Friday, May 28, 2010

Spring and Single-Mindedness

Sorry for the slow posting week. I spent part of this week traveling for work, and have been pretty heads-down with this whole “earning a living” thing. I should be able to catch my breath over the long weekend, and hope to catch up on some of the bird and flowers goings-on over the last couple of weeks of this weird, wet, late Spring.

Tangent: I decided this week that JFK is my least favorite US airport. Seriously, what is going on with that place? It’s the biggest airport of the biggest city of the world’s biggest superpower- the country that invented the airplane and put a man on the freaking moon- and yet the place feels like a cross between a collection of 1960’s warehouses, a third-world flea-market, and the Fashion Place Mall the day before Christmas. The layout is labyrinthine, the setting depressing, the logistics and access complex and difficult, and the employees sullen and unhelpful. It is- in one miserable package- the embodiment of all the bad stuff about the Northeast I left behind 20 years ago. Could this airport be any crappier?

My new company is headquartered in Southwestern Connecticut, which means I have to fly in and out of JFK fairly often, and that many of my new colleagues live in the greater NYC metro area- from Northern New Jersey to Southern Connecticut. All of these people pay, in various ways, the price of living in and around such a large metro area. Their housing is expensive, their taxes high, and they deal daily with daunting traffic, commutes and crowding. But what’s really sort of sad is that hardly any of them ever go into Manhattan. Whatever your opinion of large cities, New York is unique and has many things to offer- culture, cuisine, history, commerce- that are unmatched by any other city on the continent. Here are all these people- not just my coworkers, but probably several million like them- who daily put up with the hassle and cost of the massive NYC-Metro sprawl, but virtually never enjoy the benefits of the city. Ugh. It’s just depressing, and I end up coming home from each trip to HQ feeling a bit worn out and deflated…

Where was I? Spring, right. And it is indeed, way late here in Northern Utah. The foothill oaks are just barely leafing out, and June is next week! Yesterday morning before work I road 24/7 up in Jeremy Ranch, my first mtn bike ride of the year on the Park City side of the Wasatch, and by far the latest I’ve ever started riding over there. In the helmet-cam clip you can see that although the grasses are green, and a few early wildflowers are popping out, the oaks at ~7,000 feet are still bare.

Wednesday morning I rode up Big Mountain Pass, the oaks were also bare, and the aspens were just leafing out. The lingering patches of roadside snow you see in this clip are left over from Monday’s storm.

So anyway, just a quick thing I wanted to post about so the whole week isn’t “dark” here. Last week when I was doing one of my City Creek rides for the geo-post, I noticed this Yellowjacket on an outcop of volcanic breccia I’d stopped to photographs. Only she’s not a Yellowjacket- she’s a European Paper Wasp, Polistes dominula. As we know from last Fall’s Yellowjacket post, the giveaway is her orange antennae; Yellowjacket antennae are always black.

Euro-Paper Wasps are recent European imports, having arrived in North America only in the last ~30 years or so, and there’s a good chance that this young queen’s 30X great-grandmother showed up when I was in my early teens, within 10 miles of where I was at the time. 30+ years later, and almost a continent away, here we are.

Paper Wasp 5 10I know she’s a queen because she’s building a starter nest. Having mated late last summer, she survived the winter in some safe nook and now is trying to build enough cells to lay an initial batch of eggs (and in fact you can see an egg in the top left cell in the photo.) If she’s successful, her first generation of daughters will take over the care of her, the nest and successive daughters, and eventually sons. Her nest already shows the standard Paper Wasp architecture: Lots of open combs, and attached to the rock by a narrow petiole.

She’s also bigger than a worker would be, and besides, probably all of the Paper Wasps and Yellowjackets you see in Northern Utah right now are queens; they haven’t raised workers yet. In fact, even though Wasps/Yellowjackets aren’t yet much of a nuisance yet, this is an excellent time to keep an eye on them; they’re looking for/starting nesting sites, so it’s a good time to shoo them away from your back stairs/porch/garage/etc.

If this queen manages to raise that first generation, she’ll then retreat into the nest, never to emerge- unless disturbed- for the rest of her life. I’m not optimistic about her chances. Only a small portion of starter-nests succeed, and along this well-traveled trail, it’s not unlikely a passer-by could harass or destroy this one, or for that matter she may simply abandon her effort in the presence of so much large animal activity.

Lately I’ve been so busy I’ve had trouble getting things done. Like so many animals, we do a little of this, a little of that, and then a little more of this and that. Having developed a sophisticated culture and scaled up our society in terms of complexity and numbers and types of social relationships, we now so often find it hard to get “this and that” done*.

*I think part of the reason for my challenges in getting things done at my new company is my low Dunbar number. At my old company, with just 150 people, I managed to convince people I was more than just an articulate chimpanzee without too much effort. At this new, 4,000-employee company, it’s a bit trickier. Any day now I’m afraid they’ll figure me out and just start feeding me bananas.

This is what impresses me most about insects: their single-minded tenacity in getting stuff done. All alone, all day long, with zero support, oversight or encouragement, this queen diligently chews up wood/plant matter, mixes it with her saliva, and sculpts it into comb after comb. And her whole life is just one, dedicated sequential task after another. She’s born, fed by her sisters, then flies out of the nest and mates, in a spectacular aerial dogfight/orgy. Then she’s done with mating, and never has anything to do with it again. She finds a nook, and “sleeps” through the cold winter. When she emerges, does her little brain hold any memory of her past- her home nest? Her mating flight? Or does she think she was just “born” right then, full of eggs? Yes, I know she’s not thinking great thoughts, but insects do remember things. They remember food locations, threats, and can learn their way through mazes.

When/if she manages to enter/remain inside her nest, she’ll never show any desire to voluntarily emerge again. This queen, who left her home nest forever, who flew through –and mated in- the sky will just sit at home and pump out eggs till the end of the season, and the end of her life. Does she ever remember anything from before? Does she ever reminisce? “Ah, when I was young and flew through the sky…”

Oh, sure I’m being silly. But animals- including insects- obviously fear and want and lust and strive at least as much- and often seemingly more strongly- than we do. And fear and desire may be simple, but they’re emotions. When her eggs hatch, the larvae grow and then pupate into young adults, is she “happy”?

What is going on in her head? It’s just a bug, but it’s that Mystery of Self all over again. It’s everywhere I look.

I’ll try to take a spin back up City Creek this long weekend. See how she’s getting along.

Friday, May 21, 2010

City Creek Part 3: Rocks, Global Warming, and Pooping in Wells

Ever since Gooseberry, I’ve been noticing rocks more. This always happens when I get into something. I research the heck out of it for a day or two, and then whenever I go out, that thing- or that kind of thing- is practically the only thing I see.

IMG_5187 City Creek Canyon has some weird rocks I’ve always half-noticed, but never really thought much about. They look almost like giant boulders, cliffs and outcrops made out of dirt, but with gazillions of small, rounded pebbles and rocks embedded. Sound familiar? Yeah. Sunday when I climbed through the little notch between the outcrops I think of as “Scylla & Charybdis”, the rocks I’d pedaled by a hundred times clicked “conglomerate.”

One of the interesting things about the Wasatch canyons feeding into Salt Lake Valley* is that they’re pretty varied geologically. While botanically they follow a pretty consistent pattern in line with aspect and elevation, the formations exposed in each canyon differ quite a bit.

*Specifically City Creek, Emigration, Parley, Mill Creek, Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood Canyons. Red Butte I’m leaving out as I still haven’t gotten around to trespassing yet, and I’m also omitting numerous minor draws, including Dry Creek, George’s Hollow, Neff’s and Bell’s.

TCG1Conglomerate, like the Shinarump we rode over down on Gooseberry and Little Creek, is composed of generally smooth pebbles and smaller rocks embedded in a matrix, usually sand. The matrix in a conglomerate isn’t always sand. It might be volcanic debris. Volcanic conglomerate is conglomerate in which the matrix is at least 50% volcanic material. Just to be clear- or maybe more confusing- the volcanic material in volcanic conglomerate is always water-deposited, as opposed to just flowed out of the ground as lava and hardened or whatever. The water action is what rounded the pebbles embedded in the conglomerate, and so when you spot conglomerate, you always know that it’s the result of some ancient water-related action, whether streams, lakes or seas. We’ll follow up on non-water-deposited volcanic debris mix-ins in just a bit…

Tangent: One of the big, unresolved mysteries in geology is why the Earth has so much water. This isn’t as dopy a question as it sounds. IMG_4627 Things were way hot when the Earth formed out of the solar nebula, too hot for any pure water to hand around. Geologists generally agree that it came from 2 sources, but they can’t agree how much came from which source. The first is from rock. A family of granite-y rocks called amphiboles are composed of crystal lattices of silicon, calcium, magnesium and other elements held together by hydroxyl ions. (Hydroxyl = OH, one oxygen and one hydrogen atom.) Under sufficient heat and pressure, amphiboles break down, and when they do, they release their hydroxyl ions, which are then free to regroup into water molecules. About 60 miles below the Earth’s surface, things are hot and stressful enough to breakdown amphiboles.

But it doesn’t seem that amphibole break-down could have produced enough water to account for all that we have. The other source is thought to be comets. Many comets are partly or largely composed of water ice, and back in the early days of the solar system, it’s thought that there were a lot more comets (and other stuff) flying around in eccentric orbits, and crashing into planets.

The conglomerate rocks on the sides of City Creek canyon look like dirt, but they’re not. They’re real rocks, “rock-hard” to the touch. They form little bluffs and cliffs with overhangs and caves up above the trail. For years I’ve heard rumors of a Mountain Lion living near the mouth of City Creek, and when I climb Shoreline trail alone in the early morning, I find myself casting nervous glances toward the dark openings up above. These conglomerate caves would be the perfect lair, the stone an almost perfect color match for a tawny cat.

TCG Closeup But the really interesting thing about this conglomerate is how new it is. It is, in geology-speak, Tertiary Conglomerate, tertiary referring to the geologic period running from 65 million to 1.8 million years ago. Specifically, the tertiary conglomerate in City Creek is thought to have formed just 35 – 40 million years ago.

IMG_5192 This is relatively recent. 2 weeks ago, when we were down in Gooseberry, we were riding on and by rocks that were around 200 million years old, rocks laid down before T. Rex or flowering plants. But by the time the tertiary conglomerates of City Creek were laid down, the dinosaurs had been extinct for close to 30 million years. These rocks were formed during the latter part of the Eocene epoch, which is both one of the most fascinating times in the planet’s history, and yet largely unknown to the general public.

When most of us think of the ancient world, we have a broad outline of the history of life and climate on Earth. We know that life originated in the sea as little microscope-y-type things, and then eventually evolved into bigger things, and that some of these things eventually evolved into bigger things, like trees and dinosaurs, and there were big jungles and T. Rexes, and that’s pretty much how things were until 65 million years ago when the asteroid hit, and then mammals took over and the world was more or less like it is now until a group of monkeys started walking around on their hind legs, lighting fires and building strip malls.

TCG2What’s sad about this standard view of the history of the world is that it skips over so many exciting things that were at least as amazing and spectacular as the dinosaurs. Really ancient things like the Permian extinction and Snowball Earth fall into this category, but it also includes far more recent things, like the amazing stuff going on right here when the tertiary conglomerates were laid down. The Eocene, from about 56 million to 34 million years ago was one of the weirdest times ever.

IMG_5189We think of the times of the dinosaurs as being hot and jungly, and then the times after the dinosaurs being either kind of like today, or else cold and Ice Age-y, but the Eocene couldn’t have been more different. It was a “Hothouse Earth” period, with tropical and semi-tropical forests spanning huge parts of the globe and mean global temps far higher than today. In the early Eocene, palm trees grew in Alaska and swamp cypresses and redwoods grew on Ellesmere Island. There were no polar ice-caps- Antarctica was ice-free- and sea levels were hundreds of feet higher than today.

The warmer temperatures impacted animal life as well. We think of the age of reptiles as having ended with the dinosaurs, but maybe that’s not quite fair. Paleontologists a few years back unearthed the fossil remains of an Eocene snake in Colombia that measured 40 feet in length and weighed ~1.5 tons! The Eocene in North America featured a succession of fantastic faunas, including such other fearsome characters as 6 foot tall flightless predatory birds and giant carnivorous pigs. The Eocene was also the time when the ancestors of New World Monkeys and Porcupines likely rafted across the Atlantic. There were a series of widespread extinctions during the Eocene, probably related- at least in part- to swings in climate.

IMG_5194 The hottest part of the Eocene was right at the beginning. Over just 20,000 years, mean global temps increased by 11F. Think about that. The difference in average annual temperature between Salt Lake City and St. George is just 9F. Though there were periodic “hyperthermal” events throughout the Eocene, overall there was a gradual cooling trend toward the end of the epoch, with continental interiors drying and forest cover thinning. About ½ way through, Australia broke away from Antarctica , completing the break-up of Gondwanaland, and setting up the circumpolar currents that have cooled Antarctica ever since.

Tangent: It’s worth noting that the causes of the warming are still unresolved. Methane emissions from under the ocean floor are one hypothesis, but no one knows. What we do know is that the Earth’s climate has changed way dramatically multiple times, long before there were people or factories or automobiles around, and that these climate-shifts were catastrophic for living things at the time.

Some “climate change skeptics” point to these ancient happenings as evidence that the Earth’s climate has always been variable, will continue to be so, and will do so regardless of the influence of mankind. But that’s obviously the wrong takeaway. The right takeaway is that relatively small changes in atmospheric chemistry appear to be capable of creating positive feedback loops which lead to dramatic and catastrophic climate changes in remarkably short periods of times, and that maybe- just maybe- we ought to slow down and seek to understand these mechanisms a bit better before we continue to fill the atmosphere with more CO2 than at any time during the last 20 million years.

Nested Tangent: I wonder, way back when people were starting to live in permanent settlements, and had to figure out basic sanitation engineering, were there Sanitation Skeptics? Imagine…

PALEO-ENVIRONMENTALIST (PE): Hey, there are a lot of us living in the same place now. Maybe we should start to dig separate latrines, instead of just pooping in the well.

CAVEMAN-SANITATION-SKEPTIC (CSS): There’s no evidence that pooping in the well is causing any harm.

PE: Yes, but there’s more poop in our drinking water than ever before. And some people are starting to get sick. Maybe we should try pooping somewhere else while we figure out if more poop in the well is going to cause problems.

CSS: Show me the evidence! People have always occasionally gotten sick from drinking water. There’s no evidence that drinking-water illnesses are poop- I mean human- caused.

PE: Yes, but we know that ingesting poop makes people sick, and we know there’s more poop in our water than ever before. How about we just be a little conservative and try pooping a little less in the well.

CSS: But think of the economic impact! Effort spent digging latrines and walking farther to poop will impede our critical economic development of cutting down forests and slaughtering Pleistocene megafauna!

PE: Well, maybe not eating poop is worth expending just a little more effort and having a little less stuff…

CSS: Socialist! The last thing we need is more government regulation…

Side Note: This cooling/drying didn’t result in grasslands though. Modern-day grasslands and savannahs, which today cover something like a third of dry land, didn’t really exist much before about 15 million years ago. Though grasses have been around for something like 70 million years, the vast majority of that time their range was more localized, near streams and other wet areas. Then fairly recently, they expanded into all sorts of drier areas and essentially took over much of the world. It’s kind of weird when you think about it. It’s as if someday horsetails or ferns suddenly became capable of colonizing huge, dry, sunny expanses across the continental interiors and started spreading like crazy…

IMG_5183 The end of the Eocene (and beginning of the Oligocene), not long after the City Creek conglomerates were laid down, was marked by a mass extinction called the Grande Coupure*, in which existing European fauna was replaced by Asian fauna. Like all mass extinctions, there are multiple hypotheses as to its causes. One explanation is that the circumpolar-induced-chilling-icecap-formation-drop-in-sea-levels deal was the culprit. Another, more dramatic, possibility is one or more large meteor impacts. Likely suspects include ~34 million year-old impact craters in the Chesapeake Bay and just off the New Jersey coast by Atlantic City.

*Which by the way, would be an excellent name for a luxury automobile.

Here’s the video again. Like before, I suggest you open it in a separate window if you want to check out the times/locations I describe below. (And again, you can switch it to HD…)

In the video, I pass right by tertiary conglomerate at 2:36, and again at 3:00. At 3:09 you can see high cliffs of it ahead and up above on the left. In more recent times, the exposed conglomerate has weathered and eroded down-canyon, and we’ll encounter it further below.

According to the geologic maps, in stretches along this long descent, the slope is overlaid with wind-blown alluvium- gravel, silt, sand and clay originally deposited in stream, floodplains, or more often here in Salt Lake Valley- shoreline terraces. IMG_5210 My geo-eye isn’t yet good enough to eyeball such areas, but I suspect the trail crosses such alluvium patches in at least 2 spots. The first is the first ~30 seconds of video, coming off the saddle. The soil here has a high clay content* and there seem to be few larger pebbles/rocks mixed in. The second is at the Blue Flax switchback, at 3:42 (pic right). The soil here appears to be mainly silt, and if you look at the earth-cut on the uphill (descender’s right) side of the switchback, you’ll notice the soil is completely rock and pebble-free.

*This stretch was in fact the problem area highlighted in the Clay post.

As we drop into the Green Tunnel section, the geology doesn’t really change; though it’s hard to see in the video, there are still small (now partly moss-covered) conglomerate outcrops off the trail in the woods.

But when we exit the Tunnel and turn sharply right to parallel the canyon bottom at 5:16, the geology changes. According to the geologic maps, this section of trail crosses a formation type known as Volcanic Breccia. Remember a moment ago I described conglomerate as always having a matrix-base that was water-deposited? Well, when lava or magma flows and then stops and hardens around smaller pebbles and rocks- in other words not water-deposited- it’s called volcanic breccia. Breccia is analogous to conglomerate, but the embedded rocks/pebbles are sharp-edged and angular, not rounded, as there was no water-action in its formation. Unfortunately, this stretch has few exposed rock outcrops, but you’ll notice small ones at 6:38, 6:48 and 6:55.

VBreccia1 On closer examination, these rocks are definitely different from the conglomerate higher up; the matrix is gray, suggesting volcanic debris, and the embedded components are more angular, suggesting breccia vs. conglomerate, but not so much so that I can be certain…

Side Note: Back down at the trailhead however, a number of large boulders have been placed by the side of the lot and adjacent road. IMG_5217The boulders are clearly 1 one of 2 types. The first are tertiary conglomerate, same as up above. But the second (pic right) look like a real good match for the photos I’ve seen of volcanic breccia. The conglomerate boulders are surely local in origin, and it seems likely that the breccia boulders are as well.

BTW, the green pipe we roll over just after at 5:26 is a spring. Winter or summer, that spring is always running. It’s interesting to think how these different geologic layers route the subterranean flows that feed springs like this one*.

*I haven’t done a proper post on the hydrology of springs, but touched upon it back in the hot pots post.

Rolling on down, somewhere around 7:30*, we actually transition back to conglomerate-based soils, now washed/eroded down from the slopes higher above. Finally, right around 8:55, we’re on the verge of crossing another transition point, this time onto the soils deposited by ancient Lake Bonneville. Later this week I rolled down the paved road a couple hundred yards toward the state capitol, and the a road-cut soon exposed the Lake Bonneville sediments.

*Not clear. Guess based on geologic map and hints of shape/color of trailside stones

LBSed1 Tangent: Right before the bottom, at 8:32, you’ll see the camera swing twice, quickly to the right. Though the camera-view didn’t catch it, I was glancing at the semi-permanent tent camp in the clearing about 20 feet off to the right. Something like a ½ dozen+ homeless people live here, almost directly below the huge monster trophy-homes we rode past back 2:00 – 2:30. Kind of weird, eh? You’ll often come across them walking down/out the trail around 8:00 or so in the morning, or coming home around 6:00 in the evening, as they “commute” to and from whatever they do downtown during the day.

I like plants in part because of the stories they tell. As I’ve started to pay attention to rocks, I’m seeing that they tell stories too. Geology improves your view of the real world in the same way that color improves your vision; it doesn’t make your vision any sharper or clearer, but it adds another axis, another dimension, that makes the view your vision brings you more complete. Rocks are way cool.

Know what’s even cooler? Dirt- where rock and life come together. But that’s a whole other post.

Extra Info: City Creek is by no means the only, best, or even easiest place to view tertiary conglomerate around Salt Lake Valley. The Northeast corner of the valley is practically rotten with it. Specifically, you pass a good outcrop or 2 in road-cuts in upper Emigration Canyon, and on the climb up to Big Mountain Pass switchbacks #2 and #4 (out of 5) are road-cut out of it. Finally, if you ever bike the “Brink” loop, up behind/North of Affleck Park and Big Mountain, you’ll pass by, and actually ride over, lots of it around the North end of the loop.

My recent passion for geology has been largely inspired by the best geology book I’ve ever read: Reading the Rocks, by Marcia Bjornerud, a geology professor at Lawrence University. The first third is slow, but stick with it, because the rest is fantastic. It also has a linked prologue/epilogue, which while a bit corny, totally works and really moved me. Bjornerud’s book was the source for the water-tangent in this post.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

City Creek Part 2: Flowerpalooza!

IMG_5117 The problem with being a mtn biker/wildflower nut* in May is that you keep stopping over and over again on rides to take photos. Though I almost always carry a camera when I ride, I’ve started to divide rides into Photo and Non-Photo rides. On Photo rides- which are by necessity solo**- I stop for anything cool. On Non-Photo rides I try not to stop unless I see something really new and amazing. Sunday morning I climbed the Shoreline trail up/East out of City Creek.

*Actually, that’s only one of the problems. Other problems include a) your mtn biking friends thinking you’re a greenie-enviro-science-plant-geek b) your plant friends thinking you’re a destructive, anti-nature, adrenaline-junkie-gearhead c) your wife thinking you have a girlfriend because you always get home late from “quick” rides and d) your coworkers repeatedly surprising you in your office, catching you with some big flower-shot on the screen. e) Oh and your mom reads your blog.

**Lest I manage to scare away the few riding friends who will still put up me.

IMG_5118 So many of the blooms I’ve blogged about the previous 2 years are well underway. On the gradual climb up paralleling the canyon bottom, the Gambel Oaks were probably 1/3-way leafed-out. To climber’s left, along open, sunny, Southeast-facing slopes, Arrowleaf Balsamroots are already popping out in clumps all over the place, and the larger open spaces are nicely sprinkled with blooming Milkvetch (pic right). To climber’s right, shaded by the brunt of the sun by the Oak, Oregon Grape is in full bloom down low. Carpet Phlox and Tufted Evening Primrose are also blooming along this stretch.

New Flower (But not the flower I meant to blog about; this is just a warm-up flower)

IMG_5130 Along this stretch, also on the sunny, Southeast-facing slopes, there’s a flower blooming I’ve meant to blog about for a year or so, but just hadn’t gotten around to. It looks like a giant Long-Stalk Spring Parsely, with a flower-stalk some 1.5’ – 2’ off the ground. It’s Fernleaf Biscuitroot, Lomatium dissectum (pic left), a common, if unspectacular, wildflower throughout the Western US and Canada.

There are some 70-80 species of Lomatium, all native to North America, and, like the Spring Parsleys, belonging to the Carrot/Parsley family, Apiaceae. Many species were used by Native Americans for food or medicine. The roots of Fernleaf Biscuitroot are edible when cooked* and were used locally by the Paiutes as a treatment for- among other things- venereal diseases, for which they applied it both internally** and topically. They- and numerous other tribes- also employed it as an asthma remedy.

*And supposedly also when raw in young shoots.

**I mean they ate it, not whatever else you were thinking.

Side Note: Speaking of Paiutes, something kind of interesting about Salt Lake Valley immediately prior to Euromerican settlement was that it was something of an in-between/no-mans-land between the Utes* and the Paiutes. Jim Bridger actually advised Brigham Young that Utah Valley was probably the better location for a settlement, but the Mormon settlers chose Salt Lake Valley instead, in part because there was a fairly consistent Ute presence in Utah Valley.

*For more about the Utes, see this post. Again, I am telling you- a post for everything.

CPhlox The tall, yellow, branching-at-the-head umbrella-stalks are what you’ll recognize first. But after you come to associate the lower, fern-like leaves sprouting from the base with the plant as well, you’ll notice that the leaves- if not the flower-stalks- are all over the place on sunny, South-facing slopes. It’s another one of those things that once you recognize it, you suddenly start seeing it everywhere, and wonder how you didn’t notice it for so long…

Tangent: This brings up a maybe-obvious thing that I’ll mention anyway: Spring is a great time to recognize the leaves of shrubs/flowers, TEPrimrosein that the ground isn’t yet all that crowded with vegetation. In another month or so the open patches will be such a jumble of things growing, grown and even already-wilting that although the flowers will still be easy to pick out, their leaves won’t be nearly as obvious. And though you may not think so, recognizing the leaves of wildflowers- before* the flowers bloom- is actually way cool, in that it tells you what is happening in an area and gives you a bigger framework- over both area and time- in which to check out a given wildflower. Right now you can easily pick out leaf-clumps where Balsamroots are about to bloom, and along damper/shadier stretches the Mule’s Ears are already obvious, a good 2-4 weeks before their flowers will bloom.

*Or after, as in the case of Sticky Geranium.

IMG_5124 After about a mile and half the trail turns sharply left and starts switchbacking West up the steep slope. This stretch- which I call the Green Tunnel- is treed mainly with Bigooth Maple, which though of similar height and form to taller Gambel Oak, leafs out 2+ weeks earlier, such that this stretch is much shadier than the Oak-lined trail lower down. There’s much more Oregon Grape here (pic left) in the shade and some other familiar sights, including one of my favorites, Blue Flax (pic below, right). I blogged about this flower last year (in the same place I think!) but since then I’ve noticed something else and read something else about it.

IMG_5140 The thing I noticed is that it has one of the most enduring blooms of Wasatch wildflowers. The bloom in the foothills may last till mid-June, but last summer I came across isolated patches up around 7,500 feet in Park City clear into mid-August. A given plant blooms multiple flowers successively over a period of weeks, even though a given flower lasts only a day or two. In other words, if you go ride this same trail tomorrow, you’ll almost certainly see the same plant blooming, but you’ll be looking at different flowers than I saw.

Flax 09 Shot The thing I read is even more interesting. Blue Flax flowers come in 2 types. One type has slightly shorter stamens and pistils, and the other slightly longer. A given plant will have all flowers of one or the other types- but not both, and it turns out that pollination can only occur between flowers of different types. The existence of the 2 types thereby acts as a safeguard against self-pollination.

Side Note: I haven’t yet ID’d the 2 types. I compared this year’s photos with last years (above, left), but both appear to be the same, which may be because I’m pretty sure I photo’d the same plant…

(The Real) New Flower

In the heart of the “tunnel”, coming out of a tight switchback, I caught a flash of white down low I’d never noticed before. The flowers were tiny, 6-petaled, and arrayed on zig-zaggy racemes, and the leaves were narrow and pointy- both suggesting a monocot. A closer view revealed that the six petals were actually tepals (3 petals and 3 sepals) and I knew I’d found a new lily. It’s Star-Flowered False Solomon’s Seal, Maianthemum stellatum (formerly Smilacina stellata).

SFFSS Maianthemum is a genus of a couple dozen species of tiny woodland lilies spread clear across the Northern hemisphere. M. stellatum is common from Alaska to Appalachia, but somehow I’d never noticed before. Once you do notice it, it’s worth checking out. The zig-zag of the raceme is an extension of the zig-zag form of the stalk, which zigs just a titch one way, then the other, with every leaf-base.

SFFSS ExpandO Side Note: Solomon’s Seal- “real” Solomon’s Seal- is a different, but closely-related family of lilies, Polygonatum. I always think it’s bit of a raw deal when something gets named “false” something-or-other. It’s not the thing’s fault we named it wrong…

IMG_5100 After the switchbacks, the climb breaks through a long, mostly open, sidehill climb. Every once in a while the trail passes through a small stand of Gambel Oak, and as you go up, each stand is a bit less leafed out right now than the one below it. Eventually as you climb the upper slope before the saddle, you get back into the Oak- shorter now- but these Oaks are just barely just flowering and starting to leaf out. This stretch is well flowered in yellow blooms, mostly Balsamroot (pic left- love this shot), but some other things as well.

IMG_5149There are some Singlestem Groundsel (pic right) blooming right now (though oddly, nowhere near as many as this time last year.*) But the most common yellow blooms after Balsamroots are Dandelions. Or, well, things that look like Dandelions.

*And come to think of it, it sure seems like the scrub oak is about a week behind, leaf-wise, where is normally is for the 3rd week of May. And then there’s that whole weirdness with the Rufous Hummingbirds showing up early, but that’s a whole other post…

Dandelions line* most of this stretch of the Shoreline trail now and again; they’re quite common on the lower stretch paralleling the canyon bottom. And they’re up high toward and on the Saddle as well. But not everything that at first glance appears to be a Dandelion here is a Dandelion; you have to look more closely. At least half the “Dandelions” on this stretch are “Mountain Dandelions”, or Agoseris glauca, which of course aren’t Dandelions at all, but similar-looking composites typically found alongside SS Groundsel and Larkspur in the high rangelands.

Dandelion compare Dandelions and Mountain Dandelions are easy to tell apart if you stop and check out the leaves; Mountain Dandelion leaves are long, narrow and unlobed, like exaggerated blades of grass, while Dandelion leaves are lobed/spiky. But with a little practice, you can pick them out on a ride-by on the flowers alone.

*And by “line”, I mean just that. They’re super-common alongside the trail, but there are hardly any just 6 feet or so off the trail, for what I suspect are 2 reasons: Firs, Dandelion seeds seem to do pretty well in disturbed soils, which of course is what the edge of a trail is… Second, Dandelion seeds are common in parks and yards and such, and so can be easily transported along trails by a hiker’s shoe, or say,… a dog. I’ve mentioned this before- I love dogs, but I’m convinced they’re a huge dispersal vector for exotics in the foothills.

CCF Map On top of the saddle I broke out the helmet-cam, sipped some water, and turned around. Here’s the descent again, but this time I’ve got a cheat-sheet for you, so you can follow along, and know what we’re passing. I recommend you open the video* in a separate window, so that you can watch the timer and follow the notes below as you play it.

*And yes, I’m sorry, you need to select “HD on”; I still haven’t figured out KanyonKris’ hack…

Video Notes

0:00- The clip starts as I fork left and downhill. The Scrub Oak here on this dry, South-facing slope is only about chest-high, and at ~5,500 feet, hasn’t leafed out yet.

0:06- As early as here, and for a while on down, you’ll notice a small clump of dull, light green leaves rising just a titch above the grass. These are yet-to-bloom Arrowleaf Balsamroots. The lighter color/aspect is caused by the little white hairs covering the leaves catching the morning sun.

0:16- First blooming clump of Arrowleaf Balsamroot on the left. You’ll see it frequently the rest of the clip.

0:21- This one is hard to catch, but we pass a group of 4 blooming SS Groundsel (yellow) stalks on the left.

0:25-Even harder to catch- couple of Mountain Dandelions on the left.

1:00- Speed picks up a bit as we weave through a nice stretch of blooming Balsamroots.

1:13- It doesn’t look it, but I am telling you, this loose, off-camber, turn is the sketchiest piece of this whole descent.

1:30- we pass into another stand of Scrub Oak, and already you can see how much more leafed out they are just a couple hundred feet below where we started.

2:05- Check out the monster-trophy-homes below on the right. We’ll come back to these tomorrow…

2:22- At this point you’ll notice that the ground on either side of the trail is covered with a low, clumpy, yellow-green-blooming cover. This is the Evil Myrtle Spurge, the runaway Mediterranean exotic I posted about last year that is taking over huge sections of the foothills.

2:36- Pass through a Scylla-Charybdis pair of rocks. Check these out- we’ll cover them in tomorrow’s post. Immediately after, at…

2:37- More Evil! The blooms lining the trail here are Dyers Woad, which we covered way back in the original Weed Week.

2:59- Another big Spurge patch on left.

3:07- At this point you’re looking straight up to the head of City Creek Canyon. The snow-covered peak at the end is Big Black Mountain. Just behind it, to the right, is a slightly-higher (9K+ ft) Grandview Peak, still on my yet-to-climb list.

3:22- Begin series of switchbacks dropping down into the canyon.

3:34- The much more leafed-out tree on the right is our first Bigtooth Maple, the first of many we’ll pass.

3:44- This switchback always has Blue Flax blooming in May on the downhill of the inside.

4:04- Begin “Green Tunnel”. It’ll get way more tunnel-y over the next 2 weeks.

4:11 – Right here along the right is blooming the Star-Flowered False Solomon’s Seal.

4:43- Blooming Oregon Grape on left as we exit the switchback. BTW, that’s a “regular” Dandelion blooming across the trail on the right.

5:16- Exit the tunnel, turn right onto main trail paralleling canyon bottom

5:26- As we pass over the green pipe, we’re passing by a perennial spring, that… oh wait, I’ll leave this for the geo-post…. Right after this, things get nice and fast for a bit. Mostly Oak along this stretch, with the occasional (leafier) Maple.

6:10 & 7 :00- the open areas on the right are filled not only with the visible blooming Balsamroots, but also carpeted with hot-pink blooming Milkvetch (which unfortunately doesn’t show up in the video.

7:09- Don’t worry, I never run over kids. Usually not adults either, unless they’re Utah County Republican convention delegates. Dogs neither, unless it’s a Weimaraner (only dog that ever bit me on a bike.)

8:08- Down low, hot and dry, the Sagebrush starts up with a big clump on our right.

8:16- The Church office building, state capitol and the Southern end of the Oquirrh Mountains all come into view ahead to the South/Southwest.

8:55- A well-timed trackstand can be helpful in not getting run over.

9 minutes, 3 miles- that’s a lot of cool stuff.

Next Up: What about the rocks?

Monday, May 17, 2010

City Creek Part1 : What a Difference a Month Makes

OK- I’m going to do 3 posts out of this one helmet-cam video. Today is mainly just teaser, but has a great before/after. Tomorrow I’ll have a Spring-catch-up, including a new wildflower*. And Wednesday** I’ll have a geo-post- all from the same video. How cool is that?***

*Not just any wildflower- a new monocot wildflower. Yes, that’s right- a new lily, blooming right now, in the foothills just above town.

**Well, hopefully Wednesday. Maybe Thursday. Or maybe next week- hey, I don’t know; it’s not like I get paid to do this, you know…

***Pretty F-ing Cool. That’s how.

As longtime readers know, I’ve been slacking this Spring. The previous 2 Springs I meticulously detailed each and every little bloom, leaf and weed. This year I’ve been goofing off with posts about everything from Race Camp to Vegas-Boondoggles to bribing Mexican cops to desert geology, totally blowing off Spring along the Wasatch Front. And that’s a shame, because we are having a glorious Spring. So I’m going to do a bit of quick catch-up, with the help of the helmet-cam.

Back in February, I did a post entitled “Bonk”, where I threw in a little snippet of this descent as helmet-cam video-filler:

On April 18, I filmed the same- but this time entire- descent, down into City Creek Canyon:

Side Note: BTW, the way these videos embed by default, they’re in low-def. You can watch them in high-def if you prefer. If it’s a YouTube* video, click on the lower right where it says “360p” and switch to “720p”. In Vimeo, click on the button on the upper right that says “HD is off” while the clip is playing and your mouse is over the video-screen. You’ll get an option to play the video in high-def.

*I use YouTube for shorter clips, Vimeo for longer ones. BTW, if there’s an obvious way to embed clips directly in high-def, please speak up.

Yesterday, May 16- 28 days later- I filmed the exact same descent* again:

*BTW, from about 4:04 to 5:16 is a stretch I blogged about 2 years ago in a post entitled “The Green Tunnel.” It still hasn’t leafed in all the way, but you start to get the tunnel effect in parts…

What a difference a month makes. I lose over 1,000 feet in this descent; notice the difference in the scrub oak leafing out from top to bottom. Also check out 2:36 on the left and 4:10 on the right, both of which I plan to blog about this week. Oh man, this’ll be fun.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

All About My (Helmet) Hair

The weather in Northern Utah is doing its usual May shenanigans; one day it’s sunny and 70F, the next it’s drizzly and 40F. The upside is that the hillsides are turning a lovely green, with all sorts of spring blooms popping up. Up higher though, it’s still Winter, and recent snows have made skiing possible weeks after (nearly all of) the resorts have closed for the season.

Wednesday Morning I joined SkiBikeJunkie, Dug, Aaron, Rick and several others for a pre-work ski up in Little Cottonwood Canyon. I was time-challenged, and so accompanied the group up to the top of the ridge dividing Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons and then skied back down solo. Once at the bottom I realized I still had some extra time, so I re-climbed about 2/3 of the track for a second, shorter run. The snow was nice, if not exceptional, and it was a bit novel to ski in mid-May, and I skied back to the car feeling happy and upbeat about the day ahead. I unloaded my gear into the car, took off my boots and slid into the driver’s seat for the ride back down the canyon. As I did so, I glanced in the rear-view mirror, and…. pffffff…. my upbeat, happy mood slipped away: I was afflicted with Chronic Helmet-Head.

As I have mentioned previously, my place of work does not have a shower. When I ski or bike pre-work I shower the night before. In the summer I take along a sun-shower and do a quick Howie-Shower to mitigate the most severe Helmet-Head. Sometimes I do so after skiing as well, but due to a recent mishap involving a rear SUV-hatch, a bike rack and a fumble, I have been without an operable sunshower this last week and a half. So all day Wednesday I worked- in the office- with a bizarrely-spiky head of hair.

HHead1 I wear a helmet- usually bike, sometimes ski- almost every day. Back in Life 1.0, I often wore a motorcycle helmet. Helmet-Head has been a constant throughout my entire adult life. What’s the deal with it, anyway?

Hair, the evolution of hair, and the evolution of modern human hair patterns, is absolutely fascinating. Hair- true hair- is unique to mammals*, and is one of the 5 defining characteristics** of the class.

*Insect “hairs”, BTW, are something completely different; they’re actually bristles made of chitin.

**The other 4 being mammary glands in females, sweat glands, 3 middle ear bones, and a brain with a neocortex region (which I explained in this post).

The protein that comprises our hair- keratin*- is the same protein that composes our fingernails and toenails. More interestingly, it’s nearly identical to a protein in the claws of birds and reptiles, suggesting that hair is a mammalian exaptation of an existing structure- in this case the proto-keratin protein- of our ~300 million-year-old common ancestor.

*I mentioned keratin last year, when I blogged about Porcupines, and specifically their quills.

StrandXsections4 Different peoples around the world have varying hair thicknesses and profiles, but all of our hair is composed of 3 concentric layers. The outermost is the cuticle. It’s thin and colorless, serves to protect the hair and consists of teeny-tiny, hard overlapping plates. The second, thicker, layer is the cortex, and this is the layer that contains melanin, giving hair its color. There are 2 kinds of melanin: eumelanin and pheomelanin*. Eumelanin produces brown or black hair, pheomelanin red. Blonde hair is the result of very little melanin (of either type.) Hairs with no melanin are gray.

*”Eu” of course = “good” and though I don’t know Latin, I know that “feo” = “ugly” in Spanish… That seems unfair. And wrong. I for one have always found red hair very attractive… Uh oh. I feel a tangent coming on in a footnote. In my younger years, I totally had a thing for redheads. I had 4 (that I recall) relationsh- well, “entanglements” I should say- with redheads in my early 20’s, all of which ended rather quickly and spectacularly poorly. I usually try to avoid stereotypes, but the “feisty redhead” was repeatedly true in my limited experience**.

**Although in fairness, if we were to consider all of the relationships in my 20’s that ended quickly and poorly, I’m not sure the proportion of those involving redheads would be all that much greater than the occurrence of redheads in the population as a whole.

HairXDry The inner layer is the medulla and is light-reflecting, which is why hair often looks different in direct sunlight.

When I say modern human hair patterns, I am talking the pattern of hairs over our bodies. I am not talking about our hair-styles (or lack thereof.) The average European* adult has about 5 million hairs on their body, of which only about 100,000 – 150,000 occur on your head. Before you protest that you don’t have that much armpit or pubic hair, the 5 million number includes both terminal and vellus hair. Terminal hair is the (relatively) thick, dark visible hair on your head and elsewhere. Vellus hair is the teeny-tiny peach fuzz all over the rest of your body. Whether you are male or female, you’re almost totally covered in hair- it’s just vellus hair.

IMG_5087 Tangent: Speaking of hair styles, in the break-room at work, people sometimes leave magazines. Right now, for whatever reason, there’s just one magazine: “Hair Style Guide”. The interior is filled with photos of- yes, that’s right- hair styles! Page after page- it’s like hair-porn! I know there are magazines for everything nowadays, but really? A whole monthly magazine about nothing but hair styles? Really? That’s what you’re reading??

Nested Tangent: So here’s my favorite break-room magazine story. HairPWe used to have a super-conservative “Christian” receptionist. At the time some of my female coworkers left a dozen or so women’s magazines in the break-room. Nothing racy- no Cosmo or even Redbook- just stuff like “Self” and maybe an issue of “Glamour.” The receptionist made actual covers for the magazines out of brown-paper bags, so that the cover-photos of bare-shouldered, cleavage-suggesting women would not be in plain view in the break-room.

A given hair follicle produces either terminal or vellus hair, but what’s interesting is that a follicle can change from producing one to the other. At puberty, we typically say that young people “start growing” hair in their groin and armpits, as well as their chests and faces if male. But they were already growing hair- vellus hair- in those regions for years. At puberty the follicles switched from producing vellus to terminal hair.

A bit later, we often say that many men “lose” their hair. But they generally don’t lose it; rather the follicles on their heads stop producing terminal and switch to producing vellus hairs. We have very few truly hairless patches of skin: our palms, lips, soles of feet, behind the ears, some scars and certain areas of our genitals.

StrandDry Tangent: Here’s another example of follicle-switching: ear-hair in old men. Ear-hairs in old guys fascinate me because they’re follicles switching from vellus to terminal production late in life. Here’s my prediction: within 50 years scientists will develop a true “cure” for baldness, and the key breakthrough will come about as the result of research into the ear-hair of old guys. You heard it here first.

The evolution of human hair pattern, texture and color is a way fascinating topic, and way beyond the scope of this post. There are all kinds of hypotheses as to why most of our follicles produce vellus, making us effectively “hairless”, but they all have problems/inconsistencies. Almost all other land-based mammals our size are covered with terminal hairs. Marine mammals aren’t, but they have an obvious reason to be hairless- drag in the water*- and so generally compensate for the lack of warming fur with a special layer of fat. A number of really big mammals, such as elephants and rhinos, are “hairless”, but their greater mass makes heat-loss less of an issue.

*Plus, wet hair doesn’t retain heat as well as dry hair.

Humans are thought to have become hairless around 1.5 – 2.0 million years ago, and the reason anthropologists think this is the case is because that’s when they believe the genetic mutation came about in a gene called MC1R which resulted in darker skin pigment. Prior to dark skin, it’s thought that naked*, hairless humans would fair poorly under the equatorial sun**.

*And it’s pretty certain we were naked for a long time. The best guess as to when the use of clothing became widespread is way more recent, like maybe only 70,000 years ago, a key piece of evidence being the genetically-determined date of divergence between head lice and body lice (which reside in clothing) which we looked at in this post.

**Not necessarily because of sunburn and skin cancer, but possibly because of folate-damage, as we covered in this post. Man, it is like I have a post for everything.

Why our ancestors “lost” their hair is unresolved. One long-standing hypothesis is that the loss coincided with the general drying or large areas of Africa and the formation of savanna, and may have come about to facilitate sweating and heat-dissipation. But hair also mitigates heat-accumulation, which is thought to be why we retained it on our heads…. Another, more recent, hypothesis is that hairlessness evolved as a countermeasure against parasites. Once the trend started, sexual selection could have amplified the tendency, with hairless suitors advertising their relatively parasite-free fitness. But if that were the case, why aren’t lots of other land-based animals our size hairless? And why are female humans more hairless than male humans?

OK, lots of questions here, and I’m not going to resolve them in this post, so let’s just focus on what’s really important- my hair. Referring again to my style-afflicted photo, you’ll notice 2 things. First, I am of European descent, and second, my hair is pretty straight.

Tangent: You may also have noticed that my hairstyle is pretty lame. In fact, I have had- no kidding- essentially the same hairstyle since 1971 (minus the beard.) Certainly, as an adult man of reasonable means, I could afford to invest in some professional, modern-day hairstyling. But the truth is that at a gut level- I just feel that there is something fundamentally and distinctly un-masculine about paying more than $10 for a haircut. There, I said it.

HHead2 The straight hair part is the thing I want to zero in on. Our closest relatives- chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans- are covered with straight hair. But modern day Africans have tightly-coiled hair. A covering of tightly-coiled hair has more airspaces and airflow than a pile of flat hairs lying on top of one another, and so may well be cooler under a hot sun. And sweaty tightly-coiled hair doesn’t cling to the scalp, neck and forehead nearly as badly as sweaty straight hair. Of course, like so much in human appearance- skin color, eye color, beards- such hair form might be the result of sexual selection, but there’s a strong tendency for peoples with tightly-coiled hair to be found at equatorial latitudes. So it’s suspected that our common African ancestors also had tightly-coiled hair, but that groups that migrated elsewhere- say Europe or East Asia- subsequently re-evolved straight hair.

The question is why? Was it just the case that straight hair, no longer being a liability, happened to catch on and spread through those populations? Or was there some benefit to straight hair in Northern climates? Perhaps a flat-lying head of straight hair was a bit warmer, but the most far-out hypothesis is that straight hair helps absorb UV light, which is though to be the same driver of the evolution of light skin pigment in cold/un-sunny climates. Human hair can actually transmit UV light along its length in a manner similar to a fiber optic tube!

The problem with the straight-hair/fiber-optic-UV hypothesis is that unless you have a buzz-cut- or extremely bad Watcher-style Helmet-Head- the ends of your hairs are not pointed up toward the sun. But the counter-counter-hypothesis points out that downward-pointing hair-ends are well-positioned to received UV light reflected upward from snow. See what I mean? There are like a gazillion hair hypotheses!

Back to me and my fashion-crisis. The reason my Helmet-Head is so problematic is not just because I am wearing a helmet, but because I am wearing a helmet and sweating, thereby make my compressed, mushed-up hair wet.

HairXWet When wet, hair holds water and expands. The old adage about not weighing yourself when your hair is wet is technically true; wet hair weighs about 30% more- even heavier if your hair is dried/damaged beforehand. The diameter of the strands increases by 15-20%, and- we are finally getting to the point here, so pay attention- the cuticle-flakes separate a bit and don’t overlap quite so tightly. This relaxing of the cuticle means two things. First, your hair is more susceptible to damage- specifically sun-damage- when wet, and second, your hair is more malleable when wet, which of course is the operative principle behind hair-curlers.

StrandWet Your hair can be freely and easily bent into different shapes when wet, and as the hair subsequently dries, the strands contract, and the cuticle-plates close up and tightly overlap again, locking the strands into their new shape. And that’s why my Helmet-Head so stubbornly persists until I can get my head back under a shower.

There’s of course an easy solution to my dilemma: a buzz cut. Many cyclists have short/buzzed/shave heads, thereby wonderfully avoiding the stylistic angst of Helmet-Head. But I’m fundamentally reluctant to do so, not out of vanity, but out of… well, let me try to explain…

Say you knew someone who was a total natural-born athlete. Some who was strong, agile, fast, with superb endurance, balance and eye-hand coordination. Now if that person just spent all day on the couch watching TV and eating Cheetoes, wouldn’t we all agree what a tremendous waste of potential that was?

That’s the deal with my hair. Because really, when you get down to it, I am a Natural Hair Athlete. I’m 46 years old, probably 80% of my friends are bald/balding/receding, but my hair is fantastically thick and healthy. Wouldn’t it be a crime- a waste of natural talent even- to buzz-cut that mane?

After I got to the office, changed, and checked email/voicemail, I walked over to the break-room for a cup of coffee. A female coworker- let’s call her “Karen”- was there and I said hi. She turned to me, and- I swear to God I am not making this up- said, “Hey your hair looks great! Did you do something different?”

And you know what? She was totally serious.

Note about sources: Info on the evolution of “hairlessness” and dark skin pigment in humans came from here. Info on the evolution and origins of hair came from here. General info on the structure of hair came from here, here, and here. Info on the fiber-optic/UV transmitting properties of hair came from here. Additional info on hair, hair evolution, and specifically vellus hair came from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Into the Acid Swamp

Last week was long- Monday through Friday on the road, multiple cities, not enough sleep, too much food, not enough exercise. I spent the last 3 days in Southern Florida, which sounds nice, except that a) I was barely outside, and b) I wasn’t near the water. Well, not the ocean water, anyway. As the plane descended toward the Ft. Myers airport, I saw a flat plain of dark green pine forest stretching off in the distance. You don’t usually think of pines when you think of Florida, but huge portions of the state are carpeted with them.

Tangent: The photo right I snapped Wednesday AM at the Philadelphia* airport. IMG_5008 Here’s something odd: I’ve seen countless spectacular sunrises from airport concourses. Airports are often in areas with significant air pollution, which enhances the orange tint, and somehow even the ugliest concrete landscape becomes beautiful for just a moment when bathed in that light. Unless I’m super-tight on a departure/connection, I stop for a minute or so to check out airport sunrises. When I do, I’m always the only guy doing so; everyone else just speed-waddles on by with their rollers-bags, laptop cases and Starbucks in hand. I want to say, “Hey, wait- check it out! There’s a huge ball of fire rising up in the sky!” But of course I don’t, and everyone else just zips by the most amazing thing any of us ever see in this life.

*Yes, I was in Philadelphia as well last week. As longtime readers know, I attended college in Philadelphia and so lived there for 4 years in the 1980s. From time to time my travels take me to the city. In the old days I used to do little nostalgic stopovers to see the campus, or maybe one of the crappy apartments I lived in. Nowadays, older, wiser and less nostalgic, I skip memory lane and head for the important stuff- a cheesesteak at Jim’s.

My knowledge of trees in the continental US is weakest in the Southeast. I’ve spent little time there, and nearly all the time I have spent there has been in urban areas, and before I became plant-aware. As I’ve read about and researched various North American plants, and specifically trees, I’ve noticed how much diversity there is in that portion of the country, and have started hoping for an opportunity to revisit the region. Looking out the plane window, I was pretty sure whatever pines were growing below were new to me.

For the first day and half I was stuck indoors, but Thursday before dinner I managed to break away for a run. I ran, clueless, through and across a series of shopping plazas until coming upon another pair of runners who directed me onto a dirt path off into the brush, which made a loop around a moderate-size pond. I left the asphalt, following the path through the high brush, and son saw the route would take me to the line of pines on the far shore.

Tangent: I’m going to come clean and state right up front that I’ve never had any desire to live in Florida. Too flat, too humid, too buggy, too, well… Florida. But what’s interesting about visiting Florida is that so many of the residents you meet there are obviously wildly enthusiastic about the place, how great it is, the climate, quality of life, etc. It’s almost as though they’re all moonlighting for the tourism board or something, and it’s funny, because I guess that’s how I- and many of my outdoorhead friends- come off when talking about Utah. Many of the Floridians I met are as high on life in Florida as I am on life in Utah, and yet we’d each be horrified at the prospect of living in the other place. Different strokes, I guess.

This brings up something I’ve been meaning to mention for a while: the relative “rooted-ness” of native Utahns.

One of the big differences between the Northeast-Midwest and the West/Sunbelt parts of the US are how long people have lived there. If you go to say Ohio or Indiana or even Massachusetts and walk into an office and start talking to people who’ve worked there, most of them grew up there. But if you go into an office in Phoenix or Seattle or Ft. Myers, almost no one grew up there. In general, there’s a higher level of “transience” or lack of “rooted-ness” in the more recently-settled, higher-growth states.

Side Note: As an East Coast Transplant moved West, this effect leads to the strange head-scratcher for me of people who live in kind-of-yucky places but never move. I can never understand why; anytime I try to engage them in a conversation about it, it devolves into (a more polite version of) this:

ME: Why do you live here in Cleveland?

THEM: Oh I grew up here.

ME: But why are you still here?

THEM: Oh my family’s here, and my wife’s family’s* here…

ME: But doesn’t this place kind of suck?

THEM: Yes, but my family’s here, and my wife’s family’s here…

*Guys will often pass the blame to their wives in these types of conversations. “Yeah, I’d like to move out West, but my wife, she likes to be close to her mother…” they’ll say. Really? For me, finding out that your fiancĂ©e required you to live in Cleveland to be near her mother for the next 50 years would be one of those deal-breaker things I would’ve found out before I proposed to her, like finding out if she’s gay, a Jesus Freak, a Singlespeeder, a Republican or poisoned her first husband or something…

But Utah is a surprising island of rooted-ness in the American West. Utah natives, especially- but not always- Mormons, don’t like to leave. After my company was acquired, the new company pitched 6 of the inside sales folks who worked for me on moving down to Ft. Myers. Not one of them had the slightest interest*. None of the 6 skis, bikes, or to my knowledge has climbed a mountain in the last decade, but leaving Utah was out of the question.

*Not even the single guy who loves to golf and hates the cold.

This isn’t the case BTW, with non-native Utahns, who are about as transient and un-rooted as Westerners elsewhere.

Nested Tangent: AW and I have been here 15 years now, and we seem to be pretty dug in. It seems as though if newcomers get past the ~7 year itch here, they tend to stay. In our case, the closest we came to leaving was back in 2001. My previous employer had been acquired, I’d done my year of indentured servitude integration support, and took nearly a year off before looking for my next gig. We spent a fair amount of time and discussion thinking about other areas, with Portland, OR being the leading contender*, but ended up staying.

*I am convinced that every liberal non-LDS couple in Utah goes through a “Let’s move to Portland” fantasy-phase. It’s a similar-sized city in a beautiful part of the country with great outdoor access. But unlike Salt Lake, it’s green, it’s liberal, it’s got a real city center where you’d actually want to walk around, and it’s not smack-dab in the middle of a state where the “politically moderate” means just a half a degree left of batshit-crazy**. In the end I vetoed Portland. Rain gets me down, and the closest legal singletrack was an hour’s drive out of town.

**Speaking of which, did any other local readers check out the matrix showing the issue-positions of the Republican Senatorial candidates in Saturday’s Salt Lake Tribune? The thing reads like a Spectrum Of Craziness. I just love Republican primary races in Utah. It’s like, “Hey, the incumbent isn’t crazy enough- vote for me, I’m crazier!” And the next guy is like, “No way- I’m crazier! Vote for me!”

slash pine1 Slash Pine, Pinus elliotti, (pic left, not mine) is a common pine native to the Southeastern US, stretching across Southern Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, the very Eastern “toe” of Louisiana, and throughout Florida. Its range also stretches through much of the Caribbean and Central America, and this highlights one of the most interesting things about Florida: it shares so many species with the Caribbean/Central America. A small population of actual Crocodiles (not just alligators) live in Florida, and it’s also within the native range of the irritating-bark Manzanillo tree (though it’s largely been eradicated from the state.) The state’s full of tropical birds and all sorts of interesting reptiles; the peninsula is like this little outlier of Central America in the lower 48.

Tangent: Speaking of birds, I recorded this amazing bird song one morning by my hotel. At the time I couldn’t see the bird, and assumed it was hidden among the palm fronds. But, when I played the video at home, it turned out the singing bird was visible, and you can see him along the left side of the trunk intermittently from about 0:26 on. Anyone have any idea what bird this is? (Alexis?)

Slash Pine is named for the “slashes”- stretches of swampy ground- on which is grows, and that brings me to the one of IMG_5024the most interesting things I noticed about the Ft. Myers area; every time I poked into a wooded area, the ground was either sodden, or filled with standing water. And according to the locals, the rainy season has yet to begin! The tree has longish (5” – 11”), slightly-drooping needles in bundles (pic right) of 2 or 3 (on the same tree/branch/twig) and fairly ordinary-looking, modest-size (4” – 8”) cones. The bark (pic left) has an orange-brown tone and is sort of flaky, like peeling plates. Although the tree can grow to over 100 feet further North in the sate, from South Florida southward, it almost never grows taller than 60 feet. IMG_5025The Southern trees- which I saw in Ft. Myers- are considered a different variety. P. elliotti var. densa (and formerly were considered a separate species.) Besides height, another difference between Northern and Southern varieties is that seedlings of the Southern version go through a “grass stage”, where they look like little clumps of grass (like many Mexican pines) Slash Pine often hybridizes with other native Florida pines, including Loblolly, P. taeda, and Longleaf, P. palustris. (Pic below right, not mine = Longleaf Pine seedlings in grass stage.)

Longleaf Grass Stage Seedling1 Slash Pine is fast-growing and short-lived, reaching a maximum age of ~200 years. It’s often grown on pine plantations, both within and beyond its native range, as far a field as Texas and Kentucky in the US. It’s also been introduced elsewhere around the world. In South Africa it’s escaped cultivation, and now grows wild as far North as Zimbabwe (!) It grows well in acidic soils (which waterlogged soils often are.)

IMG_5022 Friday morning I awoke before dawn to check out other trees and birds around the hotel. I’d noticed a clump of pines not far from the lot that looked different than the common slash pines and walked over for a look. But when I got up close, I saw they weren’t pines at all, but something completely different. They were Cypresses, specifically Pond Cypress, Taxodium ascendens.

Cypresses are a taxonomically confusing series of trees in the family IMG_5018Cupressaceae, the family that includes everything from Junipers to Redwoods to Western Red Cedar. We’ve seen Cypress only once in the wild, 2 years ago in Mendocino (Mendocino Cypress.) Pond Cypress is way different from Mendocino Cypress, and of course completely unlike anything we see in Utah.

T. ascendens is closely-related to (and some feel it is actually just a variety of) Bald Cypress, T. distichum, the better-known Cypress from swampy areas across the Southeast. The 2 trees have similar leaves and peeling, papery bark, but there are some significant differences, beyond the obvious difference in size. Bald Cypress grows in large, extended swampy areas, in which there is significant (if slow) water flow. Pond Cypress grows in isolated swampy pockets/depressions, in which there is almost no water flow, and in which the water and soil are much more acidic.

IMG_5017 In this shot (above) you can see the standing water the trees are growing out of. The whole “pool” is only maybe 60-70 feet across. Like Slash Pine, Pond Cypress is well-adapted to the wet, acidic conditions of the Ft. Myers area. Interestingly, when viewed from afar, stands of Pond Cypress often are domed in profile. The trees toward the center of the pocket/depression, in deeper water, grow tallest.

IMG_5020 Though the bark of the 2 trees is similar, that of T. ascendens is thicker, a possible adaptation for increased fire resistance, which makes sense as fires are likelier to reach their isolated stands than the expansive swamps where Bald Cypress grows.

Work travel’s always a bit of a drag, but when you’re a tree geek you can salvage a trip by finding a new species or two. That’s 2 new pines so far this year. I have to go back to Ft. Myers next month. I’m adding bird guide, supernoculars and headlamp* to my packing list.

*I’m thinking night-bug-hunting in the swamp. How cool does that sound?