Friday, August 28, 2015

Mr. Nuttall and his violet, his lily, his larkspur, his sunflower, his evening primrose, …

Thomas Nuttall, the great 19th-century naturalist.
“The Pilgrim’s crew christened Mr. Nuttall “Old Curious” from his zeal for curiosities, and some of them said he was crazy, and that his friends let him go about and amuse himself in this way.”  William Henry Dana, Two Years before the Mast
In the 19th century—the golden era of natural history—North America was inhabited by two species of botanists.  “Plant men” thrived in the paradise that was the American West, an unexplored land where potential for discovery seemed endless.  They roamed the plains, mountains, and deserts in heat, cold and rain—sick, lost or half-starved—collecting plants.  They especially hoped for novelties, species new to science.
“We plant men climb along the water courses and tramp along the clefts looking for plants that we, and hopefully the esteemed Dr. Gray, have not seen before … When we spy a bright red mimulus that we hope is different from all the others, we kneel by it, as if in prayer, and dig it up carefully down to its very bottom root.  We carefully shake off the dirt and when possible wash it clean.  Then we put it in our container called a vasculum and sling it over our shoulder.” (unknown collectors, in Nilsson 1994)
Plant men carefully pressed and dried their collections, and sent them east to members of the second species—“closet botanists” (such as the “esteemed Dr. Gray” mentioned above).  These were experts in plant classification, usually associated with academic institutions, with the requisite education to identify plant species and recognize any new to science—even though they may never have set foot west of the Missouri River.  A novelty was cause for celebration … and a publication, in which the closet botanist described and named the new species, sometimes after the plant man who had found it.
Nuttall’s sunflower (Helianthus nuttallii), named by closet botanists John Torrey (Columbia) and Asa Gray (Harvard).  Sally & Andy Wasowski, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

But just as plants will sometimes do, some 19th-century botanists confounded the classification.  Thomas Nuttall especially blurred the distinction between collector and expert—between plant man and closet botanist.

He came to the United States from England in 1808, at age 22, to work as a printer.  But he soon met botanist Benjamin Smith Barton of the University of Pennsylvania, who convinced Nuttall to work in his herbarium and make collecting trips west.
Nuttall’s violet (Viola nuttallii), named by Frederick Pursh, who also worked for Barton.  Source.
In 1810, Barton paid Nuttall $8 per month plus expenses to travel and collect as far as the Great Lakes.  But then, instead of returning home, he went to St. Louis, and in the spring of 1811, traveled up the Missouri River with a party of Astorians.  The voyageurs called him “le fou”—the mad one—for his single-minded preoccupation with plants.

In 1816, Nuttall went down the Ohio River and collected through Kentucky and Tennessee to the Carolinas, traveling on foot.  In 1818 and 1819, he headed down the Ohio and Mississippi to collect in today's Arkansas and Oklahoma—a journey of 5000 miles at his own expense.  He published A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory in 1821.
“For nearly ten years I have travelled throughout America, principally with a view of becoming acquainted with some favourite branches of its natural history. I have had no other end in view than personal gratification, and in this I have not been deceived, for innocent amusement can never leave room for regret. To converse, as it were, with nature, to admire the wisdom and beauty of creation, has ever been, and I hope ever will be, to me a favourite pursuit.”
Nuttall's larkspur, Delphinium nuttallianum.

Naturalists of the 19th century were regarded as eccentric.  Consider the stereotypical Dr. Battius, created by James Fennimore Cooper in The Prairie.  In the midst of a skirmish, Battius caught sight of a new plant and forgot the danger at hand, oblivious “to everything but the glory of being the first to give this jewel to the catalogues of science.”

But Thomas Nuttall was exceptional, even in this context.  The most common story tells of him digging up plants with his rifle (while inspecting firearms, the expedition leader found the barrel of Nuttall’s to be full of dirt).  It seems he got lost, sick or desperately hungry on a regular basis—often saved by fortuitous encounters with other adventurers.
“Delighted with the treasures, he [Nuttall] went groping and stumbling along among a wilderness of sweets, forgetful of everything but his immediate pursuit.  The Canadian voyageurs used to make merry at his expense, regarding him as some whimsical kind of madman.”  Washington Irving, The Astorians.
Nuttall’s evening primrose (Oenothera nuttallii) greets me every morning in summer.

Nuttall took a sabbatical from field work in 1822, when Harvard University offered him a position as instructor of natural history and curator of the botanical gardens.  Because Nuttall had no formal education in botany, the university was able to replace a deceased professor at only $700 per year, quite a bargain.  There was no suitable botany textbook, so Nuttall wrote one:  Introduction to Systematic and Physiological Botany.  He also wrote a Manual of Ornithology while he was at Harvard, a compact field guide to birds (he was a self-taught and widely-recognized expert in both botany and ornithology).

As an instructor, Nuttall was well-liked, perhaps because his classes included field trips.  One of his students was William Henry Dana, quoted at the beginning of the post.  As a sailor, Dana met up with Nuttall many years later in California, on a ship bound for Boston.
Nuttall’s woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii) was named by William Gambel.  Gambel’s oak (Quercus gambelii) was named by Thomas Nuttall.  The two were good friends.  Source and source.

By 1833, Nuttall was restless.  When invited to join an expedition across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River and the Pacific, he abandoned Harvard.  He in turn invited his friend, John Kirk Townsend, a young ornithologist who also was eager for adventure.  Townsend kept a diary, which became Across the Rockies to the Columbia (1839).  He greatly admired Nuttall’s dedication—for example when plant specimens were soaked in a bad storm, and had to be re-dried:
“In this task he exhibits a degree of patience and perseverance which is truly astonishing; sitting on the ground, and steaming over the enormous fire, for hours together, drying the papers, and re-arranging the whole collection, specimen by specimen …  I have had constantly to admire the ardor and perfect indefatigability with which he has devoted himself to the grand objects of his tour.  No difficulty, no danger, no fatigue has ever daunted him, and he finds his rich reward in the addition of nearly a thousand new species of American plants, which he has been enabled to make to the already teeming flora of our vast continent.”
Nuttall found this sego lily in the Valley of Salt Lake (Utah).  John Torrey named it Calochortus nuttallii.  Source.

Was Thomas Nuttall mad or was he blessed?  I say blessed.  In fact ... to have that kind of passion and purpose in life is to be exceptionally blessed, especially in a paradise like the American West of the 19th century.  Nuttall agreed:
“How often have I realized the poet’s buoyant hopes amid these solitary rambles … For thousands of miles my chief converse has been in the wilderness with the spontaneous productions of nature; and the study of these objects and their contemplation has been to me a source of constant delight … privations to him [the naturalist] are cheaply purchased if he may roam over the wild domain of primeval nature”  Thomas Nuttall, autobiographical preface to The North American Sylva, 1853
Yellow-billed magpie, named Pica nuttallii by John James Audubon:  “I have conferred on this beautiful bird the name of a most zealous, learned and enterprising naturalist, my friend Thomas Nuttall”  Source.

UPDATE:  "2461 species of plants alone that he authored or co-authored"—as Pat points out in his Comment.  An amazing contribution!  Pat also provides a link for access to most of the books mentioned above, through the Biodiversity Heritage Library ... see Comment below.

Sources (in addition to links in text)

Evans, HE.  1993.  Pioneer naturalists:  the discovery and naming of North American plants and animals.  Howard Holt & Co.

Nelson, J.  2015 (May-June).  Thomas Nuttall, brief life of a pioneering naturalist.  Harvard Magazine. 

Nilsson, KB.  1994.  A wild flower by any other name:  sketches of pioneer naturalists who named our western plants.  Yosemite Association.

Williams, RL.  2003.  “A region of astonishing beauty”—the botanical explorations of the Rocky Mountains.  Roberts Rinehart Publishers.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Time Travel Gets Complicated

Beautiful and complex geology.
But first ... the simple part.
To travel back in time through the Owl Creek Mountains south of Thermopolis, start at the “Wedding of the Waters” (above)—not a confluence but a name change.  In the 1800s explorers traveling up the Bighorn River were stopped here by an impassable canyon in a mountain range.  To the south, other explorers traveling down the Wind River were stopped by an impassable canyon in a mountain range.  Then someone crossed the mountain range and discovered: same canyon, same mountains, same river.  But the names were well-established, so the Bighorn and the Wind Rivers were wedded here.
The Wind River flows north through the Owl Creek Mountains.  It was superimposed on the range.
Stream superimposition courtesy Wyoming State Parks.  Click on image to read.
The Wind River Canyon is no longer impassable.  It's traversed by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and US Highway 20, on opposite sides of the river.  There are geological “waypoints” along the highway—signs indicating changes in rock layers and time.
Redbeds of the 185-225 million-year-old Triassic Chugwater Formation, says the small brown sign on the right.

This used to be a monotonous landscape, often underwater, underlain by thousands of feet of flat-lying sediments and rock.  But then roughly 65 million years ago, during the Laramide Orogeny, the Owl Creek Mountains rose steeply along an east-west thrust (reverse) fault.  The range is asymmetric—it dips gently to the north, only about 4-10ΒΊ.
The Owl Creek Mountains, with a steep south side created by the Owl Creek thrust, and a gently-dipping north flank.  Modified from Lageson & Spearing 1991.
The rock layers dip down to the north, so the highway crosses progressively older rocks going south (upstream) through Wind River Canyon.

Signs of the times:
The road grade is gentle and rocks dip to the north, so sometimes it feels like you’re going downstream!
Massive Bighorn dolomite and Madison limestone cliffs dominate much of the canyon scenery.  The Gallatin is at road level to left (below).
Brown outcrop is Gallatin limestone and sandstone.
Deep in time and about 13 miles south of Thermopolis, the highway crosses the Great Unconformity, a gap in the rock record of almost two billion years!  That’s a huge amount of missing time, nearly half the age of the Earth.
The bus is passing the Great Unconformity on its right.
Near the south end, the canyon narrows and enters dark ancient rocks that are 2.7 to 2.9 billion years old (Archean), the oldest in the canyon.  The pink and white veins and blobs are quartz monzonite and pegmatite intrusions.
The dark rocks are hard schists and amphibolites resistant to erosion.  The river had to cut a narrow canyon to get through.  Both the highway and the railroad pass through tunnels before popping out into the bright sunlight of ... the Wind River Basin?  Not yet.
Looking back toward the dark canyon and tunnels (halfway along dark rock band).  Note displacement between pale rocks on distant horizon and same pale rocks on right.
Beyond the tunnels is an obvious fault where Paleozoic rocks are in contact with (at the same level as) Archean rocks.  Is this the steep south flank of the Owl Creek uplift?  But if the dark Archean rocks are indeed the hanging wall of the Owl Creek thrust, which lifted the mountains at least 10,000 feet, shouldn’t they be in contact with much younger rocks?

Oh dear!  The story was so clear and awe-inspiring traveling up the canyon.  Some readers may wish to jump to How (and why) to get there below.  But maybe look at the pictures en route … it’s great scenery even if we don’t understand it.
Great views of puzzling geology from Boysen State Park campground.
The fault just beyond the mouth of the narrow canyon is a normal fault with about 1500-2000 feet of displacement (Boysen Fault in diagram below).  The Owl Creek thrust is further south.  The area between the two faults has been interpreted as an arched block, itself fractured into minor horsts and grabens.  Huge chunks of limestone and dolomite lie scattered about.
Modified from Wise 1963.  Click on image to see details.
The block between the two faults has been called keystone graben (plural; Wise 1963).  Blackstone (1988) used “complex faulted arch” and Maughan (1987) called the area the Boysen Area Structural Complex.  It is complex!
A normal fault offsets the Cambrian Gallatin Formation – rock band in mid photo (see Lageson & Spearing 1991).  View is west from the State Park campground; note railroad tracks.
To make things even more confusing, limestone and dolomite outcrops in the arched block dip in a multitude of directions.  Wise (1963) concluded they are detached blocks.  The limestone and dolomite strata are brittle, and with faulting they broke into chunks that slid on top of weak Cambrian shales under the influence of gravity.  Thus their dips are independent of the horst-and-graben structure of the arch.
Blocks of Paleozoic calcareous rock slid and came to rest atop Triassic strata.  View near south margin of the Boysen Area Structural Complex.
Perhaps the most awkward part of the puzzle is thrust and normal faults from the same period of time.  The normal faults may have been adjustments to the steep uplift on the south flank, sometimes referred to as “roll-over” (Lageson & Spearing 1991).  Wise (1963) attributed multiple fault types to varying responses of multiple rock types:
“A fault pattern produced by range uplift in the middle Rocky Mountains can be extremely complex and consist of nearly simultaneous movement of many seemingly mutually exclusive fault types. In detail, however, these faults can be quite rational stress reorientations and yields of rocks of different strengths.”
He proposed the following sequence for the “frontal fault zone” of the Owl Creek Mountains (shortened slightly):
1. Initial minor thrusting to the southeast of Ordovician carbonates perpendicular to an incipient northeast-trending fold axis in basement.
2. Broad uplift of the entire range with reverse faulting and some local tight folding along the frontal fault zone.
3. Continued arching in the frontal zone to drop a line of keystone graben along the crests of the major frontal fold in basement. The Boysen fault, largest of the normal faults of this stage, formed early in the sequence …
4. Juxtaposition of suitable weak formations by frontal faults at the lower slopes of the range during stage 2, left long inclines of relatively poorly buttressed massive Paleozoic carbonate formations. During fault adjustments to the keystone graben in the late portions of stage 3 large masses of these carbonates broke loose by normal faulting to ride out as gravity slides …

How (and why) to get there

Wind River Canyon is on US Highway 20 between Shoshoni and Thermopolis, in central Wyoming.  It’s impressive and accessible (except sometimes in winter).  The drive through the canyon is about 20 miles long.

The Boysen Area Structural Complex starts at the north end of Boysen Reservoir, about 12 miles north of Shoshoni.  It may be hard to understand, but the scenery is spectacular and it’s easy to see and appreciate the geological jumble.

Just south (upstream) of the dark narrow canyon, there’s a shady State Park campground with good views of the keystone graben, and new interpretive signs about the area’s geology.
Thermopolis, north of the Wedding of the Waters, features hot springs—including the free State Bath House of Wyoming (how many states have state bath houses?).

Sources (in addition to links in post)

Blackstone, DL.  1988.  Traveler’s guide to the geology of Wyoming, 2nd ed.  Geological Survey of Wyoming Bulletin 67.

Johannesmeyer, T.  2011.  Teachers summer energy education program field guide.  Northern Wyoming Community College District.  PDF here

Lageson, DR and Spearing, DR.  1991.  Roadside geology of Wyoming, rev. 2nd ed.  Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing.

Maughan, EK.  1987.  Wind River Canyon in Beus, SS, ed.  Rocky Mountain Section of the Geological Society of America: Decade of North American Geology, Centennial Field Guide 2:191-196.

Wise, DU.  1963.  Keystone faulting and gravity sliding driven by basement uplift of Owl Creek Mountains, Wyoming.  Bull. Am. Assoc. Petroleum Geologists 47:586-598.

Friday, August 7, 2015

“The Willow Never Quits”

Crown of American pussy willow next to limestone cliff.
On Wednesday I walked to the rim of the small canyon just east of town to check the willow I'm following.  At first it looked like nothing had changed since my visit in early July.  But a closer view confirmed that time is passing.
The tops of the leaves are darker, and the undersides more glaucous (blue-gray).  They weren’t so bi-colored back in June when I was trying to identify the tree.  And many are now looking a bit shabby, with brown spots and ragged edges.  Yes, time is passing.  Make haste to enjoy what’s left of summer ... it ends early in Wyoming.
“leaves obviously lighter below from glaucescence or hairs”
Signs of the times:  leaves are tattered and worn.  Days are noticeably shorter too.

It was different down below – there had been a major change.  Last month, several days of rain sent a creek down the normally-dry canyon.  A waterfall off the cliff behind the willow filled a small pond.  Now the canyon’s dry again.  The pond is gone though the ground's still damp.
The shady nook – still a bit of mud and a few mosquitos.
This spot is so different from the rest of the canyon.  It’s tucked away in an alcove, hidden by a large juniper.  It's green, shady and cool, and always feels secret or magical.
The leaves at the base of the willow – in shade – looked healthier.
I was absorbed in making abstract compositions out of limestone ledges and willow branches when I heard muttering from deep in the shady nook.  But when I investigated, I only saw more branches and rocks.  My first reaction was:  fairies! elves!

It grew louder and more clear, a strong male voice.  “I see you are an admirer of willows.  I’d like to discuss with you the important matter of a state pseudonym.”  Obviously this was neither a fairy nor an elf, but a ghost!
“The willow seems singularly appropriate as our pseudonym.  The Willow by its vigor speaks of fertile soils, sweet flowing streams, fresh lakes and mountain snows.  Wyoming should be The Willow State.”
“Whenever it has been presented, the suggestion has met with spontaneous and hearty approval.  The idea has been presented in high schools, in college classes, before luncheon, social and civic clubs and in Scout camps.  It always aroused enthusiasm and this often found expression in the yell:
Rah-rah-rah!  Rah-rah-rah!
The Willow State!  The Willow State!
The Willow State!

This was hard to believe.  Was this the ghost of a crackpot?  Obviously he was well-educated, but his ornate high-sounding language was off-putting, and some of his facts were just plain wrong.
“1.  No other state in the Union has so many different kinds of Willows.”
California and Alaska have more, I explained [later I realized that in his time Alaska was not yet state].
“2.  No other plant is so universally distributed within our borders.”
Quite a few are more universally distributed, for example dandelions, wheat grasses and locoweeds.  But he was absolutely right – there are many Willow Creeks in Wyoming – at least one in every county and often more.
“3.  Willows are known and loved by everyone.  Even children recognize them at once and are charmed by the richness of their foliage, the gracefulness of their habit, the splendid contrasting colors of stems and branches in the long winter season, and the beauty they give to the vernal landscape when the ‘pussy-tail’ flower clusters bedeck the otherwise naked branches as Spring resumes her gentle sway.”
The kids I know are charmed by smart phones not willows, but I didn’t say anything.  He seemed to be ignoring me anyway.  He continued with more “facts upon which the appropriateness of the name rests:”
“4.  The Willow is the first to herald by the opening of its fuzzy buds, the advent of spring, and the last to lay aside its golden or purpling autumn dress.”
Indeed, my willow bloomed in February.  This fall I will watch it closely to see if it really is the last to lay aside its purpling autumn dress.
February:  male pussy willow flowers and snow.
“5.  The Willow worthily symbolizes Wyoming.  In it we find typified the spirit and character of our people.  It is strong – it bends to necessity but does not break.  It is aggressive, continually advancing into the new stations and occupying the fields.  It is social, having learned the art of living in harmony with others of its kind and with competitors of every sort …”
Wait a minute! … this is the only willow for miles!!  I think it’s one of those rugged individualists that are so common in our state!!!  I was shouting, but it had no effect.  I’d had enough.  I picked up my pack and left.  As I walked down the canyon, the words grew faint and finally unintelligible.
“… its common name is euphonious and simple ... its short staccato scientific name (Salix) suggests the snap and vigor of our people ... their spirit and dogged spssssssss s s s .... 

~~ •• ~~

Oddly, it all seemed vaguely familiar.  Yesterday I went to the Rocky Mountain Herbarium at the University to check plant identifications for my iNaturalist project.  When I signed the guestbook, I suddenly remembered!  Among the memorabilia nearby was an article published on August 27, 1924, in The Branding Iron (student newspaper):

“Dr. Nelson Suggests Pseudonym of ‘Willow State’ for Wyoming”

The ghost in the canyon was Aven Nelson, Father of Wyoming Botany.  But even though he was one of our most prominent citizens in his day, his campaign failed.  We became the Equality State instead, as Wyoming was the first territory to grant female suffrage and the first state to allow women to vote, serve on juries and hold public office.  But Nelson hasn't given up ... he's still fighting for the Willow.
“On frigid, rocky mountain top or in fertile valley, some member of the Willow team fights on, whether bent by furious blasts, bitten by browsing beasts or smashed by an avalanche of sodden snow – THE WILLOW NEVER QUITS”
Aven Nelson in the field (AHC).

This is my contribution to the August tree following gathering, kindly hosted by Lucy of Loose and Leafy.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Welcome, bees! ... please make yourselves at home

I’m thrilled that my lilacs have scalloped leaves.  It means leafcutter bees are building nurseries, where their eggs will overwinter (and the bees don’t hurt the bushes).
Arrows point to bee hangouts.
This year a leafcutter bee is using the same crack in a railroad tie that served as a nursery last year.  Females live on the order of two months according to the leafcutter bee fact sheet, so this can’t be the same bee.  Is it one of her offspring?  Did it hatch in this crack – where it's now laying its own eggs?  What about its siblings?

I sat close by and watched for about 15 minutes, apparently no bother to the bee.  She arrived with a neatly-cut piece of leaf, entered the crack, and emerged in less than a minute, I presume having installed a leafy partition after laying an egg.  Then she disappeared for roughly four minutes before returning.  She buzzed past my head each time, a signal to focus the camera.

Last year it took roughly ten minutes for the leafcutter bee to return, sometimes more.  I never figured out where she was harvesting.  Leafcutter bees love lilac leaves, but she was carrying something else, and my lilacs showed no sign of use.
Is this Mom? ... last year's bee with something other than lilac leaf.
This year’s leafcutter buzzed off around the north side of the house – shortest route to the lilac bushes – and came back the same way, in just four minutes.  So I checked the lilacs.  Indeed, several were loaded with scalloped leaves.  This bee is more efficient.
There are bee nibbles galore this year.

While waiting for the leafcutter, I noticed another bee entering a cavity behind the board at the base of the siding – with no leaf fragments.  It looked like one of the solitary bees that are so common in the yard.  I believe it went in with yellow pollen on its legs, and left without.  But this was a quick bee!  I couldn’t be sure.
Another bee nursery? (behind baseboard)
In she goes … with yellow wads of pollen on her legs? (click on image to view)
Out she comes … the yellow things are gone.

Last winter I gathered up scraps and other discards, and built a bug hotel (mine is open to all cavity-lovers, not just bugs).  A gorgeous structure rose from trash.  But so far it's the "natural" cavities around the yard that get all the use.  The hotel's bright decor does attract humans, leading to stories about why we should make efforts to host pollinators in our yard.  Actually, I'm happy to have all inverts (except mosquitos).  It's fascinating to watch them go about their lives.