Monthly Archives: July 2015

Valentine Cartography

Standard

You can email individual trees now in Melbourne, and thousands of people are doing just that from around the world. Not that the trees can read the emails, since as far as I know they have not yet been equipped with technology that translates into Tree.

The Melbourne city council initially started a project to help identify trees so that they could receive better protection and care – 70,000 trees were assigned individual email accounts so that citizens could report incidents of fallen branches, or vandalism.

Ferchensee, Mittenwald, Germany. All photos: PKR

Wetterstein mountain, Mittenwald, Germany.
All photos: PKR

Undoubtedly, some of the email correspondence actually concerns trees in trouble.

But as it turned out, what people really wanted to write about was the trees themselves. Thousands of odes to particular trees began to pour in.

Maybe the trees can sense the good intentions, even if they can’t read the emails.

You might have noticed that none of the images here have to do with Melbourne’s trees.

I was on a run a couple of days ago in Mittenwald in southern Germany that turned into a walk due to all the excellent scenery, but also due to the multitudes of butterflies around the path.photo 1

I had to zig and zag to avoid bumping into them as they bobbed back and forth between favorite flowers.photo 5

There were bouquets of them in some small fields, and the air was alive with the sound of bees.photo 5

But there was one particular plant that must have had a particularly appealing scent – scruffy, rangy, it had two wilting blossoms, yet was covered with butterflies and bees pushing at each other to feed there. photo 4

Unfortunately, the image I took came out blurred, and I didn’t want to disturb the insects so I didn’t stick around to retake it several times. There are eight butterflies, bees and other insects on these two blossoms.photo 2

I found the same plant on the return trip thirty minutes later, still dishing up whatever righteous nectar it had on tap. If there were a single pollinator-friendly plant to be cloned along this path, I guess this would be the one.

But this one must be pretty tasty, as well.photo 4

So as it turns out, Melbourne’s Urban Forest Visual is a cartography of affection.

An excerpt from Melbourne's Urban Forest Visual interactive map. Source: City of Melbourne

An excerpt from Melbourne’s Urban Forest Visual interactive map.
Source: City of Melbourne

I have a small map of love that runs along a small stretch of forest, right here near Ferchensee.

Ferchensee, Mittenwald.

Ferchensee, Mittenwald.

If the Mittenwald brooks, lake, trees, mountains, plants and wildlife had email addresses where I could send my affections, I would do it. Instead, I’m doing it here.

 

*Thanks so much Rob Cairns for sending me the article on Melbourne’s trees.

Dog Days

Standard

We’re in the middle of a significant heat wave here in eastern France – the French call it la canicule, a word which has at its root a reference to a celestial body other than the sun.

Between July 3 and August 11, the star Sirius rises almost in conjunction with the sun – and Sirius is the brightest star in the Canis Major, the Greater Dog constellation. Actually, the term goes all the way back to the Egyptians, who began their New Year with the return of Sirius.

For centuries it was thought that the star brought with it the heat of summer.

Hence, the ‘dog days’ of summer.

Sirius in Canis Major Source: Space.com

Sirius in Canis Major
Source: Space.com

I was out early this morning – as I am every morning these days – trying to save some of the garden plants from withering under the blazing sun.

We lost some beautiful trees in the deadly canicule of 2003. While I can’t save all the leafy friends, I have been trying to keep a couple of the more fragile ones from drying out, including a gnarled apple tree and a small Japanese maple.

Our garden is an old one – it’s been worked in one form or another for hundreds of years. When we arrived here twenty years ago, the small enclosed space was home to twelve flower beds and nine fruit trees scattered across a mosaic lawn. photo 1(4)

We re-planted the garden a few years ago to be much less water dependent and pollinator-friendly. We reduced the size of the lawn by around half, laid pebble paths through the shady areas, built raised beds,  put in lavender rows and planted grasses that fend well for themselves.

One of the trees that doesn’t seem to need much help is our mirabelle tree – sure, the harvest will be a fraction of what it was last year, but the tree is flourishing and content.photo 1(5)

We have large trays of water out for birds and insects.

The lawn – which I just reseeded this spring – is a loss. It crunches underfoot, but I don’t see the point in watering it. I’ll take the long view and replant in autumn for next year.

photo 3(3)

As I was watering a small fig tree I planted against a stone wall, a small bird emerged from beneath the hosta leaves that line one of the paths. It was looking at me, and looking at the spray of water, then back at me – so I inched the water a bit closer to the bird, and before I knew it, another bird had joined the first and they were chirping like mad as they enjoyed the short shower.

You can just see the two bathing birds on the pebble path. I had to be stealthy with my camera in order not to frighten them.

You can just see the two bathing birds on the pebble path. I had to be stealthy with my camera in order not to frighten them.

If this is the shape of summers to come, I guess I’ll be reducing the lawn even further, and gardening for heat resistance.

In the meantime, with no end to the heat in sight, I’ll just do what humans have been doing in this situation for the entire length of history – try to take it easy, and pray for rain. If I can rely on the tradition of dog days and Sirius setting in early August, I shouldn’t have much longer to wait.

Suffering through a 19th century canicule in France. Source: France Pittoresque

Suffering through a 19th century canicule in France.
Source: France Pittoresque

Finding Patterns

Standard

It’s a fact in the Western world that we have, for a very long time, operated on the assumption that we humans have consciousness cornered.

Whether we adhere to a religion or no, we have mostly acted as Genesis 1:28 commands: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

All images here are the result of the Google image recognition neural network - which looks for patterns in pictures. A hallucinatory filter over a red tree.  Photograph: Google via Guardian

All images here are the result of the Google image recognition neural network – an artificial neural network (ANN) inspired by biological networks – a tool used to search for patterns in pictures. A hallucinatory filter over a red tree.
Photograph: Google via Guardian

Even before I watched documentaries of primatologist Jane Goodall’s research on chimpanzees in the 1960s, I found it hard to believe the long-held axiom of human superiority that of all creatures on the earth, only humans had emotions, social structure, intelligence, or some kind of consciousness.

That all creatures but humans operated solely on instinct.

Long-term studies are now bearing out the idea that we aren’t as special as we like to think. Descartes had it all wrong when he manage to persuade himself and countless others that animals are little more than meat machines.

I’m not talking here about cute animals stories, or reasons to become a vegetarian, or anything like that.

An ANN result of a picture of a knight after an search for animal images.

An ANN result of a picture of a knight after a search for animal images.

From the realization that many other animals use tools, to a study showing that other primates smile just like humans (and why should this come as a surprise?), to the complex social relationships of whales, to the self-restrained leadership techniques shown by alpha wolves, it’s pretty safe to say that we are not alone in the universe – and it’s not because we’ve found aliens, it’s because we’ve started seeing fellow Earth-dwellers in a different light.

They were there all along, we just didn’t know how to see them. Or we didn’t want to.

When will we get far enough in this journey of discovery to find out how they see us? What will we learn about ourselves?

A featureless image after being scanned for building images.

A featureless image after being scanned for building images.

Field Clocks

Standard
Excerpt from the Crescenzi calendar (c. 1306) via Wikimedia by Pietro de' Crescenzi

Excerpt from the Crescenzi calendar (c. 1306)
by Pietro de’ Crescenzi via Wikimedia

There’s something reassuring in the routine of sowing and harvest. It’s not just the crucial aspect of food security.

It’s one way we, as humans, keep time. A vast clock that we make every year anew.

A nearby field, ready for final clearing. All photos: PKR

A nearby field, ready for final clearing.
All photos: PKR

It’s blazing hot here, and as I wrote yesterday, the local farmers are using the heatwave to cut, dry and bale the early wheat crop. The air is thick with the sweet scent of cut grain.

Prickly wheat heads try and hitch a ride on my socks as I run past. Even though they’ve been processed and sown and harvested, hitching a ride is just what seeds do.

The same field, less than 24 hours later.

The same field, less than 24 hours later.

In the pre-industrial era, how long would it have taken to work one complete grain cycle on this field? It would certainly have required a vast collective effort.

Even today, most of the large machinery is shared between local farmers. But a harvest like this only takes a day or so from start to finish, and the same machines can be seen rotating around the village this week, cutting and baling one field after another.

Ready for the next crop.

Ready for the next crop.

Locals tell me that sometime in the middle of the last century, fields were mandated to lay ‘outside’ the village so it could develop into a more ‘residential’ locale – but it’s only recently in the last 15 years that this tiny village of 700 inhabitants started really growing. Even when we moved here back in the 1990s, it was mostly families who had been here for generations, most of them with small farms that encircle the village like a moat.

Now, with new apartment developments springing up faster than summer corn, and the farmer families selling their land and moving away, the harvest is seeming more and more like a clock that is slowly winding down.

The Harvesters (1565) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder via Wikipedia

The Harvesters (1565)
by Pieter Brueghel the Elder via Wikipedia