Monday, March 30, 2009

Old Man Winter

is back... This time only a couple of inches, they say. Timely, as last Thursday's 12 inches were pretty much gone by last night. The chicken door, connected to the house by a Rube-Goldbergian contraption that allows remote opening, is not responding, necessitating a trip all the way out to the coop to free them. (Though it's not likely they'll come out much til this clears up.)

Was it just last week I was wondering whether the Juncos had left for good? Not so, they are still here in force and in just about every flavor: one dark-headed Oregon among the pink-sided and gray-headed. One of the latter even has white wing-tips; have been seeing him all winter. Joining them today are a few House Finches and several Pine Siskins. The Towhee is scratching madly under the rabbitbrush... The Downy Woodpecker came by yesterday for a taste of suet; and of course, always the Starlings, Scrub Jays, Magpies. Have not seen a Chickadee lately...

Is it really Old Man Winter, or is this the true face of graceful, feminine Spring? For another take on the seasonal gender, check out the Watcher, who persuasively argues for a female season here in the West.

Either way, yesterday I traveled to catch one more glimpse of the remains of last week's storm. Echo Lake was frozen, not surprising at 10,600 ft (3,231 m). Mt. Evans' vertical surfaces shed the snow, and much of the distant tundra had been swept clear, not quite the white-draped view I'd expected.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Going Dark...

Say what, Dave? After reminding all of us ten days ago, and even giving us a link so we could look it up again, you forgot?? As one commenter noted: "You missed the opportunity to make a token and ultimately futile gesture and possibly unbalance our antiquated power grid, just to watch a basketball game?"

That's right—last night was Earth Hour 2009, in which the whole world turns off its lights for an hour to give Gaia a little breathing space. What, you didn't hear about it? Neither did I, til I read about it on Dave's blog... and neither, it seems, did anyone in our neighborhood or visible area. I'm getting the distinct impression that this token and ultimately futile gesture has not breached the bastions of American unconformity. Can it be that the last eight years of propaganda have cost us our perspective, our sense of being part of a global problem and its solution?

After catching the drift last week at Osage, I managed to forget again too! Until it was too late to remind others and barely time to observe this auspicious occasion ourselves. Off went the TV and, yes, even the computer!, on went a few candles. What do we do, non-electronically, with an hour of quiet and dark? We've forgotten how to behave! Some obligatory chit-chat about the fate of the world, coming fast and furiously it seems... about our personal awareness and commitment and the inadequacy thereof and new measures we should be adopting. And reminders of a simpler time, when it seemed there might be answers to the world's most troubling questions: listening to a few rounds of old folkies (some dead) on... vinyl! The archaic turntable, though powered by the grid, seemed more appropriate than the flickering blue box, oh so addictive.

By the time we groped close to the clock with a candle, the hour was more than spent—we'd actually overshot the goal! And had a pleasant evening together to boot... something we should put on the agenda every week. This is an event we can celebrate anytime—it would do us all good to be reminded, I suspect, and... good practice for the future!

So, thanks, Dave, for making sure we didn't miss out this year!

(By the way, there's a great cartoon over at Tree Lobsters.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Waiting for Winter

This time the weatherpeople sound serious. A couple of feet of white stuff by the weekend—the most promising outlook for moisture we've had all winter!1 It was difficult to believe them, though, with temps hovering in the 60s, buds and flowers a'popping, meadowlarks back in town. Still, the clouds yesterday, the small scent of moisture in the air, and a light dusting this a.m. gave hope that, for once, they'd be right.

The whole picture is changing as the morning advances, and it's not even 9 a.m. yet. At last. The flakes are getting bigger, the day's scheduled events are being canceled... I'm glad I filled the birdfeeders last night, and am even having trouble working up enthusiasm for schlepping out to the chickens! But that chore must be done, whether all else is postponed or no.

At this point in the season, I'd have been happier with the liquid rather than crystalline version of H2O, and I think the plants might have as well...but it's been SO dry, all of us will take any form we can get, and gladly! Bee Lady went out to check on the Mountain Ball Cactus, and reported they were trying to bloom, but the few plants she found were barely succeeding in putting forth a few pale flowers.

Would that I had a few seeds in the ground under this, but I'm not that good a gardener. I did manage to plant some of the cholla I salvaged, but that was all that seemed appropriate for what was shaping up to be one of our drier years (until today). Here's a preview of my new cactus garden; this weather should be good for them!

In all, a good day to stay home and reread The Phantom Tollbooth!2

"Oh no," said the little man, "I'm the Whether Man, not the Weather Man, for after all, it's more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be." And with that, he released a dozen balloons that sailed off into the sky. "Must see which way the wind is blowing," he said...

—Norton Juster, from The Phantom Tollbooth

1 Now that it's spring, of course. For a description of Colorado springtime, see Spring Sap Rising.
2 Highest recommendation... in fact I should have listed it on the book post! Time to get reacquainted with Milo, Tock the Watch Dog, the Humbug, Officer Shrift (shortest policeman you'll ever meet), Faintly Macabre the Not-so-Wicked Witch, and all the other wonderful characters out there Beyond Expectations.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Tree Cholla: Plant of the Week

If you're one of those people who rescues stray kittens, perhaps you'll understand the impulse that led me to bring home this bucket o'cholla last week. A new neighbor had apparently been inconvenienced (or perhaps attacked) by these plants outside his front door, and chopped them all down. Then he threw them across the street on untamed property. (Okay, a gulch in a horse pasture; but it's a nice gulch!) I couldn't help myself*; now I've inherited a moral obligation to give them another chance.

My motives weren't entirely altruistic. Once you get past their forbidding exterior, these are more than acceptable landscape plants, in my view. (I'm not sure kids would be as wary of them as the dogs are, but they too would learn in time.) That they are alive was confirmed by the fact that, though sprawled horizontally for a week or two, the tips had already turned up, toward the light. It's tough to kill a cactus, but it's always easier to do it with kindness than with neglect.

This cholla, Cylindropuntia imbricata, is the only species of its type to occur naturally in eastern Colorado, as far as I can tell, though we are surrounded south and west by states with many more species. (C. whipplei occurs in a few southwestern counties.) As you can see, it is not reported from the county (triangle) where Foothills Fancies is based. Like coyote gourd, it is another outlier, or perhaps an introduction, in these more northern sites. (Map adapted from USDA Plants Database.)

Kingdom Plantae – Plants
  Subkingdom Tracheobionta – Vascular plants
    Superdivision Spermatophyta – Seed plants
    Division Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants
      Class Magnoliopsida – Dicotyledons
        Subclass Caryophyllidae
          Order Caryophyllales
            Family Cactaceae – Cactus family
              Genus Cylindropuntia (Engelm.) Kreuzinger
              Species Cylindropuntia imbricata (Haw.) F.M. Knuth
                – tree cholla

By the way, I've never actually heard anyone call it tree cholla, but maybe that's because it doesn't actually occur around here. Our other source, Weber's Colorado Flora, calls it "Candelabra Cactus." I suspect the "tree" name translates an older scientific name, Opuntia arborescens, given it by George Engelmann himself.

Here's what the one in my yard looks like today. I know, kinda droopy and repulsive. The yellowish fruits hang around all winter, until they rot or new growth pushes them off, I guess.

Ahh, but this is what it looked in recent memory, given an appropriate spring/summer.

Then, every bee and nectar-loving winged thing anywhere in the vicinity was happy, very happy, with this plant. For its ability to attract pollinators alone, this plant is worth having in your yard! Click to see insects at work.

Back to our bucket—here's a quick lesson in cholla anatomy. These branches are, of course, main stems. Leaves are briefly apparent only in season. Spines come in clusters at locations called areoles, usually at the end of bumps called tubercles. The fuzzy look to the areoles relates to the presence of tiny glochids, which our source** says are "inconsequential" here. (On other Opuntia species, it does not pay to dismiss the glochids so lightly.) One does not handle these without gloves or, preferably, tongs. Long-handled tongs.

Here's a bug's eye view. If you'd like one of these cute fuzzy stray kittens for your very own, call me!

Now I just have to go back and finish off the Myrtle Spurge that's escaping that same neighborhood yard!

* I have trouble with the idea that living beings are disposable; hence my difficulties with Poinsettia as well.

** Colorado Flora: Eastern Slope, W.A. Weber, 1990. But see also Catalog of the Colorado Flora (which eludes me at the moment) and Flora of North America.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Crazy spring...

Temperatures took a dive yesterday, down to freezing this morning after being in the mid-60s and 70s (roughly 18-24C) all week! We've had a couple of mini-blizzards this afternoon, one minute snowing and looking a bit serious, the next back to high and dry.

The Easter Daisies (above) don't care what the weather people say; they've been thoroughly convinced by other forces. I captured these yesterday just as the sun was dipping below the foothills (or an hour or so before real sunset). I wanted to make sure I got them before the snow expected by the weatherfolk arrived. Townsendia hookeri (or maybe T. exscapa; didn't look that closely). Asteraceae, Sunflower Family.

No snow still this morning, so I prowled the yard in search of a Biscuitroot in reasonable bloom. Also known as Salt-and-Pepper, these Lomatium orientale are very early and relatively nondescript; easy to overlook unless you happen to be looking specifically for them. They are among the first, but this year, at least, the Spring Beauties had gotten there before them. I swear this flower stalk was drooping, struggling to get by on the near-complete lack of moisture in the soil. Times are tough, and if they don't do spring early, they may not get to do it at all. Fern-like leaves + umbel flowers = Apiaceae, Carrot Family (in this case).

Even the exotics are fooled; maybe I should say "especially the exotics." Lilac buds are greening and swelling, promising flowers that may never appear if snow or rain continue to elude us. The Chinese Elm flowers are past swelling and into full bloom. Male flowers (left) and female flowers (right) on the same tree tell us the plant is monoecious ("one-house") but the flowers themselves are unisexual or imperfect. (Click to enlarge.)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Your assignment, should you choose...

Yesterday I had a surprise note from a stranger: Arj at Science on Tap. Seems he's launching another blog meme and tagged me to contribute a list of "half-dozen-or-so books you would recommend every young person read by the end of their school years to help them maintain a sense of connection to, and value in, the natural world." (I don't know, Arj, isn't this a little personal?)

I've been browsing around in Arj's blog, brand new this year, and it looks like a pretty cool place to hang out. I especially recommend his post featuring a zoom video of a Mandelbrot set! Comes with its own music, an ode to Mandelbrot himself.

What's the blog world coming to? I was happy just snagging a Fractal of the Day once in a while, and now we can zoom M-sets on You Tube! (Today's fractal is nice, but yesterday's was blue! Even better...)

You can scroll down for some Strange Attractors too. Sprott's daily fractals now come with their own fractal music even. Isn't the internet wonderful?

Oh dear, was I procrastinating? Guess I'd better get back to business. Six books. Must-read books. That's tough, narrowing it down, so I'm offering a few more for those of you who want extra credit. Okay, here's what I came up with, in no particular (but definitely not random) order:

  • The Living Landscape, by Paul B. Sears, 1962
    Ecological literacy at its first and best, a whirlwind tour of "everything you need to know about" your ecosystem, right down to its geological foundations, in a scant and readable 170 pages or so.
    (Extra credit: read his 1935 classic, Deserts on the March, which actually launched the environmental movement but didn't get the credit.)

  • Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, 1949
    (This is the one that got the credit. Much as I love it, I'd hate to include it here if it bumped a lesser known book, but we won't let that happen.)

  • Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, 1968
    The protestors and innocent bystanders were getting tear-gassed at the DNC in Chicago or shot at Kent State, but Abbey was on a fire lookout tower in Arizona writing this book. Don't miss it!
    (Extra credit: The Journey Home, 1977. Granted it focuses on the American West, both of these do, but there's no reason Arj's mythical "every young person" shouldn't understand the American West. Sorry, no hall passes on this one.)

  • Person/Planet, by Theodore Roszak, 1979
    This gentle but uncompromising book convinced me, a lifelong misanthropist, that there was a causal relationship between human problems and the concerns of planetary ecology, and that's a tough sell. Roszak is a sociologist and philosopher, but I adore him anyway!
    (Extra credit: His 1968 Where the Wasteland Ends, the world's best-ever critique of science, which almost derailed my thesis when I read it in 1973.)

  • The Revenge of Gaia, by James Lovelock, 2006
    Aha! This one's on my nightstand now, and that makes me (and Lovelock) look almost up-to-date in the world! If you believe in global climate change, you should be reading this book. Or at least a few of my comments on it.

  • Deep Ecology, by Bill Devall and George Sessions, 1985
    For bringing Naess' work to light, giving us words like ecocentric, and helping us see our human bias and our blindness toward Nature, this thought-provoking book is well worth a read.
Book reports are due Monday! Get busy, people!

Good grief! I seem to have left out Loren Eiseley, Joseph Wood Krutch, Hal Borland, Paul Ehrlich, J. Frank Dobie, Wendell Berry, William Least Heat Moon, Robinson Jeffers, Konrad Lorenz, Lewis Thomas, May Watts, Verlyn Klinkenborg, and... well, you see where this is going.

Lastly, on this impossible assignment, I'm tagging:

Fred, at Fragments from Floyd
The Watcher, at Watching the World Wake Up
Dave, at Plummer's Hollow (or Via Negativa, his choice)
William, at A Sylvan Dream (if he's back to writing)
Dave, at Osage + Orange

Guess all this reveals my formative period. But actually, I didn't read Sears' books until I got interested in him as a research subject, circa late 2005. They, like the others on this list, hold up well despite their age and I recommend them anyway.

Having trouble finding them? Visit Alibris—there are worse ways to lose your paycheck!

Seasonal Reminder

Equinox already? Watching the Husband head east this a.m., I noticed the Sun was already closing in on mid-position on the hogback, my Stonehenge. The hogback, if I bother to observe it at the appropriate time of day, tells me when we are in the cycle of celestial movement, and, sure enough, we're almost back at the Vernal Equinox (and, not coincidentally, the 3rd anniversary of Foothills Fancies).

It's been 21 years, 21 trips around a 587-million-mile (947 million km) circuit since I first consciously observed the "movement" of the Sun up and down the hogback. I'm rounding off; you can check my calculations.*

Speaking of 108,000 (see below), check out this intriguing tidbit regarding the accuracy of ancient Hindu astronomical revelations, which I've had occasion to use in post comments on a couple of blogs lately. Figured if I park the link here, I won't lose track of it again.

I don't really know where we are;
They tell us we're circling a star.
I'll take their word, for I don't know,
but I'm dizzy so maybe that's so.

—lyrics from Defying Gravity by Jesse Winchester,
as recorded by Emmylou Harris

(hope that's the right reference; best I can do with this memory and a little help from Google; I apologize for image quality this a.m., must have been in a hurry... or maybe a little dizzy myself!)

*Had to do that calculation of the approximate length of Earth's orbit myself, as the sources Google found for me weren't interested in that particular figure. It went like this, if you want to make sure I didn't mess up the math:

365.26 days X 24 hr/day X 108,000 km/hr average speed X 0.62 miles/km = 586,987,430.4 miles