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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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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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Under milk weed

So far this season, one trip northward, one southward; leaving two cardinal points to cover. I’d been meaning to drop by the CamRock Café & Sport in Cambridge again, since it recently re-opened under new ownership; and Sandhill Station, just down from the bike trail, is a nice little campground that generally has room even with a few days’ notice; so, to the east then.

There were possible thunderstorms in the forecast, but I figured, since it was only one night away, it’d be a good opportunity to field-test my camping gear, which I hadn’t used in rainy conditions. If I got soaked, worst case was I’d come home first thing Sunday morning, dry off, and use the rest of the day to make up for lost sleep.

Despite my resolve to head out at sparrow-fart and avoid traffic on Cottage Grove Road, it was past 7 and already pretty bright when I hit the road – sunblock time already! Fortunately the traffic was still sparse, and before I knew it I was sauntering into Cottage Grove’s Olde Town Coffee House for an espresso. Inasmuch as anyone can saunter, covered in sweat and carrying two panniers and a shoulder-bag.

And just beyond the Olde Town, the trail. When I went up to Gibraltar Rock and Parfrey’s Glen the previous week, I didn’t notice a lot of milkweed; but by this time the trail-sides were thick with it wherever there was no tree canopy. As I went past I tried to keep an eye out for monarch caterpillars – or, indeed, adult monarchs – but didn’t see any of either. There were plenty of butterflies, though, such as this Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui):
Glacial Drumlin to Cambridge and Sandhill Station, 6/28/14-6/29/14
– with thanks to the iNaturalist community for helping me narrow down to species of Vanessa – and this skipper:
Glacial Drumlin to Cambridge and Sandhill Station, 6/28/14-6/29/14

Just after seeing those I veered off the trail to ride the few miles of road into Cambridge for a very welcome second breakfast at the CamRock; while I was inside the sky opened in a torrent, and then cleared by the time I finished eating – very convenient. Afterwards I headed due east to check out Red Cedar Lake State Natural Area; which, at least at the entrance I used, offered very little to the land-bound, with only a short path near the boat landing. It looked great from the roadside though:
Red Cedar Lake SNA, nr. Cambridge, WI

After that I’d planned one or two more stops – Rose Lake SNA, and maybe a trip into Fort Atkinson – but after only about 25 miles of riding I found myself worn out, and headed up to the campground. Which has, in passing, the most civilized approach possible:
Bicycle entrance to Sandhill Station

The short trail into the campground was edged with considerable milkweed, supporting a variety of denizens; for instance, this swamp-milkweed leaf beetle (Labidomera clivicollis):
Swamp milkweed leaf beetle (Labidomera clivicollis), Sandhill Station
… this stealthy green insect that I have yet identify:
Glacial Drumlin to Cambridge and Sandhill Station, 6/28/14-6/29/14
and plenty of very active orthopterans:
Glacial Drumlin to Cambridge and Sandhill Station, 6/28/14-6/29/14

There followed a relaxing afternoon of lazing around in the Sun on my air-mattress, drinking beer and reading, which is not very relevant to the focus of this blog. At one point, a gorgeous Virginia ctenucha moth wandered over and landed on my pillow, but flew off before I could bring the camera to bear.

During the night more thunderstorms came through, and I got the field test I’d been intending; but the rain-fly and groundsheet bore up under the wind and intense downpour. So ultimately, after a few minutes of tensely wondering if the whole thing would come down around my ears, it was actually pleasant to lie safely in my tent and read.

In the morning, with everything still dripping, I packed up early and hit the trail homeward. Riding in the early morning I sometimes feel like the only person awake, but truck-drivers and anglers are up before me – several of the later were already out, trying their luck in Rock Lake. A little beyond them, a courting pair of sandhill cranes, calling like the rusty hinges on a door to the underworld; one let me get close enough for quite a decent picture:
Sandhill crane, Glacial Drumlin State Trail
before they creaked off over the lake.

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