Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Wonder of the Week: something we don't usually see

An unusual landscape for southeast Wyoming ...
... and another version.
Last Friday was a true spring day, justifying a trip to Curt Gowdy State Park for camping, evening hiking and moon-viewing.  But several things didn’t go as expected.  First, there still was too much snow on the ground to hike.  Second, a bank of clouds over Nebraska obscured the moonrise.  Third and most amazingly, there was virtually no wind!  So I set my chair on a bank above Granite Reservoir and watched grebes, scaups and mergansers forage while an osprey fished.  Sparky was intrigued by two geese grazing nearby.  It was a lovely evening.

Suddenly I realized there were images on the surface of the water! (it's easy to overlook something not usually present).  I grabbed the camera to capture this rare phenomenon.
reflection |riˈflek sh ən| (noun) 1 the throwing back by a body or surface of light, heat, or sound without absorbing it, e.g. an image seen in a mirror or shiny surface. 2 serious thought or consideration, e.g. an idea about something, esp. one that is written down or expressed (Oxford American Dictionaries)
Wavefronts of light were changing direction at the interface of air and water, returning into the medium from whence they came.  Being a calm day, the reflections were specular (mirror-like), retaining images as well as energy and making for a happy photographer (from Wikipedia).
This landscape was disturbed a bit by a small boat carrying people fishing.
Sparky birding (geese) against a backdrop of boat ripples.
This specular sunset over Granite Reservoir seemed spectral as well.

Before closing my consideration of reflections, I suppose I should add a “serious thought, esp. one that is written down”, i.e. definition 2 above.  Here's one by John Shade, from Pale Fire (Vladimir Nabokov):

I was the smudge of ashen fluff -- and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.

But this is dangerous.  It’s too easy to see metaphor in nature.  We could be drawn in and trapped by our reflections, just as Charles Kinbote’s analysis of Pale Fire led to his derangement.  It’s safer to stick with the moment -- in this case, fortunately, a spring day. Birds sing, insects buzz, flowers are in bloom, people are smiling and laughing ... maybe just because we no longer have to wear so many clothes!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Boys are in Bloom

Spring wildflowers prepare to release pollen ... but why bother?
Hort Log is soliciting posts for April’s Berry Go Round, a blog carnival for plant-minded folks.  The theme is Smelly and/or Ugly Plants.  With winter just now ending, we don't have many candidates aside from leafless trees and the remains of last year’s plants.  So my contribution is about lack-of-beauty -- the drab, inconspicuous, beauty-less male flowers of quaking aspen.
Not a lovely spring bouquet.
Quaking aspen -- Populus tremuloides -- is the most widespread tree species in North America.  It's known for its beautiful white bark and the slender-stemmed leaves that quake in the wind.  Every year many of us head into the mountains to enjoy gold, orange and red aspen leaves glowing in the low light of autumn.  But few people notice the flowers.
Aspen are dioecious -- male and female flowers are borne on different individuals.  Because quaking aspen propagate vegetatively (from root sprouts), an “individual” often is an entire stand, with trees connected underground by a single root system.  Stands can be quite old, on the order of 8000 years or more -- relics of the last glacial retreat (NRCS USDA).
Aspen stands often are giant clones, hence the claim to be the largest plants.
Image from USDA Forest Service.
Male flowers appear early in the season, before the leaves.  They’re borne in catkins that elongate over time.  The catkins in the photos below are from the branch in the photo at the top of the post ... but three weeks later.
Quaking aspen:  2 - male catkins; 3 - female catkins in flower, 4 - in fruit;
5, 6 - male, female flowers.  Image from USDA Forest Service.
Aspen flowers are highly reduced, i.e. many of the normal flower parts are small or missing (click on illustration above for more detail).  There are no sepals nor petals -- just a disc with stamens in the case of the males.  That's enough though.  These guys have everything they need to produce and cast their pollen to the wind.   
A male aspen flower, 1 mm in width (0.04 in).
But there's a problem ... actually several.  Because aspen usually grow in stands of a single sex, pollen has to travel far to land on female flowers.  Even if fertilization takes place and seeds are produced, the likelihood of successful establishment is small.  Aspen seeds are tiny (three million per pound) with no protective coat nor stored food.  If a seed manages to germinate, survival still is iffy because aspen seedlings are so intolerant of drought, requiring constant moisture (the site can't be too wet either).

There was a time when ecology students were taught that aspen rarely if ever reproduce from seed, that most of today’s stands were established during the late Pleistocene and have persisted by vegetative propagation via root sprouts (aka sucker shoots).  But this story -- like so many -- has turned out to be not so simple.  In fact aspen often reproduce by seed in Alaska, northern Canada and eastern North America, where there’s more likely to be habitat with sufficient moisture (USDA NRCS).  Vegetative propagation is the mode of choice in the drier West, but even here aspen will reproduce from seed in the right circumstances.  For example there was widespread establishment of aspen seedlings following the extensive Yellowstone fires of 1988 (Romme et al. 2005).
Above, female aspen flowers (USDA Forest Service).  The gals aren’t any more showy than the guys until the fruit mature and split to release silky-tailed seeds ... little Pollyannas taking flight.

In celebration of national Poem in your Pocket Day last week, Anne Buchanan of The Mermaid’s Tale shared a thoughtful poem about aspen by Edward Thomas.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Happy Birthday John Muir ... poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist

I took off my shoes and stockings and worked my way cautiously down ... the swift roaring flood beneath, overhead, and beside me was very nerve-trying.  I therefore concluded not to venture farther, but did nevertheless.  Tufts of artemisia were growing in clefts of the rock near by, and I filled my mouth with the bitter leaves, hoping they might help to prevent giddiness. -- John Muir

Today, April 21, is John Muir’s birthday.  For readers who might not know him, Muir is considered one of the most important naturalists and conservationists in the history of the USA, playing a major role in establishment of early National Parks and Monuments among other things.  He also was an explorer, a scientist and a writer -- a self-described "poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist etc. etc. !!!!"  If alive today, John Muir would be 175 years old ... and a dedicated blogger.
Muir (right) guided, educated and persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to protect wild lands.
Muir was born in Scotland in 1838.  Eleven years later his father moved the family to Wisconsin.  Muir was struck by how “utterly happy” he felt in “that glorious Wisconsin wilderness” where he learned “wonderful glowing lessons” from Nature rather than the dismal grammar of school.  But there was little time to enjoy it.  Childhood had ended; his days were spent in in hard labor, helping to establish a farm in the wilderness.  At night he would read books on math, poetry, and the adventures of great explorers.
Muir as a young man.
At 22, Muir left home with $15 to his name.  Though largely self-educated, he was accepted at the University of Wisconsin where he studied math, Latin, Greek and the sciences -- especially geology and botany.  He left without graduating, and lived a life of wandering supported by occasional factory work.  Then an accident in a carriage wheel factory left him blind.  He was a tortured man, suffering through dark days and nightmarish nights filled with frightful dreams.

The horror turned out to be temporary.  When his vision returned, Muir was elated.  He declared he would spend the rest of his life in the study of “the inventions of God” -- mountains, snowstorms, streams and lakes, trees and flowers, glacial cirques and polished granite ... the plants and the rocks.

When I discovered a new plant, I sat down beside it for a minute or a day to make its acquaintance and hear what it had to tell ... I asked the boulders I met, whence they came and whither they were going.
Glacier Meadow Strewn with Moraine Boulders, 10,000 Feet above the Sea (near Mt. Dana) (Muir 1894).
Muir headed first for South America, getting as far as Florida and Cuba before illness changed his plans.  He ended up instead in California, where he discovered perhaps the most sublime of Nature’s creations -- the Sierra Nevada, the Range of Light.  He lived in the mountains, exploring, studying, and achieving a nirvana of sorts.

He thinks that I am melancholy and above all that I require polishing.  I feel sure that if you were here to see how happy I am and how ardently I am seeking a knowledge of the rocks, you could not call me away but would gladly let me go with only God and his written rocks to guide me.

His ardent seeking would result in seven essays on the glaciology of the Sierra Nevada -- Studies in the Sierra (1874-75).

In 1880, Muir married and settled down ... sort of.  He successfully ran the family farm in Martinez, California, and yet managed to be gone many months each year, tramping through the Sierra Nevada, Alaska, Siberia, and whatever wild place interested him.  At 73 he set out alone for South America.  He still had not seen the Amazon, “the Earth’s greatest river” and the destination of his aborted trip fifty years earlier.  After traveling the river, he continued on to the Andes, Africa and points beyond.

And Muir wrote.  Though he sometimes spoke disparagingly of writing, it seems he couldn’t not write.  His literary legacy is considerable, fortunately.  One of Muir’s books, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), had a very powerful effect on me early on, fueling an intense desire to wander through California’s mountains.  Reading Muir, I knew I too wanted to tramp through rocky high country, getting to know the trees, birds, rocks, finding adventure among lakes and peaks.  When I finally had the opportunity to do so, the experiences were as wonderful Muir had promised.  Forty years later I find his writing just as inspiring as I did then ... especially now that I’m something of a "poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist etc. etc. !!!!" myself.

Let’s get to know John Muir a little better and share some of his experiences ... through his own words and also his sketches, often as charming as his prose.

The Botanist

This tree is remarkable for its airy, widespread, tropical appearance, which suggests a region of palms, rather than cool, resiny pine woods. No one would take it at first sight to be a conifer of any kind, it is so loose in habit and so widely branched, and its foliage is so thin and gray.
Nut Pine (now called Digger or California foothill pine) (Muir 1894).

The most influential of the grasses composing the sod is a delicate calamagrostis with fine filiform leaves, and loose, airy panicles that seem to float above the flowery lawn like a purple mist. But, write as I may, I cannot give anything like an adequate idea of the exquisite beauty of these mountain carpets as they lie smoothly outspread in the savage wilderness. What words are fine enough to picture them? to what shall we like them? The flowery levels of the prairies of the old West, the luxuriant savannahs of the South, and the finest of cultivated meadows are coarse in comparison.
Glacier Meadow, on the Headwaters of the Tuolumne, 9500 Feet above the Sea (Muir 1911).

The Geologist

Then I went above to the alphabet valleys of the summits, comparing cañon with cañon, with all their varieties of rock-structure and cleavage and the comparative size and slope of the glaciers and waters which they contained; also the grand congregations of rock-creations was present to me, and I studied their forms and sculpture ... The grandeur of these forces and their glorious results overpower me and inhabit my whole being. Waking or sleeping, I have no rest. In dreams I read blurred sheets of glacial writing, or follow lines of cleavage, or struggle with the difficulties of some extraordinary rock-form.
The Starr King group of domes (Muir 1874-1875).  Arrows show direction of flow of “ancient glacial currents”.

When I had scrambled to the top of the moraine, I saw what seemed a huge snow-bank four or five hundred yards in length by half a mile in width. Imbedded in its stained and furrowed surface were stones and dirt like that of which the moraine was built. Dirt-stained lines curved across the snow-bank from side to side, and when I observed that these curved lines coincided with the curved moraine and that the stones and dirt were most abundant near the bottom of the bank, I shouted, "A living glacier."
One of the Highest Mt. Ritter Fountains  (Muir 1911).

The Ornithologist-Naturalist

He is a singularly joyous and lovable little fellow, about the size of a robin, clad in a plain waterproof suit of bluish gray, with a tinge of chocolate on the head and shoulders. In form he is about as smoothly plump and compact as a pebble that has been whirled in a pot-hole, the flowing contour of his body being interrupted only by his strong feet and bill, the crisp wing-tips, and the up-slanted wren-like tail.
Water-ouzel diving and feeding (Muir 1894).

The Poetico-Trampo

At times, Muir’s writings suggest ecstasy ... in a man possessed by the beauty, thrill, fascinating complexity and consuming mysteries of nature.  Though extremely analytical and dedicated to scientific understanding, he also wrote from the perspective of a mystic.

I have stood by a majestic pine, witnessing its high branches waving "in sign of worship" or in converse with the spirit of the storms of autumn, till I forgot my very existence, and thought myself unworthy to be made a leaf of such a tree.
Young Sugar Pine Beginning to Bear Cones (Muir 1894).
The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains - mountain dwellers who have grown strong there with the forest trees in Nature's workshops.
Photo by Herbert W. Gleason (Muir 1911).

The Blogger

Reading John Muir, I sense an intense desire to communicate, the same kinds of feelings and motivations that we find drive us to blog.  Muir wrote in part to campaign for protection of the wild lands that he loved.  In article after article -- blog posts of the day -- he put the glories of wilderness on display.  He wanted the public to know how special these lands are.  He wanted to persuade everyone that these wonderful natural areas should be protected, rather than sacrificed for short-term gain -- to the mining, timber harvest and livestock grazing that were decimating them as he wrote.

Muir would have loved science blogging, for presenting and discussing his theories on the glacial origins of Yosemite Valley for example.  As Anne Buchanan explains “Blogging carries information, but with a much more immediate sense of the excitement, and the controversies, that scientific discoveries involve.” (see Galileo was a blogger)
I think there was something else in Muir that compelled him to write so profusely in his expressive lyrical style ... something that would have found a deep satisfaction in the blogosphere.  I believe he was so excited and taken by the natural world that he wanted to share his experiences and feelings, especially with his close friends ... but also with anyone who would listen and perhaps be persuaded to see wilderness as beautiful, fascinating, necessary, and reflective of the wondrous hand of God.

As long as I live, I'll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.
Sublime glacially-molded landscape of the Yosemite high country.  Photo by RC Koeppel.


Sierra Club.  The John Muir Exhibit.  This is the place for more on Muir -- biographical information, books and other writings (many available online), photos and more.

Muir, John.  1894.  The Mountains of California.  NY:  The Century Co.

Muir, John.  1874-1875.  Studies in the Sierra, originally published in The Overland Monthly.  Sierra Club, 1950. San Francisco.

Muir, John.  1890.  Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park.  The Century Magazine, Vol. XL. No. 5.

Muir, John.  1911.  My First Summer in the Sierra.  NY:  Houghton Mifflin Co.

Muir, John.  1915.   Letters to a friend; written to Mrs. Ezra S. Carr, 1866-1879.  NY: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Saijo, Albert.  1973.  Elders of the tribe: 2; John Muir (1938-1914).  Backpacker Volume 1 Issue 2:32, 12 pp.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What I See (AW #56)

Red Canyon off Highway 28 south of Lander, Wyoming.  Scanned slide; original from 1986.
Andrew Alden of About.com Geology is hosting Accretionary Wedge #56 -- The Geologist as Photographer.  His challenge is:
“Once upon a time, you took a picture of something that lots of people photograph. However, because you are a geologist, it didn’t turn out the way it does for most people. Show us that picture, tell us what you see in it, and tell us about the way you take pictures.”
I bet almost everyone who stops for a photo at Red Canyon Overlook sees an eye-catching landscape composed of the eponymous red slopes of the Permo-Triassic Chugwater Formation.  Not me.  I see the Nugget sandstone -- the pale cliff-former above.

The Nugget is equivalent to the much-more-famous Navajo sandstone -- the lithified remains of a huge erg that was perhaps the largest dune field on earth ever.  Wyoming lies at the eastern edge of the ancient erg, and the Nugget is pretty wimpy compared with the massive exposures of Navajo in southern Utah for example.  Outcrops at Red Canyon are on the order of 30 feet high.
Wyoming is on the edge of the early Jurassic Navajo erg; courtesy NPS.
Nugget sandstone up close ... what's that green stuff?
Truth is, I’m not “really” a geologist, in spite of my passion for the subject.  I’m a botanist; my interest in the Nugget has to do with plants.  What I see at Red Canyon Overlook is habitat for Barneby’s clover, a plant endemic (restricted) to the southeast foothills of the Wind River Range and nearby Beaver Rim.  That’s right ... it grows nowhere else on earth! In 1986 I had the pleasure of five days of wandering through scenic rock gardens where this clover thrives.
Map courtesy WYNDD (modified).
Barneby’s clover, Trifolium barnebyi, forms mats that sprawl over the Nugget sandstone, its primary habitat.  Survey in 1986 was too late to catch it in flower -- note old brown flower heads in photo above (mat in center).  Below, Barneby’s clover in full bloom.  Being a clover, it's a member of the Fabaceae or pea family with typical pea-like flowers.
Photo by Charmaine Refsdal.
Andrew asks about "the way you take pictures.”  In 1986, I put slide film in the Pentax K1000, pointed it at the subject, adjusted camera and lens, carefully framed the shot in the viewfinder, and hoped for the best.  I was after close-ups of plants, and shots showing various aspects of habitat -- sometimes from close by, sometimes from far away.  Towards those ends my Vivitar Series 1 Macro-focusing 28-90 mm lens was wonderful.

Now I use an upper-end point-and-shoot, a Canon PowerShot A720.  It too is wonderful in its own way -- light, easy to use, many manual adjustments possible.  Perhaps the best thing is that I now can afford to take lots of shots.  I experiment, put more effort and thought into composition, and get better results overall.  But I really miss the ability to compose in a viewfinder.  Too often when it's sunny I can't even find my subject in the monitor of the Powershot.  What do I see? ... not much!
Oops! ... I missed the poppy bouquet.  But the serpentinite is nice.

Scanned slides courtesy Wyoming Natural Diversity Database; modified in iPhoto to reduce intense highlights and neon tones.

Monday, April 15, 2013

First there is a mountain ... or was it a river?

Last week's geo-challenge featured Kingston Canyon in southern Utah.
On a warm September day last year, I took a beautiful drive on State Highway 62 through Kingston Canyon, where the East Fork of the Sevier (suh-VEER) River flows across the high Sevier Plateau from east to west (click on photo below for a better view).
Some might think it odd for a river to flow into an uplift and back out again, and there was a time when I too thought that rivers started high in the mountains and flowed down to meet other streams, eventually reaching the lowlands.  But now I know that in the American West it’s not all that uncommon for a river to cross a mountain range.
The Wind River flows into the Owl Creek Mountains from the south, emerging as the Bighorn River on the north ... because folks didn't realize they were the same river.   Inset photo from Wikimedia Commons.
How does such a counterintuitive drainage pattern come to be?  There are two possible explanations that I know of.  One is “first-there-is-a-mountain” or the super(im)posed drainage hypothesis.  A mountain range is buried by deposits -- alluvial fans, basin fill, etc. Then at some point, streams flowing on the surface cease to deposit sediment and begin to erode instead.  If such a stream reaches the buried mountain range, it may cut into it as well.  Eventually erosion exhumes the old range.  In other words “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is” (Donovan 1967) ... but now with a river flowing through it.
Above -- a superposed drainage.  1. A mountain range ... 2. is buried by basin fill.  Streams flow on the surface.  3. Streams become rejuvenated (for reasons we won’t discuss here) and start eroding and removing the fill, reaching the mountain range and cutting into it as well.  The mountain range is exhumed, with a river crossing it.

An alternative explanation is “first-there-is-a-river” or the antecedent drainage hypothesis.  A river happens to be flowing across a surface fated for uplift.  If uplift is sufficiently slow, the river can keep pace, eroding down rather than being blocked or diverted.  Most likely this is why the East Fork of the Sevier River flows across the Sevier Plateau via Kingston Canyon (Rowley 1981).
Above -- an antecedent drainage.  1. Streams and rivers flow across the land, antecedent to uplift.  2. With tectonic activity (extension in the case of the Sevier Plateau) a block is uplifted ... but slowly enough that a stream can maintain its course via erosion.  3. A river runs through the uplift.
Courtesy National Park Service.
The Sevier Plateau is part of the High Plateaus subprovince of the Colorado Plateau, a transition zone between the Plateau and the Basin and Range country to the west.  It has been a region of uplift and downwarping due to Great Basin extension starting 30 million years ago or so.  The block making up this part of the Sevier Plateau has tilted gently to the east, displaced vertically more than 1500 m (5000 ft) along the Sevier fault zone on the west side (Rowley et al. 1981).  At the same time, the East Fork of the Sevier River has cut into the rising land to create one of the deepest antecedent canyons in the High Plateaus area (to 1200 m or 4000 ft).
Rocks exposed in Kingston Canyon are predominantly volcanic, mainly rhyolites deposited ca 30-22 million years ago.  They came from the huge Marysvale volcanic field, which was on the order of 100 km across.  Younger rhyolites (ca 5 million years) are present as well, and there are similar-aged basaltic lava flows on the northern rim (Rowley 1981).
Kingston Canyon has accommodated travelers for a long time.  In the early 1800s it was part of the popular Fish Lake cutoff on the 1200-mile Spanish Trail, a trade route between the Pueblo de Los Angeles in California (then part of Mexico) and Santa Fe, New Mexico. This shortcut through the high country saved 72 miles, and offered fish, grass, water and a cool respite from the lowlands in summer.  And sure enough ... near the west end of Kingston Canyon I met up with a ghostly traveler from California, en route to Santa Fe to trade horses and cattle for woolen rugs, blankets and serapes.

Literature Cited

Rowley, PD; Steven, TA; Mehnert, HH. 1981. Origin and structural implications of upper Miocene rhyolites in Kingston Canyon, Piute County, Utah. Geol Soc Amer Bull 92:590-602.

Friday, April 12, 2013

New Botany Blog

South Dakota botanist Helen McGranahan, formerly of Suite 101, has started her own blog, The Moderate Botanist.  What would that be?  That would be those of us who are somewhere between "screaming liberals and confirmed conservatives."  It's true ... we're not all "wacko-liberal-terrorists" as she explains.  Helen has had a long career in resource management and her writings lean towards the interaction of humans and plants, most recently living safely in fire-dependent ecosystems in the Black Hills.
Black Hills botanists in the field -- Don, Hollis, Helen and Cheryl (L to R).  Photo by Dave Ode.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Buttercup Worthy of its Name

The photogenic sagebrush buttercup, Ranunculus glaberrimus, usually is the first wildflower to bloom each spring in the Laramie Mountains, southeast Wyoming.
Very few of our wild buttercups look like cups of butter.  There might be a flash of yellow if one catches a glimpse of the small flowers, but as Claude Barr wrote, “If one has known buttercups in all the happy connotations of the name, one quickly looks elsewhere.” (Jewels of the Plains, 1983, Univ. MN Press).
The sagebrush buttercup is an exception.  Its flowers are bright and glossy and large enough to qualify as showy, especially considering when it blooms -- early spring when everything else still is gray and brown.
Sagebrush buttercup petals shine in the sun; flower ca 2 cm across.
Buttercup petals are lustrous because “The epidermal layer of cells has not one but two extremely flat surfaces from which light is reflected. One is the top of the cells, the other exists because the epidermis is separated from the lower layers of the petal by an air gap. Reflection of light by the smooth surface of the cells and by the air layer effectively doubles the gloss of the petal ...” (from Science News -- Why Buttercups Reflect Yellow On Chins).
Sagebrush buttercup growing with sagebrush, as it should (yellow spot just below center).
Sagebrush buttercup is atypical in other ways ... such as its habitat.  Most buttercups prefer moist-to-wet areas, hence the Latin name Ranunculus meaning “little frog”.  But this one grows on dry sites, though often close to protective shrubs (maybe more snow accumulates there).
Ranunculus macounii is a typical buttercup -- likes wet habitat and has deeply-lobed leaves (source).
Sagebrush buttercup leaves are unusual too.  Another common name for buttercups is “crow’s foot” -- for the deeply-lobed leaves.  But sagebrush buttercup has basal leaves that are entire or shallowly-lobed at most.
We found these flowers while hiking on a beautiful spring day last week.  Now five days later we're in the midst of a blizzard.  In the Laramie Mountains it's 3º F and snow is falling. What are the sagebrush buttercups doing?  Probably they're hunkered down, protected by snow accumulating beneath the sagebrush.  I bet we'll see them again in just a few weeks, in full bloom.
 Above and below -- sagebrush buttercup weather report
(courtesy Wyoming Department of Transportation).