I thought the woods and the world were connected

This post is a little unusual: it’s also written to fulfill an assignment for one of Chicago-based Prairie Lab‘s Biomimicry Immersion courses, which I attended last month in a very rainy Morton Arboretum. Life’s Principles, which are referenced several times over the course of the post, are described here. The assignment was to observe these principles in action in an ecosystem local to me.

The place I observed was in Caretaker’s Woods, part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Lakeshore Preserve. It was early evening on May 20th, cloudy, and a brisk 10C – unseasonably chilly for late May in Madison, but humid.

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Looking out and up I can see that the trees (maples and oaks) are more or less fully leaved. This makes for considerable shade at ground level; as a consequence, almost all of the spring ephemerals are gone for this year. The only early-spring flower which is still abundant is waterleaf (Hydrophyllum); their shade tolerance allows them to stake out a niche in time with less competition from other ephemerals. I wonder what sensitivity to local conditions they employ in order to emerge later, unlike ephemerals which shoot up with the first warm weather and sunny days. From the ever-authoritative Illinois Wildflowers website, I learn that they are liable to be displaced by invasive garlic mustard. In the Preserve, eagle-eyed hordes of volunteers regularly harrow the garlic mustard, so there is little to be seen.

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Illinois Wildflowers also tells me that sunlight bleaches waterleaf flowers; I don’t see much evidence of this on my walk. There appear to be as many white flowers in the deep gloom as there are purple ones in half-sunlight under the eaves of the woods. This seems like a flag for embodying resilience through variation.

In the shade and damp, fungi are sending up fruiting bodies; on several fallen logs I see large brackets of dryad’s saddle (Polyporus squamosus). They are busy breaking down the wood into re-usable constituents, part of a recycling process. As well as the fallen logs, whose nutrients are in the process of being returned to the soil, the space cleared by their fall is full of seedlings: a very simple mechanism of self-organization and renewal.

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The woods are structured into layers, from the leaf-litter up to the treetops in the open air. High above, I can hear rather than see squirrels running quickly and loudly across treetrunks. I wonder at how loud they are, and what trade-off of speed versus stealth is involved. No doubt there are fewer predators up in the treetops, but there are still hawks and owls.

Birdsong is also audible; I don’t know of what species. They are making sound on purpose; to attract mates? Stake out territory? I recently listened to an interview with scientist Shigeru Miyagawa, who has an interesting hypothesis about the wellsprings of human language: many vertebrates have an active system of signs, such as chimpanzees which make gestures to give directions to one another and have sounds for certain types of food; singing birds have songs with complex structure, but which communicate little beyond, as Lewis Thomas summarized it, “Thrush here”. Only in humans have these two strategies been combined to give rise to language proper. In the call-and-response of the songs, I seem to hear a trace of the feedback loops which hold this community of birds together.

Going over the various strategies I’ve observed, I can see the various Principles at work: Adapting to Changing Conditions (the variation of Hydrophyllum colours, the self-renewal of the seedlings sprouting in clearings); Being Locally Attuned and Responsive (Hydrophyllum‘s timing and the feedback loops of the birds exchanging song); Using Life-Friendly Chemistry (the action of the dryad’s saddles in decomposing); Being Resource-Efficient (the recycling of materials, and the shade-tolerance of the ephemerals); Integrating Development with Growth (the way that the fall of old trees allows for growth of new ones). Nothing immediately calls Evolving to Survive to mind: certainly due to my unpracticed eye, not to its absence!

In my day job as a software engineer, old code rarely does much to foster the growth of new code – really, mostly the old actively inhibits and obstructs the new. What lessons does a forest have for the long-term software lifecycle? How could obsolete code be constructively “decomposed”? I also remain, obviously, intrigued by the Hydrophyllum‘s late-early-spring strategy, and need to read more about how it does this, and think about what more general strategies for adaptation can be abstracted from it.

Thanks to Prairie Lab’s Amy Coffman Phillips for the course, and to the many University faculty and staff, and volunteers who maintain the Lakeshore Preserve in the middle of the city. (It probably helps that grad student no longer live there in tents in the summer, mind you…)

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One of the attributes of matter

Despite the still-looming threat of night frosts, spring continues to make daily advances. I haven’t yet seen any turtles, which remain to my way of thinking the irrefutable mark of the year’s turning; but there have been snakes, and, more recently, frogs.

The first frogs I heard this year were at Willow River State Park, north of Hudson, WI, right by the Minnesota state line; my wife and I stopped there for a brief wander on the way back from a weekend in Minneapolis. There was a spot where chorus frogs were distinctly audible, like fingernails on a comb. Not a huge throng, but definitely there.

Last weekend I checked out one of Madison’s frog hot-spots, the Picnic Point Marsh, in the Lakeshore Preserve on campus. It did not disappoint! The calling was loud and sustained, and after I stood still by the water’s edge for a few minutes, I even started to see the frogs: a little wedge-showed brown head would pop up above the waterline, to be shortly followed by another, and then a flurry of arms and legs.

Here’s the phone recording of the walk from the lake’s shore down to the edge of the marsh; the background picture is the closest I could get to one of the frogs before startling it:

The sound was so dense I’m not even sure what kind of frogs these were; individual calls were hard to pick out; really, I should load them into Audacity and have a look at the frequency spectra.

Picnic Point is also a terrific place for trout lilies (Erythronium), which were also present and starting to bloom:

Picnic Point, Lakeshore Preserve, UW Madison

Back in the realm of sounds, my wife and I went to hear They Might Be Giants that weekend. They started off their encore with “Mammal”, the source of one of this blog’s tags. So that was pretty great!

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Vital signs

Some of early spring’s usual pioneers are unmistakably showing themselves above ground. There is skunk cabbage, thermoregulating its way up, and hardy Siberian squill. Looking just about ready to flower are significant patches of cut-leaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata):
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
Also, some clumps of leaves that I think will shortly become Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica):
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
Ready to take advantage of this new growth there are a multitude of tiny flies, and a few bees, all keeping down near the ground; one fly obligingly settled on my sleeve:
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
… and, alas, already roving and prepared to take advantage of more active mammals, ticks:
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
By the looks of it, Sister Tick here has already had a pretty good meal.

There was even a garter snake basking, which I startled into taking cover under dry leaves before I could get a good picture. Well, it’s not like I don’t have plenty of garter snake pictures already posted.

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Springoid

North American English needs a lot more terms for phases of seasons than it actually has. There’s “Indian summer” for a warm spell in late fall; but there’s no corresponding term for thaws in early spring, the ones where you never know until after the fact whether it’s the thaw, or whether at least one freeze and/or heavy snowfall is in the works.

I say this on account of we are having one of these spells right now, and I don’t know whether to tempt fate by going “yay spring is here!” or to hedge my bets, and having a single word or short phrase to do that in would be nice. So I’m going to dub this weather springoid. Right now we are in springoid, a collection of distinct though related spring-like objects. Maybe they’re all the same, and this is actual spring! Or maybe there will be one or more winter-like object intervening! Who knows?

At any rate, permanent or not, going outside no longer hurts the face, and there are signs and smells of life. This comma butterfly (Polygonia sp.; most likely an Eastern comma Polygonia comma) has most likely over-wintered as an adult, curled up in the bole of a tree or some human-made crevice:

Eastern comma, Starkweather Creek
Eastern comma, Starkweather Creek

Meanwhile there were seedlings starting to emerge from under the leaf-litter:
New growth, Starkweather Creek

and people sitting in the back garden of Café Zoma, looking happy if vaguely gobsmacked.

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Winging southward

Late in August I set out early one Saturday morning to follow the Badger State Trail all the way to its end at the Illinois state line, and then the Jane Addams Trail in IL all the way to its end in the city of Freeport.

There are, I have to admit, no particular natural history destinations on this route; instead I largely practiced some lackadaisical trailside botany. In late August things are already starting to wind down, but in the shadier parts of the path – mostly former railway-cuts running deep between walls of fern-bedecked rock – there was a good amount of pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida):
Pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), Badger State Trail between Monticello and Monroe
and I don’t know what sort of ecotone I crossed, but somewhere south of the big trail crossroads in Monticello, the shaded trail surface started to become host to plentiful liverwort, along with the moss found to the north:
Liverwort, Badger State Trail, between Monroe WI and Illinois state line

In Monroe I stopped for lunch, and while digesting it I contemplated this very appealing display of the remainder of the trip:
Monroe & Freeport IL, Badger Trail and Jane Addams Trail, 8/14

… moderated only by the knowledge that I was going to have to climb back up that altitude in the morning.

There’s no campground that I could find particularly handy to Freeport, so instead I left my camping-gear at home and spent the night at the Baymont Inn and Suites, which is essentially right on the trail. It’s not the ritziest hotel in the world, granted, but it’s pleasant enough, and provided a bathtub and a Coke machine. Plus, they were chill about letting me keep my bike in the room, which always helps me rest a little easier. Once I’d rinsed off I wandered out to see the sights of Freeport; in a previous post I’ve already shared pictures of the leopard frog and great blue heron from the Wetland Preserve. In the city proper there were multiple markers of its most famous historical event, the debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas:
Debate Square, Freeport IL: Lincoln and Douglas
and what looked like a fine, though closed, public library.

Heading back in the morning, ballasted by a continental breakfast, I rode uphill through a very grey morning, but was cheered by some decent bug sightings. Just north of Monroe, a membracid perched on top of a wild mint in full flower:
Wild mint and a membracid, Badger State Trail just north of Monroe
In Monticello, where I stopped for second breakfast, there was a huge and magnificent crane-fly that hovered down to the base of a streetlamp while I was unlocking my bike:
Crane-fly, Monticello WI
and on the paved stretch of trail, just south of Madison, the first woolly-bear of the season:
Woolybear caterpillar (Pyrrharctis isabella), Badger State Trail, Fitchburg
An unmistakable harbinger of autumn.

By the time I reached the paved section, the morning clouds had cleared and it was a spectacular afternoon to roll home in.

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Some highlights, August-September 2014

So I do have some expeditions and observations to write up, but after the final post on the Mississippi trip, my day job revved into crisis mode and has more or less stayed there since. I’ll get back to a regular schedule soon, I hope, but in the meantime here are a few snippets from the past couple of months:

More milkweed denizens

This year I have seen a great many things on milkweed, though not, alas, any monarchs of any stage; but other people have been seeing them, which is good news. I did see this striking milkweed tiger moth (Euchaetes egle) at Curtis Prairie in the UW Arboretum:

Milkweed tiger moth (Euchaetes egle), late-stage larva, Curtis Prairie, UW Arboretum

and at Starkweather Creek, rather late in the season I thought, these amorous red milkweed bettles (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus):
Red milkweed beetles, Starkweather Creek

Freeport wetlands

More on the ride I did in late August, following the combined Badger State/Jane Addams trail system all the way to its end in Freeport, Illinois, anon; but just past the trail’s end – and right off the highway – Freeport has a nice little Wetland Preserve Park, where I snapped this leopard frog (Rana pipiens) in the grass:
Leopard frog (Rana pipiens), Wetlands Preserve Park, Freeport, IL
and, just outside the gates, this great blue heron (Ardea herodias):
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Freeport, IL
When I lived in Redmond, Washington, I used to see blue herons on my commute all the time; they are still common enough there that the stylized one on the city’s logo is not inaccurate. Vying with the heron for pride-of-place in Redmond iconography is the penny-farthing bicycle, and though I saw plenty of bikes during my 2 years in Redmond, I don’t think I ever saw a penny-farthing, so there you go. To be fair, penny-farthings are terrifying and hazardous to ride; there’s good reason that the currently-dominant frame design was originally dubbed the “safety bicycle”.

Fall fungi

Okay, I realize having favourite things about fall has become a cliche. But, there it is: more than pumpkin ale, more than jumping into piles of dead leaves, I really like walking in woodlands full of fungi, and the one outing I’ve managed in September – just to the UW Arboretum, through Gallistel Woods and Wingra Woods – has not disappointed.

Here some millipedes are equally pleased:
Mushrooms & millipedes, Gallistel Woods, UW Arboretum

Splash cups (Cyathus striatus):
Gallistel & Wingra Woods, UW Arboretum

El is a Sound of Joy

On the Labour Day weekend I took a bus down to Chicago to observe members of my species about one of our most admirable characteristic activities, making music – specifically the Sun Ra Arkestra, still led with style by saxophonist Marshall Allen at the age of 90, closing out the Chicago Jazz Festival with a bang.

In a crowd of thousands at Millennium Park, I didn’t get very close, but there was a screen at the back of the stage for a closer look at the musicians:
Sun Ra Arkestra, Chicago Jazz Festival

Chicago itself, where Sun Ra spent a fair chunk of his early career, made a terrific backdrop as the sun sank down:
Chicago Jazz Festival

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True journey is return

To be whole is to be part; true journey is return.
-Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

(Previous posts from this trip: Black Earth energy receptor fields, The Wisconsin desert, Mother of Waters)

The silence of a country road in the Driftless Area at dawn Sunday morning is deep, though not uninterrupted: it was broken by the odd rooster, a dog here and there, the siren of a single Crawford County Sheriff’s Department car blasting down the lane on its way to some rural emergency, and me getting short of breath and cursing Google Maps for its propensity to direct me down hilly back-roads instead of flatter if busier main arteries.

In about an hour I reached US-18 and from there things were smoother: rolling, but without so many bastards of hills. For several miles I kept passing Mennonites in carriages; the driver would lift a dignified hand in greeting, which I would attempt to return. I think I got the lifting part down. At any rate, it was another hour and a half or so of that to Fennimore, where I stopped for two breakfasts – again featuring blueberry pancakes exceeding my head in diameter, and if you haven’t seen my head it’s one of those long, lantern-jawed Irish deals, I have a hard time finding hats that fit – and then another couple of hours to the city of Dodgeville.

My initial plan had been to roll into Governor Dodge State Park, do a little hiking there, camp, and head home; but once I reached Dodgeville and the head of the Military Ridge trail, it struck me that it was only 1 in the afternoon, and the rest of the way was mostly downhill on trails, with a couple of possible spots to break for the day if I really couldn’t push on. So I kept on going, and ended up home at around twilight: a distance of about 107 miles. That’s my first century, though I feel it was so lackadaisical that it’s hardly worthy of the name.

And so there ended up being no natural history to speak of on that leg of the trip, though the highway did pass through some striking rock-cuts, and there were plenty of butterflies along the trail. I put in my headphones and enjoyed just being out there. When the going got difficult in the last dozen miles or so, I did switch my listening to the heavy inspiration guns: “Northwest Passage”, and the main theme from Pacific Rim. And then I was home, ready to shower, eat, and collapse, in no particular order.

I’ll close out with some of the pictures I didn’t find a place for earlier, and some random thoughts. From Cross Plains, the first morning, this delightful mammoth sculpture at the Ice Age Trail office:
Mammoth sculpture at Ice Age Trail Alliance HQ in Cross Plains WI

A ladybird pupa clinging to a blade of grass, right by my front wheel, at Tower Hill:
Ladybird pupa with bike, Tower Hill State Park

A rock-cut just past the river crossing at Boscobel:
Roadcut on Hwy 60 just outside Boscobel WI

A view towards the lip of Pictured Rock Cave at Wyalusing:
Above Pictured Rock Cave, Wyalusing State Park

and a plaque commemorating the entry of Père Marquette and Louis Joliet – and 5 Métis voyageurs, who are generally not named and not even mentioned by this inscription, but who doubtless did the heavy lifting and navigating – into the Mississippi from the Wisconsin, 300 years and a few weeks before I was born:
Marquette and Joliet commemorated, Wyalusing State Park

All in all, despite some tough bits, it was an excellent trip. If anything went less well than hoped, it’s that really clear nights have been in short supply this summer, meaning that even though I was in fairly dark-sky locations there wasn’t much by way of stargazing to be had. Which is especially sad, given that Wyalusing State Park has its own observatory! But otherwise the weather co-operated, and even the bugs weren’t too bad.

One thing I noticed, though, is that after 2 days of serious riding (60-70 miles), my appetite for adventure on the third day is greatly lessened. Next time I do this, I’ll plan on following every 2 days of hard riding with a down day, probably of 25 miles or less, to relax and recuperate. On that plan, I’m thinking a 350-mile roundtrip over a week, though probably not until next year. Still contemplating possible destinations; possibly the complement to this year’s trip, following the Fox River to Lake Michigan at Green Bay.

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