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: Plant Communities
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
Swamplands: Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs and the Improbable World of Peat, a Review
The idea of individuality and control, key elements of the American psyche, are a self-deception. We can take an individual action, guided by an intention, and see its effect in the world around us, but after that, the first ‘tier’ of effects, there are secondary, tertiary and others beyond them, as what we have effected spreads out across space and time, effecting those things, beyond our focus, that nevertheless are in relationship, and do and must respond. If we’re paying attention we can see them and attribute them to others, unaware of our impact. The world is so large and complex, while we individually, commonly see ourselves as relatively ineffectual. We often don’t recognize our own agency and how collective effects propagate from our action. This can also support the idea we ‘can’t’, in a significant way, damage the systems and cycles that support life on Earth. What we must understand though is, that as members of societies and cultures, which share economies and technologies, our ‘individual’ actions are ‘shared’, they are multiplied, often many millions of times. We act individually, but we have tremendous collective impacts. By denying this we deny individual responsibility, which in effect, is a cultural denial, permitting the negative impacts to continue. “It’s just me!” “It doesn’t matter.” “It’s their responsibility, not mine!” These collective problems are then left unaddressed.
It is easy to believe this way. There is so much beyond our own control, so many problems, that it must be this way right? No. We are responsible, collectively. We never truly act independently, because we live in relationship with those around us and their, and our, influence over one another blur. Like it or not, we are a part of a larger society. To go against the conventions and norms of society, to act independently, is risky, to ourselves and the world around us…a risk which can bring with it changes, either positive or destructive. However, going ‘along with’ the norms and conventions of society, unquestioningly, is to possibly continue a potentially destructive practice. We are responsible. We have necessary roles o play. We have been relatively bad as a society at discussing our wider actions, of working to understand our impacts and insuring the security of life and its necessary conditions. Too often we comply, go along and continue doing those things simply because we ‘always’ have, forgetting that as our numbers and use continues to grow, so does the potency of our impact. We have been habitually confusing short term gain and comfort, with longer term survival and good. The consequent results of those unexamined actions can become devastating. To continue ignoring our negative impacts on others, in its broadest sense, is ultimately a threat to our own well being and security. Uninformed actions, actions taken selfishly at other’s expense, threaten the whole, because of the ubiquitous and pervasive connections to the world and between all people, places and organisms. Our denials will not change this. So, why do I bring this up? This is a gardening/horticultural post…because, what we do, or don’t do, in our gardens and across our shared landscapes, has impacts well beyond their borders. Continue reading
Democracy, Inclusion and Full Citizenship as Biological Imperative: Arundhati Roy and the Politics of the World
When we open ourselves up to the world, travel to other regions and countries, see and live in different geographies, experience other cultures, climates and biomes, we have the opportunity to be intimate with and understand world’s very different than our own. The world is vast and its peoples and organisms, though astoundingly diverse, are closely related. Even if we could travel ‘everywhere’, having a meaningful experience with all of it is simply not possible. It is dangerously presumptuous to assume that anyone of us might understand all of this. Such travel, should we want to, isn’t possible for the large majority of us, which does not mean that there is therefore no point in traveling to where we can. If our goal is deeper than simply ticking off places and experiences, if we are seeking to understand, to ‘grow’ ourselves, our limited travels can still serve us. For the rest of us it is through reading and the sharing of stories that we can gain such insight, as long as the authors, our guides, are themselves astute observers who are engaged in the places and peoples of which they write. There are many such writers…I can think of none better than Arundhati Roy who writes so beautifully, imaginatively and painfully of her beloved home India. 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….
Why Bad Things Happen to Good Plants?: On Root Problems, Root Washing, Nursery Practices and Customers
“To be, or not to be? That is the question—Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And, by opposing, end them?” Hamlet.
Is the question we face as gardeners as simple as, To ‘root wash’ or not to ‘root wash’, before planting? To some today it has become ‘heretical’ to suggest that it might not be just a necessary corrective, but an unmitigated good…and not doing so dooms a plant to failure. The practice of ‘root washing’ in its present form, is relatively new to gardeners. Horticulture, which is a system of techniques, traditions and science, that goes back to our own species’ first intentional involvement growing and selecting plants, has not always included it. Practices develop over wide spans of time. Many are retained, others pass away. Root washing has been around as a method to assess damage to root systems, to ease and make more efficient division, to study root growth or cleanse them of particular infestations. ‘Bare-rooting’, during a plant’s winter dormancy in temperate regions, has historically been done in the field when harvesting or transplanting many deciduous trees and woody plants for shipping and ease of transport. In some circles today root washing has become an almost literal flash point, pitting proponent against opponent, ‘science’ against ‘tradition’…yet another fracture line to divide society. The road of the absolutist, as with many other human practices, tends to create conflict as evidence of correctness is lobbed back and forth. My own view is that, like so many other things today, the subject is somewhat ‘grayer’. Science can be on both ‘sides’, or neither, and reality is rarely so simplistic. 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
Gardening in Public, Charismatic Mega Flora and the Need for a Public Horticultural Intervention
We ‘need’ charismatic mega-flora today, plants that scream out to even the most plant blind of us to take notice, those that create such a sudden and uncontrollable ‘stir’ within us that our simple glimpse of them breaks our momentum, our chains of thought, interrupting whatever we’re doing in that moment bringing about a reflexive interjection, cause us to take notice, create an uncontrollable urge to stop what we’re doing and come back for a closer look! To tell our parents, partners or friends, to drag them back, for a repeat performance or to see if what we saw is really there or merely a mistake of perception. And they do come back. I see them every day, sometimes dragging disinterested friends to see this unimaginable impossibility. I hear them when I’m out working in the private part of the garden with excited voices, sometimes expletives, “Look at this ‘F@#$ing’ thing! Can you believe it?” I love this. They’ve come for ‘Monte’!