Native Plants, Habitat Restoration, and Other Science Snippets from Athens, Georgia

Sunday: 29 November 2009

Just in Time for Thanksgiving  -  @ 04:44:32
The maize genome has been sequenced.

This beautiful figure summarizes the large scale features of the maize (Zea mays) genome. That's corn, to us Americans - maize to everyone else. The sequence of its 2.3 billion nucleotides is pretty much complete now, and published in last week's Science (subscription wall).



The black numbers on the outside of the circles identify each of the ten chromosomes of maize. Each concentric circle inward shows the presence of some kind of important feature. In addition, the correspondence with the already sequenced rice and sorghum genomes is shown in the innermost two circles.

I think the gray curves totally unify the portrait, don't you? I don't even want to get into it, because I only superficially understand it, but they represent duplications of DNA within the genome. Duplications are the fertile ground for new genes, and the maize genome is fraught with an enormous number of these events. I will note that the designers of this figure oriented the position of the chromosomes, not in numerical order, which would have produced a chaos, but in the order that would result in the minimal number of connections that reach across the figure and disturb the understanding of it. It's a lovely piece of work.

It was a monumental effort - much more difficult than the sequencing of other genomes. The figure above shows why - there is a huge amount of repetition (circle E) in the genome. Actual genes (circle F) comprise only a very tiny portion of the maize DNA - the majority is composed of transposable elements (circle C). Because of the techniques used in sequencing, a high degree of repeated elements makes the process extremely difficult. Even with half again as much DNA, the human genome was a snap compared to maize.

Maize has always been thought of as a botanical monster, that is, something that is thoroughly unique. Its reputation as such is only enhanced by this new knowledge of its genome.

There are plenty of enthusiastic folks at work figuring out what all this means. Virginia Walbot has a characteristically very nice read on just a few of the major questions that have been around for years and will now be addressable. Some of these questions are fairly deep scientific issues, but others are very practical curiosities. Hybrid vigor, for instance, has always been something of a mystery, that the hybrid between two maize lines should be larger, more vigorous, and produce more fruit. Comparison between inbred lines of maize shows that many lines have genes that others completely lack, and vice versa. In fact, the statement is made that there is more genomic difference between some lines of maize than there is between humans and chimpanzees. Hybrids combine all the genes into one organism.

There is also the question of how maize survives such a huge amount of repetitive DNA, and not just that, but repetitive DNA that jumps around the genome and potentially disrupts crucial genes. Here's an interesting discussion on that matter. I might add that it's a curious thing that maize results from 10,000 years of breeding and domestication from a rather nondescript ancestral grass, teosinte. There will probably be lots of folks asking if it's something about teosinte that led to maize's extremely complex genome, or whether blind artificial selection for a food crop led to this bewildering morass of DNA that somehow works. It seems likely that we can only marvel at the job that native American geneticists did over the last 100 centuries.

No way can I do this justice - just mention a few things and sit back and wait for what's going to come of it.

Here's the author list - somewhere around 150 contributors from 33 institutions. They stand on the shoulders of giants - thousands of others, over the last sixty years or more, and then too the ones over the previous 10,000 years who contributed the genetics that made this possible.

Congratulations!




Saturday: 28 November 2009

Real Value  -  @ 05:38:50
Now that we've endured Black Friday, let's talk about some things of real value.

I've been presque vuing on a particular word, hoping for it to pop back out of my mind in a kind of epiphany. I first heard the word a month or two ago - it might have been from something I was listening to on Alternative Radio, possibly a talk by Michael Parenti or David Suzuki. I can't pin the source down, but the statement, paraphrased, went something like this: "In economics, _____ are things that we have no traditional estimate of market value for. In this particular, these things are are ecosystem functions and ecosystem services."

After several weeks of playing the usual tricks to try to get this word to surface, I started doing keyword searches. It was harder than I had thought to unearth this word, and I'm not sure it's even the right word. I didn't get the satisfactory epiphany feeling when I found it, but I think that's just the usual letdown of presque vu.

At any rate, the word seems to be "contingency." It isn't defined in the dictionary as an economic term, but get down into discussions of ecosystem valuation and it crops up occasionally. For instance, "contingent valuation" is one of the methods used to assign a monetary value to many of those things that aren't really a part of the markets.

In doing all this, I ran across some fascinating websites on - believe it or not - the economics of ecosystem valuation. The sites provide all the definitions and breakdown you could desire. I'll just note that ecosystem functions are the things ecosystems do. Ecosystem services are the things we pay for. Ecosystem functions don't become services until someone drags them kicking and screaming into the light, to be paid for. Then the trick is to find a way to value them, since the markets don't do that for us. As far as the markets have been concerned, all this stuff is free, but I gather that this is changing. We've just begun to pay for ecosystem services.

Ecosystemvaluation.org provides an easy understanding of ecosystem functions and services, and (especially) methods used to estimate value. Each of the eight methods described has its own strengths and weaknesses, and should only be employed in certain cases. The descriptions are great - they come with pros and cons, and some very illuminating examples.

I particularly like case study #5 (scroll down halfway) for the contingent valuation method. This involves salmon restoration on the Olympic Peninsula. CV was used to evaluate what households would be willing to pay to increase salmon populations by removing dams. Would the willingness to pay be sufficient to overcome the cost to remove the dams (estimated to be $100-$125 million)? And the answer was yes - households would be willing to pay about $70 on average, amounting nationwide to more than $1 billion.

Ecology.org concentrates more on dissecting the nature of ecosystem services and functions. There is a great discussion on each of the following examples where ecosystem functions provide tangible services. The numbers I've given are for our own property, and are taken from the third resource that I'll describe later. The figures and writing are my own and I had a little bit of fun browsing through five years of a blog to select the photos:

Biodiversity


The more diverse an ecosystem, the more stable it is. In terms of nutrient cycling, raw materials, waste treatment (!), disturbance regulation, genetic resources, and food production, sixty acres of temperate forest provides $15,576 per year of services.
Climate


Ecosystem functions include buffering and modulating the effects of abiotic changes in temperature and rainfall. Plants suck up huge amounts of water, transferring it from inaccessible places into the atmosphere, where it becomes available for surface use at long distances elsewhere. Looks like our 60 acres contributes $3384 per year toward that goal.
Floods and Droughts


Water regulation and water supply add to erosion control for a total of $2424 per year.
Soil


There is some overlap with erosion control, but I included that above. Soil formation seems a reasonable category here, at $240 per year for sixty acres of temperate forest.
Pollination


Pollination isn't given a $value for temperate forests, which is odd since it is given a value for grass/rangelands. It strikes me that maintaining sixty acres of forest that include some heavy nectar producers like tulip poplars should count for something.
Pest Control


Biological control only amounts to $48 per year for sixty acres.
Seed Dispersal


Some seed disperal is passive, by wind or water, and some is aided by the presence of animals. Maintaining an ecosystem that encourages animal life from small invertebrates to birds and mammals promotes seed dispersal, which in turn enlarges and enriches food sources.
Aesthetics


It's hard to put a value on aesthetics. Still, the categories of recreation and cultural provide a budget item of $1632 per year.


The above numbers come from this 1997 paper (pdf) ("The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital"; Nature 387, 253-260 (1997)), which gives the rationale for providing an annual valuation on global ecosystem functions. It might seem dry, and the authors are clear in stating that there are many difficulties and uncertainties, but they come up with a value of $16-$54 trillion, centering around $33 trillion per year.

You can view that figure in two ways: first, you might see it as what the planet essentially charges us for its services, each year. Second, and more practically, you might see it as what it would cost to replace natural ecosystem services with some artificial equivalent. For instance, if we decided to log the entirety of our property - every single smidgeon - and then work to make sure nothing else grew, would it be worth someone's while to pay us $23,000 a year not to do it? Strange things like farm subsidies to not grow a crop do come to mind!

The paper has a large table that breaks that budget down into biomes, and the services each supplies. I used it to estimate the services our 60 acres provides.

The temperate forest row seems to apply to our property. The major services a forest provides are (in 1997US$ per hectare per year): Climate Regulation ($141); Erosion Control ($96); Nutrient Cycling ($361); Waste Treatment ($87); Raw Materials ($138 ); Food Production ($43); Recreation ($66). There are other lesser categories, which taken all together adds up to $969 per hectare per year. That would place an annual ecosystem service value to our 24 hectares of about $23,000 per year. I can assure you the bills have not ever been paid.

Do all of these categories apply? Some, Climate Regulation, Erosion Control, and Nutrient Cycling clearly do. Others, maybe:

Take Food Production. The very large number of oaks on the property produce acorns, which are a valuable hard mast for deer. We live next door to a large hunting club, and so our oak forest indirectly but indisputably supplies a food resource. Whether it amounts to $43 per hectare per year is arguable, but it certainly amounts to something significant in the mind of the manager of that hunting club, for he lobbied us enthusiastically for permission to use a part of the land for hunting. In the same way we can justify Recreation as an ecosystem service.

How about Waste Treatment? Here, I'm not certain what is meant by waste treatment. Upstream of us there are some chicken houses, which certainly produce waste. Farther upstream is the large impoundment, ringed by a fairly dense human population that inarguably produces waste. It seems to me that the floodplain we maintain, as well as the creek itself that ends up the target of such waste, helps to mitigate that waste.

Raw Materials? Since we don't harvest trees, although we could, I suppose this shouldn't be properly counted.

So what's the value of this kind of analysis? Purists would probably reject it as vulgar and arrogant, and certainly I feel a bit of that. But $value is all that a lot of people understand, and so I feel better knowing that pragmatic analysis exists for those types. I feel even better knowing that a hefty figure in the tens of trillions of dollars per year is what we'll have to pay if we are to so degrade our environment that those ecosystem services are pounded into nonexistence.

There's also something unsatisfying about having to conform to an entrenched economic system that has long showed signs of being inadequate to deal with contingencies. As a result, things we all know to be important end up having only a theoretical value. In the end all this is an exercise in futility, and an enterprise that will never be anything other than altruistic.

How do I know this? Easy. Try figuring out to whom to submit the bill, and then see how much you'll collect ; - )  .



Friday: 27 November 2009

Looking Up  -  @ 04:21:22
It's a good thing I was looking up, the other day. These look a little more burnished in the late afternoon sun than is their actual lighter color, but they are by no means white.

Here we have something emerging out of a water oak, Quercus nigra, about fifteen feet up.

Once again, I've got two or three candidates none of which look just like this AND live around here AND grow on the right kind of tree. At first I thought this was a bearded tooth, Hericium erinaceus, which I had similar difficulties with back in March. But these structures look even less like the images I found for that species than the blobs I found then.

The only alternatives seem to be one of the toothed polypores. One is Milk-white Toothed Polypore, Irpex lacteus, but again there is a problem. These are thinly spreading, more of a parchment than what we see here, and the set of images I've linked to include on that's a bit out of the norm for this polypore (though it matches mine better).


Here's another possibility: Spongipellis pachyodon, Soft Toothed Polypore. The latter link says that these do grow on oaks; my Audubon emphasizes conifers. The generic name suggests "spongy" but apparently this mainly applies to the very young emergences. There is some discussion about how that works here.

If the latter species, then this is one of the heart-rot fungi, which will eventually kill this youngish water oak. Oh - and looks like something's been feasting on them, too.



Thursday: 26 November 2009

Thanksgiving  -  @ 06:55:37
And here I was working on some material involving ecosystem services and valuation. While we should certainly be thankful for ecosystem services, or what we have left of them, it's probably not what's in the topmost portion of people's minds today. Maybe we'll deal with it on Black Friday. You may be thankful that I recognize this ; - )  .

A good thanksgiving to everyone.

Wednesday: 25 November 2009

Maybe NPR Should Hire Me  -  @ 07:56:59
It was almost exactly three years ago that I ran across the Science report about how ants return to their nests, and felt inspired to describe it. By an undetermined mechanism, ants return to their nests by "counting" their steps.

Today NPR's Morning Edition reported on this. From what I can tell from the presentation, the report isn't new and breaking news. Rather, Robert Krulwich seems to have been as delighted as I was at the experimental result, so simple and clean.

Scooped again, goes the phrase, though usually it doesn't refer to something revealed three years ago.

Sunday: 22 November 2009

Restoration Run Part 3: 15K at Old Mill Road  -  @ 16:02:13
Our Hargrove Lake Road placement lasted a bit over an hour, and then we headed back down Crawford-Smithonia, toward Crawford (of course) and the last checkpoint at Old Mill Road, a little less than a mile from the finish.

It had started out chilly and foggy, a couple of hours earlier, and it never got really sunny until the afternoon. But it had warmed up nicely by 9:30am, and the rains predicted for Saturday weren't to arrive until Sunday. In fact, it's 45 degF and rain, right now. What misery that would have been!

We're now on the northwest side of Crawford proper, and maybe there are seedier parts. Native plants fled this place in terror, decades ago - you can see that Glenn is confirming this. The sign at lower left reads "Beulah Land," but I'm not sure what road it is attached to.



But here come the runners. Number 150 was in the lead back at Hargrove Lake Road, and he maintained it here by a hundred yards. I'm assuming he was first at the finish, but those are matters that we didn't observe. I'm actually quite pleased with this photo - it was only at the last moment that I realized he was coming up the road, ran to the Maraschino to get the camera, whipped it out and took the photo a second before he passed behind the rear of the truck.

Befitting the location, an abandoned phone booth at right. Forgotten, but not gone!




Clickable thumbnails! Lots of them, who can resist?

Left, a larger view including the entirety of the old water tower. I wonder if this is the Old Mill?

Next, numbers 2 and 3. The garbage truck fed us its fumes for quite a long time.

Third, number 4, the woman of the unusual lope. Whatever it was, it seemed to come effortlessly to her, which I'm sure isn't the case!

And last on the right, number 5. Again, these were very serious runners, but later our old friends, many of whom we'd met three times now, would have something amusing or kind to say to us.



On the left, quite a while later - things were getting really strung up by now, and we wouldn't leave Old Mill Road for an hour and a half - another cluster of runners. The last one in this cluster asked as he went by if there was anyone behind him. "Lots," I answered, hoping that this was the right, if by that time not entirely accurate, response. "No, *right* behind me," he replied. How do you answer that?

Thank goodness the garbage truck is gone, but now what? STOP parking so as to block the runners! Good grief - this driver was completely oblivious as to what was going on. I do believe she actually read her mail there.

And finally, some local color. He had earlier made an appearance, too, to deal with his emptied trash can. I'm not sure he entirely approved of things, but to give him credit he was with only one exception (a scary scary woman someone let out a bit up the street) the only human being to appear outside of an automobile.



The last runners were a long time in coming in, and there was one point where we were wondering if we should stop an oncoming car to inquire if there were any runners back down the road. "Would you be scandalized if I were to ask someone," Glenn asked. "Just, please, don't ask the runner if he's the last one."

But there was a tailing car on the last runners and so that is how we knew those were in fact the last. I suppose they must have known it too.

We did take the truck down to the Depot to canvass the proceedings and get a couple of donuts, but most of the festivities had ended. We arrived with the last of the runners crossing the finish line. And then it was back to Wolfskin, put the pumper up, and call it back into service.

We were home by noon - it was a fun morning.

Restoration Run Part 2: 15K at Hargrove Lake Road  -  @ 14:26:56
The Smokey Road 5K didn't take long at all - we were there and gone in less than an hour. We got to the Hargrove Lake Road intersection about 8:15 and parked looking down a hilly part of Crawford-Smithonia Road to the south.

It's an odd thing, but towns around here mostly seem to be named for people. Roads are named for the towns they go to, which means they change their names depending on where you are. No wonder, Georgia!, you say, and you could be right.

The first runners were starting up the hill at about the three-mile point, here. The cars are being respectful because a sheriff is leading the pack. Later they'll barely slow down.



The five front runners maintained their lead throughout, and in just about the order you see them here. The woman in back had a remarkable gait. These were very serious runners!



Clickable thumbnails: On the left, the Maraschino. It's much more difficult for Glenn (and me) to get into this truck. We worked out a system where all I have to do is get his front right foot onto the floor of the door well. He can then pull himself up, although in practice I usually gave him a push up. You notice the trash along the roadside. This was ubiquitous.

Center: a large cluster of runners. Here's where we were beginning to get silly. We had placed a slow/stop sign into a traffic cone behind the pumper, with the slow side warning drivers coming from Hargrove Lake Road. It had some effect. We resisted the notion of putting another sign into a cone in *front* of the truck, with "slow" facing the runners.

Right, we're doing our job, keeping the runners to the right going toward Devils Pond Road. Big nightmare - suppose we'd let them go to the left. I suppose we'd have been in trouble. Suppose we'd only let *some* of them go to the left. Oh my.




Restoration Run Part 1: Smokey Road 5K  -  @ 07:12:32
I took about a hundred photos of the race yesterday, from our special viewpoint as roadmarkers. Some were good, some not so much, but they tell a small neat story, I think. I believe I'll post a few of these in three installments over the course of the day.

Oglethorpe County's Fifth Annual Restoration Run went off very well yesterday, due to what was from our point of view excellent preparation and planning by those who did that. Although we were not involved in the planning, Glenn and I were at our appointed three stagings before the expected time and checked in with Cary (WFD Treasurer and one of the organizers) at the requested intervals. We can follow instructions!

The new old pumper is great to drive. I had driven it for the first time on Thursday night, fifteen miles, just to be sure (I kindly let the other enthusiasts have their fun at prior training meetings). A little slow going uphill, but that's to be expected when you're carrying four tons of water. We called 911 to take it out of service at 6:30, and proceeded on down the road. Note appropriately placed traffic cones and chocked wheel. We remembered to remove the chock later, too, instead of suffering the embarrassment of driving over it!

As you know, our old pumper was the Margaritaville, from her yellow-green paint job. Nothing pleased so many (though not me, particularly) more than that the new old pumper would be fire truck red. We've been mulling over names for the NOP. In keeping with the mixed drink tradition, Glenn and I considered, but then rejected Bloody Mary, and Tequila Sunrise. I now believe we should call the new one Maraschino.

Temperatures were probably in the mid 40s when the 5K race began at 7:30. That's cool, but much more pleasant than last year's 28 degF temperature! It was pretty foggy, and I made the mistake of taking the long lens instead of the regular one.



The 5K race took the runners 1.55 miles down Smokey Road, and then back to the Depot. Smokey Road - what to say about Smokey Road? It's the gateway to Garden Drive, takes off from US78 running parallel toward Crawford. It seems to have an inordinate number of first responder and other emergency calls. Let's just say it's no Sunset Boulevard, but then I'm no Norma Desmond either.

We were staged at the turnaround point, and so got the privileged position of viewing the front runners as they appeared halfway through, at about seven or eight minutes into the race. Number four was this young fellow on the left - 11 years old? 13? I don't yet know how he fared at the end - we were not ever in the position of being at the finish line.



Clickable thumbnails: on the left, a much better shot of #4 as he takes off after rounding the halfway mark. Center, Numbers One through Three - who were not all that much ahead, and demonstrate that there were some formidable participants. And last, a later cluster coming and going.

You'll note the vehicles. The roads were not shut down for the race - that would involve Georgia DOT for the state roads. Drivers were generally courteous from our limited viewpoint, but an awful lot of them talk on cell phones while they're driving.



Later in the morning, we got a little punchy, but this time we gave the last runners a respectful length of time to get well ahead, and then left Smokey Road for Hargrove Lake Road, four miles away. That was to be our second staging point at about the 1/3 mark for the 15K race, which was to start at 8:30am. And I think I'll post that in a second installment, a bit later today.

Friday: 20 November 2009

Faces in the Crowd  -  @ 06:10:33

Autumn colors are past peak here, but still hanging on sufficiently so as to present a fine sight. Not as fine as last year - this may have been due to a bout of rain just before and during peak, but still quite satisfying.

Long vistas hidden over the past seven months are opening up, too. That, combined with variability in autumn colors affords an interesting opportunity to perceive things invisible at a distance, at other times of the year.

Here, for instance, is Decumaria barbara, climbing hydrangea or (my favorite) woodvamp. We find it growing enthusiastically up trees anywhere close to water. Usually invisible in the glut of greenery unless you're looking closely for the tenacious and rootlet festooned climbing stems, it suddenly becomes obvious where every single specimen is to be found. The leaves turn a pale yellow or white, but they do so variably, so that you get a wild combo of green and other. I love this plant, and today I think I will do a count.



This was a startling observation. We have a lone bright yellow presenter among a mini world of reddish brown. What could it be?



It's a maple, presumably a red maple, but it could be a chalk maple. I'll have to bring a small branch up to see. What's relevant here is that not only did I not know there was only one maple in this area, I didn't realize that there weren't dozens. Our red maples are fairly common in all parts of the property, except, apparently, this one.



I'd already known this was an ununusual area, at the southernmost upper reaches of SBS Creek. We've talked about it before - there are mostly beeches and white oaks. It's a relatively ancient area in terms of human disturbance - the six large beeches are certainly a minimum of a century old, and more probably two, if not even older than that. There is a higher proportion of sourwoods than in other parts of the property. There are a few northern red oaks, but mostly those are to be found downstream. I should also note that there are very few sweetgums, which are to be found in dense numbers elsewhere.

No photo, but downstream a bit there is what I take to be a large northern red oak that still has green leaves, though they are just starting to turn. All the other northern red oaks, even those very close by, have completely turned. There are NRO lookalikes, so perhaps this is one.

Autumn isn't the only time that we can play this game - spring is another.

Wednesday: 18 November 2009

Saturday in Oglethorpe County  -  @ 08:41:07
Occasionally WFD is asked to participate in Oglethorpe County community events, and so on Saturday Glenn and I will run down to the station, pick up the tanker, and drive a few miles northeast into Crawford. The event is the Fifth Annual Restoration Run, a 5K and 15K race that celebrates the now impending restoration of the old railroad Depot in Crawford. It was a big deal in the mid 1800s, and a lot of folks, including WFD's own treasurer, worked hard over the past decade to make its restoration begin.



Our role is to sit halfway down Smokey Road and act as a marker so the runners don't run past their turnaround point. We're to be there at 7:15am. Then, around 9:15 pm we're supposed to drive along the route to Hargrove Lake Rd and Crawford-Smithonia Rd and sit there for an hour or two marking the spot for the 15K race, so the runners don't turn left and instead continue right toward Devils Pond community.

It's a pretty simple task. I'll take the camera, of course!

Something I hadn't known: the enigmatic Meriwether Lewis, of the Louis and Clark Expedition, grew up in Oglethorpe County, the Goosepond area of Oglethorpe County about 20 miles northeast of us, from the age of six. That's where he developed his love of nature and exploration. Now how cool is that? About as cool as a post I wrote Feb 2007 about our militia districts of 200 years ago. The name "Wolfskin" survives, but Louis, who died of apparently self-inflicted gunshot wounds at the age of 35, probably predated it by a couple of decades.

Of course, if you just happen to be flying into Crawford, GA (pop 800) early Saturday morning, you should stop by and say hi. We're not likely to be doing much other than waiting. During the first stretch, approach along Smokey Rd from the west - points east will be closed to traffic, I'd guess. And then after 9am, you'd have to come down Hargrove Lake Road from the northeast, for the same reason.

Here, I'll attach a clickable map! The two red dots mark our spots. Google's A dot marks the Depot, where the races begin and end.


Because of potentially inclement weather, I'll post a confirmation early Saturday morning, however at the moment things look reasonably good.


Tuesday: 17 November 2009

More Tiny Gardens  -  @ 04:52:44
The frequent rains this autumn have prompted at least some fungi, sleepy over the last few years, to present with fruiting bodies. Yesterday I ran across these bright little ascomycetes, emerging from a very rotten treefall in patches. The largest of them is only a half centimeter across.



Notice how the emergences are confined to the inner portion of the fallen tree. The feeding mass of mycelium seems to be uninterested in the cork part of the bark, which has fallen away in places, to reveal the bright yellow ascocarps. Instead it goes after the inner xylem.

It's a good thing they were so easy to find on the internet, since they weren't listed in my Audubon at all. They're Bisporella citrina, lemon drops or yellow fairy cups, and that's a link to some very nice photographs of the fungus, as well as a vague lookalike.

Notice how there seem to be various stages of shapes here. The youngest emergences seem to have a rounded top, which begins to dimple in. Eventually that dimple achieves the cup shape that's typical of many ascomycetes.

But what are those grayish cups?




The photographs often yield details that my eyes don't catch.

This cut catches a few yellow cups in transition to a gray stage, which may be the sporulating stage, or may be senescent fruiting bodies. Or both. At any rate the gray cups seem to be the same species, and not a different one.


Not that there *couldn't* be a different species that commonly grows alongside this one. Blue stain fungus, Chlorociboria aeruginescens, as the very nice combo photo at that link shows. I'll have to revisit and see if that's the case here.


Monday: 16 November 2009

Microhabitat  -  @ 05:09:31

Saturday's walk took me past a fallen hornbeam whose base has been sticking up in the air for years now. I'd just never taken a close look before at this little tableau that sits about three feet above the ground, relatively isolated.

Just take a small indentation in the trunk, a few years of weather that decorks the bark, and a little bit of soil accumulates. I suppose fallen leaves and other detritus, perhaps pollen and dust, remains of moss from the little community that has been enlarging for some time, and an environment that has been kept relatively moist has produced a little substrate.

The straggly plant that has taken root is probably a bit undernourished. You don't get too much in the way of nutrients from fallen leaves, but some probably does make its way in from tiny invertebrate animal poop and carcasses.



Straggly though it is, it did produce this elegant little fruit, and managed to nurture 37 seeds. The pedicel is still moist and fleshy, so the fruit has not been hanging around for long.

We're always told that one of the differences between dicots and monocots is that it's the latter whose flowers and fruits come in threes, or multiples of threes. So the three-valved capsule is a little odd for the dicot that the leaves tell us that this plant is.

While I don't know what species, the rosette of leaves and capsule say that it is a violet.


And it must have flowered in late summer for the fruit to still retain the seeds - they look awfully precarious in there. Violets generally flower in the spring, but there is one species around here that flowers a little later in the summer. It might be Sweet White Violet, Viola blanda.

And now the seeds will fall out, blown or washed by the rain. The base overhangs the big gully, so some at least will fall onto the steep bank, perhaps washed into a torrent that forms after a heavy winter rainfall. That torrent may take the seed downhill into SBS Creek, and then maybe into Goulding Creek. It's not unimaginable that the seed could find its way into the Oconee River, and maybe as much as several hundred miles away by next spring.


Thursday: 12 November 2009

Caveat Emptor  -  @ 08:48:29
From our friends at Lovely Listing, who clearly do not appreciate the benefits of a tesseract, the Maze House:



So what if the second story doors open up into open space? So what if every added section looks like it might find itself in Riemann space with the slightest vibration?

I find the house charming. I'm reminded of R. Heinlein's short story from 1941 - And He Built a Crooked House. His is an oddly shaped house to begin with, certainly, much like this one, but a small earthquake knocks it into multiple dimensions, with curious effects. Doors open up into places you'd really rather not go although you may not have much choice if you get too close. Windows overlook alien vistas. Go up the stairs and you end up in the basement.

You know, the usual thing, sort of like this little self-indulgent fantasy of three years ago, when I gave directions to my house, with adequate warnings. I got a little kick out of the reread, as I usually do when I revisit something from three years ago, and wonder exactly what plane of existence was I on? Why, the one that still makes me laugh!



If you go to the actual listing, it appears that it's a fixer upper - built in 1986 it still has tape along the garishly painted walls. That might cause the weak-kneed to blanch, but not me, and I hope not you.

I'm really wondering about the porthole in the added-on section at the right. Do you think it might look out onto the surface of Jupiter? I hope they used double pane glass!

And if so, do you think the windows face south? I like windows to face south. I don't care for them to face up, or down.


Wednesday: 11 November 2009

Land of Extremes  -  @ 07:47:40

The wind is still gusting, but with the rain essentially over, our Ida assist has netted us 4.2 inches of rain in the last 28 hours. That's more than we usually get in the entire month of November. But wait, there's more:

Sep-Nov are normally our three driest months, averaging 9.9 inches of rain.

Since Sep 1 we've measured 21.7 inches of rain here in Wolfskin; official Athens figure is 22.9 inches. With twenty days left to go in November, we've already exceeded any Sep-Nov total since 1920. Only 1957 (21.8 inches) and 2004 (20.1 inches) come close. In that three months alone we've had just a bit under half our normal annual average of 48.4 inches, and for the year to date, 51.4 official inches.

Despite all that, we'll have to work hard for the next seven weeks to top the record annual rainfall of 72.4 inches in 1929. It seems silly to imagine that we could get two more feet of rain in 2009. Doesn't it?


Tuesday: 10 November 2009

Matters of Water  -  @ 07:13:55
Ida may no longer exist as a hurricane but it's been making its effects known here since yesterday morning, Monday. Up until that point the weather sites showed bright happy smiley sunny faces. That was wiped away suddenly by gloomy cloud faces featuring 100% chance of rain into tomorrow, and that rain began a few hours ago. Predictions are 3-5-8"!

And here it was that I had just recently noted how we haven't had any tropical storms this season! In fact, we've had very little rain from tropical storms over the last few years, and that's a significant component to our rainfall over the course of a year. This will be the first real contribution since probably 2005.

What better time than now, then, to get back to the inventory, which after all invokes the idea of water. I've just about gotten all the tabulations done now, and have been back to the station several times to gather more data. The rate limiting step has been getting information back from the firefighters on their turnout gear serial numbers. Just two items mainly - turnout jacket and pants, since they total over a thousand dollars just in themselves. A fully dressed out firefighter complete with SCBA pack and air tank, with radio and pager, will be wearing about six thousand dollars of equipment (more than half of it is in the SCBA).

That's one of the benefits of doing an inventory - finding out just how frigging expensive just about all these items are. Paging through a firefighting supplier catalog is instructive - we get them regularly and folks take them home for bathroom reading material.

So let's use the turnout coat and pants - that's all - as a basic unit of cost: your basic PPE unit, and take a look at a few items that do, after all, occur in nature.

Each of the two items below, for instance, can run you a basic PPE unit. Yet we couldn't do without several of the first, and wouldn't want to do without the second one. In fact, we'd *love* to have a second one of the second one for the pumper, and for the second year in a row I'm going to be suggesting we get it.

On the left is a wye. A 3" hose goes into it at top and two 1.5" hoses exit at the bottom. You can pretty easily handle a 1.5" hose at full pressure so we use those as attack lines. But 3" lines will launch you into space - it takes a really big person to handle one of those.

Long lengths of 1.5" hose exert a large friction loss in pressure, so it's nice to be able to use 3" hose, where friction losses are much lessened, to get you where you want to be, and then split it into two 1.5" lines once you've gotten there! That little contraption lets you do it.

On the right you've got a hydrant valve. How many of you have opened up a water hydrant? They don't open easily, and it's pretty exhausting having to open and close them repeatedly with a hydrant wrench, round and round and round until finally the stream starts. That's what you'd have to do if you were repeatedly filling up a line of trucks, something that occasionally happens.

With the hydrant valve, you just open up the hydrant once after clearing it (they all run muddy at first). Then you use the valve thereafter. Some have split outputs so you can do two or more things at once, but we don't have one of those.



(As it turns out, none of our responsibile area has piped water accessible via hydrant, at least not close to houses. We do have access to a couple of hydrants that are several miles away, and use those to fill the trucks, but not to directly put water on a fire.)

Below are two pieces of equipment that go paired: hose and nozzle. The former will run you a tenth of PPE per 50 feet, and we usually carry 500 feet just behind the truck cabs. That's the 1.5" hose - the 3" hose doubles the cost per 50 feet length. We carry close to 1200 feet of that on the top bed of the pumper. This stuff is supposed to be tested at 400 psi every year, although we never run it at more than 150 psi.

The nozzles can set you back a full PPE unit. They're lovely devices, and you need a 1.5" and 3" nozzle for each hose size. We carry several of these on each truck, mostly 1.5". You can dial the gallons per minute, and change the spread of the stream from full stream to fog. It's very nice to stand behind the fog stream on a hot summer day!



And, by the way, you can empty a 1000-gallon pumper in a minute or two with a 3" hose running at 150 psi! Or, you can fill it from a hydrant running at about the same pressure.

And finally, below, two examples of a vast variety of couplings and adapters:

We have quite a few of these things - couplings and adapters of all shapes and sizes. When you're working with other fire departments, you never know when you're going to have to do the unexpected, such as fit the male end of a hose onto a truck's male output port (the sin that dare not speak its name, but sometimes you do what you gotta do). For something like that you'd need a female to female adapter. Or you might want to put a 1.5" hose onto a 3" truck output. Then you need something like the one on the left, female to fit onto the truck's male part, and then a reduction to the 1.5" male fitting.

Couplings are usually threaded, but there are a variety of exit ports that use "Storz connections." These are mostly large diameter, 5" or 6," and meant to be used with flexible or stiff hose of the same size. They're very fast couplings - just twist to lock in place - but since small diameter hoses use threaded coupling, you need a Storz to threaded reducing adapter like the one on the right. The Storz part, probably 6," is facing us, and the threaded adapter to which the hose will go is in back.

(Actually, looking at it, that's a pretty big diameter threaded female in the back. To be used to connect a 1.5" hose, you'd need another reducing adapter down to 1.5," and then at some point a female to male adapter. By convention hoses are always female at the truck, and male at the nozzle end. Nozzles, then, are always female ; - )  .)

Couplings and adapters on the left are relatively cheap, running a tenth of a PPE unit. Storz adapters are considerably more expensive - say a quarter to a half a PPE unit.



These are just the tips of the iceberg of what we're having to inventory, but they're also items we use all the time. We've been fortunate, since our earlier primitive set of equipment was vastly augmented by the purchase four or five years ago from a couple of FEMA grants that our then chief Phyllis wrote and was awarded. That means there's a good paper record, since she and our treasurer have been meticulous in keeping records. The individual records are still rather scattered though, and most not on a spreadsheet, but in folders on paper. Getting it all together is what I'm doing, basically. That's what happens when most of the department isn't familiar with using excel, or perhaps for some, even a computer.



Sunday: 8 November 2009

Woo  -  @ 06:53:37

Blue Mars is the third book in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy. The trilogy begins with Red Mars, a treatment of the early years of the settlement of Mars, the introduction of the First Hundred who will largely populate the rest of the stories, and the conflicts between the two extremes in the terraforming of Mars. Green Mars continues with the revolution for independence from Earth, the terraforming of Mars over the next half century, and the conflicts between the Reds and Greens. And Blue Mars concludes with the resolution between those who wish to terraform Mars completely, and those who wish it left as it is.

And that's about as cruelly brief and incomplete a summary as could be made, since to do otherwise would require pages of exposition. The Wikipedia article is quite a good synopsis.

I've mentioned the Mars trilogy before in the manner of picking out one of these ideas (the timeslip), and that's pretty much what I will do here. Robinson introduces and elaborates on so many things that it's just about impossible to do a review. So let's just choose one of his many ideas: longevity.


The First Hundred are beginning to get a little creaky, and it's on Mars that the longevity treatments are developed. There is no reason now why anyone can't live to be a thousand years old, and if you've developed the characters to this point, you might like them to. This doesn't pose on the lightly settled Mars quite the problem that it does on Earth, with its fifteen billion, but that's just the beginning.

So by the time of Blue Mars, the surviving members of the First Hundred are nearing the end of their second century, and beginning to experience some disturbing mental aberrations. All are associated with bizarre memory dysfunction.

Most familiar to us is déjà vu, which I suppose most of us experience fleetingly from time to time. The longevity pioneers, however, begin to suffer from it constantly, along with prolonged bouts of the sibling phenomena jamais vu and presque vu. There's something in the French phrasing of phenomena so related and symmetric that delights me. The words "uncanny," "weird," "startling sensation," and "unmistakable" were made for this.

Déjà vu (already seen) is the uncanny feeling that one has already experienced the current moment. I occasionally get it, and it's a truly interesting sensation. Some find it disturbing, and I imagine that if your experience of it went beyond a few seconds that it would be. Me? I just go, "oh wow." There's a wonderful long 2006 New York Times Magazine essay on déjà vu, and its more extreme fraternal twin déjà vécu (already lived through). Attempts at explaining déjà vu suffer from the inability to replicate the phenomenon on command, but usually involve a mismatch in timing between the extremely short term memory of what one is sensing, and the conscious mind's processing of it.

Jamais vu (never seen) is the feeling that a perfectly ordinary experience, perhaps one that has occurred hundreds of times, has just been encountered for the first time. Say, or write, the word "door," over and over. At some point it will suddenly sound like something totally alien. That's an approximation of jamais vu for you. And again, the sensation of it is unmistakable.

Presque vu (almost seen) is otherwise rendered as "tip of the tongue." It's that memory you know is there but that you can't quite retrieve. We all know it, surely, and it's often referred to as a "senior moment." More interesting though is the sensation when it finally comes to you. It is literally like something has clicked into place. In its most extreme manifestation it's like being on the edge of realizing some epiphany. The flip side of that, and most disappointing, is that the epiphany is not realized.

Not exactly an epiphany, but I went to bed the other night, for some reason thinking of an obscure Civil War movie that involved a girls' school in the South, a wounded Yankee soldier, and poisoning the latter with mushrooms at the end. What was the name of that movie - it's just on the "tip of my tongue." During the night, I probed this memory, and I distinctly remember going through it over and over, and suddenly: "The Beguiled." Oh, wow! Presque vu!

Of these, it's only jamais vu that I've had no real experience with, other than the odd feeling I get when a word is repeated over and over and suddenly seems unfamiliar. Eventually Robinson has the longevity treatment fine-tuned to solve the problem, more or less, but I can't imagine experiencing these phenomena on a constant ongoing basis. It would drive you nuts!

On longevity: it crops up now and then in science fiction, but usually as an incidental fact. The other treatment that immediately comes to mind is Isaac Asimov's, which I gave a glancing blow here and here. Asimov's contention was that human society could not endure lifespans of centuries. In his "Spacer" society, conceived over 50 years ago, the first wave of colonists choose to live up to four hundred years. Spread thinly over fifty worlds, the Spacers did not survive it. In that case there was no longevity treatment, per se; it was a matter of genetics and lifestyle. It was his contention that long lifespans would stultify progress and smother innovation, and he smote his Spacers most definitively. Robinson hasn't told us what happens beyond the first two centuries of life, but I get the impression that he will find a way out.


Wednesday: 4 November 2009

Another "Unmistakeable" Fungus  -  @ 07:06:36

I ran across this very large pretty, about a foot across, yesterday. It's at the right foreground, just off the base of a large sweetgum in an area dominated by oak. The location is at the top of the hardwood rise, so it's well drained and relatively dry.



The only real candidate I can find is chicken mushroom, aka chicken of the woods (Laetiporus spp.) There are a number of species in this genus, and even within a species the range of appearance is very broad. (The only other candidate I could find is another polypore, hen of the woods, Grifola frondosa, but the color is completely wrong for that species.)

Someday I may find a mushroom or fungus that isn't so perverse as to offer appearance contrary to every example I can find of what I think it must be, but this is not the day.

Just about every image I find that comes close shows just the opposite color scheme, an orange body with yellow edges instead of what we see here. And just about every image shows the brackets emerging from the trunk of a tree, rather than sitting on the ground. When on the ground, the comment is usually made that the fungus is emerging from a large underground buttress or root, which may be the case here too.



I even considered chanterelles, which are abundant here, but we have none at the moment and I've never seen them growing in a cluster in this manner. I'd be very surprised if this were a chanterelle.

So as usual, I'll have to leave it up to one more expert than I. I've never seen chicken of the woods in ours, and it would be nice to know. It's apparently a delicious polypore, and very productive although it's also a tree killer.

Noteworthy: cooking is essential and even so some have allergic reactions. Chicken of the woods growing out of conifers is not edible and shouldn't be eaten.


Monday: 2 November 2009

The Month of October  -  @ 06:32:37
It's The Month of October, Number 45 in a series, and what a month! Pacific storms, seasonally frigid weather in much of the US, deluges in most of the same locations, and an inactive north Atlantic hurricane season that has embarrassed last spring's hurricane prognosticators all point to an El Niño winter. In some places, particularly the central and southeastern US, the extremes of September continued. In others, such as the western states, they eased, or even reversed to the opposite extreme.

From the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, this is a plot of mean temperature anomalies for the US. That's the difference in the average temperature for this October above or below the average for October over many years, plotted in colors. The anomalies are in Fahrenheit.



After an unusually warm September, the northern tier of states from the Pacific to the Great Lakes experienced much cooler than usual temperatures by up to 7 degF below normal. To a lesser extent that was also true for the Rockies westward. The northeastern states continued the mild temperatures that they experienced in August and September, as did much of the eastern US. That cold center in the central US, with 2-4 degF cooler weather covering TX, OK, MO, and KS in September, just got colder in October. For the most part, the eastern states didn't notice much in the way of temperature extremes.

The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center seems to have finally stabilized the location of their precipitation plots here.



Except for the continued dry in the southwestern US and in much of Florida, things were normal to wet wet wet elsewhere, in October. The Pacific states, and with that one noteworthy southern California exception received at least normal rainfall, if not more than usual. The northern third of the US must have felt considerable drought relief.

I haven't checked, but it looks like the central US has had a long period now of very wet and relatively cold weather.

For Athens:

I dithered about whether to show a plot of high or low temperatures, and in the end it was, as in September, the case that October in Athens was nothing remarkable, temperature-wise.

Here is my plot of low temperatures, since they seemed marginally more germane this time around, for the month of October in Athens. (It seemed appropriate to present high temperatures this time.) As usual, the black dots are for the 18 years 1990-2007 (black dots), 2009 (green line), and 2008 (red line).



We broke one low temperature record here in October, on the 19th, with 33 degF that morning (34 degF in 1948 ). To provide some contrast, we had warmer than usual temperatures in the first half of the month, and again in the latter third.

We had 2 days of high temperatures that was at least one standard deviation higher than average, and the usual number of such days is 4.6. We had 5 nights below the standard deviation for our usual lows, compared to 5.7 such nights, so it's hard to say that that's significant.

That's where unremarkable ends. In October we had a repetition of the rains of September. The episodes didn't reach the levels of extremity as we saw in the Atlanta area, but cumulatively the monthly total once again approached three-fold normal.

The figure below shows the Athens data which are official for our area. As usual the green line shows our actual rainfall, the red shows the average accumulation expected. The black dots are rainfall over the last 19 years, the vast river of peach shows the standard deviation. That huge amount of blue in the latter two-thirds of the month sums it all up: a huge surplus.



Official figures for rainfall in Athens are for 9.86 inches in September and 9.02 inches in October, compared to 3.53 and 3.19 inches, close to 3 times normal. Here in Wolfskin we got 8.59 and 8.87 inches, respectively. Overall, with 17.4-18.8 inches, we've had not quite half, but still way over a third of our annual rainfall in the two driest months of the year.

And so here's what I've been following as my main indicator of recovery from the drought, the accumulation of rainfall over the last several years. The blue line is the important one, and the upswing at the lower right is what I want you to look at. Since the drought began in late 2006 we've gone from nearly 30 inches below normal two months ago to less than 18 inches below normal, recovering about 40% of the water that didn't fall for three years. Wow!



I'll continue to link to this neat prognosticator in which you can get variously timed precipitation and temperature outlooks. El Niño seems to be having an effect now, and you might want to check that out. The current 1-3 month option shows us having unremarkable weather, other than cooler and wetter temperatures. I smell snow!

Geekstuff:
NOAA's weekly ENSO update has not changed since last month. We're now well into an El Niño event of at least modest proportions. It has continued to intensity, and is projected to last well into winter 2009-10.

A word about hurricane season, which ends for the north Atlantic November 30. Has there been one? Very little. This year has been the most inactive season on record, tying with 1982. It's probably noteworthy that 1982-1983 sported one of the most intense El Niños on record. I've checked the discussions on each Invest that has appeared this season, and in each case the comments have been the same: strong wind shear discourages the development of tropical storms. That's an El Niño feature.

Relive your favorite weather events of the year 2009, courtesy of NOAA. NOAA has a neat State of the Climate product. By clicking on the year, such as 2009, you can get to monthly and even weekly reports and zero in on regional descriptions that are much nicer than my own.



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