TLC's Blog (172)
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.
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!