Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Best. Fall. Colors. Ever.

Aspen Front A couple weeks back when the Maples started turning, I did 2 posts about how and why leaves change color in the Fall. This past weekend I spent as much time as possible up around 8,000 feet or so, and the colors were fantastic. The Aspens are peaking right now, and these are the best Fall colors I’ve seen in 18 years of living in the Western US.

Deso Lake2 9 27 08 Tangent: They might very well be the best Fall colors I’ve seen in my entire life, but the truth is that growing up in New England I was generally too disinterested to notice. (Isn’t that kind of sad?) Throughout so much of my late teens and early 20’s, when I should have been bike racing and checking out the New England foliage, I was too busy dinking around with motorcycles, smoking cigarettes, playing D&D, obsessing about getting (or rather trying to get) laid, and grinding away for 4 years to get a degree I had no interest in and never use. I sometimes think so many of my pursuits now in middle-age, like botany and bike-racing, are attempts to make up for my pissed-away young adult years.

Foliage Route Map Captions Saturday a race-teammate and I did the best foliage mtn bike ride of my life: a 41-mile loop starting and ending in Pinebrook that looped the Mid-Mountain and Wasatch Crest trails and included some of my Pinebrook favorites: “Wallow” Trail, “X” Trail, and the diabolically frustrating but oh-so-lovely-when- you-clean-it “Finesse” Trail.

Tangent: My friends and I have “named” most of the Pinebrook-area trails in order to describe routes to each other. “Wallow” for example passes by a wet, muddy spring where Moose often wallow. “X “Trail takes off from a noticeable “X”-like junction with Mid-Mountain trail, and “Finesse” trail can only be cleaned with…. that’s right, finesse.

Yellow Floor For much of the ride we wound through yellow Aspen glades on smooth singletrack. In other parts we passed through deep, dark PLT-forest, but with a bright yellowing understory of low shrubs and bushes, such that the ground seemed almost to be illuminated from below (pic right). And other times we passed by orange or red stands of Maple or Oak, even passing a few stands of scrub oak turning red (pic left). Red Gambel Oak (Which is unusual; scrub oak usually turns a dull burnt-orange in the Fall.) There were just 2 of us- the best number for covering ground quickly- and we rode fast and strong and clean. It was a perfect ride on familiar and great trails with outstanding scenery. Though there’ll be plenty of rides yet, this one felt like the perfect finish to a wonderful living year.

Aspen Clones One of the interesting things about this time of year is that the changing colors easily delineate the dividing lines between Aspen clones. Here’s a great example (right).

Red Limb Here and there we spotted red aspen leaves, either in whole stands/clones, single trees or even just individual limbs (pic left). Red and Yellow Aspen LeavesRed Aspen are a bit of a puzzle to me; they’re genetically red, which means that the same stands/trees turn red every year, but they do so in different degrees from year to year, sometimes turning bright red, other years a faint orangey-yellow. Why just a small minority of aspens should produce anthocyanins (if that’s in fact what they’re doing) is a mystery to me; if there’s a benefit gained, you’d think it’d be more common.

TRifecta Bushwhacking Sunday the family and I covered some of the same ground, taking the gondola up to Red Pine Lodge at The Canyons. We started a short hike that quickly degenerated into hanging out while the Trifecta (pic left) bushwhacked through one trail-less Aspen stand after another, which in retrospect is probably the best thing kids Guardsman View East can do in a forest and way beat any regular “hike” we might have completed. We returned home via Guardsman Pass and down Big Cottonwood Canyon, a stretch that featured the best expanses of yellow Aspen I’ve seen yet.

I snuck out again before work this morning, pedaling up Upper Mill Creek in the dark, and then watching the sun rise up over the colored mountainsides from the Mill Creek saddle (bottom pic, right).

Orange Stand The saddest thing for me about the Fall colors has always been how quickly they pass; I’ve often thought how wonderful it would be if they lasted say 60 or 90 days. But this year I’ve come to wonder if their brief duration is part of their beauty. It’s not just the colors that are beautiful; it’s the change. It’s that they’re so in the present. The forest wasn’t like this 2 weeks ago, and it won’t be like this 2 weeks from now. It’s only like this right now, and in this way it’s beautiful not just like a painting or a great view, but also at the same time somehow like a particular instance when you heard a piece of music or a moment or time or memory with someone you love.

Sunrise 9 30 08 I’m doing a lousy job describing this. I guess to try another way: things that are changing, that don’t stay the same, that are only like the way they are right now, like foliage, or sunrises or children, have a certain kind of beauty that is distinct from the beauty of things that don’t change, and if you can manage pause or just re-focus enough to see this kind of impermanent beauty, then things like leaves falling or your kids growing up or you and your spouse growing old together don’t seem quite so sad.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Relic Hybrid Oaks Part 4: My Third Hybrid and I Finally Get To The Point

And so, after all this talk about Oak and Hybrids and finding things and Lake Bonneville, we finally come to the point of my story, which is: I found another hybrid. Like all the hybrids I’ve found, I could say I found it by accident, but I realize now that as I mtn bike at low speeds (i.e. climb) or hike through stands of scrub oak these days, I do so with one eye on the leaves around me, always on the look-out for tell-tale turbinella points.

Jeremey Hybrid Leaves Up A new trail, “The Avenues” was cut above Jeremy Ranch last year. It’s now smooth and fast, and Rick (who never reads my blog) showed it to me late last month. On August 29 I returned to it, and climbing about ½ mile above its bottom (a paved private service road), just 100 feet or so above a high banked turn to the right, the trail passes through the bottom/East end of a sizeable hybrid clone (leaves pictured left.)

Tangent of Incredible Coincidence: Incredibly, August 29 of last year was when I found the Pinebrook Hybrid. Even more incredible a coincidence: I also found this hybrid while stopping to take a pee! Isn’t that amazing? Actually, it would be if it were true. I just made up that part to make a reader go, “Whoa- No way!” (if anyone ever actually read this blog…) But the August 29 part is true. Professor Chuck says that next August 29, I should buy a lottery ticket.

Jeremy Hybrid MapThe Jeremy Hybrid is at almost the exact same altitude- 7,070 feet- as the Pinebrook Hybrid, and has the same aspect: South-Southeast. But it covers less than half the area- maybe 80 feet x 100 feet or so- and is far “patchier”, with “normal”, non-hybrid Gambel stems interspersed throughout its area. Professor Chuck says that it’s “regressing”, which seems to be botanist-speak for “in decline”. Like the Maple Hollow Hybrid, it appears to be a hanger-on, toward the end of its days.

Tangent: Of course a wild card in all this is global warming. Maybe a century from now the hybrids will be thriving, and Turbinella re-invading Northern Utah…

More Trails = More Hybrids Discovered

Jeremy Hybrid Leaves FrontMy hybrid discoveries all have something in common: I came across each of them because of recent trail development. The Pinebrook Hybrid was of course accessible for years to anyone who drove by, but the trail through it is probably no more than 5 or 6 years old, and the road and development in Pinebrook is certainly far less than 50 years old, making the hybrid inaccessible in Drobnick’s time. I found the Maple Hollow Hybrid the year the Upper Oak Hollow trail was cut, and the Jeremy Hybrid (close-up pic of leaves, above, right) the year after The Avenues trail was put in. In all 3 cases, had the trail not been cut, they’d be undiscovered today. And this makes me wonder how many more of these hybrids wait to be discovered. The Northern Wasatch is covered with tens of thousands of acres of trail-less scrub oak, much of it hardly ever seeing a human visitor approach within a few hundred feet, barring the occasional hunter (who passes after the leaves have dropped, even if there is a hunter-amateur-botanist analog of me tramping around out there…) Maybe these posts and accompanying pics will help another amateur biker/hiker keep an eye out for the next one.

Chuck Examining Jeremy LeavesAlong with my discoveries, there have been at least 3 “false positives”, where I suspected I’d found a hybrid, only to have Professor Chuck “pass” on it. (In one case, Chuck was stumped enough himself to send leaves to an erstwhile colleague in California, who microsopically examined the leaf pores before declaring them Gambel.) Several times when hiking with Chuck, he’s paused to look at some leaves and said, “there’s some turbinella in that…” before continuing. And this highlights the problem of oak species, and really of species in general- figuring out where one starts and another begins.

Oaks are so promiscuous that they’re constantly hybridizing and introgressing across species boundaries, and Chuck says that he and other researchers have sometimes wondered if there even is such a thing as a pure Gambel Oak, or just infinitely varying grades of a mixed genome.

IMG_6754For me, what the whole hybrid oak thing highlighted is this: behind every stand of oak is a story: a story of origins and development and stresses and changes, and to a large extent each of these stories tells the bigger story of the world around it. With hybrids, these stories are a little bit clearer, but every thicket of scrub oak has such a story, though we can’t yet really read it. In future years, as their genomes become better understoof, I hope their stories will be clearer. Professor Chuck is in his 70’s; he won’t be around to see it. Maybe I will.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I Go To A Party And Become A Beekeeper

OK, so here’s the deal. I know I’ve been dragging out the Hybrid Oak thing for a while. But honest, I only have one more post to go about Hybrid Oaks (well until I find the next one anyway…) But yesterday I had the coolest lunch break ever- so cool, I just have to blog about it. Here’s what happened:

IMG_6807 About a month ago, we (Awesome Wife, Trifecta and I) went to a party. It was at a friend of my wife’s place down near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. They have a couple of acres, a beautiful yard, a small orchard, some pasture (they board horses), tons of beautiful, interesting shrubs and flowers, and a number of beehives. It was a great party, the kind where everyone- adults, spouses, kids- has a good time.

This Part Feels Like A Tangent But Isn’t

That last point is significant. Nowadays, most parties I go to fall into one of three categories:

1) Grown-up party we get invited to by one of my wife’s friends. My wife has a great time, I have a ”play-date” with the other husbands, who may or not be interesting, have anything in common with me, or be people I’d spend more than 30 seconds talking with in the real world.

2) Grown-up party we get invited to by one of my friends. I have a great time, but the incessant, single-themed talk of biking, skiing, camping and hiking trips quickly grows old for my non-outdoor-head wife.

Twins B-day 3) Kid’s parties. Our kids are constantly attending or hosting birthday parties. The good birthday parties are the “Drive-Bys.” You drive by, drop off your kid, pick him/her/them up 3 hours later. The bad kind are the “Parents-Attend-Too” party, where the adults are supposed to stay and “celebrate” as well, which invariably means making conversation with some of the oddest people (your kids’ friends’ parents) you’re ever likely to come across.

But this party was none of those 3. The hostess is a friend of my wife, but she was also the Twins’ pre-school teacher, and so many of their friends were there. And to round it out, her husband, a bright friendly guy I met for the first time that night, is a beekeeper.

666px-HoneyBeeAnatomy For years I’ve been fascinated by bees. I’ve read probably ½ a dozen bee-related books, and there’s so much about them I find interesting: their communal societies, their venom, their role as pollinators, their bizarre genetic model, and of course, honey. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at beekeeping, but it’s sort of been like hunting for me; I’ve always been curious to try it, but no one in my family ever did it, and I’m not close to anyone who does it regularly today.

The host-husband- let’s call him “Spence”- was eager to talk bees with a fellow enthusiast, and we spent a good part of the evening touring his hives, looking at gear and talking about honey harvests. At the end of the night he invited me to join him to help harvest the honey in a week or so.

One delay led to another- logistics, travel, weather issues- and we missed several tentatively planned harvest dates. Finally yesterday morning I got an email; Spence has Wednesdays off, and was planning to harvest that day. A quick phone call, a moved meeting, and I was back at Spence’s place donning a bee veil and heavy gloves, ready to spend my lunch “hour” as an assistant beekeeper.

800px-Honeybee-27527-1 We’ve touched on bees a couple of times earlier this year, including Orchard Mason Bees (genus = Osmia) and Bumblebees (genus = Bombus.) Honeybees belong to the genus Apis, which includes 7 species, all native to the Old World. The European Honeybee- the species we’re most familiar with- is Apis mellifera. A. mellifera is further divided into more than 2 dozen subspecies, 2 of which are most popular with North American beekeepers, both for their gentle nature and their productivity: The Italian Honeybee, A. mellifera linguistica, (pic right) and the Carniolan Honeybee, A. mellifera carnica.

Honey Basics

Non-commercial beekeepers, like “Spence”, generally harvest once a year. The idea is that the bees spend all spring and summer collecting nectar which they convert into honey and deposit into wax cells that they build in their hives, and then laying and caring for eggs in those cells. But the bees overproduce to the extent that the beekeeper is able to take the majority of honey from a healthy hive toward the end of the season.

langstroth_coloured People have been stealing- and later harvesting- honey for thousands of years, but the single most important invention in beekeeping was the Langstroth Hive (pictured right, invented by Lorenzo Langstroth) in 1860. The Langstroth Hive consists of a box with a series of removable frames, each of which is filled up with wax and honey over the course of the season. The design allows the beekeeper to easily remove the frames, harvest the honey, and then replace the frames, thereby getting the honey without destroying the hives. There had been earlier frame-style hives, but Langstroth’s breakthrough was to figure out the correct spacing between the frames- 3/8”. Less than that, and the bees can’t move freely between the frames. Greater than 3/8”, and the bees fill the spaces with a cement-like substance called propolis that inhibits removal of the frames.

So, harvesting honey consists of 5 steps:

1- Blow smoke on the bees to calm them down.

IMG_6812 2- Open the top of the hive and remove the frames, brushing or smoking off cling-on bees.

3- Take the frames someplace away from the hive (like Spence’s garage/barn.)

IMG_6816 4- Un-cap the honeycomb cells. Each cell is capped by wax. You uncap them by slicing off the top layer with a heated knife (pic right.)

IMG_6818 5- Put the frames- 4 at a time- into a “Spinner”, (pic left) basically a hand-cranked spinning barrel that uses centrifugal force to get the honey out of the (now-uncapped) cells. The honey drains out from a spigot at the bottom of the barrel.

I’m leaving out a lot, but that’s the general idea. Here’s an action video of the most exciting part- removing the frames, in the midst of a swarm of agitated bees.

Tangent: No, I never got stung. I was actually surprised how smoothly the whole deal went. I actually have a whole slew of great bee-sting, and near bee-sting stories, including getting stung on the lower lip while mtn biking on 3 separate occasions, and a near-miss with an angry Africanized swarm a few years back in the Mojave, that I thought about trying to work into a tangent in this post, but I get the feeling this one’s going to be pretty long as it is…

When we finished I headed back to the office, with a cup full of probably the best honey I’ve ever tasted.

So What’s The Deal With Bees Anyway?

The fact that bees can sting, make honey, and have a single queen makes them interesting enough, but the really amazingly weird thing about bees is their genetics.

Way back when, around a billion years ago, after complex living things- or Eukaryotes- had split into plants and animals, but before there were fish or dragonflies or anything like that, animals took 2 different evolutionary structural paths. One group started to evolve an internal support framework- initially cartilage, later bone, and became the Chordates. That group eventually led to sharks, lizards, turtles, birds, moose, cats, dogs and us. bee3The other group started to evolve a support structure on the outside, which later became chitin, and that group eventually led to spiders, lobsters, butterflies, woodlice, shrimp, crickets and bees. We haven’t shared a common ancestor with bees since that split, and yet, over the intervening billion years, our separate evolutionary paths have tackled so many of the same problems- vision, thermoregulation, nervous systems, smell, communication. The solutions we’ve ended up with to these problems are in each case wildly different, but probably the strangest area of difference is in genetics and reproduction.

For most of the creatures we’ve talked about in this blog, both animals and plants, the normal genetic baseline has been diploidy. That is, half a set of chromosomes from each parent. That’s how it works for us and moose and turtles and birds, and although plants have made all kinds of innovations, like polyploidy and ring meiosis, it’s the basic model for them as well.

693px-Carnica_bee_on_solidago But bees, as well as wasps and ants- all members of the insect order Hymenoptera- have taken a different genetic path. Over 100 million years ago they forsook full diploidy, and the path they’ve taken since has led them to become one of the most successful groups of animals in the history of life, with tens of thousands of species all over the planet.

Side Note: The original Hymenopterans are thought to have been wasps, which are generally predatory, and often parasitic. At some point, some wasps switched over from a primarily carnivorous to a primarily pollen & nectar-based diet, and these wasps presumably evolved into bees.

Hymenoptera are Haplo-Diploid, meaning that some members of the species- specifically females- are fully diploid, while the males have only half the number of chromosomes as the females. In my family, this would be as though Awesome Wife and Twin B had 46 chromosomes, while I, the Bird Whisperer and Twin A only had 23 chromosomes.

Fully Diploid Family

But the analogy breaks down there, because in Hymenoptera, males have no fathers- each is created from an unfertilized egg. Fertilized eggs always develop into females- either fertile females (queens) or sterile females (workers.)

With bees, the model gets even weirder, because queen bees mate with just one drone (male) during their mating flight.

Adults-Only-Tangent: The reason for this is both simple and grotesque. When bees mate, the male’s genitalia is ripped from his body, and remains lodged in the female’s genital opening. This of course leads to the drone’s death. Another tidbit, so long as we’ve broached the topic of genitalia: Bees can only mate in flight, in mid-air, because wind is required to expose their genitalia.

The queen returns to her hive with a cargo of sperm from her single mating flight, and that sperm will be used to produce fertilized eggs (workers and queens) for the rest of her life.

But it gets even weirder, because each one of those millions of sperm she brought back with her is exactly the same. This makes sense when you think about it: a sperm cell is haploid (half the number of chromosomes.) But a drone has only half the number of chromosomes to begin with, so each one of his millions of sperm produced carries exactly the same (all of his) genes.

So What?

Why does this matter? Here’s why: In a “normal” diploid family like mine, siblings are on average 50%-related. Twin A and Twin B have about ½ of their genes in common (they’re fraternal, not identical.) That’s because they each got a random sampling of ½ of my genes and ½ of Awesome Wife’s genes, so they probably got about half of the same total stuff out of the deal.

Haplo Diploid Family

But with sister worker-bees, it’s different; they got roughly half the same stuff from their mother, but they got exactly the same stuff from their father (because all his sperm are identical), so on average, they’re 75%-related. Bees, like people are only 50%-related to their parents and their offspring (think about it, it makes sense) so that means that worker bees are more closely related to their sisters than they would be to their own offspring (if they had them.)

Step Back

Making Copies In the big picture, living things exist to do one thing: make copies of their genes. This isn’t because they want to or should do so or are told to; it’s simply because things that makes copies of themselves tend to be more common and persist much more so than things that don’t. In the human world, it’s simple. I have kids, my friend Paul doesn’t. 50 years from now, my tree-geek genes will still be around; his rainbow-spirit-believing-genes won’t. My coworker Tom has 7 kids. 50 years from now there’ll be a lot more of his good-coworker genes around than my tree-geek genes.

But if you’re more closely related to your sisters than you are to your own children, then the most productive thing you can do to propagate your own genes is… help your mother make more daughters. And now, living in a hive and busting your butt to support your queen/mother while forsaking reproduction yourself doesn’t look so pointless. Again, it’s not that bees want to make sisters, but rather that those that do make more sisters become much more common over time than bees that don’t.

Back Home

The honey was a great hit with the family, and a step forward in my ongoing, long-term, low-intensity lobbying campaign to introduce a hive to our yard. Bird Whisperer and Twin B are now firmly in my camp; Twin A and Awesome Wife are still holdouts. But it’s a while till next Spring, and I’ve made a living in sales for 20 years. Time is on my side.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Relic Hybrid Oaks Part 3: My Second Hybrid and the Findability of Things

IMG_6767 One of the characteristics of Gambel-Turbinella hybrids in Northern Utah is that their leaves are often (but not always) persistent later in the season, a legacy from their Live Oak (turbinella) parent. Drobnick’s Dry Creek and George’s Hollow hybrids are great examples; they keep their leaves through November and often into December. In contrast, by mid-October the Gambel Oaks are generally bare and leafless. As a result, mid-October through late November is usually the best time to look for hybrids in the foothills.

South Bench Last October I finally got around to checking out the trails down around Draper/Point of the Mountain. I’d biked in this area years back before the whole (obscene) Suncrest development started up, but in recent years the city of Draper has built a fairly extensive trail network along the base of the North slope of the Traverse Mountains, with numerous side trails extending above and below the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, which now extends out to Point of the Mountain.

Tangent: This area is probably where the Shoreline trail lives up to its name better than anywhere, following for long stretches the clear bench marking the old shoreline of ancient Lake Bonneville.

A Lengthy But Worthwhile Tangent

lake_levels Extended Tangent for Readers Who Don’t Know About Lake Bonneville: If you don’t know about Lake Bonneville, you’re missing out. Here’s the deal: Roughly 15,000 – 16,000 years ago, during the last ice age, the climate in the Great Basin was way wetter and cooler. Salt Lake, Utah, Toole, Skull, Cache and several other valleys were filled by a massive lake that was as deep as 1,100 feet. Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons were filled with glaciers clear down to their mouths, and presumably they’d calve off little icebergs that floated around in the lake. Many of the stand-alone ranges of the West Desert- Antelope Island, the Stansburys, the Oquirrhs, the Cedar Mountains- stood as islands in the lake, probably covered with dense fir/spruce forest. Lake Bonneville must have been an incredible sight.

About 14,500 years ago, the rock holding back the Northern end of the lake up at Red rock Pass (near Downey, ID) gave way, and much of the lake drained away in a catastrophic flood. The lake stabilized at about 700 feet deep, but with the changing climate gradually dried up over the next several thousand years. Today Great Salt Lake and Sevier Lake are the largest remnants. Interestingly, streams in many mountain ranges that were islands in Lake Bonneville, from the Wasatch clear out to the Deep Creeks, still contain the same subspecies of trout- Lake Bonneville Cutthroat Trout, Oncorhynchus clarki Utah, that inhabited the ancient Lake.

Bonneville-Pleist-Lakes Lake Bonneville was one of a series of giant Western Lakes around this time; these types of lakes are known as Pluvial Lakes. Probably the only thing cooler than pluvial lakes during the last 15,000 years were the Proglacial Lakes up in Western Montana and Canada, but that’s a whole other story. For reference, the whole Lake Bonneville deal happened roughly 8,000 – 10,000 years before the Altithermal, when Q. turbinella was growing in the Wasatch.

Back To The Story

MHHybrid Location One day after work I was exploring the Draper trails by mtn bike, and I took an uphill side trail off the Shoreline trail, called Oak Hollow Trail. Oak Hollow climbs up into one of the 2 big side drainages on the North slope of the Traverse Mountains, which is called- yes, you got it- Oak Hollow. It wraps in and around Oak Hollow before entering adjacent Maple Hollow and continuing to climb. The trail was, and still is, unfinished, dead-ending about 2/3 of the way up to the main ridge, at about 5,700 feet. When I reached the end in late October, the surrounding Gambel Oak was already brown and leafless. But just above the trail- maybe 15 feet- was a single green bush. I scrambled up, and found my second Gambel-Turbinella Hybrid.

Maple Hollow Hybrid 10 19 07 The Maple Hollow Hybrid is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, unlike the other two I’ve found, I immediately recognized it, without any doubt, as a hybrid. The leaves are obviously intermediate and distinctly un-Gambel-ish in form. They’re also very persistent- almost evergreen. I returned to the hybrid several times as the season progressed, and the “bush” was still covered in green leaves in early December, and still had about 1/3 of its leaves on January 3.

IMG_6768Second is its aspect. Most Gambel-Turbinella hybrids favor south-facing slopes; the Maple Hollow Hybrid’s aspect is North-Northeast.

Third is its small size and isolation. It’s a single “bush”, maybe 5 or 6 feet high. The nearest of Drobnick’s hybrids is 4.75 miles away, in Alpine.

Tangent: On successive visits I searched quite a bit for other hybrids. Though I bushwhacked to several promising late-season green “blobs”, all turned out to be Alderleaf Mountain Mahogany, Cercocarpus montanus, which I blogged about back in July, and have come across only in this part of the Wasatch.

Small Hybrid I wondered if the small size might mean it’s a relative youngster, perhaps seeding in recent decades from an acorn from one of the Alpine hybrids. But Professor Chuck, who finally visited the hybrid with me last week, thinks otherwise. He believes it’s the last remnant of a previously larger clone, probably dating back to the Altithermal. He feels that the leaves- which made me wonder if it were a Turbinella back-cross- more likely indicate an F2 hybrid, as they seem similar to F2 leaves produced in Cottam’s experiments.

It’s interesting that I only seem to find these hybrids by accident; I’ve never been successful on deliberate searches.

Tangent: Is it just me, or is there something really cool about a thing that only gets found when you’re not looking for it? Actually, I guess that’s like my keys on most days, so maybe it’s not that cool after all. Or actually, my keys would be in yet another category: Things that only get found when your wife is looking for them.

Findability Hierarchy

And if not for the new trail, dead-ending at that point and causing me to look around, I probably would never have noticed it. And if that trail had been cut on a just slightly different line, just a mere 15 feet or so up-slope… that last, isolated remnant of a possibly 5,000+ year-old clone would have been torn out without anyone ever knowing.

It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder how many little things are just barely missed being noticed in the world.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Equinox, State of the Blog

Earth-lighting-equinox_EN Today’s the Equinox. Like the Solstice, this is probably a good checkpoint to look around, think about the blog, and where it’s going.

I love light in general and sun in particular. And when the nights get longer than the days, it’s hard for me to get excited. First Aspens 9 21 08The world’s long since woken up, the living year’s drawing to a close, and except for a few more weeks of great colors, the show’s pretty much over. Even way back when, long before I blogged or knew much about plants, or even paid much attention to the natural world in general, I was always kind of bummed about Fall. I’m not sure exactly why, but I suspect it may be some combination of the following:

A Whiny, Poorly-Ordered List

1- I associate Fall with returning to school. I hated school. Grade school, Junior High, High School, College. Hated them all. Couldn’t wait to get out.

2- My ancestry is largely Mediterranean. The last few hundred or so generations of my ancestors were born and lived their lives in warm, sunny places. Deep inside me, some part of me remembers my ancestral homeland and is saddened to find itself in an environment so cold and alien. (Actually, though I love the pseudo-historic melodrama of this “theory”, I think it’s probably total BS, and that #6 (below) is a much simpler and likelier explanation. Besides, I’m also ½ English, and that place is perpetually cold, damp and generally sucky climate-wise.)

3- I get bummed when I can’t bike. (Plus racing season is over)

4- I think about all the great trips I never got around to doing over the summer.

5- I’m a perpetually lame skier

6- I’m kind of a pussy about the cold.

Fall Colors 9 21 08 OK, so what does this whining have to do with the blog? Here’s what: When I started this thing, I sort of loosely planned to go to the Solstice and then wrap it up. Then I got to the Solstice, and saw it made more sense to continue to the Equinox. Now I’m at the Equinox, and I’m leaning towards continuing. Not because the world is still waking up- but because doing the blog has forced me to pay attention to and learn about so many things I otherwise would have put off or blown off, and in not putting/blowing them off, I’ve probably learned more about the natural world around me than in any previous year. So maybe if I keep doing the blog, and thereby continuing to force myself to pay attention to and understand the world around me, I might not dislike the late Fall quite as much.

lake_pk_08-17-02 Besides, really, what the hell else do I have going on?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Relic Hybrid Oaks Part 2: Drobnick’s Clones & Back-Crosses

After Professor Chuck’s confirmation of my discovery, 2 things happened. First, I became fascinated (OK obsessed) with learning about, and relocating, the various hybrids Drobnick discovered back in the 1950’s, and second, I started paying closer than ever attention to the Oaks I biked and hiked past, looking for more possible hybrids.

Drobnick U Hybrid Map Rudy Drobnick’s 1958 Masters Thesis is entitled “Relic Hybrid Oaks.” There’s one copy of it, in the bowels of the U. of Utah library. Last Fall I checked it out (courtesy of Organic Chemistry Professor Rick, the guy who never reads my blog) and made 2 more copies- 1 for me, and 1 for Professor Chuck.

Tangent: Searching through the stacks of old botanical master’s and doctoral theses is like a strange glimpse at dozens of lost stories. Each one represents years of study or searching or analysis into some arcane botanical topic, the vast majority of which have long since been forgotten about. They’re decades old, many of the authors are now dead, and most haven’t been checked out by anyone in more than a decade. Perusing a half-dozen or so such “lost” theses, I was reminded of the mysterious, magical library on one of the islands in the “Narnia” series book, “Voyage of the Dawn-Treader”…

Drobnick’s thesis, like most theses, is dry reading, but the story it tells is remarkable. Not just the story of the Oaks, but what it tells about Drobnick. The range of challenging mountain and foothill terrain that this guy covered is phenomenal. Hiking through the foothills is challenging, hot and scratchy, with the route often impeded by impenetrable thickets of scrub oak. The two dozen or so hybrids Drobnick found must represent several thousand hours of foothill scrambling.

Tangent: After completing his master’s, Drobnick largely left the field. He spent his career working for the Utah Department of Natural Resources, a job that provided him with lots of solitary outdoors time. He’s supposedly an interesting, reclusive character, never married, retired and living out in Bingham Canyon. In later years he’s become involved with (and apparently a believer in) Bigfoot sightings. Professor Chuck hears from him every few years or so, most recently when he was seeking information about some hybrid Junipers.

DCreek Hybrid Overview In October and November of 2007 I located a number of Drobnick’s hybrids, using the location descriptions and old black and white photos in the thesis. The 2 most interesting and accessible are within 2 miles of my house, and each a quick walk from Red Butte Garden.

Dry Creek Hybrid Leaves The most accessible is right above the mouth of Dry Creek Canyon, just above the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. The hybrid stand is part of a greater “ring” of Gambel Oak, clearly visible from the trail or the hospital below, or for that matter, from much of the city. The hybrid portion sits at about 4 o’ clock on the ring, and the leaves are immediately and obviously different from the surrounding Gambel Oak, with clear Turbinella characteristics, and persisting clear through November, long after the surrounding oaks are bare. According to Professor Chuck, it’s thought that the Dry Creek hybrid is probably a back-cross to Turbinella.

Basics of Hybrid Terminology

When two different species hybridize, the offspring is called an “F1 Hybrid”. When two F1s reproduce (or when an F1 successfully self-pollinates) the offspring is called an “F2 Hybrid”. When an F1 or an F2 crosses with one of the original non-hybrid parental species, it’s called a “Back-Cross.”

F1-F2 Diagram So when Professor Chuck says that the Dry Creek hybrid might be a “back-cross to Turbinella”, he’s suggesting that a previous F1 Gambel-Turbinella hybrid may have reproduced with a pure (and now long-gone) Turbinella Oak, and that the resultant back-cross offspring has stuck around to the present by cloning itself… As successive hybrid generations back-cross toward a pure-species parent, the offspring display various intermediate stages, called “introgression”. Professor Chuck believes that many Gambel stands around the Wasatch are the products of introgression and still display some Turbinella-like characteristics, even though genetically they’re overwhelmingly Gambel.

GHollow Hybrid Overview The most fascinating of Drobnick’s hybrids lies less than a mile South, on a south-facing slope in George’s Hollow, which is the most significant drainage between Red Butte and Emigration Canyons. Viewed from a distance, this large clone has the shape of a broken heart, with a clear break down the middle, and the left side larger than the right.

Georges Hollow F1 leaves What’s so interesting about this stand is that it seems to be a couple of distinct, separate clones packed together. The right/East half of the heart, and as well as the upper portion of the left/West half of the heart, appear clearly hybrid, and generally “F1-ish” in character (pic right). Georges Hollow backcross leaves2But the lower portion of the left/West half of the heart, looks incredibly similar to pure Turbinella (pic left); if I stumbled across it outside of St. George, I’d simply assume it was Turbinella. (There’s also a small “F1-ish” stand about 50 yards or so up on the ridge above and West of the “heart”, not mentioned in Drobnick’s thesis.)

I alerted Professor Chuck to the Turbinella-ish nature of that portion of the stand, and since then it’s been an ongoing side project of his to determine if it might in fact be a stand of pure Turbinella oak. (His current view is “no”, but he hasn’t ruled it out, and hopes that future genetic analysis could provide a final answer…) Such a find would be something of a Holy Grail to a Wasatch Oak enthusiast: incontrovertible, direct proof of the existence of actual Q. turbinella in the Northern Wasatch.

I continued to search for more of hybrids in Drobnick’s thesis. One just North of the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon appears to have been lost to development, but several in Northern Utah Valley, around Alpine and Cedar Hills, are still present and healthy. I continued to re-locate his hybrids until the snows of late November shut down my weekend foothill-scrambles. And as I hiked and biked up to the end of the season, I kept an eye out for other, yet-to-be-discovered, hybrids.

Next up: My 2nd hybrid discovery.