Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Florida revisted...

For my father, whose borrowed elements have returned to the biosphere.

Thomas D. Bain Jr.

Solace in nature...

Sunrise over Merritt Island where the Space Shuttle is prepped and waiting to slip the surly bonds of Earth, center horizon.

Manatee browsing algae along riverside rip-rap, Haulover Canal, Merritt Island.
These gentle giants barely ripple the surface of warm water rivers and springs they visit during wintertime.

A Reddish Egret dancing-up dinner along the shallows of a Merritt Island lagoon.

This live oak, festooned with Spanish moss and resurrection fern, was a large tree when fabled Naturalist William Bartram is said to have passed by during his travels in 1774.

Gopher tortoise at home on remnant ancient sand dunes of the Lake Wales Ridge, central Florida. This 14 inch animal may be over sixty years old.

Florida Scrub Jay. Gangs of rare jays find young pine clearcuts a substitute for diminishing oak scrub.

Native oak scrub (at right), one of the most endangered habitats in Florida, supports more endemic species than any other. Citrus at left. We are looking down slope from the crest of the Lake Wales Ridge toward Archibold Biological Research Station, near Avon Lake, central Florida.

Florida oranges brighten breakfast tables everywhere. Oak scrub endemics are dozed aside to make room for citrus as demand continues.

Crested Caracara at nest site (between billboards), Moore Haven, Florida.

So many families thread connections to Florida from around the United States and Canada, the place has become a central element in the tapestry of the American experience. Aged generations move there for warm retirement, younger generations follow for fun and sun. Native flora and fauna move aside or integrate along the margins of human habitats.

Many families; Snowbirds and vacation visitors, know Florida only marginally; the beaches, the roadsides, the social environments and cultural attractions. My family is firmly threaded in this tapestry, but I was fortunate to have been introduced to the depths of the Florida experience; the plants, the birds, the mammals, the geology and fossils, and a little history. My grandfather and father reached into the sands, the skies, and the waters of Florida. I have followed them. Florida is a remarkable place, the more so beyond the margins.

My connections with Florida began during my teen years visiting grandparents wintering in Daytona. My father followed them, building and retiring in Sebring, Florida. I have followed for family and natural history visits, but I will not pursue retirement there where there is now too little room for me with surviving native species. I will visit again and again with my son and I hope he will know, appreciate, and help to protect natural Florida.

Lawn art, life-size Aluminum wildlife (non-native) for sale.

Visitors, transplants, and immigrants bring their diverse arrays of cultural influences into the depths of Florida. More and more habitat is taken for human environments, increasingly artificial and surficial. Still, there is much of native Florida left to inspire young and old, and many wonderful people pulling together for habitat for all.

Tom Bain Jr. standing on a ladder leading to service on one of many Habitat homes he helped to build with Florida families.

Tom Bain Jr. was born into that muscular post-war generation that wrestled abundant living from global tensions and globalizing prosperity. Dad rounded his life by helping to build scores of homes in central Florida, working with the generous folks of Habitat for Humanity, Highlands County, Florida. Dad, full of years--full of experience, slipped the surly bonds of Earth March 8, 2009.

Contributions in Dad's name to Habitat for Humanity are greatly appreciated by the Bain family and by many deserving Florida families helping to build their own futures.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The making of a "trail tree"...

Natural systems create bemusing natural phenomena. Trees, in their many wonderful forms, are beautiful natural sculptures, bemusing and inspiring us.

We find local "trail trees" among the mix of tree damage types in a wind-shear zone...

A small "trail tree" type. A wind damage survivor.

Here in central Ohio, where the glaciated flatlands meet the linear north--south river valleys formed by glacial drainage, we find zones of heavy wind damage among forest trees. These damage zones follow the upper slopes where the flatlands ramp downward along fairly steep flanks to the river valleys below. Frequent wind-shear along these slopes causes recurrent timber damage. Observers can see multiple episodes of shear damage preserved in trees of different age classes. Wintertime is the best time to look for damage patterns among forest trees.

We made another visit to Bent Tree Trail, Amy Clark/Bader Bird Sanctuary, Preservation Parks of Delaware County, to chase birds, check for signs of Spring, and ponder the bemusing shapes of the many damaged trees found along the trail.

We brought along our camera to shoot a sequence illustrating natural development of contorted trees into shapes known as "trail trees."

Stage one...

About a year ago, a windstorm felled a large dead tree over the trunk of a smaller living tree. The smaller tree was struck high, bending it over without uprooting the tree or snapping-off its trunk. A smaller tree to its right did not withstand the blow, its trunk snapped several feet above the ground. The surviving tree is pinned in a near-horizontal position, held between the felled tree and another larger tree.

Stage two...

A living small branch of the pinned tree re-oriented and grew toward the sunlight, against gravity, and shot upward with vigorous growth during one growing season. Growth inhibitors manufactured by canopy leaves had suppressing growth of low branches like this one until the crown was pushed down, away from sunlight. The new growth is now the dominate growth. The pinned crown has withered and is dying.

Stage three...

A nearby tree exhibits a later stage along the development path our pinned tree will likely follow as it survives future decades. This tree was pinned, I'm guessing, twenty years ago. A small branch originally well below the crown became its new dominate growth (apical dominance) as it recovered from the insult. The original crown, and the segment of tree trunk feeding the original crown, are now gone. A naval scar (ring-scar) is all that remains of the withered trunk and crown.

Stage three continued...

My lovely field assistant brightens the forest with her smile as she stands in for scale (my wife, Jackie). Maybe I'd better say that I'm HER field assistant...

Folklore suggests that Native Americans made "trail trees" (A.K.A. "signal trees," "warning trees," "compass trees," "boundary trees," and so on...) by tying down saplings so they would survive to grow pointing in the direction of a trail or toward an important resource, a spring or a landing for a portage trail, and so on.

Some enthusiasts suggest Native Americans had a secret method of creating the cubby-hole (the ring-scar seen in the photograph above) by inserting a piece of charcoal or some secret concoction that made the tree grow a hollow they would latter use to leave secret totems, messages, and the like. This young tree made its own cubby-hole without assistance from humans (unless some secret practitioner of the lost art of cubby-hole creation still prowls our forests--anything is possible).

Stage four...

Another nearby tree exhibits a much later stage along the development path our pinned tree will likely follow, if it survives many future decades. This old survivor is much too young to have been the project of a Native American trail-blazer. It too is a product of wind damage. Nevertheless, it illustrates the potential for survival after violent paroxysms mangle trees, whatever the origin of the damage. The open trunk of this tree suggests it may not survive another decade or two, but who knows.

Countless examples of all stages of "trail tree" development are scattered throughout our Eastern Deciduous Forest. I've seen hundreds of examples at all stages of development, far prettier than those pictured above (I'm going to have to start carrying a camera all the time). Some "trail trees" are so perfectly formed, they seem to approach artistic expression. At first, it seems these beautiful trees must surely result from intervention by human beings.

Through time, and broadening experience, I've encountered many trees exhibiting a complete continuum of development of these contorted shapes, all randomly distributed throughout the forests I've visited--though more frequently found in recurrent windfall areas such as wind-shear zones or along steep slopes with loose eroding soil. Nature makes "trail trees." You may label me skeptical, but my skepticism results from thousands of hours of work and recreation in our forests while pursuing professional and avocational projects.

The folklore of "trail trees" is fun, and it's very understandable. Check-out the many Internet sites offering pictures of these beautiful and bemusing trees. Large trees are inspiring regardless of personal beliefs.

Checking-out the natural mechanisms creating such beautiful mysteries is even more fun. Nature does not need our help to create beautiful mysteries.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Asteroid gadfly...

Earth experienced an extra-terrestrial near-miss a couple of days ago. Asteroid 2009 DD45 surprised observers. Asteroids known and unknown gadfly humanity.

Asteroid Itokawa, Credit & Copyright ISAS, JAXA.
Picture of the Day, May 22, 2007.
Asteroids, like this giant studied by Japanese researchers, are big chunks of early solar system rock moving at very high speeds in eccentric orbits around the Sun. This one is much larger than our recent gadfly, Asteroid 2009 DD45.

Asteroid 2009 DD45 unexpectedly whizzed close by Earth a couple of days ago, giving just a couple of days warning. Closest approach came less than five Earth diameters away. The lump of rock was between 19 and 43 meters across--more than big enough to equal the Tunguska Event, a massive air blast over Siberia which leveled 800 square miles of ancient Siberian forest in 1908. Most investigators think the Tunguska Event resulted from the explosion of a similar size asteroid as it entered the atmosphere.

Today, the impact of an asteroid of this size would result in human and economic, and natural catastrophe, wherever it occurred, whether or not we saw it coming.

The time scale of human life, even that of human civilization, is small compared to the frequency of catastrophic impacts of all sorts, both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial. The geological record is punctuated by countless catastrophes.

Even as we reflect on the occasions of the 200 year anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, and the 150 year anniversary of the publishing of his On the Origin of Species; do we fail to fully encompass the stochastic nature of change that resulted in today's diversity and distribution of life?

Charles Lyell, geologist, proponent of "uniformitarianism," published his influential three volume Principles of Geology in 1830-1833. He gave Darwin deep time in which to operate his slow agents of change. And, he gave us all the next best thing to no change at all--gradualism, slow change we can live with comfortably.

If our lives spanned millennia rather than decades, maybe we'd have a better grasp of the importance of the sudden hiccups that shake things up and change outcomes globally. Maybe then we would encompass the meteoric speed of change Homo sapiens has brought, and the Earth-changing impact of that collision.

Asteroid 2009 DD45 details can be found at Tom's Asteroid Flybys Webpage.

See goodSchist for a discussion of asteroids and cosmic precursors for life: Cerces, Dawn and (no) Panspermia.