Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Adirondacks: Off the Couch, Out the Door

Severe thunder storms. Stuck in the house. So what else is new this summer in northern New York? Now, nature addicts like me don’t mind a little rain. That’s what Gore-tex is for. But crashing branches and slashing lightning? No way am I hiking or paddling in that, and it’s driving me nuts.

Where comes this craving to be out in the woods in all weathers (except severe thunder storms or maybe freezing rain)? It started when I was just a small kid, maybe 9 or 10, growing up in a boatyard on a lake in Michigan, with a dad who had lots of chores for me and who wasn’t all that nice about getting me to do them. But he had taught me how to paddle. And a winding creek ran between our lake and another, the banks lined with marsh and forest. And canoes were there for the taking. I soon learned that two turns of the creek carried me beyond the sound of my dad shouting about unfinished work. So the woods and the waterways became my refuge, my place to get lost on purpose.

And so they still are. For 15 years I worked as a nursing assistant for Hospice, traveling all over Saratoga County to care for people in their own homes, people dying of every illness the human flesh can fail by. And I couldn’t fix it. Each day I had to walk into the heart of suffering. And stay there. Friends asked me, “How can you stand it?” One way was to go to the river, push off in my little canoe (a 10′ Hornbeck Black Jack, weighing 12 pounds), and as soon as I felt that smooth silken water bearing me up and smelled the sweet scent of mossy banks, I sensed that all was well. I could really believe that some great goodness lay at the core of creation, that death and change were just part of the scheme of things, and that all would be well, indeed.

It’s funny. I thought I’d enjoy such nature magazines as Outside and Backpacker, but when I leafed through a few issues, I found the articles were mostly about surviving nature — enduring thousands of mosquito bites, falling off cliffs, freezing in the mountains, struggling across deserts, that sort of thing: Nature as something that had to be challenged or overcome. Not for me. I preferred to go to nature for its power to heal. During my work for Hospice, I witnessed this power in the lives of others, as well. Let me tell you about two of these folks. While it’s true they both eventually died, I know that their final days were enriched by getting them off the couch and out the door.

Dan, a Polish-American retired paper mill worker, wanted nothing to do with me. No, he didn’t need a shave. No, he could shower without my help. No, he didn’t want to chit-chat. “Just siddown and be quiet. I wanna watch ‘The Price is Right’.” Now, to spend an hour doing nothing was bad enough. But to have to spend it watching “The Price is Right” — torture! So I busied myself making his bed and nosing about for something to read. And there on his bookshelf were several field guides for mushrooms. I interrupted his program: “Dan, do you like to hunt mushrooms? You know, we could go look for some.” It was late autumn. There might be a few late fruiters. Click! The TV went dark. “Could you really take me?”

Indeed I could. We drove to a site where he knew some Late Fall Oyster mushrooms might be found. While he sat in the car, he sent me off into the woods. It must have been angels (plus Dan’s good directions) that led me right to them. A whole bunch. I gathered a gallon or so, and you know, it might have been gold I laid in his lap, he was so delighted. And after that adventure, off we would go nearly every day until the day he died. He’d sit in the car with his oxygen tank (he had terminal heart failure), and we’d drive along the Hudson and Hoosick Rivers, visiting all the haunts of his youth. We found where he used to hide his canoe. We found where wild asparagus grew. He recalled how his father was gassed in the war. He remembered his mother’s struggles to run their tavern. He confessed how he started drinking young and how mean he had been to his wife when he was drunk. And he found at last the courage to ask for his wife’s forgiveness before he died. And he died in her loving arms.

Then there was Eleanor. I’m not sure what Eleanor’s illness was. Terminal crankiness, probably. She lived in an assisted living facility, very nice, lots of social events, classes, good meals. She never left her room. She wanted her meals sent up. She wanted her shades pulled down. The one pleasure she allowed herself was to sit on the porch in her wheelchair on pleasant days. One day I rolled her down the ramp: “Some Blue-eyed Grass is blooming near the parking lot,” I told her. She reluctantly consented. She had never seen (nor ever cared to see) Blue-eyed Grass, but that day her eyes were opened. A sea of radiant blue covered a vacant lot, studded with bright yellow Small Sundrops and snowy Wild Strawberry. “Oh my! How pretty,” she said (in spite of herself).

All summer we walked and rolled, on into the fall. If the day was rainy, she waited for me in her raincoat. She couldn’t get over the beauty of Blue Vervain (“How can that be a weed?”) or the tiny pink blossoms of Northern Willow Herb (“Wouldn’t they make a darling dollhouse bouquet?”) We picked gorgeous bundles of Panicled Dogwood (burgundy leaves, waxy white berries on hot pink pedicels) mixed with the dark maroon seed sprays of Curly Dock. Then we got in trouble for bringing in armloads of Goldenrod. Her daughter threw it all out: “Get those weeds out of here! They’re dropping pollen all over!” I heard that cranky tone and marveled: that’s how Eleanor used to sound. She didn’t anymore.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Adirondack Gardening: Habitat Close to Home

When the editors of Adirondack Almanack asked me to take over Ellen Rathbone’s garden columns while Ellen is on vacation, I couldn’t help thinking, they have got to be kidding! Me, write a garden column? I guess they don’t know that I’m more of an anti-gardener. Not anti in the sense of “against” (I love other people’s gardens), but in the sense of “antithesis of.” In short, I’m a weed-loving wildflower nerd who will risk drowning and broken bones and heart attacks and Lyme disease pursuing additions to my wildflower “life list,” but I faint at the thought of cultivating the plot behind my house. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

Sticking Up for Skunks, Adirondack Style

A friend of mine in college had a pet skunk named Cauliflower. We heard tales of this unusual household companion, but sadly only got to meet her on the occasion of my friend’s funeral. The year before, while I was interning at a nature center near Syracuse, someone brought in an “abandoned” baby skunk. One of the staff worked with a rehabber and took temporary custody of the little animal until the end of the day. After giving it a meal of Similac, I volunteered to babysit. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a baby skunk nestled in your bosom for the better part of a day (I had to keep it somewhere warm and secure). Needless to say, I developed a fondness for skunks.

In the ensuing years I have discovered that the mere mention of the word skunk causes cries of “pee-eeww” to leap from the mouths of every child, and even some adults, in the vicinity. Noses are pinched tightly shut, even though no actual skunk is nearby. This reaction amuses and baffles me. I guess some lessons are learned early and persist for a lifetime, whether legitimate or not.

Striped skunks (there are, by the way, nine other species of skunks) are known to scientists as Mephitis mephitis. Once grouped together with weasels in the family Mustelidae, skunks now have their own family, Mephitidae, which is shared only with stink badgers, an animal found in the Philippines and Indonesia. It is easy to see why skunks were combined with weasels, for like skunks, weasels have many scent glands and can be quite aromatic. However, only skunks use their scent as a mode of defense.

If one encounters a skunk, and does not threaten it in anyway, the skunk is liable to trundle along its merry way without a second glance. If harassed, it will give plenty of warning to leave it alone. First, it will stomp its front feet. If this doesn’t work, it will make little charges towards it’s harasser with its tail raised over its head. Should the intruder continue to bother it, the skunk will bend its nether regions around to the front, so both its nose and rump are facing the same direction, and let loose a stream of yellowish liquid, a potent musk that can be fired up to twenty feet away. The skunk can manage six to eight squirts before its supply is gone, after which it will require about a week to recharge. The active compound in the spray is butylmercaptan, Mother Nature’s answer to tear gas. While it will burn and sting the eyes, it will not persist (and the recipient will not go blind). Unlike man-made tear gas, the odor can persist for weeks and can be smelled up to a mile away.

In short, it’s best not to bother a skunk.

And why would you want to? After all, skunks provide a valuable service to those who grow crops, and they do it at night when we are asleep. They eat many grubs and grasshoppers and insects of all stripes that are considered pests to the farmer. True, skunks have been known to chicken eggs and sometimes even a hen, but these instances are considered rare. Skunks are true omnivores, consuming berries and bugs, mice and roadkill all with equal relish. That said, invertebrates make up the greatest portion of the skunk’s diet.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, skunks were routinely trapped and bred in captivity for the fur industry. Believe it or not, their pelts were the second most popular fur in the business. But after about 1915 the demand for skunk fur started to decline, and all the skunk breeders had to find a new outlet. Skunks as pets became the next rage. Today pet skunks are hard to come by, mostly because they are illegal in most states due to the fact that skunks are the number two carrier (in the wild) of rabies. Red foxes, incidentally, are listed as number one.

I have been asked several times by local folks why Newcomb has no skunks. My pat answer has been that it’s simply too cold here for them. However, I have learned from long-time residents that Newcomb used to have a good number of these black and white animals. Pursuing this, we discovered that skunks seemed to disappear about the same time that coyotes moved in. Hm…interesting. Part of me wonders, though, if it has more to do with the lack of open space than it does with the presence of coyotes. Skunks are traditionally animals of open spaces, preferring to live near agricultural lands and open woods. Sometimes they inhabit dense woodlands, and have even been found at elevations over 2000 feet, but this is not where they thrive best. Since Newcomb has reverted back to forest over most of its acreage (believe it or not, at one time most of this area was cleared for farms), I suspect this is what has driven the skunks from our fair village.

We could learn a lot from skunks, who are truly pacifists at heart. They waddle their way through life, minding their own business, consuming pestiferous insects to help out (unintentionally) their human neighbors. We could all use a few more neighbors like this.


Friday, July 31, 2009

Meet Guest Contributor Jackie Donnelly, Woodswalker

Elen Rathbone will be away on vacation for a couple of weeks so we’ve asked Jackie Donnelly, who writes the Saratoga Woods and Waterways blog, to fill in. She’ll be posting Ellen’s columns under the name Woodswalker beginning Sunday.

Jackie is a former editor/writer recently retired after 15 years as a Hospice nursing assistant. She’s not a professional naturalist (she majored in English), but a self-described “lifelong nature enthusiast and wildflower nerd.” She also says she is an admirer of Ellen Rathbone, whose blog inspired her to start her own on January 1 of this year, she says “hoping to document a full year’s cycle of the beautiful wilderness settings and amazing diversity of flora and fauna close to my home in Saratoga Springs.” Liberated from land by her Hornbeck canoe, she primarily haunts the Hudson River where it forms the northern boundary of Saratoga County, with occasional forays into the “genuine” Adirondacks.

Please join us in welcoming her.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Porcupines: 2nd Largest Adirondack Rodent

This last winter one of our local residents came in with a photograph of the strangest looking tracks in the snow. There were no distinct foot prints, and no well-defined gait pattern. What it looked like was a beautiful serpentine zig-zagging design; it reminded me of rickrack. And it looked familiar. I grabbed one of my tracking books and quickly thumbed through. Sure enough, there it was: porcupine tracks. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Linking Forests Across the Champlain Valley

The Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy gets a lot of attention when it completes a landscape-scale protection deal like the 161,000-acre Finch Pruyn purchase, or when it buys a place with a hallowed name like Follensby Pond.

But for decades it has also been working among the little farms and forests of the Champlain Valley with a larger picture in mind.

“The goal is to provide safe passage for species—a way for a moose, say, to go from the Adirondacks to Vermont with little risk of being struck by a car, or a salmon to make it far enough upstream to spawn without being blocked by a dry culvert,” Michael Carr, executive director of the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, said in a press release Monday. “Where are the most important habitat linkages and how do we work do we protect them? To date, we’ve raised several hundred thousand dollars in grants for this initiative in the Champlain Valley, which is a critical piece of a larger effort.” » Continue Reading.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Marvel of Milkweed

One of my favorite plants is one that is often overlooked by people, possibly because it frequents roadsides and waste areas and is therefore considered a weed. But this “weed” is responsible for the survival of one of our most beloved insects, helped save the lives of many World War II sailors and airmen, and has a sneaky reproductive life. I give you The Milkweed.

Milkweeds are members of the dogbane family and come in 140 varieties, of which I am familiar with about four: the dusty pink common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), the muted magenta swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), the brilliantly orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and the creamy yellow whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata). I suspect the latter is only in gardens, however. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Huntington Lecture Series At The Newcomb VIC

Adirondack Park Agency Visitor Interpretive Center on Route 28N in Newcomb is hosting the Summer 2009 Huntington Lecture Series. Each lecture on Thursdays at 7:00 PM. Here is the remaining schedule:

July 23 – Wilderness Pioneer Bob Marshall’s Adventures in the Adirondacks
Phil Brown – Adirondack Explorer

July 30 – Where, How Fast and How Far do Adirondack Deer Move? Exciting New Insights from GPS Collars
Matthew Smith – Graduate Student, SUNY-ESF

August 6 – Coyotes, Deer, and the “Landscape of Fear”
Dr. Jacqueline Frair – SUNY-ESF Faculty and Robin Holevinski – SUNY ESF Graduate Student

August 13 – Minerals of the Adirondack Highlands
Michael Hawkins – New York State Museum

August 20 – Vernal Pools: Teeming with Life and Mystery
Mary Beth Kolozsvary – Biodiversity Research Institute at NYS Museum


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Carrion Beetles – Nature’s Sanitary Engineers

One of the advantages of walking with one’s eyes cast to the ground is that one is likely to find all sorts of interesting things that exist at ground level: wildflowers, fungi, snakes, scats, tracks, bodies. Bodies? Sure – things are dying all the time in the woods, and if we are very lucky we might find them. The big question, however, is: “Why don’t we find them more often?”

Believe it or not, there is a lot of competition out there for dead things. You’ve got your vertebrate scavengers, like raccoons and coyotes, vultures and ravens, which sniff out and eat tasty morsels that haven’t been dead too long. Then you have your invertebrates that are looking for a good body to eat or to use for a nursery for the kids: assorted flies, ants and beetles. Underground there are soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria that would also like their share. No carcass goes unwanted, and thank goodness.

Last summer I came across a hairy-tailed mole right outside the Visitor Center. It was obviously dead, but as I watched, it seemed to reanimate! The body was moving! My curiosity piqued, I examined the body more closely and found not one, but two beautiful black and orange beetles working furiously at the body. They turned out to be a male and a female burying beetle (Nicrophorus carolinus), one of 46 species of carrion beetles found in North America. In the amount of time it took me to go inside for the camera, they had the body partially buried. Within half an hour it was gone.

Carrion beetles come in to general varieties: Silphinae and Nicrophorinae. The major differences between these subfamilies are behavior and morphology. The Nicrophorinae are the more interesting of the two (in my opinion) because they actively bury the carcasses they find.

First, the beetles must find the deceased, which they can do from up to a mile and a half away, detecting the fine chemical scent of decay (often within an hour of death) with their antennae, which can have some pretty nifty structures. Some have knobs, others fans or combs. These antennae are highly specialized to pick up long-distance scents. Once the body is found, the male and female beetles work together to bury it. Some may carry the body a short distance for burial, while others get right to work excavating beneath the corpse, which to the observer looks like it is slowly sinking into a miniature bed of quicksand. And just to show you how clever Mother Nature is, take note that the bodies of these beetles are flat, the perfect adaptation for scooting easily underneath a carcass, thus facilitating burial.

Why do these beetles bury the carcass, where as those in the subfamily Silphinae don’t? It comes down to a matter of taste. Nicrophorinae don’t like maggots. Flies are equally adept at homing in on death and for the same reason: they want to lay their eggs on the body, providing a nutritious food source for hatching larvae. Nicrophorinae will eat fly maggots, but they don’t like it when there are too many of them. In fact, they have been known to abandon a carcass if the maggot infestation gets too high. Silphinae, on the other hand, love to eat the maggots, so they are less picky and don’t bury the body. The more the merrier.

Once the body is safely secure underground, the female burying beetle lays her eggs on it and within a couple days the eggs hatch. Here is where another defining difference between the subfamilies comes into play: the adults will feed and defend their larvae. And before you know it, the larvae grow up, pupate and become adults, ready to find carcasses of their own.

As ubiquitous and common as carrion beetles are, they are not often found by the average person. This is partly because they (the beetles) are mostly nocturnal, but also because they do their jobs well and dead bodies are not around long enough for most people to encounter them. If you really want to increase your odds of finding some carrion beetles (and they are some of the largest and most colorful of our insects), you can investigate roadkills, or you can establish an abattoir on your property. I did this successfully, albeit unintentionally, the first year I began the losing battle with rose chafers. After collecting a quart of said pests (drowned in a mason jar), I left the jar out in the sun with the lid on for several days, forgotten. When I found it, I dumped the putrifying contents out on the ground. A few days later I came across the mess of rotting chafer bodies to find it alive with carrion beetles – beautiful yellow and black specimens as large as the end of my thumb. If only I could convince them to eat the live chafers…

So let’s all give three cheers for carrion beetles…and all the other creatures that work to keep our woods, waters, roads, deserts, etc. clean and healthy. If they weren’t out there consuming the bodies of the deceased, diseases would surely run rampant, or, at the very least, the world would be a smellier place. I, for one, am happy to share the planet with them.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Anniversary of The Great Adirondack Blowdown of 1995

Today marks the anniversary of one of the worst storms in Upstate New York history. During the early morning hours of July 15, 1995 a series of severe thunderstorms crossed the Adirondacks and much of eastern New York. Meteorologists call the phenomena by the Spanish “Derecho” but locals often refer to the event as the Blowdown of 1995. A similar weather event / blowdown occurred in 1950.

A Derecho is part of a larger family of storms called a Mesoscale Convective System (MCS), a complex of thunderstorms that becomes organized on a scale larger than the individual thunderstorms and which includes phenomenon like lake effect snow. An MCS can sometimes act in ways similar to a hurricane and can produce torrential downpours and high winds. Aside from the remarkable power of the weather event, another unique thing happened – a shift in public policy with regard to salvage logging of public lands. The State’s decision to forgo salvage logging was in stark contrast to federal policies at the time that allowed federal lands to be logged in similar salvage situations. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Adirondack Lightshow: A Short Primer On Fireflies

Now is the time for the ultimate light show. I’m not talking about the fireworks that lit up the sky over the 4th, nor those gossamer curtains that dance across the heavens when sunspot activity is just right (although, I must say that northern lights are a real contender). No, I’m referring to fireflies, those dancing lights that must’ve been the inspiration for many a faerie legend.

First off, we must set the record straight: fireflies are not flies. They are beetles. It may be a small thing, but it is important that we start off on the right foot. Insects with hard wing covers are beetles. Fireflies have hard wing covers. Insects with two wings are flies. Fireflies have four wings: the two forewings are the wing covers, and beneath them are are the two delicate back wings. Still, to suddenly start calling them “firebeetles” would probably confuse a lot of folks, so we’ll stick with tradition and call them fireflies. (We could go with their alternate name, lightning bugs, but we run into the same problem: they are not bugs. Bugs are actually a specific Order of insects known as True Bugs. But I digress.)

So, you find yourself standing in your back yard on a balmy night in June or July. The sun has long set, and there above the grass, above the shrubs, you see a flash of light. Then another. A couple flashes glint from down in the grass. Some of the lights zigzag, others form an ephemeral “J”. Some go up, others go down. Some flash high in the air, some flash at medium height, and some flash close to the ground. Some flash all night, some flash for only a few minutes. The more you watch, the more variations you see. What does it all mean?

Perhaps it is best we start simply. Only male fireflies fly. Therefore, any flashing you see above the ground is a male firefly. The females do not fly (they don’t have wings), so they flash from the ground.

Now it gets more difficult, for there are many species of fireflies and each has its own flash pattern, which can vary in color, brightness and timing. Some species flash early in the night, while others prefer a later hour. Each species also claims a preferred height above the ground at which to make its display. If you learn all these characteristics, you are well on your way to knowing which fireflies like your yard.

Let’s take a look at a very common firefly, Photinus pyralis (sorry – they don’t have common names). You can recognize this firefly’s pattern easily: it is bright yellow and its flash is an upward rising light, forming a “J”. In the early part of the night, P. pyralis flashes close to the ground, but as the night progresses, he moves higher. He starts off by giving a set of flashes, each about six seconds apart (depending on the temperature; the warmer the night, the closer together the flashes will be). The female will respond with a flash about two seconds after the male flashes. If he sees this, he flies towards her, the two repeating their sequences until they meet.

After a tete-a-tete, the female will be off to lay her eggs (in some species the eggs glow), from which will emerge larvae that we call glowworms. The larvae lurk underground until spring, hunting voraciously for subterranean prey. Some species will stay as larvae for a second year. Anyway, come spring, they pupate and emerge as adults.

But what about that light? Where does it come from? Does it burn? The glow of the firefly is a natural light called biolumenesence. Biolumenesence is a cool light, meaning that the energy that is released in its making goes almost entirely into making light – little to no heat is produced. If only mankind could replicate this! In these insects the light is the result of a chemical reaction that takes place within the light organs on the underside of the abdomen. The firefly produces two of these chemicals: luciferin and luciferase. Added to these is ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a chemical that all living things have. The final ingredient is oxygen, which the firefly acquires through small openings along its abdomen. Once in contact these chemicals and voila! there is light. It’s like magic.

Seeing fireflies in your yard, catching fireflies in a jar, it’s a kind of rite of passage that every child should enjoy. This summer it seems like we have an abundance of fireflies, which is a wonderful thing. Some areas, though, are suffering a derth of fireflies. The southeastern US has seen a decline upwards of 70% in firefly populations. Biologists have been researching the cause for this, and light pollution seems to be the culprit. Street lights and house lights are huge contributors to this, but the new fad of solar lights along walkways and gardens seems to have been the “one straw too many.” Now even those dark(er) corners of yards have been lit up. With all this light, fireflies either a) don’t know it is night and therefore are not signaling for mates, or b) can’t see the lights of potential mates because they are overpowered by all the artificial lights man has turned on. If there is no mating taking place, there will be no future generations of fireflies.

It is a blessing to live in the Adirondacks, where we still have a fair bit of dark sky and can see the fireflies and stars before we go to bed.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Annual Adirondack Loon Census Seeks Volunteers

Loons are the quintessential symbol of wilderness. Just watch any TV show or movie that has a “wilderness” scene and you will hear loon calls in the soundtrack (even if it is in the desert). A stroll through any gift shop in the Adirondacks, Canada or Maine proves that they are probably the number one animal associated with the outdoors (competing only with moose and bears). There is nothing quite like the mournful wail of a loon floating through the night air as you lie in the dark trying to sleep. It is easy to see how people might once have associated them with unhappy or restless spirits. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Dragon Hunting in the Adirondacks

We see them darting about over streams, ponds, and lakes. Sometimes they are cruising the parking lots, or hanging out on the tops of hills or mountains. Dragonflies: they are a marvel of engineering and the “latest thing” to identify.

Every summer I assign myself something new to study. Unfortunately, I find myself distracted by all the options and never settle on just one new thing. But this year I really want to work on my dragonfly identification skills. Afterall, we see them everywhere, and if we can ID warblers and sparrows, how hard can a dragonfly be?

There are two good books out there for beginning dragonfliers: Cynthia Berger’s Dragonflies, part of the Wild Guide series, and the Stokes Beinnger’s Guide to Dragonflies. You can also try Dragonflies Through Binoculars, but I found that one to be a bit more of a challenge. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Biomimicry, Nature’s Solutions Focus at Wild Center

A new exhibition at The Wild Center looks at how humans are tackling problems by uncoding natural solutions to problems in the wild. From MIT to the University of Tokyo scientists equipped with new tools that let them look into the nano structure of nature are discovering the secrets to some of the most elusive tricks in the world. Their sights are aimed at everything from making energy from sunlight to replicating the way spiders forge a material stronger than steel at room temperature.

David Gross, head curator at The Wild Center, which will showcase some of the breakthroughs this summer, has spent more than a year researching where the new science is headed. Gross is a biologist, and his lifetime of observing animal behavior turned him on to the bio-based discoveries. “Most of these new breakthroughs are happening because people saw something in nature, and were curious about how it happened. How do spiders make silk? How does a burr stick to a dog’s fur? In the last decade we have developed the tools to see and work at tiny scales, where nature works, so we can start to build things in a revolutionary new way.”

This relatively new science, coined biomimicry, (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. The core idea is that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Basically, after 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us are the secrets to survival.

Biomimicry is gaining in recognition throughout the world. A recent article in the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph highlighted this truly international movement. A fast, ultra-broadband, low-power radio chip, modeled on the human inner ear that could enable wireless devices capable of receiving cell phone, internet, radio and television signals has recently been developed by scientists at MIT. A National Geographic article highlighted biomimetics in April 2008.

Here are some examples of how looking at nature can help solve some of the problems of humanity.

Locusts Don’t Crash
Locusts fly in swarms but never crash. How do they avoid having multi-locust pile-ups? Car manufacturers like Volvo and Nissan are studying locusts, and other insects like bees, to discover their crash-avoidance systems to see how they can be incorporated into our vehicles, making our roads safer.

Frozen Frog Hearts
Organs used for transplants can last as little as five hours. Keeping hearts and other organs on ice can significantly damage the tissue making the organs not viable. So how does the wood frog manage to freeze in the winter and thaw itself in the spring with no damage to its internal organs? Scientists are working on ways to mimic their non-toxic antifreeze to prolong the life of transplant organs.

Shine a Light on Moths and Butterflies
Moths, unlike cats, have very non-reflective eyes, a trait that protects them against nocturnal predators and helps them see at night. Their eyes have a series of bumps that help keep the light from reflecting. Using a silicon coating on solar panels that resembles the texture of moths’ eyes improves the solar collecting efficiency of solar panels by as much as 40 percent, bringing the price of solar down.

Scientists recently discovered that butterflies harvest the warmth of the sun through small solar collectors on their wings. Their wings are covered with an intricate array of scales, arranged in such a way that the light reflects off of other scales rather than bouncing off the wing where the warmth would be lost. Chinese and Japanese researchers designed a solar cell based on the butterfly’s intricate design and converted more light to energy than any existing solar cell at a lower fabrication cost.

The Whale’s a Fan of the Owl
Plane’s wings have streamlined edges so they can cut through air more efficiently, right? One of the biggest animals in the world, the humpback whale has extremely unstreamlined edges and can still fly through the water. Scientists have determined that the tubercles, or bumps, on the edge of the flippers produce more lift and less drag than sleek flippers. This discovery has implications for wind power and ceiling fans. Owls fly silently through the night, stealthily approaching their prey before capturing their next meal. Would mimicking the design of owl’s wings silence the noise of the fan in your computer? Engineers are studying the tips and curvature of owl’s wings and have created a quieter and more efficient fan blade design.

Gross says the promise of this kind of science is huge. “I’ll use the spider example. They can make seven different kinds of thread, do it all at room temperature, and it’s not just stronger than steel, it’s stronger than anything we have invented. And at the end of the day the spider can eat its own web and recycle the material. Imagine if we could make buildings out of tiny beams that required no mining, no smelting, and minimal energy, and could be entirely recycled again at room temperature? Or if we could figure out how plants photosynthesize, we could solve all of our energy needs.”

Why the Adirondacks? “One thing about these inventions is that you need to be able to watch nature to see what it’s up to, and it makes the Adirondacks a living lab. You can see the wood frogs that freeze solid and thaw, right here at The Wild Center. If you pay attention at The Wild Center you can begin to look at things differently when you’re outside and learn from them.” Gross says the inventions are everywhere. “The real breakthrough is that we can start to see the molecular structure and even the chemistry lab inside a spider, that’s what is fueling the breakthroughs.”

On a walk at The Wild Center Gross points out subjects under study. A bee buzzes by. “We know they vote. They can come into a hive and present a case for a new hive location, and elect which option to choose, and the bees all head to the new location. Computer companies are trying to figure out how so much information is shared and acted on so accurately and quickly.”

The Wild Center’s exhibit, throughout the 31 acre campus, is the first of its kind in the world. It will feature 51 stories of how humans are studying nature and discovering a better way to do things. How does nature make colors without using toxins? How do loons desalinate salt water? How can dogs detect cancer cells just from sniffing a person? A trained sniffing dog, a robot that can scurry over almost any object based on a cockroach and a silent fan modeled on an owl’s quiet flight will be on display. From the moment visitors enter the parking lot, until they leave, they will discover amazing ways that nature has solved its own challenges without using high heats, harmful chemicals or overusing its own resources.


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Ode to the Elm – a Fourth of July Tribute to an American Icon

I am easily impressed, I admit it. Still, the sight of a mature American Elm (Ulmus Americana) can send me into transports of delight. This stately tree, once ubiquitous east of the Rockies and synonymous with street side plantings, was nearly exterminated by the 1970s thanks to the fast work of an invasive insect and its associated fungus.

This pathogenic pair lived harmlessly in Asia, where the native elms were resistant to the effects of the fungus (Graphium ulmi). Somehow they made their way to the Netherlands, where in short order they did in the elms that held that country’s famous dykes (and hence the disease was named Dutch Elm Disease, or DED). From there DED migrated to England, taking out the stately English elms. Still, the US was protected; we were an ocean away and all ports of entry were watched and imported woods were thoroughly inspected. Or so we thought.

Suddenly in 1930 an outbreak occurred in Ohio. The “sanitary forces” were called in and the outbreak was eliminated. But in 1933, 3800 diseased elms appeared in New Jersey, and another 23 in Connecticut. The DED sleuths fanned out and the source was finally located: a load of English elm veneer wood, swarming with Scolytus multistriatus, the elm bark beetle. Forty years later, millions of elms across the US had succumbed to the disease.

Here’s what happens. The beetle (there is a native elm bark beetle as well as the invasive Asian species; both are now known to be carriers) snacks on the tree, chewing through the bark at the crotches of the twigs. Through these wounds the fungus’s spores, carried by the beetle, enter the tree. Once in the inner bark, they germinate, spreading fungal threads throughout the tree’s vascular system, essentially clogging it and preventing the transport of water and nutrients. Before long, the tree dies.

Mature trees were hit first, but folks were hopeful because seedlings and saplings were plentiful. Unfortunately, once saplings reached 4” dbh (diameter breast height, a measurement taken at 4.5’ above ground), they succumbed as well. So how is it possible that today I find mature trees?

It turns out that there were isolated pockets of mature trees that were never exposed to the disease, and other individuals exhibited resistance (a benefit of sexual reproduction). Today you can purchase varieties of resistant elms, such as “Valley Forge” and “New Harmony,” from various nurseries and breeders.

But what I enjoy is finding that lone wild elm, with its classic vase-shaped form. We have one here in Newcomb, prominently located at the Memorial Garden by the town’s Scenic Overlook. It is a breathtaking sight, this tall, graceful tree. Sadly, few people who see it probably realize what it is. Now that elms are few and far between, the specter of Dutch Elm Disease has been relegated to the halls of learning, where forestry and horticulture majors are about the only ones who learn of it.

This hit home for me about ten years ago when I worked at a zoo that had a magnificent specimen in one of its enclosures. No one else knew what it was and one day they decided to cut it down so they could expand the exhibit. I had to step in, crying “NO! It’s an elm – they are almost extinct!” It had a stay of execution that day, but by now it may be gone.

When American elms were plentiful, they played an important role in our history. Famous speeches were made under elms; treaties were signed; states were formed. So many historical events have been associated with elms that Donald Peattie wrote in A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America:

“If you want to be recalled for something that you do, you will be well advised to do it under an Elm – a great Elm, for such a tree outlives the generations of men…”

Elms can grow to over 100 feet in height, with diameters exceeding four feet and crowns stretching up to 150 feet! If it avoids DED (or elm yellows, the other major disease that affects elms), it can live for several hundred years. In the classic form the tree resembles a fountain: the lower trunk exhibiting no branches, then suddenly splitting into multiple stems from which the branches fan upwards and outwards. This arching, vase-like form made it the perfect street tree, for its branches would meet those of the elm across the street, uniting over the pavement and shading the cars below in a tunnel of green. Likewise, it was perfect for planting in the yard: no lower branches would hit you in the face for all the branches were up high, reaching over your house to cool it in the heat of the summer with its dappled shade.

Sure, there were some folks with a utilitarian eye who claimed the tree was useless. C.A. Sheffield wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1948:

“They are the most useless piece of vegetation in our forests. They cannot be used for firewood because they cannot be split. The wood cannot be burned because it is full of water. It cannot be used for posts because it rots in a short time. It can be sawed into lumber but it warps and twists into corkscrews and gives the building where it is used an unpleasant odor for years.”

Yet despite this, the American elm (aka: white elm and water elm) was plenty useful. Early settlers learned from the Natives that the bark could be easily stripped and made into cordage, baskets, and even canoes. Whips were made from the braided bark to urge recalcitrant oxen to their duties. Because the wood is so strong, supple, and shock resistant, it was ideal for the hubs of wagons used to carry heavy loads. It was also used to make agricultural tools, sporting goods, flooring, and was even used in ship building. Barrel staves and chopping bowls were routinely made from its wood. And, because it held screws better than any other wood, it was ideal for making boxes and crates.

Young elms can be found where mature elms once lived. I have an elm sapling that reaches into my yard. Learning to identify the asymmetrically heart-shaped and toothed leaf, with its sandpapery texture, is fairly easy. Scope out places where historic elms once grew (like The Elm Tree Inn in Keene), and you will likely find some youngsters growing quietly nearby. If you want to add an elm to your yard, then hop on-line and do a search for nurseries and breeders who have resistant varieties for sale. Every home should have an elm grace to grace its yard…and maybe a revival in street trees will take root, restoring the elm to its coveted place in our towns and cities.