Winter Campfire 3

by Carl Strang

Winter is a time when we slow down and become introspective. Sitting and staring into the fire, we ponder the big questions. If you have been following this blog, you know that the focus here is science, science that can be done simply in outdoor settings. But we are more than scientists, and science has well defined limitations that need to be understood by everyone who does science or studies its findings. This winter I am using one post per week to develop my own viewpoint and biases, in particular sharing my take on the relationship between science and spirituality. In part this defines for me what these two realms of human experience are all about, and also develops the separate methods used for inquiry in each realm. I plan to place this paragraph in front of each entry in this series, so that those who are interested only in natural history or in scientific practice can skip these posts.

What Are the Senses, Really? (part 2)

Our senses are by no means the only ones that exist. Each kind of animal has its own senses, and its own range of sensitivities. Many mammals hear beyond our hearing range at both the high and low ends. Some insects and birds can see colors in the ultraviolet energy levels, higher than our range. Bats are amazing in that they can reconstruct the 3-dimensional world based on reflected sound. They scream, and the reflections of each ultrasonic (to our ears) scream give them information about nearby objects. It’s a connect-the-dots world view, however, with spaces between the screams. Moths, which are important prey to many bats, can hear, but their high-frequency hearing range does not overlap with ours at all. The only reason moths can hear is that this allows them to detect approaching bats. When a moth hears something, this is bad news, for it is picking up the high-frequency sounds of a bat’s screams. The moth goes into a power dive with an unpredictable course, which sometimes successfully squeezes the moth through the holes in the bat’s connect-the-dots world. In addition, male moths can “smell” with their antennae, but they can smell only one thing: the pheromones released by females of their species. When a moth smells something, this is good news, for he can follow the scent trail to an advertising female.

Stranger yet are senses totally different from ours, for instance the electromagnetic field detectors of certain fish that live in large, muddy tropical rivers. They cannot see, but they can create an electric field which is disturbed by nearby objects with greater or lesser conductivity than the surrounding waters. The fish can interpret this information and do the things necessary for survival.

Ethologists (behavioral biologists) use the term Umwelt to refer to the world as perceived through the limited senses of a particular species. Our Umwelt is dominated by vision, with sound also significant and other senses rounding out the picture. It cannot be regarded as giving us the “true” image of the Universe, any more than does the Umwelt of an electric eel. This is the strange conclusion that science has discovered for us, and it adds to the irony when some scientists so confidently judge what is and is not “real.” One suspects that, when they were children, their monster-under-the-bed sensors didn’t work at all.

Our sensory organs filter the information coming in to them. Organizational cells within the retinas of our eyes exaggerate edges and otherwise edit what we “see.” In a similar way our ears edit the complex combinations of incoming sound vibrations into just a few dominant perceived sounds. Some of the richer but more confusing reality can be measured with instruments, but is left out of what we notice.

Our brain takes this incomplete, edited information and uses it to manufacture a cohesive, sensible model of our surroundings. One example of the brain’s work is its compensation for the blind spot, a small area in the retina of each eye which contains no sensory cells. We do not notice any holes in our visual field because the brain fills them in. Our brain also fabricates a continuity that fills the gaps when we blink.

An important implication of this tendency of the sense organs and brain to sharpen the edges of sounds and sights, to fill in gaps and selectively organize a sensible model of the world, is that we have an exaggerated understanding of the separateness of things. There is more connection, more oneness, to the Universe than we perceive.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

by Carl Strang

All best wishes for you and yours on this holiday.

Euonymus and Burns

by Carl Strang

Recently I described this year’s results in my ongoing study of the trailing strawberry bush, Euonymus obovatus, at Meacham Grove Forest Preserve. There was notable growth in the median size of patches or colonies of the plant in 2009, which may have benefited from a controlled burn that took place there in 2007.

The graph shows that Euonymus patch size dropped in 2008, apparently from burn damage. The jump in 2009 I suspect was the result of the fire’s harming Euonymus competitors and giving the trailing strawberry bush an opening. Trailing strawberry bush colonies approached sizes they had not achieved since the 1980’s. I returned to Meacham Grove, as well as Maple Grove, on November 11 to collect data on leaf miners in maple trees. I found that both study areas had received controlled burns.

At least some of the Euonymus twigs were severely scorched.

Burned stems like the one in the photo represent a setback for the species, but the previous burn helped by reducing the competition. Now I am interested in seeing how this trailing shrub will respond over the coming season.

Winter Campfire 2

by Carl Strang

Winter is a time when we slow down and become introspective. Sitting and staring into the fire, we ponder the big questions. If you have been following this blog, you know that the focus here is science, science that can be done simply in outdoor settings. But we are more than scientists, and science has well defined limitations that need to be understood by everyone who does science or studies its findings. This winter I am using one post per week to develop my own viewpoint and biases, in particular sharing my take on the relationship between science and spirituality. In part this defines for me what these two realms of human experience are all about, and also develops the separate methods used for inquiry in each realm. I plan to place this paragraph in front of each entry in this series, so that those who are interested only in natural history or in scientific practice can skip these posts.

What Are the Senses, Really?

Science was my starting point, and though I have come to see its limitations and to lament the way so many scientists unthinkingly treat it as a religion, I still regard it as our most valuable tool in understanding the physical world. Nevertheless, a properly shaken overconfidence in our perception of that physical world opens the way to spiritual considerations. Science has led us to discover that the universe we live in is a strange place indeed. (In the depths of the sea are some fish that can eat others bigger than themselves. This turns the standard food-chain cartoon on its head. One wonders what happens when two of those fish run into each other). In future posts I will review some of our world’s strangeness as revealed through studies of quantum physics and relativity. For now the discussion will be more biological in focus.

Physiologists have found that we do not perceive the physical world directly. What we regard as the physical world is a construct, assembled by our brains, entirely within our brains, from signals those brains receive from our sensory organs. The signals are electrochemical impulses, nothing more. Those signals arriving from the eyes are fundamentally no different from those arriving from the ears, the nose, the skin (as well as those special senses that detect monsters under the bed when we are children, senses which with age can reveal pink elephants under the right conditions). What makes sounds, smells, and sights so different is that their respective signals go to different parts of the brain, which then process them differently so as to construct different experiential representations of those pulses of information (people who experience synesthesia demonstrate this through their experiences of sounds as colors, tactile impressions as odors, or other unconventional constructs of the physical world). This sounds so peculiar, so foreign, and it seldom is discussed or thought deeply about, yet I do not bother to cite sources because it is so universally accepted as true by biologists.

The sense organs themselves are different from one another, and structured so as to respond to different kinds of energy arriving from the outside. The eyes respond to the arrival of photons within a narrow range of energies, more energetic than radio waves, for instance, less so than x-rays. Our ears pick up vibrations of air molecules set in motion by sound waves, but again the frequency range we can perceive has a high and low limit. And so on, for all our senses. These constraints shape our perception of the world, as I will elaborate next week.

Downy Woodpecker Dossier

by Carl Strang

This is another of my dossiers, a collection of observations that represents what I know about a particular species from my own experience. Following an initial description that summarizes what I remembered when I set up the dossier in the mid-1980’s, each individual entry begins with my date code.

Downy Woodpecker

This is an abundant, year-round resident of forested areas and savannas. They nest in small tree cavities. Feed by searching on small twigs up to the size of tree trunks, on shrubs, sturdier weed stems, occasionally on the ground. They crawl rather than hitch along. Voice a rapid whinny, individual tones mores musical than hairy woodpecker’s and lower in pitch; reminds me of a movie witch’s cackle. When feeding, they pick at twigs or flake bark. They do much pecking under bark edges, when foraging on a tree trunk. Nest in hollow branches or main tree stems.

30MR86. 2 male downy woodpeckers in an aggressive encounter. Frequent flicking of wings and spreading of tail. Assumption of posture in which body is upright and neck arched back so bill points straight up. Appeared to be trying to get above one another. Generally faced one another when in bill-up posture, and both did it at once. Red feathers conspicuous.

Late summer 1986. As a flock of ground-feeding grackles flushed at the approach of people, downies and jays at Meacham Grove Forest Preserve emitted contact calls, apparently as a final check of location and status before possible flight.

8MR87. Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. Male appears to be exploring the acoustic properties of a white oak limb. Spiralling up it, drumming frequently. Full drum about 1 second, poor spots drummed 0.5-0.75 seconds. Repeatedly drummed fully the spots that gave the greatest volume and lowest pitch. As I wrote the above, I heard vocalizations. Three downies now in that tree. The drummer and a second, presumably its mate, chased a third which gave fragments of the whinny call. They held themselves flat against branches, tails fanned, and gave whinny fragments and a more chattering, flatter sort of vocalization. The third bird left, but a few seconds later I heard a brief drumming about 50m in the direction it had gone. The other two immediately flew in pursuit, and after a few brief whinnies all was quiet.

7MY88. Indian Trails area, Culver. One systematically probing and pecking bases of hickory buds, open with leaves about 1/4 expanded.

18OC88. Hartz Lake area, Indiana. A vigorous, repeated displacement of one individual by another, though they stick together.

7MR89. Extended confrontation between 2 male downies. Mostly jerkily hopped up small tree stems within 3 feet of one another, flicking wings almost constantly, approaching, withdrawing, occasionally expanding and flashing the red patches, changing trees together, occasionally getting out of sight of one another momentarily, overall appearance of jerky movement. After more than 5 minutes of this, one displaced the other several times in rapid succession, but then they returned to the jerky maneuvering, with occasional rests on opposite sides of the trunk, out of sight of one another. Before all this, one of them called repeatedly, loud single-note reps. Another bird (female? Not seen) called or drummed a couple times during this from at least 50 feet away.

26-31MY90. Hartz Lake area. A nest in a river birch, entrance 12 feet up. Both parents fed, about 10 minutes between arrivals for each parent. Young still small, faint cheeping voices. When screech owl family passed by early one morning, one adult mobbed at a distance with alarm notes.

30SE90. Downy woodpecker eating poison ivy berries near Lafayette, IN.

10FE99. Two pairs of downy woodpeckers are actively engaged in drumming, calling, displaying and chasing in an area that centers on the Willowbrook bridge but extends most of the way to the marsh in one direction, and up to the big willow near the marsh’s water intake pipe in the other.

23MR99. The situation has become very complex at Willowbrook and difficult to follow, with displaying and chases, drumming and calls going on all day. It appears that at least 3 pairs are involved, with the center of the activity between the creek and the center of the outdoor animal exhibit. A downy woodpecker also was drumming in the big cottonwoods in the center of the Nature Trail circle, the first I’ve noticed there this year.

29MY99. Maple Grove Forest Preserve. Young audible in nest.

5OC99. Willowbrook. Downy eating poison ivy berries.

23FE00. Willowbrook. Male downy woodpecker displaying toward female, body in a stiff posture, tail fanned, unusual chattering vocalization, following or chasing her, matches Stokes’ description of Bill Waving.

1-2JL00. Juvenile downies have large red patches on top of head.

27MR06. Downy woodpecker drumming is so rapid that individual strikes cannot be followed. Hairy woodpecker drumming very rapid, individual strikes can be distinguished. Red-bellied rapid but slightly less so.

2009. Mayslake. One successful nest was in a large weeping willow branch in the SE corner of the mansion grounds. Young were vocal for several days before fledging. There was at least one other successful nest on the preserve.

Canopy Leaf Miners 2009

by Carl Strang

Recently I reported the results of my survey of black/sugar maple leaves in the forest understory at Maple Grove and Meacham Grove Forest Preserves. Each year I measure the incidence of four groups of leaf miners on those trees at those preserves, continuing a study I began in the 1980’s. Having found very few leaf miners of any type on the low saplings in September, I returned in November to gather data from fallen leaves, nearly all of which come from the canopies of mature trees.

Linear mine on a fallen leaf

As in the understory, canopy leaves had relatively few leaf miners. The highest incidence in any 300-leaf sample was 11 leaves bearing blotch mines of Cameraria caterpillars at Maple Grove. In comparisons between canopy and understory incidences, none were statistically significant. Comparisons between canopies of the two study areas likewise revealed no differences.

I also compared leaf miner incidences between 2009 and 2008. The only statistically significant changes were decreases in Caloptilia boxfolds at Maple Grove, both in the understory (a drop from 42 to 9) and in the canopy (a similar drop from 32 to 9).

It is worth noting that I found low numbers of all four mine types at both preserves this year.

Cameraria mine in a fallen leaf

This is the first time since 2006 that the sample included Cameraria at Meacham Grove.

Another One Bit the Dust

by Carl Strang

Restoration work that clears ground, whether through controlled burns or brush removal, can reveal stories from the past in the form of skeletal remains. Last week Mayslake Forest Preserve restoration co-steward Jacqui Gleason showed me part of a skeleton exposed through recent brush clearing performed by Forest Preserve District staff in the prairie area near the stream.

Fuzzy brown feathers around the feet, as well as the size and proportion of the bones, identify the remains as belonging to a great horned owl.

I don’t have the skill to age the remains, either in the sense of when the bird died or how old it was. Most animals die young, so if I had to guess I would say this probably was a youngster that died in its first year. If so, it wasn’t from 2009. As I reported earlier, the most recent great horned owl nest on the preserve met with tragedy.

Winter Moths

by Carl Strang

Last year I arrived at Mayslake Forest Preserve at the beginning of November, and went through that first month without seeing any. We’re halfway through November a year later, and I still haven’t found one there, though I’ve spotted them elsewhere in DuPage County this month. I’m talking about winter moths.

Look at the eyes on that dude! Despite the slender looking antennae, I know it’s a dude rather than a dudette because the females of the species are wingless. The winter moth, Erannis tiliaria, is a member of the inchworm family (Geometridae). The adults wait until November to emerge, and I love them despite their drab color. When the males fly through the forest in that cold air, their slowed flight gives them a dreamlike, drifting quality as they pass among the stark tree trunks of the leafless woods.

Much of their adult structure seems geared to a cold-weather emergence. Females don’t waste energy building wings. Males must fly in the warmer daytime, and apparently use a combination of enhanced vision and pheromone detection (on relatively minimal antennae) to find the females.

Winter moth caterpillars are fairly straightforward, if a little more colorful than most inchworms: white beneath, bright yellow on the sides, and pinstriped brown, white and black down the back behind the red-brown head. I’ve seen them, but never with camera in hand. Like many moth caterpillars, they consume a wide range of tree species. Their other common name, linden looper, suggests a preference for basswood. That tree is rare at Mayslake, but winter moth larvae are known to eat the leaves of many trees, including oaks, which are common there. So, I continue to look for this ghostlike moth on November days in Mayslake’s savanna and brushy woodlands.

Winter Campfire 1

by Carl Strang

Winter is a time when we slow down and become introspective. Sitting and staring into the fire, we ponder the big questions. If you have been following this blog, you know that the focus here is science, science that can be done simply in outdoor settings. But we are more than scientists, and science has well defined limitations that need to be understood by everyone who does science or studies its findings. This winter I am using one post per week to develop my own viewpoint and biases, in particular sharing my take on the relationship between science and spirituality. In part this defines for me what these two realms of human experience are all about, and also develops the separate methods used for inquiry in each realm. I plan to place this paragraph in front of each entry in this series, so that those who are interested only in natural history or in scientific practice can skip these posts.

Mayslake brush burn 2b cropped

Introduction

All musical instruments contain a space, a volume empty except for air (it’s obvious in a guitar, drum or didjeridu, but even a triangle has a gap; sticks hit together have free ends which accomplish the same thing; the human voice results from vibrations in the vocal chords impacting many resonating chambers in the chest, throat and head). This space, set in motion by the appropriate application of energy, creates a sound, and the nature of the sound depends on the nature of both the space and the compelling energy. (The 3 Stooges found many creative ways to make sound with the human head other than with the voice). The space within an instrument permits the formation of a standing wave which emanates as sound.

Possibly the original instrument was a gourd rattle, the gourd containing seeds in its space, and the shaking of it providing the energy (this idea is discussed thoroughly by Dolores LaChapelle in her 1988 book, Sacred Land, Sacred Sex: Rapture of the Deep: Concerning Deep Ecology and Celebrating Life). The gourd and, by extension, every musical instrument is a universal symbol, representative of the Void of creation, the Motionless that sits in eternity awaiting energy so as to take form. Music making (and Stooge head klonking) is a highly meaningful symbolic act.

Physics, in its close examination of matter, has found that our conventional view of “solid” substance is an illusion. When viewed at the subatomic level, matter turns out to be nearly all empty space. (Remember this the next time you sit before a hot fudge sundae). Even the “particles” that dot this space are not solid, but rather seem to be quantities of energy in motion. They are regarded as patterns of standing waves. This makes them, and by extension all “objects,” forms that have much in common with the sound waves emanating from those musical instruments.

This all, of course, applies to us, as well. If we are part of a universe-as-musical-production, then we can imagine the energy of God’s love emanating from the aboriginal Void, with our universe resulting as a precipitated creation. I recognize that this may seem like empty metaphor, but theoretical advances by some of the leading physicists over the past decade or two describe the universe as a complex wave function resulting from a collision of multidimensional “branes” (I’ll return to this later). I can imagine those branes as hyperdimensional cymbals. Various spiritual traditions suggest that we co-create our bodies as outer, small expressions of a larger Spirit beneath the physical surface. Both the mythologies of the world and emerging scientific understanding point to the notion that ultimately the universe and consciousness are bound together into a complex, folded, intercommunicating, interacting whole. They only seem to be composed of separate parts.

Our understanding of reality is based entirely on what we experience, what we perceive. Such experiences include everyday physical sensory impressions, but also what are called mystical experiences. Physical experiences feed science. Mystical experiences feed spirituality. Both kinds of experience, both methodologies, involve inquiry. But both kinds of experience are constructs within our brains; we are a step removed from whatever gives rise to them.

We seem to exist in a time- and space-bound arena, this physical world. But advanced theoretical physics and spiritual traditions agree, though from different viewpoints, that our perception of time and space is illusory. General relativity, and problems with defining what time and space are in the first place, challenge our assumptions from a scientific viewpoint. In the underlying Spirit realm where the bulk of us exists according to some traditions, there is no time or space, only the eternal Dreamtime. Yet within our everyday experience, in every moment we seem to be maintaining and playing with, changing and growing our form (that “growing” part will be especially true if we contemplate too many of those hot fudge sundaes).

My original goal for this study was to explore ways in which science points toward or is congruent with spiritual ideas. For a while that direction seemed promising, but now I feel that ultimately it is a dead end. The discoveries of quantum and relativistic physics, sensory and central nervous system physiology all have dismantled our everyday assumptions about the physical world, showing it to be insubstantial, and that body of fact can open the mind to spiritual possibilities. Some of the notions that have arisen within spiritual traditions find support in these branches of science. But I realize now that spirituality is insubstantial in a different way, a way that remains accessible only through subjective experience. Science has not yet developed methods to touch it. Stephen Hawking’s 2001 book (The Universe in a Nutshell) convinced me that nothing in the “new physics” requires a spiritual interpretation.

Subjective experience remains valid, though Hawking’s language implies that he personally wants to consider only ideas that meet Karl Popper’s (The Logic of Scientific Discovery) criterion of inter-subjective agreement. To do so, I believe, is to commit the error of confusing science with religion. Even Popper was not so extreme. As I read him, his criterion of demarcation was intended to separate science from other ways of understanding, not to argue that it is the only way. Popper pointed out that science is done by human beings, who cannot totally abandon their subjectivity. So science depends upon observations that are the same no matter who makes them. There is no way to prove that any hypothesis is true, because you never can be sure that an exception will not appear. But you can try to falsify a hypothesis, and if a hypothesis stands up to a variety of tests, it can be treated as though it describes a part of the physical universe correctly. Science is our best tool for understanding physical reality.

The picture is made fuzzy, of course, by the statistical nature of many phenomena in the natural world, as well as by chaotic determinism. The humanity of scientists leads them to bend the rules, often without being aware that they are doing so. These are points which have become better known in the years since Popper’s treatise. But in my view they simply add interest and color to the basic structure outlined above.

Of greater concern is the assertion by many scientists and others that science is, or should be, the only way to obtain knowledge. Extreme proponents of this view (I call them science fundamentalists) maintain that phenomena or aspects of reality that are inaccessible to scientific methodology simply do not exist. Popper pointed out that there are clear, logical limits to science and intrinsic uncertainties in its foundation. The whole range of mystical experience is subjective in nature and thus out of bounds to science. We celebrate this, in the arts and in religion. It is irrational to condemn such experiences in the name of science. They are not scientific, but that does not mean they are not real and meaningful.

Miscellaneous Mayslake Events

by Carl Strang

November is moving along, and I have some observations to report from Mayslake Forest Preserve that characterize the season. First is a casualty of the migration.

Hermit thrush dead b

I found this hermit thrush on the paved path that runs along 31st Street at Mayslake’s north boundary. Probably hit by a car, the bird looks peaceful but sadly still.

Though I haven’t seen the animals themselves, deer have been active on the preserve lately. Here a buck prepared for the rut by attacking some defenseless sumacs in the north savanna.

Buck rub Mayslake 1b

Deer also have been frequenting the orchard on the mansion grounds, snacking on fallen apples.

Deer tracks & apple b

Finally, with the water table dropping during the recent dry spell, crayfish have had to tunnel down to keep pace with it, hence the new chimneys on their holes.

Crayfish chimneys b

These notes begin my second year at Mayslake.

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