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.
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.
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.
Unless 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.
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.
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.
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
Black flies can put a damper on summer fun, but a tick bite can change your life forever. Deer ticks (ID links provided below) are known to transmit Lyme disease, which is caused by any of three species of spirochete bacteria in the genus Borrelia. When a deer tick latches onto us for longer than 24 hours, it barfs a load of these fast-moving, corkscrew-shaped microbes into our bloodstream. The spirochetes, which have a particular craving for hearts, brains, and joints, begin to drill through our tissues in search of a nice place to settle down and reproduce. As you might imagine, the results are unpleasant.
After many months (five-plus where I live) of winter whiteness, it’s a relief to watch the snow melt at last. We’re always grateful, even though the loss of snow cover gives way to a mostly brown world: brown grass, sand everywhere – even brown pine needles along the roads. Not to mention the leaves, trash, or dog poop that was mercifully hidden under the snow. Those few sepia-toned weeks after the white stuff disappears and before trees and grass wake up can be visually bleak.
The search for a way to restore youthful vigor dates back at least to the writings of Herodotus in the 4th century BCE. The pursuit continues today, though in the domain of science, rather than guesswork. Among the best-known historic quests to reverse the aging process was Juan Ponce de León’s fabled hunt for a “Fountain of Youth” in the Caribbean. Having driven a few million native Tainos to early graves in Spanish silver mines, Ponce de León sailed away in 1521, reportedly seeking this magic water.
“My girdle is killing me” was an obnoxious slogan from a TV ad that ran in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the US. The widely-mocked catchphrase was meant to inspire women to rush out and buy a certain brand of non-murderous undergarment. I doubt the ad’s plaintive tone helped boost sales, but hey – I’m no marketing expert. And yet, underclothes can be dangerous. In 2009, the so-called “underwear bomber” stuffed his shorts with explosives and boarded a plane. Luckily, he couldn’t ignite his stuff, and his plot fell flat. In 2020, Alexey Navalny, a fierce critic of the Kremlin, nearly died when a Russian agent smeared nerve toxin on his boxers (because nothing says “strong, confident world leader” like poisoning one’s critics, right?).
The tradition of burning a Yule log has largely fizzled out in most parts of the world. While holiday cards often feature cute, picturesque birch rounds in the hearth, old-time Yule logs in 6th and 7th century Europe were monster tree trunks that were meant to burn all day, and in certain cultures for twelve continuous days, without being entirely used up. Apparently, if you didn’t have a leftover bit of this log remaining after the marathon burn, you were doomed to misfortune in the upcoming year. The remnant piece of charred wood was tucked away in the ceiling and was used to light the following year’s Yule log. I assume it was extinguished before being squirreled away in the rafters or some really bad luck would ensue.
If not for a fungus, Santa’s flying sleigh would be grounded. If that were the case, the only toys he could distribute would be to the elves who made them in the first place, which kind of spoils the whole surprise element. The truth is that Mister Claus relies on Amanita muscaria, a mushroom which grows among pine and birch, to zip around the world on Christmas Eve. Sometimes called the fly agaric or fly amanita because it has been used to kill flies, Amanita muscaria is a large, attractive mushroom. Its domed reddish cap is dotted with large white spots, making it one of the most recognizable toadstools or free-standing mushrooms in the world. It is the big polka-dotted mushroom of Alice in Wonderland, coloring books, and garden statuary.
Recent improvements in the texture and flavor of plant-based meat analogs have meat-lovers as well as vegetarians flocking to buy them. While it’s normal to think the quest for mouth-watering faux meat is a recent trend, it dates back almost a thousand years. According to first-hand written accounts, European religious and political leaders in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period spent decades searching for meat substitutes. But Europe’s elite weren’t after mere Tofurkey or Boca Burgers. Their sights were set far beyond Beyond Meat in a hunt for living, breathing, meatless animals. In a strange twist, modern science has confirmed the existence of at least two such veggie-critters.
While I usually cover flora and fauna relevant to the US Northeast and southeastern Canada, every so often, a non-regional subject whispers to me that it’s endlessly captivating and deserves an essay. Eventually I comply to make the whispering stop. Please don’t tell my shrink about this. One time, I was forced to write about platypuses (compelled by platypuses, not editors). These things are proof that animals are not the result of evolution; no, they came from Ikea. Ma Nature went to Ikea for her animals, and after assembling them, a little pile of fasteners and animal parts were left on the workbench.
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