I understand that it is welcome to see something green in the woods after winter - especially after the winter we just had - but just keep in mind that the welcome glint of green you see spells trouble for our native trees shrubs and wildflowers.
That green you see is honeysuckle. Soon to be followed by buckthorn.
On my daily commute, I’ve been listening to a series of interviews that Bill Moyers did with Joseph Campbell in the 1980’s called The Power of Myth. The interviews were first broadcast on PBS in 1988 – a year after Campbell died at the age of 83.
Most readers will have heard of Moyers, a regular on PBS for many years, but may not be as familiar with Campbell. In fact, this is my first foray into Campbell’s works that explore the role of mythology in human culture.
Yes, I am the one driving my car 25-40 mph on Route 14 between Bunker Hill Road and Hughes Road from Harvard to Woodstock and back again most days of the week. If you have not yet experienced this stretch of road this winter, well, I suggest you plan to avoid it for the foreseeable future.
The road became particularly rough shortly after the first major cold spell broke in early January. Road heave, also called frost heave, occurs when moisture underneath pavement freezes and expands, forcing the asphalt up. It gets worse as the ice melts and then refreezes – again and again. Eventually the pavement starts to break apart. The more traffic, the faster the road breaks up.
The section between Deep Cut and Dunham Roads is particularly awful. Like driving over a series of unmarked speed bumps for half a mile. If you ever accidentally hit an actual speed bump at full speed, you probably thought: “Ouch, I hope I never do that again!” (At least that’s what I thought, only “ouch” was replaced with a different 4-letter word.) Now, imagine doing that every 20-30 feet for half a mile at 55 miles per hour.
This morning, two cars decided to pass me in this stretch of Route 14. I just shook my head as I watched them bounce down the road ahead of me. Apparently they didn’t care about the neck and back injuries they are likely to sustain (maybe hoping for a Worker’s Comp claim), nor did they mind the extra wear and tear on their cars’ suspensions (must have been leased vehicles).
The driver of a semi-truck that was right behind me – much too close for comfort or safety – was so annoyed by my turtle-esque pace that he passed me in a no-passing zone shortly after Dunham Road. (Note, I could still see him about one-quarter mile ahead of me when I reached Dean Street a few miles later.)
I’m telling this story because it occurred to me that maybe some people drive full speed down bumpy roads because they don’t understand the effects such behavior has on their bodies or cars? Specifically, the jarring movement of driving quickly across a bumpy road results in:
$1- Neck and back injuries. The result is higher medical costs, more time off work due to pain and injury and an increased likelihood of chronic neck and back problems as one ages.
$1- More accidents. Drivers are more likely to lose control of a vehicle when driving at high speed on a rough surface.
$1- Increased vehicle maintenance costs. In fact, driving on rough roads adds an average of $400 each year to the cost of maintaining a car as the suspension, tires, and many other parts wear down more quickly. The increased costs are higher in areas that are more heavily developed.
$1- Increased fuel costs. Plain and simple, a car uses more fuel when driving on bumpy roads – and driving fast on a rough road uses more fuel than driving slowly on the same road.
It also crossed my mind that some folks may not understand the extra costs society bears as the roads breakdown more quickly and require more maintenance. The costs of maintaining and repairing public roads are paid by tax-payers, whether the roads are maintained by the township, Village, county, state, or federal government.
Personally, I would rather see my taxes spent on something other than the constant repair of roads that are prematurely disintegrating because so many people refuse to slow down a little when driving on a bumpy road.
Most years, I dread January – cold, sleet, ice, and heavy grey skies. But not this year.
Because winter started in earnest last November, I am already acclimated to the cold. I’ve slipped on the ice (once) and shoveled snow – multiple times. Instead of being tired of winter, I was actually quite comfortable with the winter routine when we hit January.
In fact, I still haven’t worn my winter coat – that’s right. I’m wearing my fall canvas field coat with a fleece vest on top. Unprecedented! (For the record, I did not leave my house on the two coldest days of the year. But that's part of acclimating to winter, as you will learn below).
Acclimatization is a natural process where plants and animals adjust to seasonal (or other temporary) changes in their environment. For instance, as average temperatures slowly decrease from fall to winter, one’s system will adjust to the changing temperature. (Note: acclimatization is different than adaptation. Adaptation is what happens when species evolve over generations to have different characteristics than their parents.)
Plants that are meant to grow in a northern climate have genes that cause them to go dormant for a period of time when there is less light and the temperatures are cold. The reason that plants from more southern climates often die during northern winters is because they do not have the ability to adjust to the seasonal change in temperature.
Humans are warm-blooded (endotherms) like all other mammals and need to take steps to reduce heat-loss during the cold weather.
Like many birds and mammals, people add layers of insulation to stay warm during the cold. In our case, the insulation is in the form of clothing – for our feathered and furry friends, it may be more feathers, a thicker coat, or additional layers of fat.
Some animals (and people) stay warm in winter by moving south. Others choose to hibernate for long-periods, conserving energy by dropping their metabolism to just 1-5% of what it is during active periods. Some birds and small mammals, like chickadees and shrews, enter a lower-energy state called torpor at night, dropping their body temperature as a way to reduce heat-loss while sleeping.
Another way to stay warm on a cold winter day is to be active. Cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing or taking a hike will all cause the body to generate heat. For birds and mammals, the most common daily activity is finding food. Maybe we humans would put on less weight during the winter if we had to work a little harder at feeding ourselves!
TLC’s winter oak rescues are a great way to warm-up. Cutting and stacking brush gets one’s blood flowing, and a brush fire keeps everyone toasty. Harvard area events will be held on the following dates:
- January 20th, Maguire Woods, 5507 Irish Lane, 10am – 1pm. From the intersection of Route 14 and McGuire Road in Harvard, take McGuire 3.6 miles to Irish Lane and head north 0.3 miles to the work site.
- January 25th, Gateway Park, Heritage Lane and Route 23, Harvard, 9am-noon.
- February 17th, Van Maren’s Woods, 20202 Lembcke Road, 10am – 1pm. Take Route 14 south from Harvard to Lembcke, turn right, and proceed 1.2 miles to the work site.
TLC is offering a free Winter Tree Identification class, January 18th, 10am-2pm at Hennen Conservation Area, 4622 Dean Street, Woodstock. Join TLC’s Ecologist, Melissa Hormann, to learn how to identify trees using the twigs and bark. The first hour will be inside looking at twig samples, and the next three hours will be spent walking the hiking trails and using your new skills. Wear clothes appropriate for an outdoor winter hike.
TLC’s Annual Celebration Brunch will take place January 26 from 11-2pm at D’Andrea’s Banquets in Crystal Lake. Join old friends and new as the organization marks another successful year of land preservation. This year, TLC is excited to welcome special guest Mark Hirsch, a photojournalist who gained international acclaim for his daily photos of “That Tree,” a lonely bur oak on the edge of a farm field near his home in Platteville, Wisconsin. Tickets are $50 for non-members ($40 for members) and are available at www.conservemc.org or by calling 815-337-9502 by 5pm Wednesday, January 22nd.
photo by Harris Wishnick, taken at TLC's Woodland Hills Conservation Easement in Lakewood
Why is it so cold? Simply put, cold is caused by the absence of heat. Sometimes conditions are such that there is much less heat in an area. For instance:
Snow cover reflects solar radiation. That means, that if the ground is covered in snow, even on a sunny day, the sun doesn't warm the earth because the sunlight is reflected back into space.
Shorter amount of daylight mean less time for the sun's warming rays. Plus, during the winter season, the sun strikes the earth at a sharp angle, meaning the sun's rays are spread out further (less concentrated), so they have less warming power.
Lack of cloud cover at night allows heat to escape into space. While I love those beautiful winter nights when the sky is clear and the stars are bright, I know that the lack of cloud cover means that any heat that may have accumulated during the day will be lost to space. When there are clouds, the cloudcover helps to trap the heat in the troposphere (lower level of the atmosphere).
The jet stream brings cold air down from the Arctic. The jet stream is a meandering band of air that circles the planet. (There are four jet streams circling the planet from west to east - two polar jet streams and two tropical jet streams) Click here to see a short animation (from NASA) of the jet stream. Sometimes, the polar jet stream dips further south, due in part to increased snow cover across large areas of land - which means... less heat.
“Bitter cold” is a term that’s getting a lot of use this winter – and with good reason. The word bitter – while typically used to describe something that has a disagreeable taste – means something that causes a harsh or stinging sensation, which is exactly what very cold weather will do.
With a high of -15º forecast for Monday (January 6th), and wind making it feel even colder, I think it’s safe to say that Monday’s cold will be bitter indeed.
From a health standpoint, there are many reasons to be cautious when venturing outside in this weather:
Hypothermia. This is defined as the body temperature dropping from the normal 98.6º below 95º. Hypothermia can occur when outdoors in extremely cold weather for a long period of time, even if dressed warmly. It can also occur rather quickly when someone is outside for even s short period of time if they are not dressed for the cold. Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, slurred speech, irrational behavior, shortness of breath and eventually, unconsciousness.
Frostbite. Freezing temperatures can cause exposed part of the body to lose feeling and color. Nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes are the most likely to be affected. In extreme cases, frostbite will lead to amputation. Symptoms to look for include numbness, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy, and skin that appears white or grayish-yellow.
Heart attack. If you have a heart condition, high blood pressure, or a family history of heart disease, be careful not to over-exert yourself if shoveling snow. Sudden physical exertion in cold weather – which occurs when lifting and throwing a heavy shovel full of snow – has been linked to heart attacks. Take lots of breaks to rest and warm up.
- Falling down. I’ve fallen down once this winter due to slipping on icy pavement. I wasn’t hurt, but I know several people who have broken wrists, hips, arms and ankles due to slipping on ice. A couple of tips to avoid slipping on ice:
1) wear shoes with good traction. If you don’t have any, invest in slip on traction devices like Yak Trax – they work like chains on tires by providing metal cleats that bite into the ice to keep you from slipping.
2) Use a walking stick, preferably one with a pointed tip. This will improve balance while walking across a slick surface.
If you do find yourself falling, try to remember not to put your arms out to catch yourself – that is the cause of most wrist and arm fractures when falling. Instead, try to remember to tuck your arms in, relax your body and roll so that you land on your shoulder and then roll onto your back. The rolling motion helps dissipate the energy from striking the ground. Trust me, I’ve done this, and it does work.
In general, there are commonsense steps you should take to stay safe in the bitter cold:
Wear a hat. Mom was right – wearing a hat in cold weather is one of the smartest things to do, as a lot of heat will escape through your head if you don’t.
Dress in layers – layers trap air between the layers, and air is a great insulator.
Stay dry. If you get wet, change into dry clothes as soon as practical. Moisture will speed heat loss.
Eat food and drink water. Being outside in the extreme cold causes the body to burn more calories. Also, the air holds less moisture as the temperature drops, so it is important to make sure your body is well hydrated. But, avoid alcohol – it can cause your body to lose heat more quickly.
If driving in the cold, be sure to have your cell phone with you, as well as a set of jumper cables, a bag of sand or kitty litter for traction if needed, and an ice scraper.
Finally, when it is cold, don’t leave your pets outside for very long, unless there is a sheltered, warm spot that they can go into. Pets can get hypothermia and frostbite just like people!
photo by Gail Moreland, taken at TLC's Weers Conservation Easement as part of the Art of the Land Photo Contest in 2012.
The drive to work this morning was magical. There was a light fog that put everything in a soft-focus. Plus, vegetation was glistening with a delicate layer of hoar frost.
Hoar frost occurs when a winter fog coats the tree branches with a thin film of ice. This fog is a type of evaporation fog which results when cold air passes over water or warm, moist land. Evaporation increases the amount of moisture in the cool air, possibly to the point that the air can no longer hold all of the water it contains. And that is when the fog arrives.
The word hoar comes from an Old English word meaning "to look old." Since trees and other plants are covered in white by the frost, it was said that they looked old when covered with frost.
There are other types of frost that we see in winter. If you have ever lived in an old house, you have seen window frost (which some call fern frost because of the fern-like shapes it makes). Window frost forms on poorly insulated windows when it is cold outside and the air is moist inside - like it might be in the kitchen or bathroom.
When I was growing up, I loved to look at the window frost that would form on the panes of the window in my bathroom. The designs were beautiful. Little did I know that they were forming because the windows were letting all the warm air out (and the cold air in)!
I've seen window frost form inside a car when the warm air from the passengers' breath freezes on the windshield. This situation is usually quickly remedied by turning on the defroster and/or heater in the car. However, when I was first married and living in Vermont, my husband and I owned a '78 VW Beetle. It was a fun little car, but in the winter, it had virtually no heat. This meant that when we drove in it, our breath would freeze on the windshield, and there was no way to defrost it. That meant the driver would have to use a scrapper on the inside of the windshield to keep an area clear to see the road!
I don't recall spending any time admiring the fern-like patterns on the VW windshield!
It's Party Time!
We may be under the threat of a Winter Storm Watch, but today we celebrate the longest night of the year, and tomorrow we know that there will be a little bit more daylight every day until the Summer Solstice on June 22nd. How great is that?!
The day - and night - have been celebrated for thousands of years by people all over the world. Yuletide, as the season is known, means, literally, the turning of the sun. For, it is today that the sun will stay nearest to the horizon and will spend the shortest amount of time above the horizon. But the tide will turn tomorrow as the sun travels a little higher and stays above the horizon a little longer!
Imagine a time before electricity. Nights were dark. Very dark. Darker than any of us will experience in our lifetimes. Is it any wonder that people celebrated the longest night of the year?
Five thousand years ago in Ireland, local people built a temple that covers an entire acre of land (an area roughly 210' by 210'). This structure is called Newgrange, and it appears to have been built specifically to honor the shortest days of the year, for there is a chamber that is illuminated by the sun for 17 minutes just five days each year - the five shortest days (December 19-23).
We will never know exactly why the structure was built, but we can believe that Newgrange was a very important structure. After all, the stones had to be cut, moved and placed by hand - there were no machines to do that for them. This was a major undertaking! And what are the odds that it was sheer chance that a portal was placed in the exact place necessary to illuminate the interior chamber with direct sunlight just five days each year - the five days with the least sunlight?
The whole thing makes me say "Wow!"
So, whatever your holiday of choice this winter season, take a moment to reflect on the ancient people who celebrated the darkness of the Yuletide, and gave thanks for the turning of the sun.
There was a sad report out of Whiteside County in Illinois this week. A female mountain lion was killed by a Wildlife officer from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. You can read the whole story here.
My first reaction was sadness for the poor cougar who was probably scared and hungry. Sadness was quickly followed by outrage that in the year 2013, this is still how people react in these situations. On the one hand, we have the IDNR hiring sharp shooters to "cull" the deer herd because it is too large due to the fact that there are no longer any predators to naturally cull the weak deer. And then the same agency insists on killing a wild predator that might naturally cull some weak deer from the local herds.
There are many more questions than answers, and it isn't useful to play "what if" or "why not" games as in: "Why not tranquilze the animal and relocate it?" Or, "What if the lion had attacked a human being?" The sad fact is that the answer to either question is moot - the lion was killed despite the fact that it wasn't threatening anyone, and it wasn't tranquilized.
At TLC's Annual Brunch earlier this year, storyteller Jim Pfitzer gave a moving portrayal of Aldo Leopold, famed conservationist who authored A Sand County Almanac - a collection of essays about the natural world and mankind's relationship to it. One of the essays is titled "Thinking Like a Mountain," and upon reading the story of the mountain lion's senseless death, I thought it was a good time to share this essay as a reminder for those who still seek to control wild things.
The biotic community - of which we are a part - if far more complex than people can understand - even wildlife biologists, ecologists and other scientists. The system is too complex, and it is in a constant state of flux due to changing weather conditions, the emergence of new diseases and pests, natural population spikes and troughs for individual species, etc, etc. The best we can hope for is to make decisions that respect the integrity of the natural system - the whole system, not just the parts with which we are most comfortable.
Thinking Like a Mountain
A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.
Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country, and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.
My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.
In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.
I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf's job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.
We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949.
November 11th, and the season's first snow is falling in Woodstock.
It seems early this year, but I suppose that is just a function of my age and the general acceleration of time that occurs with each year that passes.
Wasn’t I happily gathering seed in my garden just yesterday? Well, yes, I was!
Looking out the window, I see the Arrowwood viburnum bushes still holding their golden and deep red leaves, but the hazelnuts are nearly bare already.
The bur oaks have lost their leaves, but the white oaks are holding onto theirs as they do some years. (They will drop them in the spring when the leaf buds begin to open, but decided to keep them this winter – just in case.)
While most of the native perennials are now dried and brown, many of the asters and goldenrods are still green. And didn’t I see a purple bloom on a New England aster last week?
The first snow is somehow magical and sobering. For me, it is a reminder of my youth – making snow angels and building snowmen during snow days when school was closed. But it is also a glimpse of things to come as we adults prepare for the cold, snow and ice that we know will arrive over the next few months.
More than anything, however, the first snow is a time for me to stop and reflect. A time to remind myself to slow down. A time to remember to appreciate each season and the beauty it has to offer. A time to read a good book while drinking a hot cider with a warm cat on my lap.
“We are responsible for the third generation of oaks in McHenry County.” Mary Tree McClelland, horticulturist, Glacier Oaks Nursery in Harvard.
To Mary's way of thinking, the first generation of oaks was the one that was here when European-American settlers moved into the county in the mid-1830s. At that time, nearly 40% of McHenry County was covered in oak woodlands or savannas. The remainder of the landscape was prairie, wetland, and open water.
By 1872, settlers had cut half the original oak woods, whittling them down to just 18% of the county, or about 70,000 acres. The second generation of our oaks is the one that sprouted and grew since the 1830s, but they never regained the ground lost in those early years of settlement. In fact, during the second generation, oaks have steadily lost ground to farming and development, so that today, oak woods cover just 4% - 14,000 acres – of the landscape.
Of the remaining oak woodlands, very few, perhaps 25%, are healthy. The vast majority are dying off as oaks are choked by invasive shrubs like buckthorn and honeysuckle, and rapidly-growing trees like box elder. Acorns fall, young oaks sprout, but they never grow to adulthood because they are shaded out by the invaders.
As the second generation of local oaks nears the end of its natural life (200 years?), the county faces the prospect of the third generation being nothing more than a handful of remnants in public natural areas – just like zoo specimens.
There is a different way. The descendants of the early settlers and the new settlers who arrive by the thousands each year have a choice. The community can choose to plant oaks. Not just specimens in backyards, but actually recreating oak woodlands and savannas on the soils where these woodland communities once thrived.
And, our community can choose to take better care of the oak woodlands that remain by clearing invasive brush and giving the young oaks sprouting in the woods a chance to mature.
If local settlers – new and old – choose to help, the third generation of oaks can thrive!
Look for "Oak Rescues" that TLC holds throughout the winter months. These are days when volunteers gather on a privately-owned property for the purpose of helping the landowner clear invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle from around some ancient oaks. We get a good brush fire going, have something warm to drink and even cook some brats over the fire for lunch once the work is done. Contact Linda for more information.