Saturday, February 21, 2015

Laramie Street Plants (in February???)

These don’t count.
On a cold dreary Sunday with snow and rain falling, I walked the sidewalks and alleys of downtown Laramie looking for street plants – feral waifs of the urban landscape.  They grow where cracks in concrete provide access to the earth below, or in crevices and crannies where dirt and debris accumulate, overlooked.

I’m not alone.  Others do this too, and every few months we report our findings.
Dreary day, dreary town.
Another Laramie alley.
Street plants thrive in downtown Laramie – we have a rich urban flora in summer.  Most are ruderals, the first plants to grow on disturbed or otherwise bare soil.  They’re tough survivors, and often surprisingly fecund for their size and situation.
Common Wyoming ruderals – cheatgrass, dandelions and kochia (left to right).
Our street plants are tough, but I didn’t expect to find any live ones in February.  How can small herbaceous plants grow when temperatures stay below freezing for days at a time? Even though I was skeptical, the botanical detective in me rose to the challenge.  Maybe the urban environment includes warmer microsites where plants can grow – steam pipes, kitchen vents, south-facing protected walls.  I went searching.

I found remains of the dead.  Some made interesting compositions ... or so it seemed at the time.  I guess was desperate for photos:
Then a flash of green stopped me in my tracks:
See it? … it's in the small white patch where the building meets the sidewalk.
Amazing!  A plant was growing in debris and snow at the base of a north-facing wall.  And of course it was … (can you guess?)
... a dandelion.  A block away I found another:
... and then another:
Dandelion habitat is where the low wall and sidewalk meet.

Dandelions are consummate ruderals, able productive pioneers.  A single head may bear 150 seeds, a single plant more than 5000, all without sex.  Offspring are cast to the wind, travel far, and germinate and grow in almost any kind of soil (or lie dormant for years in the seed bank).  If there’s enough habitat, dandelions soon become abundant (source, including photo).

Photo courtesy Dan Poelma.

Lots of people consider dandelions loathsome pests, but I love them.  They’re among the first flowers to bloom in spring and among the last in fall.  Their sunny heads seem so cheery on those dull gray and brown days.  Indeed, I smiled when I saw scrappy little dandelions growing amid debris, concrete and snow.

Is that a young flower head in the center?  Wow!
On the way home, my theory about warm microsites was finally validated, in the alley behind the brewery.
Grass thrives thanks to periodic warm showers.
Another favorable urban microsite.
It's true – the scenery was dull and the vegetation meager.  Yet it was a fascinating outing, and in fact hunting for street plants is always interesting.  Would you like to give it a try? Our adventures are kindly organized by Lucy of Loose and Leafy.  There's more information here and here.
“recognise in it a spirit of adventure usually lacking in a road of unexceptional suburban housing, along with a spirit of genuine scientific enquiry.”  — Lucy

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Geology in the Abstract

How a camera helps us see.

Often when I look at the geological world through the viewfinder of my camera, I see things I don’t see with my eyes alone – light and shadow, curves and lines, shape and form, contrasting colors, patterns.  I zoom in and out, move a little to the side, lie on the ground, look straight up, or maybe just wait until the clouds shift or the sun moves.  I want to capture these things … to make them the subject and message of a photo.  From what I’ve read, this is abstract photography.

But defining abstract photography is difficult.  It’s one of those terms we “know” but can’t fully explain.  The boundary between literal and abstract is ambiguous and personal.  It depends on the viewer as well as the photographer, and maybe doesn’t exist … a chimeric point on a continuum.
Literal view of the sandstone beds in the first photo.
Though fuzzy in definition, abstract photography has generally-agreed-upon principles.  Traditional subjects – landscape, sky, water, animal, plant, rock – are moved into the perceptual “background”.  They may be present only in part, or minimized to the point of mystery.  Textures, tones, angles, layers, symmetry and other features that usually go unnoticed are emphasized.
The subject may be altered to such an extent that it’s unrecognizable.
Or the subject may be obvious but the photo emphasizes other features — light and shadow, texture, curves.
Dried mud in sandy wash.  Footprints upper right for scale.
Forms, curves, lines ... and pebbles.
Obviously rocks, but this is a photo about color and arrangement.
Traditional shot of rocks' habitat - edge of dry wash with junipers.
The message of an abstract photo is perhaps more emotional … less intellectual.  “We try to feel its impact on ourselves and to find a way to translate that into a picture” (from three abstract insights).
The barren desolate weird-colored repetitiveness of badlands.  This is how I felt when I stood at the brink of the bizarre world of Hell’s Half-acre.
More of the subject is visible, but the chainlink fence maintains the creepy feelings.
These two photos effectively captured my feelings, but they don’t effectively illustrate the drainage density and sparse vegetation of these badlands – even though these things are clearly visible.  This traditional photo would be better:
Geology can supply a playground for the abstract photographer, especially where there’s minimal vegetation.  Curves, lines, forms, shapes, patterns and texture abound.  Cliffs, spires, rocks, fractures, water, ice, and landforms at all scales are material for the creative eye … opportunities for new ways of looking.
Subtract! Crop, remove color.  Volcanics above detached limestone; Absaroka Mountains, Wyoming.
A more extreme example of subtraction – to show just how striking the Earth's features can be.
Devils Tower in northeast Wyoming.
Light, shadow, texture and pattern ... in the remains of an ancient lake bed.
Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada.
Repetition of lines, forms, colors, light and shade make patterns ... and beauty.
Incredibly beautiful purple and white curves in Precambrian sandstone.
No one knows why there's purple and white sandstone (lower left) in the Uinta Mountain Group.
Cross-bedding in old sand dunes, now rock, are great for studies of lines, angles.
Feel free to crop, rotate and otherwise post-process ... this is art!
Mud on walls of a sandstone "cirque" at Goblin Valley State Park, Utah.
I’ve long been drawn to abstract photography, even before digital cameras and cheap photos allowed the experimentation needed to really enjoy it.  Why am I now analyzing it in such detail?  My hope is to become more mindful of abstract compositions around me … to open my eyes to new possibilities.

“it’s noticing the patterns and shapes in the world around you”  James Beltz

Sandstone above the Missouri River, ca 1980.

This is the first post in a two-part series.  The next will look at botany in the abstract.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Of Anchor Ice & Cottonwood Flowers

It was the first of February, 8:30 AM, and 17º F after a cloudy night with light snow.  When I reached the river, I saw two men with poles standing in the water as ice floated by.  What were they doing?!  Fishing? hunting crawdads? collecting garbage? maybe playing ice golf, an ancient Scandinavian sport?
Will this be the final putt?
The men intently studied the river as my lanceleaf cottonwood tree stood by.
This month’s tree-following post was to be about my search for a new tree, but the cottonwood I've followed for a year now led me to two unexpected and interesting things. First there were the men who were taking photos of ice on the river bed.
They used a GoPro action camera – the kind folks wear to record adrenalin-inducing activities.
Ice on the river bed?  How can that be?  Ice floats, being less dense than water.  True ... but as I now know, under the right conditions a special kind of ice forms – anchor ice.  It’s really interesting and worth keeping an eye out for.  I’m glad I asked those guys what they were doing.

Cold nights are best, well below freezing.  Where the river is fast-moving and shallow, water may become super-cooled and stay liquid below its normal freezing temperature.  The sand, gravel, rocks, etc. that it’s flowing over also cool to that temperature.  The water is moving right along so surface ice doesn't form, but floating crystals (frazil) freeze out.  They stick to material on the river bed and to each other, making gray-green soft slushy ice.  When the day begins to warm, anchor ice begins to break free and float downstream.  Soon it’s all gone.  [Here’s a summary with clear explanations, and another in PDF format.]

Top: gravel and small rocks on bottom of anchor ice removed from river bed

Middle: anchor ice anchored to river bed

Bottom: anchor ice breaking free from river bed 

(modified from Kempema et al. 2008; click on image to see more detail)

Gray-green detached anchor ice floating downstream.
For years I’ve watched murky globs of ice float down the river on cold mornings.  I always thought they had broken off from ice along the river margins.  Now I know better.  The things you learn when you follow a tree!

Anchor ice was pretty minimal that day and has been for most of this unusually-mild winter.  But it can be dramatic with significant impacts, like creating dams and scouring river beds.  “Seeing is believing” so have a look at this anchor ice video – a “nature treat for the day” from the northeast USA.

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The second thing of interest is actually quite amazing ... my tree is blooming in February!
Cottonwood in full bloom; click on image to see fringed bracts, young ovaries and stigmas as in diagram below.

Suspicious?  You should be.  It is blooming ... but in my kitchen.
Last month when I was wondering if my cottonwood was the bitter kind, I collected twigs with buds to examine at home.  The true bitter cottonwood, the narrowleaf, has very resinous buds, but those on my tree aren’t – this suggests it's a hybrid.  When I was done, I put the twigs in a small container with water to see if maybe something interesting would happened.

Something did.  Now there are two female catkins (flower clusters), other buds have tiny bits of green at the tips – leaves? – and little twigs have grown roots!  Of course now I will put them in a pot.  Maybe something interesting will happen ...
I’m not surprised to find flowers out of season and roots growing from tiny twigs.  Cottonwoods are notoriously opportunistic.  They produce prodigious amounts of cottony seeds and cast them to the wind.  Maybe – just maybe – one  will land in a suitable place and grow.  Some species sucker and spread readily, as does mine.  Fallen live branches can root and grow.  And they grow fast.  My tree may look majestic, with all the noble characteristics we associate with trees – strength, great stature, longevity, steadfastness.  But it’s really more like a scrappy nine-lived alley-cat, resigned to (and ignoring) the capricious hand of fate.  Try anything and everything ... be ready ... live fast and die young ... wotthehell, wotthehell
Mehitabel (by Don Marquis).

More about anchor ice in the Laramie River:

Kempema, E, Ettema, R, and McGee, B.  2008.  Insights from anchor ice formation in the Laramie River, Wyoming.  19th IAHR International Symposium on Ice.

Kempema, E, and Ettema, R.  2010.  Anchor ice rafting:  observations from the Laramie River.  River Research and Applications 27:1126-1135.