The last year or two, I’ve noticed changes to the farm fields I pass on my commute between Harvard and Woodstock each day. The hedgerows are thinning and in some cases, disappearing altogether.
As used here, the term hedgerow means a linear strip of vegetation (trees, shrubs and grasses) that runs along the fence line – or property boundary – between fields.
A hedgerow provides a wind break, which in turn reduces the amount of exposed soil that blows off of a farm field each year. It also reduces the amount of blowing a drifting snow, which can be a severe problem along US Route 14 between Harvard and Woodstock.
A hedgerow provides valuable habitat for a diversity of wildlife including deer, fox and birds. A hedgerow provides shelter that allows mammals to pass safely across the landscape and offers insects and birds a place to rest, nest and/or feed.
On some properties, hedgerows are the only place where old oaks are still found. When land was cleared one hundred of more years ago, farmers left many of the trees that were located on or near the property line. Over the years, these trees provided a comfortable spot to have one’s lunch on a hot summer day in the fields.
So, why are the hedgerows disappearing?
The high price of a bushel of corn.
Just ten years ago, the price of a bushel of corn was less than $3. Now that same bushel of corn sells for more than $6. And that was before the 2012 drought. Farmers are looking for additional land where they can plant corn to maximize production. And at 150-200 bushels an acre yield, even one additional acre of corn will generate $1,000 or more.
Demand for corn is high due in large part to federal Clean Air mandates that require blending ethanol with gasoline to reduce the emission of carbon monoxide. Increased use of ethanol also reduces America’s dependence on imported oil. Both seem worthy causes.
But the world is never that simple, is it? Corn is also needed for livestock feed and has become a staple in American processed food (high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch/baking powder, and corn oil being just a few).
So, basic economics tells us that competition for a product drives up the price, and scarcity (like happened in 2012 because of the drought) will drive up the price even more.
I’ve heard some folks say: “Most of those trees and shrubs are just junk anyway: box elders, buckthorn and honeysuckle.” Sure, but the wind doesn’t pay attention to what tree species is blocking it, and a bird that needs to take a break doesn’t mind if the only resting spot is a honeysuckle bush.
What does matter is whether there is something versus nothing, and the removal of more hedgerows for a few more acres of corn will have an impact on the future productivity of the land and the sustainability of the area for wildlife.
As the soil and birds start to disappear, we all may be wishing those hedgerows were back in place.
I heard an amazing speaker at MCC recently, Jon Erickson, Dean of the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of the Environment and Natural Resources. Erickson is an economist, which would normally have kept me away from his talk, but he is unlike any economist I have ever heard, and I am very glad I went.
The field of economics has focused largely on measuring “economic” growth – things like sales, production and jobs. A term you may have heard is “GDP,” or Gross Domestic Product, which is the traditional way of evaluating a country’s economy. In the GDP system, things like hurricanes, pollution and crime all end up being positive for the overall economy because they lead to increased spending.
That sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Maybe so, but that has been the dominant economic measuring system since the 1950s!
Back in those days, Americans didn’t think about pollution, or things like “running out of oil.” We were building the Interstate Highway system, encouraging every American to own a car and buy a home in the suburbs. We were spraying mosquitoes with DDT, and pumping new-fangled chemicals over our farm fields to increase crop yields. Bigger and faster meant better. Gasoline cost 15-cents a gallon, and one could stick a straw in the ground in Texas and oil would flow!
Starting in the 1960s, the environment began to degrade as a result: eagles nearly went extinct, rivers caught on fire, Love Canal was brought to light – along with thousands of similar (but less well known) toxic waste dumps.
And, yet, forty years later, and the field of economics is only now starting to officially recommend ways to factor in the costs of “growth” – costs to our quality of life today and costs to the ability of future generations to have a good quality of life.
Erickson explained that there is a growing movement among economists to replace the old focus on measuring financial growth as an indicator of success with a system to measure resilience.
In the new system, one calculates the GPI (Gross Progress Indicator) for a state, city, country or business by taking the traditional measures related to how much money changes hands (buying and selling goods and services), and factoring in the social conditions (crime, education, war, volunteerism, divorce and health) as well as the environmental costs and benefits that include pollution, resource depletion (e.g. coal and oil extraction) and the effects of climate change.
Imagine an economic system that doesn’t treat a hurricane – or a war – as “good” for the economy. That’s crazy!
From an environmental perspective, I like highway rotaries (also called roundabouts). They allow traffic to keep moving, which cuts down on cars having to stop and start at a light or stop sign. That saves gas and results in less air pollution.
An additional environmental benefit is that less pavement is typically installed at a rotary when compared to a four-way-stop intersection. Part of the reason for that is what are called “stacking lanes.” These are areas where the roadway is wider approaching an intersection to allow for right and left turning traffic to “stack” up while waiting for a light to change to green. The extra roadway width reduces the time it takes for traffic to move through an intersection, as the folks going straight, the ones turning right and the left-turners are already separated when the light changes color.
When a rotary is installed, there is less need for “stacking” cars because the traffic moves continuously through the intersection, and whether a car is going straight, turning right or turning left, it will enter the rotary and follow it to the right until exiting onto the desired road. Less need for “stacking” cars translates into less need for pavement, and less pavement is a positive for the environment.
But, sometimes a rotary isn’t the best solution.
One of those cases is the proposed rotary at Harmony Road and Route 20 southeast of Marengo. The state’s plan to install a rotary at that intersection will require tearing down the historic Harmony School along with a grove of oak trees that were growing there before the school was built in 1931. Until its owner, Jack Feldkamp, was murdered in 2011, the school was home to his business, Harmony Real Estate.
The historic building sits empty, and if the rotary project goes forward, the school will be gone – forever. And a bit of our Heritage – a part of what makes McHenry County unique in the region – will be gone too. Roads can be moved or redesigned to avoid structures or trees, but trees and buildings are generally immovable (except perhaps at great cost).
Ancient oaks and historic buildings connect the current generation to a time before we were here. A time when schools were dotted across the landscape so that every child in the county could walk to and from school each day. A time when a grove of oak trees growing near a school was valued because of the shade it provided on a hot day (before air conditioning).
I can’t help but wonder if there is still a lesson left in that old schoolhouse? And if today’s “students” will slow down long enough to listen to it?
(Thanks to Kurt Begalka at the McHenry County Historic Society for sharing the photos of the school and oaks. www.mchsonline.org)
I am fascinated by water.
Humans can only survive a few days without it, and our bodies are 65% water. Less than one percent of the water on planet earth is available for people to use because the vast majority of water is in the oceans (where it is too salty for humans to drink) or it is locked in the polar ice caps.
Water is so essential to life, yet so often taken for granted.
Here in McHenry County, all of the water people use comes from the ground. Municipal and private wells reach down into “groundwater aquifers” and pump water up to the surface.
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).
If the water in these aquifers is not replenished, they can run dry just like a river or pond can go dry. And the source of water to refill an aquifer is the same as that which fills our rivers and ponds – precipitation (rain-sleet-snow).
We had a severe drought last year. On average, our area receives about 37 inches of precipitation each year. In 2012 we received about 25 inches.
The drought of 2012 led many local rivers and streams to run dry (like the one on the left side of the accompanying photo). Many ponds are very low, and some have dried up altogether. Farmers are able to cultivate parts of fields that were too wet to farm just a year or two ago.
Groundwater aquifers face a double whammy during a drought. First off, people pull more water out of the ground to water their lawns, gardens and farm fields to compensate for the lack of rain. Additionally, with no precipitation, there is no new water to replenish the water we are pulling out of the ground.
There is one final challenge that aquifers face when there’s a drought. They take time to recover even when rain starts to fall again. After all, the precipitation must be able to soak into the ground is areas where the soil is permeable enough to allow the water to pass through 100 to 400 or more feet of material. It can take several years for water that hits the ground today to make it to the nearest aquifer where it becomes available for a well to pump to the surface.
So, if you are still looking for a resolution for 2013, how about “I won’t take water for granted”?
I posted this once before, but thought the weather forecast warranted running it again! Hope you don't mind!
When first married, my husband and I moved to Vermont from Chicago, motivated by an image of that state as a beautiful, rural paradise – the antithesis of Chicago where our car got broken into every few weeks. We thought Vermont would be a great adventure. Turns out “adventure” wasn’t quite the right word.
Our moving date was in early November, and after we arrived, it was at least 30 days until we saw the sun. Our trusty VW Rabbit had a stick-shift – which had not been a problem in Chicago where the landscape is fairly level. But, in Vermont, we couldn’t even get in or out of our neighborhood without going up and down a couple of hills. On streets covered in snow and ice.
We expected Chicago winters would prepare us for anything, but we were wrong. The sheer volume of snow that fell in and around Burlington, and the absence of sunshine for weeks at a time, made that first winter pretty tough.
That first winter was when we heard about “Snowflake” Bentley – the man who first observed that no two snowflakes are alike. In 1885, Wilson A. “Snowflake” Bentley, a farmer and resident of Jericho, Vermont, became the first person to photograph a snowflake. In 1925, after photographing thousands of snow crystals, he wrote:
"Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind."
That fact never occurred to me – if each snowflake is unique, then once it is gone, there will never be another like it.
According to a story on the Smithsonian’s website, “Snowflakes start as ice crystals that freeze around small pieces of dust in the air. As they fall to the earth, the ice crystals join together to form snowflakes. The shape of each snowflake is determined by temperature, wind, the amount of time it takes to fall to the ground, and the amount of water vapor in the air.”
For example, the classic snowflake shape – some variation on a six pointed star with delicate branches (called stellar dendrites) – is most likely to be formed when the air temperature is below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. At higher temperatures, snow crystals may be more disc-like, cylindrical or stick-like.
After living in Vermont for three years, Tom and I came to understand why it was a Vermont resident who figured out that no two snowflakes are alike: First off, there are a lot of snowflakes to photograph; plus, there are about five months of the year where it is so snowy and cold that one needs to have a hobby to keep from going stir crazy.
Wilson A. Bentley chose a winter hobby that took advantage of a resource available in abundance right outside his front door – and more than 100 years later, every child still learns that no two snowflakes are alike.
I never thought a hobby could make someone immortal.
While driving late one night between Woodstock and Harvard, it struck me how dark it seemed. Most house lights were out, so the landscape visible along Route 14 was dark. It was a new moon, so there was no moonlight from the sky to illuminate the ground. I thought to myself: the world must have looked like this for the early settlers.
Not even close.
When early settlers arrived in this area, they would have found actual darkness. The kind of darkness where the Milky Way was not only clearly visible, but where the Milky Way actually cast a shadow on white surfaces!
There are still a few places in the United States where true darkness can be found, but these dark spots are increasingly rare. According to information found at www.cleardarksky.com, there are no places in the entire state of Illinois that have no light pollution. In fact, east of the Mississippi River, a person would have to travel some distance into the Atlantic Ocean to reach a place with zero light pollution.
Woodstock is right on the fringe of a light bubble that surrounds the City of Chicago and most of the suburbs. This light bubble stretches from University Park in the south to Deer Park in the north, and from Lake Michigan in the east to the Fox River in the west. In this area (a place where it never actually gets dark), the sky is perpetually grey or brighter, and only the brightest stars are visible to the naked eye. In technical terms, this bright zone is considered Class 9, Inner-city sky.
Woodstock is in an area considered Class 6 or 7, Urban/Suburban sky. The Milky Way may be visible if directly overhead, and the horizon glows with a faint light that obscures all but the brightest stars.
Heading northwest from Woodstock, the sky is rated a Class 5, Suburban Sky. In this area, the milkway is visible when overhead, but is washed out. Clouds appear brighter than the sky behind them.
In a truly dark, Class 1 or 2 sky, clouds will appear as “black holes” that appear deeper than the starlit sky around them. This is because there is not ground light pollution to illuminate them from below.
Now, there are those who will ask: “so what?”
The sky is part of humanity's cultural inheritance: a door to the Universe, part of the rural environment, and a social amenity. Light pollution reduces the celestial spectacle to a pale imitation - a few pin-pricks of light from the planets and brightest stars - and robs us of a source of inspiration which until recently could be taken for granted.
Some folks may think that with the onset of winter, we can stop thinking about invasive plants - after all, they aren't growing in winter, right? Well, while we may not have to worry about them growing during the dormant months of winter, natural area managers find that this is the best time to work on removing invasive shrubs, trees and vines. After all, one doesn't have to deal with ticks and mosquitoes, plus, with the leaves off, it is much easier to cut and mulch (or burn) brush.
The picture above shows Oriental Bittersweet - an invasive vine that literally strangles trees like our beloved oaks. Artists seem to value the twisty stems, and florists love the prolific orange-clad berries for fall flower arrangements. However, left unchecked, this vine will pull down mature trees in just a few years.
Fortunately, this is an invasive plant that can be managed easily during the winter months once one knows how to identify it, and provided you have the proper chemical to apply to any cut stumps.
For those who dislike even the idea of using herbicides, I have to tell you that the alternative is to keep cutting the same plant every year. And, cutting these plants just encourages them to come back more aggressively the next year. Seriously. It is like the stories of Medusa - cut off her head, and seven new heads grew in its place. Cut one honeysuckle stem this winter, and you'll be cutting at least seven new stems next year if you don't give it a shot of herbicide.
Fortunately, herbicides will work when applied correctly in very small quantities. Since they are a poison, it is vital to wear proper protective gear and use the proper application technique to avoid harming yourself or native plants that may be growing nearby.
There is a lot of good information out there to help manage invasive plants in winter.
Friend Chris Evans coordinates an "Invasive Species" (eradication) Campaign in Illinois, and he often shares great information about best practices for recognizing and controlling invasive plants in Illinois. He posted a useful article recently that covers the basics of winter management of several of the most irritating invasive plants: Honeysuckle, Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose, and Oriental Bittersweet. The article can be accessed here: Winter Management of Common Woody Invasive Species.
The article is on the site "Illinois Invasive Species Awareness Month," so you will find a lot of additional helpful advice about managing these pesky invaders.
“The fog comes on little cat feet” wrote Illinois poet Carl Sandburg in 1916 as he watched the fog roll in at the Lake Michigan shore in Chicago. The next line, “It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on” describes the fog as it settles in for a while before retreating again.
When I first read those words in grade school, I admit that they didn’t make much of an impression. The cats I knew were like my pet Tuppence who thumped when he walked. Did fog thump? As a kid, I really didn’t know fog.
Reading the poem today, I actually experience a slight chill, for as an adult I have experienced the beauty and mystery of fog in its many forms.
For example, there is the winter fog that coats the tree branches with a thin film of ice, creating what is known as a hoar frost. 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.
Several years ago on a camping trip, I saw the fog roll in off the Pacific Ocean at Point Reyes California (one of the foggiest places in the world), and then watched it return to sea. This is an example of advection fog where wind blows warm moist air over a cool surface – in this case, the ocean.
Fog is essentially a cloud at or near the ground. Fog occurs when the air temperature reaches its dew point – meaning the point at which the air is nearly 100 percent saturated. Fog generally does not occur under windy conditions – the air will be calm, and any wind will be light.
In this area, the most common type of fog is known as radiation fog. On clear, calm nights, fog will form as the ground surface cools rapidly, dropping the air temperature to its dew point. This type of fog is most common in the fall and winter, and if the air is still, can last all night long, disappearing as the sun rises and the air warms.
For all its beauty, fog can be hazardous. In 1945, a B-52 airplane actually crashed into the Empire State Building in New York because of heavy fog and in 1977 two airplanes crashed on a runway in Tenerife (Canary Islands) because of limited visibility due to fog.
Fog has been blamed for fatal car accidents across the planet, in places as diverse as California, Dubai, and Tennessee. The fog not only reduces visibility, it also reduces contrast, muting everything to shades of grey, which in turn reduces one’s ability to judge distance and speed.
Fall and winter are the peak fog seasons in the Chicago metro area, including McHenry County. So, when driving in the fog, slow down, turn on the low beams, don’t pass other cars, and do not talk on the phone. It may come in on little cat feet, but don’t be fooled, that fog can be a killer!
Did anyone else notice that the President mentioned climate change during his victory speech early Wednesday morning? Specifically, he said: "We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”
That sounds like three priorities: reduction of the National debt, equal rights for all Americans, and doing something about climate change.
For months, I have been frustrated by the absence of a National dialogue about climate change. The topic did not come up during the Presidential debates – not even a passing reference. This, despite the fact that our own Defense Department has stated that global climate change will have national security implications for the US, as rising sea waters inundate US military bases as well as low-lying nations and as changing weather patterns cause water shortages in some countries and flooding in others.
“We will pay for [climate change] one way or another,” Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, a retired Marine and the former head of US Central Command, wrote in a report he prepared as a member of a military advisory board. His report goes on to say that America can pay dollars today to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, or it will pay later through loss of life as the US faces more military conflicts through the political instability that climate change will cause.
So what? How does that affect us here in McHenry County? Why should we care?
Well, aside from concern about the impact to habitats and species, consider that McHenry County will have young people whose lives will be at risk in future military conflicts as nations fight over water and possibly land for their citizens. And, there is every reason to believe that the United States will continue its long tradition of welcoming refuges from throughout the world, and those people will need to have places to live. Population pressures in the US in the future will impact McHenry County, especially with our location within the Chicago metropolitan area.
I hope the next four years brings rational discussion in the US aimed at taking meaningful action to address climate change and to reduce the risks of future global instability that will result if nothing is done. Let’s not push this problem off onto a future generation.
Has this election cycle left you with a bad taste in your mouth? Well, at least no one’s making you eat kale.
I’m a fan of eating seasonally fresh foods, but that has never included certain vegetables that are common this time of year: brassicas.
Broccoli, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and bok choy are all members of the Brassica family. Some folks refer to the group of vegetables and other plants as the "cabbage family" or the "mustard family," because who has ever heard of a brassica anyway?
For many years, I thought my dislike of these particular vegetables was a hold-over from being a “picky eater” as a child. I assumed that Brussels sprouts were an “acquired” taste or something that one grew to like in adulthood. But not me. Several decades into adulthood, and I still avoid the bitter-tasting brassicas.
I learned recently that I’m not just being “picky,” I actually have a specific gene that heightens my sensitivity to foods that contain a certain type of chemical compound. And that chemical is found in high concentrations in brassicas. And for billions of people on the planet, those vegetables have a bitter taste.
Still, as the primary cook in my household, I am called upon to prepare brassicas by my partner who does not share the bitterness gene. So, over the years, I have found ways to prepare many of these vegetables. For instance, broccoli is quite good when combined with potatoes to make a creamy soup. Brussels sprouts become palatable if baked in a casserole with cream cheese and parmesan cheese. Bok choy is actually tasty when I chop it and stir fry it with mushrooms, red pepper flakes and sesame oil. In effect, I use other vegetables and spices to mask the bitterness.
There is just one brassica I will not eat: Kale. I know, I know, kale has lots of vitamins and is really good for me, but it is one taste I am not going to acquire.