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. 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.
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!
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. 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, an 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.