Thursday, December 13, 2012

Looking for Shrubs in all the Wrong Places

Every time I extricate a tick from near my groin I recall with fondness a trip I took with a small group of youthful botanists to the west coast of Ireland in 1984. I tagged along with third year undergraduates on the annual University College Dublin Botany Department’s field trip to the Burren in Co Clare. The trip was designed to help these naturalists hone their plant identification skills, since the Burren - a grassland on karst topography — has a truly exceptional flora. One finds botanical treasures there not readily found elsewhere. I was a zoology major and at that time my passion was for chrysomelid beetles with their shimmering metallic elytra and chironomid flies, the males of which family have those marvelous antennae that perch like out-sized Christmas trees upon their heads. I mention here, merely as a grateful aside, that my mentor for beetle work was Jimmy O’Connor for Dublin’s “Dead Zoo” (National Museum of Ireland, Natural History) and for flies it was Declan Murray from UCD. I am indebted greatly to both these excellent men.
We crossed through the Midlands early in the month of June stopping off at the Bog of Allen, a fine though now of course greatly diminished raised bog, which generation after generation of Irish folks have burned as peat to heat their damp and somewhat chilly homes. And as we approached our destination we stopped several times at sites of scientific interest. As groups of hushed botanists whisperingly conferred over the relative hairiness of sepals, the flexuousness of petals, the lanceoloation of leaves and so forth, I swept the margins of small steams with my net with giddy abandon. The art of sticking one’s head into a net of agitated insects to retrieve one’s prizes, and to transfer them to a small vial of ethanol, has not received its due attention, but we shall have to reserve that meditation for another time. Once back on the mini-bus I’d stow the net under the bus seat and we’d be off to the next venue.
As we approached Co Clare a mild clamor emerged from the botanists, upon whose finely pubescent legs — need I point to the genderlessness of this observation? — ticks were now promenading. By the time my net was recognized as the tick delivery mechanism, the little blighters has already made their greedy ascent to the humid and agreeable habitat of the nether-regions that seem to be their preference. The ticks were painstakingly removed that evening, a process for which I can admit to having a certain fondness. The trick here is patience, a steady hand, and the graduated amplification of pulling force. Ticks relent.
Now, a point I want to make here is metaphorically a rather small one. Ticks, not always noticed when in the field become a nuisance when they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had inadvertently transported these ticks from their point of immediate origin, and their impact was uncomfortably felt in a manner that demanded attention. These ticks that so afflicted my botanists were not, of course, themselves invasive species, nevertheless they can serve to illustrate the rudiments of invasive species biology. Invasive species are those spread by human agency outside their typical range and have an impact in the host location significant enough to warrant management action. Setting aside, for now, the terminological skirmishes over distinctions between non-natives, exotics, invasives and so on, I simply ask you to bear in mind as important the factors of transportation between locations and an impact in a new range that is assessed as consequential.
My botanists forgave me, for botanists are generally an affable and forgiving race, and we settled down to the real task of our trip, botanizing. On that trip I encountered out on the limestone of the Burren, a plant that I barely registered at that time, but that was later to assume a dominant role in my life. This was Rhamnus cathartica, or buckthorn as it is commonly known. Buckthorn is a shrub or smaller tree with alternate finely tooted leaves and spiny twigs. It is, to my eyes, a fairly pretty plant. When I saw this relatively rare Irish plant again fourteen years later it was as, arguably, the commonest woody species in the Chicago Wilderness region. Introduced from its native range across the Old World where its populations are generally small it has become, after a lag-time of several decades, explosively successful in the US Midwest. From a conservation management perspective buckthorn is “public enemy number one” since it encroaches upon, and in many instances dominates, open land set aside for conservation purposes. Much of my research work and that of students I have worked with in subsequent years has been devoted to this plant.
In the summer of 2012 I traveled back to Ireland to find buckthorn growing natively. My younger son Oisín (then 16) traveled with me. The trip was more arduous that we expected. With time ticking away we discovered that although several Irish botanists could tell us roughly where to locate the plant, none could say where a population of buckthorn was to be found with the precision required by a man with little time to spare

Read on here.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Patricia Monaghan, In Memoriam 1946 - 2012

I read this today at the memorial service for my dear friend Patricia Monaghan who died too young.

It is with sadness, of course, that I say a few words on the occasion of Pat Monaghan’s passing. We all know that this was too early, too early by decades. My heart is with Michael McDermott and with Pat’s family and all of her friends, her many, many friends.

Death is the limit of words. We will see no more additions to the dozens of books, essays, poems, works of criticism and so on that made Patricia such a great scholar, and an unparalleled interdisciplinary researcher. No more will we get updates on her garden, vineyard, on her teaching, on all of the projects that made her so vital.

Death is the limit of words when we are reminded of how much there is to say about our departed loved ones, and how poorly words capture what is in our hearts. How can I capture in a few or even in many words a friendship that has lasted over a decade? I find that I cannot. I don’t want to say anything, rather I’d prefer to play that time over again, but this is not given to us to do.

So yes there is sadness. Much sadness. But as I thought over the last several days about what I could say here, it became hard not to have some of that sadness crowded out by gratitude, by a certain merriment in memories of her, by a pride in having known her, by joy for the legacy she left with us.

Patricia made us all smarter because she was so smart. She was not, we all recall, one of those people who purported to know more about our own chosen fields of expertise, rather she was the sort of person that shared our interests and wanted to know what we knew. It made her the most generous of listeners, and yet she always amplified a topic by the conversations she engaged us in. There was always an interesting, and entertaining, and wise angle. For instance, I work on invasive species, and the invasion of the land in Black Earth where she lived with Michael was a concern for her. But once in a discussion on the topic she told me that in conversation with a native woman in Alaska she’d inquired what the traditional people make of one particular invasive plant (I can’t recall which one, it may have been garlic mustard). The woman replied “What do we make?  We make soup!” Of course this entertained her because more than any other serious scholar I know Pat made things - a gardener, a winemaker, a knitter, a cook, poems, encyclopedias, a maker of friends, a teacher, a founder with Michael of the Black Earth Institute, that great arts and the environment think-tank.

Patricia made us all more entertaining because she was so entertaining. In the days after her passing I kept picturing Pat laughing. At her home in Beverly back in the day, at her home in Brigid Rest in Black Earth, hell even at committee meetings at DePaul she laughed. She would laugh and bring the back of her hand to her face to wipe away irrepressible tears of laughter. Not only did Patricia bring joy she was always prepared for joy. She was a great story teller and she brought out the stories in others. For several years in a row I would visit Pat and Michael at Black Earth with my family. My boys, who at the time when we started visiting them would have been pre-teen and a teenager. I asked Oisín our youngest what he recalled of the earliest of these visits: “Catching fireflies, picking blackberries, Space balls (they have a VHS player), and cheese curds!” Not only did we all love the house, and walking the land, and picking the blackberries we loved sitting by the fire in the evening with Pat and Michael. I bring this to mind because I fondly recall both of them telling stories there for the first time. Sitting in the circle around the fire, looking out across the land, the boys were called to that world that unites childhood and the world of adults, the world of stories. Fiacha, my eldest, pretended to be pulling on a pipe-full of tobacco as if he were a seanchaí of old. Patricia, in so many ways the most modern of women (she took to online teaching for example with reservations, of course, but not without her customary skill) but she also brought out the perennial and enduring in us all.

Patricia brought out the best in us, because she was the best among us.

I want to close with a poem of Patricia that she wrote for a volume (Brute Neighbors) that Chris Green and I edited last year, a reminder of her work.

Storm Lessons 
By Patricia Monaghan
1. Somewhere, right now, one is brewing.
2.  The wind is not trying to get in.
3.  In high winds, songbirds sing.
4.  It is not storms that rage and batter.
5.  Butterflies migrate within.
6. The beauty of inky clouds
    over a churning white lake and
    the beauty of a still summer meadow
    are equivalent.
7.  Storms storm.  It’s nothing personal.
8. They end

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Thoreau and a common soil mite

Main theme of my City Creatures essay:

From Thoreau environmentalists have inherited an inclination to inspect matters from the periphery — the perspective of cordial criticism — as Thoreau did from the vantage of Walden Pond on the outskirts of Concord. The environmental tradition has also inherited a regard for inquiring into necessities, now translated arguably into sustainability studies, a disposition toward minute inspections of the workings of nature, and an amplified sense of the affiliation between people and the wild, even if Thoreau had, at times, a tendency to view his neighbors with a jaundiced eye. In other ways, though, the environmental tradition has veered from Thoreau’s path. Though it is true that Thoreau famously walked out of town, finding, he declared, little of interest in that direction, nevertheless, Walden Pond is no glacial wilderness, it was merely a walk away from home, from town, and from the neighbors. An ecology of the urban environment had to wait for well over a century to emerge, even though in some respects Thoreau’s Walden is the first volume of suburban ecology. He provided, by way of illustration, detailed notes on the domestic cat who appeared quite at home in the woods. Perhaps the most significant departure from Thoreau’s legacy, however, is the bewitchment, in the modern times, with the ecologically exotic, the cultivation of uncommon experience and the infatuation with the rare. Rarity, of course, is the appropriate focus for conservation biology, since rarity is an excellent predictor of vulnerability to extinction. That being said, Thoreau’s genius for the ordinary may be worth emulating. In the “Brute Neighbors” chapter in Walden, he described a relentless battle between two species of ants, the sort of violent encounter that is infrequently observed and almost never recorded though, presumably, occurs all the time. What Thoreau’s account suggests is that if we look closely enough we find that the rich dramas of nature are right at our feet, even if this place is not very ecologically distinguished. One does not need to peregrinate in remote parts to give witness to the marvelous.

I am not especially concerned in what follows with reinvigorating a Thoreauvian approach to ecology. I simply want to suggest that right here, under our noses in the towns and cities where most of us live these days, there exist ordinary marvels if we only know where and how to look for them. There is, let me suggest, another form of rarity - rarity of experience, and a poverty in our attention, that may not be fatal but that is unfortunate and consequential. O nova can serve as a mascot for this different form of rarity: it is common but unfamiliar. That most have not seen it is by virtue of its cryptic nature forgivable, but that despite its ubiquity most, I suspect, know little about this species, needs rectification.

Outline of the full essay is here.

Outline of Essay: Being Unseen: the Gift of Oppiella nova

A strange gift from John Lussenhop – small colony of O nova
Commonest animal in terrestrial ecosystems
My first encounter with this animal 20 years earlier
Common but rarely analyzed.
Introducing main themes of essay: necessity, minute inspection of nature, amplified connection between humans and nature, commonplace rather than rarity.  Connection with Thoreau!

Classification of mites
Predation on mites (ghoulish story of beetles feeding on mites)
Diversity of community
            Poor man’s tropical rainforest
            Illustration of temperate zone diversity
            Enigma/Enigma resolved
Ecological role of mites

Specifics on Oppiella
Diagnostic characteristics
List of exotic locations where it’s found
List of less exotic locations
What is known ecologically
Aggregation patterns
A lone O nova shows up at the mall!

Association with people
No comprehensive studies of urban populations
Project with Amanda Henderson :Great Oppiella nova census 2013
22 billion O nova in Lincoln Park?
Hypothesis: diminished population because of leaf removal

Necessity: means essential but also intimately connected, rendering of serves
Broader concept of necessary

~3000 words