Riversides and Roads as Habitats

Some of my favorite stretches of rural gravel roads are those which wind through bottomland woods. Yesterday I noticed to my surprise a limestone cliff along such a road. I’d been driving past the cliff for weeks and it had never caught my eye.

I had to pee anyway, so I pulled over into a patch of shade and got out of the car to investigate. The cliff was about twenty-five feet high and a dark Eastern Red Cedar clung dourly to the clifftop. A jumble of flat limestone scree was heaped against the base of the cliff; the base of the cliff had been cut back to provide room for the road and the scree was the resultant debris. Several plants were growing right out of the heaped limestone fragments, enjoying the lack of competition and the window to sunlight provided by the road.

A yellow wood sorrel plant was flourishing in the intermittent dappled sun. This is a native plant, Oxalis stricta to botanists; the species has modest yellow flowers and distinctive lobed leaves:

I also found a mint-family species growing from the talus. The square stems and aromatic opposite leaves were diagnostic. The clump of plants was almost finished with blooming but a few small violet flowers remained. I tried to pick a shoot to take home but an entire plant, roots and all, ended up in my hands. I didn’t mean to do this — I wrapped the roots in a wetted bandanna and threw the plant onto the back seat of the car. The plant is now on my kitchen counter with its roots in a plastic water glass.

I’ve tentatively identified the plant as Blue Giant Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum, a native species new to me, although I’ve seen photos of it. The leaves have a distinct anise odor with musky overtones.

The brief stop got me to thinking about the resemblance between river- and creek-side habitats and roadside habitats. For a plant species which requires a certain amount of sunlight these habitats serve as a refuge, an escape from the tyranny of shade cast by trees, shrubs, and other competitive species. Such habitats tend to be periodically disturbed by flooding or road-graders. A species which has evolved to spring back from such intrusive events will gravitate to such niches and flourish.


A Cancer Survivor’s Project

Yesterday afternoon was bright and balmy, with that distinctive autumnal sunlight which always seems to slant obliquely, casting long shadows.

Lanky wild sunflowers and clumps of goldenrod lined the gravel roads. I was tooling down a road near Payson, Illinois in my trusty old Ford Aspire, leaving a wake of churned-up limestone dust behind me like a billowy tail.

I noticed some people engaged in planting a tree in a open field near a house and there seemed to be some sort of arrangement of posts and wires nearby. I made a delivery down at the end of the road, and on my way back I pulled over and approached the people, curious as to what they were up to.

A young man was operating a gas-powered post-hole digger. A couple of bagged and burlapped blue spruce trees waited stoically nearby. Evidently the young guy was digging planting holes.

A stout man in his fifties calmly watched the digging process from the seat of a green-and-yellow John Deere four-wheeler. He didn’t look like a farmer; his dress and general demeanor suggested to me that he was a lawyer, judge, or county functionary. The scene:

I walked up to the stout man and said:

“Howdy! Looks like you have quite a project going on here! Are those grapes planted over there?”

“Yep, that’s my son’s project. He set them out this spring. It’s been so damned dry this summer, but he managed to keep them alive. Who are you, by the way?”

I introduced myself and we shook hands.

We talked desultorily about the trials of grape growing, the former prevalence of vineyards in the county before Prohibition, and why I had a flashing red light on the top of my car.

I asked about the bird-netted vineyard on the Plainville Blacktop which I photographed last week.

“Whose vineyard is that?”

“Oh, gosh, I should know that guy’s name! He’s married to my sister, after all! Truth to tell, I really don’t know what he does with all of those grapes. His vine’s are really loaded down this year, aren’t they?”

“So what’s the idea behind this vineyard?”

“Well, my son is just twenty-three years old, young enough to take on such a long-term project. He’s a cancer survivor. He had a relapse this spring, after he had planted the vines, and we’re waiting for him to return from the hospital. He just had surgery and they think he’s cured. He needs something to keep him active and occupied while he recovers.”

“Interesting! Well, I’d better take off. Nice to meet you!”


Kittens: A Child’s Commentary

I found this to be quite amusing. The video must have been pieced together from numerous takes. The girl’s mother claims the commentary was all from the girl’s fancy:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtX8nswnUKU?rel=0&w=420&h=345]

Thanks go to Claire Peckhosh for bringing this to my attention.


Bracts of the Holy Involucre

I’m very fond of arcane botanical terminology. I learned many of these terms years ago when I was first learning the technique of “keying out” flowering plants and fungi. A key is a branched list, a series of yes and no questions. “Are the leaves oppositely arranged on the stalk or alternately?” “Are the spores rusty red?” “Are you still alive after tasting this?” — just kidding on that last one!

[to be continued this afternoon]

[24 hours later, as it turned out!]

The Dictionary Demon, a useful beast who spends most of his time curled up by my computer’s power supply, has been sulking lately. This morning he poked his scaly head out of the computer case and yawned, revealing ichor-stained fangs. He said:

“Damn, Larry, why don’t you give me a mission? I’m bored!”

“Okay — how about fetching me a definition and etymology of the word involucre?”

The dragon-like creature expanded as it flew from the computer case, causing the kitchen to seem rather crowded. I opened the screen door and the demon flew out, soaring low over the somnolent Quincy roof-tops.

While I waited I read a passage from a wonderful little volume, a memoir by Elisabeth Tova Bailey titled The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating:

In most languages, the word for “snail” refers to its spiral shape: in the Native American language Wabanaki, the term is Wiwilimeq, for “spiraling water creature”. Giovanni Francesco Angelita, an Italian scholar, wrote an essay in 1607 titled “On the Snail and That It Should Be the Example for Human Life”. He praises the creature’s thoughtful pace and good morals and credits it for inspiring everything spiral, from the invention of drill bits to Europe’s most famous staircases.

I was startled by a scrabbling of claws at the screen door. The demon swooped in with a dramatic flourish and dropped a quivering parcel into my outstretched and cupped hands. It appeared to be made of the wings of Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies stitched together with .. were those barely-visible fibers milkweed floss?

I looked closer. It wasn’t just wings — entire living butterflies were sewn together to form the pouch! Thus the quivering, which began to intensify. With a soft wafting of air the parcel burst apart and the Fritillaries flew away, most of them finding their way to the still-open screen door. I was left with an oval piece of some sort of fabric in my hands. It looked to be made of the pressed breast-down of mourning doves bound together with milkweed stem-milk. The feathers were oriented so that the feather barbules all pointed to my left; stroking the surface was like petting a cat, both with and against the “grain”.

The definition was written upon the pressed-flat and silky surface with a purple-black substance which I suspected was pokeweed-berry ink:

   Involucre In"vo*lu`cre, n. [L. involucrum a covering,
        wrapper, fr. involvere to wrap up, envelop: cf. F. 
        See {Involve}.] (Botanical)
        (a) A whorl or set of bracts around a flower, umbel, 
            or head.
        (b) A continuous marginal covering of sporangia, in 
            certain ferns, as in the common brake, or the 
            cup-shaped processes of the filmy ferns.
        (c) The peridium or volva of certain fungi. Called 
            also {involucrum}.

An aside: isn’t it intriguing that there are three similar words containing two “v”s which are almost homonyms?

  1. Volva, a fungal membrane — the white flecks on the cap of a Fly Agaric mushroom are volval remnants.
  2. Volvo, a Swedish make of automobile
  3. vulva, an anatomical structure

Botanical terms such as rachis, corolla, and pistil are mostly derived from Latin roots, a modern survival from an era when Latin was the language of science.

For some reason the phrase “bracts of the involucre” rose to the surface of my mind the other day while I was driving. My consciousness streamed — “involucre” reminded me of “sepulchre” and “bract” reminded me of “brat”. A scene appeared before my mind’s eye:

An order of green-clad monks inhabit a monastery located on a mountain terrace in some remote land, perhaps somewhere in the Balkans. They are botanical and horticultural monks who occupy their hours with identification and cultivation of rare plants brought to them by supplicants from every corner of the Earth.

These monks keep their precious relics of past abbots and saints in an elaborately-carved stone replica of the involucre of a sunflower — the Holy Involucre.

Menial chores around the enclave are performed by an unruly cadre of novitiates known as the Bracts of the Holy Involucre.

Imagine drama… imagine an ailing abbot and behind-the-scenes strife between potential successors to the revered office. A lowly Bract learns of the struggle and is inexorably drawn in…


Some Musings, And An Architectural Oddity

Driving the same 100-mile route every day has caused me to speculate on how a map is held within a person’s mind. The route could be thought of as a complex and branching network, as if the ramifying branches of a shrubby tree in winter were to be projected upon a two-dimensional plane. My daily path is somehow stored within my brain but I’m unable to visualize the whole route at once.

Visual cues are a major component of my mental map. A particular landmark, such as a distinctive tree or barn, summons the next image. At any given time on the route a mental image of the next three stages involuntarily floats up to the surface of my consciousness. Branchings beyond the three are only vaguely apparent, receding into mental mist.

I must confess that I have a bad sense of direction; getting lost is a recurrent motif in my life. Repetition has gradually engraved the route upon some mysterious region of my brain, a simplified neuronal analog of the real-world route.

I’d driven by a peculiar oval farm building several times before I was finally compelled to stop and investigate. The building is at the end of a long driveway and it’s within sight of a farm house. It was late in the morning when I stopped and, as usual, I saw no signs of human activity. I thought about going up to the house and offering an explanation for my presence, but instead decided to deal with any curious inhabitants if they happened to come outside. A dog barked from the vicinity of the house but the creature seemed disinclined to investigate.

What an oddity! An oval structure about thirty feet wide constructed of square brown-glazed tiles, each one about twelve inches square. The outline was made up of two circles connected by a straight line. On the flat sides narrow sliding doors opened opposite each other, evidently designed so as to allow a small tractor to pull a wagon straight through the building. The doors aren’t wide enough to comfortably accommodate a car or truck:

Notice the two large ventilator cupolas atop each circular end. A closer view:

The builder took a pragmatic approach to sealing the rounded roof-edges at both ends; rather than trying to bend a piece of wood for the fascia board, painted sheet metal was tacked to the ends of the rafters, as you can see above.

When was this building erected? Tiles came into use in the rural Midwest during or just after the Great Depression. Glazed tiles were never common, as they cost significantly more. The foundation is poured concrete poured in a single pour rather than hand-mixed in a wheelbarrow or trough, which means the building dates from after concrete-truck deliveries became available. I’m guessing that the building was a labor of love from the 1950s or early 1960s. Perhaps it was intended for grain or hay storage?

Here’s a view of a relic of an earlier agricultural era, the surviving remnant of a livestock fence. The former pasture is now a corn field, only this decrepit braced corner assembly survives to tell the tale. Notice the appealingly gnarled Osage orange posts, and the jelly-fish-like cloud suspended above which curiously mirrors the corner-post assembly.

See the dead vegetation beneath and between the posts? Since the corner remnant is at the beginning of a farmer’s lane and thus conspicuous, the landowner seems to have sprayed herbicide so as to prevent the development of unsightly tall grass or a thicket of brambles.

How many interesting sites/sights lie along one hundred miles of gravel roads? We shall see…


A Rape Analogy

I found this dialog over at Google+; it was posted by a woman named Maggie Lee:

I think that this imaginary dialog is spot-on, judging from the rape accounts I’ve heard from women over the years.


A Greek Musical Collaboration

How would you like to hear seventy-seven Greek musicians and singers playing together? It’s like a virtual tour of current Greek musical culture. As the web-site caption informs us:

77 artists, 40 locations around attica — the greater athens area — greece, playing ecologically.

παίζουμε οικολογικά

(I didn’t know that I could cut-and-paste Greek script!)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEl_sIPBuns?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

This is a great example of a new genre: sequential videos of musicians synced up with their music, seamlessly flowing from one musician to the next, with overlap. The basic melody sounds like a Greek traditional song, but the musical genres presented range all over the map. I’ve seen and heard other examples of this type of video. It’s a wonderful way of conveying a sense of place and community. There should be a central repository for such efforts, like Flickr is for photos, and Youtube and several other sites are for music and ambient sounds.

Thanks go to Helen Sotiriadis for bringing this video to my attention. She’s a fine photographer who lives in Athens. Take a look at her photos here:

Helen Sotiriadis

Here’s a scaled-down example of her landscape photography:

Notice how the cloud contours seem to echo the shape of the land.


A Creature of Habit

I try to make friends with farm dogs I encounter while driving along the gravel roads every day. Better that than being barked at! The smaller and yappier breeds seem to be the most suspicious. They are indifferent to my brief overtures.

The more typical farm dogs are mixes, with lab, border collie, and hound ancestry, I surmise. These dogs are often bored and several of them now come up to me, grateful for a predictable variation in their daily routine.

One lonely dog goes so far as to jump up and rest its forelegs on my car window opening. I’ll pet the creature for a while before continuing on my way. This dog is speckled white and black, reminding me of blue heelers I’ve known.

Yesterday I thought it would be cool if I could get a photo of that dog peering in at me, waiting to be petted. Immediately after the dog jumped up I got out my camera, but I wasn’t quick enough. The unexpected action spooked the dog and it abruptly retreated:

Aw, shucks, I thought. I got out of the car and attempted to lure the dog back to the car. It looked at me from the yard, as if to say, “Human, I thought I had you pegged, and then you pull a stunt like that! I like predictable humans; after all, I don’t know you that well!”

A well-spoken dog!

I’ll try again, at the risk of completely confusing the creature by departing from a comfortable routine.


Mailbox Totem

One advantage of repeatedly driving along a road is that attention to detail accrues incrementally. I’ll notice something one day, but my mind will be on something else, perhaps an NPR radio program. The next time I see the object or scene a new layer of attention will be overlaid upon the first. Eventually I’ll just have to stop and investigate. The threshold of active curiosity has been breached.

Here’s an example. The first time I saw the mailbox pole shown below I briefly thought, “What the hell is that? Some sort of totem pole, or what?”. Subsequent observations became more detailed — I saw that it wasn’t really a totem pole, but somehow manages to suggest one. There were no totems, no caricatured animal or human figures or faces.

Monday morning I stopped to look more closely. What an idiosyncratic oddity of a mailbox post! Wind-chimes dangled from an arching support at the back, the top had a crossbar with glass insulators, suggesting a telephone pole, and a mysterious sack was affixed to the front. It was almost as if the pole’s function as a support for mailboxes was an afterthought. My open car door can be seen at the far right:

The top of the pole, complete with a weather-vane:

The mysterious green sack, which has several slits with what looks like straw protruding from them. An aid to nesting birds, a source for nest material? Notice the old iron wheel-rim supporting the sack:

Some day I’ll see someone outside at this rural house and I’ll make inquiries!