A Snowy Friday

by Carl Strang

The forecast called for more snow than we got. Instead of a forecast 8 inches we got a wet 3 at Mayslake Forest Preserve, thanks to the overnight temperature’s dropping more slowly than expected.

I had an enjoyable lunchtime walk through the snowy landscape. The only price paid was a zonk on the head by a small icicle that fell from an overhanging branch.

The snow didn’t stop falling until mid-morning, so there was no overnight record of footprints. A coyote was active in the morning, however, in the north savanna near May’s Lake.

This front footprint is fresher than it might seem. The soil was saturated and soft, and the track was collapsing rapidly. The soft mud also makes this track almost dog-like, but that’s an artifact of the conditions. Note how the middle toes remain well in front of the side ones. I also have the advantage of seeing all the other tracks the animal had made.

If I read this track correctly, the coyote was putting on the brakes slightly while making it. Note how the soil is cliff-like and somewhat elevated at the front edges of the heel and toe marks. Everything looks symmetrical, however, so it appears to be a simple deceleration rather than a turn.

Wool Grass in Winter

by Carl Strang

Sometimes winter botany is challenging, but not always. Last year I put some effort into learning to recognize the more common grasses, sedges and rushes at Mayslake Forest Preserve. On Friday I spent some time seeing what was still recognizable in late winter. Many were, to my eye, a matted uniform carpet of flattened brown leaf blades, but a few stood out. One of these was wool grass.

“Wool grass” is not in fact a grass, but one of the bulrushes.

Even the fruiting head retained much of its structure.

Some winter plants qualify as sculpture, as “found art.”

When I found this plant last summer, it impressed me.

For one thing, it towered above the other plants in its vicinity.

The flower heads were complex, and white mixed with green added interest.

You can see how the winter version in the above photo still reflects this structure.

I had hoped to do more winter plant photography this year, but the way it is going I will have to wait for another, snowier year.

Lessons from Travels: Uluru and Kata Tjuta

by Carl Strang

This is an iconic Australian scene:

Uluru, known to the English language as “Ayer’s Rock,” as though a single person’s name could contain such a wonder.

Uluru is the Australian umbilicus, occurring as it does in the continent’s center. It is renowned geologically because it is a single, huge undivided mass of stone.

As in the distant perspective of the top photo, this view from an intermediate distance likewise gives an impression of uniformity.

If you take half a day to walk around the thing, experiencing its silences and sounds, its textures and variety, you lose any sense of simplicity you may have held after reading about Uluru.

For one thing, there are cave-like indentations.

Erosion has exposed and perhaps augmented Uluru’s internal texture.

Legend likens this shape to a frog.

Oddest and most unexpected, up close the rock seems to have a scaly skin.

The flakes are each a few inches across.

Uluru is amazing, awe inspiring, well worth savoring. No wonder it has significance in Aboriginal spiritual tradition. That tradition is as differentiated as the rock itself. Some parts of the rock’s proximity are forbidden to Aboriginal women, some parts to the men. Some parts are so sacred that photography is forbidden. I did not even try to photograph the signs that mark such areas, out of respect for that wish as much as for its legal codification.

But here is what impressed me most. Uluru is known all over the world. Local tradition holds it as sacred. But, back when the Australian government was being what passed for conciliatory at a certain stage of its history, it gave the local Aboriginals a choice. They had two traditional sites in that area which were sacred to them. One they could keep almost exclusively to themselves, with highly limited and restricted access for outsiders. The other site they must open to tourism. They elected to open Uluru. This means that to them, the other site is more special, more sacred. My tour group walked the short trail that provides limited exposure to that other site. It is called Kata Tjuta, but I think of it in the English translation of that name: the Many Heads.

Like Uluru, the scope of Kata Tjuta requires a perspective from miles away.

The diversity of shapes is here more complex than at Uluru.

The iron oxide red of the stone’s surface contrasts amazingly with the sky and vegetation.

As at Uluru, one’s sense of the place alters as one gets closer.

Light and shadow, sky and cloud, plants and rock, all fit together in a way that seems more intuitive than conceptual.

There is a perfection in each scene, each view. One measure of this is that I have done less photo cropping for this post than I believe I have done for any other to date.

At some point the rocks’ texture begins to become evident.

All of this in a trail loop that covered only a tiny portion of the Kata Tjuta site.

At each turn the view changes impressively.

Most of the posts in this Travels series throw perspective on our own northeast Illinois landscape through some contrast in ecology, biology or geology. Uluru and Kata Tjuta are so removed from our local experience that even “contrast” seems inadequate to express the difference. I can think of one connection worth mentioning, though. Like the Aboriginals, Native Americans found The Sacred in the local landscape during their thousands of years of tenure here. Their traditions include stories that connect them to the animals, plants and physical features of their surroundings. Our European-derived culture has lost that sense of the sacred in its commodification of the land. Perhaps the lesson from this travel episode is to find a connection to every place that expresses a deep level of personal, community and cultural value and significance.

Lessons from Travels: Clouds from Above

by Carl Strang

One of the delights of air travel is the opportunity to view clouds from above. To be sure, there is much beauty to be enjoyed from the play of light on clouds we see from the ground.

Winter sunset

The new perspective from a jet liner adds a different perspective. We’ll follow the common summer sequence, beginning with simple cumulus.

Cumulus clouds are the common puffs we all know and draw as children.

These are simple enough that they look much the same from above.

The mosaic of the ground provides a visually interesting backdrop.

As a summer day passes, solar energy causes an increase in the rising air columns and their moisture content. The cumulus clouds swell as that moisture hits cooler air above and condenses.

They become bigger and more complex in shape.

Now there is more to be seen from the air, as well.

The clouds seem to form a landscape of rounded mountains and valleys.

If conditions are extreme enough, the clouds coalesce, and build high into the atmosphere.

Those who know something of the process, and see this, begin to assess where shelter is to be found.

A full appreciation can be gained from the higher-altitude perspective.

The anvil shape of a cumulonimbus, the cloud of the thunderstorm.

A final lesson comes when one notices that at a typical cruising altitude of only 5 miles, nearly all the clouds are below.  The realization begins to sink in that the breathable, active atmosphere is thin indeed, the barest skin’s thickness when compared to the size of the Earth as a whole. Yes, it is a small enough volume easily to be changed by the actions of billions of technologically leveraged human beings.

Lessons from Travels: Desert Plant Spacing

by Carl Strang

One of the important characteristics of our climate in northeast Illinois is the relative abundance of moisture. This feature is driven home when we visit the deserts of the southwestern United States. Today I want to focus on how the relative lack of moisture there forces the plants to space themselves out.

Here you can see how the desert shrubs and cacti form a regular spacing, with bare soil between.

The roots of established plants are so effective at grabbing what rain comes, that new ones cannot succeed in the spaces between. This does not mean that plant size is limited, however. There are the Joshua trees for instance.

Their foliage connects them to the smaller yuccas.

Saguaros, likewise, can be huge.

Note again, though, how widely spaced they are. Such large plants need many years to reach this size.

Other plant species with smaller stature increase the local diversity.

They also add to the beauty and charm of these ecosystems.

The bare soil can increase the ease of tracking.

Facing the sun increases the reflection from the compressed soil.

Plants have other adaptations allowing them to live in such places, and there are animals as well, so we’re not done with the deserts.

Winter Campfire Update

by Carl Strang

In November I will begin a new weekly winter series, on lessons from travels that reflect on local natural history. Today’s post updates the first winter series, from two years ago. Called the Winter Campfire, that series offered ideas on science and spirituality. Today’s notes come from the past year’s scientific literature relevant to the Winter Campfire material. In that series I touched upon quantum and relativistic physics, sensory physiology, and brain development and function. The following notes add some information in those areas.

Nicholas J Hudson. Musical beauty and information compression: complex to the ear but simple to the mind? BMC Research Notes, 2011; 4: 9 Abstract excerpts: “The entire life-long sensory data stream of a human is enormous. The adaptive solution to this problem of scale is information compression, thought to have evolved to better handle, interpret and store sensory data. In modern humans highly sophisticated information compression is clearly manifest in philosophical, mathematical and scientific insights. For example, the Laws of Physics explain apparently complex observations with simple rules. Deep cognitive insights are reported as intrinsically satisfying, implying that at some point in evolution, the practice of successful information compression became linked to the physiological reward system. I hypothesise that the establishment of this “compression and pleasure” connection paved the way for musical appreciation, which subsequently became free (perhaps even inevitable) to emerge once audio compression had become intrinsically pleasurable in its own right…I hypothesise that enduring musical masterpieces will possess an interesting objective property: despite apparent complexity, they will also exhibit high compressibility.”

According to an interview in an associated ScienceDaily article, Hudson has found that while random noise compresses only to 86% its original size in computer programs, present-day popular music commonly compresses to 60%, and Beethoven’s third symphony, in contrast, compresses to 40% despite its apparent complexity. The relevance of all of this to the Winter Campfire material is the recognition that our experience is created from the bits of sensory information our brains receive. We need to hold lightly to the assumption that reality is as we seem to perceive it.

Costas A Anastassiou, Rodrigo Perin, Henry Markram, Christof Koch. Ephaptic coupling of cortical neurons. Nature Neuroscience, 2011; 14 (2): 217 DOI: 10.1038/nn.2727   They have found evidence supporting the idea that, in addition to synaptic transmission, brain cell activity forms many overlapping electrical fields whose patterns can provide for communication. Furthermore, such fields may be subject to influence from external electrical field stimuli. The term “ephaptic coupling” in the title refers to communication among neurons through the field rather than through synapses. These fields are especially strong in the memory-forming hippocampus and in the neocortex, where long-term memory is stored. The relevance to the Winter Campfire essay is the connection to the holographic model of brain function.

J. J. Hudson, D. M. Kara, I. J. Smallman, B. E. Sauer, M. R. Tarbutt, E. A. Hinds. Improved measurement of the shape of the electron. Nature, 2011; 473 (7348): 493 DOI: 10.1038/nature10104    The electron is a sphere so perfect that, if it were the size of the solar system, the difference from perfection would be within the width of a human hair. This was determined by failing to find wobble in a molecule that would have been present if there had been asymmetry in electrons. The goal is to seek out possible differences between electrons and positrons that might explain why antimatter vanished and a residue of matter was left in the early universe. This expands upon the nature of matter and energy, addressed in an early chapter in the Winter Campfire series.

Tomohiro Ishizu, Semir Zeki. Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty. PLoS ONE, 2011; 6 (7): e21852 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021852    From an account in ScienceDaily. They found that a particular region of the brain, the medial orbito-frontal region of the cortex, becomes active when a person experiences beauty, both from visual art and from music. The medial orbito-frontal region is part of the reward/pleasure center. Experiences of sights which subjects identified as ugly did not produce activity in any particular brain region. As expected, activity in visual regions also increased when the beautiful stimuli were visual, and in auditory regions when sounds were provided. In addition, visual beauty produced activity in the caudate nucleus in the center of the brain, in proportion to how beautiful the subject found the object. That brain area has been associated with romantic love in other studies, and thus suggests a connection with such love and beauty. I find myself focusing on the results that point to the subjective nature of beauty. I hold to my statement that one potential Way of spiritual development is to expand the range of what one regards as beautiful.

Crystalline Landscape

by Carl Strang

We don’t get many ice storms at our latitude, so yesterday’s display was an unexpected treat.

View across the prairie at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

I say “treat” knowing full well that such armor plating on plants can cause difficulties for animals trying to reach seeds, fruits and insects.

These seed heads are, for the moment, locked away.

But the sun and above-freezing temperatures soon removed most of the ice coating.

Trinity Lake.

Before that happened, the sun and ice made a rare glorious display.

Grass stems stretch graceful lines.

The commonplace is made uncommon.

Grass tops weave complicated shapes.

And yet, these shapes and patterns were there all along. One lesson is to learn not to need the sugar coating to appreciate them.

Skunk Den Search

by Carl Strang

Last Wednesday, when tracking the skunk at Mayslake Forest Preserve, I ran out of time before I found its den. On Friday I decided to see if I could finish the job. I first went to a known den in the north part of the preserve, not far from where some of the trail had led me. It was a very cold day, and the little stream was completely frozen over. Some beautiful ice crystals had frozen on the surface.

Ice on ice. This sight alone justified coming out in the cold.

There were many beautiful little scenes within the bigger one.

The known den had not been entered or exited since the snowfall. It is possible that this one contains a skunk that stayed home Monday night, or that the skunk had moved out, or it may be in there but dead. Mammalogist Stan Gehrt has found that in northeast Illinois, winter mortality takes out half the skunks typically (the loss is less in mild winters).

A coyote had sniffed at the den, but that was it.

I went back to where I had left the skunk’s trail on Wedneday, heading east past the north end of the parking lot marsh. It turned and went along the top of the ridge that runs between the marsh and the stream to the east.

The ridge clearly is a human construct, formed when the marsh was excavated.

Midway along the crest of the ridge was a hole. It appeared that the skunk had exited and entered it Monday night, but the definitive tracks were obscured by some enormous ice crystals that were forming around the edge of the hole.

I hope you can see the very large crystals growing across the hole.

It was only later, as I was returning to my office, that I realized how odd those crystals were. It occurred to me that they might be forming out of moisture from the skunk’s breath. This was a new possibility, a way of identifying an occupied den under certain conditions such as very cold weather. Next month, during the skunk mating season, I’ll get more opportunities to see if this hole is a skunk den.

Spots of Color

by Carl Strang

Familiar landscapes become delightfully transformed in this season. Some eye-grabs of color are planned; here is an example from my garden.

An additional element of enjoyable surprise comes in finding such changes in an area one is monitoring through the year. Mayslake Forest Preserve’s savanna had a couple early color explosions. One was in the sumac colony.

The Hill’s oaks also are turning up the red (or, if you prefer, turning down the green).

Now is the time. Get out and enjoy it. Soon it will be gone for another year.

Happy Familiar Things

by Carl Strang

While I have my creative side, and there’s a part of me that enjoys novelty, I also take comfort in familiar patterns. As the seasons turn, I take delight in recurring sounds and sights associated with each point in the year. Early in spring I enjoy looking for the relatively large, common bee fly Bombylius major.

I like it because of the contrast between the round fuzzy body and the long pointy beak. Mayapple leaves rise from the ground in clustered clonal colonies. Shortly after their folded umbrella leaves open, they bloom.

Spring migration brings the kaleidoscope of colors and cacophony of songs from the many birds. One of my favorites is the rose-breasted grosbeak. Here a male takes aim at an insect on a leaf.

One of the grand displays is bud break in shagbark hickories.

These spring events are all the more delightful after the long 3 seasons of winter.

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