iNaturalist helps ID our neighbors

“What’s that fungus?”

I recently downloaded the latest version of the “iNaturalist” app. Armed with nothing but a smartphone, it allows users to identify everything from mushrooms to macaws to maples. This species-identification app available for iPhone or Android, as well as a traditional website.

So far, 553,981 users have submitted 7,356,302 observations, identifying 128,202 species.

I was going to write a blog post about it, but I found a very well-written and concise review/recommendation in the New York Times Magazine, so I’ll send you there instead! Click here or below…

reflection on Fossil Free Fast by Albert Escanilla, campus minister at Ancilla College

My colleague Albert Escanilla, Campus Minister of Ancilla College, joined us for our Fossil Free Fast watch party. It’s been a pleasure working with him and learning from his work and reflections. He wanted to share this with the readers of this blog:

It is nearing a week since I joined the Center at Donaldson Fossil Fuel Fast Watch Party, and yet the messages mentioned still strongly resonates within me. I am unsure where exactly it has taken its roots, as I pondered: was the feeling of wanting to stay longer, but needed to attend to family responsibilities, or that I already filled up my Honda Fit twice full tank this week after selectively looking for the cheapest gas station, or was it the failed attempt again to walk to the grocery store this week because of the single digit temperature? I am certain it was the combination, but at the very essence, it is the inability to accept that I cannot escape our fossil fuel hungry society, and “living off the grid” is not an option at the moment.

Therefore, with such acceptance, I have alleviated these internal uneasiness and desire to escape, by altering my perspectives in our mass fossil fuel consumption issue. One’s mindfulness and diligence in daily choices when pertaining to the ecosystem should be practiced. These entails simple choices with noticeable results, and even more so monumental with time and when practiced as a community. Some of these daily things are bringing ones’ own water bottle, inflating car tires to the appreciate PSI in accordance to weather (increase fuel efficiency) and proper disposals of hazardous household materials (batteries and paint). There are ample things that are within our control, and the more we can share these practices with others, the more our eco-minded communities will flourish.

Thus, as the article concludes with the quote, “Rome wasn’t built in a day…but they were laying bricks every hour”, and our future will be dependent on “how quickly we decided to lay these bricks”; I would like to contribute to our endeavors with the idea of increasing our “eco-likeminded bricklaying communities”, beginning with ourselves to  further hastening the paving of our 21st century eco-friendly Pax Romana.

”It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers’ not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

-excerpt from Bishop Ken Untener of Sagnaiw’s Archebishop Oscar Romero Prayer: A Step Along the Way

SpaceX launch

On Tuesday, SpaceX executed a test flight of their new (and enormous) Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral.

The rocket boosters are reusable. You read that right.

If you want to see how they get them back (or if they even did!), I highly recommend setting aside 34 minutes of time and watching the entire launch.

If you don’t have the time, here’s the story, but I highly recommend the video.

You’ll also figure out what is going on in the photo below (seriously, it’s not fake).


(Here’s the official SpaceX page).

Fossil Free Fast watch party

Last night we all got to stay up past our bedtime to watch “Fossil Free Fast”, a live watch party where we heard from a variety of speakers who are working for a just and rapid transition away from fossil fuels. Despite the late hour, we had a turn out of about 30 folks: Sisters, community leaders, retirees, and a student.

(As most are aware, climate change is well-documented within the scientific community, where it has been accepted for many years across many disciplines. The consequences for human communities and ecological systems vary, but from what we are now seeing, they are overwhelmingly negative with the potential to become quite catastrophic. I would encourage everyone to find time to read the executive summary from the 2017 Climate Science Special Report).

The full Fossil Free Fast video presentation can be found here.

The initiative was hosted by 350.org, but we heard from a wide-array of speakers. I was particularly impressed by the diversity of the lineup. For a long time, the environmental movement was overwhelming a white, upper-middle class concern. But as we’ve seen in NW Indiana and elsewhere, environmental racism is real.

Any movement towards justice is inevitably going to “intersect” with these other fractures in our society. A speaker from Puerto Rico detailed how the 2017 hurricanes compounded their long history of disinvestment and colonialism. A young women from Houston described how being undocumented made looking for aid after the hurricane that much more difficult.

The challenge to grassroots communities was simple and three-fold:

  1. Transform the energy system to 100% renewables
  2. Stop all new fossil fuel projects
  3. Divest our financial institutions from fossil fuel investment

In other words, Sun (solar energy), Sit (in the way of new fossil fuel projects), and Sell (divest our portfolios).

I’ll admit that’s a pretty clever little phrase.

These three points have been considered for many years as a hopeless pipe dream and the cause of many eye-rolls. There simply was no economic, technological, or cultural way to fulfill such an ambitious dream.

All that has changed in just the last couple years.

People are no longer discussing “If…” they are discussing “When…”. It’s now becoming abundantly clear that this transition will happen this century. The long and short of it is that you can’t beat free fuel. (See this article: Utility CEO: new renewables will be cheaper than existing coal plants by the early 2020s)

So the question is: will this transition happen rapidly? Or will the fossil fuel companies be successful in delaying the inevitable long enough to extract even more short-term profits at the expense of the health of the planet? It seems now that that is the question we are forced to ask.

After the presentation, our conversations turned local.

We reflected on the challenges we have in Indiana. We have some of the dirtiest air in the state, but it’s not really visible and not connected in people’s minds to the acute health issues like asthma, heart disease, and low birth weights. We produce a lot of food and manufactured goods, but these also have significantly impacts on our water quality and soil health. Our electricity is cheap, but it’s still mostly fueled by coal and the utility companies have no problem finding legislators willing to pass preferred legislation in the statehouse.

One local leader described her frustration at trying to access important environmental data on the EPA’s website. Lots of information had been simply removed during the recent change in Presidential administrations (more on the story broke recently). Just this morning I read about the administration’s desire to slash research into renewable energy, this at a time when it needs to be scaled up.

But I was also reminded of the wisdom, experience, and work that was present with us as well. And the hope and the energy we received from the event that evening.

In the end, I took a breath considered the deep history of the Poor Handmaids, who are celebrating their 150th year in the United States. I was reminded of the adage, “Rome wasn’t build in a day.”

I found online a clever addition to that phrase: “…but they were laying bricks every hour.”

How the 21st century looks may depend on how quickly we decide to lay these bricks.

mosquitoes… in January?!

Monday, January 8, I went for a walk in one of our woods. We have a hunting program to keep deer populations in check. It’s a part of my due diligence to keep an eye on the land, check deer stands, look for anything out of place, etc.

I’m also learning that returning back to the land over and over is also key to the intuitive side of land management.

As a land steward, I try to be a stickler about scientific data driving my decision making process. Wishful thinking should be held to the piercing light of analysis. Easy assumptions and persistent cognitive biases should be challenged.

However, actionable data is so costly to come by because of the inherent complexity of ecological communities. So we have to fall back on broad principles that have stood the test of time, like “do no harm” and “diversity is good”.

Aldo Leopold wrote Ecology’s Golden Rule: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” You could do much worse than starting and ending with that.

Coyote junction

Walking the land connects the body with the mind. It merges the statistical confidence intervals with the coyote tracks. The light, foliage, and soil feel different in each season. Communities change. Our stewardship has to be adaptive to these changes, but in order to observe them we need to be present, looking.

It also allows for serendipity, and the chance for new questions to arise.

Questions like, “Is that a MOSQUITO????!!!”

No way.

I quickly snapped a photo. Then I lifted up the chunk of snow and watched the insect fly away.

There are a few look-alikes. I know common Crane Fly species are much larger (and also harmless, so stop swatting them!). I needed a refresher on Midges, so I did some Googling. Based on the body vs. wing length, signs seem to be pointing towards mosquitoes.

January 8 was the first warm day in a long time, upper 30’s and 100% sunny. It felt almost hot. Looking at the weather records, the temperature had not been above freezing for over two weeks, and had dipped as low as -20 degree F. Open water sources had to have been scant, if any were available at all (although I do know that several farm animals were within a mile and of course were provided with fresh water).

Surely all the flying critters must have been frozen to death?!

Oh no, life has been here before. Life is resilient.

Mosquitoes and midges, like other insects, employ any and all manner of survival strategies, overwintering as eggs, larvae, or even adults. Many insects make antifreeze in their tissues, or just freeze solid and thaw out later. Winter strategies differ between mosquito species, and even sometimes between sex. The female Culex pipens mosquito stores up fat and overwinters in a quasi-hibernating state called diapause. Not fun, perhaps, but better than the male, which simply dies (see this NPR article for more, as well as a great piece about winter survival from The Prairie Ecologist).

Life will continue to adapt to the new world we are shaping. I heard recently at a conference that scientists are expecting that fire ants will start surviving winters in southern Indiana during my lifetime.

We would do good to continue walking the land, watching, waiting, and asking if our stewardship is indeed preserving “the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.”

 

A squirrel recently excavated her cached acorns. She must have had a thing for right angles.

what is a year worth?

Logically, Jan. 1 is just an arbitrary point on the Gregorian calendar for which to celebrate the annual circumnavigation of our warm nuclear furnace. But that’s okay, as there is no point around the sun that is any more privileged than another. Numbering the days is how we mark our place in the space-time continuum. It reminds us of our own limited existence, and pushes us to be more intentional and reflective, more thankful and forgiving.

“Earthrise” from the Apollo 8 mission, Dec. 24, 1968. The crew finished the evening reading from the book of Genesis.

A year, by definition, is solar-centered. A year on Earth is 8760 hours, during which our planet rotates on our tilted axis a bit more than 365 times. The speed of Earth’s rotation is what sets our circadian rhythms at 24 hours.

But a year on Mercury is only 88 days, less than a single season on our planet. During it’s trip around the sun, it rotates slowly, only once every 59 Earth days.

Earth’s 23.5 degree tilt gives us the seasons. Without it, every day on every space on earth would have 12 hrs of sun and 12 of darkness (though right at the two poles, the sun would be endlessly circling the horizon). Temperatures at a given place would be relatively stable throughout the year. Needless to say, life would be very different. The four seasons of winter, spring, summer, and fall are quite pronounced in the Midwestern United States, going from deadly heatwaves to deadly cold spells (it is currently -20 deg F windchill in Plymouth).

If you have ever spun a top on a table, you have noticed there is often a slight wobble. These are quick wobbles, happening several times per second but still perceptible to our senses. The Earth is also wobbling, tough it was imperceptible until humans used modern science to discover a 41,000-year wobble. Slight oscillations in the axis of our tilt has triggered climate changes throughout our planet’s history.

So, another year.

A single year brings little change to this stream in the Smoky Mountains, but a LOT of change for this little human.

We humans are faced with the challenge of using our brain power to discern the truth in our world, when these truths are often very surprising and counter-intuitive. Our brains have trouble wrapping themselves around these points of cognitive dissonance, and the speed and scale at which these new insights are revealed.

One of the major challenges is understanding what the passage of a single year can mean on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old.

For humans, it is about scale and speed.

Scale: there are 7.6 billion humans, and we feed and care for 20 billion chickens, 1.9 billion sheep, 1.4 billion cattle, and 1 billion pigs. Together we now use a full 1/4 of the world’s vegetation, doubling over the last 100 years.

The ever-brilliant science comic, XKCD (https://xkcd.com/1338/).

The speed at which technology has advanced in the last 100 trips around the sun has greatly increased our species’ ability to change the planet.

Within those 100 trips, we have built extensive economic systems around the extraction and burning of carbon-based fuels, in addition to releasing carbon from trees and soils.

Within those 100 trips, our one species has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide from around 280 ppm to over 400 ppm, a level not seen for over 800,000 years, or possibly more than 20,000,000 years.

Of these facts, we are now as certain as we have ever been. It now means that we have put ourselves in a “carbon crunch,” and decisions made over the next few trips around the sun are immensely important.

So, what is a year worth?

In this 1976 article, scientists were sounding the alarm about topsoil loss in Iowa, which was at about 1/12 of an inch per year.

We’ve had 42 more trips around the sun since that article. Had erosion continued at that rate, we’d have lost another 3.5 inches of topsoil.

Consider that some areas only had 6-8 inches of topsoil left at the time.

Consider that without topsoil, we can’t grow food. Eighty years from now, my daughters will still need to eat.

In practice, over those last 42 years we have greatly reduced soil erosion across the Midwest. However, our economic paradigm continues to dictate that enormous swathes of land be dominated by just 1-2 crops, rates of erosion still exceed rates of soil formation, and short-term thinking still dominates many agronomic decisions.

Erosion for any single one of these years is tolerable, but even over short periods of time – the span of a single human life – the cumulative effects are serious.

A broken tile on our farm. The effects of ignoring this for a time would be imperceptible to our streams and crop yields, while the short-term cost in labor and money is palpable. Nevertheless, the cumulative effects of many years, acres, and drainage tiles are enormous.

What is a year worth for the soil?

In one year a decision can be made to diversify the crop rotation, to install grassed waterways, and to use cover crops.

What is a year worth for a species?

For the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, after the accumulation of many individual bad years, a single bad year in 2018 could now mean permanent extinction.

I’m sorrowed that humans would be so careless as to allow these marvels to perish, after occupying and evolving with this home for millions of trips around the sun.

And yet, we appear to be the only species in which many of our members, themselves assembled into coalitions and organizations, are working to save another distantly-related species for no apparent purpose other than love.

Photo by Mac Stone.

We now live in the Anthropocene.

All signs appear to be pointed towards some sort of enormous inflection point for our planet.

We are back again to our rather counter-intuitive, paradoxical conclusion. We, fragile motes of carbon whose choices will now reverberate for millennia.

We commit ourselves again to the long game, and fast.

What is mankind that you are mindful of them,

human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels

and crowned them with glory and honor

You made them rulers over the works of your hands;

you put everything under their feet:

all flocks and herds,

and the animals of the wild,

the birds in the sky,

and the fish in the sea,

all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

(Psalm 8:4-9)

“Water is Life”

One ecology blog definitely worth following is that of Stephen Glass, a restoration ecologist at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison, WI. The arboretum is something of a “mecca” for U.S. restoration ecologists and played a foundational role in our discipline (and continues to do so).

Stephen is the President of the Midwestern chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration. I’ve been to all but one of the regional conferences over the last 5 years, and the gatherings are always encouraging.

Anyway, let’s get to his blog. He recently posted a reflection his titled “Water is Life.” The little I’ve interacted with him, he’s proven to be humble and personable, as well as a respected scientist. His words in this post are incisive and frank. They are poignant, value-laden words (as the entire discipline inescapably must be) without resorting to hyperbolic rhetoric beyond what science is pointing us towards.

Sometimes we do need to have our values and practices recalibrated, (literally) brought back down to earth, to the essence and substance of our sustenance. Stephen does that wonderfully in this reflection.

An old bathtub once served as a cattle drinking trough to catch spring-fed water. An earthen dam was constructed and cattle excluded to rebuild this wetland near Moontree Studios. The groundwater still flows.

 

2017 seed harvesting

Now that winter has truly arrived, I took some time to clean and organize our 2017 seed collection. This year, we received help from college students, Maria Center residents, Moontree volunteers, members of the grounds crew, and others.

We collect seeds (and plant them) to increase the plant species diversity in our restoration areas. Biodiversity is a fundamental value of conservation biology, and it’s a cornerstone of ecological functioning.

Yes, seeds can spread themselves, and they have many ways of doing so. It seems that for every species I get in the targeted collection bag, I pick up another one on my coat, pants, or shoelaces.

 

Seeds of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) bear little white elaiosomes, nutritious bribes for ants who move the seeds to their nests, where a new plant may start growing.

However, it’s important to remember that seeds evolved their dispersal mechanisms in the context of unbroken natural areas. Even though the land was modified by indigenous peoples for thousands of years, it has only been in very recent history that so many acres have been so regularly plowed, drained, sprayed, paved, and mowed. We have selected for a very narrow suite of native species (and alien imports like dandelions) that can withstand this regular onslaught. The less tolerant species have retreated to fencerows, field edges, and islands of small forests.

Just having a single representative plant of a given species “somewhere around here” is not sufficient for ecological function, or to support robust populations of the insects, fungi, bacteria, mammals, birds, etc that rely on them. Yes, it may eventually spread… but “eventually” on the nature’s timescale may be decades or centuries.

We don’t have that kind of time. But we do have brains, hands, and Excel sheets. Even though much of restoration ecology remains something of a black box (especially the microscopic biophysicalchemical world in the soil), we know enough to get started.

I’ll post an update later on the 2017 prairie plantings, but here I’d like to just list the species we were able to harvest in between all of our other tasks. They matured throughout the growing season, most of them ripening in late summer or fall. They grew on dry sand to wet muck. A few are small and inconspicuous, others send new shoots up 10 feet in the air each year.

Butterflies alone are reason to disperse seeds, don’t you think?

This year we gathered around 43 species. Together with 24 additional species off-site from a much-loved volunteer, we have 67+ unique species that we will be sowing this winter and into the spring.

Most of the seeds have a dormancy mechanism that prevents them from germinating immediately in the fall. The cold weather and freeze/thaw forces on the ground unlock this mechanism and allow them to sprout in the spring. Most take a couple years of growth before flowering.

For those wanting to learn more, here are a few resources:

http://michiganflora.net/

http://illinoiswildflowers.info/

http://bonap.net/napa

 

Scientific Name Common Name
Achillea millefolium yarrow
Aletris farinosa colic root
Amorpha fruticosa indigo bush
Andropogon scoparius little bluestem grass
Angelica atropurpurea great angelica
Arisaema dracontium green dragon
Asclepias amplexicaulis sand milkweed
Asclepias syriaca common milkweed
Asclepias tuberosa butterfly weed
Aster azureus sky-blue aster
Aster ericoides heath aster
Baptisia australis blue wild indigo
Baptisia leucophaea cream wild indigo
Bouteloua curtipendula side-oats grama
Carex comosa bristly sedge
Carex grayi common bur sedge
Carex hystericina porcupine sedge
Carex pellita broad-leaved woolly sedge
Carex vulpinoidea brown fox sedge
Cassia fasciculata partridge pea
Cassia hebecarpa wild senna
Coreopsis palmata prairie coreopsis
Corylus cornuta beaked hazelnut
Echinacea purpurea broad-leaved purple coneflower
Elymus canadensis canada wild rye
Elymus virginicus virginia wild rye
Eryngium yuccifolium rattlesnake master
Eupatorium maculatum spotted joe pye weed
Euphorbia corollata flowering spurge
Filipendula rubra queen of the prairie
Gaura biennis biennial gaura
Gentiana crinita fringed gentian
Geum laciniatum northern rough avens
Heracleum maximum cow parsnip
Juncus tenuis path rush
Lespedeza capitata round-headed bush clover
Liatris cylindracea cylindrical blazing star
Lobelia cardinalis cardinal flower
Lobelia siphilitica great blue lobelia
Lupinus perennis occidentalis wild lupine
Lycopus virginicus bugle weed
Monarda fistulosa wild bergamot
Parthenium integrifolium wild quinine
Penstemon digitalis foxglove beard tongue
Petalostemum purpureum purple prairie clover
Physostegia virginiana obedient plant
Polygonum sagittatum arrow-leaved tear-thumb
Potentilla arguta prairie cinquefoil
Ratibida pinnata yellow coneflower
Rosa carolina pasture rose
Rudbeckia triloba brown-eyed susan
Sabatia angularis rose gentian
Sanguinaria canadensis bloodroot
Scirpus cyperinus wool grass
Silene regia royal catchfly
Silene stellata starry campion
Silphium laciniatum compass plant
Silphium perfoliatum cup plant
Sisyrinchium angustifolium stout blue-eyed grass
Solidago graminifolia nuttallii hairy grass-leaved goldenrod
Solidago rigida stiff goldenrod
Sorghastrum nutans indian grass
Tephrosia virginiana goats rue
Thalictrum dasycarpum purple meadow rue
Tradescantia ohiensis common spiderwort
Verbena stricta hoary vervain
Veronicastrum virginicum culvers root

Yellow River Watershed meeting coming to Plymouth Dec. 19th

“In the fall of 2014 the Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) received state and federal funds to produce a watershed management plan for the Headwaters Yellow River Watershed.

The Headwaters Yellow River Watershed encompasses approximately 187,423 acres of land across Marshall, Elkhart, St. Joseph and Kosciusko Counties.  Plymouth, Bremen, LaPaz, Lakeville and Nappanee are all located within the Headwaters Yellow River Watershed.

Multiple streams and lakes within the watershed have been listed on IDEM’s 303d list of impaired waterbodies for E. coli and excess phosphorus. The project will identify critical areas within the Headwaters Yellow River Watershed that are contributing to these impairments and work with local landowners to install a demonstration best management practice in one of these critical areas to improve local water quality. ”  —Marshall County SWCD

A final watershed meeting will be held to “review work completed to date on the project and discuss future efforts within the Headwaters Yellow River Watershed… we will discuss the data and goals that have been developed for the Watershed Management Plan and determine processes for implementing work within the watershed.”

The meeting will be held on December 19th at 2:00 PM EST in Laramore A room at the Plymouth Public Library (201 North Center Street).

The number of known macrofungi in Indiana just doubled with this recent publication

The Indiana Academy of Science is a badge of pride for our state. Since 1885, it has been the professional membership organization for Indiana scientists, “dedicated to promoting scientific research and diffusing scientific information; to encouraging communication and cooperation among scientists and to improving education in the sciences.”

I’m a member and try to read what I can from the Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science. Since it covers every scientific discipline, there is plenty that I don’t really understand, or isn’t relevant to my discipline, but I’d do good to read a little more broadly.

I was intrigued by an article in Volume 126, #1 that just hit my mailbox, Checklist of Indiana Fungi 1: Macrofungi by Purdue researcher Scott Bates and his students (you’ll need to become a member to find the text). I don’t know much about the organisms in Kingdom Eumycota (Fungi), other than they are ubiquitous, species-diverse, and critically important to nutrient cycling and ecosystem function. Some species called mycorrhizal fungi are symbiotic with plants. They grow into the plants themselves (even into their very cells) and help transport nutrients from the soil to the plant in exchange for sugars. They exert a huge influence on soil ecology, a revelation now becoming  appreciated at a public level.

Fungus on a beech tree in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, May 2017. It may be Fomes fomentarius, but I’m not sure.

There are estimated to be 1.5-5.1 million species of fungi, of which only 100,000 have been formally described by science. There may be around 18,000 species in Indiana, of which we know only 3,000.

In a three-part series, Bates and his team first tackled just the macrofungi, which include bracket fungi, mushrooms, and puffballs (molds, rusts, and lichens will have to wait). They examined 19,000 specimen records from 72 public collections dating back to 1804. Mycology is certainly a field for the patient and systematic!

They published a list of 1,410 species of macrofungi with official records in Indiana, 54% of which (757) being officially noted for the first time. The checklist alone spans 17 double-columned pages!

Ok, it’s time for another picture. Here is a fungus I found on a rotting downed tree next to a wetland on our property. I have no clue what species it is, but I do know that it is recycling the carbon in the tree back into the web of life for re-use.

a fungus among us (sorry, couldn’t resist)

We don’t need to know everything about every species in order to know that they all play a role.

Back to Bates and company. Their work is important because it highlights that we are still in our infancy of describing major parts of the tree of life on this planet. We’ve discovered and documented essentially every species of bird and mammal in North America (though some life histories are still mysterious to us). But when it comes to small organisms – bacteria, fungi, even insects – the unseen is still largely the unknown.

The authors also noted that “many species of fungi absent from our Indiana checklists likely represent taxa already known to science.” Bates established such a new Indiana record simply by walking out of the lab and around the campus of Purdue University Northwest! Not only are there plenty of “missing” Indiana records right under our nose, “it is equally likely that a number of fungal species new to science await discovery in the state. These facts highlight the great need for continued mycological research within the state.”

Given our absolute and utter dependence on this thin layer of life hurtling through the void of space, such basic research is as urgent as ever.

The good news is that I will never run out of work to do as long as I live!