Tag Archives: Nature

Orgy on My Patio

Today’s guest post comes from Clyde in Mankato.

A few years ago my son gave me a book which summarized what we know about behavior of the myriad of American bird species. We know the easily observable, such as nests, eggs, migration. We do not know the more difficult to observe, such as territorialism, cooperativeness, life span, causes of death, and how monogamous various species really are. Studies suggest that, contrary to what is told, most species are not monogamous. When a clutch is analyzed, which ornithologists only rarely do, eggs usually have different fathers, which makes sense for the gene pool but destroys our anthropomorphic images of birds.

To study these behaviors for one species would require many hours of close observation of many individuals to describe the common behaviors.

Despite all the time I have spent in the woods around squirrels and chipmunks, I know little about the domestic life of either species. But for three years I have watched a colony of squirrels by my patio. Squirrels are quick learners, very adept with their forelegs, and have good memories. They have memorized the superhighways, off-ramps, and local roads in the trees, which I can observe in the leafless winter. One squirrel learned to cut the twine holding an ear of corn. I then put small ears of corn in a suet feeder. She became very adept at manipulating the corn to extract kernels, food which is hers and hers alone.

Second pix

Because they have accepted my presence on my patio, I have observed much mating behavior in birds and squirrels in the last three days. The second round of parenting has begun. Yesterday several small birds courted and mated in the trees, and a pair of squirrels tumbled and rolled in the grass a dozen feet from me before consummating their fervor, several times.

Above them a second pair of squirrels courted on a large tree limb, the limb shown in the header photo. One squirrel, male I presume, cornered a second squirrel, female I presume, at the farthest end of the many branches on the limb. They faced each other down for a minute or more. She could have easily dropped three feet to the ground. She did not. Instead she jumped to another branch. He found where that branch joined the tree and backed up to sit there. She leaped to another branch. He back up again. This happened several times until she had backed him up by the ropes, where no more branches grew from the limb.

They stared at each other from eighteen inches apart for another minute. The next courting move was—pun intended—anticlimactic. She ran right over the top of him and into the canopy. He followed in—pun intended—hot pursuit. Go ahead: anthropomorphize this behavior.

If I had the resources and time, I would sit in the great art museums of the world to study the art and to observe the passing humans and their reaction to the art. Fifty years ago I did this in the Chicago Art Institute. Most people’s reaction to most art was indifference.

If you had the time and resources, what would you sit and study, or ponder?

Rotten to the Core

Today’s guest post comes from Clyde in Mankato.

I sit at my comPhoto #1puter and look out my apartment window into the woods at the top of a ravine in Mankato and see this.

Look at that mess. Nature is just untidy, disorderly. It needs a correcting human hand. No, you say? But then you are not the son of a man who was a pioneer born a century too late.

Photo #2

This is my father having fun. You cannot recognize it, I suspect, but I know he is smiling. It is one of only two or three pictures of my father smiling. Was I born with the same urge or did I learn it at our tractor’s knee? Nurture/nature? Is it a male thing?

Earlier this week just to get outdoors, I stepped into the snarled pile. I pushed at one of the upright pieces of tree trunk in a desultory way. It toppled to the ground. The itch was in my palms. With a back nearly as decayed as the trunk I just toppled, it would have been wise to walk away. I pushed at three more with my foot and found them as badly rotted. The itch was in my palms. Beside me was a deep ravine, already full of rotted trunks and dead brush.

I suspect from watching my father that many of the pioneers had a lust to reduce nature to human terms. Many of the first pioneers just kept moving on and doing it over and over again. This is a topic on which I have read extensively. I am sure you can see why.

Forty years ago I took a class on literature of the North Woods, which is not a large body of work, not much of it very good. The best piece we read was Robert Treuer’s The Tree Farm, which is a book well worth a read. Here is a part of a paper I wrote for that class.

On his tree farm Treuer must walk the edge between nature wild and nature cultured; he must keep the wilder aspects of nature at bay without destroying nature or allowing nature to destroy or reduce him. The dangers of the North Woods are survived if the necessary precautions are taken. It is not a nature that threatens to rise up and destroy us with alarming ease. If we dress and build appropriately, the cold can be kept out. With some care the storms can be withstood, the rapids can be run, and the bears will not eat us. Nevertheless, past history and current news tells us that lives can be lost or ruined if one forgets the rules or tempts nature too much. We live in this region to live with nature and survive it while keeping it as natural as we can.

So too in our day-by-day lives we want that nature within the right bounds. We move to the country but we cultivate a lawn. We mow that lawn right up to the edge of the woods, always feeling the urge to push out a little more and tame another few square feet. One summer’ neglect, however, will find the weeds back at our door. Two summers will return it all to brush. It takes constant effort to keep nature within the bounds we prescribe without losing the nearness to nature we reached out for when we moved here.”

Photo #3

I scratched my itchy palms. Today the snarl looks like this, all accomplished without using a single tool.


When done with the deed, I felt as my father did in this Photo #4photograph of him going home after a day of clearing land, pipe in mouth, satisfaction on his face. (Don’t miss the dog riding on the tractor platform.) My son’s photographer friends find this image iconic, say that it represents a larger moment in time than 1957 (ca.) and more than just my father.


What makes your palms itch?

Hostage Drama

Today’s post comes from Dr. Larry Kyle of Genway, the supermarket for genetically engineered foods.

Let’s talk about Bamboo!

I don’t like it. Once it grows beyond the “shoots” stage, it’s impossible to eat. Most people I know don’t care for it as curtains for flooring either. So I could get through a typical day without thinking very much about bamboo, except for one thing. Bamboo is a major, major food for pandas. And we just heard yesterday that climate change could destroy bamboo forests and leave the already endangered pandas with nothing to eat.

That’s why desperate authorities begged me to take their money to apply Genway’s unique but strangely successful approach of random and unsupervised experimentation to the potential panda problem by creating a bamboo variation that can grow at any temperature.

Yes, they begged me to save these charming creatures from the ravages of climate change and starvation.

But I refused!

I did it for three reasons.

  1.  Pandas have no money and can’t shop at Genway, so creating a new food for them is a waste of my time.
  2. We don’t do unsupervised experimentation using other people’s money, because it quickly becomes un-unsupervised.
  3.  Fixing bamboo so it can grow in spite of climate change will not solve the problem.

Americans need to do less driving. That’s the quickest way to reduce greenhouse gasses. But changing that habit will be very difficult, and I’m afraid science can solve it as quickly as intimidation can. That’s why I would like to suggest that food companies and political leaders join together to take another food hostage until climate change is stopped and the pandas are saved in a proper and sustainable way.

My suggestion – French Fries.

Yes, I know it’s a cold-hearted approach. But only when there is a terrifying personal cost will we even begin to consider not taking the car. Something dear has to hang in the balance. Think about it. The complete loss of French Fries would be emotionally devastating. And it would be a great step forward in the promotion of healthy lifestyles.

In other words, win-win, except for the political penalty to whomever proposed it and became its champion.

President Obama, are you listening? You’ve just been re-elected and you can’t run again. There is political capital in the bank and you’re looking for something significant to cement your legacy. You’ve already done the politically impossible by passing “Obamacare”. You’ve done something visceral by getting Bin Laden. Why not finish with something emotional and sweet.

How does “He Saved The Pandas (and the Earth)” sound as a legacy?

It’s simple. Take French Fries hostage. As the bamboo forests decline, ration the fried potatoes. Forge a connection between our favorite food, and their favorite food. Force America to change its ways and the pandas will live!

This is certainly a departure for Dr. Kyle, who would normally avoid politics and stick to science. But perhaps he has a point – some problems can’t be solved in the lab.

Driving or French Fries. Which is more important, and why?

John Barleycorn Must DNA

Barley made the news yesterday, in part thanks to a Minnesota scientist. Professor Gary Muehlbauer of the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota and a cadre of international researchers managed to sequence the genome for barley, said to be “one of the world’s most important and genetically complex cereal crops“. Results were published in the journal Nature. Apparently this work could lead to higher barley yields, better resistance to pests, and enhanced nutritional value. It may also help barley adapt to the stresses of climate change.

You know what that means – we can trash the environment and still have beer!

Congratulations to the researchers. A round for all my genome sequencing friends! It made me think of this old song about barley and its role in the beer and whiskey making process. Sung here by Martin Carthy.

The scientists have done their best
employing all their means
They found out, using every test,
John Barleycorn has genes!

They chopped him up so very small
and put him on display.
Tore him apart to see it all
and mapped his DNA.

If you were him by now you’d know
the sum of all your parts.
What makes you wilt. What helps you grow.
The compounds in your farts.

The sequence tells us who he is,
of what he is composed.
His elements, his spark, his fizz.
John Barleycorn, exposed.

Would you want to have a map of your DNA?

Riding the Manatee

Fans of animal protection are hoping a Florida woman will be punished for manatee harassment. Just because a passing animal is big and slow, you are not automatically entitled to climb on. That’s a good thing to keep in mind next time you’re ambling around the State Fair.

The protected status of manatees is well known in Florida, where the Manatee Sanctuary Acts says: “It is unlawful for any person at any time, by any means, or in any manner intentionally or negligently to annoy, molest, harass, or disturb or attempt to molest, harass, or disturb any manatee.”

Legal scholars – what’s the difference between “annoy” and the other three infractions – “molest”, “harass” and “disturb”? Is it true that attempted annoyance is not illegal? Where is that fine line between attempting to annoy the manatee, and actually annoying her?

Perhaps it all comes down to the look the creature gives you as you take your ukulele out of its case.

Photo: Pinellas County Sheriff

Enforcement seems to be a problem, though. Too many people and manatees in the same areas lead to plentiful interactions, though few, if any, are initiated by the manatee. I guess they’re just not that turned on by being seen with us. It is a serious problem that can only truly be solved when people change their attitudes and expectations regarding wildlife.

The woman in the picture, Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez, age 52, turned herself in to authorities after a series of images of the incident made the rounds on the Internet. She could face 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. That would be expensive and unpleasant and almost as bad as having your unflattering bathing suit photo distributed worldwide through countless blogs and news sources.

That said, it can be fun and life-enhancing to appropriately connect with animals, large and small.

Tell us an animal interaction story.

Colorful Neighbors

The sudden drop in temperature and uptick in wind speed around the Twin Cities area means this golden colored maple tree right outside our living room window is about to lose all its festive autumn plumage. Too bad, that. On recent gray afternoons, it has kept some cheerful brightness going – very nearly a compact, backyard version of the Sun with it’s ability to bring some welcome energy into the house.

I’m guessing within a few days we’ll have nothing but bare sticks outside the window.

Still, there’s some compensation for the emptiness of the winter months in all the raucous color we’re getting today. In much in the same way, the Real Sun will someday (5 billion years) burn up all its hydrogen and turn into a colorful dying thing very much like the creepy cat-like space eyeball photographed this week by NASA. This image represents what remains of a star very much like our own, after the thrill is gone. It’s a troubling cosmic routine with a brilliant conclusion. Too bad we won’t be able to appreciate it fully.

Cheerful thoughts, eh? Sounds like somebody’s been feeling the weight of years on his birthday! But all of this full-of-life to bleak-landscape change is entirely predictable and impossible to stop, so why not quit moping and enjoy the show while it’s still going on?

Where do you go to enjoy fall color?

A Look Behind the Curtain

My father has always been the kind of guy who wants to know how things work. When I was growing up I recognized the basement as a place where weird tools were kept and mysterious electronic boxes hummed in the dark. The corners were packed with various gadgets and implements that my mother called “junk”. Whatever purpose had caused them to be brought into the house, it was long forgotten. The best policy for a kid was not to touch things unless directed to do so. But if you wanted to kill a few hours, all you had to do was ask “what’s that”? Explanations were free and complete.

Through that question-and-suffer process I discovered I don’t have the necessary patience to know very much about anything. That’s why I went into the uninformed commentary business – we bloggers and pundits only have to figure out a plausible angle to get our work done.

And really, it doesn’t have to be all that plausible.

Thank goodness there are scientific researchers who are willing to pay closer attention to stuff, especially the debris collecting in the margins. Just yesterday a series of papers were published that upended what we’ve thought for years about how human traits are controlled.

To quote the New York Times story:

“The human genome is packed with at least four million gene switches that reside in bits of DNA that once were dismissed as ‘junk’ but that turn out to play critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave.”

And by “behave,” we mean “badly”. Complex diseases appear to be influenced by the throwing of hundreds of these gene switches. All that remains is to figure out which levers cause which things to happen. Not a simple task by any measure, but this work by hundreds of researchers in dozens of labs around the globe will have amazing and long lasting scientific and medical effects.

All because they had the patience to investigate the junk in the corner.

When has a closer look paid dividends?