Monday, March 25, 2013

JC Frémont was here

A Fremont cottonwood grows along the Fremont River in southeast Utah.
John Charles Frémont (USA; 1813-1890) was a mathematician, explorer, topographer, expedition leader, military commander, entrepreneur and politician.  He was considered a hero and a scoundrel, visionary and foolish, was court-martialed for mutiny, lost a presidential election, lost a fortune to poor investment in spite a powerful political position, and was one of the greatest explorers of the American West.  But was this man a botanist?
General J.C. Frémont, from the Carll H. de Silver Fund, Brooklyn Museum Online Collection.

His adventures began with a two-year stint as a math teacher aboard a naval vessel off the coast of South America.  Next he landed a job as an engineer on a railroad survey project, and then in 1838 was made assistant to the accomplished topographer Joseph Nicollet on pioneering surveys between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.  Bright and ambitious, Frémont quickly learned the topographer’s trade, and when Nicollet became ill, he took over as leader.  By this time, his application for a commission had been approved, making him a Second Lieutenant in the US Topographical Corps.
The travels of John Charles Frémont.  Sierra Nevada in red, Great Basin in blue.
Frémont went on to lead five exploratory expeditions across the American West for the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers (above), producing much-needed maps and dispelling geographical myths.  His second and third expeditions circumnavigated the Sierra Nevada of California, crossing the range in mid-winter twice (bold? or foolhardy?) and quashing all hopes of finding the Río Buenaventura, said to flow from the interior to the sea.  Instead they discovered an immense area of interior drainage east of the Sierra Nevada where no river ever reaches the sea.  Frémont named it the Great Basin.
Sign courtesy Inyo-White National Forest; click photo to read.
The 19th century was a grand time for plant collectors as well as topographers.  The flora of western North America was very poorly known, and there were tremendous opportunities for finding "novelties" -- plants new to science.  The collectors themselves were a disparate group.  Some were educated botanists but many were self-taught, perhaps with a bit of training in proper preparation of specimens in the field.  They included pioneer settlers, farmers, gardeners, doctors, army officers and miscellaneous free spirits -- all captivated by the promise of botanical discovery.

Frémont recognized the need for botanical material and insisted that specimens be collected on his expeditions.  He himself was the “botanist” on all but one.  He probably was first exposed to plant collecting on the Nicollet expeditions, observing the work of botanist Karl Geyer.  Later, he received advice and direction from the academic botanists to whom he sent his collections.  “Lieut. F. must be indoctrinated, & taught to collect both dried spec. & seeds” wrote botanist Asa Gray of Harvard.
Asa Gray in 1864; photo by John Whipple.
Plant collecting in Frémont's time was not all that different from now.  Specimens were preserved in the field by pressing and drying, and had to be dried fairly quickly to prevent decay and minimize discoloration.  This is easy to do today, at least in the semi-arid country where I work.  Plants are placed in folded sheets of newspaper between pieces of corrugated cardboard making up a plant press.  One can simply strap the loaded press on top of the truck and let warm dry air stream through corrugations in the cardboard.  An alternative, if one is close to civilization, is to set the press on a “plant drier” where heat from lightbulbs dries the contents (too much heat will ruin specimens).
Tools of the trade.
For 19th-century field botanists, drying pressed plants was much more difficult.  Specimens were placed between sheets of paper to absorb moisture.  These had to be changed and dried regularly -- daily if possible.
“We sit for hours before a hot camp fire, with the sweat pouring down our face, to completely dry our papers and plants.  How I wish the plants dried at once, but often it takes several days and sometimes a week ... Each day we must press them between dry paper.  And what a misery when it rains; then nothing or no one is dry!  When it is windy our scarce paper blows out into the meadows.” -- anonymous plant collector (Nilsson 1994).
Once dried, plant specimens had to be kept dry ... and safe.  Many of the collections made on Frémont’s second expedition were lost in a series of accidents, much to his dismay:
“In the gorges and ridges of the Sierra Nevada, of the Alta California,we lost fourteen horses and mules, falling from rocks or precipices into chasms or rivers, bottomless to us and to them, and one of them loaded with bales of plants collected on a line of two thousand miles of travel”
 “when almost home, our camp on the banks of the Kansas was deluged by the great flood, which, lower down, spread terror and desolation on the borders of the Missouri and Mississippi, and by which great damage was done to our remaining perishable specimens, all wet and saturated with water, and which we had no time to dry.”
On the third expedition, Frémont went to great pains to minimize losses.  When they reached the California coast, plant specimens were packed in tin boxes, the ends soldered shut.  These were placed in wooden boxes wrapped in green cowhides, shipped to Panama, transported across the isthmus, and then put on a ship bound for New York, finally reaching the closet botanists eagerly awaiting plant material from the West.
Botanist John Torrey was Frémont's main academic contact; portrait from Harvard University Library.
Most of the plant collectors exploring the western US in the 19th century had little or no training in plant classification.  Specimens were sent east to academic botanists working in herbaria -- called “closet botanists” in the day.  Frémont sent his first batch to John Torrey of Princeton and Columbia Universities.  He did so “somewhat presumptuously” (Welsh 1998), i.e. without prior arrangement, but the package was eagerly accepted by Torrey even so.  He knew the value of the material and the potential for novelties.  Torrey forwarded part of the collection to his colleague at Harvard, Asa Gray.
The California fremontia or flannelbush (Fremontodendron californicum) was named in honor of JC Frémont by John Torrey.  Source.

At least 2100 plant collections from Frémont’s five expeditions went to Torrey, Gray and other closet botanists.  These were to yield 163 new types of plants, including 19 new genera.  This was especially impressive given the great difficulty of collecting specimens:
“... explorations were made on horseback, and by such rapid movements, (which were necessary, in order to accomplish the objects of the expedition,) that but little opportunity was afforded for collecting and drying botanical specimens. Besides, the party was in a savage and inhospitable country, sometimes annoyed by Indians, and frequently in great distress from want of provisions; from which circumstances, and the many pressing duties that constantly engaged the attention of the commander, he was notable to make so large a collection as he desired.” -- John Torrey (in Frémont 1845).
In his report for the second expedition, Frémont told of finding a new kind of cottonwood in the valley of the Santa Clara River in today’s southern Utah.  If he collected any material, it did not survive.  He encountered it again in California on the third expedition, and collected a specimen along the Sacramento River.  It was in the shipment sent to New York by way of the Isthmus of Panama, and finally ended up in the hands of botanist Sereno Watson at Harvard, who in 1875 named it Populus fremontii, the Fremont cottonwood -- one of 40 plant species that now bear Frémont’s name.
“The stream is prettily wooded with sweet cottonwood trees -- some of them of large size ... This cottonwood is of a different species than any in Michaux’s Sylva” (Frémont 1845). Above, a Fremont cottonwood stands before the capitols of Capitol Reef National Park, Utah; below, with cross-bedded sandstone in Harris Wash, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, also in Utah.
There are more of Frémont's plants nearby.  Fremont mahonia (Mahonia fremontii) grows on the slopes just above Harris Wash.  Below, a single (compound) leaf with thick sharply-toothed leaflets, followed by the shrub.
Most of Frémont’s discoveries were described and published by others, but not all.  After the first expedition, he asked John Torrey if he might join him as a coauthor.  Torrey agreed, and some 18 species would be published with “Torr. and Frém.” as authorities (cited authors).
Pinus monophylla Torr. and Frém., the single-leaf pinyon (from Frémont 1845).
But was John Charles Frémont a botanist?  In discussing Frémont’s botanical legacy, Welsh (1998) calls him a botanical explorer but not a professional botanist.  The man certainly was dedicated to the profession, dutifully collecting and drying plants in spite of all the hardships and difficulties of traveling through unknown country by horseback for many months at a time.  To his credit, he generally kept detailed records of specimens and collection locations.  He must have known the flora well enough to recognize plants of interest.  Finally, there's no doubt that his botanical discoveries -- including 163 novelties -- were a major contribution to our knowledge of the flora of the American West.  Sounds like a botanist to me.
The USA 5c stamp of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi issue featured botanist John Charles Frémont. 

Sources (in addition to links in post)

Frémont, J.C.  1845.  Report of the exploring expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1843, and to Oregon and North California in the years 1843-1844.  Washington, DC  Senate Doc. 461, 28th Congress.

Nilsson, K.B.  1994.  A wild flower by any other name; sketches of pioneer naturalists who named our western plants.  Yosemite National Park:  Yosemite Association.

Welsh, S.L.  1998.  John Charles Frémont, botanical explorer.  Saint Louis:  Missouri Botanical Garden Press.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Reminder -- Plant Carnival Here Soon!

The deadline for the March Berry Go Round is near.  You can join in the fun by submitting a post via the BGR website (by March 25) or by providing a link as a Comment below before I get the summary post up.  Hope to see you at the Carnival!
"Fun with plant ID" ... by Al F.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Did Winter not get the memo?

First day of spring 2013: the sun says new season, despite lingering winter cold for some”  -- The Washington Post
Early this morning, we arrived at the Vernal Equinox.  Today the Earth’s axis tilts neither toward nor away from the Sun, which rises due east and sets due west, and night and day are very close to equal in length at all latitudes.  It's the official start of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere ... astronomical spring that is.  Spring the season may have arrived in some places, but not here.  Apparently no one told Winter it was time to leave.
The Earth at equinox (NOAA).  For a helpful and interesting explanation, see EarthSky.
Yesterday the heater came on early in the morning -- that should have been a warning.  The air was quite brisk, and a light dusting of snow still covered the streets even though the sun was shining.  But despite these hints, the river caught me by surprise.

It’s amazing how fast our river can change, especially in winter ... one day snow-covered, the next day slick ice, and then decorated all over with hoarfrost the following morning.  Every March there's a day when I realize the river has become a river again, flowing swiftly with chunks of old ice, clearing away tumbleweeds and miscellaneous debris accumulated over the winter.  That’s the way it was a few days ago, so I didn’t expect to find this:
It may be the day before Spring, but the Laramie River is freezing up again.  Some stretches are completely frozen over, others have narrow channels of open water meandering through fresh snow-covered ice.
My neighbor and his dog were out walking, and we stopped to chat, play and marvel at this surprising turn of events and the beauty of the river.  He said that his thermometer at home read 8º F (-13º C).
The Laramie River in winter almost always has something of interest for the visitor.
Above and below:  frozen surface viewed from the foot bridge.
I was intently focused on these little icicles on the underside of an old ice sheet when I heard a crash.  It hadn’t occurred to Sparky that this wonderful new ice might be too thin to explore, and there he was in a foot of icy slush, unable to climb out over the slippery old ice along the bank.  I would have taken a photo but he looked scared and very pathetic.  I anchored myself in a clump of willows, grabbed his nape, and between the two of us we got him out of the water.  In seconds he was back to being his usual happy self, all trauma forgotten.  Such is the wisdom of a dog.
Sparky rids his coat of ice.
This morning the river is back to being a river, and it’s tempting to think Spring will be here soon ... except that they’re predicting lows in the single digits again this weekend.  The Earth may have orbited to Spring, but Winter isn't ready to leave just yet.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Urban Ice

Jack Frost has kindly contributed artwork for a blog post while I continue with my minuscule contribution to a healthy GDP, and negotiate the colossal maze that is the American tax code.
Spring is on its way.  The river has thawed, with old sheets of ice along the banks and floes headed downstream.  The Easter daisies are in bud.  It’s crazy windy.  Winter isn’t over though -- there still are exhibitions of fresh ice art early in the morning as I discovered a few days ago, and then ran back inside to get the camera.
Someone dropped their tiara in the leaves and other debris ...
... along the curb!

The next morning I had more time, and I set out looking specifically for urban ice.  It turned out to be much more common than I thought, and I found it in unexpected places ...
Abraham Lincoln for scale.
 ... for example in mud puddles made by trucks!
I wandered around the packing sheds looking at frozen mud puddles.  It was an enjoyable and productive expedition, though the drivers there probably thought it somewhat odd.
Frozen mud is intriguing too.
And my favorite:
... with tire tracks for scale:
Nature is always creating beauty, even in urban landscapes.  One just has to pay attention!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

In the company of mostly rocks ... but where?

"Recently balanced" by RC Koeppel.
Ronn kindly contributed a photo from his recent trip for your enjoyment while this blogger continues a brief sabbatical for things less important but required -- work and taxes. Location will be added when (if?) revealed.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The largest erg on earth ... ever!

Early-morning drink from a waterpocket in the Navajo erg.
An erg is a “sand sea”, a large expanse of wind-deposited dunes or sheets of sand, like the Sahara of northern Africa and the Great Sandy Desert of Australia.  Sand covered much of western North America ca 180 million years ago in what has been called the largest erg in the history of the continent ... or perhaps the largest anywhere, ever (Fillmore 2011). Today we call it the Navajo sandstone.
Figure courtesy NPS.
The sun sets on a “petrified dune” -- a remnant of the Navajo erg near Boulder, Utah.
The Navajo erg was in existence for some 15 million years during the early Jurassic, when North America was much closer to the equator, overlapping the zone of dry trade winds.  Sand accumulation was massive in places, reaching thicknesses greater than 2500 ft ... for example at Zion National Park in southern Utah.
Navajo sandstone walls viewed from the East Rim Trail, courtesy Zion NP.
Large-scale cross-bedding attests to eolian (wind) origins.  Navajo sandstone in the San Rafael Swell in central Utah; width of view is roughly 30 feet.
Fifteen million years -- the lifespan of the Navajo erg -- may seem like forever, but at the scale of geologic time it was just a moment.  The erg was inundated by invading seas, buried in marine deposits and then under more sand when the seas retreated ... and so on, for the next 100 million years or so.  Sand became sandstone under thousands of feet of overlying sediment.

Subsequent uplift, faulting, intrusion, weathering and erosion have exposed the Navajo, often quite spectacularly.  I think these must have been terrifying landscapes for early travelers and settlers.  But times change.  Now many many many thousands of travelers come to the Colorado Plateau specifically to see this starkly beautiful scenery.
Navajo sandstone forms the outer wall of the San Rafael Reef in central Utah.
Photo by Jack Share; used with permission.
Biking the Navajo erg near Moab, Utah -- aka the Slickrock Trail.
Navajo sandstone “capitols” in Capitol Reef National Park form the backdrop for a Fremont cottonwood.
The Navajo sandstone frequently is pale in color and easy to distinguish from the common red rocks of the Colorado Plateau.  Early geologists made note of this.  John Wesley Powell called it the “White Cliffs sandstone” and G.K. Gilbert referred to it as the “Gray Cliffs group” (Longwell et al. 1932).
Navajo sandstone domes and "mosques"; from Longwell et al. 1932, Plate IX in part.  
But the Navajo wasn’t always so pale.  It probably was red sand originally, and then red sandstone for a while after burial.  The red of red sandstone comes from very thin coatings of rusted or oxidized iron (hematite) on individual grains.  Some outcrops of Navajo sandstone remain red to this day, the films of hematitic sand pigment still in place.

What happened to the rest?  The Navajo, made up as it is of uniform wind-deposited quartz grains, is quite porous.  When water of the right chemistry (reducing) moved through, iron went into solution and the rock lost its red color.  In other words, the originally-red sandstone was bleached (e.g. Chan and Parry 2002).
   Some outcrops of Navajo sandstone remain red to this day, the thin films of hematic sand pigment still in place.  This one is near Moab, Utah.
Red strata and pockets can occur in otherwise-pale outcrops.  These may be original unbleached remnants, or areas of re-oxidized iron.  Photo by Jack Share; used with permission.
Rusty water streaks on the Navajo near Boulder, Utah.
Bleaching is just one example of the role of water in the history of the Navajo.  This erg, like many, was not just dry sand.  Large volumes of water moved through it, both while it was sand and after it became rock, and even today the Navajo sandstone is considered one of the best reservoirs and aquifers on the Colorado Plateau (Chan and Parry 2002). Water in the Navajo has created many intriguing features, in addition to variation in color.
This Navajo outcrop along the highway in Capitol Reef National Park exhibits soft sediment deformation, perhaps of buried water-saturated sand.
If iron-rich water passing through sandstone encounters oxygenated water, iron can precipitate out, again coating the sand grains.  However, this is not just a thin film but rather a strong thick hematitic cement.  If exposed, the chunks of cemented sandstone eventually weather out of the softer surrounding rock ... which takes us to the mysterious dark rocks in my kitchen, the subject of a recent post.
Still life with iron concretion -- aka iron oxide concretion, iron sandstone, ironstone.
Iron concretions seem to be most common in areas where the Navajo has been bleached, suggesting they contain iron that once colored the sandstone red.  Moki marbles are the most famous, but concretions come in many other shapes as well.
Puzzling round iron concretions, called moki marbles; small block at top is 1 cm across.
Moki marbles in situ.  Photo by Jack Share; used with permission.
Iron concretions from Navajo sandstone; width of view is 15 inches.

Navajo flatirons on the south side of Mt. Hillers in the Henry Mountains of southern Utah.
The Navajo sandstone is spectacular in landscape view -- there's no doubt about that.  But sometimes I find its close-up patterns even more fascinating, especially when I know something of the history they record.
Ancient cross-bedding, from 180-million-year-old sand dunes.
Modern-day dog for scale.
Navajo iron art in early morning light; all views from above, widths 6-15 inches:
Iron concretion with moss.
Navajo sand on the move again, this time carried by water rather than wind.

Sources (in addition to links in post)

Thanks to Jack Share for contributing photos to this post, and for providing so much useful information for road trips at Written in Stone ... seen through my lens.

Chan, M.A. and Parry, W.T.  2002.  Mysteries of Sandstone Colors and Concretions in Colorado Plateau Canyon Country (PDF).  UT Geological Survey Public Information Series 77:1-19.

Fillmore, Robert. 2011. Geological evolution of the Colorado Plateau of eastern Utah and western Colorado. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Longwell, C.R. et al.  1932.  Rock formations in the Colorado Plateau of southeastern Utah and northern Arizona.  Geol. Surv. Prof. Paper 132-A.