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


Monday, August 1, 2022

Saving Face

Apparently, if you suck face for too long, you can become part of that visage, fused forever. And by “you” I mean all the Demodex folliculorum skin mites that read this essay. It was news to me that our faces are like high-rise condos for microscopic skin mites which live in our hair follicles and suck out the yummy, gummy skin flakes that accumulate within. I guess they’re like remoras for people. As if that was not unsettling enough, these tiny critters haul themselves out of our greasy pores at night to crawl across our sleeping mugs and fornicate.

Unlike all other mite species, the male D. folliculorum has a penis in the middle of his back, toward the front, like a wee dorsal fin. The menacing score from the film “Jaws” would set the stage perfectly as a male emerges under a female mite in slow-motion (which happens to be their top speed) and does the mite-baby dance right under our nose. Literally, in this case. Outside of the unfortunate detail that you’re now aware of these facts, Demodex folliculorum generally do not cause us any harm. Although in rare instances people can develop an allergy to them, scientists think skin mites actually help us by keeping pores open.

» Continue Reading.


Friday, July 29, 2022

Daycare Forests

Although the Grimm Brothers’ tale of Hansel and Gretel surviving alone in the woods after being abandoned by their parents is based on a grim reality – the famine of 1315-1317 – there are compelling reasons to take kids into a forest today. As long as they are kept out of the clutches of evil witches, and are brought to their respective homes right afterward. Research on the health benefits of being in a forest environment is so compelling that urban daycares in Finland “built” forests for kids to use.

 

As part of a study on childhood immune systems and overall health, these ersatz woodlands were made by spreading topsoil over play yards, which had been either gravel or concrete. The soil was then planted with native trees, shrubs, and flowers. For obvious reasons, gingerbread houses were not included in the forest plots. The idea that immersion in nature helps us feel good is old news, of course. Patients in rooms with tree views have shorter hospital stays and report less pain as compared to those who do not have access to a natural vista.

» Continue Reading.


Friday, July 22, 2022

The Giant Joro Spider

First your car catches fire, and then your house. Worse yet, your date kills you and devours your flesh without so much as an apology. Yeah, spiders are creepy (I’ll explain). Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, reportedly affects from three to six percent of us worldwide. In fact, it’s the most common phobia among humans (I assume the fear of humans is the most prevalent phobia among other animals, spiders included). Experts aren’t sure why we’re so scared of web-spinning arachnids, although evolutionary selection and family genetics are likely involved.

Cultural conditioning plays a role as well. In the US, for example, up to 15% of the population have some degree of arachnophobia, more than twice the global average. And a 1991 study in the UK found that 78% of Londoners surveyed expressed a general dislike of spiders. Here in the northern latitudes, we currently have no resident species of venomous spider, although that may eventually change as the climate warms. On rare occasions, the northern black widow (Latrodectus variolus) has been found as far north as southern Ontario and Québec. But the northern black widow is not aggressive, and its bite, while unpleasant, is not deadly.

» Continue Reading.


Monday, July 18, 2022

Nature’s Dental Plan

The vast majority of people have no dental coverage, or at best have a less-than-stellar plan which only pays if you use their provider in the Outer Hebrides who works on alternate Tuesdays in April, although you’re still on the hook for a $5,000 deductible. Given a few recent discoveries, however, it looks like insurers could give us perfect teeth and yet save piles of money in the long run by taking cues from nature.

With a single up-front procedure, we could get self-replacing or unbreakable teeth like those found in certain animals. Of course, this would require the use of a gene-editing tool such as “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats,” or CRISPR. The acronym is fitting: one of its first miracles was an apple that stays crisper even if sliced and left out for ages. Nature’s answer to the Twinkie, I suppose.

» Continue Reading.


Thursday, June 23, 2022

Ginseng: The Root to Health

The media trope of an aged character with their nightstand chock-full of pill bottles may be an unfair cliché, but observing family and friends in their 70’s and 80’s, I’d say it has at least some validity. I’m sure anyone who take numerous meds would like a single fix-all product, a universal remedy. For over a thousand years, an assortment of aches and ailments have been treated by such a panacea, the root of a medicinal plant we know as ginseng. This term is derived from Chinese words for man-root, a reference to its typically forked shape, though Western taxonomists dubbed it Panax, “cures all.”

The genus Panax comprises about 17 species (there’s some dispute), nearly all of which are found in the northern hemisphere. While Korean ginseng is often stocked in health-food stores, our American ginseng is equally good. As for its properties, claims run the gamut. Maladies which could be managed through ginseng include cancer, diabetes, hepatitis, chronic fatigue, dementia, heart disease, arthritis, and immune deficiency. Controlled studies prove ginseng enhances cognition, reduces inflammation, improves stamina, and lessens the severity of the flu. Evidence hints at other possible benefits such as erectile function, but researchers need to apply more rigor to say for sure. Scientific rigor, I mean.

» Continue Reading.


Friday, June 10, 2022

Wildflower PR Failures

Monarchon Milk Weed (Diane Chase Photo)

Some beneficial wild plants suffer from reputation: To nettle someone means to annoy them, and nettle plants are in fact covered with hollow micro-spikes that inject a skin irritant. But nettles are also an early-spring cooked green par excellence. 

Other plants are victims of poor branding. Critical to the survival of monarch butterflies, milkweed is delicious when cooked. Jewelweed, native to wetlands, contains a sap which counteracts poison ivy, and its orange or yellow orchid-like flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Yet both plants have names which define them as undesirable. 

» Continue Reading.


Friday, June 3, 2022

Trees for a Changing Climate

My ex-wife gave me a shirt that reads “Change is Good. You Go First” when our divorce was finalised, a much-appreciated bit of humour in the midst of a challenging time. It’s hard to find the mirth in some changes, especially when we don’t have a say in them. Climate change is a good example.

Global temperatures are rising at an ever-increasing rate. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe with time, and no amount of denial will make it go away. We have to learn to roll with this one. We can’t stop climate change tomorrow, but we can “trick” it by updating the kinds of trees we consider for home and community planting. A warmer world affects trees in a myriad ways: Record wet seasons like in 2013, 2017, and 2019 allow normally weak foliar pathogens to spread and flourish, becoming primary agents of mortality.

» Continue Reading.


Thursday, May 19, 2022

Call the Dogs off the Lions

Why do we hate lions? For reasons that are beyond any logic I can see, we have been convinced that dandelions are posies non grata in our landscapes. Yet they are a critical food source for native pollinators, vitamin-packed culinary delights, and multi-purpose herbal remedies. I’d say that’s not bad for a “weed.”

In fact, dandelion is so well-respected that it bears the Latin name Taraxicum officinale, roughly meaning “the official remedy for all disorders.” It has many reported health benefits, including as a liver support, for alleviating kidney and bladder stones, and as a poultice for boils. I don’t pretend to know every past and present medicinal use of the plant, and I recommend consulting an herbalist, as well as your doctor, before trying to treat yourself.

That said, the University of Maryland Medical School website says this about dandelions: “Preliminary animal studies suggest that dandelion may help normalize blood sugar levels and lower total cholesterol and triglycerides while raising HDL (good) cholesterol in diabetic mice. Researchers need to see if dandelion will work in people. A few animal studies also suggest that dandelion might help fight inflammation.”

» Continue Reading.


Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Good News about a Bad Word

poison ivy

Now that the V-word has joined the list of things we mustn’t say in polite company, I hesitate to bring up the topic. No, I mean the other V-word – vaccine. Even if vaccines give you a headache, there’s a new one on the horizon which you may well like. I realize this claim smacks of a Green Eggs and Ham-style discourse. Not to worry; I won’t stalk you with promises that you’ll like getting jabbed with a mouse, in a house, in a box, with a fox, here or there, in car, or anywhere. Now that I think on it, Green Eggs and Ham was a creepy kid’s book.

This vaccine will never be mandatory, which is the first good reason to like it. Wait – that’s the sort of pitch Sam-I-Am would make. Yikes. Let’s get right down to it: a vaccine against poison ivy will soon be available, but only if you really, really, really want it. Related to mango, pistachio, and cashew trees, eastern poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is native to most of North America east of the Rockies. It grows in a multitude of conditions as long as it has enough sunlight, though seldom above 4,000 feet in elevation. Beyond the warning “leaves of three, let it be,” poison ivy is a sort of chameleon. Its compound, three-part glossy leaves are usually green, though often have a reddish tinge when young. Leaflet edges are notched, except when they’re smooth. The plant may grow as a ground cover, shrub, or climbing vine in various parts of its range. It seems to me it’s more often a ground cover in northern NY State, and a climber when you get south of the Adirondacks.

» Continue Reading.


Sunday, April 3, 2022

Climate change and debunking the ‘CO2 fertilization effect’

Young beech trees retain their leaves throughout the winter months

Scientist-like persons hired by the fossil fuel industry have long maintained we should celebrate an ever-increasing level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. This gas, a key building block in the photosynthetic process, can enable plants to grow faster and get larger. It’s been called the “CO 2 fertilization effect.” Many crop yields are projected to increase. And bigger woody plants, the reasoning goes, can amass more carbon, thus helping to slow the rate of CO 2 increase in a handy negative-feedback loop.

In other words, they argue that climate change is good for plants, which in turn will help curb climate change. It’s an elegant win-win situation, and environmentalists no longer have to lose sleep over skyrocketing carbon dioxide. However, as with many supposed “truths,” this argument falls apart upon close examination. It’s like in 1981 when former President Ronald Reagan said “Trees cause more air pollution than automobiles do.” He was referring to terpenols (responsible for the pleasant piney-woods aroma in the forest), which can react with auto emissions to form ozone. In the larger picture, trees reduce air pollution of all sorts – and sequester carbon as well – on a colossal scale worldwide. His statement was “true” in a minor, technical sense for a single pollutant, but it was misleading, and for all intents and purposes, false.

» Continue Reading.


Friday, April 1, 2022

Get ticked off

deer tickThese days it’s no shock to learn that officials may not always give us the most up-to-date information on a fairly new disease which poses a grave threat to the public. The surprise is that it doesn’t involve COVID-19.

Since 2016, a nonstop avalanche of new findings on Lyme has crushed a lot of long-held beliefs about this disease. It is regularly misdiagnosed, harder to treat than one might assume, and can debilitate a person for months or years. In a few instances, its effects last a lifetime. Lyme is a huge – perhaps the biggest – health risk to farmers, forestry workers and others whose jobs are principally outdoors. In this first of a three-part series, I hope to correct some misunderstandings about Lyme disease, and explore why it’s so hard to diagnose.

» Continue Reading.


Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Counting on Arthropods

Whether one has owned a pet cat, dog, chinchilla or what-have-you, or merely admired the grace and beauty of a horse or deer, most of us develop positive links with at least one four-legged animal. But for everyone except maybe scientists, warm and fuzzy feelings evaporate when you move up to critters with a thousand or more legs. Insects, all of which have six legs, seldom elicit an oxytocin feel-good rush. I mean it’s unusual for folks to get doe-eyed over a mosquito, yellow jacket or cucumber beetle.

» Continue Reading.


Monday, March 14, 2022

Adorable Acorn Adorners

While my musings about nature generally focus on southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States, there are times when a subject is far too juicy to ignore even if it’s out of this world, like Japanese satellites made from trees. Back home on our little planet, we have a blind, rainbow-hued marine worm which slices fish in half for the joy of it. This “Bobbitt” worm grows to ten feet long and can paralyze a human with its venom.

» Continue Reading.


Sunday, February 27, 2022

Indulging Reforestation

As a child in a devout Catholic household I was intrigued by “Indulgences,” a way for sinners to avoid penalties in the afterlife by paying a fee commensurate with their bad deeds. This was years before Heaven went digital, of course, and as a youngster I assumed these bookkeeping adjustments were made in such a way that God didn’t notice the erasure marks in the Eternal Ledger.

When I first heard the phrase “carbon offsets” it reminded me of the practice of Indulgences – if you pay enough cash you can fly your Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun, and through some kind of accounting magic, not emit a speck of CO2. Someone would instantly plant a forest, pump carbon into a deep ocean trench, or build a wind farm for you.

Apparently I’m too cynical at times, because carbon offsets are genuine. But there are limitations. In a July 2021 Denzeen article, Fredrika Klarén, who runs the Sustainability Division at the Chinese electric-car maker Polestar, says “It is impossible to get down to zero [CO2 emissions] with offsets alone.”

» Continue Reading.


Monday, February 14, 2022

Plan for a Better Spring: Selecting the right species of trees for your property

bur oak trees

Looking for a way to enhance property value, save energy costs, boost mental health, and help the planet in one simple, low-cost step? Yeah, me too. Let me know if you think of something. Seriously, though, a few well-placed trees in one’s yard typically add at least 5% to a property’s value. Having large older specimens (of trees, I mean) around the house can push that figure close to 20%. In terms of energy savings, deciduous trees on the southern and western sides of a house tend to slash cooling costs by roughly one-quarter.

» Continue Reading.



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