth forests, the average mature white pine is often between 100 and 130 feet tall, with diameters of 25-35 inches.

» Continue Reading.


Sunday, June 18, 2023

Oaks Will Be Oakay

bur oak tree

If you’ve wondered what awful new malady has struck our oak trees this spring, resulting in shriveled, deformed and dead leaves, the answer is chilling. Literally; as in cold. A hard freeze on the night of May 17-18 happened at just the right – or wrong – time, catching oak foliage at a critically tender stage. Since trees can’t change their locations (to my knowledge, at least), I guess you could say that oaks were in the right place at the wrong time.

Periods of unusually warm temperatures between April 12-22, and again from May 6-13, enticed many trees to push out new growth quickly. This likely set the stage for more widespread harm than if the mid-May freeze had occurred in the midst of a slow, gradual
warming trend.

» Continue Reading.



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