Spider-Snake, Spider-Snake…

Can you climb a tree? 

Can you climb a tree without branches to grasp? 

Now imagine climbing a tree without the benefit of hands or feet!

I found this 5-ish foot rat snake easing up a white oak.  Notice how it bends to find any slight protrusion in the rough bark.  By pressing against many points of contact, it distributes its weight and supports itself as it inches up the trunk.  It isn’t a fast process, but snakes are patient.  Besides bark, I’ve seen snakes on brick walls as well.    

That explains the how, but what about the why?  For the same reason a snake does most things – the quest for food.  The serpent searches for nests, consuming bird eggs or young squirrels.  Snakes may also hide in trees to escape their own predators.  Wetland snakes such as cottonmouths often bask in the branches of trees, plopping back into the water when startled. 

The red-cockaded woodpecker has developed an impressive defense to deter slithery predators.  These birds make their nests in cavities they excavate in longleaf pines.  The woodpeckers smooth the rough bark on the nest trees as well as surrounding pines.  They also excavate small holes (“resin wells”) above, around, and below the nest cavity. Resin flows from these wells, forming a smooth coating on the tree truck that snakes find difficult to cross.

All Roadways Great and Small

Here are a few thoughts about driving in England, from an American perspective.

This is besides the left-side driving (I’d repeat the mantra “Driver in the middle, driver in the middle”) or roundabouts (simple once you know some rules such as “the one in the roundabout has the right-of-way”).

The thing to be cognizant of is that most roads were set in place before the invention of the automobile. 

Don’t get me wrong; after a couple of days practicing in Suffolk, I was relatively comfortable behind the wheel, so long as I skirted the towns. By the time we’d made our way across the country to Cornwall, I was playing the theme to All Creatures Great and Small on my phone and in my head while driving through this green, pastoral countryside.

The largest roads, the motorways (Designated with M- just like our interstates are I-) are typically divided highways, with 2 lands each.  Unlike interstates, shoulders are not a given.  There may be periodic pull-offs, but much of the roadside is tall weeds or rocks.

The next roads (often with the A- prefix) are like our 2-lane roads, again excepting the lack of shoulders.  Hedgerows, banks, and walls are common, and pull-offs are infrequent.  The listed speeds are 50 or 60 unless near towns, but I rarely felt comfortable going that fast.  The roads seldom have long straight and level stretches, so passing isn’t something I practiced a lot. 

But wait, it gets more interesting.  Farther in the countryside (and some village streets) are what I called 1 ½-lane roads.  Same obstacles on the sides, but meeting an oncoming car leaves no room for error.  The two vehicles creep past each other, left mirror brushing weeds, right mirrors not quite touching.  In villages, parking takes up most of a lane, so opposing drivers have to decide who yields.

Then there are the tracks that, while paved, are meant for 2 horses abreast or one modern car.  If you see headlights, either find a pullout (which may be just deep enough for your passenger wheels) or back up.

One things to remember on anything less than an M road: travel will invariably take longer than you expect. In my home county, I can cross 17 miles of rural road in around 20 minutes. Along the winding tracks of rural England, a 3 mile drive took over 10 minutes; another 5 mile distance, 20! Folks used to rapid mobility will need to recalculate their travel estimations.

I negotiated the roads without major incident, owing in part to the fact that the drivers around me tended to be more polite, and forgiving, than I had a right to expect.


Moor path

Public Footpaths: one of many discoveries my family made on our trip to the UK.  Sounds simple, right?  A simple green sign points the way to a walking trail through a pasture, along a hedgerow, or down by a stream.  The rural areas we visited were fairly threaded through with footpaths.  But I have to say, using these trails made me feel a little transgressive, like I was getting away with something.  Of course, the US has trails for the public as well.  But they are usually on publicly- owned lands, whether a national monument, state natural area, or city park.  You don’t cross into private land uninvited without risking a call to the police or a bullet zinging overhead.  But in England, if it’s marked, you can walk, take photos, even have a picnic in a stranger’s pasture.  In America, walking through someone’s property – field, woods, even transmission line – without permission is trespassing; in England, if there is a marked public footpath, it is illegal to block it!  And by one source, there are something like 140,000 miles of public footpaths in England and Wales (Scotland has a similar concept, but the rules are different).

I visited a handful of footpaths during our visit to the south of England.  The first one was near the village of Wellow in Somerset, as we quested for a Neolithic barrow said to be in the area.  Crossing a wooden stepladder that bridged a fence, we found ourselves among sheep who were apparently used to ramblers.  I felt a bit wary because, as I said, I half expected to be yelled at by an irate farmer.  But we were accosted as we followed a faint fence line path up a hill, then across the hill alongside a hawthorn hedge, until reaching our goal (which no doubt I will discuss in a later post).  As we left, we passed two or three folks who drove here to walk their dogs. This trail I thought was back-of-beyond was getting a fair bit of use this afternoon.

Alley path

The next excursion began in the village of St. Tudy in Cornwall.  A footpath sign pointed down the alley between our cottage and the next, so we followed.  The first bit of trail was fenced on either side, railroading us straight through two yards to the pasture, where a sign on the gate warned “Beware of Bull”.  The path wasn’t so well-worn, so we had to follow along walls and hedges to see what was a proper crossing and what was merely damage from the escape attempts of livestock. 

beware bull
Fae path

Eventually, we gave up on the path and wove through pastures until we reached a paved road.  Returning to the village, we were almost in sight of home when the daughter saw another Public Footpath sign, which drew her like faery song down a narrow dark track, close-mantled by hedge and tree.  Again, we steered by steps in the walls rather than a visible path, until drizzle and fading light coaxed us into turning heads for home.

I loved the concept of the public footpaths.  It is a concept embedded in British custom and is likely too alien to gain traction in our land where property rights are so jealously guarded.

Additional Information:

Walks Around Britain

Finding paths

Summing Up with Uncle Ernie

One of the most memorable professors I had at UGA was Dr. Ernie Provost.  He was a tough, leathery S.O.B. who had scars from a katana blade wielded in anger.  He could identify any skull at a glance, feared no rattlesnake, and regularly won national and world skeet competitions until the hand-rolled cigarette habit of decades took his breath away.  He could recite poetry, discuss philosophy and history, and referred to Aldo Leopold as “Our Father who art in Heaven.”  His students called him Uncle Ernie (thought not usually within earshot).

I had the privilege of taking Natural History from Dr. Ernie Provost.  I think the year was 1989, and it was one of the last years he taught. I could tell a lot of stories about this colorful man and the difficult class that I was proud to have earned an A in.  But for now, allow me to share some of the man’s pearls of wisdom.

For the final lecture of the class, he walked in with a tape recorder, gave a brief introduction, and turned on the tape.  I was much impressed and pleaded to get a copy of the tape.  He said no, but after the final exam he relented and handed it over.  What follows is a transcript, first of his introduction, and then his tape.

Introduction (in class):

“I came back to work last night about eight o’clock, and it was about 11:30 before I got home.  And I was kind of tuckered, and I didn’t know what in the world to do with today’s class.  It’s frustrating as heck to get this far and have so much left undone.  So I did something I have done a few times in the past — sometimes it turns out alright, sometimes it doesn’t — but what I do is mix me a tall, cool one, roll a cigarette, put on a tape and start running my mouth off, and now you are stuck, ’cause you got to listen to me run my mouth off here for a little while.  So sit back and relax.”

The Tape:

“I’m all for the man who, having nothing to say, refrains from giving oral evidence of the fact.  In trying to decide what to do with this last lecture period, I’d about decided I had nothing to say, since none of the topics such as zoogeography, bioenergetics, population genetics, hibernation and reproduction, biology of extinction, rare and endangered species —  all of which and many more should be addressed —  none of them could really be approximated in one 50 – minute lecture.  It occurred to me, however, that I might presume to impinge on you for a few minutes with a few philosophies of that most ubiquitous of all vertebrates, Man.  This course, as with most taxonomic subjects, has been primarily factually oriented; and in such courses, there is little time (particularly in the span of the quarter system) to stimulate the imagination and perhaps even the intellectual curiosity of an inquiring mind.  This is regrettable, but I do not say it apologetically.  Our aims this quarter have been to learn to identify vertebrates, and hopefully we gained some insight into what a vertebrate is and how it got that way.  This I think we have accomplished.  But the lessons we’ve learned from the so-called lower animals are frequently applicable to ourselves if we exercise the common sense to apply them.

I make no claim as to the originality of any of the ideas that these ramblings may encompass.  We are all, after all, a product of whatever our particular sojourn in this great big beautiful blue-eyed world has exposed us to.  Some perspicacious character observed that no one can get more out of anything than their previous experience permits them to get.  I suppose this includes life, books, college courses, professors and students.  At this relatively late stage in my own life, I’ve long since lost track of where I picked up what particular thought or opinion I may now have salted away.  But though there may be a lot of plagiarism in what follows, maybe there’s a little bit of originality and perhaps you may find something worth keeping in the conglomerate.

It’s been said that no man’s opinion is any better than his background, his experience, and his general common sense.  Just because a person has a Ph.D. after his or her name doesn’t necessarily mean they’re worth listening to.  As human beings we all have a right to our opinion.   But opinions should be based on facts.  We even have a right to be wrong in our opinions, but we don’t have the right to be wrong in our facts.  This train of thought was prompted by a question that was posed to me a while back.  The question went something like, “What are snakes good for?”  Perhaps the most challenging and intriguing way to answer that question, especially when it is posed by one unversed in ecology and vertebrate zoology, is to answer it with another, much more difficult question: “What are human beings good for?”  That one has puzzled philosophers ever since the first cave man stopped beating the brains out of one of his fellow men long enough to look up at the sky and wonder the same thing.  Man consists of some seven octillion atoms (that’s 7 x 1027) grouped in about ten trillion cells (that’s 1013).  This conglomeration of cells and atoms has some astonishing properties:  It is alive, feels joy and sorrow, discriminates between beauty and ugliness, and distinguishes good from evil.  In many of these, and other things, Man differs from other animals, but is nonetheless a product of the same forces.  All animals, including Man, are adapted to a way of life, to specific habitats and ecological niches.  The ability to adapt resides in the individual, but only assumes importance when it becomes a population characteristic.  Whether or not an individual utilizes the ability depends on circumstances.  Survival or death of an individual is to some extent a matter of chance.  Some will adapt that are killed and vice-versa.  Adaptation leads to diversification, and make no mistake, failure to adapt leads to extinction.  This is a universal law of great big beautiful blue-eyed Mother Nature and it applies to Man as well as to the other critters.

If this course is worth anything — if I’ve been worth anything — it will occasionally have asked questions (and I will have asked questions) or caused you to ask yourself questions which are really big.  And I hope that in some of the biggest I will have had the good sense to have left them unanswered.  If you think about the material in which your training in ZOO 350 allows you to observe — and up to now you may have seen but I don’t know whether you’ve been observing or not — some of the things you learn and observe will provoke and inspire, and irritate, and I don’t know which will be the most advantageous to you.  But learning to ask the questions why, how, to gain an awareness — these are the things that really matter.

When I finally got discharged from the Marines Corps after World War II, I was a very mixed-up, bitter, and disenchanted young man.  Realizing that I had to get my head straightened out or I was going to end up in jail or the booby hatch, I headed for the hills and spent some time trying to sort things out.  I learned a lot in the few months about myself, about life, and some do’s and don’ts, one of which was ‘It’s not prudent to squat in front of a fire when the crotch of your jeans is sewed up with copper wire.’  Anyhow, years later, after belatedly getting my life back on track, I read something written by a man named James A. Mitchner, in which he summed things up perfectly for my own case as well as his, and it went something like this:  This tardy beginning (referring to his late start in life, and my own), one might say delinquency, stem from the fact that I spent a good deal of my early time knocking around the country trying to find out what I believed in, what values were large enough to enlist my sympathy during which I sensed would be a long and confused life.  Had I committed myself earlier, I would not even have known the parameters of the problem.  Any choice I might have made then would have had to be wrong.

Even though it took a lot of years’ work to figure out the real facts, I finally decided that the constructive work of the world is done by an appallingly-small percentage of the population; the rest simply don’t give a damn, or they fail to acquire, when young, the ideas that would vitalize them for the long decades ahead.  I’m not saying that such people don’t matter; they are among the most precious items on Earth.  But they cannot be depended upon either to generate necessary new ideas or to put them into operation if someone else generates them.  Therefore, those men and women who do have the energy to form new constructs and new ways to implement them must do the work of many.  I believe it to be an honorable aspiration to want to be among these creators.  Hence the necessity of education — that’s really what it’s all about.

Way back in 1958 a man named George Walls said that the great questions are those an intelligent child asks, and finding no answers, learns to stop asking.  That’s what’s known as “growing up;” it’s supposedly one of the fruits of education.  Heaven forbid!  Occasionally, a man such as, oh, Einstein asks a few such questions as a child and never gives up asking them.  That is genius.  The human mind is capable of solving every problem that it can formulate if it’s not distracted; but it longs to be distracted.  The great and difficult thing is to ask the right questions.  Their rightness is in their spaciousness; one can grow in them, and they grow as one grows, so they lead ever onward, ancient yet always new, always fresh,  always yielding but promising more than they have yielded.  One might suppose that all of us know some of these great questions and live with them.  This is not so.

In an almost universal habit of intellectual agoraphobia (and if you’re not familiar with that word, agoraphobia means morbid dread of crossing or being in the midst of open spaces) we grow up to avoid these questions.  We like to pin ourselves in with as close and cozy detail that we can manage and arrange.  Most of us are like men with sore eyes — we find the light which permits us to see things clearly, painful, and the darkness which clouds our vision is comforting and cozy.  I’m reminded of the story of Plato’s Cave. It’s been quite a while since I read it, I’ll probably bastardize it a bit, but it goes something like this just in case you don’t remember:  There was a race of people who lived in a cave.  They were chained to the wall; actually, they weren’t being tortured, they weren’t prisoners, it’s just the way they lived.  And, on the wall, they saw shadows moving back and forth, and of course these shadows were caused by the light coming through the mouth of the cave, and things and people passing back and forth across the mouth, casting shadows on the wall.  And these people that lived in the cave figured all this out, and they figured out what the shadows meant, the significance of it, what caused them and all that.  Of course, they didn’t have it right, but they had it figured out anyway.  But eventually, one of their number, a young man, was permitted to go to the outside.  Of course, it took him a while to adapt to the light, but little by little he was able to handle the bright sunlight and he began to see what the real poop, the straight scoop, the facts were.  He realized the real cause of the shadows they had watched on the wall and what it was all about.  And he wanted very much to get back into the cave and explain it to the rest of his people.  And he did, and he went in there and laid the straight scoop on them.  Now, did they hail him as a hero?  Not at all!  This guy was an iconoclast.  He was tearing down images and idols, and they didn’t like it; he was upsetting the apple cart.  So what did they do?  Well, they solved their problem, they killed him.  And they didn’t have to worry about this upstart anymore.

Sort of reminds me of another one of those little poems from Ogden Nash (I’ll bastardize this one, too) that goes something like: For things are frequently what they seem, and this is wisdom’s clown/ Only the game fish swims upstream; the rest of the fish swim down (actually, Ogden Nash said the “sensible” fish swim down, but I don’t like that, so as I said I switched it around).  In other words, when you’re right, you’re right, and even if you gotta pay the bill, you gotta stick to it.  After all, no one has the right to be a parasite on society.  But by the same token, one has to use your head.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Robert Ruark.  He is now dead, but Ruark was a wonderful author, he wrote a lot of wonderful books.  He grew up in South Carolina here in the Southeast.  One of his finest books, I think, is called The Old Man and The Boy, and the old man is the boy’s grandfather, and there’s a lot of nice interplay between these two, but there’s one particular passage that I find intriguing.  The kid is trying to train a goat, and he’s not having much luck training this goat.  The old man finally admonishes him and he tells him something like, “There are some things, some dogs, some goats, even some people that ain’t worth troubling over.  You can feed’em, and gentle’em, and worry over’em, and coax’em and try to teach them, but they’ll stay obstinate.  After a while, the only thing is to give up.  The hard thing is to know when to give up, not too early, and not too late.  If you give up too late, you’ve wasted a lot of time; if you give up too early, you may have lost a winner, and that, we really can’t afford to do.”   Ruark also pointed out that Man becomes immortal only in what he writes down on paper, or hacks into a rock, or slathers onto a canvas or pulls out of a piano.  But the thought, the feeling, the question precludes the immortal result; you’ve got to keep on trying to ask the right questions.  But I’m convinced that each of us should strive to find his or her niche in life whatever that may be, and that takes some doing sometimes.  You gotta thank your lucky stars if you do find it, but having found it, you’ve got to be smart enough to realize that you’ve had some good fortune and found your niche, and stay there; don’t try to be a ladder climber and promote yourself to the level of incompetence (as the saying goes).

This business about giving up reminds me of another old man and the boy, coming down out of some hills of the Northwest in the middle of July in a blizzard dressed only in thin summer clothes, riding obstinate horses, herding a string of granny mules that were absolutely impossible.  The old man rode back along the string, and he saw the young kid, soaking wet from all the snow coming down off the pine boughs all over him, Cold, wet, miserable, teeth clenched hard trying his best not to shiver and sob.  The old man knew the kid was in tough shape, and he said “Son, you may be give out, but you can’t give up.”  Well, the old man was usually right, it doesn’t pay to give up, at least not too early.  Once in a while, once in a great while, one has to give up, but the hard thing is to know when — not too soon, but then again, not too late either.  I guess it’s a matter of establishing your own sense of values and then sticking to them.  A short while ago a group of Georgia bigwigs along with a lot of lesser wights gathered on campus here to celebrate the ground breaking for a $32,000,000 biological sciences complex to be devoted to biotechnological research.  Of course, this building is just about complete now over behind Forest Resources and Ecology, but at the time, ex University president Fred Davidson (who I am pleased to call a friend and whose baby this project really is) was quoted as saying that, and I quote, “Nature will literally be reprogrammed to serve Man,” end of quote.  In view of Man’s record so far, the very population explosion alluded to by Davidson, and the result of Man’s dubious attempts to date to reprogram Nature, I am tempted to ask, along with Billy Shakespeare, “What meat is this our Caesar eats that he is grown so great?”  History records that Conquering Man has always known, in each of his various civilizations, what was important where in the particular artifact known as Society which he had erected at that particular moment.  But the failure of each civilization in turn suggests that, so far, he has been predominately wrong about the whats and the wheres.  So by what colossal bigotry then do we presume to have suddenly found all the right answers in ours, the latest of these artifacts?  As a dedicated doubter, a full-time skeptic and a part-time cynic, I question whether this highly-touted artifact we are pleased to call Society is evolving a better Man or is capable of doing a better job of reprogramming Nature.  With Aldo Leopold, I wonder if we are exchanging such things as two cars under the roof of our neo-colonial garage, multiple TV sets, and all the rest of it, for an awareness of some of the greater values in life.  To get technical for a minute, the Hardy-Wienberg Law, which deals with the relations between gene frequencies in random-mating populations of diploid  individuals, and the zygotic frequencies resulting from such matings, shows that there no intrinsic mechanisms in Mendelian inheritance leading to alterations in gene frequencies in populations.  In other words, there is no tenancy for one gene to replace another and hence no loss of variability in a population.  In other words, Man is a product of the same evolutionary principles as are other critters.  But modern man has a double heritage.  He is a product of biological and cultural evolution, and herein maybe’s a problem.  As I told you before, the concern of man in reality should be not whether his species survives but whether his population line will persist.  It could, if among successful lines, continue in existence, presumably 11,000,000 million years, at which time its representative species could, and undoubtedly would, be far different than that of the present day.  The problem lies in time and the nature of man, and the decisions that he is capable of making.  The bottom line here is, you people are the ones that are going to make the decisions.

I think it well to quote here from Aldo Leopold’s last chapter in his book, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, when he quoted from Robinson’s injunction to Tristram, and it goes something like this:  ” Whether you will or not, you are a king, Tristram.  You are one of the time-tested few that leave the world, when they are gone, not the same place it was.  Mark what you leave.”

Well, now this is getting a little bit heavy, and you’re probably getting a little bit, shall we say, disenchanted with my ramblings.  In any event, before I leave you, I’d like to read something to you.  It’s a poem called “Evolution,” written by a guy named Smith.

When you were a tadpole, and I was a fish,

In the Paleozoic time,

And side by side on the ebbing tide

We sprawled through the ooze and slime,

Or skittered with many a caudal flip

Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,

My heart was rife with the joy of life,

For I loved you even then.

Mindless we lived and mindless we loved

And mindless at last we died;

And deep in a rift of the Caradoc drift,

We slumbered side by side.

The world turned on in the lathe of time,

The hot lands heaved amain,

Till we caught our breath from the womb of death

And crept into light again.

We were Amphibians, scaled and tailed,

And drab as a dead man’s hand;

We coiled at ease ‘neath the dripping trees.

Or trailed through the mud and sand,

Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet,

Writing a language dumb,

With never a spark in the empty dark

To hit at a life to come.

Yet happy we lived, and happy we loved,

And happy we died once more;

Our forms were rolled in the clinging mould

Of a Neocomian shore.

The Aeons came, and the Aeons fled,

And the sleep that wrapped us fast,

Was riven away in a newer day,

And the night of death was past.

Then light and swift through the jungle trees

We swung in our airy flights

Or breathed in the balm of the fronded palms

In the lush of the moonless nights

And oh! what beautiful years were these,

When our hearts clung each to each,

When life was filled and our senses thrilled

In the first faint dawn of speech.

Thus life by life and love by love,

We passed through the circle strange,

And breath by breath and death by death

We followed the chain of change

Till there came a time in the law of life

When over the nursing sod

The shadows broke, and the soul awoke

In a strange, dim dream of God.

I was thewed like an Aurock bull

And tusked like the great Cave Bear;

And you, my sweet from head to feet,

Were gowned in your glorious hair.

Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,

When the night fell o’er the plain,

And the moon hung red o’er the river bed,

We mumbled the bones of the slain.

I flaked a flint to a cutting edge,

And shaped it with brutish craft;

I broke a shank from the woodland dank

And fitted it, head and haft.

Then I hid me close by the reedy tarn,

Where the Mammoth came to drink,

Through brawn and bone I drave the stone,

And slew him on the brink.

Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,

Loud answered our kith and kin;

From west and east to the crimson feast,

The clan came trooping in.

O’er joint and gristle, and padded hoof,

We fought, and clawed, and tore,

And cheek by jowl, with many a growl

We talked the marvel o’er.

I carved that fight on a reindeer bone,

With rude and hairy hand,

I pictured his fall on the cavern wall

That men might understand,

For we lived by blood and the right of might,

Ere human laws were drawn,

And the Age of Sin did not begin

Till our brutal tusks were gone.

And that was a million years ago,

In a time that no one knows.

Yet here tonight in the mellow light,

We sit at Delmonico’s;

Your eyes are as deep as Devon springs,

Your hair as dark as jet,

Your years are few, your life is new,

Your soul untried, and yet,

Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay,

And the scarp of Purbeck flags,

We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones,

And deep in the Coraline crags;

Our love is old, or life is old,

And death shall come amain;

Should it come today, what man may say

We shall not meet again,

Got wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds

And furnished them wings to fly.

He sowed our spawn in the world’s dim dawn,

And I know that it shall not die,

Though cities have sprung above the graves

Where the crook-boned men made war,

And the ox-wain creaks o’er the buried caves,

Where the mummied mammoths are.

Then, as we linger at luncheon here,

O’er many a dainty dish,

Let us drink anew to the time when you

Were a Tadpole and I were a Fish.

And speaking of which, good luck with the tadpoles and the fish.”

Dr. Ernie Provost

I feel sorry for the students of today who will never know a teacher like this one.

Aldo Leopold

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise (Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac)

Today is Earth Day, celebrated across the US and around the world.  But I’m talking about yesterday, which was the 71st anniversary of the death of a conservationist who should have more recognition than he gets.  Aldo Leopold was an ecologist, forester, outdoorsman, and known by many as the father of modern wildlife management.

A graduate of the Yale School of Forestry, he worked with the Forest Service in the Southwest and later Wisconsin.  He eventually became the first Professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin. His writings (hundreds of articles, reports, and essays, plus countless letters and journal entries) document an evolving view of how natural communities work – and how easily and carelessly humans sabotage them.  He advocated the scientific management of wildlife habitat, and the setting-aside of wilderness areas to preserve select lands in a roadless state.

In the course of his career, Leopold experimented with the tools conservationists had available to maintain and create wildlife habitat.   Policy and regulation worked well out west where most of the land was owned by the government;  financial incentives and subsidies were more effective among  midwestern landowners, but only as long as the payouts continued.  He determined that what was really needed was for landowners to develop an “ecological conscience,” a sense of right and wrong directed towards maintaining harmony with the natural community much as our social conscience is likewise directed towards harmony with the human community.

When I was a college student in a natural resources program, A Sand County Almanac was one of those books everyone was expected to read if not quote.  Among the collection of essays is the “The Land Ethic,” laying out the moral responsibility of humans to the natural world.

“A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

This ethic is broadly drawn and would no doubt have evolved and been refined through feedback, discussion, and reflection.  Unfortunately, Aldo Leopold suffered a heart attack and died while fighting a fire on a neighbor’s land.  Thus, the posthumous treatise on the place of mankind in the natural community was his final word on the subject.

Yet his ideas and efforts have produced a legacy that lives on 7 decades later.  Nature-minded folk across the spectrum – conservationist and preservationist, hunter and animal rights activist – wave his words like gospels.  His ideas have influenced conservation policy and college curricula.

If you are an environmentalist of any stripe, I recommend you become familiar with Leopold’s writings.

Visit the Aldo Leopold Foundation

Aldo Leopold and the Birth of the Land Ethic,” on the Voices of the Wilderness podcast

Beauty at Our Feet

Outdoors folks in the South  spend a lot of time with downcast eyes.  This isn’t out of bluets2shame or sadness.  Knowing where you are stepping is of real importance.   Besides the scaly or chitinous critters that might violently object to being trod on, there are other dangers, from stump holes and brambles to rusty wire and glass.  There are prizes as well: arrowheads, coins, antique bottles, shed antlers, and more can fill the pocket or pack of the sharp-eyed observer.

As winter slides into spring, other tiny treasures reveal themselves to those who look.  A particular favorite of mine is the bluet.  This annual sports a quarter-inch  4-petal flower ranging from white through pale blue to purple.  The books say it can grow 6-8 inches tall, but on mowed-but-weedy lawns or road shoulders they hug the ground.  Last month I saw a few scattered around, like early evening stars on a green sky, but this week I enjoyed a regular Milky Way running along a field border.

Another flower catching my eye is the southern woodland violet.  It’s easy to miss on an unmowed lawn, but the little pop of purple draws the gaze and makes you want to take a closer look.

Violet 2There are others coming up these days, but the above two, beautiful but unassuming, are harbingers of the season for me.   Always keep a watchful eye; you’ll be surprised what is going on around you.bluets1-e1551640039489.jpg

A Moment’s Awareness

Walking down a woods road at the night end of twilight, l try to marshal my thoughts.  But my mind tugs away like a puppy unreconciled to the leash.  It chases old remembrances, worries at the cares of friends and family, and dashes towards tomorrow’s plans and future uncertainties.

Leaves rustle to my right.  In an instant,  wayward thoughts return, alert, on point.

I share awareness of this moment with a night-hidden, skittering creature, with no notion of its life on either side of this moment, nor it of mine.

The woods are quiet.  I walk on. Chastened, my mind heels for  a short span.

Outliving His Home

Consider the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus).  It’s the state reptile of Georgia, and its burrows were once common in the deep sands of  the coastal plain of the southeastern U.S.   Growing to a foot long and weighing  12 pounds or so, the hardy reptiles subsist on grasses, forbs and fruits in upland pine savannah and sandhills. Gopher tortoises are a keystone species, meaning many other species depend on them.  In fact, hundreds of different animal species – insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and even birds – use tortoise burrows for shelter from fire or weather. tortoise burrow

But what happens when their world changes around them?  In the last century or so, humans have significantly altered the landscape.  They removed fire, the element which maintained the grasslands and open woodlands.  They planted thick monocultures, first of annual crops, then of dense stands of pines.   They planted buildings, run fences,  and laid pavement over land where tortoises and their grassland companions once traveled freely.

My experiences with tortoises have been largely in the “you just missed them” category.  More than once, I’ve felt like I should be  bearing  my clients a telegram: “We regret to inform you…”  Several absentee landowners have proudly told me about the tortoises on their place, but when we visited could only show me crumbled burrows  veiled with cobwebs and old leaves.   When I couldn’t fulfill my objective to educate a landowner on how to improve the habitat for their tortoises, I was left to tell them why the reptiles were no longer there.  That clearcut pine forest, grown up in scrub?  Those woods that haven’t been burned since Reagan was in office?  Those holes in the pasture you kept filling in?  Yeah, that’s why you have no gophers.

Tortoises are hardy enough to survive on sparse rations, and can live as long as humans.  They’re also stubborn, and may cling to their burrow even when the habitat vanishes around them.  I’ve seen an active  tortoise burrow in the middle of a 20-year-old loblolly pine stand, with nothing but pine straw for a hundred yards in any direction.

Another man proudly showed me some burrows  crowded together on the cut bank of a woods road;   After looking around, I pointed out that all the surviving tortoises had left the surrounding 100 acres (now  had grown thick and scrubby since the woods were logged) and were clinging to the last open land for a quarter mile in any direction.  All of the burrows were large, indicating mature individuals.  Unless the land is again managed for open native woodland, that remnant colony will pass away with the last of those elders.

I recently noticed a old male tortoise on the shoulder of a country road.  It was just crossing the white line when I saw it, and was fortunate that the next two drivers veered to miss it.  I carried it across the road and gave it a quick once-over. The growth rings on the venerable fellow’s carapace had worn smooth, but it bore some scratches suggesting the shell had been put to the test in the recent past.  Looking around, I could see nothing but canopied woods around me ­– creek bottom hardwoods to one side, volunteer pines on the other.  When the tortoise was young, there may have been native rangeland to spare, but this poor fellow had outlived its habitat. This steep, mowed shoulder may well have been its only feeding ground.  This old campaigner was likely as old as I am, but negotiating that 2-lane is a hazard beyond any its ancestors faced.  So long as drivers  continue to miss it, and dogs and men refrain from trying to eat it, this living monument will continue to plod along, foraging where it can before returning to the shelter of a well-loved burrow.  When its time comes, it will leave a bleached shell to mark the local loss of a creature that will likely never tread that patch of Georgia again.tortoise 1

For more information:

About the early successional habitat the gopher tortoise need.

Educational materials and landowner resources from the Gopher Tortoise Council, a non-profit organization dedicated to the study and conservation of this amazing reptile.

A presentation on the gopher tortoise, including what to do if you find one.

Appalachia’s Once and Future King

chestnut narrow
Chestnut sprouting from the base of a dead trunk, Appalachian Trail

The story of the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) is a tale of tragedy and endurance.  Found in every state east of the Mississippi, the chestnut dominated the mountains and uplands of the Appalachians; some estimate one in four mountain hardwood trees were chestnuts.  It was a keystone species of its ecosystem. The prodigious supply of nuts provided food for wildlife and woodsmen alike, and an economic boon for mountain folk (sold nationwide, and especially popular at Christmas).  Chestnut wood was strong and rot resistant, an ideal material for rail fence, bridge and cabin. The fallen leaves decomposed into nutrient-rich humus to build up the thin mountain soils.  The mighty American chestnut was the king of the mountains.

But in 1904, a Japanese bark fungus turned up in New York City.  Called the “chestnut blight,” the pathogen infects the cambium, forming cankers and eventually girdling the tree.  The spores travel by wind, animal, or automobile, and by around 1950 the disease had swept the entire range, killing nearly every mature tree.  Only few survivors , outliers of the tree’s normal range,  still stand tall.  Yet the species  persists  in hill and hollow to this day. When stressed, the chestnut reacts by coppicing – sending up shoots from the roots or stump.  These new saplings from old roots rise up, but seldom grow more than a few inches in diameter before the blight strikes them down again. But the roots stir and twigs rise once more. So the cycle continues.

Last weekend, I drove a short ways along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic road which winds through the mountains in North Carolina and Virginia.  Along the way there are many overlooks where one can park and enjoy the vistas.  Nature being loathe to stand still, the vistas are eventually screened as saplings reach skyward.  At one of these I saw where, two or three years previously, the Park Service chainsawed a swath of trunks that threatened the view.   At the bottom of the steep limb-strewn clearing, among the bottles, cans and other human detritus, a few sprigs of a chestnut tree clung to life.  Construction of the Parkway coincided with the blight’s appearance in North Carolina, so it is possible this individual was cut by the road crew before the fungus got to work on it.  Of course, the blight felled it each time it resprouted since then.

There are many small, aged survivors scattered throughout the eastern highlands, remnants of the 3-4 billion trees that dominated the  hill-mantling forests prior to the 20th century.  I will not see their ascendance in my lifetime, but hope they will one day take back their place as kings of the forest.

For More Information:

Follow the links given in the wiki page for American chestnut.

Here is a presentation on efforts to restore the American chestnut.

The Saga of the American Chestnut

Chestnut below the Blue Ridge Parkway

A Different Shore

In my childhood – all my life, really – the shore was about sand.  Where land met sea, you would find the white of powdery quartz or the orange of crushed shells.   Some were good for dribbled  towers on the featureless shore, and others occasionally offered up sand-dollars or interesting bits of flotsam.

My recent trip to Maine showed me a coastline in rawer form. Schoodic shore

In July I spent a few days on the Schoodic (SKU-dik) Peninsula, where the crashing of the waves sounded like the sighing of wind through my open window at night.  I spent one late afternoon alone on the rocks, watching and listening. Behind me, stunted trees and herbs clung tenaciously to a mantle of dirt only a few inches thick.   Before me,  waves crashed  against the cracked, ancient granite.  It made me think of troops advancing in human waves, charging up the slope before faltering and falling back, only to regroup and charge forth again.

Closer to the huddled vegetation, I saw sharp demarcation in the stone, as a dike of basalt cut through the granite.  A young geologist could have a fine time following the lines of dark stone slashing the open ground of Schoodic, to be fractured and worn down, leaving wide trenches in the harder granite.schoodic basalt

The crashing waves were soothing, but some animal part of me also watched with dread.  This wasn’t the domesticated water of a swimming pool; if given a chance, those powerful, frigid waves would mindlessly sweep you away, break you against stone, rob  you of air, or drain your body of all warmth.   But that’s the way of Nature, isn’t it?  Tornados, volcanoes, cliffside vistas, grizzly bears – we can appreciate the majesty of Nature, but Nature isn’t obliged to return the favor.

I wonder how my thoughts would have turned had there been a horizon for the sun to sink into, and distant islands and coastline to observe.  But the world was confined to a grey dome encompassing spruces, stone, and sea.shiny-jasper-rocks.jpg

On a different day (but no less grey),  my guides drove me far up the coast to a cove south of Machiasport to visit Jasper Beach.  Again, this shoreline was all stone, but stone that had been broken  down and placed in a natural rock tumbler for  a geological moment.  The beach drops down in a series of tiers to the water’s edge, where stones –from  hand-sized cobbles to pebbles smaller than your pinky-nail – are rounded and polished against each other by wave action.   The waves gently rolled in, blunting their power by filling the spaces between billions of stones.  When the water withdraws, the air fills with a sizzling hiss, like a giant rain stick.   It was like a half-mile ASMR trap. I could have spent hours poring over the limitless variety of stones.  Chris Mackowski does more justice to the beach than I can.stone-and-water.jpg

The final stop of the tour was a beach that combined the previous two and added some extra elements.  Quoddy Head State Park is as far up the coast as you can get and still be in the US, and the easternmost point in the US.  The fog broke briefly, and I could just see a bit of Canada.  From the parking area,  I took stairs down the cliff face to the beach.  It sported some cobbles, some bedrock, and some sand – with lots of seaweed mixed in.  There were small columns of rocks here and there, cairns left by visitors.  I didn’t add to them, but understand the impulse.  I stood on a stone surrounded by the lapping low tide, so I could tell friends I was the furthest I could go in the US without swimming.quoddy-point.jpg

These beaches were new experiences for me.  I’m back in the late summer roast that is south Georgia.  But as I write this, the recording I made of  the incoming tide making war on Schoodic Point is playing in the background.