Arboreal Undertakers

IMG_8487We have a complicated relationship with fungus. We eat some kinds of it and bake or ferment with others, while other types are lethally poisonous. Even the name “fungus” sends my mind straight to gross and slimy. Fungi are an essential group of life forms — perhaps millions of species that keep nutrients flowing through entire ecosystems — and because of their work, they’ll always be connected to disease and death. Besides all of that, they can be too inconspicuous to notice. But they’re always there.

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IMG_8519I drove down today to the old standby hiking area, Devil’s Den State Park, hoping to see if the rivers and waterfalls would be high and fast from the deluge that has soaked Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas in recent weeks. The streams here were fairly strong, but a day or so without the constant rain had calmed them down. What caught my eye instead were dozens of mushrooms — sparks of color in the otherwise constant green, if you can find them.

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IMG_8518Fungi are neither plant nor animal, though they’re closer to the latter. Some disturbing varieties get their energy from living things, but most absorb nutrition from leaf litter and whatever else settles to the forest floor. What you can see in these photos is the proverbial tip of the iceberg; a much bigger network of threads and tendrils lies in the log or dirt beneath, occasionally sending up the visible segments to release spores. This lattice can carry on for thousands of years in some cases, just doing its thing unbothered by the surface world.

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IMG_8516Outside of the world of fungi, it was a good day for a hike, and I wasn’t the only one out there.

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Dan

Change in the Air

_C1_9243We humans are causing a lot of mayhem in the natural world, according to decades of research and findings in the field by climatologists, biologists, ecologists and chemists.

First, we’ve got the use of fossil fuels flinging carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at levels and speeds the planet hasn’t seen for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lets visible light from the sun pass through to the surface, which absorbs the light, heats up and emits that energy back out as infrared, like the heat coming off of the sidewalk at the end of a summer day. In this form, it no longer goes through carbon dioxide; it’s trapped instead. There’s the greenhouse effect for you.

Then we have ocean acidification, because carbon dioxide in the air mixes with water in the oceans. Through some straightforward chemical reactions, that makes carbonic acid, a substance also found in soda that’s terribly unfriendly to the shellfish and coral that sustain oceanic life.

Put those and other issues all together, and scientists have found we and the rest of the living world have fairly dire problems everywhere we look, with thousands of species moving or going extinct every few years.

It’s all very depressing. I’ll come back to that.

I’m a county reporter, but I’ve had a few chances to report on climate, fracking, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and other environmental topics – heck, the biggest one I’ve done is here on this blog – as long as I’ve been writing. So this past weekend I drove up to St. Louis for a conference put together by the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, part of the larger National Adaptation Forum.

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_C1_9252It was my first conference ever, so that’s neat already, but it also brought an unexpected coincidence: it was held in St. Louis Union Station, a massive metal and brick structure into which someone decided to squeeze a hotel, a mall, an artificial lake along with the former train station. A decade ago, I took some of my first digital photos there, including this one:

Dec-17-2007-009It’s not terrible. Here’s my try this time around, featuring some of my fellow conference-goers:

_C1_0510I got to the city Sunday and Metcalf started Monday afternoon, so I had a few hours to walk around downtown and to the Gateway Arch as storms approached. Then it was back to the hotel to meet up with some other conference participants.

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_C1_0422I love the intricate detailing of the station’s every surface.

I had a little more time Monday to wander before we Metcalf participants all went on a field trip.

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_C1_0474You’ve probably heard about the trouble in California, where a significant chunk of our edible plants grow. The state’s drought, perhaps the worst in centuries, has come along partly because a warmer and drier atmosphere melted nearly all of California’s snowpack, meaning a lot of water is gone instead of giving the controlled release of gradually melting snow. Much of the Rockies’ flanks are covered by gray pine trees killed a beetle that’s spread further and further because of more warmth as well.

Our field trip was to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, where researchers told us they aim to use breeding and bio-engineering to create tougher and more nutritious plants that can deal with droughts and stresses similar to those examples. It’s a good goal, though I should add our tour gave us a one-sided impression of the place. They have a slick-looking building, at least.

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_C1_0563That evening I went back to the Arch, this time under a clear sky. I like to call this half-century-old structure the country’s largest piece of public art on the continent; in fact, apparently it’s the largest monument in the Americas. It’s 630 feet tall and narrows as it rises, creating the appearance of towering even higher above the western bank of the Mississippi. It’s stunning to see.

After the walk, some other journalists and I trekked around town looking for a bar to hang out in. I’d never had such an opportunity to meet other writers and freelancers, hear about their paths and stories and bounce some ideas around together. One participant worked at the Omaha World-Herald near my old hometown, and I met some cool folks from Colorado, Maryland and the Northwest. It was absolutely a worthwhile experience.

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_C1_0732Tuesday was devoted to the conference, so I don’t have many photos to show from then. I said I’d get back to how environmental problems can be unbearably grim, so for those interested, I’ll give a run-down of the more uplifting theme of the day: adaptation. The word “resilience” was used dozens of times. Climate change is already happening, the speakers said, so here’s how we’re trying to deal with it.

For example, the Wildlife Conservation Society is focusing its tree-planting in some forests on species that like warmer temperatures, basically trying to mold the forest for the coming decades. It’s also preparing land near the coasts, but not directly on them, to become the next coastal wetlands as the seas rise.  Kim Hall with the Nature Conservancy, meanwhile, talked about making sure land is easy enough for animals to move across, essentially making sure they can flee as the climate changes around them.

This is a perspective I’d never heard of before. It oddly sounds like giving up, cutting our losses. But its proponents cast it as also pragmatic and potentially indispensable. Much more along these lines needs to be done to prepare for what could be coming, the speakers said. Cities need to prepare for weather and water and drought, they said, and we must keep working to change our energy sources and live in better balance with the rest of life.

Anyway, I’ll stop there, but I hope these issues seem worthwhile to you. Many people, perhaps including yourself, don’t accept climate science’s consistent findings, and science in general is imperfect and human. But people who study these things have largely concluded we’re living on a warming and changing planet, and many others agree that means we need to change, too.

Great conference, Metcalf! I’m really glad I went. My brain’s buzzing with story ideas._C1_0733---CopyThanks to you, too, reader.

Dan

Evening Storms

_C1_8253Let’s talk about lightning, a high-power tendril of electric current that, as they say, can be five times as hot as the Sun’s surface — a blast of the cosmic right over our heads. The strongest bolts can have billion-volt potentials and carry enough energy to power a good-sized home for a month. They seem to be propelled by what we call static electricity on a massive scale, but researchers still don’t know exactly how they happen. Lightning also branches into the surreal, with so-called “sprites,” “elves” and “jets” of red, green and blue light reaching tens of miles toward space.

I haven’t had a chance to photograph lightning since a year ago. I’ve gotten better with the mechanics — narrow aperture, focus not quite on infinity, long exposure — but timing is still mostly luck, at least the way I’m doing it. Lots of frames of empty sky Friday night, when I took the photo above up in Rogers. I don’t know if there’s any avoiding that. I was so dang happy to get that photo.

I waited to post it because the forecast called for storms all weekend — maybe I’d get more chances. In the meantime, I went to Fayetteville’s Springfest, with its live music and short dog parade, and to the Botanical Gardens of the Ozarks.

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_C1_8404The last time I was at the botanical gardens, it had been below freezing for four days, freezing the fountains’ water into forms I’d never seen before. It was a little different this time around.

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_C1_8508This is the bleeding heart flower, which apparently has a short Japanese myth attached to it explaining its striking shape.

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_C1_8499I finally got another chance at catching lightning Sunday evening, a nice bookend for the weekend. These were shot from my apartment building, if anyone’s worried I was running out into ongoing storms. I wouldn’t recommend doing that.

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_C1_8660Stay safe out there, and thanks for looking.

Dan

The Dunes: Homebound

IMG_1787We left San Luis Valley as the sunrise splashed the mountains with orange heading for the plains, but before all of that, we stopped at the Raton-Clayton volcanic field in the northeast corner of New Mexico. Lava flows, lava domes like the one above and extinct volcanoes cover about 8,000 square miles there, according to the National Park Service’s helpful pamphlet. Capulin Volcano, a nicely symmetrical cinder cone that’s designated a national monument, is just a couple miles off the highway. Capulin last erupted about 60,000 years ago, or around the time humans first ventured past the edge of Africa, for anyone keeping track. We walked down into its crater.

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IMG_1784The rest of the field started forming 9 million years ago, or several million years before mammoths and saber-tooth tigers first appeared. I keep coming back to the ages of these places because they’re astounding. That volcano is about five times as old as human agriculture but could be just one-seventh as old as the Great Sand Dunes. The dunes, meanwhile, could be several times the age of the human species yet are essentially the age of kindergartners when compared to this lava field, which is itself an afterthought in the entire Rocky Mountain range.

Anyway, much was the same in Oklahoma’s flatness: the oddly abandoned towns, the enormous piles of hay, the bridges over creeks running dry. But unlike the first drive, we passed about a dozen stationary trains alongside the road; early in them orning I’d heard something about a train-truck collision along U.S. 25 on the radio and figured that was the reason, but it must have been a minor accident, because I can’t find a single news story on it.

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IMG_1790Later, a massive cloud of smoke appeared like a haze along the horizon, coming from near Woodward, Oklahoma. Here it is from the west, looming over some wind turbines for scale:

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IMG_1805I could still see the smoke 100 miles east of the grass fire responsible, blasted northeast by Oklahoma wind. The fire had burned about 35 square miles by Thursday, and the cause was still unclear. No one was hurt, though.

The last landmark we passed in sunlight was Tulsa. We were back in northwest Arkansas around 9 p.m.

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IMG_1811Being back home felt strange; driving across the panhandle, I had to make sure I had enough gas between towns, especially since some were empty, while in the dunes, I had to make sure I had enough food and water in case of delays and that I stayed hydrated. I realized in Fayetteville I didn’t have to do either anymore.

As a side-note, if you have a tight budget and don’t mind a long drive, road trips to national parks or anywhere else can be worth it. Hotel, food and gas for this trip cost about the same as one plane ticket. And just think of everything I would have missed if I had flown. It was all worth it.

Thanks for looking and reading, everybody.