Friday, July 27, 2012

Why the Finery?

If you run across flags, 
or ribbons 
or even elaborate stuff like this in the woods, 
please don’t mess with them.

They’re science. And science, contrary to some political figures these days, is pretty much good. In this case Northwestern University grad student Karen Taira is studying the pollination biology of perennial sunflowers.

She is beating the bees to the pollen. Indeed, using bridal veil material, she’s excluding bees, which are difficult to train as scientists. Karen and her colleagues are hand-pollinating different flowers in different ways and comparing the results.

Part of the goal of forest preserve conservation is to conserve gene pools, components of which may be important to the future of the planet, our grandchildren, and the health of our spirits. (In case you haven’t heard, people who actively or passively let the beauty and fruit of millions of years of creation and evolution go down the drain may subsequently suffer in hell – of one kind or another.)

In order to conserve biological diversity, it’s very helpful to know more about how species reproduce, evolve and change. Thanks to Karen for working on this.

For some related work by Karen Taira go to:

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Or would a better title be “Under Construction”?

In fact, here we have “pastoral beauty” and “work zone” at the same time. The tension between to two is part of the kick.

If we had a few-years quick-video prelude to this sunrise scene, we’d witness heavy equipment ripping out drainage tiles and whacking trees and brush with more of a “macho” than “touchy feely” look. We’d see hundreds of happy people working hard in all seasons – building brush piles, burning them with towering flame, pulling weeds, gathering and broadcasting rare seeds.

This morning a few of us show up at 6 A.M. to be cool, with long-bladed scythes, to slay vegetation. The Heat Index will top 100 in a few hours; we’ll be gone by then. At 6 the air is the temperature of Heaven.

Looking like a Monet haystack, the brush pile was heaped up last winter with a grappling machine by John Yapelli, our beloved and gonzo eco-restoration tractor jockey.

See those whitish tall tree trunks in the distance? They’re an invading species. Two years ago those beautiful invaders extended all the way to the foreground and then on behind us. After next winter, there will be fewer. Perhaps you can tell, they’re on both sides of a slough, and they lined it for over a mile.

We cut them only after debate. Some rhapsodized about the sounds of their leaves. One expert cautioned that bats landed in them. But this landscape for thousands of years had been a mosaic of prairie and oak woodlands. It was beautiful then. It was also beautiful when the farmers turned the land to farm fields and wooded pasture. Monet could have painted either scene with equal beauty. But the aesthetic actually started going down hill when the Forest Preserve District “preserved” it to let it “go back to nature.”

Brush and weeds may have an integrity of their own, but there’s more to beauty than meets the eye. When colorful waves of purple loosestrife started wiping out the wetlands and destroying all habitat for ducks, turtles, terns, orchids, sweet flags and the rest of wetland richness, people used to say to me, “Well, you’ll have to admit it’s beautiful.”

“No I don’t,” I’d wearily reply. “I have to admit it’s colorful. But a black eye can be colorful, or an infected wound. When you know the meaning of what you see, it can inform your appreciation.”

This recovering prairie-wetland-woodland mosaic is beautiful to the ear through the calls of recently returned sandhill cranes, crested flycatchers, bobolinks, and meadowlarks. It’s beautiful to the mind in part through knowledge of all the smart and dedicated people who are restoring eco-health here. Blanding’s turtles have almost vanished in most places. We hope they’ll breed successfully again when less raccoon-filled brush stands between the slough and the uplands, where they want to lay their eggs.

Today with scythes we battle sweet clover, a malignant species that could wreck the habitat for diverse plants and animals. We stewards are a force of nature and, oddly, sweet clover is not.

Later more big machines will return to herbicide wide swaths of evil crown vetch and reed canary grass. Other big machines will haul trash and clear invasive trees so the sunlight can filter unimpeded through the scattered oaks and hickories. Nature is beautiful. And the restoration of nature has a drama and aesthetic of its own.

This is a vision. Can you see it?

Friday, July 20, 2012


We had essentially no rain all this hot summer -- until today. The prairie was suffering badly. How do its plants react? In the photo below, from yesterday, many small plants have already withered away to invisibility.

The normally tenacious bastard toadflax covers most of the ground, but it's dropping half-formed fruits and letting the leaves go yellow, as it moves its resources back into its shallow but secure roots.

The biggest green prairie dock leaf (15 foot deep roots) is holding on for now, but the smaller dock leaf is cashing it in. 

In the upper center, the leaves of wild quinine are curling. Rattlesnake master (to the left of the dock) has let one leaf go brown and is starting on a second. The grasses (bottom: little bluestem. left: prairie dropseed) are still green, but they're not growing.
We get a similar story from the purple prairie clover and black-eyed Susan in the photo below:

The clovers normally have long flower spikes that bloom for weeks. These are short and only bloomed for days. Prairie docks in this lower, less dry area are keeping their leaves, but they will put up no flower stalks this year. Shallow-rooted black-eyed Susan is shorter than normal by at least two-thirds. Instead of a dozen or twenty flowers, it's putting out just one. Some species are invisible here, like smooth phlox, normally busy maturing seeds, this year withered back into dust.

Today we got three glorious inches of rain. For the ecosystem, it's a whole new ball game. But for me, I think back to how gloomy I felt. Is it just because so many seeds that we planted have died? Or because so many animals breathed their last from lack of reserves in the too-small habitat fragments that are all we have left them? Or is it merely that the lush richness I rely on to inspire me wasn't there for my emotional nourishment?

For most of my “adult” life I’ve welcomed depression as a rare and helpful visitor from another realm. It says, "Stop. Think. Get outside your usual rationality and actions. Re-boot. Rethink. Consider what to change, abandon, risk or begin."

Can droughts foster planetary depression? How do we get it across to the larger culture that global warming is not just some different weather but is an act of planetary vandalism worse than the Taliban demolishing ancient art and temples? Beyond losing cultural treasures thousands of years old, we will be and are losing ecological treasures hundreds of thousands -- and millions of years old. Our children will be poorer in so many ways.

Thanks to those three glorious inches of rain I look forward to being able to collect seed again -- and to watching the inspiration and fun of ecological recovery.

Although I only see bits of it on the global horizon so far, I also look forward to the fun of watching and helping smart and dedicated people figure out how to focus widespread ecological intelligence on the health of the planet.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Odd

Four out of six flower heads miserably drooping and brown.

"Who cares?" you might ask. but we were trying to restore health to nature, and we needed the seeds.

We had noticed distressed compass plants like this and assumed that they were aborting their flowers because of drought. Good plant. Bad weather. 

But no. We saw them again while on a tour with botany guru Floyd Swink.

He said, “A weevil does that. It’s a problem for the plant, but not a bad one. Compared to the devastation caused by the boll weevil in the South, this one is the lesser of two weevils.”

It turns out that the weevil bug cuts the stem and then lays its eggs in the hanging flower-head. Young weevils relish dying greens.

Compass plant roots look like giant forked carrots and go deep into the subsoil. You’d think these fat roots would have adequate reserves for most anything, but they don’t gamble on blooming every year. One summer there’ll be lots of leaves but few or no flower stalks in the whole prairie. The next summer it seems like every plant is putting up a forest of higher-than-our-heads massive hairy stalks and happy flowers.
Why? One possibility is the “periodic cicada principle” – in which a species overwhelms predators and pests by having few individuals, or seeds, or eggs most years. Then, with pest numbers down, it blasts forth with so-many-all-at-once that the sparse pests just can’t eat them all.

It’s one of the most satisfying things about rare (conservative plants) in healthy habitats.
Do they worry about pests?

Ho hum, no.
Without hurry, they take what comes.

Compass plants have reserves and confidence
(and odd tricks when needed)
to kick butt
in their own quiet way.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Death on the Prairie

Our hearts go out to animals with large eyes. It’s a human response, and we want happiness for them.

This will be a blog of gore and recycling that might be hard to take for some of us with sensitive souls. If you prefer to stick with the beauty and romance of nature, you might want to skip this one.

Any abandoned organic material in the ecosystem gets recycled. While we’re alive, our bodies’ defenses ward off the agents of decay. But a return to the ecosystem is a trip we all make, sooner or later. In fact, you accomplish a preview if you ever pee in a forest preserve. From that act on, a part of you will be cycling through the plants and animals there for a long time. If you eat a berry or a walnut from the preserve, a part of that preserve will become a part of you.

Piles of bloody feathers or the remains of a rabbit, perhaps a foot and some skin, are commonplace along the trails at Somme. Most local deer, shy and beautiful animals, die from collisions with automobiles. The death of a deer is a big event, ecologically. 

On the morning of July 3rd I head out, lugging four gallons of water for endangered orchids that deserved help to survive the drought. (Is that nature? Watering plants in the wilderness? I’ll reserve that question for another post.) But while innocently lugging water, I find the kind of nature that’s red in tooth and claw.

The body of a handsome young buck is lying near my path. The buck is newly dead, doesn’t have a bad smell, but is covered with flies.
Flies lay eggs on death. Out of those eggs hatch maggots, which eat the corpse. I decide to return, to think about this death, and take a photo every two days, to share with you the natural drama, whatever that turned out to be.

When I walk to the other side of the animal, I see more drama already. The coyotes had found this body on its first night. I apologize for writing this next grim fact, but coyotes start eating a deer at the easiest place to get through the skin. That’s the butt hole. They aren’t all that squeamish, and they eat where it's easiest.

The butt meat (should I write “top round”?) that had been exposed by sharp coyote teeth is literally black with flies, laying eggs, not as romantic to us as speckled eggs in a bird’s nest. But if you’re a fly, and a good mother, that’s the environment you entrust your kids to.

This is a lot of meat. It feels odd that this graceful animal was transformed into so much meat and that I’m standing by it with my cell camera. We’re more comfortable with uncooked meat on white plastic trays, with price tags, and sealed in shrink wrap. This isn't that. It's nature’s meat in the ecosystem.

Two days later I return 
for the next photo.
What happened? 
The deer is gone. 
The patch of grass 
where it had lain in state 
is matted, 
lightly greased perhaps, 
but nothing more. 

Following a drag trail of disheveled vegetation brings me to a second surprise. After just two days, there really isn’t much left of this large animal.

The coyotes had eaten all the big chunks already. Forget my theory of coming back every two days for a long story. This story is nearly done.

Yes, there is a strong odor, but it's more the smell of meat and blood than of putrescence. This body never had time to rot. This was quick.

The whole coyote family must have been hungry. They often drag carcasses around. Perhaps they fight over who gets what – pulling this way and that. Or they just chomp down on a mouthful and pull to rip it off. Perhaps the body gets moved when, for whatever reason, the strongest ones are mostly pulling in the same direction. Patches of vegetation are matted down in all directions. A lot happened here.

Romantic words could be written about how a deer returns to the ecosystem, and its substance nourishes the flowers. But the reality is that the deer goes through the bowels of a coyote and emerges as scat. Like the deer, the coyote is a beautiful animal. It may be noble, but it still turns meat into excrement on its way back toward the elegance of the plant kingdom.

On one level, the death of a deer is a tragedy. Do I feel compassion for the deer? Yes. In my heart I say quiet words of blessing and respect. But at a higher level, over-populated deer have been wrecking this rare natural prairie and savanna. Fewer deer is ultimately better. I once mourned and regretted whenever I saw a raccoon squished on the road. It still seems wrong, but now I also know that the over-abundance of “meso-predators” (like raccoons and opossums) in the absence of wolves, cougars and bears is another major and undesirable stress on the ecosystem and its biodiversity. When I see dead raccoons on the road, I feel bad for the individual but happy for the ecosystem.

Four days after that first visit I take my last photos of this drama. Little is left but thinly covered bones – scattered over a wide area. The skin and hair will be eaten too in time by wild relatives of the pests that eat holes in our sweaters and rugs.

The deer is fading back into the Earth. Before long, if the tour guide stops here at all, it may be to tell the group, “The plants blooming in the foreground are Indian hemp. Native Americans used the fibers to make rope.”

Soon, it will be hard to find a trace of this disturbance. The plants will hide the bones until a fire sweeps dried vegetation away, and then pieces of scattered skeleton emerge here and there. I will remember this drama when I see a bone. A recycling like this – grisly or profound, depending on your perspective – preceded every bleached bone we come across from time to time.

The death I stumbled across here is gradually becoming an abstraction. When the bones are white and clean, it will seem pure and distant. I don’t want my emotions so abstract that I forget the tragedy of an individual deer. But my tenderness for the ecosystem, with all its hundreds of species of animals and plants, definitely supersedes as time goes on. That seems good. 

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Grim Thoughts on Heat and Drought

thoughts on ecology, childishness and the quality of mercy

I get depressed when the plants are hurting.
Even though I know on one level that I should be happy for the ecosystem.
Stress does it good.
Drought helps the important (and supposedly “delicate”) conservatives rub out some invasive weeds.

But how can I help agonizing over drought?! Everything wilts. Flower buds fall off; much turns brown; many rare animals may die, especially in isolated fragments.

My life is tied to the ecosystem. When it’s gasping for life, I’m desperate to help. Yet there’s nothing – totally nothing – I can do.
You can’t water hundreds of acres.
(Rain dances are not effective.)
You can’t even water the tens of acres where you broadcast rare seed last fall.
You can’t apply sun-screen – or give the plants shades.

I do carry water through the heat to newly planted plugs of some of the rarest conservatives that we can’t restore in any other way.
But it’s depressing too. What a waste of time! Or – not a waste? – just some very hard work that may be futile, but may work? I lugged water this year to plugs of lilies, prairie violet, prairie gentian – to tide them over.
I lugged water to white-fringed orchids, hoping to help them set seeds and build up the population, despite the drought. Drops in the bucket, or rather more like drops in a dry ocean – but it may keep them alive until rain.

Is there any fun? One phenomenon that is indeed plain old superficial fun
is to watch the deep-rooted plants thrive while the shallow-rooted wither Our current drought isn’t as “bad” as some. The prairie can turn as brown as death – yet with perfectly green and happy leadplants, prairie clovers and false indigos looking like no one ever told them there was a problem. The roots of some plants are so deep that they’re sucking moisture rainstorms long, long ago.

In the photo, we're early in a drought. Most species are still green, but most are also slowly dropping flowers, or holding back flowers that haven't opened. Yet,  the deep-rooted compass plant (yellow flowers) thrives with deep-rooted pals, butterfly weed (orange) and leadplant (purple). 

In some other season, conversely, many light rains in summer may favor the plants with upper-soil roots. In that cases, the deep-rooted ones may stress. That’s what diversity is for. Whatever the conditions, there are plants ready to take advantage.

My emotions are more about myself than about the ecosystem. When there’s thriving life and beauty, it’s like a message to me of hope, courage and confidence. Only a small part of my subconscious seems to be able to take the long view. I’m immature.

On the other hand, an ecosystem matures only through many cycles of unusual weather. Drought, flood, heat, cold, disease, grazing and browsing. Seasons of plenty and seasons of want. Beautiful, powerful and sustainable diversity results.