Almanack Contributor Paul Hetzler

Paul Hetzler

A Canton, NY-based arborist, educator and writer, Paul Hetzler had intended to be a bear when he grew up, but failed the audition. He settled for an educator position instead, and serves as Horticulture and Natural Resources Educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine. He is the author of Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World.

You can reach Paul at the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Canton at (315) 379-9192.


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Understanding This Winter’s Polar Vortex

A strong polar vortex configuration in November 2013I’d love to explain exactly what a polar vortex is, but I’ll spare you the details, mainly because I don’t know them.

Apparently, the definition of a polar vortex has been changed by the American Meteorological Society three times in the last 20 years — even the experts are still trying to nail down what it is. Besides freaking cold, I mean. » Continue Reading.


Monday, February 4, 2019

Paul Hetzler: Playing Your Brains Out

common ravensBody-surfing monster waves in Australia; snowboarding down rooftops in Alaska on improvised boards; tobogganing into deliberate pileups at the bottom of steep hills — the range of unsupervised play that youngsters can get into is jaw-dropping. That’s not to mention the dangerous romping and horseplay, as well as rude games like spit-soccer in the pool. Honestly, they are such animals.

Biologists have long pondered why so many animal species evolved to play, occasionally at their peril. And to some extent, they are still wondering. Juvenile play in primates such as humans and apes is well-documented, and other mammals such as dogs and cats clearly play as well, but it turns out a surprising array of animals engage in frivolous games. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Paul Hetzler: Please Don’t Hum Along

frequency range of human voicesIn the ninth grade I was in chorus for a few months until the instructor offered me an “A” for the rest of the year if I dropped her class. True story. You would think a guy who likes music but can’t sing would at least enjoy humming, but that depends. Research has shown that humming can cause anxiety, depression, insomnia, and in some cases, ghosts. Also true — though of course I left out a few details there.

Humming to a song because you don’t know (or can’t sing) the words is harmless, unless maybe it is incessant and happens to irritate your co-workers. But many industrial processes like blast furnaces, cooling towers, and giant compressors and vacuum pumps can emit low-frequency or infrasound hums able to travel tens of miles. Because human-caused hums have unusually long wavelengths — in some cases more than a mile — the hum can travel easily over mountains and through buildings. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, December 22, 2018

Minimizing Salt Injury to Trees and Shrubs

Every winter brings its annual a-salt on roads and walkways. In icy conditions, salt may be necessary for safety, but too much of it is worse than a bad pun. Cars, equipment, and concrete suffer in obvious ways, but damage to trees and other woody plants is less visible. Salt injures trees and shrubs by several means.

When road-salt spray hits twigs, buds and, in the case of evergreens, foliage, such direct contact causes yellowing of needles, and subsequent death of evergreen twigs and limbs. It also leads to stunted or deformed growth, such as witches’ brooms, on hardwoods. Severe or repeated direct exposure, especially for sensitive species like white pine or cedar, can kill the whole tree. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, December 20, 2018

Paul Hetzler: Dreaming Of A Local Christmas

Even Santa Claus himself cannot grant a wish for a white Christmas — it is a coin toss whether the holiday will be snow-covered or green this year. A verdant landscape is not our Christmas ideal, but we can keep more greenbacks in the hands of local people, and keep our Christmas trees and other accents fresh and green for longer, when we buy local trees and wreaths.

Not only are Christmas trees a renewable resource, they boost the regional economy. Even if you don’t have the time to cut your own at a tree farm, do yourself a favor this year and purchase a natural tree from a local vendor. She or he can help you choose the best kind for your preference, and also let you know how fresh they are. Some trees at large retail outlets are cut weeks, if not months, before they show up at stores. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Globe: A Well-Rounded Perspective

The Gall Peters projection of the world mapGlobal warming might be a lot more fun if it came with a thermostat. Like most people in northern NY State, there are times when I wish it was not quite so chilly. If I could tweak some climate-dial so my tomato plants could safely go into the garden on May 1, guaranteed frost-free, it would be wonderful. And few of us would complain if we could suddenly grow peaches and oranges in our backyards.

But aside from a complete lack of control over the whole process, my main gripe about global warming is its first name. It’s just that hardly anyone besides astronauts has a decent grip on the massive size of the round lump of water and rock upon which we all live. Whenever there is a cold snap, a lot of us — me included sometimes — wish global warming would hurry the heck up and get on with it. And some of us even question whether weather is actually changing at all. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, December 2, 2018

Paul Hetzler Ranting About Ravens

common ravens Over the past two decades, biologists have been busy studying one of our native mythological birds. At once the most widely distributed member of the crow family, and a figure revered across the globe by civilizations both ancient and modern, the common raven (Corvus corax) is anything but ordinary.

In Norse mythology, the god Odin had two ravens who flew around the world gathering information for him, and the Irish giant and culture-hero Cú Chulainn was honored by a visit from the goddess Morrígan who appeared as a raven. To the modern Haida and Tlingit peoples out West, the raven is a bird of surpassing intelligence, as well as a culture-hero who is responsible for creating humans, and causing much mischief as an inveterate trickster. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, November 15, 2018

Happy As A Clam: Anthropomorphizing Animals

Wile E CoyoteHappiness may be elusive, but it sure has spawned a lot of aphorisms. Folk-wisdom indicates one can be happy as a pig in poop — or in mud, which makes me wonder if those two hogs are equally content, and if they had other options. It also suggests you can be pleased as a pig in a peach orchard, which would make sense unless harvest season was over. Additionally, one might feel happy as a pup with two tails, a monkey with a peanut machine, or a clam at high tide.

With such a menagerie of animal comparisons, it seems fair to ask if animals are able to feel emotions such as happiness. Most biologists caution against anthropomorphizing, a term which sounds like it could mean morphing into an animal, in which case I would agree, because who knows if you would make it back again. Actually what they are saying is that we should not ascribe human-like motives or emotions to wild or domestic animals. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Run, Dorothy – Emerald City is Falling

Watertown is poised to become an Emerald City, but that’s not good news. Jefferson and Lewis will soon be Emerald Counties, and St. Lawrence County began the process of change two years ago. Unfortunately, this kind of transformation does not involve happy endings.

When the emerald ash borer (EAB) kills an ash, something happens never before seen — the tree becomes brittle and hazardous very quickly, beyond anything in our experience in North America prior to this. Municipal leaders, DOT officials, woodlot owners, loggers, farmers and other land managers need to be well-informed in order to stay safe and avoid liability. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

Paul Hetzler Wants To Know – You Got Gas?

Dairy Cows in Collins Center New York 1999Even if its precise definition isn’t at the tip of your tongue, most everyone gets the general drift of what is meant by the term biogas — there’s biology involved, and the result is gas. One might guess it’s the funk in the air aboard the bus carrying the sauerkraut-eating team home after a weekend competition. Others would say biogas is cow belches, or the rotten-egg stink-bubbles that swarm to the surface when your foot sinks into swamp ooze.

Those are all examples 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. Formed by microbes under anaerobic conditions, it is a greenhouse gas twenty-eight times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. The fact that it can be useful if harnessed but dangerous if released is why we need to trap biogas given off by landfills, manure pits, and someday, maybe even cow burps. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, October 27, 2018

Animal Intelligence: Head of the Class

brain sizesWhen the topic of animal intelligence comes up, we might argue whether a crow or a parrot is the more clever, or if dolphins are smarter than manatees. Seldom do we ascribe smarts to life-forms such as insects, plants or fungi. And it is rare indeed that we question our intellectual primacy among animals. It is true that no other species can point to monumental achievements such as the Colosseum, acid rain, nerve gas and atomic bombs. But that does not mean other species are bird-brained. Metaphorically speaking.

It makes sense that elephants and whales are whiz-kids, given the size of their heads. Depending on species, whale brains weigh between 12 and 18 pounds (5.4-8 kg.), and Dumbo’s cranium would tip the scale at around 11 lbs. (5.1 kg.). Compared to them, our 3-pound (1.3 kg.) brains are small potatoes. What sets mammal brains apart from other classes of animal is the neocortex, the outermost region of the brain responsible for higher functions such as language and abstract thinking. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, October 20, 2018

Mallards: The Chevy Impala of Ducks

Mallard Ducks My francophone wife is often amused as I commence à apprendre la langue, like the time I said connard when I meant canard. For the monolingual English-speakers out there, canard means duck, while the rough equivalent of connard is a word that rhymes with “spithead,” and that you don’t want your kids to say. But where mallards and other puddle-ducks are concerned, the two are related. The drake (male) can be an absolute connard sometimes.

The Darwinian principle “survival of the fittest” is not always about who wins the antler fight or arm-wresting contest. Fitness means being well-suited to one’s environment so as to live long enough to reproduce and thus pass on one’s DNA. Above all else, it means being adaptable. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

On The Watch For Porcelain Berry

porcelain berries A total lunar eclipse is likely more common than the swift removal of a novel invasive plant infestation, but fingers are crossed that such a thing happened in St. Lawrence County this summer. The plant eradication, I mean — we all know about the celestial event this past July, the first central lunar eclipse since June 2011. Thanks to the sharp eyes of Dr. Tony Beane, a Professor of Veterinary Science at SUNY Canton who is also an avid naturalist, an exotic vine capable of smothering fields and forests has been eliminated within weeks of its confirmation in the Ogdensburg area. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Paul Hetzler: Plant A Tree, or Rent It?

Planting a tree isn’t rocket science, which is good thing. If it were that complex, I’d wager we’d have a lot fewer trees lining our streets. It may not take a scientist to plant a tree correctly, but a lot of money is spent each year to buy and plant trees which may as well be leased, because they will only live a fraction of their expected lifespan.

When trees decline and die after 15, 20, or even 30 years, the last thing we probably suspect is shoddy planting. Although landscape trees like mountain-ash and birch have naturally short lives, a sugar maple or red oak should easily last a hundred or more years. Yet all too often, a long-lived species will expire at twenty because it was planted “fast and dirty.” You can find examples of trees declining as an age-class in housing developments, and especially along NYS routes where DOT low-bid contractors replaced trees cut down for road improvements. One may as well consider such trees rentals, not purchases. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Fifty Shades of Nightshade: From Delicious to Deadly

Deadly Nightshade courtesy Köhler's Medicinal Plants 1887Many nightshades are safe and delicious, and go well in sandwiches and sauces. A few are deadly, dished up mainly by criminals, but most occupy a gray area between these two extremes. Worldwide, there are around 2,700 shades of nightshade, a family known to Latin geeks as Solanaceae. The family comprises tasty crops like tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and tomatillos. It is also composed in part by jimsonweed and other shady characters which have wrought mayhem and death, both accidental and intentional, throughout history.

Nightshades are present on every continent except Antarctica, though Australia and South America have the greatest diversity, and overall numbers, of species. Tobacco is one of the most economically important nightshades, while other family members, for example petunias and Chinese lanterns, spice up our yards. The majority of nightshades are wild species, some of which have been used as sources of medicine for millennia. » Continue Reading.