Friday, January 29, 2010

Sonoran Twin B Getaway Part 2: Why So Spiky?

I’d like to ask you to start today’s post with a Thought Experiment. That’s where you think about something, and do sort of a what-if? about the thing you’re thinking about. No, no, not yet- I have to tell you what to think about.

Tangent: I love thought experiments, and here’s why. I love science, and I love the idea of being all kind of science-y and conducting experiments. But I’m also lazy and disorganized, and Real Experiments involve things like materials and effort and time and patience and preparation and what-not. So for me, Real Experiments- with the exception of zero-preparation stream-of-consciousness experiments*- are pretty much off the table.

*i.e. “What will happen if I ride my bicycle down these stairs?”, or “How will my spouse react if I am 2 hours late?”, or ”If I keep nodding, will my coworkers assume I understand what they’re talking about?”

But Thought Experiments are right up my alley. I can conduct them anyplace, anytime, with no preparation, fuss, risk of injury or clean-up.

Nested Tangent: And in fact I do. If you are one of my several lurking coworker readers, you should know that I frequently conduct thought experiments while at work, usually while in meetings with you. You’ll be going on and on about who-knows-what, and I’ll be totally tuned out, imagining what would happen if an ostrich were to pilot a nuclear submarine under the Dead Cat Swinging Arctic ice-pack, or how many coworkers I’d hit if I pulled that dead cat out of my laptop-case and started swinging it in a circle around me. Usually I’ll cover by staring at you intently with my brow slightly furrowed, as if you’re sharing some remarkable, life-changing insight that will fundamentally revolutionize our business, But really, you never are*.

*Because- and here is one of those remarkable footnoted nuggets of insight that just makes this blog so phenomenally worthwhile- anyone at any job in any company who has something worthwhile to say says it in under 90 seconds. After that, they’re just blathering.

Schrödinger_cat But Thought Experiments aren’t just screwing around. Schrodinger’s Cat and the Twin Paradox are 2 well-known examples of Thought Experiments that are taken seriously by Real Actual Scientists. So pay attention and stick with me.

SCurve4 Imagine that you’re riding a mountain bike along a winding singletrack trail through a desert (i.e. no big trees, or shrubs taller than you are, and no big boulders or sharp rocks). You’re just riding along at maybe 15 MPH, when you miss a turn, go over the bars and go crashing into a typical patch of vegetation. How badly are you hurt?

Before you answer, I want you to run the experiment 3 different ways:

1- In the Great Basin Desert, say on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake

2- In the Mojave Desert, say on Barrel Roll trail, just outside of St. George, UT.

3- In the Sonoran Desert, say on one of the trails through the McDowell Mountain Preserve, just outside of Phoenix.

In the first example- as I can tell you from first-hand experience, you’re probably just fine. You may have landed in a patch of Sagebrush, Rabbitbrush or Bitterbrush, and while you may be a little scraped and bruised, you’re likely to dust off and be on your way promptly.

In the second example, you might be a bit more scratched up. You may well have crashed into a bunch of Blackbrush or maybe even- if you’re unlucky- a stand of yucca or even a patch of prickly-pear cactus. So you may need to spend a few minutes cleaning up, or even break out the tweezers and pull out a few thorns.

IMG_4054 In the third example, man are you in a world of hurt. Seriously, if you fly off your bike and land on a big old Teddy Bear Cholla, Cylindropuntia bigelovii, I don’t know what you do. Start praying I guess, because you are in for a long, slow, excruciatingly painful process of disengagement.

This thought experiment may seem kind of “so-what”, but it highlights the question that always bugs me about the Sonoran: Why is it that the further South you go, and the hotter it gets, the desert gets spikier/sharper/spinier? Think about it. There’s just no comparison between the general spiny-ness of plants in open spaces around Salt Lake Valley, and those around Phoenix. Why is that?

Why So Spiky?

You would think that a question this basic would have a real easy, obvious answer. It doesn’t. I’ve googled every possible combination of “spines”, “thorns”, “Sonoran”, “desert”, “reason”, “why”, “evolution”, “plant”, “cactus” and about a dozen other terms. I’ve got a dozen+ great books on plants and deserts. Nowhere have I found a simple clear explanation for why the Sonoran is so darn spiky.

IMG_4187 Typical “answers” read something like this: “Desert plants have adapted to their harsh environments with defensive measures such as spines and thorns to protect them from predators…” Yeah, so what? Predators of plants live in lots of environments- jungles, forests, grasslands, swamps- why aren’t those plants spiky? And even if there is some reason for specifically desert plants to be spiky, why are the Sonoran Desert plants so much spikier than those of other North American deserts?

Side Note: I’ve mainly ignored the Chihuahuan Desert in this post, only because I have the least familiarity with it, having hiked in it exactly once, for 2 days, 20 years ago. From what I know and remember, it is both hot and spiky, though not as spiky as the Sonoran.

All About Spines

People often use the words “spine” and “thorn” interchangeably, but they’re 2 different things. Cacti have spines, not thorns. A Cactus spine is a modified leaf that is dry, woody, and doesn’t contain chlorophyll. That much botanists agree on*. How cactus spines evolved is a much more complicated and as yet un-resolved question.

*The other main theory is that the spines are modified bud-scales, but since bud-scales are themselves modified leaves, it’s kind of the same thing.

Cereus Spines Cactus spines lack nearly all of the standard features common to leaves. They have no xylem, phloem or stomates- just woody tissue*. In a mature spine, all of the cells are dead, and even when growing, the living cells/new growth is only at the base**.

*Technically, they’re “woody tissue”, but not “wood”, because they don’t have all the features of wood either (example = no vessel elements.)

**This is really cool when you think about it. Cacti are dicots. In dicots new leaf growth occurs at the edges. In monocots, like grass, or yucca, new leaf growth occurs only at the base of the leaf. Have cacti re-invented the monocot trick? It’s even more interesting, because many cacti also grow “regular” leaves, and these leaves grow like normal dicot leaves- from the edges.

Somehow in the course of cactus spine evolution, the genes for leaf-type features got turned off, and the genes for woody-tissue-type features got turned on. How this change came about is still unknown.

Extra Detail: The common ancestor is thought to have been a woody New World shrub which some 50 million years ago evolved the areole*, the distinctive component out of which spines grow on all cacti. The evolution of the areole meant that cacti were able to grow large numbers of spines more quickly and efficiently than they would be able to grow them directly from the stem (like leaves.) The common ancestor is thought to have resembled a Lemon Vine, Pereskia aculeata.

*No, not the thing around your nipples- that’s the areola.

Opuntia Spines BTW in Part 1 I mentioned how Sonoran cacti are divided into Cereus (columnar) and Opuntia (segmented). These 2 types have different spines. Cereus have only big, visible spines. Opuntia have the big ones, as well as little teeny fine spines, called glochids. Some Beavertail/Prickly-Pear species appear to be spine-less, but actually lack just the large spines; they still have glochids. This is why you don’t want to grab an apparently “spine-less” Prickly-Pear pad with your bare hand.

OK, so we know what cactus spines are. Now, what are they for? Duh. Easy question right? Defense, of course. Well yes, but not only defense, and in fact it’s not clear if defense was the initial driver in the evolution of spines from leaves.

A common mistake people make when buying small cacti from nurseries is to place them in the direct sun. Nursery cacti are shaded, and need to adjust to strong sunlight. The most important way they adjust is by growing more spines, because spines shade the plant. On many cacti, the most important function of spines is to shield the plant from the full sun. This may sound counterintuitive at first; after all those spines are so skinny. But think again of our biking nemesis, the Teddy Bear Cholla.

IMG_4056 If you ever walk up to one and try to touch a finger to the “body” of the plant, it’s virtually impossible; the plant is thoroughly covered with spines. And while each spine is a skinny little needle, the matrix-like cover provided by thousands of them creates substantial shade.

Why spines for shade? Why not just leaves? Because leaves are alive, and living tissue requires- among other things- water. Yes, Jojoba, Creosote and other plants manage to grow and sustain living leaves in dry conditions, but no living leaf is as water-efficient as a dead spine.

Cactus spines serve other functions as well, one of the more interesting of which is reproduction. Many species in the Opuntia group (explained in last post) including chollas and beavertails, reproduce asexually by dropping loosely-attached segments. Dropped TBear Segments caption These segment either hang off the plant or drop to the ground, where, in either case, their barbed spines latch on to any animal or shoe that happens to brush against them. On Saturday’s hike we picked up such “passengers” several times, which we carefully removed from our shoes, often dozens of yards from where we picked them up.

Tangent: BTW, speaking of getting around in the Sonoran, know what’s a great way to move fast in cholla-country? Stotting. Check out this Mule Deer moving.

If a segment lands in a suitable location, it can take root and develop into a new, genetically identical plant.

AZ Steve Cholla caption In fact many of the cholla species you see in the Sonoran reproduce primarily in this manner. The vast majority of Teddy Bear Cholla you come across in Southern Arizona are infertile chromosomal triploids that came about via dropped/carried segments.

Side Note: For long-time readers, if this reminds you of something, it should: Dandelions, of which here in North America the ones we come across are overwhelmingly also chromosomal asexual triploids. Triploid Repro The analogy is imperfect though: Cholla reproduces by segmenting, while Dandelions create fertile seeds through apomixis*. Triploid dandelions also frequently produce viable (diploid) pollen, enabling them to fertilize the (haploid) ovules of any diploid dandelions they should happen to encounter, and thereby founding new triploid lines. I have no idea if the same is the case with Teddy Bear Cholla.

*Technically agamospermy in angiosperms.

Spines may serve other functions. It’s been postulated they help collect dew, and maybe even retain heat on cold desert nights. Regardless, it’s clear that for many species of cactus, spines serve important functions. It’s also clear that cacti, with their succulence, CAM photosynthesis, shallow rain-leveraging roots and other xerophytic adaptations, do well in the Sonoran, much better than many other plants. So maybe the reason the Sonoran is so spiky is simply because there are a lot of cacti, and cacti generally have spines.

But then there’s thorns.

All About Thorns

Many, many non-cacti in the Sonoran are also spiky. Ocotillo, Fouquieria splendens, is one example; Mesquite (genus = Prosopis), Catclaw Acacia (Acacia greggii), Ironwood (Olneya tesota) and Crucifixion Thorn (Canotia holacantha) are just a few of the many, many others. Unlike cacti, these plants don’t have spines; they have thorns.

Whereas spines are modified leaves, thorns are modified branches. They’re all over the place in the Sonoran. In general, if you plunge/crash into a thicket of non-cacti shrubs/shrees down in Southern Arizona, you’re going to get pretty scratched up, if not outright stuck. (Contrast that with a trailside crash in the Wasatch, say up around Pinebrook or Park City. Ninebark, Serviceberry, Chokecherry- it’s hard to think of anything thorny you’ll crash into, with the occasional exception of Wild Rose*…)

*Actually, just to complicate things, Rose-thorns are- botanically speaking- not thorns. They’re prickles. A thorn is a modified branch. A prickle is an extension of the stem’s cortex. Though they look similar and serve the same defensive function, they’re structurally 2 different things.

Side Note: For years I’ve had trouble telling the some of the most common Sonoran-thorny-things, such as Ironwood, Mesquite and Catclaw Acacia, apart. Part of that’s because I just don’t spend enough time down South, but in fairness, they’re all vaguely similar, with small, dull/light-green pinnately-compound* leaves. With a little patience and a decent plant guide they’re not too hard to tell apart, but last weekend I came up with a real quick & easy way to tell them apart- by their thorns. And since this is when you most often notice them- when they stick you- it’s a helpful distinction.

*See this post for explanation of “pinnately-compound.”

Mesquite thorns are always straight. They stick straight out/up, don’t curve, and hurt. But they don’t stick to you or your clothing, so you can extricate yourself quickly. Catclaw Acacia thorns on the other hand, are curved, just like- that’s right- a cat’s claw. And because they’re curved, they grab onto you, or your pack, or your hat or clothing, and they don’t let go.

Thorns The harder you struggle the more they dig in, and the more stuck you become. To extricate yourself, you need to stop, take a deep breath, and methodically, slowly, quietly focus on disconnecting one thorn at a time. (Better yet, ask a friend for help.)

Nested Side Note: Many desert rats also call CC Acacia “Wait-A-Minute Bush”, but Wait-A-Minute’s actually a different plant, Mimosa biuncifera.

Ironwood thorns are also curved, but not so much so. And on mature trees they only seem to grow on the younger shoots, so they’re less likely to snag feet or legs when passing by a mature tree. Ironwood, BTW, is a cool tree in general. It’s wood is super-dense- enough so to sink in water, like our own Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany back here in the Wasatch. Several sources claim it’s the best desert wood for grilling steaks- even better than mesquite- with slow-burning, long-lasting coals.

Another cool thing about Ironwood is that it has right around the same level of cold/frost tolerance as citrus trees, so its presence is a good indication as to whether citrus farming is viable at a given latitude and elevation.

Unlike spines, thorns don’t seem to serve much purpose other than defense. And even without spines or thorns, it seems as though Sonoran plants still manage to find ways of being sharp and spiky. Shrub Live Oak, which isn’t common in the Superstitions, but was all over the place when AS and I hiked in the Ajo Mountains* to the Southwest of Phoenix a couple years back, has tough, stiff leaves whose tips have become fairly sharp points.

*The oak in the Ajos is real interesting, BTW. It’s the same Shrub Live Oak, Quercus turbinella, we get in Southwest Utah, but slightly different. For a while it was considered a distinct, endemic species- Q. ajoensis- but is now considered a subspecies of Q. turbinella. (Somewhere I have some great photos from that trip of the distinctive leaves, but can’t locate them just now…)

And even the stem tips/ends of Palo Verde are disturbingly pointy. It’s almost like everything growing in the Sonoran is sharp and pointed at you.

Side Note: Two notable exceptions are Creosote ma0384_1mand Jojoba, both of which as it turns out are formidable chemical warriors. Creosote we’ve looked at previously. Jojoba distinct wax/oil makes its nuts indigestible to animals, with the notable exception of Bailey’s Pocket Mouse (pic right, not mine), which has evolved the ability to digest it.

So why all the anger? What is it about the Sonoran that makes it so exceptionally spiky? As I said earlier, I couldn’t get a clear easy answer. And as longtime readers know, whenever I can’t find an answer, I come up with a Half-Baked Theory. So here we go:

First off, there has to be a reason. Growing spines or thorns has a benefit and a cost. The benefit is that you may live longer, but the cost is that the energy and resources spent growing spines/thorns is energy/resources that could be spent growing something else- like flowers and seeds. (Think about a Dandelion: thorn-less, spine-less, good to eat, but it’s done great by growing lots of seeds.) In the Sonoran, some condition(s) has tipped the balance more toward the benefit side of spines/thorns than in other North American desert; things with thorns/spines have reproduced more successfully.

The Sonoran is dry, but it isn’t the driest desert North America. It is the hottest and the most botanically diverse desert in North America. (I should say the most consistently hottest; the Mojave can experience higher extremes, but the average temperatures in the Sonoran are greater.)

Side Note: Why it’s more botanically diverse is part of a broader, unsettled question of why biodiversity- in all biomes- tends to increase as one gets closer to the equator, and decreases the farther from it one gets. Quick trivia factoid: Mexico has 698 native cactus species. The US has only 191. Guess how many Canada has? First right answer = WatcherSTICKER*.

*What, you already have a WatcherSTICKER? Then you don’t get a prize, but have the consolation of being Way Cool.

When you walk across the open Sonoran Desert, the shrub spacing is greater- on average- than in the Great Basin or Mojave*, and as we saw last post, that spacing is determined by competition for water. So while not the driest, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the Sonoran routinely experiences the greatest competitive water stress, in part due to the heat and maybe(?) due to the (possibly related) greater botanical diversity as well.

*With the exception of obvious localized extremes, such as playas, mud-flats and other unusually barren and/or saline areas.

Scene1 The competitive water stress, as we saw in the last post, determines to a large which plant grows in what spot. And when the stress is high, the number of possible “new spots” is reduced. The most vulnerable period of a plant’s life is early on, when it first germinates and starts growing as a young shoot. And when the number of potential “new spots” is so limited, the chances of any existing, established plant managing to reproduce in a given year is similarly reduced.

IMG_4173 With a lower chance per year/season of successfully reproducing, the plants likeliest to successfully reproduce would be those who lived long enough to attempt reproduction many times over many seasons. So in such an environment, if you managed to germinate and get established, it would pay to stay alive and established for as many seasons as possible. Or in other words, in the poor reproductive environment created by intense competitive water stress, long life and modest fecundity pay off better than short life and high fecundity.

That’s my half-baked theory anyway. It was a great trip. Can’t wait to get back.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sonoran Twin B Getaway Part 1: Water and Hidden Order

Friday afternoon I snuck out of work early, swung by the house, picked up Twin B and headed for the airport. A couple of hours later Arizona Steve (AS) picked us up at the Phoenix airport.

All About Twin B

Tangent: This trip was a while in the making. Back in September I did solo camping trips with both Twin A (Henry Mountains) and Bird Whisperer (Powell Point.) I intended to follow up sooner with a solo trip with Twin B, but schedules and commitments conspired to delay the trip into the new year.

Throughout this project, I’ve blogged about Twin B the least of the Trifecta. IMG_4001There’s a simple reason for this: She’s the easiest of our children. She’s bright, courteous, responsible, healthy and low-drama*. The unfortunate thing about being a problem-free kid- particularly if you’re not the oldest- is that you probably end up enjoying less attention and focus than your more maintenance-intensive siblings. We’ve tried hard not to make that the case with Twin B, and solo trips, such as this past weekend, as well as a mommy-daughter trip to San Francisco last month, are one tool we use to try to ensure focus and attention on each kid.

*If you don’t know me in real life, you should know that this- “low-drama”- is one of the greatest compliments I give.

Nested Tangent: BTW, this is probably the best piece of parenting advice I’ll ever give in this blog, so pay attention: Do solo trips with your kids. Whether camping, or to a city or another country or whatever, make the time and do it. Many of my best memories to date with all 3 kids are from such trips, and hopefully, in later years, some of their best memories of me will come from the same trips. (My best childhood memories of my father were from the summer of 1972, when we camped together for 2 weeks in the Maine woods while building a cabin*.)

*He- and a friend- “built”. I fetched stuff, ran errands, played in the woods and swam in the lake.

IMG_4146 Twin B is also smart. A couple years ago we had the Trifecta tested for a “gifted*” program in our local school system**. Twin B knocked it out of the park, scoring highest of the 3. She’s observant in a way the boys aren’t, noticing things concerning the behavior and social dynamics of others that her brothers (or often her parents) don’t pick up on.

*I hate the term “gifted.” “Gifted” sounds you got a Wii or a pony for Christmas. Why can’t we just say “smart”?

**2 out of 3 qualified. We elected not to enroll either in the program, which is the subject of a long, complex (and probably controversial) tangent about the merits of “gifted” programs that I may work into a future post.

She’s also the child who looks (in complexion at least) most like me. All of us probably wonder at some point or another what we would look like, or who we might be, had we been born the opposite sex. When I look at Twin B I see a hint of that what-if-me.

AS is my oldest friend. Not “oldest” as in really old*, but as in been friends for a long time. We met sophomore year in college**, when we were partners in EE lab. Neither of us were great students, but we eeked out degrees and hired on at the same company. We worked and roomed together for a couple of years before each moving on and out to cohabit with our respective girlfriends.

*That would be OCRick, who claims he is 63, but is cranky enough to be 80. My theory is that sometime in the last 20 years he swam in a pool containing some of those rejuvenating alien pods, like in the movie Cocoon.

**Yes, that’s right- my oldest/longest-standing friend is from sophomore year of college. I don’t keep in touch with any high-school classmates or childhood friends. And what’s more, AS is the only college classmate I regularly keep in touch with. No, I didn’t assume a new identity, enter witness-protection, find/lose Jesus, go to prison, have a sex change or anything like that. I’m just not very good at keeping in touch for, well, the sake of keeping in touch. Geography might have a bit to do with it; I live 2,500 miles from where I grew up. But mostly it’s just me. I don’t really have a good excuse***.

***When I think about this too long, I’m oddly reminded of a passage from the Silmarillion, right after the Noldor make landfall in Middle Earth: “But when they were landed, Maedhros, the eldest of his sons… spoke to Feanor, saying: ‘Now what ships and rowers will you spare to return, and whom shall they bear hither first?...’ Then Feanor laughed as one fey, and cried ‘None and none! What I have left behind I count now no loss…’ Yes, I was a total Tolkien geek. I don’t know why I think of that passage; I don’t actually feel that way about falling out of touch. I guess it just seems like a cool, bad-ass thing to say when you do fall out of touch. BTW, I always thought Feanor was the absolute coolest, most bad-ass character in the whole Tolkien mythology. Selfish,hot-tempered and way problematic, but definitely very cool.

In 1990, we each, separately, left New England and- with our respective girlfriends- moved West- me to Colorado, AS to Arizona. Since then, though we’ve never again lived in the same place, our lives have moved oddly in parallel, and we’ve met up once or twice a year for desert camping/backpacking trips.

Each of us moved West with, and subsequently married, our New England girlfriends, both of whom eventually turned out to be highly problematic and completely batshit-crazy, and from whom we were each divorced a few years later, each of us (thankfully) childless. AS remained in Arizona, I moved to Utah, and we each remarried, within a year of one another, each of us to women we’d known for years as friends. And in the summer of 2001 we each had daughters, whom we both subsequently took out on daddy-daughter camping trips. So it seemed right that we do such a trip together.

Man, this is a long introduction. Even I’m getting bored. Let’s get going already.

Great idea for a trip right? Too bad about the weather. Last week was the wettest week in Phoenix AS could remember. Washes were running, roads were flooded, and the weekend forecast was in the 40’s and low 50’s.

It’s always weird when you go camping in the desert and it rains. IMG_4005Growing up in New England, you imagine that it never rains in the desert. Later on when you grow up and actually move to a desert, you gradually get used to rain (or snow) in a desert, but every once in a while think, “Really? It’s raining? But isn’t this a desert?” Anyway, in “my”* deserts I’ve been rained on many times, and by and large no longer regard it as unusual. But although I’ve done many backcountry trips in the Sonoran Desert, on both sides of the border, I’d never before visited when it was really wet.

*By “my” deserts I mean the Great Basin Desert, or what we Utahns call the “West Desert”, and the Colorado Plateau Semi-Desert- the whole Canyonlands, Four Corners, Redrock area. These are the most accessible deserts to Northern Utah, and I spend plenty of time in each. Botanically these 2 deserts aren’t all that different from one another, though the geology, topography and weather differs quite a bit.

The Mojave, which sticks a “paw” up into Southwest Utah really isn’t “my” desert, but I spend enough time there that it too feels like familiar ground, and there are strong botanical links (like Blackbrush, Cliffrose and Juniper) between it and the Great Basin Desert.

Saturday morning we drove about an hour and a quarter West into the foothills of the Superstition Mountains. IMG_4009The wash we camped along- a wash that AS had passed by and across many, many times and never seen wet in 19 years- was a steady river the entire weekend. The ground was damp and spongy wherever we hiked. For years I’ve read about how plants of the Sonoran Desert adapt their whole lives around these infrequent bonanzas of moisture. Finally I was seeing one.

Everything in the Sonoran is about water. It seems like every plant and animal here has some super-specialized schtick to deal with limited water access, and when it comes to plants, what’s interesting is that different plants use different schticks, and these schticks determine where they grow, and the floral layout of the desert floor itself. Cactus is the most obvious Sonoran plant type, but we’ll save that for last.

The simplest strategy is that of the Ephemerals, such as Desert Paintbrush and Mojave Aster. These plants germinate when it’s wet, grow, reproduce, and die. Next rainy season some number of their seeds germinate, and the cycle is repeated.

A different approach is the Perennial strategy, used by Brittlebush and Ocotillo. Oct others labelsThese plants “come to life”, greening, leafing and flowering following rains, then dropping their leaves and going dormant through the next dry spell. Ocotillo typically does this 4 or 5 times/year, presenting a whole different perspective of the concept of “season”. Ocotillo BTW is often considered a cactus, but it’s not. It’s part of an order called Ericales, which includes things like Blueberry and Brazil Nut. Ocotillo has one close relative in the Sonoran, wonderfully-freaky Boojum Tree, which unfortunately (for us gringos) occurs only South of the border.

It can sometimes seem like no leaf lasts for long in the Sonoran, but that’s not the case. A fascinating exception is cactus spines, which as we’ll see tomorrow, are actually specialized (and persistent) leaves. But more traditional persistent leaves can of course be found on our old friend Creosote, and- even more impressively- on Jojoba.

IMG_4104 Jojoba, Simmondsia chinensis (pic right- behind cholla skeleton) is a knee-to-chest-high shrub scattered across Sonoran hillsides. It’s not particularly impressive or weird-looking, but it stands out in the desert because a) it’s not spiky/ spiny/ thorny (meaning it’s one of the few plants around you could actually crash into and not take a trip to the ER) and b) it has leaves. Real, year-round*, half-decent-sized leaves.

*Under extreme drought conditions Jojoba can drop its leaves, and so is technically drought-deciduous, but this is pretty unusual.

Even if you’re not into desert plants, you might have heard of Jojoba anyway, particularly if you’re a woman. Many, beauty, skincare and shampoo products tout Jojoba oil as an ingredient. Though many of the claimed properties are no doubt overhyped (like with all beauty products, right?) the oil is in fact an excellent moisturizer and carrier, or base, oil for perfumes. The reason for this is that unlike most vegetable oils, which are made up triglycerides, Jojoba oil is comprised of long chain fatty acids linked to fatty alcohols, and is actually chemically more similar to human sebum* and- get this- Sperm Whale oil. Because of this, Jojoba is the second-most commercially valuable native Sonoran Desert plant (after palms), and is farmed not only in North America, but also in places like India, where it’s planted not only for its oil, but to combat desertification.

*Sebum= the stuff produced by your sebaceous glands. In other words, it’s the real thing- the stuff all those moisturizing beauty products are trying to emulate.

In farming Jojoba, care has to be taken to manage the sex of the plants raised. Jojoba is dioecious, meaning that plants are either male or female, but not both*. Naturally Jojoba occurs in a male-female ratio of about 4 or 5 to 1. But since the oil is the product of the seeds, and only females produce seeds, and 1 male can effectively pollinate (more on Jojoba pollination- which is way cool- in a moment) several females, growers try to manage to a 1:5 or so male: female ratio.

*With very rare exceptions in Jojoba’s case.

IMG_4025 Jojoba gets weirder and weirder. It’s monotypic, not just at the genus level, but at the family level. It’s in a family, Simmondsiaceae, all by itself. Its leaves are tough and waxy-coated, like Creosote or Bitterbrush, so it loses little water (pic below, right). And interestingly, the leaves stand, for the most part, straight up (pic left). By doing so they optimize their aspect for maximum solar exposure in early morning or late afternoon, when it’s cooler out, and minimize their exposure to the direct noon-day sun.

IMG_4096 Jojoba’s wind-pollinated, but what’s cool about this pollination is that it’s not entirely passive; the leaf spacing/ positioning is such that a breeze creates vortexes within the branches that capture passing pollen and swirl it around the female flowers. Interestingly, male and female Jojoba plants tend to have slightly different branch architecture/ morphologies, which is thought to create more internal shade in female plants, which in turn protects developing seeds.

Extra Detail: The logical connection would be that the “female” morphology also lends to optimized pollen wind-vortexes, but I was unable to confirm this in researching this post. I should also mention that the female-male morphology rule is not hard & fast; there are female plants with “male” morphology and vice versa. But in any case, even if the only benefit is seed-shading, it’s a great example of sexual dimorphism in a plant.

What’s really interesting is what’s going on below the ground. Different desert plants have different rooting strategies, and these strategies determine their relative positioning to one another.

After we set up camp, the 4 us crossed the dirt road, away from the running wash, scrambled up the embankment and gradually worked our way up along a series of slopes and ridges. There was no trail to follow, but cross-country travel in the Sonoran is pretty easy- you just have to watch where you step. Though filled with spiky, sharp and spiny things, plants on the Sonoran Desert floor are widely spaced, and it’s easy to find a path. Ribs Gradually, at an easy pace, we threaded our way upward, through and around Jojoba, Cholla, Saguaros, Prickly Pear, Desert Broom and Palo Verde, the girls chattering and pointing out funny looking cacti, bunny rabbits* and such the whole while.

*Desert Cottontail, Sylvilagus audubonii), short (and lame) video below. (Voice exclaiming in background = AS’s daughter .) Whenever we spotted wildlife I whipped the camera out of the shoulder-holster and tried to get a shot or video. By the 3rd or so attempt, AS would start humming the theme to Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom.

Yeah, I warned you it was lame. Don’t get all cranky with me if you wasted 11 seconds watching it.

Mesquite, Ironwood (pic left) and Palo Verde for example, are all what are IMG_4162 called phreatophytes*, which are plants whose roots extend way, way down into the ground, all the way to the permanent water table. Cacti on the other hand are xerophytes, which are plants that have adapted to survive with only limited or intermittent access to water. Specific xerophytic adaptations of cacti include succulence- or the ability to retain water, and CAM photosynthesis which we looked at last year, and which limits water-loss by keeping stomates (pores) closed during the day.

S Cutaway*Closer to home, Greasewood is a great example of a phreatophyte in the valleys West of Salt Lake. BTW, phreatophyte is one of those words, which- like so many botanical terms- I’ve only read; I’ve never heard it pronounced. In my mind I pronounce it “free-AT-oh-fight”, mainly because “Frito-Fight” sounds silly.

S Roots Cacti have shallow roots networks which take advantage of recent rains, sucking up what moisture they can and storing it. The system works well, but in taller, columnar cacti, the shallow roots can be a liability, making them susceptible to toppling. Here’s a shot of the roots of a toppled Saguaro we passed by.

Saguaros are the tallest plants around in the Arizona Sonoran. They grow up over 40 feet tall, live up to 200 years, and can weigh up to 6 tons. Why don’t they have deeper roots?

First off having shallow roots isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the closer to the surface your roots are in the desert, the more of the rain you can catch. But shallow roots help Saguros in another way.

IMG_4118 Cacti are divided into two groups- Opuntia and Cereus. Segmented cacti, like Cholla and Prickly Pear (pic right), are Opuntia. Cereus are columnar cacti, like Saguaro, Hedgehog and Barrel*. Up around Phoenix, Saguaro is the only tall Cereus cacti.

*Another difference between the 2 groups are the spines, which I’ll cover tomorrow.

There are other tall Cereus species, but for the most part they’re down in Mexico. Organ Pipe makes it across the border into its namesake national monument, and about 50 Senitas have made it across the border as well, but overwhelmingly these species are found only in Mexico (where they grow like weeds.) The mighty Cardon cactus (up to 75 feet tall), so far as I know*, occurs only in Mexico.

*Wikipedia claims Cardon cactus extends into Southern Arizona, but I’m unaware of any such location and couldn’t confirm.

IMG_4061 Saguaro is the outlier, pushing into the very Northern fringes of the Sonoran, and what’s interesting is that it only arrived there within the last few thousand years*. And most of the larger “trees” it encountered when it arrived there- Palo Verde (pic right), Ironwood, Mesquite- are phreatophytes. But Saguaro with its shallow roots, is able to fit in nicely alongside these deep-rooters. Look around next time you’re in the Phoenix area. You’ll almost never see Saguaros clumped together; they’re widely spaced, each staking out a shallow “root-territory.” Yet they frequently grow next to, or even intertwined with, phreatophytic Palo Verde and Mesquite; they don’t compete, by and large, for root “real-estate.”

Sonoran Root NetworksWhen you notice this spacing as you walk across open Sonoran Desert, as the 4 of us did behind our campsite Saturday afternoon, it slowly dawns on you that the seemingly random scattering of desert flora isn’t all that random after all; that each bush, shrub, shree and cactus occupies a space in a well-ordered mosaic, a sophisticated living jigsaw puzzle-equilibrium of positioning and hydrology. And when you see hints of that order start to become visible out of the array of plants, the desert somehow becomes beautiful on a whole other level, one you didn’t see before.

*The whole Sonoran desert in Arizona for that matter, in its current range and incarnation, has only come about in the last 10,000 years.

Side Note: Speaking of root strategies, know what plant’s got a really, really cool one? Creosote*, that’s what. No, not just because of the incredible, multi-generational root –clones it forms, spreading in concentric rings across the desert floor and dating back over 10,000 years. Yeah, that’s cool, but what else is really cool, is that it has a 2-tier root architecture, with both a distinct, opportunistic shallow-root network to take advantage of monsoon rains, as well as a deep-reaching phreatophytic network to access the underlying water-table.

Creosote Root Networks Clones, rapid colonization, geographically distinct polyploid races, allelopathic chemical warfare and a cool smell to boot- Creosote has totally got it going on.

*Creosote is so cool, in my next life I am doing a blog just about it and nothing else. It’ll be Way Awesome. You’ll see.

So it was fun to see the desert wet, and to think about how water, and access to water, shapes the form and layout of the desert floor. But none of that was what was really eating at me. No, what was really on my mind was the same thing that’s always on my mind on off-trail Sonoran hikes: Why is everything so damn sharp and spiky?

Next Up: Spikes, Spines and Thorns

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sonoran Sunset Teaser

Twin B and I just got back late last night from a Daddy-Daughter weekend down in Arizona. It was great, but it’ll be at least a day or two till I can blog about it. In the meantime, if you’re looking to kill 40 seconds and haven’t seen a good sunset lately, you can check out this one from our campsite.

Oh, and speaking of campsites… you may have heard that Arizona saw a bit of weather last week. Here’s another video, of the normally* dry wash we camped along.

*By “normally”, I mean like “practically always.”

This wasn’t a “flash” flood; the wash ran like this through the entire ~24 hour period we camped there. Surrounded by mesquite, saguaro, cholla and jojoba, we were lulled to sleep by a rushing river…

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Accents, Sparrows and Sonic Gay-dar

Due to recent events, I have a new boss*. He seems a nice enough fellow, and I’m sure I’ll get to know him well over the coming weeks. Here’s an interesting thing about him: He has an accent. An English accent.

*I should mention that events of the last week have led to a fair bit of reflection. One thing that’s come to mind is that my old boss- the guy to whom I reported for 8 years- was really a great boss. Good bosses are like money: having one doesn’t guarantee happiness, but lack of one almost certainly ensures unhappiness. OK, that right there is probably the most insightful thing I’ve ever written.

British-Bus-772811 Oh, I know what you’re thinking: “Everybody has an accent. He has an English accent, and you have an American accent.” And rationally, I know this is the case. But intuitively, I know that he has an accent and I’m talking Regular. And this, right here, is to me the most fascinating thing about accents: that they’re one of the clearest, most glaringly obvious examples of the difference between knowing something rationally vs. knowing it intuitively. Admit it- at least once in your life, when you’ve been listening to someone speaking with a heavy accent, you’ve thought, “Can’t you just talk Regular?” I mean, doesn’t it seem that if people just relaxed and spoke normally, they’d speak English the same, “normal” way you do?

this-is-england Oh sure, this sounds silly. But consider another example. Back in September, when Twin A and I were hiking in the Henry Mountains, I blogged about the nature of self, and how rationally, from a purely physical, rational, materialist perspective, there is no such thing as a lifelong immutable “self.” But intuitively, we all know that we’re the same “self” we were yesterday, last year, and 20 years ago. Accents are like Self.

Side Note: There are of course countless other examples in everyday life I could have used to highlight this cognitive disconnect, such as fear of flying, peoples views on race, and the belief that ice shards somehow belong in a martini*. But I like these 2 because one- Accents- is easy to get your head around, while the other- Self- is a bit of a mind-bender.

*Sorry, Eric. Could not resist.

It struck me this week, BTW, that the amount of time I worked for my now-acquired employer- 8 years- was almost certainly long enough for a pretty thorough “self-refresh.” So the “me” who started working there wasn’t the guy who got the payout last week. Seems somehow unfair…

Accents are fascinating for so many reasons. If you learn just a bit of a foreign language, you’ll quickly become aware of them. Most of us who speak a little Spanish know the difference between the Castilian “c” or “z” and the Latin American pronunciation, and how “ll” sounds like a ”y” in Mexico, but a “j” in Argentina. More confusing is how much vocabulary varies between various Spanish-speaking countries. The “truck vs. lorry” thing happens like crazy in Spanish. Most of us learned that peanutbutter is crema de cacahuate in Spanish class, but in more countries it seems to be maneca de mani (“butter of peanut”), and confusingly, crema de mani (“cream of peanut”) in Costa Rica.

My favorite Spanish vocabulary-variation example- and one near to my heart- IMG_3875 is the word for non-identical twins. (Pic left: don’t you love it when you get the jumbo eggs and crack one open and it’s a 2-for-1?) The word for “twins” in Spanish we learned in class is gemelos, but like so many Spanish words, its meaning is more specific than the English equivalent. Gemelos is the word for identical twins, but the word for non-identical twins is different in practically every country. In Mexico it’s cuates. In Columbia and Venezuela it’s morochos, and in Spain it’s mellizos. In Cuba it’s jimaguas and in Costa Rica, so far as I can tell, well, there is no word*.

*Quick Costa Rica twin story: When we were visiting last year, we hired guides a few times. Sometimes guides would give a discount for kids, sometimes not. In Monteverde our guide refused to discount prices for kids, but he had a long-standing policy that twins were 2 for the price of 1. I was glad for the discount, so I shut up and paid, but part of me was just itching to say, “You know that they’re actually two different people, right?” This reminds me- someday I need to do a post on all the wacky things people say about twins.

I‘m fascinated by accents and dialects of Spanish because the history of that language is so interesting. Spanish and Italian were the same language- Vulgar Latin- just 2,000 years ago, but today they’re 2 separate tongues. Spanish and Portuguese diverged more recently, and while they’re still 2 distinct languages, speakers of one can often understand much of what a speaker of the other is saying. And now regional accents are starting to diversify into dialects yet again. The evolution of language is continuous and fascinating.

It’s interesting to think that Americans and Englishmen presumably spoke English the same way just 400 years ago, if not more recently. And given modern travel, communications and media over the last 60-80 years or so, most of that accent-gap developed over somewhere around just 300 years. If modern technology and travel had never come about, how long would it have taken for the 2 to become mutually unintelligible?

My new boss has a non-rhotic accent. Linguists define accents in many different ways; one of the easiest to distinguish is rhotic vs. non-rhotic. A rhotic accent is one in which the letter “r” is pronounced when it is not followed by a vowel, such as the “r” in “park.” I pronounce it; my boss doesn’t. Most American and Canadian* accents are rhotic. In addition to the various “English” accents, non-rhotic accents also exist here in the US, the 2 best examples being the various Southern accents, and- dear to my heart- the Boston accent. If you’re skeptical, think of how the word “farther” is pronounced the 3 accents- English, Southern and Boston. In all 3 it sounds pretty much the same as “father.”

*Canadian non-rhotic accents can be found in the Maritime provinces.

Non-Rhotic Banner Tangent: I grew up 12 miles outside of Boston. When people learn where I’m from, a not-uncommon question is: When did you lose your accent? Answer: I never had one. What most outsiders don’t get about the classic Boston accent is that there’s somewhat of a class-related distribution to it. In middle-to lower-class suburbs, such as Medford, Dedham or Braintree*, practically everyone has it. In upper middle-class suburbs, such as Lexington, Lincoln or Winchester, far fewer people have it. If you walk through a local rich-kids private high school, like Belmont Hill, I suspect it’s pretty uncommon.

*In fairness, these towns have all dramatically gentrified in the last 30 or so years. But when I grew up in the area in the 1970’s, they were definitely middle-to-lower class.

the-howells When I explain this to people, they frequently respond, “But what about the Kennedys?” The Kennedys are a weird anomaly. Nobody talks like them. Their accent, though sort of Boston, also has a strange, pseudo-patrician lilt vaguely reminiscent of George Plimpton or William F. Buckley. Speaking of which- where did those guys get their accents? Did anyone really ever talk like that besides them and the Howells on Gilligan’s Island?

Nested Tangent: I can however speak with a Boston accent. It’s easy. Drop your “r”s when they’re not followed by a vowel. When making an “r” sound, don’t let the back of your tongue recoil toward the back of your mouth- this’ll keep your “r”s from coming out to “hard”. And when making vowel sounds, don’t open the back of your mouth so much. (Optionally, you can also drop the final “g” off present progressive verbs and adjectives ending in “ing”. Liberal use of the “F” word also helps.)

Boston Accent I am great at mimicking accents. I sometimes suspect that the only reason Awesome Wife has stuck with me for so long is that I can reliably make her laugh with my cockney accent. For the Trifecta, my Indian accent is a sure crowd-pleaser. A few years back my company hired a German salesguy- let’s call him “Hans”- of whom I sometimes did impressions when relating a story. One of my coworkers* once said, “You do Hans better than Hans!”

*”Lance”, the CML leukemia guy. BTW, he is doing awesome. I will do an update post soon.

One of the most interesting things about accents is how detecting one on a speaker immediately colors our perception of them. I’ve known countless bright Southerners, and have never had any reason to suspect that Southerners were any less smart than Northerners. But when I hear someone speak for the first time and they do so with a Southern accent, a little teeny part of my brain thinks, “Hick.” It’s not accurate (much less fair.) Why do I think it?

On the other end of the spectrum, when we hear an upper-class (not a Monty Python-cockney) English accent, we tend to automatically regard the speaker as smart. Why? Is it because we watched Masterpiece Theater during our formative years? Why? Pick up a tabloid on the streets of London, and you’ll quickly be disabused of the notion that the English are any smarter than us. But something about that accent just sounds so darn… educated.

I’m always curious as to how my accent sounds to other English speakers. I sometimes wonder if I sound to an Englishman as a Southerner sounds to me. Or maybe my accent sounds sort of Midwestern and flat- like an Ohio or Wisconsin accent, but stronger.

Tangent: 2 more things about English accents. First, I’ve known a number of ex-pat Brits- including my new boss- who’ve been very successful in American sales careers. Does the accent give them an edge in sales? Does it improve their credibility by just a teeny bit, giving them- in the long run- a slight statistical advantage here over an otherwise similarly skilled, similarly charismatic, similarly motivated, but American-accented salesguy?

I should mention that if true, this accent-effect quite likely worked to the advantage of my paternal grandfather, an ex-pat Englishman who emigrated to the US in the 30’s and worked his way up to the Vice President level at US Steel, back when that meant eating in an executive dining room and having a company limo drive you to work. By the time I knew/remembered him, he’d practically lost his English accent, and spoke pretty much as an American. Interestingly my grandmother, who emigrated at the same time, kept her accent throughout her life, as did my maternal grandfather, who emigrated from Cyprus at age 20 and retained a thick Greek accent* until his death at age 95.

*More specifically, a Greek-Cypriot accent. Long before I spoke Spanish, I spoke a little (and I mean a little) Greek. When I traveled to Cyprus in the mid-80’s, I was surprised to hear that the word for “and”,- “keh”(kappa alpha iota)- was pronounced “jeh.” My maternal grandfather’s coming-of-age/emigration story BTW is totally awesome, and includes working in a bakery as a young boy and sleeping on sacks of flour, sneaking across enemy lines in WWI armed with only a knife to kill and steal goats, and eventually, together with his fellow immigrant partners, throwing piles of money up in the air in the basement of their NYC restaurant. Someday I will work it into an Awesome Tangent. Τ' αγαπώ, Παππού.

The other thing about English accents is that when we Americans hear them, our gay-dar is largely disabled.

Before I go any further, this isn’t intended as a slur of any kind on anyone’s preference: I’m absolutely pro-gay rights, including marriage and military service*.

*Really, it’s 2010. If you still honestly, truly believe that gays “recruit” new members, that people get converted to “gay-ness”, or that 2 guys exchanging rings and kissing in a church has anything at all to do with the health or soundness of your marriage, then really, it’s time to get a clue.

In fact, as I so often do when blogging about matters outside my areas of expertise*, I consulted with a subject matter expert- let’s call him “Coworker Karl”- who possesses excellent qualifications in this area, in that he is, in fact, gay.

*Which is- with the exception of biking , work-related tangents and martinis- uh, pretty much everything in this blog.

Coworker Karl Now, it may not be an “accent”, but there exists a stereotypical gay male “inflection” when speaking, a sort of clipped, extra-precise, almost feminine way of speaking. And though it’s a stereotype, it’s often* true. It’s a shame that the issue of homosexuality is so politically charged for many reasons, but one of them is that it’s lead to an almost politically correct “ignoring” of this inflection of speech, and that’s a shame. Because to the extent that it does exist, it is absolutely fascinating. Where does it come from? Is it obtained from conversing with other gay men (doubtful)? Or is it somehow related to some other factors in the brain which direct or influence sexual preference? Isn’t it an interesting question**?

*My use of “often” means just that. Not overwhelmingly, commonly or even usually. And certainly some number of men who speak with this inflection are not gay. (I think.)

**I should add that it’s a total stumper for Coworker-Karl as well. We discussed it at length, and he’s as clueless as I am. As an aside, Coworker Karl finds SGSI (Stereotypical Gay Speech Inflection) very unappealing in a prospective partner, and this lead to further discussion, and the interesting observation that it seems as though there’s a much greater variance in the range of “types” of men that gay men find attractive when compared to the range of “types” of women that straight men find attractive. In other words, I can pretty reliably pick a photo of a woman- say Selma Hayek- and be pretty certain that if I show the photo to a random grouping of straight men, at least 80% of them will agree she’s attractive. But, according to Coworker Karl, the same would not necessarily be true with a photo of a man among a random grouping of gay men; he feels that “type-preference” among gay men varies more widely. You know, I don’t really know where this post is headed, but it is just chock-full of interesting footnotes and tangents.

But back to the point (and I do have one)- when we hear an English (non-cockney) accent, our sonic gay-dar is completely disabled. Because to an American ear, all Englishmen- and forgive me, this is a terrible, awful generalization, but damnit it’s true- sound just a little teeny bit gay. Why is that?

Side Note: “Sonic Gay-dar.” I’m pretty sure that’s the best term I’ve ever came up with- even better than “Utard*.” If I am remembered for one thing in this blog, I want it to be “Sonic Gay-dar.” And if I ever start a band, that’s what I’m naming it.

*And yes, I am telling you, I invented that term back in the 90’s. Gayle Ruzicka was my inspiration.

**I of course will be the frontman. I’ll sing (badly) and play rhythm-ukulele.

Bonus Tangent: The other Accent Mystery that drives me crazy is the origin of the modern Israeli accent. If you’ve known, sold to, or worked with Israelis, you know that they have a distinct, recognizable accent. Where did that come from? israel_defence_force (Pic right = female member of Israeli Defense Force. I was googling for pics of “Israel” and came across it. I find it disturbingly appealing in a vaguely Stratfor/Ian Fleming kind of way. OK I’m way over-sharing.) Hebrew was a pretty much a dead language until the late 1800’s, and modern Israel is populated with the descendant of Jews from many countries. Does the accent have pan-Eastern European origins, reflecting the origins of many immigrants? Or was it originally a Russian accent brought to Palestine by the mainly Russian Jewish settlers of the first 3 aliyahs*, and later imparted to the later waves of immigrants from other European countries?

*Aliyah = wave of Jewish emigration to Palestine/Israel. Between 1882 and the present there have been between 5 and 13 distinct aliyahs, depending on who’s counting. Chock-full, I tell you, chock-full!

Here’s yet another interesting thing about accents and dialects: birds have them*. Here’s a quick example from my back yard, involving a bird we’ve looked at before- the White-Crowned Sparrow.

*With birds, ornithologists usually seem to call them “dialects.” And while nobody’s suggesting that any birds have anything like a full-blown human language, the principle of the analogy makes sense: bird songs appear to vary regionally, eventually becoming mutually unrecognizable as populations diverge, separate and eventually speciate.

WC Sparrow1 About a week ago, 3(?) White-Crowned Sparrows showed up at my feeder- the first time I’ve noticed them this season. Male WC Sparrows have standard songs they sing to establish territories and attract females. These songs are learned not from their fathers, but from other male birds in there area- or, in other words, the guys in the ‘hood.

WCSparrowcut6 Now these songs vary a bit from area to area, or in other words, the male WC Sparrows sing their songs in their local “dialect.” But the really cool thing is this: male WC Sparrows raised where two areas/dialect overlap actually grow up “bilingual” and can sing songs in either dialect.

Tangent: When I blogged about WC Sparrows last year, I mentioned that they almost always chase away Dark-Eyed Juncos (which we also looked at last year.) Well, right around New Year’s a flock of DE JuDark_Eyed_Junco_15ncos established themselves around my feeder. For a week, they were all over the place- perched on the feeders, on nearby branches and hopping about on the snow-covered ground below. Then about a week later other birds started appearing- Finches, House Sparrows, Siskins and the WC Sparrows, and almost on cue, the DE Juncos were immediately relegated to the ground only, where they’re picking up spilled seeds from the feeders. So my question is this- is it simply coincidence, or are the other birds- and specifically the WC Sparrows- somehow following the DE Juncos?

I don’t know, but I suspect this may be some aspect of a common bird behavior known as mixed species flocking, which is believed to provide feeding and protection benefits for the various species involved, and to which I plan to return in a future bird-post.

Accents sometimes change in adults, as with my paternal grandfather, but not always, and usually only after many years. If you want to speak another language accent-free, your absolute best shot is to learn it before age 10 or 11*. So far the Trifecta, born and raised in Utah, speak for the most part as we do. But not entirely.

*Which in turn is a way, way fascinating topic, but one which I’ll save for another post.

I’ve heard that Utah is considered, along with Arizona and Indiana, to be accent free (which is allegedly why they’re popular locations for call-centers) but those of us who’ve lived here a while know that there is in fact a Utah accent. It’s difficult to describe. There are a few words that are clearly pronounced differently (“measure” is pronounced “MAY-zhure”) but mostly it’s something you just have to hear, and you don’t hear it right away, but only after 15 or 20 seconds of steady speech.

On characteristic of the Utah accent is a clear, long “e” pronunciation of the first “e” in words starting with “de-” or “be-”, such “decide”, “beside” or “depend.” Utahns pronounce the first “e” as a clear long “E”, like “dee-PEND.” Awesome Wife and I pronounce the first “e” in these words sort of halfway between a schwa and a short “I”, as do most Northeasterners.

The Trifecta pronounces them long, like Utahns. There are other differences as well; they pronounce the “t” in “often”, which neither AW nor I do.

The last thing I’ll mention about accents is how they’re like smells. When you hear one you haven’t heard in a while, the sound can take you back to the time and place where you knew it, just like the scent of a forest, meal or perfume.

BOSTON-DAY To be truthful, I was a bit disdainful of Boston accents when I lived there. But now that I’ve been away for 20 years, I- strangely- love hearing them. When I return to the Boston area nowadays and hear people chatting on the street, or even when I phone a company in Boston and hear it in the greeting of a receptionist, a little voice in my head shouts, “Home!”, and my heart lifts just a teeny bit.

Note: Special thanks to Coworker Karl, who is endlessly helpful, patient, good-natured and an absolute pleasure to work with.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Breakout & Burdock

Sunday morning I had a 7 mile breakout trail run. “Breakout” is my term for when you climb up and out of an inversion under your own power. IMG_3951 From my house, depending on circumstances, I can do it by bike (road or mtn) or foot. The last month or so has been probably the most consistently inverted winter I can remember here. The pattern of high pressure has meant few storms, so the skiing’s lousy. Backcountry skiing after a couple of snowless weeks isn’t much fun, and the resorts have rocks and shrubs sticking out all over the place. In this blog I’ve gone on many times about how great it is living in Utah, but the truth is that right about now, it kind of sucks.

Tangent: Awesome Wife and I have returned to a conversation that comes up every couple of years or so- should we move? Last week Northern Utah had the worst air quality in the nation. This can’t be good for any of us, but we worry most about Twin A, who is asthmatic. He takes daily medications, and we keep a steroid prescription on hand in the fridge for emergencies. We love our neighborhood, our proximity to both city and foothills, but is living here the right thing for our kids? Should we bite the bullet and move up to Park City, or maybe even out of state?

Our concern and frustration is exacerbated by the almost complete lack of effort or backbone on the part of local and state government to do anything about our bad air. Every January our state legislature convenes for several weeks, spent driving back and forth through the smog to the state capitol, where they worry about gay people getting it on, suing the federal government for possibly, maybe, trying to do something about healthcare, and passing yet another pointless abortion law that we’ll spend years and millions of tax dollars defending before it’s finally shot down by the Supreme Court. Our politicians just love to go on about how pro-family they are. Why isn’t kids breathing clean air considered pro-family?

What’s fascinating to me about inversions is how clear the demarcation is between the inversion layer, and the warm clear air above. Here’s a shot from early on in my run, behind the U. of Utah hospital at ~5,000 feet.

IMG_3952 Here’s the view at the mouth of Dry Creek Canyon, looking East/up-canyon. You can see I’ve almost broken out of the inversion, with clear blue sky just ahead.

IMG_3954 Side Note: What’s interesting is that I broke out of the inversion a moment later, just inside Dry Creek Canyon. But ~45 minutes later, while returning down-canyon, I encountered the fog bank just ½ way down, or in other words, ~3/4 mile up-trail and ~200 feet higher than just 45 minutes earlier. This was consistent with my general observation that inversions seem to rise over the course of the day, probably due to the sun warming the fog…

And here’s what it looked like partway up Dry Creek. The air is clear, clean and dry. Ahhh!

IMG_3966 I haven’t blogged much about plants lately, mainly because I’ve been sticking close to home, or traveling to other Northern climes lately where not much is growing right now. IMG_3955 But about ½ mile up Dry Creek, I noticed several weathered brown shrubs bearing these things. You know them- they’re the little weird Velcro-thistles that stick to your bike shorts or arm-warmers when you brush by, and then stick to your glove like crazy when you try to pick them off. But if you pick them off with your bare fingers, they don’t stick at all. What are these things and what’s the deal with them?

They’re Lesser Burdock, Arctium minus, IMG_3956an exotic weed native to Eurasia which has been wildly successful in North America. It occurs in every state except Alaska, Hawaii and Florida, and every Canadian province South of the Yukon. It even occurs in Greenland! Arctium phylogeny is complicated*, but it seems to have originated in the Iran-Iraq-Turkey area, and have been around for at least 9 million years.

*It’s closely linked/intertwined with the genus Cousinia, which contains some 600+ weedy species originating from the same part of Eurasia. Arctium and Cousinia were originally distinguished based on morphological features, but it turns out that Arctium is paraphyletic, unless grouped with a number of Cousinia species. Together with these species Arctium can be grouped in a true monophyletic clade, all possessing a haploid chromosome number of n=18, and dubbed the “Arctioid Clade”, within the broader “Arctium-Cousinia Complex”.

I’m just curious. Does anyone reading understand what I just said in this footnote besides me, the Catalogue of Organisms guy, KB, Ted and Sally? I always wonder when I write this stuff if people are like, “Oh yeah, that’s cool stuff…” or if they’re just like “zzzz… when’s the next tangent, already?”

Like almost all thistles, it’s a member of the sunflower family. Burdock is a biennial. In its first year of life, it’s just a small, low-to- the-ground clump of leaves (a rosette.) It doesn’t flower, but just accumulates and stores energy for the year to follow. In Year 2 the plant shoots up and flowers. Following pollination and seed development, the plant dies. Every burdock you see right now in Northern Utah has already died.

Burdock127 In summer each purple flower-head consists of dozens of disk flowers (no ray flowers.) They’re pollinated by bees of all sorts- bumblebees, honey bees, wild bees- and also by several moths and butterflies. After pollination, the flower-heads turn brown and dry out.

One of the cool things about flowers in the sunflower family is how often reproductive hardware gets re-purposed for seed dispersal. Dandelions, Salsifies and Spotted Knapweed are all examples we’ve looked at before, and in each of these flowers, following fertilization, the calyxes of the individual florets dry up and transform into little parachutes, which are then carried away by the wind, hopefully some number to a possibly viable location for germination.

In burdock the calyxes also are transformed, but not into parachutes. Rather each dries and hardens into a stiff, thin little stalk, the end of which culminates in a tiny hook. The dried calyxes remain firmly attached to the flower-head, but the connection between the flower and stalk dries up, becoming brittle and weak. When a passing animal bearing a coat of fur brushes against the dried heads, the hooks catch firmly on the animal hairs, with a grip much stronger than the weakened stalk-connection. The heads- full of seeds- remain attached to the animal, and are borne wherever that animal wanders.

Expando1 In the early 1941 George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, returned from a hunting trip and noticed the numerous burdock thistle-heads stuck to both his clothing and the fur of his dog. Curious, he examined several up of the heads under a microscope and noted the tiny hooks which had caught on the fibers of his clothing and the hairs of his dog’s coat. It occurred to de Mestral that the same mechanism might be used to bind two materials. It took him 10 years of experimentation and development, first using cotton, then nylon* to come up with a fully mechanized process for producing Velcro.

*Cotton worked, but only for a short while before wearing out. Nylon was a brand-new material at the time, and de Mestral’s biggest problem with it was working out how to cut hooks out of it.

The new fastener didn’t catch on for a number of years. NASA used it for space suits in the 1960s, but the first large-scale consumer uses were for skiwear, followed by Scuba gear. Today of course, Velcro is everywhere; I can’t think of a day where I don’t connect/disconnect a velcro connector of some sort at least ½ a dozen times.

Hook Closeup Many angiosperms of course use animal agents for seed dispersal. But all Asteraceae fruits are achenes, which, being dry and generally small, lend themselves easily to wind dispersal, which is why so many species in the sunflower family- including Dandelions, Balsamroots, Mules Ears, Knapweeds, Asters and Salsifies- use an Agent-Wind pollination-dispersal strategy. But Burdock is Agent-Agent, and it’s interesting to think about what the relative advantages of each approach might be.

On the downside, there’s always wind, but depending on where you’re growing, there’s no guarantee that an animal will brush against you. GloveConnect But on the upside, when an animal does brush against you, that animal is generally going somewhere. And it occurs to me that animals generally- eventually- get around to going to places conducive to growing plants. An herbivore seeks out plants to eat, and such plants obviously grow in places where plants can grow- not on sun-baked barren outcrops of rock or sand, or in the middle of a pond. And carnivores go looking for prey in places where herbivores are likely to be found, which, again, are places where plants are capable of growing. So while it may be likelier that a breeze will brush against you than an animal, it’s likelier that the animal is eventually headed to someplace where your seed might gain purchase*.

*Always wanted to work that “gain purchase” expression into a post. I think I originally heard it in Raising Arizona, when “Hi” is narrating his fertility problems with Edwina.

IMG_3998 I continued running up the trail, blue sky up above. It hasn’t snowed in close to a couple weeks, and the trail surface is packed snow and ice, treacherous for runners and bikers alike. Fortunately Sunday’s run was my first with a new gear acquisition: Yaktrax, which you can think of as little tire-chains for your shoes. They grip wonderfully on snow and ice, the only minor downside a small increase in foot-weight. I ran over sketchy, slippery trails for 7 miles without even a slip; I don’t know why I waited so long* to get them.

*One of 3 cool gear-acquisitions over the last week, the other 2 of which will most certainly make their way into the blog in coming weeks.

hypercompact There’s another advantage to agent dispersal, which actually occurred to me last week in this same spot, when I biked past and acquired several burdock-heads on my lycra tights. As I stopped to remove them I thought, I’m dispersing seeds in January. Think about that. No dandelion is scattering parachutes now. But animals like deer, coyotes and mtn bikers pass by year-round. Burdock- dead for months- is still dispersing seeds.

Tangent: I thought about something else, too, and that was how many times over the course of this project- and before- I’ve noticed really cool things biking or running up Dry Creek. Glacier Lilies, Ballhead Waterleaf, Stellers Jays, Spotted Towhees, Mule Deer, Coyotes, a lion-kill, Oregon Grape, Milkweed, Balsamroots, Arnicas, Beardstongue, Wild Rose, Salsifies, Lichens, Mosses, Dragonflies, Myrtle Spurge, Spring Parsley, Oaks, Maples, Bitterbrush, Sagebrush and so much more- just on this little (<2 mile) stretch of trail. Think about that*. Over the past 2 years, if I’d done nothing but ride up and down Dry Creek, I still probably could’ve down ¾ of this blog.

*Better yet, search for “Dry Creek” in this blog.

I ran up the canyon, then switch-backed out of the bottom and climbed up along the side-hill to the overlook, running the last 100 yards in the bright morning sun. The air was dry and warm, the light clear and bright, and I felt like I was awake- really awake- for the first time in weeks. At the overlook I paused and looked out over the valley.

IMG_3968 As I did so, I was reminded of the wonderful, awful irony of inversions: that something so ugly, foul, cold and downright unhealthy can be so heart-achingly beautiful when viewed from above. If there’s something prettier than looking down on a valley inversion on a warm, sunny winter morning, I haven’t yet seen it.

IMG_3973 I lingered a while, then reluctantly turned and began the long run down. Toward the bottom of the canyon I began to feel the cold again, creeping through my jacket, my flesh and into my very bones. I exited the canyon and jogged back along the foothills toward home, responsibilities, work and another week in the smoggy valley.

IMG_3975 I’ve found though that the sense of wakefulness and clarity from a breakout lingers for a day or two back down in the fog-world. It’s as though your brain is still carrying a bit of the clear sky around with you. After a couple of days though, the effect wanes, and your mind begins to haze over and fog up again, like the air around you.