Trapped Under the Ice

iceStaying warm in the winter is hard. Chickadees eat constantly in order to survive long, cold winter nights. Squirrels spend precious time and energy creating complex insulated nests. Deer browse on nutrient-poor twigs to get as many calories out of their surroundings as possible. Yet compared to fish and other aquatic organisms, terrestrial wildlife breathe easy – literally. As fish battle the cold through the long winter, they are steadily running out of oxygen.

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Orion Rising

orionWe all have our routines, those mental checklists we complete to make sure that our day will run smoothly. Some are entirely rational, others seem almost ridiculous, but all are part of what makes our own worlds go around. One of my self-affirming habits each winter evening is to look for Orion, to make sure that his giant frame is poised for battle in the night sky as he has been since the ancient Greeks raised his mortal body into the heavens almost 3,000 years ago.

Orion’s nighttime traverses actually began long before the Homer immortalized his character in The Iliad. The configuration of the constellation has been visible from Earth for about 1.5 million years and should stay recognizable for about 1 to 2 million more years. Ultimately, the stars will rotate within our galaxy and change their relative positions to each other, as well as to Earth. In the current wintertime sky, Orion routinely rises in the south to southeast at sunset, big and broad, early enough to entertain those of us who aren’t night owls. Betelgeuse, the supergiant that is his right shoulder, is by far the reddest object on the dark horizon and holds the allure that it may explode at any moment, collapsing under its own weight and rebounding into fiery supernova glow. The odds that this impressive event will occur tonight are “astronomically small,” but it is always worth another look.

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Reflections

Sundogs over Huntington, Vermont.

My third-floor office is a commanding venue for a nap.  Reclined in a worn swivel chair with my unsheathed feet stacked on the heat grates, I slip into my best unproductive hours.  When my eyes deign to open, the scenery is ripe for a Chamber of Commerce brochure.  The golden chapel domes and brown brick mortar of the university sit regal and prim before the white speckled ribs of New York and the glass pool of Champlain.  It’s plain lovely.  Especially on biting cold mornings, near 10:00, when some change of guard ushers students out from every academic pore to wade the gray salty paths to their next nook.  It’s one vain pleasure up in my aerie, watching without sympathy the cold scholars scurry. Continue reading

Icy Romance

During this arctic grip on Burlington, when almost anything outside seems to groan or crunch or crack, when the cold itself seems evil, a drama begins each morning in frigid waters off Perkin’s Pier. In Lake Champlain, Common Goldeneyes are getting hot.

These perky ducks bob and dive, lunge and flutter, cavort and compete. Nearly four months before our woods will glow with a rainbow of migrating songbirds, Common Goldeneyes are already courting – proof that icy water doesn’t necessarily put a chill on carnal desire. Continue reading

Considering Crows

I stopped running because I was surrounded by hundreds of crows.  It was dusk on the bike path along Lake Champlain.  Great masses of crows were flying in from the east to roost on the cottonwood trees along the shore.  They fed on sumac fruits along the train track; they mobbed the tree-tops and hop-flew from one twig to the next; they perched all over the bare branches of the trees.  In the light of the setting sun, their black feathers shone glossy and strong.  More kept arriving almost continuously from the east, flying in over the barge canal.  As they flew in they gave these weird, multiple-part calls, not at all like the usual “caw-cAW-CAW!”  What were they saying and why were they gathering here? Continue reading

The Shoemaker Taxonomist

Inside the eight-foot tall olive-green metal cabinet are stacks of black, sturdy shoeboxes. Inside these are small cardboard boxes decorated with Victorian-style script announcing that they contain the finest buttons and sewing needles. These little boxes hold hundreds of dried mushrooms with brittle, yellowed tags looped around them, labeled in the faded, elegant hand of Charles Christopher Frost. Everything in the shoeboxes is over 150 years old.

Charles Frost described and named dozens of new species of fungi, collected specimens that are treasured by researchers, and wrote numerous scientific papers. For a living, he made shoes. Taxonomists today may make their living doing other kinds of biological research, but not one of them, as far as I can imagine, makes shoes.

Every day at lunchtime, Frost closed his cobbler shop in Brattleboro, Vermont, for one hour. He spent that hour studying fungi. He did so well at shoemaking that he cobbled together (pardon the pun) a sizable fortune.

Before he became a shoemaker, Frost attended school, but dropped out when he was 15 because a teacher beat him with a ruler. He left the schoolhouse carrying the broken ruler and never returned. In spite of this, Frost was far from uneducated. He consumed books on mathematics, languages, physics, chemistry—anything he wanted to learn, he did so from a book.

When Frost got dyspepsia (known nowadays as indigestion), his doctor prescribed two hour-long nature walks per day. These walks quickly transformed into fungus-collecting trips. He woke up early and stayed up late identifying new species, describing them in words and drawings, and writing scientific papers. His fungus collection was given to the University of Vermont’s Pringle Herbarium after his death in 1885.

Species description is at the core of taxonomy. The Pringle Herbarium archives hold five fat hanging folders full of hundreds of Frost’s meticulous notes and graceful, detailed drawings. A taxonomist today must be as detail-oriented as Frost. Frost couldn’t just say, “I’ve found a new species and it’s called Boletus pretendus.” Whenever a taxonomist claims a new species, he or she must describe in great detail each part of it, every organ, and how it is different from other species. This allows other scientists to judge whether the claim is legitimate.

Today, however, species description is just as likely to include diagnoses of differences in genetic codes as morphological details. Since the 1960s, taxonomy and systematics have undergone a molecular revolution; now both sciences are heavily reliant on analyses of DNA and RNA, though they do still depend on morphological distinctions.

If Frost was alive today, he wouldn’t be able to do taxonomy without access to a laboratory. His delicate drawings and thoughtful descriptions would be rejected from modern scientific journals without a second glance. Shoes, not fungi, would be his purview.

The Burlington Naturalist Scavenger Hunt Series: Williston’s Muddy Brook Wetland

A special series of blog posts brought to you by Liz Brownlee 
The Burlington Naturalist Scavenger Hunt Series: Discover the area’s hidden gems.  Hone your naturalist skills.  Learn to see the treasures along every walking path, trail, and creek.
This series of scavenger hunts is a chance to get outside, look closely at the world around you, and enjoy nature.  The hunts are designed for budding naturalists of any age.
 
Hunt I: Williston’s Muddy Brook Wetland
 
Cruise east, away from the noise of Burlington. Slip south of Highway Two, curving along Hinesburg Road onto Van Slicken Road.  Pass the oldest house in Williston – light grey stones, hand hewn in the 18th century.  Crunch onto the gravel of the parking lot, leave your car (or bike!), and step into the wildness at Muddy Brook Wetland.
Cattails dance on the winter wind, and signs of animals layer this scrubby landscape. To the casual visitor, Williston’s Muddy Brook Wetland rejuvenates and relaxes.  It is a deep breath at the end of the day.
For the budding naturalist equipped with this scavenger hunt, the wetland also offers mid-winter wonder.  Look closely at the ground, the bent grasses, the flowing stream. Find and learn to identify scat, deciduous trees, nests, and other natural treasures. Enjoy!
Find the first scavenger hunt here: Scavenger Hunt- Williston’s Muddy Brook Wetland

Five Bodies

by Danielle Owczarski

I squint as I gaze offshore at the landslide scars jacketing the slopes of the Adirondack Mountains, and become cognizant of the illusion in quiet looking mountaintops, in reality, stark and frigid underneath the winter’s languid sun. I lift the camera to my eye and focus on the lone silhouette of a twisted black willow frozen to the beach, beaten by icy waves. I am in awe of its ability to survive, alone and isolated at the interface of water and earth, defying death.

I am standing on a deserted public beach in Burlington, VT, situated west of the bike path and the Burlington Electric Department. My husband and I, dog in tow and cameras in hand, are in pursuit of stories told by the natural world; those neglected by people behind weatherproofed door jams. During the winter months, protected by the shelter of my apartment, I cannot tune out the arctic breeze whooshing against my door. I imagine the biting wind flowing through my veins, breathing life into my limbs, pushing me to be a part of the world beyond my warm, snug box. Once outside, the indoor fog in my mind lifts and my periphery expands initiating a new awareness. I enter the natural world to feel alive. Continue reading

Random Nature Questions from a Non-naturalist

by Audrey Clark

My stepbrother lounged in front of the television watching a reality TV show about mining in Alaska.  I sat on the couch, facing away from the television, drinking tea and reading a book on visionary scientists.

After a while, I started to wonder what my stepbrother wondered about.

“Caleb?”

“Yeah.”

“What questions do you have about nature?”

Silence.

Then, in an outpouring I wouldn’t expect from a non-naturalist, let alone one who was watching TV:

“Can plants feel pain?  How does a woodpecker not get a concussion?  How do you tell how old a tree is without cutting it down?  How long does it take ants to build an ant hill?  Where does honey come from?  Like what part of the bee?  What’s the best way to survive a bear attack?  Can animals get sick from drinking bad water like we can?  Why do monkeys have better immune systems?”

In honor of my stepbrother, here are my best attempts at answering these questions: Continue reading

The Charisma of the Drab

Wandering down Boulevard Saint Germain near Notre Dame in Paris, I passed a store window filled with insect specimens on display. The stylish sign read Claude et Nature (Claude and Nature).

I veered into the store, astonished that such a place exists. A small stuffed bison (small for a bison, that is) stood in the center of the store, next to a case of fossils. On the right were black cases full of artfully arranged insect specimens. On the left were fossils, shells, stuffed birds, skulls (human and weasel, among others), and sea stars. All were perfectly preserved and arranged, and neatly labeled with the species name and country of origin.

I spent some time perusing the insects—they had an uncommon family of weevils!—then wandered into the fossil section, then back to the insects.

Other customers were in the store, buying up iridescent blue morpho butterflies, flashy rhinoceros beetles with horny ornamentations, and large walking stick insects, which look just like knobby sticks with legs. All of the creatures on sale were eye-catching in some way. I found myself disappointed that there weren’t more insects with mundane appearances. I craved some little drab ones so I could learn about their diversity. One of the most beautiful insects I’ve ever seen was brown and white and hardly bigger than a pinhead (a lacebug, in case you are curious). The insects present were in families already familiar to me.

This led me to ponder one of the differences between amateur and expert naturalists: level of attraction to charismatic megafauna.

Amateur naturalists and non-naturalists flock to the Serengeti to see lions and elephants, even just for a few hours. Few head to sandy beaches in Massachusetts to see tiger beetles. And when they buy preserved insects, they buy the largest, most colorful individuals. Experts and devoted amateurs, on the other hand, may be eager to see lions and tigers, but they are also there for the naked mole rats and dung beetles. Why?

I believe the answer has to do with memory and learning. An inherent characteristic of many animals is that they easily remember something bright, large, or dangerous. This is what is exploited by the wasp’s black and yellow warning coloration: remember me, don’t bother me, I sting. Young blue jays who eat a monarch butterfly and then vomit refuse to eat a second monarch because they recognize it. They may also refuse to eat other orange and black butterflies, whether or not those butterflies are actually noxious.

Just because I can easily remember what a blue morpho butterfly looks like doesn’t mean I’ll want a dead one hanging on my wall. A blue morpho is a beautiful blue that flashes sometimes deep sea blue, sometimes robin’s egg blue. I enjoy seeing beautiful things—that’s why I want it on my wall.

But I could just as well hang an iridescent blue hubcap on my wall; why a butterfly? Now my answer comes to the crux: because our love of living things is inherent.

This love is called biophilia, a term coined by E.O. Wilson and expounded upon by him and Stephen Kellert. This is why I find myself drawn to watch the fish in my aquarium and end up with a stupid, happy grin on my face. This is why people spend 30 Euros on a dead long-horned beetle (in spite of being dead, the beetle retains its living appearance when preserved).

I think experts have these three things—memory, appreciation of beauty, and biophilia—in larger or more finely tuned doses. Entomologists know and remember much more about insects than the average Schmoe, so they are more likely to remember the little drab ones as well as the big sexy beasts. They can notice more about a lacebug because they already know what it is. Their appreciation is honed to subtler beauty.

I have made it sound like being an expert is better than being an amateur in terms of seeing and loving the beauty of the world. Not so. Experts in the beauty of soil chemistry may be amateurs in the intricacies of maggot hibernation or cloud formation. They may not even see other parts of the world in any depth. Amateurs may be able to see and appreciate a broader slice of the world because they do not dig too deep a tunnel. I think there is a world between the loud blue morphos and the rare weevils where subtle beauty can be found and cherished.

On my last night in Paris I walked to Notre Dame, then across the Seine to the Hotel de Ville. There was an ice-skating rink set up in the square and a crowd of bundled Parisians whirling round and round. Some wobbled and held onto their equally wobbly friends, laughing and crashing into the wall around the rink. Others raced in weaving lines between the wobblers, or twirled on their blade tips in the center, muscular and graceful. The amateurs enjoyed laughing with their friends. For the experts, it may have been getting a move right. Both the amateurs and the experts were paying attention to the beauty of the experience, be it loud or subtle.