Friday, October 30, 2009

Wetlands and Witch-hazel

I had occasion to explore a wet meadow this morning and took some images while I was walking around with water nearly flooding into my L.L. Beans. I liked the misty background that I got in this image; it was cloudy, but it wasn't foggy.

A different perspective: here's the wet meadow from the hillside above.

On the hillside, witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) was blooming. (Don't you just love to say that generic name?) Witch-hazel is the last woody plant to bloom each year. Can you believe that this shrub is fairly closely related to sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua)? They're in the same family. There's a bright red sweetgum in the background of the image above.

A close-up of the witch-hazel flowers. I wonder if the flowering time has anything to do with the plant's common name?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Quarry Woods

Reclaimed hard rock quarry

Yesterday, taking advantage of a glorious October afternoon, I inspected an old hard rock quarry in my neighborhood that had been filled with clean fill. The four-acre site will be donated to a local land trust to be incorporated into the 33-acre preserved forest that surrounds the quarry. The site's owner did a good job of refilling, recontouring, and reclaiming the quarry, but the fill was seeded with a non-native grass mixture to stabilize the soil. Stabilizing the soil is a good idea (especailly considering how much rain we've had lately), but it makes for poor wildlife habitat. Eventually, the land trust will reforest the site.

The land trust already has a nice one-mile trail that leads through the 33-acre woodland above the quarry.
The trail leads to a large patch of Southern arrow-wood (Viburnum dentatum). This probably should be the most common shrub in the woodlands, but it's also a favorite of the large white-tailed deer herd, so it's among the first plants to disappear from the understory and be replaced by spicebush (Lindera benzoin), which the deer don't find particularly palatable. This patch of arrow-wood was growing near the edge of the quarry, so perhaps it escaped because it was relatively inaccessible.

This was the dramatic evening sky at sundown last night.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Motion without Passion: BodyVox

Sure enough , it poured--I'm talking deluged--last Saturday night. I predicted in my last post that rain forecast for the weekend would bring down the leaves right at the peak of their color. Well, I was wrong about bringing down the leaves (at least not all of them; there's still a lot of attractive foliage on the trees), but it sure as hell rained on Saturday evening, just as we were headed to see a performance by the Portland, Oregon-based BodyVox contemporary dance company. By the time we arrived at the theater, the torrent had slackened to moderate wind-driven showers, but en route we had to ford innumerable raging creeks and pond-sized puddles in the roadways where the storm drains couldn't handle the volume of water--and all for a fairly mediocre evening of dance. Perhaps, given the weather, it was fitting that BodyVox was performing its extended work called "Water Bodies." Each dance comprising the work ostensibly had a water-related theme, though the connection was tenuous in some of the compositions.

The compositions were, without exception, clever. Many were accompanied by video projected on a screen behind the dancers. A few pieces were exclusively video footage of dances performed in a swimming pool.

Unfortunately, the performers seemed to be going through the motions mechanically rather than dancing; there was no joy--or, if the dancers were enjoying the movement, they certainly didn't communicate it very effectively to the audience. It's not that the dancers were wooden or unskilled; it was more that the choreography was at fault. Furthermore, the music was an irritant; it was too loud (don't I sound like an old guy?), cacophonous, and uninspired. It seems to me that when I first started attending contemporary dance performances, the music often was minimalist dissonant bangs and shrieks, but more recently choreographers have chosen more appealing music. BodyVox is trapped back in the Dark Ages of dissonance. In fact, one of the pieces I enjoyed the most related to doomed couples dancing on the deck of the Titanic; it was set to Jean Sibelius's Valse Triste.

Probably the best piece of the evening was performed by one of the co-artistic directors and founders, Jamey Hampton. A bathtub rolled onto stage, and Hampton (who had been hidden inside the tub) stood up in the tub. A soundtrack began that sounded like dripping water, and the dripping came faster and faster. Gradually, the dripping morphed into dance music and Hampton boogie-oogie-oogied in the tub. It was great fun, very creative, and he had some wonderful dance moves.

The overall performance lasted less than two hours. I commented to my wife that the evening was short (compared to that offered by some other damce companies). Her response? "Thank goodness." I agreed.

Daniel Kirk, sexiest of the BodyVox performers

Friday, October 23, 2009

October Sunset and Little Bluestem

A walk at dusk in my natural area produced some interesting sunset images. I especially liked the texture of the clouds.

Just a few minutes more and a few hundred feet further along the trail produced this image. Between the colors and the shapes of the clouds, they're almost menacing.

Also along the trail I came across a stand of native little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium). Though the stems have a bluish-gray tinge during the growing season (hence the name), in the fall and winter they turn a glorious russet color that's particularly impressive when the grass grows in broad swaths.

We're in for more wet weather this weekend--especially tonight into Saturday night. Yuck--another potentially beautiful autumn weekend ruined by rain. It'll probably knock the leaves off the trees just as the colors are reaching their peak.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

More Canoeing Pix (for Ray)

By (Ray's) special request, here's another post full of pictures of my October 10, 2009, canoe/kayak marsh restoration field trip on Delaware's Christina River.

About two-thirds of the way through the trip, we pulled-up under a highway overpass to get out of our watercraft and climb up to road level to get a view out over the restored marshes. Here, we've made our beachhead.

Prior to canoeing into one of the restored marshes, our guide explained the restoration process.

Paddling into one of the restored marshes.

Native Wild-rice (Zizania aquatica), a sure sign of successful restoration in the marsh.

Near the end of our excursion, the trees lining the river were weighted down with noisy passerines. Most were Brown-headed Cowbirds, with some European Starlings and Common Grackles mixed in.

Yours truly, in the bow of the canoe.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Foretaste of Winter

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), a "snow bird"

The Mid-Atlantic suffered through two Nor'easters this last weekend, starting on Thursday, October 15 and ending yesterday afternoon (Sunday, October 18). (For those who don't live along the Atlantic Coast, a Nor'easter is a storm that travels northward from the Carolinas up to New England. The winds circulate counterclockwise around the low pressure center that's hugging the coast [hence, nor'east winds], usually accompanied by rain [or snow] and flooding tides.) These storms made it unseasonably cold (mid-40s vs. typical mid-60s), damp and miserable. Bone-chilling weather.

On Friday evening, during a lull in the storm, I went to the compost pile to dump some of my kitchen waste. En route, I thought that I heard a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) singing, but it only came once and I wasn't positive. Then, on Saturday morning, I threw millet under my bird feeder and attracted two Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis)--sure harbingers of winter. I thought that the sparrows and the juncos were early, but maybe not. The juncos were not to be seen Sunday or this morning, so perhaps they were the avant garde, and had moved further south.

Here's an image of a beautiful old red oak (Quercus rubra) stump quickly disappearing but playing host to lots of great fungi in the process. Earlier in the year, it sported slime mold colonies.

Bright Star

Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion (The Piano), is the story of Romantic poet John Keats and his lover and muse, Fanny Braune. It's gotten great reviews, so we went to see it on a rainy, cold Saturday afternoon.

The film is a little too long and a little too slow, but its major fault lies in the premise: penniless Keats meets barely comfortable Braune, and, despite the fact that he cannot provide for her financially, they fall in love and she becomes his muse, inspiring his poetry. All well and good, but the film tells the audience that this is happening but doesn't show it. Keats is an accomplished writer before he meets Braune, and he's still a writer (but no more financially successful) after he falls in love with Braune, but Campion never successfully demonstrates the power of Fanny's ability to act as Keat's muse.

Fanny has a younger brother and sister who appear frequently throughout the film, but who, between them, probably have six lines. It's a little weird to have these characters hanging around but not speaking.

Of course, the film is beautifully photographed and a delight to watch, and there's a wonderful and affecting scene in adjoining bedrooms depicting the incredible longing that the two characters share for one another. But in the end, the film really wasn't very engaging.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bicycle Diaries

David Byrne, founder of the Talking Heads, has compiled a series of short essays about bicycling in cities around the world. The bicycling essays are accompanied by additional essays about music, friendship, city planning, and the scale of human communities that were inspired by thoughts that sprang into Mr. Bryne's head while he was riding his bicycle, visiting with colleagues, and performing. Mr. Byrne is an unabashed liberal, and he doesn't suffer fools lightly; I got the impression that he's of an age (mid-50s) and financially comfortable enough that he doesn't have to take any guff from anyone. His perspective is refreshing.

Having enjoyed the book, I have to point out that there's not much here that hasn't been said before, especially about city planning. I enjoyed the bicycling essays the most, and especially enjoyed his reflections about bicycling in New York (where Mr. Byrne lives), in other American cities, and in Berlin; the essays about other world cities were not as fully developed. The recollections of interactions with musical colleagues might be interesting to fans of world music, but I hurried through most of them. A good (but not great) read, and a gentle introduction to city planning for those not already familiar with the basics. The book is 291 pages long, but the pages are small and there are lots of photographs.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Urban Canoe/Kayak Expedition

Traffic jam in the Newport Marsh

A group of 25 colleagues and I explored the freshwater tidal marshes bordering the Christina River in Wilmington, Delaware last Saturday (October 10). The extensive marshes that naturally bordered the river were diked and drained almost as soon as the original Swedish and Dutch settlers arrived in the 18th century; they used the polders for agriculture and pasture.

Then, industry arrived and made use of the riverbanks for commercial purposes, many of which generated incredibly persistent toxins like creosote and PCBs. Now, industry is largely gone from the banks of the river, and various state and local agencies are in the process of reclaiming the marshes and removing or remediating the toxins.

After a rainy start, the day turned out to be mostly sunny and cool (mid-60s)--perfect for canoeing. Autumn was just beginning to show its true colors on the Coastal Plain. We paddled upriver, but the Christina is tidal up to the point that it flows out of the Piedmont and the tide was coming in. So, even though we were going upriver, we were going with the flow.

Our six-mile tour of some of the restored marshes began at the site where Wilmington was founded. The riverfront has been redeveloped with new shopping, eating and entertainment venues--much like nearly all urban riverbanks. This weekend, though, a new facility was added: the DuPont Environmental Education Center, a $17 million, four-story building surrounded by marshes in various stages of restoration. The brand-spanking-new building is not LEED certified--shame on them!

Despite the fact that we were paddling through the heart of the most densely developed portion of Delaware, we rarely saw or heard traffic, except when we crossed under I-95 (twice). In fact, we scared up an American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) when we rounded a corner in a narrow passage through a marsh, and saw several Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias), Great Egrets (Ardea alba), and Belted Kingfishers (Ceryle alcyon) along the route. My canoe partner and I--usually at the head of our slow-moving group--startled two White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginiana) getting a drink. The trees bordering the marshes and the river were heavily laden with huge flocks of skittish passerines; a better birder than I identified the groups as "80% Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) , and the rest a mixture of Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscaula) and European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris)."

Most of the marsh restorations were very successful so far. Battling Phragmites australis is always a problem, but Wild-rice (Zizania aquatica [don't you love that generic name?]--the harbinger of successful restoration--was evident and abundant. It was a beautiful, collegial, stress-reducing, and utterly enjoyable afternoon on the water.

Day's end

Monday, October 12, 2009

Tapdancing to Eleanor Rigby?

The stage lights went dark, then came back up in deep crimson. Each of the eight dancers, dressed in a tux, stood on stage riveted by a spot. Then the music came up--loud--the unmistakable intro to Eleanor Rigby. So it began: three minutes of complete awe and bliss, the full company of Thank you, Gregory, tap dancing to Eleanor Rigby Sound ridiculous, corny, silly? Hardly! This was no polite Ginger Rogers/Fred Astair duet; this was hard-charging, stage-stomping, sweat-dripping syncopated tap dancing, and it was great! I wanted to see it again and again.

Thank you, Gregory, which I saw last Friday evening, was conceived as a tribute to Gregory Hines, who died six years ago. It was that, and so much more: a cavalcade of tap dancing from the first recorded images to its incarnation on the contemporary stage presented by an amazingly talented cast of eight dancers, four of each sex. Plus, Maurice Hines, Gregory's brother and longtime dance partner, who is a showman par excellence.

Keep your eyes and ears open; if the show comes anywhere near you, GO!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Porcelainberry and Persimmons

Porcelainberry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata)

Everyone has her/his/their own group of invasive species with which they have to deal (though I suspect that some, like multiflora rose [Rosa multiflora] and Japanese honeysuckle [Lonicera japonica] are pretty ubiquitous, at least on the East Coast.

In the natural area that I frequent, the most troublesome of many, many invasives is porcelainberry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata). Porcelainberry is a member of the Vitaceae, and there is even a native species found on the Coastal Plain of the Carolinas. But this plant is definitely not the native species. The folks at the natural area call it the "kudzu of the North," and you can see why.

Porcelainberry shroud

Porcelainberry was introduced as an ornamental (you can see why, from the image of the fruit), and it escaped from gardens. The fruit are readily taken (and spread) by birds. I had a friend who worked at the Berkshire Garden Center. The organization had a variegated specimen of porcelainberry espaliered on one of their buildings. In horror, I told him that he'd better get rid of that plant immediately, but he said that it didn't spread in that climate. I wonder if he was right.

Porcelainberry develops a very thick root that stores lots of reserves; it's virtually impossible to kill it by starving it to death with persistent and diligent cutting. Periodically, it sends up an stem from the roots, so that the plant spreads both by root sprouts and by seed. It's a monster, and be happy if you don't have it.

Mile-A-Minute (Polygonum perfoliatum)

And, while we're on invasives, the second biggest problem in my natural area is mile-a-minute, a.k.a. Devil's tail and tearthumb (Polygonum perfoliatum). This invasive was introduced on nursery stock imported from China to York County, Pennsylvania in the 1940s. It has infested the Mid-Atlantic.

This plant is an annual. Unlike porcelainberry, which adds to last year's growth, mile-a-minute must start over each spring. It produces copious quantities of blue fruits that are spread by birds. Fortunately, the managers of my natural area have introduced a biocontrol--an imported weevil (Rhinoncomimus latipes)--that, for now anyway, is specific to mile-a-minute. The minuscule weevil larvae burrow into the plant's stems and the adults perforate the leaves (as you can see in this image). The beetles have only been around for two years and haven't yet made much of a difference, but their numbers need to build up to be effective.

Persimmon fruit (Diospyros virginiana)

On a walk yesterday afternoon, I came upon two persimmon trees loaded with fruit. The ground around the trees was festooned with the mushy fruit as well. I don't particularly like persimmons, but they're good for a zeitgeist: they remind me that it's autumn.

Persimmon bark

I love the tree's blocky, dark-gray bark during any season of the year.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Humans Are Despicable: Further Confirmation (Note: Disturbing image at end of post)

Beaver (Castor canadensis)
Image from Illinois Dept. of Fish and Game website

The natural area that I haunt is within two miles of the city line of a major Mid-Atlantic city. So, it's embedded in the sprawling suburbs and gets a lot of use. Nevertheless, it manages to retain many of its natural amenities.

Two years ago, I was walking along the creek that flows through the preserve downstream of the designated natural area. The creek flows out of the natural area and into a privately-owned marshy area that is crisscrossed with roads and railroad tracks. Because the area is marshy, and because the roads and railroads are above the level of the creek and the marsh, it is basically an extension of the designated natural area. During that walk, I came across a beaver lodge hidden at the edge of the marsh. I was ecstatic--beavers had made their way back to the watershed all by themselves--probably by migrating from an adjacent watershed where I know they are present.

Earlier this year, I began to hear reports of beavers in the tributaries of the creek above and below the natural area. Then, in the summer, a beaver appeared in a small pond within the natural area. I would see it every July evening that I went down to the pond. Come August, just as mysteriously as it appeared, it disappeared. I guess the pond wasn't to its liking.

Yesterday afternoon (October 1), a friend who roams the natural area even more frequently than I called me to report that he found a beaver washed up against a tree trunk in the creek with an arrow through it. It appeared to have been shot with a crossbow. I think I know who did this (he's notorious), and he did it just for target practice or maliciousness, since his property is not near the creek and his trees were not being damaged by gnawing.

There's really no hope for humanity.