Friday Nature UNK

So outdoor observers: what fruit on yonder tree?

Admittedly, this is a crappy picture, taken through the window of my car, stopped briefly on a county road and having not gone unnoticed by a nearby barking porch dog.

I think you can see enough to make the ID.

UNK is shorthand for Unknown, of course, not the brother of your father or mother.

Snot Otters To Be Proud Of

Some 50-60 folks (mostly from nearby Blacksburg I think) gathered in the damp gloom of the Rising Silo Brewery in the rain for the first gathering of the “Tap into Science” group.

The focal point was the Eastern Hellbender (or Snot Otter or Old LasagnaSides, or…) as presented to the group by Dr. Bill Hopkins,  a principal researcher on this creature in the southeast.

I learned a lot, the most encouraging of which perhaps is that the abilities to monitor and track the lives and health of this creature has come a long way since I took herpetology just after the last ice age.

Artificial nesting boxes (in the second video) are being successfully placed, occupied and monitored and individual adults chip-tracked. We will hopefully learn much to reduce the discouraging current losses of these largest of amphibians due to habitat changes and other causes that are preventing young from thriving.


Power of Music

John McCutcheon last night at the Country Store told about the time in his early 20s when he set out on a three-month “self-study” of the banjo players of Southwest Virginia.

Some of those he ended up visiting with were student-friends of mine, jamming in the snack bar at Wytheville Community College.  I was new faculty, 27 at the time; he would have been 23.

Our kids grew up with his music–in particular, the Birthday song, which he noted last night was written by Floyd resident musician, Tina Liza Jones.

The most enthralling  moments in his rich and varied story-telling and performance came from the hammered dulcimer–at which he is certainly one of the most gifted musicians of our times.

Serving suggestion: just LISTEN. Don’t watch. Submerge yourself in the music–of Leviathan.

Right to a Nature-Rich Childhood

I happened across this piece I’d written some years back–for Blog Action Day maybe–and thought it might have a place in what used to be the book I was writing and compiling from odd bits here and there that might deserve to see the light of day.

So I posted it at today. Go there to read:

The Right To a Nature-Rich Childhood

Parts South

Two weeks ago this morning I was in high clover–among vegetation and birdlife unlike anything around here, that’s for sure.

Sarasota is another world, and on a beautiful balmy morning surrounded by herons and ibises and spoonbills and ducks and…

It was really the first time I’ve been able to use the long-lens function of the camera I got only last August. So here’s a gallery of images in a slide show. Or click them individually at the gallery link here. 

What’s a Forest For?

Part Two of a four-part series on Forests’ Future, published in Floyd Press starting March 30.

What goes missing when a clearcut takes everything away from our ridges, slopes or valleys?

Extensive and prolonged logging so close to home was not just a personal concern. It was a community matter, too. Taking away the forest cover over many acres of steep mountain land impacts drinking water—if not mine, then a neighbor’s. Our valley floor’s residential wells may draw some or much of their volume from the fractured rock under the adjacent deforested and herbicide-sprayed acreage.

Understandably, it disturbed me to learn about the many hundreds of gallons of herbicides that wafted widely in the prop-wash of a helicopter. We didn’t know of this until months later, and then only because I had asked. Do those chemicals really break down and leave no residue to persist in our groundwater? How can we know that for sure?

Any given logged acre is subject to a sudden and drastic biological disruption. This is especially true if it has been clearcut. The moisture and temperature of the soil surface, once shaded and blanketed with leaf litter, is altered profoundly.

Once a sponge for rainfall, the newly-bare and disturbed ground will not absorb or hold a heavy rainfall like humus does. A drenching storm instead will send water and topsoil across the surface into the nearest muddied tributary—in our case the Roanoke River.

I tried to imagine what was going out of this community with each log that passed our houses on the countless tandem-trailer loads of poplar and pine.  The total of what was exported included the hundreds of gallons of rainwater still in each horizontal poplar or pine saw log when it fell (equal to about 45% of its green weight). Also lost, the minerals extracted by the roots, now being carried away by the ton around the bend in each log’s fibers and fluids.

Calculate among the hidden costs of lost forests the oxygen that the leaves will no longer breathe out as the living tree had done over its forty or more summers growing in place. Especially consider the CO2 it kept bound for decades in its trunk and roots. Subtract from the ledger of former benefits the shade, the absent humus layer, the lost cooling and obliterated living conditions for a host of tree and ground-dwelling animals.

I thought especially about the fate of countless salamanders (some of you might call them spring lizards) who hold a special place in my biologist’s heart. If somehow spared from the machinery treads and log-felling, they are now bereft of shade and hiding places, trapped in place to perish by their short legs and their requirement for constant moisture if they are to move over land to intact forest homes.

Sad. These small and rarely-seen amphibians are essential in the food webs of many forest animals. Lost biodiversity is perhaps the most irreplaceable and tragic cost of hundreds of thousands of national acres of deforested landscape.

And so it makes me wonder: Is “the forest” an ecosystem of relationships that can provide both fiber and essential environmental services that regulate the water, the oxygen, the carbon dioxide and the mix of plant and animal variety it harbors?

Or will the forest of the future be merely a wooded abstraction, little more than another crop managed with high efficiency, with profit in mind and the invisible costs to all of us ignored? The choice is ours.

I was alarmed to think about the fate of the small shrubs and trees now missing from the naked ridge above us. Where had they gone? The stumps had even vanished! Was it possible that they were already being pulverized into wood pellets (forestry biomass) to reach cargo ships on their way to energy plants in Europe? Were US energy utilities like Dominion already turning forests into fuel? Honestly, answering these questions was my chief motive to explore the matter and write out my concerns here in the first place.

In the third part of this series, we will consider the potential consequences of pellets being exported from Floyd County’s and other southeast forests for domestic or foreign use. In part four, we’ll look at some of the options that might provide benefits and profit from standing or sustainably-harvested mixed woods that do not sacrifice the forest for the trees.