Saturday, December 29, 2012

The nine lives of a Christmas tree

Should we harvest living trees for use as Christmas trees? Would it be more ecological, a better conservation practice, to go artificial?

The Sauter family Christmas tree. The third life of a Christmas tree, evergreens indoors.

We say yes! Harvest living trees if you wish. Populous modern societies depend on farmers, trees from tree farms are an alternative crop. Tree farming increases utility of marginal acreage and can be a restorative agricultural practice beneficial for depleted or eroded landscapes formerly used in row crop production or in grazing livestock.

We buy local: We do business with a local family tree farm gently laboring three generations on their own hillside fields. Annually, we walk their fields and select and cut our own tree, tie it to the top of the vehicle and take it home, no middle man. This close connection with our grower reveals farm practices we admire and support. We seek farms exhibiting what Aldo Leopold called a "land ethic." And, we pay less, they make more money. 
The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land... 

A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land...

That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.-Aldo Leopold
If you choose to harvest living trees as we do (until recently, a family pine allergy has intervened), we suggest you get the most cultural and ecological utility from your trees, consider all nine lives of a Christmas Tree.

For example, our friends, John and Jen Sauter, choose tree farm grown Douglas fir trees to adorn their rural Ohio home. Jen Sauter, president of the Ohio Ornithological Society, a conservation leader, values all of the ecological benefits of her annual Christmas tree, all nine lives.
The nine lives of a Christmas tree begin with a germinating coneiferous seed tended by industrious hands on a local farm.

New life, the first life of a Christmas Tree*.

Life one: A growing seedling captures soil in its spreading root web while green boughs spread to gather sunshine, slow winds and soften rainfall, slowing runoff. The first years of a farm sapling see very rapid growth of woody tissues constructed of carbon pulled from the atmosphere. Most evergreens prove drought tolerant, a necessary quality on sandy-gravelly soils. The growing trees promise future high returns in dollars and continuing ecoservices; captured carbon, improved soil texture and soil chemistry, runoff inhibition, wind abatement, and so on...

A tree farm growing on a gravelly, hilly glacial landform in Pickaway County, Ohio.

Life two: A tree farm is a simple forest of small evergreens. This attractive woodscape has secured the soil and is shedding needles and twigs in quantity, organic litter that revitalizes depleted clayey or sandy-gravelly soils. Compared to row crops, a grassy field of evergreens supports greater biodiversity; food, shelter, and shade for insects, birds, and quadrupeds, habitat lasting at least a decade and more. Many small Midwestern tree farms support abundant rabbits and meadow voles, supporting predatory birds and quadrupeds!

Life three: Each year, a section of the tree farm is harvested, the larger habitat goes on. Stumps and root webs of harvested trees remain, modifying and holding soil in place. Harvested trees are essential elements of Christmas celebrations. Greening the indoors near the winter solstice has been a multicultural practice for thousands of years. Evergreens embody our hopes and expectations for the end of the cold season and renewal of abundance in the coming green season, the cycle of life.

Life four: Our indoor celebrations are brief, but they need not be the last life of our Christmas trees. Jen Sauter drags her drying tree to the family bird feeding station for the remaining cold season. The birds benefit, additional shelter for birds staging to feed at her feeders attracts more birds by offering more of them more of what they need. The twelve year old farm grown Douglas fir Christmas tree pictured stood nine feet tall indoors, now it provides nine feet of excellent cover for staging birds at the feeders.

Cover for birds waiting their turn at a feeding station, the fourth life of a Christmas tree.

Feeding stations attract concentrations of small birds, concentrations of small birds attract predatory birds, a natural process. Natural landscapes level the field for predator-prey interactions by offering escape cover. Cover at your feeding station helps level the field, giving small birds a fighting chance when they are over-concentrated at your super-abundant food source.

Habitat to soil; the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth lives of a Christmas tree.
Life five: A year ago, the Christmas tree pictured above served the Sauters indoors, then the feeder birds outdoors. By spring, the tree was repositioned along a field margin where it supports a grassy tangle that will last for several years and more ecological lives. This is "rabbitat" (rabbit + habitat). The fifth life of the Christmas tree offers new green cover for wildlife along an ecotone, a habitat boundary favoring biological diversity.

Life six: Clinging needles and small twigs finally release and collect under the tree, the sixth life of the Christmas tree begins. Natural litter builds under the tree where insects and fungus along with bacteria reduce the litter to organic duff, nature's mulch. Mulch supports yet more types of organisms.

Life seven: Eventually, after a few years as rabbitat, the tree branches collapse altogether, the bole of the tree resting and rotting on the ground, the seventh life of a Christmas tree. The rotting bole is substrate for fungus, the rotting wood is habitat for invertebrates. New plants take root in the deep duff formed by the decomposed tree.

Life eight: Dust to dust. The tree has passed to duff. Much of its carbon is in long term storage in organic soil supporting the next cycle of plant growth.

A Virginia pine cone releasing seed, commencing the ninth life of a Christmas Tree

Life nine: New life. The Douglas fir sapling pictured below grew from seed dropped by Christmas tree rabbitat years earlier, new life! The mulch of the decomposed tree supports the sapling.

New life, the first life of a Christmas Tree*.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Chipewyan creation myth, big bird and a dog the first, the globe was one vast and entire ocean, inhabited by no living creature, except a mighty bird, whose eyes were fire, whose glances were lightning, and the clapping of whose wings were thunder.
 Creation of terra firma, origins of man, original sin, creation of living things, dogs, universal floods, oceans, rivers; these are repeating themes in myth and lore of diverse peoples. Birds and flight figure prominently in myth, lore and religion across cultures and through time. In poetry and myth, flight is the soul of birds. Flight may be symbolic of freedom from the burden of more than gravity, the next life is almost always upward!

Dogs have been our constant companions and partners, and creators too, according to the creation myth of the Chipewayan, a people of the barrens of northern Taiga and Tundra of Arctic Canada.

Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820)
Alexander Mackenzie, first to cross the continent ten years before Lewis and Clark, described the Chipewyan creation myth in his published journal:
The notion which these people entertain of the creation, is of a very singular nature. They believe that, at the first, the globe was one vast and entire ocean, inhabited by no living creature, except a mighty bird, whose eyes were fire, whose glances were lightning, and the clapping of whose wings were thunder. On his descent to the ocean, and touching it, the earth instantly arose, and remained on the surface of the waters. This omnipotent bird then called forth all the variety of animals from the earth, except the Chepewyans, who were produced from a dog; and this circumstance occasions their aversion to the flesh of that animal, as well as the people who eat it. This extraordinary tradition proceeds to relate, that the great bird, having finished his work, made an arrow, which was to be preserved with great care, and to remain untouched; but that the Chepewyans were so devoid of understanding, as to carry it away; and the sacrilege so enraged the great bird, that he has never since appeared.
...had traversed a great lake, which was narrow, shallow, and full of islands, where they had suffered great misery, it being always winter, with ice and deep snow.
 Cultural memory of crossing the Bering Strait land bridge?
They have also a tradition amongst them, that they originally came from another country, inhabited by very wicked people, and had traversed a great lake, which was narrow, shallow, and full of islands, where they had suffered great misery, it being always winter, with ice and deep snow. At the Copper-Mine River, where they made the first land, the ground was covered with copper, over which a body of earth had since been collected, to the depth of a man's height. They believe, also, that in ancient times their ancestors lived till their feet were worn out with walking, and their throats with eating. They describe a deluge, when the waters spread over the whole earth, except the {clxxiv}highest mountains, on the tops of which they preserved themselves.
A new take on Elysium and the myth of Tantalus...
They believe, that immediately after their death, they pass into another world, where they arrive at a large river, on which they embark in a stone canoe, and that a gentle current bears them on to an extensive lake, in the centre of which is a most beautiful island; and that, in the view of this delightful abode, they receive that judgment for their conduct during life, which terminates their final state and unalterable allotment. If their good actions are declared to predominate, they are landed upon the island, where there is to be no end to-their happiness; which, however, according to their notions, consists in an eternal enjoyment of sensual pleasure, and carnal gratification. But if their bad actions weigh down the balance, the stone canoe sinks at once, and leaves them up to their chins in the water, to behold and regret the reward enjoyed by the good, and eternally struggling, but with unavailing endeavours, to reach the blissful island, from which they are excluded for ever.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The first dogs of the Americas

Canis lupus familiaris evolved with Homo sapiens, not just by Homo sapiens. Genetic studies suggest dogs likely descend from gray wolf populations in the Middle East or southeastern Asia. Arguably, primitive dogs spread northward through icy Europe and across Asian steppes with nomadic humans, shaping humans along the way as we shaped them, ourselves and dogs a team adapting to ice age climate, together tackling big packages of protein and fat carried on four hooves or paws, calories and nutrition  necessary for survival of humans and dogs together in the cold. Our teamwork fueled our crossing the Bering Strait Land Bridge discovering the New World together at least 11,000 BCE. The role of dogs in the survival of humans is commonly underestimated. Could humans have populated North America without the help of dogs?

Nyla, wife of Nanook, with baby and puppy.

Inside Mandan earthlodge Karl Bodmer 1843. Bodmer placed nursing pups front and center, their importance to Native Americans.
Dogs extend the reach and scope of human senses and capabilities. Dogs are force multipliers (ecologically, niche multipliers*). Dogs' sense of smell found and followed game, camp raiders, and human enemies, warning and leading humans toward their quarry or to their defense. Dogs' sense of hearing extends the reach of human hearing and their barking alerts us to distant or approaching threats.  Dogs' legs extend the speed of human influence while dogs' agility extend the tactics of humans to distant quarry at bay, until the hunters catch up to collect their prize, tossing only scraps to the hard working dogs. Dogs' four legs carried truck, pulled sleds, and drug travoix, lightening loads for humans and speeding their way. Dogs prevented famine, too, occasionally they were eaten. Dogs were livestock, the only domesticated animals among pre-Columbian Native Americans in North America. Dogs were more than livestock, more than companions, dogs were partners then.

Far afield: A missionary reporting to Pierre de Charlevoix 1721 ca. on the tribulations encumbering his mission, from a distant outpost in the wilderness of New France, a winter hunting camp of Native Americans.
"...To all these inconveniences we must add one more, which though it may appear very small at first, is very considerable, and this is being persecuted by the dogs. The Indians have always a great number of these animals which follow them everywhere, and are remarkable for their fidelity; not fawning indeed as they are never caressed by their masters, but bold and good hunters: I have already said that they are trained up betimes for the different chases, for which they are intended: and so may add, that every Indian must have a considerable number of them, as many of them perish by teeth and horns of wild beasts, which they attack with courage that nothing is capable of shaking. Their masters are at very little pains in feeding them, so that they are obliged to live upon what they can catch, and as this goes no great way with them, it is no wonder they are very meager and thin of flesh; besides they have little hair, which renders them very sensible to the cold.
In order to defend themselves from it, if they cannot get near the fire, which it would be difficult for all of them to do, even were there nobody in the cabin, they lye down on the first person they meet, and one is often suddenly awakened in the night, almost choked with two or three dogs upon him. Were they a little more discreet in choosing their place, their company would not be extremely troublesome, and one might put up with them pretty well; but they lay themselves down where they can, and it is in vain to drive them away for they return an instant after. It is still worse in the daytime; as soon as any thing eatable appears, you cannot imagine what leaps they make to snatch it out of your hands. Imagine to yourself the case of a poor missionary crouching near the fire, to say his breviary or read some book, striving with smoke and exposed to the importunity of a dozen curs, who leap backwards and forwards over him, in order to snatch some morsel they may have seen. If he stands in need of a little rest, he is scarce able to find a corner where he can be free from this vexation. If anything is brought him to eat, the dogs have their snout in the dish before he tastes it, and often whilst he is defending his portion against those which attack him in front, another comes upon him from the rear, and either carries off half his allowance or jostles against him, so that the plate falls from his hands, and the sagamity is tumbled amongst the ashes."
Ontario, River St. Joseph, August 8, 1721. Pierre de Charlevoix, Sequel of Character of the Indians and their Manner of living. Letter XXIII. Journal of a Voyage to North America Volume II.

Regarding hunting with dogs...
"I forgot to inform your Grace, that the Indians always carry a great number of dogs with them in their huntings; these are the only domestic animals they breed, and that too only for hunting: they appear to be all of one species, with upright ears, and a long snout like that of a wolf; they are remarkable for their fidelity to their masters, who feed them however but very ill, and never make much of them. They are very early bred to that kind of hunting for which they are intended, and excellent hunters they make."
Three Rivers, Quebec, March 6, 1721. Pierre de Charlevoix, Sequel of the huntings of the Indians. Letter VI. Journal of a Voyage to North America Volume I.

Dogs have been with us at least 15,000 years (archaeology). Genetic lines of evidence suggest dogs may have originated as much as 100,000 years ago. Current efforts to obtain DNA from archaeological dog specimens may soon further resolve the origins of our canine companions.

Current information about origins and roles of dogs:
Dogs: Domestication and the Development of a Social Bond by Darcy D Morey. Cambridge University Press 2010.
Current information about efforts to uncover the genetic origins and the ancient profile of dogs:
Larson et al. 2012. PNAS vol. 109 No. 23. Larson et al. pdf
*We contend that human hunter-gatherer evolution, organic and cultural, periodically was catapulted by a small number of niche multipliers: tool use, tool manufacture and use, language development (origins of coordinated planning--teamwork), natural fire use, anthropogenic fire ignition and use--transport, appropriation of animal skins and shelter constructions, fiber technologies, threads & textiles, cords & ropes, stitching & weaving, invention of knives--spears, association with Canis lupus, domestication of or co-evolution with Canis lupus, invention--manufacture of waterborne vessels, invention--manufacture of atlatl technology, invention--manufacture of bow and arrow technology, and so on... Each niche multiplier powered greater ecological expansion and broader ecological impacts, human population growth and increased geographic expansion.