As if today’s war on science wasn’t bad enough, it seems researchers have been courting further bad press by admitting they’ve spent countless hours on lunacy studies. To clarify, this research is on lunar effects on our behavior and sleep – I don’t know of any work being done to analyze sheer foolishness and irrational acts, the other kind of lunacy. Given the events that dominated the news this January, though, maybe that would be a fair line of inquiry.
For some time now I’ve been seeking that perfect niche job where my talents can be used to their fullest. In the news not long ago, a great possibility emerged: it turns out that Toronto’s York University has an actual Boredom Lab. I’d hoped they might want a research associate they could observe who’d kick back all day, drink coffee and play solitaire, but alas, they never returned my call. However, I discovered some pretty stimulating things about human boredom, as well as how it affects other animal species.
First off, boredom is not what most of us think it is. Dr. John Eastwood, who directs the aforementioned lab at Canada’s third-largest university, explained in a CBC “Quirks and Quarks” radio episode aired in January 2021 that boredom doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. Many of us are occupied with plenty of stuff, but if we’re not invested, it’s naught but a dull pantomime – we’re reduced to going through the motions.
How to distinguish one leaf-bereft hardwood from another in winter is more of a challenge than summer tree ID, but there are practical reasons – and a few offbeat incentives – to tell one species from another in the dormant season. Hikers and skiers can benefit from such a skill, and in survival situations, hydration and warmth may depend on it. And if you’re among those who adore wintertime camping, you can have more fun when you know common woody species.
In late winter/ early spring, a pathogen-free beverage flows from sugar, silver, and red maples when temperatures rise above freezing in the day. A bit later in the spring yet prior to leaf-out, our native white (paper), yellow, black, grey, and river birches yield copious, healthful sap as well. The same can be said for wild grape stems, although it’s crucial that one can recognize other vines out there like Virginia creeper and poison ivy.
Some foods give you gas, but March is the time of year when gas gives you a delicious food. Maple syrup, which is nutritious enough to be listed by the US Department of Agriculture as a food, is carbon dioxide-powered. If it wasn’t for a bunch of little gas bubbles in the wood or xylem tissue, maple sap would not flow. Who knew that trees were carbonated?
A mere two decades ago, biologists and arborists were at a loss to explain what causes maple sap to run. They’d typically mumble something about vacuum and straws before changing the subject. Everyone was aware that below-freezing nights followed by warm days led to sap flow. But it wasn’t until recent years that the mechanism behind sap flow was better – although still not perfectly – understood.
It’s a no-brainer that acing a physics exam won’t affect one’s grade in history class, yet it’s frequent to assume that a water test, not otherwise specified, covers all the potential bases. A common water test is for coliform bacteria, the presence of which would indicate a leaking septic field, or/ and manure runoff. If the lab gets back to you with a result of ND or “non-detect,” it’s great news, but it is by no means a clean bill of health.
Wells, no matter how deep, are vulnerable to contaminants that originate on the surface. Pesticide residues, nitrates from commercial fertilizers, benzene and other dissolved-phase petroleum compounds, and commercial degreasers are but a few of the things that can end up spewing from our faucets.
Across northern NY State, around 40% of residents rely on wells for drinking water. We are very fortunate in our little corner of the planet to have such easy access to fresh water. Broadly speaking, aquifers in our region are shallow, with the water table less than 50 feet below ground. In fact, dug wells still exist at some rural homes.
Where agriculture is concerned, dairy is king (or is dairy queen?) in northern NY State. Looking out the window now in late February, though, it looks like we should be growing snow peas or iceberg lettuce. Actually, for farmers, maple producers, foresters and gardeners, there is an up-side to having plenty of winter white stuff.
Snow has been called “the poor person’s fertilizer” because it’s a source of trace elements and more importantly, of plant-available forms of nitrogen, a nutrient often in short supply. When snowmelt releases a whole winter’s worth (i.e., almost six months) of nutrients in a short time, the nitrogen value can add up.
Since air is 78% nitrogen, you’d think plants would have all they needed. But atmospheric nitrogen, N2, is a very stable, inert molecule that plants are unable to use – you might say that for plants, nitrogen gas is broken. Fortunately, some soil bacteria can “fix” gaseous nitrogen, converting it to water-soluble forms that plants can slurp up. Lightning also turns nitrogen gas into plant “food.” But this only accounts for a small percentage of the nitrogen found in snow.
It must be hard to foster a decent public image if your family was responsible for spreading the plagues across Europe, Asia and North Africa that killed between 75 and 200 million people. If rats were able to launch a rebranding campaign, it would never work. I imagine that even NetReputation.com would throw up their hands and give a refund.
But in spite of the many problems they cause, rats do have a few entries in the positive side of their ledger. In a CBC Radio interview, Bobby Corrigan, a renowned NYC rodentologist (yes, there is such a thing) said rats are “the most important mammal group to homo sapiens.” In addition to being test subjects for innumerable studies on human diseases and new drugs, rats have provided insights into our neurology which may not otherwise have been made, especially the way richness of environment affects brain development. They can sniff out land mines better than any human technology, and can accurately tell if a patient has tuberculosis.
A friend who once worked nights in a resort bar was asked by a patron where to find “weed.” As it happened, my pal’s day job was farming, and his truck had plenty of hay chaff, so as a prank he bagged some and gave it to the grateful chap. The next night the guy wanted more, claiming it was great, much to my friend’s surprise. “Who knows what else might be growing in the alfalfa,” he quipped to me with a shrug.
My first thought was that it could have been catnip (Nepeta cataria), a member of the mint family which has marked opioid-like effects on cats, and mild sedative effects on humans. It can be found in many herbal tea blends designed to help with stress or insomnia. Native to Europe, Africa and Asia, catnip long ago became naturalized in the Americas, and now grows pretty much everywhere except for the Arctic and high elevations. In fact, if you live in the country, you likely have some growing on your land.
I watched the 1993 film “Groundhog Day” featuring Bill Murray quite a few times. Or at least it felt that way. Just as February 2 was on a nonstop loop in the movie, Groundhog Day 2021 is likely to feel pretty much the same as previous ones. Really, it’s a perfect holiday for early February as we struggle to resist the urge to hibernate. At this time of year, each morning holds the same ritual: we stumble out, semi-conscious, in the morning to defrost the car, shivering under an unchanging gray sky, wondering what day of the week it is. We probably couldn’t handle an exciting holiday this early in the year.
The notion that sunshine on the second of February indicates a late spring began in ancient Europe. That 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), 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 Candelmas Day, but both traditions reference the “sunny equals more winter, and cloudy means spring” theme.
If you were to confide in a friend that you’ve seen dust-bunnies under the bed come to life, and that you think masked hunters have been stalking you at night inside your house, well, hopefully that’s a REAL good friend. Of course they’d feel a lot better once you explained that masked hunters are a type of assassin bug belonging to the order Hemiptera (true bugs).
Native to Europe and Africa, masked hunters are now widespread throughout North America. These fierce predators of insects and other arthropods get their name from a curious habit of coating, or masking, themselves with detritus and dust as a form of camouflage. Mature adults are shiny, black beetle-like insects measuring about three-quarters of an inch long. During their long “childhood,” though, masked hunters are neither dark nor shiny.
As a card-carrying, registered tree hugger, I have long touted the benefits of trees such as carbon storage, energy savings and improved mental health. And beyond the familiar tree-related blessings such as maple syrup, lumber and firewood, I’ve written about some obscure things like birch-based candy that fights tooth decay, and health-promoting chaga tea derived from a birch fungus. Then there’s basswood bark for fiber, elm bark for baskets, and pine bark for lunch. That stuff is all pretty straightforward.
More highly processed wood products, though, are a mystery to me. Even a fairly mundane example like how a pile of dirty logs becomes a decidedly coveted treasure – I’m speaking of toilet paper, of course – seems like rocket science. But recent developments are truly mind-blowing. Without a doubt, tree-derived stuff has risen to a whole new level: the Japanese will soon rocket a wooden satellite into space.
My son, wise beyond his years it would seem, taught me an invaluable lesson when he was a teenager living at home. Any time I got worked into a froth about a broken car, leaky roof or other serious, but non-cataclysmic setback, he’d put things in perspective for me: “Pops, it could always be worse – you could be on fire.”
This is a good model to apply to invasive species. Depending on the situation, they can wreak some genuine havoc, but sometimes the perception of danger is so far overblown that other problems ensue. It’s important to place an issue in the proper scale, beyond the fact that we are hopefully not surrounded by flames at the moment.
Although my Irish-American mother taught me that the prefix O’ (descendent of) was originally part of common Irish surnames such as Kelly, Murphy, Hogan and Kennedy, it would sound odd to my ears were these families to suddenly revert to the Old-World form.
I have the same issue with the distinctly New-World marsupial, the opossum. In the Genesee Valley of New York State where I grew up, these omnipresent critters were known to all as possums, and it still sounds foreign to hear their name pronounced with three syllables. » Continue Reading.
The tallest trees this side of the Rockies, our eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) is one of the most – if not the most – economically and culturally important species in the Northeast.
Though the current US champion is a North Carolina giant measuring 189 feet tall, early loggers recorded white pines of up to 230 feet. » Continue Reading.
When Norway broke from Sweden in 1905, the newly independent country promised to stay neutral in all international conflicts. However, it has let loose highly successful and prolonged assaults of both the US and Canada on several fronts. To its credit, Norway has managed all this without using the Internet or spending a single krone. » Continue Reading.