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The Leonids Meteor Shower: A Pre-Turkey Feast for the Eyes

Written by Emily Brodsky

The alarm went off at 3 AM.  I lay on the cabin floor, my breath visible in the cold night air.  The fire, which had been blazing at bedtime, by now had dampened to a few glowing embers.  Imagining the dazzling show that awaited me outside, I resisted the temptation to return to my warm and peaceful slumber.   Instead, I emerged from my puffy cocoon, and tiptoed about the cabin to rouse the adventurous souls who had committed to my pre-dawn wake-up call.  Groggily, we donned our winter coats and hats, and dragged our sleeping bags into the chill of a mid-November night.  We were on a mission to observe one of the universe’s great spectacles: the annual Leonids Meteor Shower.

After stumbling down a dark, wooded path, we planted ourselves in an open field and eagerly fixed our eyes on the sky.  The stars were shrouded by stratus clouds.  We waited.

After half an hour or so, the clouds parted and revealed one of the most awe-inspiring sights I’ve ever witnessed.  For several hours, sparkling streams of light rushed over our heads in all directions.  They varied in color from white to blue to yellow, and I don’t know if I imagined it, but I swore I could hear them zooming through the sky.  The show went on until the meteors were outshined by the light of dawn.  After the final stragglers passed overhead and the darkness began to lift, my friends and I clapped and cheered.  We had witnessed not just a meteor shower, but the great meteor storm of 2001.

Thanksgiving-time brings well-stocked dinner tables, family and friends, and cozy, tryptophan-induced naps.  A less-known fact is that it also brings meteors.  Just before the holiday rolls around each year, one can stumble into the out-of-doors in the dead of night to watch these glittering speed demons as they race across the sky. How do the Leonids put on their marvelous show, and why does it happen with such consistency?

The orbit of the comet Tempel-Tuttle happens to intersect with Earth’s, and when the comet passes by every 33 years it leaves a dense trail of debris.  As the Earth passes through the lingering dust cloud each November, thousands of particles crash into the atmosphere.  These sand grain to pebble sized particles, called meteoroids, travel through space at speeds up to 162,000 miles per hour.  Space is a vacuum, meaning matter is scarce; thus, nothing slows the meteoroids as they speed through the galaxy — that is, until they collide with the matter-laden atmosphere of Earth.

When meteoroids strike, they push up against the gaseous molecules of the atmosphere with incredible force.  The astronomical equivalent of a 10-car pileup occurs, with molecules squishing together in front of each meteoroid, and the resulting pressure generates so much heat that the meteoroids reach boiling point.   The meteoroids continue to move through the atmosphere, vaporizing layer by layer and releasing a tremendous amount of heat.  As the heat releases, the meteoroids and surrounding molecules glow.  From our vantage point 50-75 miles below, these hot, disintegrating particles appear as the streams of light we call meteors, or shooting stars.

The Tempel-Tuttle dust cloud is one of several that Earth passes through consistently.  The predictable display produced by this annual event is called the Leonids because its radiant, or the point from which the meteors appear to radiate, is the constellation Leo.  Other meteor showers include the Geminids in December, the Lyrids in April, and the Perseids in August — their radiants being Gemini, Lyra, and Perseus, respectively.

Although the Leonids have been known to cascade over the sky in numbers up to one-hundred-thousand or more per hour, typical displays are not so prolific.  The last exceptional shows (known as meteor “storms”) were in 2001 and 2002, with meteors-per-hour estimates of up to 3,000.  More commonly, the Leonids shower produces 10-15 meteors per hour.  The numbers depend on a variety of factors, including solar wind and dust cloud density.  Visibility depends on cloud cover and the moon phase.  To see the Leonids in their full splendor, conditions must be just right.

Sadly, the last-quarter moon will be shining near Leo during this year’s November 17-18th peak, resulting in low visibility and a relatively weak show.  Still, I plan to look.  Since that wonderful night in 2001, I have lain in various fields and hiked up mountains to observe the Leonids.  Every year, they seem to be blocked by clouds.  I’ve never been disappointed, however, as the experience of watching celestial events like meteor showers goes beyond the objects themselves; it’s also about the adventure of being outside at an ungodly hour, enduring sleepiness and cold, and sharing an unusual moment with friends.  I encourage you to go out in the wee hours of November 18th; whether you’ll see a shooting star, I cannot guarantee, but I can assure you that the excursion will make you feel alive.

Land Tenure and Perennial Agriculture

by Connor Stedman

It’s harvest time in New England.  Farmer’s markets are filled with apples, winter squash, root vegetables, and the final weeks of greens before the hard killing frosts arrive.  For people who enjoy local food, it’s worth thinking about the needs and challenges of farmers while enjoying the bounty of the season.  There’s a significant generational shift taking place in agriculture right now; as older farmers retire, more and more young farmers are taking their place.  And one of the biggest challenges for young, beginning farmers, is finding and retaining access to land.

Because of the local food movement that’s developed in the U.S. in the past decade, many regions of the country have excellent markets for beginning farmers.  Urban and suburban farmers’ markets, grocery stores that carry local food, and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs all can provide reliable income to beginning farms.  But many of those markets are near major metropolitan regions or are in wealthier semi-rural areas.  In both of these types of regions, land is priced for housing development rather than for agriculture.   So there’s a devil’s-bargain situation for farmers here, where the already-high initial capital and infrastructure requirements for agriculture get much more expensive for farms located close to their ideal markets.

Because of this, young beginning farmers (who usually lack access to significant financial resources) often enter into semiformal or informal arrangements with wealthy landowners in order to run the farm businesses they want to be running.  Many of those arrangements end up being unworkable, leading to those farmers losing land access in just a few years.  Without solid financial and legal agreements, farmers’ ability to stay on their rented or leased farms long-term can be very tenuous.  So educating new farmers should include training in how to enter into those financial and legal agreements, as well as just training in farming practices.

But it’s also helpful to think a little more deeply why stable, long-term land tenure matters.  One might think, annual farmers can easily pick up and move in between growing seasons if they need to.  After all, they replant their crops every year anyway!  But there’s a huge opportunity cost to moving locations – the time, energy and money spent moving could all be spent in other ways if the farmer didn’t need to move.  Beyond that, the real value of long-term tenure is being able to build soil fertility and knowledge of the farm over time, as well as long-term market and customer development.  Most farmers would like to stay in one place for a long time if they could, and many young beginning farmers aren’t able to because of the issues discussed above.

All of that, though, is doubly true for farmers growing perennial cut flowers, fruit and nut trees, or certain medicinal plants like ginseng.  These long-term perennial crops produce for many years without replanting.  This reduces the negative ecological consequences of annual agriculture (such as soil erosion and ongoing heavy pest insect pressure) while also reducing the economic costs of re-tilling and replanting every year.  Furthermore, since perennial crops don’t fully die back at the end of each growing season, they hold and sequester carbon from the atmosphere over time and help to mitigate global climate change.  On the other hand, these crops can take years to develop their full yielding potential.  It can take over a decade to recoup an initial investment in a perennial crop planting, especially for slow-growing crops like nut trees or certain medicinal plants.

This has particular implications for the development of diverse, ecologically sustainable perennial farms, rather than just single-crop monocultures.  Because diverse perennial agriculture systems often aren’t simple – they require significant planning, observation, and adjustment over time.  That, plus the land access and tenure issues, means that there are major disincentives to invest, both for financial backers (like banks) and for the start-up farmers themselves.  So that, in turn, means there continue to be few good working examples of diverse perennial farms!  Then, when one of the few existing examples fails, it adds up in many peoples’ minds to some version of “I guess perennial agriculture just doesn’t work.”  But of course, many startup businesses fail.  And early failures in a “still-learning-how” field are not surprising – but nor do they indicate that the concept or process is unsound.

Because, perennial agriculture is one of the most important strategies available for healing the planet through sequestering carbon, restoring damaged land, and creating resilient local economies.  Figuring out reliable, consistent strategies for the land access and tenure problem would open the doors much wider for experimentation, research, and enterprise development around perennial farming, which would help shift agriculture from extractive to regenerative practices on a larger scale.  In other words, this isn’t just about beginning farmers – land access is a bottleneck, and therefore leverage point, for the larger ecological and economic transition towards sustainability.


Young Scientists Plot for Smart Urban Forestry

by Liz Brownlee

“Wait until you see the accuracy of our plot,” calls the lab team.

The four undergraduates burst with pride, oblivious to the prickling raspberries and thick brush that edge the Intervale forest.

They stop me midstride.  As their lab teacher, I’m fully equipped with aerial maps, GPS, first aid kit, phone, and extra rain gear.  I’m planning to cruise through this pasture towards the soybeans and into the swampy forest.  My goal is to check in with teams at twelve more study plots, spread over the 350 acres of forest and fields.

This lab project is a real, on-the-ground application of their natural resource training.  Most weeks these first-year students learn the basics of field work in big, broad fields (fisheries, stream ecology, forestry, etc.). The field data they record in their weekly labs is important: they use it to learn how to create papers, reports, and essays.

This week, though, the data is headed to city hall.  We’re studying the Burlington urban forest to help the city make informed decisions about valuing and managing the forest.

I need to check in with the next group. It’s incredibly important that the teams describe each plot with accuracy and efficiency.  I know that all the teams are anxious to prove their worth, to share their budding knowledge and field skills.  But this team’s stories cannot wait.

Elliot, a bright-eyed skier from Utah starts first.

The maple we used to mark our plot was so big, our measuring tape couldn’t reach around it, he says.

Aptly named and observant, Hunter chimes in.

There was a deer trail, but that’s it – otherwise it’s untouched.

Eric, a tattooed, intelligent former Marine, knows this isn’t entirely true.

How should we record the land use on this plot, Liz? This isn’t a park, and it’s on the farm but not cultivated land.

We brainstorm the forest’s values: recreation and flood control top the list.

I change my route, unable to leave the pull of their enthusiasm.  Elliot fires questions as we walk the farm’s puddle-filled gravel road.

We didn’t see any sign of invasive species like emerald ash borer – that’s good, right?  And the ground was covered in mud from the hurricane and the flood – do you think the forest will rebound before teams come next year?

The team answers most of their questions before I can chime in, and I know that I’m no longer needed.  I head for the next site when Carly, another lab teacher with twenty more students, calls from the Old North End of Burlington.  We check in, cars honking in the background on her end.

Over two hundred UVM students are taking the pulse of the forest, from tree height and canopy dieback to ground cover and plant-able space. They’re studying over one hundred plots throughout the city, and all in just two weeks.  We’ll crunch the numbers with a program called iTree that’s being used worldwide.  The city will use the results to decide where and what to plant next, and how to properly value a forest that cools homes, mitigates pollution, and absorbs storm water runoff.

They’ve tracked changes in the forest’s health.  They’ve built confidence as budding natural resource scientists.  And next year, two hundred new students will do it all again.

The Sensual Slug

by Danielle Owczarski

During the first cold days of fall in Burlington, I had a chance encounter with a handsome slug on my way to catch the bus. As I hurried past, it glided effortlessly across the moistened slate walkway, its black leopard-print pattern catching my eye. The image of the mysterious figure drifted through my thoughts during the short bus ride to campus.

Limax maximus, also known as the great gray slug and leopard slug. (Photo:© R.J. McDonnell, University of California, Riverside)

Originally, when I thought about writing a blog on the natural history of the great gray slug (Limax maximus), I imagined the story to be a simple, thoughtful, interesting piece; little I knew of the great gray’s sensual secrets. Those of you with weak stomachs or other sensitivities related to natural reproduction may want to surf your way to a blog about cooking or kittens. This story is for those with unquenchable curiosity and a sensible grasp on nature’s sexual exploits.

The great gray is a hermaphrodite. Within its slimy skin layer are organs that support both female and male reproduction. Lucky for the great gray, it is not a simultaneous hermaphrodite like the banana slug, who can self-fertilize. No, the great gray must entice a partner to share in the event of reproductive triumph.

L. maximus, native to Europe, and naturalized in the United States and Australia by way of food transport, leaves a thick string of mucus on the ground in early summer to attract its mate. This activity happens mainly during the night hours for this nocturnal species, who feeds on mushrooms and withered plants.

When its partner detects the secretions, it will follow closely, taking a soft nibble on the tempter’s behind. In a grand chase (at a slug’s speed), the two head for an overhanging feature (a brick wall, tree, or mossy rock). They begin to writhe in what seems a blissful engagement, rubbing and twisting around each other’s lubricated bodies.

As the foreplay advances, they begin to fall gently from their perch, attached only by a dense strand of slime, their pendulous bodies entwined in mid-air. Next, in unison, from an opening (gonopore) on the side of each slug’s head, the penises emerge and begin to entangle. The elaborate spiraling of the white translucent penes forms the shape of a flower similar to that of a blossoming morning glory. The unified form then takes on an azure glow and fertilization ensues. The sperm travels up through the twisted organs, through the gonopores, and inside the slug’s body finally reaching the eggs. The act is complete, both fulfilling their reproductive desires.

It would be biased to leave you with an unspoiled depiction of the great gray’s reproductive story. On some occasions when the entanglement becomes too complex and the slugs are unable to pull apart, apophallation must occur. They chew off one or both penises to relieve the imbroglio and the great gray is left with one working organ to continue its life’s work.

For those of you who can’t get enough, check out David Attenborough’s video clip of the great grays in the act: Limax maximus Reproduction Video.

Blue jays and bird colors

by Nancy Olmstead

The woman who lives downstairs from me feeds the pigeons almost every morning.  I know she’s out there when I hear a great swooshing of wings: dozens of pigeons flutter down to our driveway to greet her.  She’ll also put out peanuts for the squirrels.  Sometimes a crafty blue jay slips in there and grabs a peanut.

One of those wily blue jays flew up to the fire escape outside my kitchen window, and as it was adjusting its peanut, I got a good look at it.  Blue jays are such a bright blue color; it’s shocking in our Burlington landscape of brown and gray city birds.

Birds come by their colors in different ways.  The blue of a blue jay is not a pigment; it’s created by the physical structure of the feather.  The color is all in the way the molecules are arrayed.  If you ground up a blue feather, thus breaking apart the structure, there wouldn’t be any color anymore.  If you backlight a blue jay feather, you won’t see the blue anymore.  Next time you find one, place it between your eye and a flashlight beam, or hold it up to the strong sun – no blue.

In contrast, northern cardinals borrow their bright red color from plants.  The carotenoid pigments that make a cardinal red can’t be synthesized by animals; they have to be ingested from plants in a bird’s diet.

What are all those feather colors for, anyway?  Scientists know that birds have good color vision.  In species where the male and female are colored differently, color is usually important in mate choice.  A female American goldfinch is picky about which male she partners up with – a male with lovely, bright yellow color is preferred, while a male with drab plumage could find his partner straying.

Colors can also be structurally important.  The most abundant feather pigment is melanin, which gives strength to areas of the feathers that need to be particularly resistant to wear, like wing tips.  Herring gulls are a good example of a bird with these melanin-rich wing tips – they show up as an almost-black color.  Many terns also have this pattern of dense melanin pigmentation at the wing tips.

I’m not sure what role color plays in the life of a blue jay, but I’d like to find out.  Male and female blue jays look pretty similar to me, so perhaps color isn’t a big deal in mate choice.  Or maybe there are small, subtle color variations that I haven’t picked up on yet.

I should team up with the lady downstairs.  I could bring the blue color chart and maybe she could bring the bag of peanuts.

Fern Surgery

by Carly Brown

The hand saw sits on the disinfected countertop. Fresh fern-appropriate soil waits in a bucket next to my workstation.  I wheel the ferns in on their ‘gurney’, a garden cart that I pull through the greenhouse to the office. I pass by the succulents, the lipstick tree, and finally the cacti. I am wheeling the ferns in for surgery.

As a greenhouse student employee I work in House 2 amongst the pitcher plants, orchids, and ferns. Once a week I scout the area for greenhouse pests. My hand lens is more or less permanently pressed to my right eye as I search for spider mites, thrips, and aphids (more on that in another post).  Today, however, is fern bisection and transplant day. I have transplanted before, but I have never cut plant clusters into pieces to put a smaller individual back into the original pot. The ferns have not only outgrown their pots, but will soon outgrow their area in the greenhouse if they are not cut back.

Removing the large leather fern from its pot is not a task for the weak. Its deep green, shiny, waxy-looking fronds rise up above my head as it sits on the counter. The pot is dense with secret underground growth. Using all of my strength, I flip the pot upside down and rap it against the edge of the counter until the fern slides out of the pot. Catching it in my hands, I flip the fern right side up. Intricate roots and underground rhizomes support its structure enough that it retains the pot shape. The rhizome on a fern is comparable to the stem on a flowering plant. Though it is below the soil it gives the plant a sturdy structure, much like our legs.

I grab my surgical tool: the saw. The goal is to divide this fern into four equal sections. I start the cut, putting all of my muscle into it, but the saw does not make progress. I move the saw back and fourth, but it does not go deeper into the soil. Is this possible? Am I trying to saw through a piece of metal that I did not see? My muscles strain as I push and pull – back, forth, down – until I finally feel the saw going deeper into the soil. After the saw makes it halfway, something gives. I have made it through the hard, almost woody, rhizomes of the fern, and can now detangle the more delicate roots.

Pulling apart the fern base, I am mesmerized by the beauty in the mess of rhizome structures weaving in and out of each other. I have admired ferns in the forests and fields, and have recently tried delicious fiddleheads smothered in butter.  Despite my above-ground admiration, I have never known what goes on in the life of a fern below the cover of soil.  After making a second bisection I place one section of the fern in its old pot and fill it with new soil. This new soil hides the fern’s secret – its solid, intricate, rhizomatous base. After returning the leather fern to House 2, I drench the dry soil with water to jumpstart the growth that will eventually reveal the secret to another naïve student employee on transplant day.




Witch-Hazel: The Honeybee’s Last Forage

by Leah Mital-Skiff

We extracted honey this weekend from our backyard hive.  The late date of this final extraction is evident in the density of the deep-amber goldenrod-dominant honey.  Its slow movement through the series of filters on a cold day reminds our family that we should be out apple picking rather than forcing our bees to further stock up for winter on chilly days. I worry every year that we have taken too much too late from the bees as I watch the late-blooming asters begin to wilt at the beginning of fall.  The forage for our honeybee colony is reduced this time of year as they work harder to fill and cap their final honey chambers for winter.

The dynamics of supply and demand have reversed.  Where flowering plants have competed for pollinators throughout the spring, summer and early fall, the pollinating insects now face a shortage of pollens and nectar as most flowers and deciduous plants have senesced for the year. However, one plant, witch-hazel, has evolved to capitalize on this shift.  On the cold days of fall when other plants have lost their color, witch-hazel bursts into a show of yellow flowers beckoning our bees from the warmth of the hive to forage just a bit further into the fall.

Witch hazel flower photo taken by Neahga Leonard through a hand lens for magnification.

Witch-hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is a shrub native to Vermont and a common understory tree with a high shade tolerance.  Its anti-competition-late-season-pollination strategy comes with additional adaptations to produce a viable seed crop and environment for germination.  Like our honeybees, which remain in the hive on colder days to protect the queen, few other pollinators remain flying this late in the season.  While witch-hazel does not compete with other flowering plants for pollinators, it does contend with temperatures and reduced daily sunlight that signal pollinators to reduce their flight.  For this reason, most of the witch-hazel flowers go without pollination and the plant produces few fruits.

Flowers and last year’s orange-brown fruits co-occur in the fall. Photo: Neahga Leonard

With its leaves dropped, witch-hazel’s other unique adaptation becomes evident against the backdrop of the bare northern hardwood forest in the fall.  Unlike other plants, witch-hazel flowers and fruits simultaneously.  The fruits, however, are a full year behind the flowers, having finally matured from last year’s mid-fall pollination. They have persisted on the shrub all winter to mature in the fall along with the new flowers.  Two shiny black seeds are ejected explosively (a distance up to 3 meters) from the woody capsules.  One theory of the name witch-hazel is attributed to the sound of the expelled seeds hitting the dry leaves of the forest floor.  People associated this eerie phenomenon with witchcraft practiced deep in the woods on still autumn days.  This theory competes with the more popular reason behind the name.  The bendable, forked branches were used by witches as dowsing rods, wishbone-shaped twigs, to find groundwater sources, valuable metals, or even missing children.

Enjoy this last show in the woods once the blaze of foliage has come to an end and even the goldenrods have given up for the year.  If you are lucky enough to witness the explosive seed dispersal and find the seeds among fallen leaves, the rich, white oily interior is edible, collected and prized in the past by Native Americans. Perhaps, it will be warm enough for our honeybees to make their final foraging flights to meet you there; their focus will be the flowers.

New Life Storms into the Forest

by Liz Brownlee

The roots stretch high into the sky – ten feet, maybe fifteen.  Soil hangs midair, clinging to the roots. A tiny white pine sits in the depression, reaches for the warm, gaping hole in the forest canopy.

The red maple once towered ninety feet tall, spreading its arms wide into the canopy.  Screech owls made their home in the tree.  Woodpeckers searched for dinner.  Black Rat Snakes lounged in its branches.

Its leaves were the first to turn each Fall, and their brilliant red told of cool nights to come. Its seeds – little helicopters – spun down on the Spring breeze.

Now that giant lies on the ground, another victim of Hurricane Irene’s powerful winds. This forest, at Mud Pond Conservation Area in Williston, is littered with downed trees, thrown on top of each other like so many pick-up sticks.

Downed trees could seem like a tragedy to a passerby.  But the white pine seedling, small as it may be, knows a more complete story:  falling trees create new life in Vermont’s mature forests.

Forests of tall, old trees are cool, dark, moist places.  The leaves from full-grown trees absorb almost every bit of sunlight before it can reach the ground.  Seedlings starve for warmth and light.  They cannot grow, and they can wait years – even decades – for a tree to fall.

A storm, then, allows new life.  Wind is the most common way Vermont trees come toppling to the forest floor. The downed red maple is a “wind-throw,” because it fell in a powerful storm.

The suddenly sunny forest floor is a very happening place.  White pine and birch seedlings shoot up practically overnight.  Deer munch on young plants. Fungi break down the tree’s trunk, and worms, beetles, and salamanders move in.

The forest could not grow anew without downed trees.  Just ask the white pine seedling.


For hiking in Mud Pond, and other locations in the Town of Williston: