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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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Mycelia and aethalia

A cool, rainy autumn Saturday followed by a warm, sunny Sunday means lots and lots of fungi in the woods at the Lakeshore Preserve. Well, before you rush in and correct me, of course I mean lots of fungal fruiting bodies. The mycelia were there in the soil and leaf-litter all along, quietly decapitating nematodes, or shuttling nutrients about, or computing large Mersenne primes, or whatever else it is, exactly, they’re doing down there. But cool temperature and moisture are, it seems, the best conditions to produce a spectacular display – seemingly out of nowhere – and blow the minds of plodding metazoans.

Right in the path were gem-studded puffballs (Lycoperdon perlatum):
Gem-studded Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum), Lakeshore Preserve, UW-Madison, 10/6/13

On fallen logs there was a vast abundance of forms, ranging from these tiny yellow fairy-cups (Bisporella citrina):
Lakeshore Preserve, UW-Madison, 10/6/13
to these (I think) clustered bonnets (Mycena inclinata):
Clustered bonnet (Mycena inclinata), Lakeshore Preserve, UW-Madison, 10/6/13

and these lapidary little mushrooms I haven’t managed to place yet:
Lakeshore Preserve, UW-Madison, 10/6/13

And lots more. Not only that, but there were also – and this was a personal first, so it made my day, I don’t mind saying – slime molds. The first I saw was this wolf’s-milk slime mold (Lycogala epidendrum):
Wolf's-milk slime mold (Lycogala epidendrum), Lakeshore Preserve, UW-Madison, 10/6/13
I include this shot as the first one, though blurry, because I want to point at that red blob on the left. That, my friend – unless I miss my guess – is a single cell. Lycogala is a plasmodial slime mold (there are also cellular slime molds, about which more in a future installment), which means its active form is a single very big cell with lots of nuclei: a plasmodium. It moves (though very slowly on the human time-scale), and engulfs and eats things, much like an amoeba – which basically is what it is, taxonomically speaking. The big brown blobs are fruiting bodies, lots of spores surrounded by a crust. They are called aethalia, from Greek αιθάλη (aithale), soot; I’m told that’s what the spores bursting out look like. Here is a better picture of just the aethalia:
Wolf's-milk slime mold (Lycogala epidendrum), Lakeshore Preserve, UW-Madison, 10/6/13
The orange ones are newer and the brown ones older.

There were also aethalia of false puffball, Reticularia lycoperdon:
Lakeshore Preserve, UW-Madison, 10/6/13
Wikipedia, and a number of other sources, inform me that in Veracruz, Mexico, the aethalia are called “caca de luna” – moon-crap – and fried like eggs. There’s one citation for this, a book I haven’t been able to lay my hands on yet, but I am very curious and Googling has really only brought out references to the Wikipedia article, so, stay tuned.

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Spell of the dark woods

“… hushed stony slopes and low ivied cottages in the lee of huge boulders in Rhode-Island’s back country. Scent of the sea and fragrance of the fields; spell of the dark woods and joy of the orchards and gardens at dawn.”
-H.P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”

This mode of viewing Nature in the universality of her relations is no doubt adverse to the rapidity desirable in an itinerary…
-Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative

A wooded slope fell away steeply from the path where I stood, and then curved more gradually towards a surface of sparkling water I could only vaguely see as bright flashes through the trees. Through a trick of perspective it looked like a vast ocean far below, even though it was only a pond that began its existence, humbly enough, as a reservoir for the town of Lincoln in Rhode Island. This was Lime Rock Preserve, home of:

Red oak, hickory, a diversity of ferns, red and white baneberry, horse balm, violets, bellwort, nodding trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, trout lily

I don’t know whether they gave up on enumerating all the different ferns, or if they just didn’t have an accurate list; but there were a great many. Being still very much a novice at identifying ferns myself, I haven’t keyed them out either, but there was a great diversity of form to be seen every few paces. These large, stiff fronds I’m reasonably confident are Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides):
Fern, Lime Rock Preserve
but am still working on these (among others):
Fern, Lime Rock Preserve
Fern, Lime Rock Preserve

A big limestone boulder was covered in a lichen with huge apothecia:
Lichen, Lime Rock Preserve
and mushrooms lurked in the shadows of the bigger ferns:
Mushroom, Lime Rock Preserve
As I was almost back to the gate, a toad sprinted across the path and a little ways up a tree-trunk:
Frog, Lime Rock Preserve

Initially I’d thought – well, let’s be honest, hoped – it was a gray tree-frog. Experts on iNaturalist gently let me know it was in fact the ubiquitous American toad; an old friend rather than a new acquaintance. As a boy I collected them down by the river, and sometimes even out back of the house, by the compost heap. But I never saw them climbing a tree, so that was new.

This was the day-trip I took while in Providence for NecronomiCon (see previous report, “The Gate of the Silver Key“). With only one day, the rapidity desirable in an inventory meant narrowing down on basically one thing to see. Going along the Blackstone River via Lime Rock meant not really seeing any ocean – Touisset Marsh, a salt-marsh, was another possible choice – which I regret a little, but it was a beautiful ride, and, as I later discovered, the hills and forests north of Providence were also haunted by the young Lovecraft on his bicycle. So really it ended up as part of the fabric of the whole experience, rather than being a digression! Even the life-cycle of ferns found its way into his stories:

“It reproduced like the vegetable cryptogams, especially the pteridophytes; having spore-cases at the tips of the wings and evidently developing from a thallus or prothallus … How it could have undergone its tremendously complex evolution on a new-born earth in time to leave prints in Archaean rocks was so far beyond conception as to make Lake whimsically recall the primal myths about Great Old Ones who filtered down from the stars and concocted earth-life as a joke or mistake…”
-H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness

The Blackstone River Bikeway itself runs to the town of Woonsocket which is right on the Massachusetts border. I didn’t go all the way through town to cross the border, which, again, is a slight regret, but I don’t imagine anything is radically different on the other side, and anyway I can take the Badger State Trail to Illinois if I want to enjoy the arcane thrill of riding across an imaginary line. Though the Blackstone Valley was ground zero for industrialization in the US – the first textile mill was built there in 1790 – it’s back to quiet and picturesque, except at the dams, which are loud and picturesque. A considerable amount of wetland has been restored, where I saw a vivid green dragonfly:
Dragonfly, Blackstone River Bikeway
and some sensitive-fern (Onoclea sensibilis):
Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), Blackstone River Bikeway

Garter snakes crossed the path in a relaxed manner, although they were a little touchy if you got close:
Snake, Blackstone River Bikeway

and altogether it was a pleasant cycling experience, nice and flat on an old rail-bed, almost more like being on a carnival ride than actually exerting any effort. The milestones were even real stones, which I thought was a great touch.

The bike was a rental, incidentally, and so my thanks go to the extremely nice folks at the North Providence location of Providence Bicycle, who set me up with a comfortable fat-tired Raleigh and a helmet to fit my long Irish head.

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After rain

A day off, but low energy; so instead of venturing farther afield I rode to the Arboretum. It was not much of a day for insects or for amphibians, but a fine one for our fellow opisthokonts, the fungi. In Gallistel Woods there was a fallen log with a sprinkling of puffballs (Lycoperdon sp.):
Puffballs (Lycoperdon sp.), Gallistel Woods
A yellow and orange shelf fungus (probably Laetiporus), with attendant centipede:
Yellow shelf fungus (Laetiporus sp.), Gallistel Woods
and a little conk (Ganoderma):
Conk (Ganoderma sp.), Gallistel Woods
As accompanying music, naturally, Robert Rich – a great mushroom-lover – here in collaboration with Alio Die, on a piece appropriately called “Mycelia”:

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