Thursday, December 25, 2014

Best Wishes from Plants and Rocks

Lanceleaf cottonwood, Laramie River.

Another year of blogging is almost over.  I’d like to thank all my colleagues in the blogosphere ... those who read and those who write ... those I know (a little) and those who remain anonymous.  I’m still in awe, impressed by the new opportunities the internet provides.  Four years ago I knew nothing of blogging.  Now it’s an important source of information, and a most satisfying creative outlet.
expression is the need of my soul (archy)

“Bloggers are saturating the globe” wrote William Zinsser, as he too contemplated today's widespread revolution in writing – powered first by the word-processor and then by the internet.  “I had no inkling of the electronic marvels that would soon revolutionize the act of writing ... for people who had never thought of themselves as writers.”

It's a wonderful revolution, with a happy democratic outcome.  We don't have to be professionals to struggle to put words together and share our masterpieces.  Now we common folk carefully craft stories, add photos beautifully backlit on the monitor, and cast them off into the Unknown, with no assurance that anyone will read them.  And we keep doing it ... for diverse and mysterious reasons. 
Maybe when we tell stories we make memories more vivid and lasting.

I learn a lot from bloggers – about botany, ecology, geology, photography, places to go, things to see – all of it spiced up with excitement and enthusiasm.  Used to be I had a small circle of friends to swap plant and rock stories with.  Now the circle is vast.  To all, happy holidays and best wishes for 2015 ... and keep blogging!
Ice on the Laramie River.


marquis, don.  1927.  archy and mehitabel.  doubleday.

Zinsser, William.  2007.  On writing well; 7th ed.  Harper Collins.

Plants and Rocks is taking a short winter break, returning in a few weeks.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Street Plants in Laramie in December?!

From asphalt and snow, some grass will grow.
When Lucy suggested we post about street plants four times a year, I was not optimistic for December.  We live at 7000 ft elevation in the continental interior, far from the equator.  I set out looking for an escaped juniper or pine tree, that seemed my best bet.  I didn’t find any, but in the process I learned that I hadn’t given our herbaceous plants enough credit.  Some stay green through the winter.  I wonder if they photosynthesize on sunny days, when they’re not covered with snow?

The Easter daisies (Townsendia hookeri) in my garden and out on the prairie keep their leaves through the winter.
An Easter daisy’s version of green.  Plant is six inches across.
There’s still a bit of green grass along the Laramie River bike path.
Green grass tips (look close).
The willows are dormant now, but come spring they will keep working to break up the asphalt and reclaim their habitat.

Yesterday afternoon I made a reconnaissance around the old packing sheds across from my house, thinking there might be a protected spot where a plant waif could grow.  But no, everything was dead ... except ...
... in a driveway a flash of green stopped me.  Not only were there green leaves, there were flowers too!  But the light was low, the wind was howling, and I left photo-less.

This morning was calm, not even a breeze.  About a half inch of snow had fallen overnight, so I brushed it away until I relocated the knotweed.
Prostrate knotweed, Polygonum aviculare.
Prostrate knotweed is a very common weed, quick to colonize disturbed habitat.  Several sources note that it’s adept at colonizing cracks in sidewalks and streets.
Sometimes prostrate knotweed grows upright too.
Optimistic (green) knotweed and grass.

The snow was not helpful in shooting closeups, so I collected a sprig of knotweed to take home for portraits.
It's called “knot”weed because the stem nodes are swollen (click on image above).  The Greeks called them “many knees” – hence the name of the genus:  Poly-gonum.
Short branches at base, with green and white flowers.
Swollen stem nodes, each with a leaf and flowers.
Prostrate knotweed flowers are 4-5 mm long.

For more on street plants and their fans, check out Lucy’s December street plants gathering.  And rejoice! the days are getting longer :-)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Recommended reading: “Photographing Trees”

the air frost and heavy mist offered the potential for creating a great winter scene ... I left lots of room around the tree to make the photograph more saleable.  There is space above and below for a title and sub-titles:
The title is apt.  Foreground, background, frame and viewpoint ... aperture, shutter speed, focus points and ISO ...  trunks, bark, leaves, trees and forests ... all are in Photographing Trees by Edward Parker.  He emphasizes that the book is for photographers of all skill levels and camera types, not just pros with expensive gear.  I agree; the discussions seem very accessible, and the book is full of encouragement and inspiration.
photographs that are useful for your own purposes and that give you a real buzz ... are marks of success
Boxelder in a sandstone canyon, Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument.
Quaking aspen in the Enchanted Forest, Laramie Mountains.
You don’t have to own a DSLR camera to enjoy this book.  Much of the content also applies to compacts; phone photographers will find some useful tips as well.  Parker takes pains to explain when a compact works as well as a DSLR (and is easier to use).  He repeatedly points to the importance of the photographer’s eye and mind, rather than the camera.
Abstract image of ancient bristlecone pine, White Mountains, California.
The book begins with a brief introduction to digital cameras, followed by the first major section, HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS.  This currently is my favorite part of the book.  Composition, Light, Viewpoint ... these are things that make me look at the natural world differently, and make photography so satisfying.
It’s well worth spending time seeking out an interesting viewpoint ... 
Peeling bark of paper birch in Dugout Gulch in the Black Hills.
Foreground is important, even in great sweeping scenes ... [it] helps to make sense of the vast scale of the scene.
Sparky contemplates the vast scale of piΓ±on - juniper woodland in the Great Basin.
line up the shot so the background is in deep shade.  This allows the brightly colored leaves to stand out against a non-distracting black ...
Vine maple, Lake Easton State Park, Cascade Mountains.
Take a friend with you ... to include as scale.
Coast redwood with friend for scale; Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, California.
I was surprised to find an entire subsection devoted to “Organisation and planning ahead” – not something I do before heading out with my camera.  But how obviously useful it would be to consider the weather forecast and time of day, and their effects on light.
I particularly like it when light from a low sun falls across a subject ... [making] for highlights and shadow areas, which provide visual clues to the let the brain understand a scene ... 
Dead bristlecone pine in low warm evening light.  Light and shade provide clues as to its shape, “helping the brain to understand”.

HOW TO TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR CAMERA is the second major section.  Parker makes clear that it’s not essential.  Everything in IMPROVE YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS can be done in automatic mode ... my usual strategy.  But the explanations of exposure compensation, aperture priority, shutter speed and other tech issues are clear and even persuasive.  I need to give them an honest try, having only dabbled in my DSLR’s technology so far.
When a scene contains a lot of white I find it's often best to overexpose by one stop (move the exposure compensation to +1).
The snow confused my camera’s metering system.  I should have helped it by using exposure compensation.  Some improvements were made with iPhoto, but not what was needed.

The final section, HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH TREES, is a series of photographs with explanations of  “decisions behind the final image” ... decisions based on knowledge from earlier sections.  It's organized by tree features: whole tree, trunks, leaves, bark, fruit, seeds and flowers, woods and forests.
Usually the most obvious approach to photographing a tree is to try and get the whole subject in the frame.  Publishers love this sort of image, but in many cases it can be quite difficult to achieve.
I’ve yet to get a satisfying photo of this contorted old limber pine growing out of a granite crevice.
Tree trunks are the tree photographer’s friend. ... It can be blowing a gale or as dark as night but it is still possible to get an interesting image.
Western red cedar; Ross Creek Giant Cedar Grove, Montana.
Filling the frame edge to edge helps to concentrate the eye ... 
Ponderosa pine cones – two from this season (purple) and one from last year; Laramie Mountains.
... consider clipping off a small sprig so you can set up the photograph indoors or in an area where the light is perfect or the wind less of a problem. 
Young leaves of my lanceleaf cottonwood – in the kitchen, out of the wind.
Parker's book is filled with photographs – beautiful, fascinating, awe-inspiring images of trees from all over the world.  There's nothing wrong with just looking at the photos.  They're full of ideas themselves, and maybe you're like me ... I pay closer attention when I ignore the text.

Photographing Trees costs $20 to $30 for new and nearly new copies.  Based on the number and quality of images alone, this is a bargain.  And the ideas and encouragement that it provides this particular aspiring photographer has made it a treasure.
... there is so much more to photography than just owning expensive equipment; it’s more a way of looking at the world.
Trail into a magical forest of coast live oaks, growing low and twisted to avoid sea winds; Los Osos Oaks State Natural Reserve.
Grassy foreground leads the viewer to a coast live oak and memories of childhood; near San Luis Obispo, California; courtesy Giovanni LoCascio.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Lost Water Found

Precious water flows from vertically-tilted limestone at Big Spring.
Much of the American West is dry country, where farmers and ranchers lust after and fight over water.  It's easy to understand their frustration when it flows down a hole, never to be seen again.  Sometimes dams or ditches will reduce water loss to the netherworld, but often nothing can be done.  Place names tell the story: Sinks Canyon, Dry Valley, Lost Creek.
The Sinks on the east side of the Wind River Mountains.  Hundreds of gallons of water flow down this limestone hole every second.  The creek reappears about a quarter-mile down the canyon.  Photo by Brian Harms.
Sinking streams usually are symptomatic of karst, “a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks including limestone, dolomite and gypsum ... characterized by sinkholes, caves, and underground drainage systems” (source).  Rainwater is slightly acidic, enough to dissolve rock such as limestone.  If it can enter soluble bedrock via fractures or faults, dissolution will create a network of enlarging passageways, accommodating more water, leading to more dissolution and surface collapse.
"What is Karst?" – from the University of Texas at Austin.
Water also exits the karst underworld, as springs.  An underground drainage system may intersect the surface, perhaps at a fault, or meet fractures in overlying rock that provide routes to the surface.
Modified from Karst in Indiana; Indiana Geological Survey.
In the Uinta Mountains in northeastern Utah, limestone bedrock, outcrops and karst features occur on both flanks of the range.
“Another peculiarity of topographic structure is observed at the head of the side ravines ... when they occur in limestone formations.  In the midst of a remarkably well watered region, these ravines have no running water, and in their basin-like heads are many minor depressions without outlet” Samuel F. Emmons, Uinta Mountains (1906)
Uinta streams head in the high country, which is underlain by Precambrian sandstones of the Uinta Mountain Group.  They flow above ground until they meet the Madison limestone, where many of the smaller ones disappear, joining underground drainages that feed springs at lower elevations.
North flank Uinta Mountains west of Flaming Gorge.  Darker turquoise unit is the Madison limestone.
Cross-section through north flank Uinta Mountains at Sheep Creek Canyon.  Near the Uinta Mountain fault zone, strata are tilted to vertical or even overhanging.  Yu - Uinta Mountain Group; Mm – Madison limestone.  Modified from Sprinkel et al. (2000).
Spectacularly deformed strata in the Sheep Creek Canyon Geological Area.  Mississippian Madison limestone on right and Precambrian Uinta Mountain Group on left; southwest branch Uinta Mountain fault zone in-between.
Madison limestone (Mississippian).
Big Spring gurgles out of a spectacular limestone ridge cut through by Sheep Creek, near the Uinta Mountain fault zone.  In October I walked up the short-but-steep trail to the springhead – a small talus slope.
Water first appears near the base of a small talus slope – just a tiny quiet leafy pool.
In less than ten feet, it becomes a healthy flowing stream.
I was there during the low-flow season, but the stream still was quite loud ... just listen:
Discharge from Big Spring ranges from 5 to 36 cubic feet per second.  Like most springs in the area, its flow is variable and highest in spring during snowmelt.  Turbidity increases too, with higher flows stirring up sediments in the underground drainage system.

Years ago, Big Spring’s flow suddenly increased and became more turbid ... but it was the wrong time of year.  Just a week before, an earthen dam 14 miles to the west had failed, sending precious water into the Lost Creek Sink a short distance downstream.  Ranchers were unhappy.  Hydrologists were suspicious.

Sometimes underground drainage routes can be inferred from coincident events – like a breached dam and an unexpected pulse in a spring.  They can be verified with dye tracers.  In 1979 researchers dumped dye into Lost Creek Sink and watched Big Spring.  Dye emerged, confirming the connection.  Another dye release at low water in September 2001 also showed a link between sink and spring, with maximum groundwater travel time of 14 days (Spangler 2005).

Lost Creek Sink is 14 miles west of Big Spring; both are within the north-dipping Madison limestone.  Other sinks and springs in the northeastern Uinta Mountains show similar configurations, suggesting underground drainages follow strike (along limestone layers rather than across them).  In contrast, springs on the less-steep south side of the range tend to be artesian, flowing from the Madison up through fractures in overlying rocks to the surface (Spangler 2005).

The map below shows general direction of flow from sink to spring (the actual route probably is far more tortuous).  Straight-line distance is 14.4 miles, with 2100 feet vertical drop.  As of 2005, Lost Creek - Big Spring was “one of the longest documented (dye-traced) underground flow systems in Utah.”  The length suggests there may be an extensive cave system below (Spangler 2005).
Based on Spangler 2005; map from ArcGIS Online.
“Hence the explanation that suggested itself was that, in the easily soluble limestones, surface waters had eaten their way along cracks and small faults, finding their run-off in such springs, and had thus eroded increasingly large caves that had finally collapsed, producing something analogous to the sink-holes of the western Appalachian region. ... The structure is developed on so large a scale in this region that it deserves a special name, for which sink-hole or karst topography is suggested.” Samuel F. EmmonsUinta Mountains (1906)


Emmons, SF.  1906.  Uinta Mountains.  Bulletin of the Geological Society of America 18:287-302.

Spangler, LE.  2005.  Geology and karst hydrology of the eastern Uinta Mountains – an overview.  in Dehler, CM, Pederson, JL, Sprinkel, DA, and Kowallis, BJ, eds.  2005.  Uinta Mountain geology.  Utah Geological Association Publication 33.

Sprinkel, DA, Park, B and Stevens, M.  2000.  Geologic road guide to Sheep Creek Canyon Geological Area, northeastern Utah, in Anderson, PB and Sprinkel, DA, eds., Geologic road, trail and lake guides to Utah's parks and monuments.  UGA Publ 29.  PDF

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Tree-following: Bark

tree-following (noun):  informal  The practice of observing a tree over the course of a year and reporting on it monthly, usually online.  ORIGIN: early 21st century, from tree + follow; see also Loose and Leafy

Sorry, just kidding, “tree-following” isn’t in the dictionary (yet).  But it’s well-established in my vocabulary, as I've followed trees for two years now.  This year I chose a lanceleaf cottonwood (Populus x acuminata) growing on the bank of the Laramie River.  It started as a bare skeleton, developed a large green canopy, and now is back to a bare skeleton.
February 2014.
Cottonwoods in full summer dress, June 2014 (my tree on right).
My tree and Rich's bench in early December 2014.
I’ve learned a lot about this tree – its height, when it flowers (and which sex appears first), when it casts its seeds to the wind, what it does all summer, and when the leaves turn color and fall ... and also how cottonwoods have figured prominently in the rural American West.  But I’ve pretty much ignored the bark.  That’s because it’s humdrum compared with other trees ... not so much other trees here, but rather those elsewhere with their colorful trunks decorated in lichen, fungi and even plants.  Is it our climate?  Is it too cold? too dry?  As always, tree-following leads to questions.
Beautiful old tree in County Durham, UK.  Courtesy Phil Gates – The sweet chestnut that refuses to die.
The cottonwood’s leaves are long gone, so it’s time to examine the bark.  Most noticeable is the difference between young and old.  Young bark reminds me of the cottonwood’s cousin, the quaking aspen (also a Populus P. tremuloides).
With age, dark furrows fracture the pale bark.
I believe there’s a little lichen between the furrows! (orange blotches)
Old bark is darker, thick and deeply furrowed.  Color varies from brown to shades of gray and almost black.
This bark looks like a Google Earth view of buttes, cliffs and drainages!
Looking up-tree at older and younger bark.
The robin’s nest Mary spotted in September is easy to see now.  Will she (the robin) be back next year?  I’ll let you know.
Nest dusted with snow.
Looking close, I found entrances to other homes ... whose?  woodpeckers?
Probably not woodpeckers ... the entrances are only five millimeters across ;-)
This year’s tree-following has given me a rich collection of cottonwood memories.  The most vivid are wind-related, for wind and cottonwoods are inseparable.  Wind sends the cottony seeds flying, and makes fresh young leaves dance in the sunshine.  Cottonwood leaves whisper in summer breezes, and howl in gales.

I'm not alone in my memories.  Those who experience wind in cottonwoods often are left with strong impressions.
“This peculiarity of the foliage of the cottonwood is quite remarkable, so that it is said the air is never so still that there is not motion of cottonwood leaves.  Even in still summer afternoons, and at night when all else was still, they [tribes of the Great Plains] could ever hear the rustling of cottonwood leaves by the passage of little vagrant currents of air.  And the winds themselves were the paths of the Higher Powers, so they were constantly reminded of the mystic character of this tree.”  Melvin R. Gilmore (1919)
“From the upper branches of the cottonwood trees overhead – whose shimmering, tremulous leaves are hardly ever quiet, but if the wind stirs at all, rustle and quiver all day long – comes now and then the soft melancholy cooing of the mourning dove, whose voice always seems far away.” Theodore Roosevelt (1888)
TR at a roundup.  Our 26th president loved the American West and all things symbolic of it.
In The Song of the Lark (1915) Willa Cather described cottonwoods as “wind-loving trees ... whose roots are always seeking water and whose leaves are always talking about it."  Ed Abbey (1956) saw them more darkly.  He lamented the decline of the American West, now populated by phantoms “dying of nostalgia and bitterness”.  He could hear them “shivering, chattering among the leaves of the old dry mortal cottonwoods down by the river – whispering and moaning and hissing with the wind.”

It will be another six months before cottonwood leaves emerge and grow large enough to dance, whisper and howl in the wind.  Laramie winters are long!  So I kept the bark I had brought home to photograph, and put it on a table to remind me of summer days ahead.


Abbey, Edward.  1956.  The Brave Cowboy.  Dodd, Mead & Co.

Cather, Willa.  1915.  The Song of the Lark.  Houghton Mifflin Co.

Gilmore, Melvin R.  1919.  Use of plants by the Indians of the Missouri River region.  Bureau of American Ethnology.

Roosevelt, Theodore.  1888.  Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail.  The Century Co.

For more tree news visit December's gathering, kindly hosted by Lucy.