Tag Archives: through the green fuse

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.

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.


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.


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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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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Where the Sun doesn’t hide

I want to be where the Sun doesn’t hide
Down on the unbeaten track
Over the border, under the wire
Out in the back
I’ll never turn back…

-The Men They Couldn’t Hang, “A Map of Morocco”

At the crossroads,  SW Wisconsin
Dear Reader, is this sign not Romance incarnate? You can roll to a stop in the grass and consider, under a noonday sun that seems poised – in defiance of all Newtonian mechanics – to just hang there forever, which way to go next. It suggests that in another dozen miles or so you would meet a similar sign, and another, indefinitely; sad to say, not really the case (yet) – the farthest you can go is Freeport, Illinois, and then it’s back to the highways. The Road does not go ever on.

But it’s enough for a weekend off, cycling among these little towns; their names paying tribute to (among others) Thomas Jefferson, St. Hilary of Poitiers, and Edward Brodhead, Chief Engineer of the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad. The trails are converted rail-beds, making for mostly easy riding. There are bright and sunny stretches of recovering meadow, shady woodlands, and long segments with marshland to either side, particularly on the Sugar River Trail past Monticello. And, of course, there is the former railway tunnel, south of Belleville; not all that long, but very dark when you get into it due to bending in the middle. Even on the hottest days it exhales cool, moist air, and if your bike lights, like mine, are sufficient to keep you from running into a wall or stumbling over a rock but not adequate to illuminating the whole interior, then it is something of an awe-inspiring experience: a brief jaunt into the Underworld. The rock-cuts at either end almost always have water trickling down them, and are festooned in moss, ferns, and spiderwebs.

In high summer, which we seem to be entering early, once you get past around Exeter Crossing Road on the Badger Trail there always seems to be a profusion of butterflies. I definitely saw a great many crescents and clouded sulphurs, and a few viceroys and swallowtails, and a couple of blues. None of them had time to stand still for my camera. The trail banks were covered in flowers; mostly dame’s-rocket and wild geranium, but with the occasional Canada anemone, wild salsify, and in one spot, greater celandine:

Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), Badger State Trail near tunnel

.. not to be confused with the lesser celandine of the Wordsworth poem; or the celandine-poppy, which I blogged earlier in the season. (Sidebar: in several places, mind you, I’ve read the assertion that on Wordsworth’s memorial in St. Oswald’s Church is a carving of the greater celandine; if true, an error similar to the placing of an Archimedean spiral rather than a logarithmic spiral on Jakob Bernoulli’s memorial. The Archimedean spiral is all very well, but lacks the particular symmetry which justifies the Latin motto Eadem mutata resurgo (“though changed I shall arise the same”). In both cases, perhaps unsurprisingly, my sympathies are with the artisan who was given insufficiently-clear requirements.) Though not immortalized in poetry, the greater celandine may yield antibiotics effective against MRSA.

More servants wait on man
Than he’ll take notice of; in ev’ry path
He treads down that which doth befriend him,
When sickness makes him pale and wan.
-George Herbert

The crossroads above actually marked the point where I turned back, to follow the Sugar River Trail to its end in New Glarus. That stretch of trail meanders past Monticello’s old railway station, offering a bench in the shade, and has a very beautiful segment with a rock-face on one side and a slope running down to the river on the other:
Sugar River State Trail, N of Monticello
I only resisted with great difficulty scrambling up to that cave to have a look inside. I did scramble up a bit to snap these ferns:
?Rock polypody (Polypodium virginianum), Sugar River Trail between Monticello and New Glarus
.. rock polypody, I believe.

A spur trail leads from the town of New Glarus right up to the park. Their walk-in sites are lovely: mine had adequate shade, just a bit of a slope, and an expanse of mostly rock-free, mossy ground to pitch my tent on. After a short rest I headed out for a ramble. I checked the current weather on my phone and it had hit 30C; definitely hot for the 31st of May! New Glarus Woods is not a huge park but it has about six miles of trail. Oddly enough, it was only when I was wandering down the paved spur trail back into town to get some dinner that I saw my first tiger beetle of the year:
Six-spotted tiger beetle (Cicindela sexguttata), New Glarus Woods State Park

I ate, by the bye, at a place right on the trail which basically wins at signs: “Sugar River Pizza Company: 80+ Craft Brews”. They will also serve you an enormous bowl of cinnamon nuggets and vanilla gelato. Oddly, after a long day’s ride plus about an hour and a half hike, I was unable to do proper justice to their food; the heat and sun must have flattened out my appetite. (The next day, after the ride home, I was able to inhale a full order of biscuits and gravy from 4&20 plus a full order of their French toast, so there’s that.) Then back to a nice quiet campsite, and the cool night air stealing under the fly of my tent.

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Lost City Forest and Area X

Out of a looming work deadline, I managed to carve out a short jaunt last weekend, in which I walked in the Lost City Forest and thought about Area X.

Fiddlehead, Gallistel Woods / Lost City Forest, UW Arboretum

Lost City Forest is a part of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. The name is not a flight of some ecologist’s whimsy – it refers to the land’s previous but short-lived existence as the site of a housing development touted as the “Venice of the Midwest”, where construction started with grand ambitions, but failed to take adequate note of some engineering considerations, such as the load-bearing capacity of the low-lying, marshy soil.

Not to put too fine a point on it, they built a subdivision in the swamp, because everybody said it were daft, and it sank into the swamp. Such difficulties can be overcome with sufficient cash and political will – for an example, St. Petersburg – but the Lake Forest Land Company was not the Tsar of All the Russias. They simply went bankrupt, and nobody else really felt like taking up the torch of building the Venice of the Midwest, so the land became part of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, and in time turned into Lost City Forest.

Area X, on the other hand, is not exactly a real place. It’s a creation of weird fiction author Jeff Vandermeer, in his Southern Reach trilogy, out this year (the first two volumes already published, the third due in September). In Area X, inexplicable and unsettling things happen. There is a tower – or maybe it’s a tunnel into the ground, people can’t quite seem to agree – with a fungus growing on the walls whose fruiting bodies spell out semi-coherent apocalyptic text. People who enter Area X either never come out, or re-appear suddenly well outside its borders, dying of cancer. Meanwhile, the air and water there are oddly low in environmental pollutants.

I say it’s not exactly a real place, because it is inspired in part by St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, not far from where the author lives. The descriptions of natural and semi-natural places have the detailed feel of careful observation; in the first book, Annihilation, there is a vivid sketch of an overgrown, abandoned swimming pool, a touchstone for the book’s viewpoint character (not given any name beyond ‘the biologist’ and her husband’s nickname for her, ‘Ghost Bird’), which appeals to all the senses – even reading it on a bus in icy February, I could smell the algae in the water, and hear frogs calling in the humid night air.

As I wandered through the hush of the Lost City Forest, the bones of hundred-year-old house foundations invisible beneath my feet, I found myself thinking of Area X. Before its mysterious transformation, Area X was not a pristine wilderness; people lived there. Like almost every place on land it has a history with humans; “history” having the colloquial connotation of “there’s been a messy relationship”, as well as the primary meaning. But, uniquely, it has been forcibly re-wilded by some undetermined agency: God? Aliens? Ghosts? Its own will, somehow? That aside, there remains something unsettling about how quickly and thoroughly a piece of terrain can be, well, un-settled, the traces of human work reduced within a lifetime to crumbling cement under tree-roots. You feel that very strongly in Lost City Forest.

Where there was full sunlight and water, there were turtles (Chrysemis picta):
Turtle, Teal Pond
They basked at the edge of Lake Wingra and in Teal Pond. By my feet, a young snapping turtle zipped into the water, too fast for me to get my camera in place. By the way, this belief has no basis in fact, but every year I feel that once turtles are out, winter doesn’t get any more touchbacks. A solid wall of clouds laden with snow could move in, but then they’d have to be “I can’t, you guys. There’s turtles.”

It doesn’t quite fit the narrative flow, but most of the good pictures I got that day came from neighbouring Gallistel Woods, rather than Lost City itself. As the season advances, more colourful wildflowers are starting to appear, like celandine-poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum):
Celandine-poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), Gallistel Woods, UW Arboretum
and prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum):
Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum), Gallistel Woods, UW Arboretum

In Ontario, where I was born and raised, the (white) trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) is the provincial flower, and it’s actually kind of a big deal there; I can’t think of any other province or state where the official flower is such a thing, except maybe Texas with the yellow roses. The state flower of Wisconsin is the wood-violet, and even here in the capital I’d be prepared to bet that only a minority of people I buttonholed on the street would be able to tell me that without recourse to Wikipedia, which, full disclosure, is how I found out to put it in this post. Anyway, as a boy I was assured any number of times that picking trilliums was highly illegal, although this doesn’t actually seem to be the case.

Outside of the woods, the life of my species went on. A helicopter came in to land on the roof of St. Mary’s Hospital; a brass-band in the park played “Solidarity Forever”; someone went by with most of a windowsill container gardened balanced on the handlebars of their bike. If any naturalists are observing us, that is the sort of thing I’d prefer them to see.

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Brown dragon rising

2014 so far has been a year of odd contrasts, on account of the harsh winter and late spring. In mid-March we were still getting days that dropped to nearly -20C plus windchill, despite the brighter sun and longer days; and now, although the trees are mostly still bare, there are days where the weather climbs into the +20s Centigrade. And, which is not unusual in the Great Lakes region, we went from long-johns weather to sunblock weather with hardly anything in between.

Last weekend I carved out a few hours and made my first visit this season to Cherokee Marsh. It was sunny and warm, and I have been told that on such days you can find fox-snakes warming themselves on the boardwalks. No luck in that quarter, though. There’s a fenced-off area towards one end of a drumlin which is apparently the location of a sizable snake hibernaculum; despite the warm days, they may still be playing it safe in there.

Entering Cherokee Marsh is a surprisingly abrupt transition. You crest a hill on Sherman Avenue, and then glide down past a couple of housing developments, a church, and the entrance to a golf-course; and then as if a curtain has dropped, the traffic noise fades almost to nothing and the drone of frogs and insects swells:

(Here’s a direct link; this widget doesn’t seem to survive syndication to LiveJournal unscathed.)

Riding along the road, you can, for a few hundred metres, still see parts of the golf-course; but as your wheels start to crunch gravel, your feeling is that you have come away to the water and the wild. You wind around a few bends, and then arrive at the parking lot – which, happily, is endowed with a decent bike-rack, not to mention bathrooms and a drinking-fountain. And from there, a few paces take you into oak savannah.

That day the trees were still bare, and the ground was alive with ephemerals. A profusion of anemones; wood-anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), I think – the other possibilities are rue-anemone, but the flowers were single, or false rue-anemone, but the leaves and stems were hairy:

Wood-anemone? (Anemone quinquefolia), Cherokee Marsh

mayapple in clusters like so many outsized cocktail umbrellas stuck into the soil, and, again, cut-leaf toothwort, now coming into full flower, and visited by a spotted lady-beetle (Coleomegilla maculata):
Spotted lady-beetle (Coleomegilla maculata) on toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), Cherokee Marsh

.. so, presumably, also visited by aphids, the beetle’s food of choice.

The Yahara River here is broad and slow, just north of where it flows into Lake Mendota. The calls of birds echoed across it, along with the splashing and conversation of a pair of kayakers. The trail leads along the verge of the river for a little while, and then a turning leads steeply up a drumlin (the one with the snake hibernaculum); beside the path is what I’ve always known as jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum):

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Cherokee Marsh

but which, apparently, is blessed with a great number of English vernacular names:

… jack-in-the-pulpit, bog onion, brown dragon, Indian turnip, American wake-robin, or wild turnip …

To my eye it doesn’t look that much like a dragon, brown or otherwise; but then, it doesn’t look a whole lot like someone in a pulpit, either.

At the crest of the drumlin is a bench, where you can sit and look out towards Token Creek before descending. Rainclouds were starting to gather, so I looped back down towards the entrance, and made my way home.

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Last weekend, Quest for Spring Ephemerals continued, and yielded some great results. In Wingra Woods at the Arboretum, there was bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis):
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), UW Arboretum, 5/3/14
and cutleaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), just starting to bloom:
Cutleaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), UW Arboretum, 5/3/14
and one trout-lily (Erythronium):
Trout-lily (Erythronium sp.), UW Arboretum, 5/3/14
Being ephemeral, they are taking advantage of the sunlight available before the trees above them take leaf. Branches were still mostly bare, and even these flowers appeared scattered and infrequent. There were enough, though, for foraging bees to accumulate a good load of pollen:
UW Arboretum, 5/3/14
Apologies for the quality of the picture above; it was as far as I could lean out over a boardwalk railing without either startling the bee or pitching myself headfirst into the cattails. It also illustrates a frequent problem; when I was looking at the scene, my eye had no problem finding the moving insect at once, but on inspecting the picture at home, it was a game of “Where’s The Damn Bee?”.

Chorus frogs were distinctly audible, though, as ever, impossible to see. I was trying, in my head, to find a way to describe the sound that doesn’t fall back on “running your fingernail along a comb” when I remembered I had a new phone that could capture audio; and in fact the quality of the recording turned out to be decent:

Frogs singing, bloodroot blooming; I think we have moved from spring-like weather into the foothills of actual spring.

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