This is a story about the effort to understand and protect Blakiston’s Fish Owl, the largest owl in the world and its endangered population living in the Russian territory of Primorye Krai which lies along the Sea of Japan, north of the Russian port city of Vladivostok. It is a remote, sparsely settled and wild place, isolated from the rest of the world, and Russia as well, at a latitude close to our own, stretching 559 miles, between 42º and 48º north latitude. The author, Jonathan Slaght, a PhD candidate at the time, spent years in Primorye first in the Peace Corps and later working on a variety of wildlife projects before he took on the owls, a several years long study he undertook in association with the University of Minnesota, teaming up with Russian experts, and a loose international group of others doing research on other species resident there, like the Amur Tiger. His crew of Russian field workers, most of them hunters, skilled sportsmen, skilled as well in traveling through the wild landscape and survival there, were invested in the work they were doing. These people become his friends over the several years, despite or maybe because of their quirks, while both assisting and ‘training’ him as they do their primarily winter field work, under very harsh and often dangerous conditions, gathering data in the long months he spent back in the US. Along the way he lays out the work he must do to create an effective conservation plan, the goal of which was to secure the owl’s future, an owl about which relatively little was known. Continue reading
Category Archives: Climate
On Plant Drought Tolerance and Gardening in the Arid Oregon High Desert
Drought tolerance is an interesting topic. I’ve written on it before, but now have some additional thoughts to add, in part because we have recently moved to much more arid Central Oregon. A drought tolerant plant in Portland is a very different thing than one here where annual precipitation can vary from around 13″, very rare, down to as little as 5″, commonly 8″. While Oregon in general is considered to be a mediterranean type climate with dry summers and wetter winters, Redmond’s climate is strongly influenced by drier continental patterns. This last January, ’23, we received only 1/4″ of precipitation while Portland had 7.32″ about 120 miles to our northwest, on the ‘wet’ side of the Cascades. Drought tolerant then means different things in different regions and can vary widely within a region along with soil conditions, slope and aspect (which direction a site is oriented). Generally speaking, drought tolerance refers to the ability of a particular plant to endure periods in which available soil moisture is below that needed to support the plant’s metabolism. A tolerant plant can ‘bridge’ these naturally occurring ‘dry’ periods. An intolerant plant will suffer cellular, even structural damage and may be unable to flower and produce seed. Health is compromised should the drought last too long, resulting in internal physical damage and leaving it more subject to infection or infestation. A drought tolerant plant will have the capacity to respond in a healthy manner when soil moisture levels return to those that support active growth. Within these limits the stress it accrues does not compromise its health…beyond it though….Damage is accumulative. String a series of drought periods together and a plant’s capacity to recover is compromised. Because patterns of precipitation, of water storage and movement, vary widely across the earth, regions and sites have different plant communities associated with them. The condition of drought stress then varies with the location and the species. A drought tolerant plant on one site may crisp on another drier one. Of course this can work in the opposite sense as well, that a site may be too wet, but that’s another story. In the case of the PNW and many other regions, it is also the timing of the precipitation, when it occurs during a plant’s cycle of growth and dormancy. Continue reading
Fen, Bog and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis , a Review
Novelist Annie Proulx, begins her book with her childhood, giving us an idea of who she is, her attachments to the living world. She takes us with her on a walk she took with her mother as a young girl, through the neighborhood wilds, to an ignored patch of swampland. Her mother loved such places. She places her story in the larger story of the times of her birth and coming of age, of the 1930’s and the cruelties we perpetrated on each other and our limited view of the natural world, a world set as a table before us, for our consumption. She writes of her attachments to these abused and devalued wet landscapes, their necessity for a healthy natural world and what their loss means. Earlier, I reviewed Edward Struzik’s book “Swamplands”. Struzik has spent years working with researchers and conservationists in the field, and writing of his experiences. Proulx’s approach is much more personal as she works to place bogs, fens and swamps into a human, historical and cultural context. Continue reading
Climate, Trends and Current Weather: A Nice Record Setting Fall Day
I puttered and pruned in the garden today until I produced enough waste to fill my yard debris wheelie bin, it didn’t take long. After lounging around and reading for awhile I walked the 2 and 3/4 miles to the pool at OHSU where I swam for 40 minutes, then spent another 1/2 hour doing yoga and some core exercises in my efforts to slow down my inevitable decline…then, I walked back home across the river. It was a bizarrely warm afternoon, and early evening, and I covered the distance in a tee shirt…and pants and shoes of course. Lots of walkers out crossing the Tilikum Bridge and walking along the river. People were taking advantage and enjoying the day. I wonder how many understand just how ‘weird’ this weather is? Continue reading
Musella lasiocarpa: An Adaptable, Smaller Banana for Warm to Mild Temperate Gardens
Musella lasiocarpa may be the most easily recognized of the 48 species within the small but economically important Banana family, Musaceae. It is distinguished from all others by its small size, its congested, quickly tapering pseudo-stem, which is nearly bulbous at its base, its leaf blades extending upward from its relatively long petioles, shaped much like the traditional blades of Aleut kayak paddles and its unique flowering structure. Like all bananas the pseudo-stem is made up of tightly clasping, channeled, petioles, and its inflorescence which resembles a golden lotus flower in bud, with tightly held yellow to orange bracts having very little separation from one to the next, shielding its later emerging flowers tightly held beneath. The shape of this plant and its texture lies somewhere between the more commonly grown ,and proven, hardy members of its Order Zingiberales, the Hedychium spp. and both Musa Basjoo and Musa sikkimensis, which often fill a role in providing many mild to cool temperate gardens with their ‘tropicalesque’ characteristics. If your garden resides in climatically colder areas than those experienced by topical plants in the wild, then any of these may succeed as permanent contributors to a tropical ‘feel’ in your garden. Of course you can also choose to grow true tropical and subtropical species if you are committed to the necessary protections they will require over your cold season. Continue reading
On Life: An Annotated Reading List of Titles Exploring the Physics, Biology, Evolution, Natural Selection and the Generative Power of Far Out of Equilibrium Dissipative Structures (Organisms)
Nurse, Paul, “What is Life?: Five Great Ideas in Biology”, WW Norton and Co., 2021. I’m placing this book out of order here, its American edition just released this year and I’ve only just read it, because I concur that this is an excellent introduction to its topic and should be accessible to a broad audience, one without an academic background in biology. It does what Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”, does for its readers, presents in a compact and cogent way the central ideas for understanding the science of life. Nurse, is a Nobel Prize winning geneticist and cell biologist, who has dedicated his research life to the study of the cell and what sets this class of matter apart and unique, looking into its structure, chemistry/metabolism, reproduction, evolution and the relationships and communication which must occur within and between cells. He looks into what genetics is and isn’t capable of, what it seems to control, the genes for 20,000 some different proteins included within our DNA, while leaving open to question the instructions and detailed directions, how the growth and development of an organism is actually determined.
The reader will benefit from having some basic understanding of chemistry to fully grasp what he writes here, but this is an excellent starting point. At 143 pages this book shouldn’t scare off the reader. This is a window into life and should peek the readers interest as Nurse reveals what he still finds so fascinating about life and this world.
Al-Khalili, Jim and Johnjoe McFadden, “Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology”, Broadway Books, 2016. In the world of science, quantum biology is a toddler. Quantum mechanics itself only began a hundred plus years ago and quickly began redefining the way that physicists look at the world. Today most branches of science are transforming themselves, aligning themselves with this new reality of physics. This may be impacting none of the sciences more than it is biology and the life sciences. What was once limited to the quantum world of elementary particles so much smaller than we can see even with technology’s assistance, today we are finding quantum actions behind even the most simple processes up to and including the energy and origins of life. Mass and energy lie at the heart of everything and life is a very particular case of highly complex ordering of that mass and energy, intricately linked in coherent relationships, borne out of seemingly random, chaotic, actions at a subatomic level. In these systems/organisms life has evolved effective patterns that ‘feed’ on themselves, self-regulating, self-maintaining, able to reproduce with great ‘fidelity’ to one’s parent organisms, energy dissipating structures, dynamic, balanced between stasis or death and a runaway consumption of one’s self,, a conflagration. Patterns built on more basic patterns, conformed into very particular resonant structures which are additive and transformative, never perfect, evolving towards greater complexity and capacity, structures that ‘live’ in relationship to one another in a supportive manner, dynamic, time limited and ‘stable’ in a self-reinforcing sense…existing in different states, simultaneously. Follow Al-Khalili and McFadden down part of a ‘proven’ path. Continue reading
Physics, Evolution, Natural Selection and the Generative Power of the of Far Out of Equilibrium Dissipative Structures (Organisms), part 1
On Darwin and His Theory
Evolution is a word that can divide the world. Its opponents often claim that all that lives today, in terms of species diversity, did so yesterday…all the way back to the ‘first’ yesterday, which some people claim was precisely 4004 B.C., when ‘God’ created everything essentially in a moment. Bishop Ussher, of Ireland, published his ‘findings’ in 1650 and his ‘documentation’ is that most frequently referenced by opponents of evolution. He has it down to the day, Oct. 23 of that year. This is a problem when a researcher goes in with an ‘answer’ and is only looking for corroborating evidence, evidence which they will eventually find. Science, through the study of evolution, has developed various specialized technologies and techniques to reach back in time and analyze the evidence at hand. It has done this building on the work of those studying paleontology, microbiology, geology, chemistry, atmospheric chemistry; palynology, the study of pollen; astronomy and cosmology, quantum physics, stochastic methods developed around the hypothesis of a molecular clock which posits a rate of genetic change; and cladistics which assesses genetic lineages, the relationships between species and larger classification groups…scientists have collectively been dating ‘life’ back over Earth’s 4 billion years. The creationist argument depends entirely upon belief, denies science and views evidence such as fossils simply as ‘puzzles’ God left to confuse us.…Others accept that lower species may have ‘evolved’, but Man, created in His image, is special, exceptional and exempt, a creation of God, fixed and forever. Modern science does not give a pass to such claims of specialness seeking instead more direct evidence, making connections, following patterns, doing science….
Agapanthus for the Maritime Pacific Northwest: Not all of these are well suited for us…or are they?
A fellow gardener asked the question about whether there were a list of sure thing Agapanthus, plants that a beginner could confidently choose and have success with in most of the maritime PNW. I’m going to say no. All of these are South African natives and while many of us can grow these in our gardens, because our conditions overall are marginal, a gardener is going to have to possess a good understanding of their site in particular and some knowledge of the cultivars that they are choosing. I’m going to borrow here from Manning and Goldblatt’s book, “The Color Encyclopedia of Cape Bulbs”, which discusses the bulbs of the Cape Floristic region and those adjacent areas spilling over into other parts of South Africa. Agapanthus species are native there, endemic in fact, occurring naturally no where else in the world. I’m also relying here on the SANBI website, the South African Natural Biodiversity Institute which has put together an incredible national program, which all countries should be building for their own countries. Being a South African plant aficionado I visit it frequently. To this I add my own observations and speculations, having grown several Agapanthus over the last 25+ years in Portland: These come from warm temperate and subtropical areas in South Africa, 10 species total, 3 limited to the Cape itself, all of which tend to occur in rocky grasslands. Other botanists have downgraded 3 of Manning and Goldblatt’s species and given them subspecies status recognizing only 7 species. Continue reading
The Flowering of Monte: Going ‘Viral’ During a Pandemic
When will it actually flower? Once people got passed the, ‘What is ‘that’ question?’, this is what they wanted to know. When would it actually flower? by which they meant the individual petalous flowers open. More than a few times I responded snarkily…it’s flowering right now! Agave are among a wide ranging group of plants whose flowering includes a relatively large inflorescence, a supporting structure, which can rival the rest of the plant in terms of size. An Agave montana flowering here is foreign to our experience. The idea that such a large structure could arise so quickly, is to most people’s minds, strange, if not surreal…but for experienced gardens, who observe and strive to understand, there are links and connections, shared purpose and processes with all flowers. Gardeners and botanists, horticulturists and evolutionary scientists, they see the wonder in it all. When does flowering begin? When a plant commits to its purpose. Flowering should not be taken for granted. It does not occur to meet our aesthetic need. It is also much more than a simple result of a plant’s life. It is a fulfillment of one well and fully lived, projecting oneself into the future. Flowering and the production of one’s seed is a commitment to a future that will go on beyond oneself…and it begins from where every plant begins. Continue reading
What Do We Do When the Whole World Feels Like its Falling to Pieces?
In this blog I focus on plants. Any gardener, botanist or horticulturist knows that plants, all living organisms, live in an incredibly complex, interwoven network of systems, each affecting the others, the health of anyone, in large part determined by the health of the ‘whole’. Life does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. We humans are also very much living organisms and subject to the same kind of limits as any species. What we build and produce, including those more abstract things like our social and economic systems upon which we are very much dependent, are subject to the same natural laws and limits, whether we recognize them or not. Very much a part of this is how we value other life collectively. Just because many may say other people and species are of less value, does not make this fact. The laws and ways of ‘man’ must remain within, and consistent with, the laws of nature. We are not at liberty to treat other life as expendable. We owe a debt and responsibility to all life. Life permits and supports us so it is incumbent upon us to do the same for it. Such is the natural law of reciprocity. Continue reading