Autumn Color

November 3, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In celebration of fall color, today's blog offers excerpts from both Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold. Both passages celebrate life, love and the mystery of nature. They also ask deep questions about the human place within nature. Changing colors and seasons present the perfect time for reflection. Enjoy – and happy fall!

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

From Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson, chapter 11 “Indian Summer of the Sea”

“The spirit of the autumn sea was heard in the voices of the kittiwakes, or frost gulls, who began to arrive in flocks by mid-October. They whirled in thousands over the water, dropping down on arched wings to seize small fish that darted through translucent green. The kittiwakes had come southward from nesting grounds on the cliffs of the Artic coast and the Greenland ice packs, and with them the first chill breath of winter moved over the graying sea.

“There were other signs that autumn had come to the sea. Every day the flights of ocean birds, that in September had poured in thin aerial streams over the coastal waters from Greenland, Labrador, Keewatin, and Baffin Land, swelled in volume as the birds hastened to return to the sea. There were gannets and fulmars, jaegers and skuas, dovekies and phalaropes. Their flocks spread out over all the waters above the continental shelf, where the shoals of surface fishes moved and the plankton herds browsed in the sea. ….

“Few of these birds would see land again until spring. Now they belonged once more to the winter sea, sharing its daylight and darkness, its storms and calms, its sleet and snow and sun and fog. ….

“Slowly the summer warmth was drained from the water. The young crabs, mussels, barnacles, worms, starfish, and crustaceans of scores of species had disappeared from the plankton, for in the ocean spring and summer are the seasons of birth and youth. Only to some of the simplest creatures did the Indian summer of the sea bring a brief and flaring renewal of life, so that they multiplied a millionfold. Among these were the one-celled animals, or protozoa, small as pinpricks, which are among the chief light producers of the sea. Ceratium, the horned one – a blog of protoplasm with three grotesque prongs – sprinkled the night seas of October with silver points of light and so filled the surface waters that over vast areas the sea lay thickened and moved sluggishly under the wind. The little globes of Noctiluca – just visible to the human eye – were each aglitter with submicroboscopic grains of light within themselves. During this autumnal period of their great abundance, every fish that moved where the swarms of protozoa were most dense was bathed in light; the waves that broke on reef or shoal spilled liquid fire; and every dip of a fisherman's oar was a flash of a torch in the darkness.”


From “November”, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

“November is, for many reasons, the month for the axe. It is warm enough to grind an axe without freezing, but cold enough to fell a tree in comfort. The leaves are off the hardwoods, so that one can see just how the branches intertwine, and what growth occurred last summer. Without this clear view of treetops, one cannot be sure which tree, if any, needs felling for the good of the land.

“I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land. Signatures of course differ, whether written with axe or pen, and this is as it should be.

“I find it disconcerting to analyze, ex post facto, the reasons behind my own axe-in-hand decisions. I find, first of all, that not all trees are created free and equal. Where a white pine and a red birch are crowding each other, I have an a priori bias; I always cut the birch to favor the pine. Why?

“Well, first of all, I planted the pine with my shovel, whereas the birch crawled in under the fence and planted itself. My bias is thus to some extent paternal, but this cannot be the whole story, for if the pine were a natural seedling like the birch, I would value it even more. So I must dig deeper for the logic, if any, behind my bias.

“The birch is an abundant tree in my township and becoming more so, whereas pine is scarce and becoming scarcer; perhaps my bias is for the underdog. But what would I do if my farm were further north, where pine is abundant and red birch is scarce? I confess I don't know. My farm is here.

“The pine will live for a century, the birch for half of that; do I fear that my signature will fade? My neighbors have planted no pines but all have many birches; am I snobbish about having a woodlot distinction? The pine stays green all winter, the birch punches the clock in October; do I favor the tree that, like myself, braves the winter wind? The pine will shelter a grouse but the birch will feed him; do I consider bed more important than board? The pine will ultimately bring ten dollars a thousand, the birch two dollars; have I an eye on the bank? All of these possible reasons for my bias seem to carry some weight, but none of them carries very much.

“So I try again, and here perhaps is something; under this pine will ultimately grow a trailing arbutus, an Indian pipe, a pyrola, or a twin flower, whereas under the birch a bottle gentian is about the best to be hoped for. In this pine a pileated woodpecker will ultimately chisel out a nest; in the birch a hairy will have to suffice. In this pine the wind will sing for me in April, at which time the birch is only rattling naked twigs. These possible reasons for my bias carry weight, but why? Does the pine stimulate my imagination and my hopes more deeply than the birch does? If so, is the difference in the trees, or in me?

“The only conclusion I have ever reached is that I love all trees, but I am in love with pines.

“As I said, November is the month for the axe, and, as in other love affairs, there is skill in the exercise of bias.”

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A Saguaro Stands Tall

March 31, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The word saguaro originated in Ópata, a language spoken by peoples of the Sonoran Desert region of Mexico. It came into English by way of the Spanish spoken by the Mexican settlers of the American West. The very saguaros we see today may well have been around when the word was first noted, some 150 years ago - this amazing cactus can live for up to 200 years.” - Merriam-Webster

Sometimes, it is important to dwell upon something small. The saguaro, say, which is undoubtedly the tallest desert creature, but in the greater perspective of the world, is remarkably small. It can only survive in the narrowest of conditions, and yet somehow, the tall, human-like structure has become synonymous with desert lifestyles. The saguaro cactus (pronounced suh-WAH-roh) offers a prime example of the complexity of desert habitats. After a recent visit to the Sonoran Desert, I felt it would be interesting to take a closer look at a place which conceals so much life.

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Descending from the Mogollon Rim (pronounced Mug-EE-yawn) into the Sonoran Desert, saguaros appear quickly, suddenly, and in great numbers as if a sea of life exploded on the desert floor. The metaphor of sea indicates depth or breadth, but this desert is the opposite of a literal sea. It is, actually, the sea's remains. As this patch of earth moved northward over millions of years, it also drained and dried out. Saguaros choose to live in a basin or valley that was once a shoreline, but is now nearly deprived of all water.

Saguaros grow slowly, but can live up to two hundred years. In fact, a twenty year old saguaro would be easy to miss, having grown up to about 2 inches tall. As they age, most begin to add arms, giving them the iconic look of a distant, dry and hot vista from a western movie. Also as they age, they begin to bloom in the spring. White flowers cluster in spots and each bud opens only for about twenty-four hours. The dense, red, bulbous fruit pod produced from the blossoms can carry up to two thousand seeds. These seeds need to be deposited by birds and then they require rain to develop into a seedling. The seedlings require shade and moisture in order to continue to grow. Unfortunately, all of those conditions are rarely met in the desert, and so the survival of saguaros becomes a masterful study in patience and adaptation.

It is the largest cactus in the United States. Though the saguaro can grow to be 60 feet tall, they leave very shallow roots. The saguaro uses a single, center root that grows down 2 feet or more, while the rest spread just under the surface for the best chance at grabbing water. Like other plants, the roots soak up water. Unlike other plants, the saguaro can store up to two hundred gallons of water in skin that stretches to contain it all. This is a useful technique in areas which see little water, but when it does rain, the desert floor runs thick with muddy floods. This, obviously, greatly increases the weight of the cactus, and its danger of falling over. The waxy skin prevents water loss, while also allowing for the growth of thick spines. Few animals can penetrate the skin, and even fewer dare due to the dangerous thorns. In this way, the saguaro collects, stores and protects its immense water supply in a place that rarely sees water.

Another mystery of the saguaro is their ability to produce arms. The cactus must reach about sixty years of age before it can grow the first arm. And yet, some never grow any, preferring to remain a single column. It is unclear what factors affect the growth of a branch. Like all desert beings, the saguaro is a master of survival.

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Deserts provide little water, hot days, cold nights and minimal shade. Shelter is imperative. Birds have figured out that the saguaro offers a brilliant hiding spot. Woodpeckers are able to dig into the skin of a saguaro, building a well-hidden and well-fortified nest. In addition, they are able to stay cool in summer and keep the nests at a relatively stable temperature. After they leave the nest, it is likely that another inhabitant will find the open space useful. In this way, the saguaro becomes a housing complex. The communities are free to come and go. Once the hole exists, the saguaro continues to grow, exposing the scar for future residents, but maintaining internal moisture, temperature and structure for a long time. This is due to the dense, hard fibers hidden just under the surface of the skin. Once a saguaro dies, this fiber dries into a very hard wood, which can be used for many additional purposes.

Desert survival depends upon community. Without these massive structures, many other plants and animals would suffer. They grow from a dry seabed, impressively towering above the earth, and yet, for all that height, they are limited to a fairly small, specific geographical location. Learn more about this impressive species on the Saguaro National Park Service's website:

If you would like to read literature about the desert, or are interested in these landscapes, the following authors/works include often include cactus, desert and drought as main characters:

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Animal Dreams or The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Bless Me, Última by Rudolpho Anaya

House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday

The Milagro Beanfield War, by John Nichols

Cormac McCarthy

Willa Cather

Leslie Marmon Silko

Tony Hillerman

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