Tag Archives: Nature

Minnesota Conservation Volunteer

Header image: Male wood duck by John Bowden from MN Conservation Volunteer Facebook Page

Today’s post comes from Barbara in Robbinsdale.

For the past maybe 20 years, we have been receiving a little magazine called the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, which celebrated its 75th year in 2015. It is an amazing publication, measuring just around 5” x 8”, issued bi-monthly. Each issue features richly illustrated articles on conservation efforts in Minnesota, and various outdoor activities, from fishing and hunting to snowshoeing.  Regular departments include:

–          “This Issue” – a summary of the issue’s main article

–          “Letters” from readers

–          a “Young Naturalists” segment, used by science teachers across the state (all Minnesota schools and libraries receive MCV)

–          “Minnesota Profile” – two of the last pages in each issue, highlighting a plant or animal you may or may not recognize

–          and my favorite, “Natural Curiosities” – questions from readers about some unexplained natural phenomenon seen, often, in readers’ back yard, and answered by the staff

Once or twice a year there is a “Sense of Place” issue, in which the material is connected to a particular landscape.

The website’s “About MCV” section describes the magazine thus:    “Minnesota Conservation Volunteer is your guide to wild Minnesota. This flagship publication of the Department of Natural Resources delivers in-depth, in-the-field coverage of the state’s outdoor news and conservation issues. The MCV mission is to encourage conservation and sustainable use of Minnesota’s natural resources.”

Although I believe you can still receive MCV free of charge, it is readers’ contributions that keep MCV magazine, together with its education and outreach projects, afloat. And it is unique – “[n]o other state conservation magazine has this model of reader support.”

I am always amazed by the photography accompanying the articles – I have cut out photos and made little books with them for children in my life. I save my MVC issues (which measure about 5” x 8”) on a bookshelf, and am having a hard time discarding them even though I am moving. (Let me know if any baboons would like some back issues.) I will make sure that my Minnesota Conservation Volunteer subscription follows me as we move to Winona.

What is your favorite magazine/periodical, either paper or electronic?

Timber! To an Era

Today’s post comes from Clyde of Mankato

My last guest blog asked you to look closely at grass. This time I want you to examine two slides taken by my mother in 1954. They capture an end of one era in the forest and the beginning of another.

First I apologize that the horse’s head is at the semi-exposed end of the roll. Adeline and I long bemoaned that bad luck. We both recognize the photograph has family and larger significance. Today the ratty right end strikes me as appealingly quaint.

End of one era: the horse for one, which you probably realize. In 1955 it was rare to see horses used for logging, but more than my father were still using them. However, the images also show the tail-end of old growth trees in northeastern Minnesota. Look at the size of the those birch logs! How long had they lived? You perhaps think they were sawed into birch lumber. In 1954 it simply was not done. Birch was then a difficult wood to manage as lumber. Today those logs would be worth as fortune.

I feel an affinity for those logs. First because they are birch wood, as am I, being a German birchwood. Secondly because I spent the next eight years using pieces of the logs as chopping blocks, before which I spent many an hour swinging an axe. I was well acquainted with that birch tree before it was felled. Its grandeur appealed to me. For my father it was a massive temptation to cut down. Because of the girth of the stump, he did not attack it, not having a proper two-man whip saw to do the task. Then along came that yellow chunk of steel in the other image.

Logging 1

Beginning of another era: our nearest neighbor Floyd (man on your left) was a full-time time lumberjack (cutter of trees for lumber) and gyppo (cutter of trees for pulp wood). He was a famously surely tough old bastard, older than he looks in this photo. A couple years later while cutting pulp by himself in the Superior National Forest, he broke his back when a widow-maker fell on him. He had to crawl out to a road to get help, which took two days and nights. Three months later he was back in the woods alone. His personality made working solo a necessity. Being a bachelor, Floyd could not have made a widow.

A few days before these pictures were taken, he stopped at our house to show us his new prized possession, the chain saw. They had been around, but now they were mass-produced at a level that made them affordable for professional cutters. Also, they were dependable. They were still very heavy, nothing like today’s light-weight wonders. Yet even at that weight, a new era swept the woods, for one thing allowing old birds like Floyd to earn real money cutting alone.

The moment my father saw the chain saw before him, he pictured that birch tree. And down it came, my mother coming along, after the fell deed, it seems, to photograph the results.

What you see are only the two bottom lengths of the trunk, minus the two butt pieces on which I am standing, which became the chopping blocks. It took several loads to bring up all of that tree. My father knew how to coax every piece of firewood out of large trees. How long it must have cooked our meals and heated our house! You may wonder by what means the logs made their way onto the sled. My father and I did it alone. How that is done, I will leave a mystery.

If you had those birch logs today and could pay the cost, what use would you make of them?

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?

Quicksand Alert!

This weekend’s post comes from Bathtub Safety Officer Rafferty.

At ease, civillians!

Being at ease is one of your best lines of defense against trouble of every sort.
But another important characteristic is being constantly aware of your surroundings. You may think you are standing on solid ground, but appearances can be deceptive. I was quite alarmed to see this warning from experts along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in the areas hardest hit by the relentless drought and low water levels.


I thought quicksand only happened in Hollywood movies that take place in a jungle or any place wet and dark. But no! Quicksand is real and it can happen along a great midwestern river. There is much advice available about how to react when you’re in quicksand, but you’d better not wait until then to look it up. The sensation of slowly sinking into a mushy combination of dirt and flowing water tends to dull even the best research skills.

My favorite bit of advice starts with this simple strategy:

Avoid quicksand.

That’s easier said than done. Quicksand is so sneaky, you’re caught before you realize it. And though (in the movies) there are always other people nearby, they will not help you because they are either being chased by cannibals or they secretly wish you dead, or both.

That clip illustrates another very important reason to avoid getting caught in quicksand – you can become quite unattractive very quickly when you are being drawn into a bottomless pool of unforgiving muck.

The topic itself is quite dangerous. I discovered at least one person on You Tube who started watching and collecting quicksand videos and got sucked in! About the time you get to video number 28 you realize you are helpless and are going to sit there watching these things until you are dead.

Since Mississippi River sandbars can look solid while they hide a disastrous molten sub-strata, the most obvious way to insure your safety is to never, ever, walk on sand of any kind. I realize this means you must give up the beach, but some pleasures are worth the sacrifice if it means you will never have to call out to your companions that you have blundered into QUICKSAND!

Ever feel stuck?