Last of the Season

Standard

The weather has turned so cold over the past week or so, mostly grey with the mountains getting their first coat of white. But today came up sunny, a nice change. I watched the blue sky while I worked, and finally managed to bundle up and go for a walk at sunset.

I found these hardy blossoms braving the low temperatures.

All photos: PKR

Some of the gardens still have flowers – especially late-blooming roses – but I was only interested in the roadside variety, the ones with no assistance, coming up along the edges, defying asphalt, gravel, cars, and dogs.

They’ve felt the bite of frost every morning for over a week, they’re starting to frizzle, but they’ve still got color and beauty to give before it all goes brown and white for the season.

 

Humble, bowed but not faded, a passing late pollinator might still find joy. And if the pollinators don’t find joy, well, at least this walker did.

Built To Last

Standard

When the house I live in was built, Leonardo da Vinci was a young man with the Mona Lisa still in his future, and Michelangelo was a toddler. The first part of our house, a small fortified tower in rural France, was built in 1478. When the stones were laid for the tower, Christopher Columbus hadn’t yet set sail for the Americas. What would become the dominant Western culture of colonialism, and later, capitalism, hadn’t yet gotten underway.

The tower.
Photo: PKR

When the second part of the house was built, a hundred years later, the world was already a different place.

This pile of stones has been, as far as I know, continuously inhabited through several historical eras, from Louis XIV’s Sun King moment, to the French Revolution, through Industrialization and the two great wars on European soil during the 20th century.

It’s hard to imagine all the history around the world that has taken place in the amount of time this human construction has been a home for generation after generation of people, not to mention the various animals that take up residence in various hidden corners.

This place was built to last, and as long as it’s maintained, there’s no reason it shouldn’t last another couple of centuries, at least.

I wonder sometimes about the people who built the tower back in 1478, and whether they could have even conceived of the world in which their construction now stands. Even if this place were to fall down at some point, which it no doubt will, the stones and the wood will simply become a part of another house, or the landscape.

Over the past 50 years, we’ve been building another kind of construction that lasts. Depending on its exposure to the elements, it can last anywhere from 40 to an estimated 450 years to deteriorate. Maybe even 1000 years.

But it doesn’t provide a home, or shelter, and it’s not meant to be provide utility for more than one or two uses.

The tower stairs.
Photo: PKR

It’s part of a dominant culture that has been well underway since the 1950s, the culture of disposability.

Picture where we are now, and try to imagine the world and our society 450 years from now. Picture that plastic sack, or that plastic bottle, or that plastic wrapping you just threw away. Once it’s not being used, it becomes a part of a cycle of garbage that does little good and a lot of damage.

There’s every likelihood that, like our stone house, those items will last 450 years.

One thing I can predict is that, if we haven’t figured out how to solve our plastic problem, people will still be wondering what possessed us to generate so much plastic for such short-term use.

One-Note Wonder

Standard

Machaeropterus eckelberryi. Image: Andy Kratter/Florida Museum of Natural History

It was the manakin’s simple song that gave it away. Rather than the two-note chirp of its close relatives, the striped manakins from other areas of South America, the tiny bird with the red cap trilled out only single syllables.

A research team from Louisiana State University and the Florida Museum of Natural History first found the manakin in the remote Cordillera Azul region of Peru in 1996. But it is only now, twenty years later, that the newly named Machaeropterus eckelberryi was classified as a species separate from other Machaeropterus relations. Why?

The new species song could only be compared to other species once vocalization samples from other manakin groups had been recorded. It was only then that researchers were able to hear that M. eckelberryi song was so different from other manakin species. When they dug deeper, they found other defining characteristics as well.

Comparison of plumage of some taxa in the Machaeropterus regulus complex.
Source: Zootaxa

Attention to detail, patience, and research funding led to this new identification.

But more than that, even before the manakin was revealed to be a new species, the researchers’ revelation of the spectacular biodiversity of this habitat led to the creation of one of Peru’s largest national parks. The Cordillera Azul National Park covers 13531 km² (522 m²) and is home to a remarkably untouched variety of flora and fauna.

What other discoveries, what unique songs, lay in wait in collections around the world?

Should we call them discoveries, or should we call them revelations?

Click here to listen to the song of the painted manakin.

Garden of Extinction

Standard

Of all the areas of the stunning Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens in Cape Town, South Africa – and all the areas are stunning – one in particular stood out. It was probably the smallest section, the least visually impressive, and one where few people lingered.

All photos: PKR

The Garden of Extinction area is just a tiny corner of the Gardens, which spread over 5 sq km (2 sq mi). Against a backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean and Table Mountain, the gardens are lush, and feature all manner of wondrous plant life from various corners of the world. It’s a place to be edified, dazzled and revived.

But the Garden of Extinction is there for education. There are a few plant species, all of them somewhere on the spectrum from endangered to extinct in the wild.

Most of the species are modest, the kind of plant you would walk through on a windy hillside and only notice if they were in bloom.There are informative panels on how extinction occurs among plant species, and some suggestions for what can be done.

The plants aren’t fenced in as the last and final specimens of their kind, they are there to be experienced like all the other (currently non-endangered) species throughout the park.

That’s a part of the message – it’s not just the milestone species that go extinct.

These aren’t the plant equivalents of the quirky dodo or once-iconic passenger pigeon. These are the everyday plants around us, some of them limited in range but once abundant within their habitats, which are in the brink of disappearing forever.

And in that sense, this is the most powerful message of all: Any species, now matter how unusual or common, is vulnerable if the pressure on habitat becomes too great, if it is over-gathered or hunted, if it can’t adapt to altered conditions in terms of temperature or water availability.

Humankind, by and large, has come of age in an extended time of climate stability. A Goldilocks era that was neither too cold, nor too hot, for the veritable Garden of Eden we needed to grow and thrive.

In this Anthropocene age of the Sixth Extinction, it’s optimistic to think that the Garden of Extinction will remain the smallest corner of the larger garden. But we can still do everything in our power to limit its expansion.

Left To Its Own Design

Standard

Five weeks is an eternity in summer gardening, and five weeks is how long I neglected the garden because of an injury. At some point, I stopped going out there because I couldn’t stop myself from trying to weed and clip, even when every movement was painful. Easier just to watch it from a distance and figure that if there’s one thing a garden doesn’t absolutely need to keep growing, it’s a gardener. I am there to impose my own order, but when it comes to growing, the garden does just fine on its own.

I could probably have hired someone, but that would have felt like an imposition – not on the person hired, but on the garden. On me. It’s my little patch to tend, and my little patch to let run amok.

So when I took a stroll around last week, splints finally off both arms, I was pleased to see that the garden does fine on its own. It might not be going in exactly the direction I would have chosen, but it picks its own path.

There were still a few gems here and there, just blossoming away, bees buzzing and birds singing, the weeds having a wild climb in forbidden places.

There won’t be the harvest I would have wished; the lettuce is shot and and the tomatoes a mess, but it’s still a fine little patch.

Nature finds a way, in gardens and elsewhere.

Lessons in Listening

Standard

For the first time in its 59-year history, the Australian Science Teachers Association’s (STAWA) Secondary School of the Year award, an annual prize handed out in Western Australia, went to a school outside of Perth. That kind of anomaly deserves a second look.

The school that won the award for science research is the Christian Aboriginal Parent-directed (CAPS) school in Coolgardie, an independent school established by Aboriginal parents who felt the quality of education in their region was lacking.  This was also the first time the STAWA award went to a school with a mainly Aboriginal student population.

The students at CAPS were under the tutelage of a young science teacher from the United States, Allan Alipio, who wanted to inspire students with the passion he himself felt for science. He allows the students to come up with some of their own ideas, and this is where I think the story starts to get really interesting.

Eucalyptus saligna (Blue Gum)’ (1887)
Artist/Source: Agard Hagman/MAAS

The projects that won the award were mostly based on the application of native plants and indigenous knowledge to energy and medical experiments. One group of teens investigated the antimicrobial potential of traditional medicine plants maroon and crimson turkey bushes as well as sweet potato leaves for potential use as an anti-diarrhoea medication, while another group used local plants like wheel cactus and gum leaves to make ethanol.

This award speaks to the profound impact that good teaching can have – not just on passing along the facts and passing tests, but on inspiration and passion. I think it’s important to stress that, rather than imposing a standardized curriculum, Mr. Alipio listened to his students.

There’s a lot that could be discussed here about the all-too-common lack of education funding for indigenous populations. This gets at a larger issue of the side-lining (or worse) of indigenous populations around the world, and the extent to which their deep local knowledge has been suppressed, disdained, ignored, or (as with many medicinal applications) commercially exploited. And as we slog through this new era of climate change, that knowledge is more relevant than ever – as is the necessity to start listening.

Wheel cactus (Opuntia robusta)
Artist/Source: M.E. Eaton/Crow & Raven

People who identify as indigenous number an estimated 370 people worldwide, made up of around 5000 groups across 70 countries. They make up approximately 5% of the global population – but traditional lands and territories contain an estimated 80% of Earth’s biodiversity.

Gleb Raygorodetsky put it well in this excellent article: “With collective knowledge of the land, sky and sea, these peoples are excellent observers and interpreters of change in the environment. The ensuing community-based and collectively-held knowledge offers valuable insights, complementing scientific data with chronological and landscape-specific precision and detail that is critical for verifying climate models and evaluating climate change scenarios developed by scientists at much broader spatial and temporal scale. Moreover, indigenous knowledge provides a crucial foundation for community-based adaptation and mitigation actions…

The difference in world views can be as fundamental as the botanical illustrations of plants above done through Western eyes, the illustration of bush plants below done by Aboriginal artist Gloria Petyarre.

Bush medicine leaves
Artist: Gloria Petyarre

I will get into huge topic around the overlap of human rights issues, indigenous peoples and environment another time, but for the moment, I would say this: As long as that deep knowledge stays on a parallel but separate track from Western-based science, policy, legislation and education, we are missing out on critical opportunities to learn and adapt to the changes we have created over a relatively short period of time. At the same time, learning to listen and to cooperate puts people back in the loop when it comes to determining the fate of the land on which they live – and might just help us weather the approaching storm.

Hopefully, students like the award-winning teens at CAPS will be able to leverage knowledge from both worlds to help chart a path ahead.

Late to the Harvest

Standard

Many years ago, the small daughter of some friends surprised us all at Christmas by taking a single bite from the hidden side of each perfect apple her parents’ had hung on the tree. Just a single bite that didn’t show from the front, but which quickly withered each apple.

I thought of those secretly claimed bites while picking the few remaining apples from our garden tree.

Photo: PKR

It’s been a little more than a month since I slipped while on a mountain hike, and one of the most difficult challenges of spending a few weeks with two broken wrists has been staying away from garden work. I’ve been watching the apple tree from my window, watching the apples ripen and drop, feeling awful about not doing anything about it.

Our apple tree was planted at least fifty years ago, and most years, it faithfully produces far more than we can use. I’ve been inviting people over to gather what they can, but then a major storm blew through, a few hundred apples hit the lawn. Fortunately, I also haven’t been able to mow the lawn in weeks, so the landing was soft. Yesterday, I finally felt able to clear the lawn of fallen fruit, and to pick what was left from the tree.

There were apples in every state of being, from fresh and flawless to dried studies of their former selves – this doesn’t bother me. Even without broken wrists, I tend to leave fallen fruit out rather than gather it every day, just because so many birds, insects and small mammals can feast on what we can’t use anyway. It’s a consolation to watch the various ravens, sparrows, thrushes, starlings and songbirds stop by for a reliable meal.

Apples salvaged – around 7 kgs (15 lbs.) Apples on the ground: At least 30 kgs (66 lbs) Photo: PKR

But what surprised me was that almost every apple still on the tree, especially the fine, fat, smooth ones, had been pecked at from behind. Just a little, just enough to render the apples someone else’s property instead of mine.

We don’t do much to earn these apples – we prune the tree back every couple of years, and if the summer is really hot and dry, that tree is the only one I water. And every year, it repays our benign neglect with a bounty, not just of fruit but of beauty, as a roost for countless birds, and a haven of shade. My guess is that in their own way, the birds do more for this tree than I do.

It seems only fair to leave the juiciest pecked apples from the tree on the lawn for the culprits to finish off.

Wall Magic

Standard

We awoke this morning to a view of the sun setting through a graceful swirl clouds taking place on our bedroom wall.

A perfect vision of what was going on outside, but the bedroom shutters were still closed and the room was dark except for this bright globe, the size of a breakfast egg, making its progression from wall to door frame.

The sky on the wall. Any blurriness is the fault of the phone camera, as the image on the wall was sharp and crisp.
Photo: PKR

A round-ish chink in the stone window frame was the culprit, of course. It forms a pinhole lens between the frame and the shutter, and when the light hits it from the right angle, as it did this morning, we get an inverse view of the horizon cast against our wall like a dream vision.

The natural camera obscura phenomenon has been known and discussed for millennia and there’s some good evidence that we owe some of the world’s finest paintings to it. A good article on the effect here, and on Vermeer’s likely use of it here.

We’ve just repaired and repainted all the wooden shutters, and filled in some of the cracks in the stone window casements. In such an old stone house, there are always bits and corners to be mended. However, a flaw that invites the upside down sky to visit is one we will continue to embrace.

Here’s a short video of what it looked like as the clouds moved across the miniature sun.

A Murder, A Charm, A Gulp

Standard

A Murder

It must be confusing for wild animals when humans constantly grow so much tasty food, only to try and keep it all to themselves. I see it in my own garden when the various fruits become ripe. All the birds I’ve fed through the winter are suddenly competition for my harvest in summer and fall.

Magpie Lookout – Australian magpie
Artist: Lyn Ellison

I’m not fussed about sharing the cherries, plums, red currants, apples and grapes with the birds. There’s usually more than enough for all of us. But in Australia and elsewhere, vineyards can lose up to 80% of their valuable crop to starlings, rosellas, cockatoos, and thrushes every year.

Until now, common solutions to keeping birds away from the grapes included expensive netting to block the birds from getting at the goods (but which can also make spraying difficult), noisy gas cannons to shock them into flight (but which also sometimes cause fires), and reflective tape, hawk-shaped balloons and recordings of predator calls to frighten them.

But birds can get into and tangled in the netting, and as for noise and shiny or floating objects, as soon as the birds realize they won’t get hurt, they just ignore both.

I’m reminded of a hike I took in Sheffield, England a few years ago, when I saw another bird control solution in the crop fields: Individual crows, dead and hung upside down at regular intervals from wooden posts as literal scarecrows. I don’t know how effective it was on other birds, but the sight definitely kept me out of those tilled properties.

Magpies
Artist: CF Tunnicliffe

A Charm

Maybe with something almost as ominous in mind, researchers at Charles Sturt University in Australia undertook a study at six vineyards in Victoria to see whether aggressive birds could be used to frighten grape-thieving birds from the vineyards.

In this case, the idea was to build observation perches for predatory birds like falcons, who would hunt vineyard thieves, and serve as a warning against hungry flocks.

For whatever reason, the falcons were not seduced by the five-meter high invitations to rest. But another kind of bird was: The mythical magpie. To be precise, the Australian magpie. I should note here that these magpies are not corvids, unlike Eurasian magpies, which are. There’s a great article here for a breakdown on the difference, and why Australian magpies are called magpies.

Be that as it may, over centuries and continents, magpies have been the subject of legends, both good and bad. They’re thieves and harbingers of death; they’re a sign of bad luck if seen alone, but of good luck if seen in groups; in many Asian countries the bird is associated with happiness, while in Native American lore, it’s a symbol of friendship and fearlessness.

For better and for worse, humans have a long-standing relationship with these birds.

Magpies
Photo: TheMagpieWhisperer

It was magpies, rather than falcons, that took an unexpected liking to the high perches in the Australian study, probably because (as the researchers state) the perches provided excellent observation points for the lizards that magpies hunt.

I also read of the winery in South Australia that enthusiastically welcomes the territoriality of magpies in keeping other birds at bay. Their voracity for insects means that they pick out pests from the trunks of the vines, each vineyard row monitored by its own magpie.

 

A Gulp

Some of our favorite science stories are born as the results of research that sets out to find one solution and then finds another.

Researchers who had been looking to attract falcons to vineyards found that vineyards with magpie perches had a noticeable reduction in crop loss to smaller birds. In the study area, this was a reduction from 9% of the crop in vineyards areas lacking magpie perches to only 4% in the areas under the shadow of the tall wooden constructions.

Magpies might not be direct predators of smaller adult birds, but they do eat eggs and chicks of other birds, so that might be one factor as well as their simple threatening presence on the perches.

 

Australian magpies
Artist: Lyn Ellison

Researchers speculate that the falcons might prefer more natural looking branches to the straight perches, so a further study will test those.

Meanwhile, I am wondering what kind of impact these large birds might have overall on populations of smaller birds, insects and lizards in vineyard regions. Do the smaller birds move elsewhere? Do lizards keep down insect populations that might flourish in their absence if the magpies leave?

Viewing vineyards as agro-ecosystems rather than mechanistic crop factories changes the equations in the most interesting ways, this time offering a further strand in our long history with magpies.

There are almost as many terms for a flock of magpies as there are myths about this clever, communicative bird, and doubtless many more eco-interactions than names.

Something to ponder over my next glass of Australian wine.

*A murder, a charm and a gulp are just a few of the collective nouns we use for magpies. Murder is also the collective noun for crows, corvids like the Eurasian magpie.

Common Beauty in the Margins

Standard

I was on a walk yesterday around my running path – a walk, not a run, due to a tumble taken on a mountain hike, and two damaged wrists. One broken, one sprained; a full cast and a metallic brace. It’s slowed me down, but at least I can move my fingers and still type. And I can walk.

The slow pace going around my regular loop was an excellent opportunity to take in some of the smaller sights. There were butterflies, too many for me to photograph in my clumsy phase, but I did get a shot of this little beauty, one of a pair (the other flew off as I crashed along the shoulder of the road).

A female Common Blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus), no less beautiful for being common.

Photo: PKR

The butterfly’s flower head was in an interstice between the road and an apple orchard, the slender line along the fence posts between the mown grass of the agricultural land and the trimmed green shoulder of the road. These flowering lines, miniature hedgerows, do better now that road maintenance no longer includes spraying herbicides.

As to that name, ‘Common Blue.’ It caused me to reflect on how we evaluate the life around us. Mostly named in times of abundance, many of these species are now less common than they once were. The Common Blue was named back in the 18th century and has been a regular part of the scenery for so long that we might assume its commonness is an unwavering constant.

Sparrows, starlings, pigeons, all disdained by city and country dwellers alike as common in the sense of being ordinary and undistinguished (to the point of being undesirable), are in decline in many regions. In some cases, the population loss has been precipitous and sudden.

Kind of like my mobility. Something I usually took for granted until I found myself in a completely new and uncomfortable situation in the blink of an eye.

As for the Common Blue, it seems to be a robust and adaptable species that is anything but common in its lovely colors and grace. As long as it continues to find sustenance in the margins, it might do just fine.