November has always been a misfit month to me.
Fall colors are giving way to browns and greys. The bright white of the first snow usually waits until December. Sure, there’s Thanksgiving – my favorite holiday – but not until the end of the month.
Rather than just biding my time until Thanksgiving this November, I’m going to get out and appreciate the good things this season has to offer:
- Take a nature hike. One advantage of this pre-winter month is that the weather is cool, but not cold. On the next sunny day, I’ll take walk through the woods and enjoy the sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet. I’ll also keep my eyes open for late season mushrooms, particularly if there has been some rain recently. If I’m lucky I’ll see some turkey tails, which do look like their namesake, albeit much smaller.
- Look at the stars. Nights are longer now, which means there is plenty of time to enjoy some star-gazing and still get to bed early. On a clear, moonless night, I like to find a dark area in the country, wrap myself in a blanket with a thermos of hot cider, and just look up. (The new moon was November 3rd, so this is probably a good time for stargazing. The end of the month should be good too.) The website www.stargate.org/weeklytips posts a nice list of celestial events to look for each week. Cassiopeia, Pisces and Pegasus are visible in November, as is the Andromeda galaxy, which is in Pegasus. To the naked eye, it will look like a faint smudge. Andromeda is located 2,500,000 light years from Earth, so the light from that smudge took 2.5 million years to reach us!
- Clean and fill the birdfeeders. It is a good idea to clean bird feeders monthly when in use, but annually at a minimum. The cleaning helps remove bacteria, mold and diseases that can build up on a feeder. If an infected bird uses the feeder, it will pass the illness on to other birds. A solution of one part bleach to nine parts hot water is recommended. Be sure to clean all parts of the feeder.
Something else to look out for in November is deer. This is peak breeding season for deer, so they are a little distracted. Their coloring blends in well with the drab landscape right now, so many people don’t see them approaching on the side of the road until it is too late. Be especially alert when driving at dusk and dawn. With all of the wonderful natural areas in McHenry County, most parts of the county have deer populations, so stay alert even when driving in built-up areas.
On November 9th, from 2-5pm, TLC will hold its first acorn planting day. The inaugural event will take place at the Beeson Conservation Easement north of Chemung at 8216 White Oaks Road, Harvard. The planting will be used to test whether direct seeding of areas with acorns is an effective way to restore oak woodlands.
On November 21st, from 6-7pm, on Speaking of Nature radio program, I’ll be talking with local business owners about nature-themed gifts to consider this holiday season. Tune in through the website www.harvardcommunityradio.com or on the radio at 1610 AM.
The season known as fall started September 22nd in the Northern Hemisphere.
My first clue that autumn’s arrived is the transformation of green fields of soybeans into golden, then brown expanses as the plants die. A drive along just about any road north or west of Woodstock seems to transform overnight from green, rolling hills of corn and beans to a patchwork of greens, yellows, golds and browns, as crops reach maturity and die before harvest.
Other colorful fall crops include pumpkins and apples. Whether you choose to pick your own, or purchase apples, pumpkins and gourds from a farmstand, the brilliant golds, greens, reds and oranges of these fall fruits are sure to delight the senses!
Early autumn finds goldenrod in bloom, followed quickly by asters and their variety of hues ranging from white to pale lavender to deep purple. You can see these plants growing at the side of many roads or take a trip to a local natural area to see them up-close.
Trees are the last addition to autumn’s color palette, with oak groves the dominant woodlands in this area. White oak leaves turn a lovely reddish-brown when conditions are right, while red oak leaves turn a dark red. Bur oaks offer some contrast, turning a yellow or pale brown before losing their leaves for the winter.
So, why do we have all of this color in the fall? The fall-blooming flowers have colorful flowers for the same reason summer-blooming plants do – to attract pollinators. Bees, butterflies and even some birds like hummingbirds are able to feed on these flowers before traveling south or going into hibernation for the winter.
Trees and crops change colors through a chemical reaction that occurs as the days grow shorter and temperatures drop.
Plants are green because of the chlorophyll they produce during the growing season. The chlorophyll absorbs light to create the energy that plants need to turn carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and carbohydrates which the plants use to grow and flower. While growing, plants must continuously produce chlorophyll since it is an unstable compound that breaks down rapidly.
As temperatures drop and the days become shorter, plants stop producing chlorophyll, and the leaves lose their green hue. Other chemicals in the leaves, specifically carotene and anthocyanins, are more stable than the chlorophyll, and so their presence determines the color that leaves become once the chlorophyll is gone. Some leaves turn yellow because they contain high amounts of carotene, while others turn red in response to the high amounts of anthocyanins in their leaves.
Dry, sunny days followed by cool, dry nights produce the best show of fall tree color. This promises to be a beautiful fall.
Oaks are tough. But they aren’t invincible.
On my daily commute between Harvard and Woodstock, there are several majestic oaks I’ve admired over the years that are showing signs of decline, and even a few that have been removed in recent months.
The declining trees tend to be close to Route 14, and signs of stress can be seen as upper branches die off, or perhaps the leaves turn brown and fall earlier than other trees.
These veteran trees are 200 or more years old, but if given proper care, one would expect them to live at least another 100 years.
So, why are they dying?
It is rarely one thing that kills an oak. Rather, these distinctive trees often succumb after a combination of stresses wear them out. The usual suspects include:
- Age. Let’s face it, as any of us age, little things that may have been “no big deal” when we were young can be harder to recover from as we age. The same is true for trees.
- Changed hydrology. Hydrology is the surface and below-ground flow of water in an area. As roads are built, rebuilt and widened, the flow of water changes, and this affects the trees near to the road. Another way that hydrology is changed is through tiling of farm fields to change the water table levels.
- Invasive plants. Buckthorn, honeysuckle, maples and other fast-growing trees shade out the lower branches of oaks, causing those branches to die. Groundcover plants like garlic mustard change the soil chemistry, which is believed to affect the fungus and microbe populations in the soil.
- Damage. Digging a foundation near an oak, building a road, compacting or adding soil underneath or pruning branches during the growing season will damage oaks. The root system of oaks is near to the surface, so compaction will crush roots and adding soil can smother them. Also, an oak’s root system extends at least twice as far from the tree as the canopy, and when the roots are severed, it may not kill the tree, but it is another stress.
- Disease. Oak wilt has been around for many years, and while it is almost always fatal for red oaks, it rarely kills the white or bur oaks, as they have a natural resistance. The beetles that spread the disease gain entry to the trees when they are damaged – or pruned – during the growing season.
What can be done to help these trees live out their natural lives?
- Avoid damaging roots through compaction, mounding soil or excavation around oaks.
- Remove invasive plants by cutting brush and painting the stumps with herbicide to ensure they will not regrow. Pull garlic mustard in the early spring and add seed from native grasses and flowers to help keep it from dominating the understory.
- Prune oaks between October 15 and March 15 when the trees are dormant. Ideally, hire a certified arborist to remove dead branches every 4-5 years to keep the trees healthy.
By taking care of the oaks, they will provide beauty and enjoyment for many generations.
TLC holds a fall oak sale each year. All trees are grown at a local nursery from locally collected acorns. Thirty percent of proceeds support efforts to plant more oaks throughout McHenry County, and the remainder supports the growing and care of trees that are sold and planted. Click here to place an order by Monday, October 7th, or call the office at 815-337-9502. Trees can be picked up at TLC’s office, 4622 Dean Street, Woodstock on October 11 and 12.
There is a concept known as the Commons which refers to all of the natural resources that do not belong to any single entity or individual, but belong to society as a whole.
Commons includes air, water, navigable rivers, the oceans and the like. Every living thing needs some combination of air and water to live. And rivers and oceans are in constant motion, so do not lend themselves to individual ownership.
What hasn’t always been clear is whether some have the right to pollute the Commons – or overfish the oceans, rivers and lakes – even if that spoils them for others. Before clean air and water laws, people and businesses used air and water to dumping waste because that didn’t cost anything, which was good for the bottom line. Nevermind that thick, brown smog blanketed urban areas and rivers sometimes caught on fire.
Over time, regulations were enacted to help protect the commonly used air and water so that the decisions of some to release pollution into them were balanced with the health and well-being of all people. These regulations improved life and the economy for everyone. Rivers don’t catch on fire, Lake Erie isn’t dead, and one cannot see the air in US cities.
Yet, problems persist. An “island” of plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean is larger than Texas. Coal mining companies literally remove the material from the top of mountains in Appalachia and dump the rock onto the surrounding landscape to mine the coal in the mountains. Hydraulic fracturing, “fracking,” to extract natural gas that is trapped in shale formations deep underground, has resulted in polluted water supplies from Pennsylvania to Australia.
The situation is what economists have long described as “the tragedy of the Commons,” meaning that when individuals make decisions about the use of shared resources, they will act in their own self-interest, whether or not that is good or bad for the community. Another way of putting it is that people and businesses tend to make decisions based on short-term gains rather than long-term sustainability.
For those who saw “The Lorax” movie, or read the book, the story is familiar. Use and despoil the local resources so long as a profit can be made, then when the money dries up, move on and start over some place new.
Personally, I object to the term “tragedy” because it implies that there is some aspect of fate that led to the bad situation. It is tragic when a man catches the early train to get home to surprise the family, only to be killed when that train is derailed in a collision with a truck. It is not tragic when a company injects toxic chemicals into a well knowing that 5% of the well casings will fail, and the chemicals then show up in local wells and people get sick. I would not call that a tragedy – I would call it a crime.
After all, everyone needs clean air and clean water to live. No one needs natural gas to live.
Have I mentioned "The Big Three"?
These are the three things - in some combination - that all life needs to survive: air, water and food.
Humans live just a couple of minutes without oxygen (which is found in the air around us), we survive just a few days without water, and just a few weeks without food. Thus, the term "The Big Three."
Everything else, as much as we might like it or crave it or desire it, are things we do not physically need.
Yet, in America (and elsewhere) people, businesses and the goverenment often put those other things ahead of The Big Three.
Take hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as an example. States have been granting permits to mining companies to install thousands upon thousands of wells that cover landscapes in a strange grid of access roads and rectangular pads for the well and mining equipment. It is like some demented subdivision with no residents.
The mining takes place thousands of feet below the surface in a rock formation made up of shale, which is a sedimnetary rock that was formed when layers of clay particles were subjected to compaction over millenia deep within the Earth.
These shale layers do not occur uniformly beneath the Earth - just as mountains are in some areas and not others. Also, the type of shale is not identical from place to place. In some places, the shale formation contains natural gas trapped in the fine cracks that occur naturally in the shale. Fracking, then is a process whereby liquids are injected into the shale formation to enlarge the cracks and release the natural gas.
(Note: In other places, the shale might contain oil, as in the Green River Formation in Utah & Wyoming. Unlike natural gas, which is, well gaseous, the petroleum in oil shale formations is not so easily extracted, as it is essentially part of the rock, not just trapped in the cracks of the rock.)
There are two ways that fracking is in conflict with The Big Three, specifically with #2, Water.
Fracking reduces the amount of water available for human use. The fracking process uses millions of gallons of water that is combined with chemicals and then injected deep into the ground to crack the shale - that water is taken out of aquifers and streams where it would otherwise be available for human use. And that water is not cleaned and eventually returned to the public water supply. It is effectively unavailable for human use forever.
Fracking has been shown to pollute groundwater aquifers that people use for their household water. The YouTube videos of people lighting the water coming out of their kitchen faucets are not just publicity stunts. In many cases, they are actually the result of dramatically increased amounts of methane getting into individual's wells after fracking wells were installed in their communities. It is not a big leap to think that the fracking process led to the contamination of the aquifers. According to the mining industry itself, 5% of fracking wells have cracked well casings as soon as they are made. (The casing is the lining that is supposed to prevent leakage - into and out of the well.) So, if 1,000 fracking wells are drilled, 50 of those start out with a leaky well casing.
For purely selfish reasons - our lives - perhaps we should keep our priorities straight. Always put The Big Three first.
Do you know where your food comes from? When eating at a restaurant, picking up a quick fast food snack, or sitting down to eat at home, do you know where each of the ingredients in your meal is grown?
In many cases, the answer would be a surprise. Apple juice from China. Lettuce from California. Grapes from Chile. Lamb from Australia.
Transportation of food across such vast distances – by boat, plane, truck and train – has economic as well as environmental costs. Simply put, it costs more to transport a product to Woodstock from China than it does to bring it in from Iowa. With gas prices around $4 a gallon in the US (and much more elsewhere in the world), transportation costs will continue to be a significant share of the cost of food.
On the environmental side of the equation, all those vehicles use fuel that emits carbon dioxide, which contributes to warming the planet, which in turn leads to changes in the climate. Climate change is causing some areas to receive more rain, and others to receive less, and water availability is a critical element of growing food.
Long distance transportation of food also has a social cost, as it disconnects people even more from the sources of their food. When people start to see farmland as “scenery” and not as the source of food, there is a greater risk that the full value of that “open land” will not be recognized or valued by society. Ask the average person where his food comes from, and he is likely to say “from the grocery store.”
For those who visit the local farmers’ market, the answer might be “well, my beef comes from a farm in Greenwood, and my vegetables come from a farm near Harvard.”
People have been embracing the benefits of buying local food for several years now. So much so, that there is a word to describe them: locavore, n. meaning one who eats foods locally grown whenever possible. Locally grown food products are fresher than food that has been shipped in from far away. I also find local produce to taste better than store bought items. And buying directly from a local farmer is good for the local economy.
Restaurants are now promoting the use of locally raised meats and produce on menus. 1776 and Duke’s Alehouse in Crystal Lake both describe the source of many ingredients right on their menus. Expressly Leslie’s in Woodstock obtains as many of the ingredients for its vegetarian meals from vendors at the Woodstock Farmers’ Market.
Buying more of one’s food locally at a farmers’ market, farm stand or through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) operation builds community, strengthens the local economy, and is better for the environment. It is just that simple.
Here are a few resources to help you find local food:
- The website www.localharvest.org provides an abundance of information to help the consumer find farmers’ markets, CSA operations, specific products and even restaurants that use local farm products in any area of the country.
- A group is working to create a McHenry County Food Cooperative which would be member-owned and operated. The food would be organic and sourced locally, and the money spent at a food co-op would stay in the community to boost the local economy. The group has a website: www.mchenrycountyfoodcoop.com and also a Facebook page. Volunteers are needed to help implement the project.
- Join me for “Speaking of Nature” on Harvard Community Radio, August 15th from 6-7pm for a discussion of local food issues. I’ll be talking live with Rich Brook, pictured above, Andy Andreski from 1776 restaurant and Scott Brix who is involved in the Coop effort. www.HarvardCommunityRadio.com
If you visit the Google home page today (August 1), you will notice an illustration of a woman looking through a telescope at a comet. That’s Maria Mitchell, the first person to identify a comet using a telescope. Prior to that, the only known comets were those that could be seen with the naked eye. The comet was referred to as Miss Mitchell’s Comet at the time.
Maria was born on August 1, 1818 in Massachusetts to a Quaker family. Her father had an interest in astronomy, and Maria grew to share his passion – and ultimately to make it her career.
My friend, Crystal Lake resident Patrick Murfin, wrote a story about her that he posted on his blog today – that’s how I learned about Maria and her accomplishments.
Among other achievements, ahe was the first woman on the faculty at Vassar College where she taught until retiring at age 69. Her appointment to the faculty was controversial because she was female, and while there, she fought to receive pay equal to her male colleagues. This struck me as particularly funny since Vassar was founded as a school for women to ensure that they had access to a quality college education!
You are now thinking: what does this blog have to do with land, conservation, nature or the environment?
Well, Maria said that her inspiration came from Nature rather than God (which was heresey at the time and got her kicked out of the Quaker Church), and her love of the cosmos was a part of her wanting to understand how the Universe worked.
Mostly, I wanted to share her story here because like many of us who love nature and work for its benefit, Maria didn't let social conventions keep her from pursuing her passions. She was born in a time when women did not attend college, did not have careers (let alone careers in science), and certainly did not teach at the college level! So, this young woman learned as much as she could on her own and applied her intelligence to studying the cosmos, ultimately securing a College faculty position teaching Astronomy!
Today, those of us in the conservation field replace the conventional lawn with prairie, install rainbarrels and raingardens to capture and harvest rainwater instead of sending it to the storm sewer, and take other steps to reduce our "footprints" on the Earth even if our neighbors look at us strangely.
These actions may not earn any of us the honor of being featured on the Google home page, but they certainly make a difference for future generations, just as Maria's efforts made a difference for all women since her time!
I read this great article about how native plants can help reduce mosquito populations by attracting more of the critters that eat them! I saw it on the blog for a company based in Idaho called Conservation Seeding & Restoration. Rather than trying to rewrite a great piece, I present it here in its entirety! Their blog is excellent, by the way, and I highly recommend checking it out here.
Mosquitoes. The pesky insects don’t just bite; they can spread disease. CSR’s answer? Install native plants to attract mosquito predators! Dragonflies, various birds and bats are all wonderful mosquito-eaters that we can attract using native plants.
Western Coneflower, Sunflower and Owl’s Claws are three great draws for small birds. Cattails and bulrushes attract dragonflies and other mosquito-eating insects. You can add dense shrubs that provide cover for birds and mosquito-eating insects such as Sagebrush and Rabbitbrush, and food such as Golden Currant, Chokecherry and Serviceberry…just to name a few!
The addition of bird houses and trees for nesting are also beneficial. You can attract chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, finches, cardinals, grosbeaks, sparrows, blackbirds, jays, woodpeckers and indigo buntings by filling your bird feeder with sunflower seeds and safflower.
A birdbath is also a good method for attracting birds. Birds are naturally attracted by dripping water. If you are shopping for a birdbath, try to find one that has a fountain or some type of running water -which will also prevent it from becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Lets not forget about bats! Each night, one bat will consume thousands of insects – including mosquitoes. Attracting bats to your yard is as simple as placing a bat house. For best results, bat houses should not be placed in a secluded corner. However, bat houses need to receive at least six hours of sunlight each day. Suspend two houses back to back on a pole about twenty feet off the ground. One house should be painted a light color, and the other one needs to be painted a dark color. The light color house should face the northwest and the dark colored house towards the southeast. This will help enable the bats to switch houses as the climate changes.
By making a few changes in your landscape, you can control those pesky mosquitoes -naturally!
In McHenry County, water is all around us: Groundwater. Wetlands. Watersheds. Stormwater. Even so, all of the water people use locally comes from the ground. Municipal and private wells reach down into “groundwater aquifers” and pump water up for human use.
Aquifers are not underground pools. In this area, aquifers are found where deposits of sand, gravel, or sandstone have water filling the spaces between sand particles (or filling cracks in the rock). The water in the aquifers starts out on the surface and slowly works its way down to the porous material where wells can access it for pumping back to the surface.
Sand and gravel aquifers are found 10 to 400 feet below the surface in deposits left by the glaciers 12,000 or more years ago. It can take water up to 50 years to reach these aquifers depending on how close the sand and gravel is to the surface.
Sandstone aquifers are up to 1,300 feet (one-quarter mile) below the surface. Sandstone formations are the remnants of ancient sea beds that were compressed into stone over millenia. Water from the surface may take hundreds or thousands of years to reach the sandstone. Note: the water moving into sandstone aquifers under McHenry County is believed to come primarily from Boone County.
Here are some important things to know about the water under McHenry County:
- Most of the available water is in the shallow sand and gravel aquifers. But, that water is more susceptible to contamination because pollutants from the surface will reach it sooner or later. Note: The communities of Fox River Grove and Crystal Lake had to issue advisories to residents in recent years because of elevated levels of chemicals in their shallow wells. And more than 10 years ago, the City of Harvard had to close a shallow well because of chemical contamination.
- Water in the sandstone aquifers is less likely to become polluted, but there is also much less of it. Also, McHenry County municipalities are already withdrawing more water from deep wells each year than is filtering back into them. So, they will run dry one day.
The good news is that McHenry County has enough water to meet current and future water needs with the water resources that are available to us right beneath our feet – if we plan for it. Planning includes protecting the water quality in our shallow sand and gravel aquifers to be sure that this resource is available for future generations too. Preserving the ability of the land to allow water to soak in so the aquifers can be recharged is critical as well.
There are some simple things that residents can do to help ensure there are ample water resources for the future:
- Stop treating stormwater as a waste product that is sent “away” as quickly as possible. Slow it down. Let it soak into the ground to recharge aquifers instead.
- Use native plants for landscaping. Water use peaks in the summer when residents water their lawns and gardens to keep them lush. Many native plants are drought tolerant once established. They also have the added benefits of reducing stormwater runoff and increasing infiltration.
- Let lawns go dormant during the hot, dry days of summer.
- Preserve open land and farmland that allows water to soak into the ground.
Spring arrived late this year, and with it came the weekend drone of lawnmowers. Many an otherwise perfect Sunday afternoon nap has been shattered by a neighbor’s noisy grass trimming machine.
And for what? To do it all over again in seven days.
Over the years, I have had neighbors who pay a service to come out and fertilize their lawns and treat them with an herbicide that kills everything save the grass. I’ve also heard people complain about their high water bills during the summer when without constant water, the lawn might turn brown.
One upside of last summer’s drought was that more people let their lawns go dormant, and went weeks at a time without mowing.
The grasses that comprise the typical American lawn – Kentucky bluegrass and various fescues – are referred to as “cool season” grasses for a reason. They prefer cool and moist conditions like one expects in the spring.
Most of the grasses in American lawns were imported from Europe. Early settlers found grasses native to the Colonies were less desirable for grazing by the livestock that were brought along from Europe.
Picture the British and northern European countryside with sheep grazing on lush green meadows. Now, imagine the weather – cool summers, mild winters and plenty of rain.
Then, think about a typical July day in McHenry County: sunny, hot, humid, dry. Hardly ideal conditions for plants that like it moist and cool!
So, the first problem with the typical lawn is that the grass species aren’t right for our climate, and require large amounts of water and fertilizer to stay lush and green during the summer. The next problem arises from over-fertilization of lawns in residential areas.
Applying too much fertilizer too often is not only bad for the health of one’s lawn, but it will also have a negative impact on the water quality of local rivers and streams. Excess fertilizer (that which is not needed by the plants) will run-off with the storm water, which eventually arrives in a local creek.
A third concern related to lawn maintenance is air pollution. A Swedish study conducted in 2001 concluded, “Air pollution from cutting grass for an hour with a gasoline powered lawn mower is about the same as that from a 100-mile automobile ride.” The small engine of a gas-powered lawn mower is very inefficient, and lawn mowing in the US has been estimated to account for up to five percent of air pollution in this country. New mowers are more efficient than older models, but a better alternative is to replace the gas mower with an electric model. Not only do they emit zero air pollution, they are quiet.
Quiet enough that they will not spoil a good nap!
There are alternatives to the lawn. Beds of native plants, for example, are not only beautiful, but also easy to maintain. Native species can be found for any growing condition.
Got shade? Try hazelnuts, wild ginger, Virginia bluebells and wild geraniums. Wet area? Nannyberry viburnum, river birch, sedges and Golden Alexanders are some species to consider. And for those hot, dry spots, I like New England aster, Compass plant, black-eyed Susan and Prairie coreopsis.
Before buying any new plants for one’s yard, check to make sure that the species chosen are not invasive in this area. The Chicago Botanic Garden maintains a handy guide to invasive plants that includes suggestions for alternatives.