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April 20th, 2011 - The Star in the Cottonwood Tree

I first learned about the star in the cottonwood tree many years ago from my friend and naturalist teacher, Pat Rummenie.

As we were walking in the forest, she picked a small, dead cottonwood twig up off of the ground and snapped it at it's "knuckle", (the banded joint that is characteristic of cottonwood branches) and said, "If you are lucky, inside you will see the "Star in the Cottonwood."

In the heartwood at the center of the twig, I saw a five-pointed star shape.
There are many Native American legends and fables about the star and what it means.
I learned one from Mary Louise Defender Wilson, who tells about it in a Dakotah legend.
Like all good folk tales, it is embellished and changes as it is related.

It goes something like this...

The Star in the Cottonwood Tree

A long time ago, when everything was still pretty new, up in the sky there were many, many stars. 

Amongst them was a little star that was very interested and curious about everything.

As this little star travelled across the sky, it would stop and examine so many things.

One day, the little star came down by the earth. It travelled all around the earth, looking at all of the animals, all of the birds, all of the plants, and everything that was alive on it.

The little star came near a village. There was a sound coming from the village. This sound was so beautiful, so wonderful, that the little star could not believe it. It had never heard anything so beautiful in all of the heavens and all of the places it had visited around the earth. So the little star stayed close to the village.

As it listened and listened, it could not get enough of listening to the beautiful sound.

Soon the little star heard the other stars calling and realized, "I am a star, and I should be up in the sky with the other stars. Even though sometimes we stars are very far apart, I had better go back up there to be closer to them."

So the little star went back up into the sky to be with the other stars, but it still kept thinking about the beautiful sound it had heard coming from the village. Soon (well, what is soon to a star) it began to get very lonely and very sad.

One night when all the stars were 
close together shining and talking about all the different things stars talk about, the little star asked if it could go back to the village so that it could hear the beautiful sound again. 

The other stars answered politely that no, it was a star, and that it belonged here, up in the sky with all of the other stars.

The little star didn't say anything. It tried to be involved in all the things that stars do, shining in the night sky, travelling here and there, dodging the planets, but the little star felt as though it didn't fit in with the rest of the stars, and it missed the beautiful sound more than ever. It got so lonely, it pleaded with the other stars. "Please may I go back to that village…?

I want to live there and listen to that beautiful sound forever!"

The oldest of the stars said, "I'm sorry little star, but you cannot do that. People live in that village. They have many things to do in order to stay alive; they have to gather their food, they have to build their houses, they have to mend their clothes, they have to teach each other."

The eldest star continued, "If you go back there, shining around as you do, the people will be distracted, wondering why a star has come down shining around their village. They will be disturbed by you and they won't be able to get all of their necessary things done."

So the little star thought and thought.

Finally it said to the other stars, "If I can find a way to be close to that village without them seeing me, can I stay there?"

The other stars chuckled and said, "Yes little star. If you can find a way to be close to that village without disturbing the people and keeping them from their work, you can go live there."

So the little star got an idea. It went down by the village, but not too close. It got close enough to hear the beautiful sound, but not so close that it disturbed the people.

It noticed it was next to a tall, tall tree, a cottonwood tree. The tallest tree in the area.

It thought, "This is perfect! I will stay inside this tree so that I can hear the beautiful sound. But I will not disturb the people." And so it did.

And it listened to its favorite sound, the sound that came from the village.

This was the sound of all the people laughing, and talking, and teaching each other.

The star is still inside the cottonwood tree today, listening and hoping to hear more of those beautiful sounds.

March 25th, 2011 - Winter Green

A few weeks ago I was involved in a whirlwind trip around Wisconsin that had me helping out one of our other state agricultural nursery inspectors. It being March, there wasn't a lot going on in most nurseries, but the places we visited were "all winter" growers, being companies that keep their greenhouses running all winter (not an inexpensive proposition in northern Wisconsin).
These were very interesting places, and it was especially nice to see some very green plants and walk around in a 75 degree greenhouse after snowshoeing the perimeter of an apple orchard a couple days previously.
This place was a HUGE grower of geraniums, and was gearing up for Easter with pots and hanging baskets.
As a matter of fact, their were literally pots and baskets for as far as the eye could see.
It was mind-boggling. They had just built a new greenhouse solely for this plant material, and were busy potting, watering, hanging, and moving things around for the big shipment coming up.
The large green blocks you see on the right side of the above image are all pallets of hundred of pounds of peat.
From this, the nurseries make their own "soiless mix" to put in their pots, using peat as the base material. This is to keep the growing media as sterile and neutral as possible, and have a starting media that is clean, free of contaminants, and that can be specifically tuned to the plants being grown by adding things like Milorganite, permeability agents, fertilizers, growth inhibitors, and all kinds of voodoo to get your plants healthy and perfectly timed to be looking their best when you are admiring those beautiful baskets hanging in your local store.

The colors and smells in these places are amazing. The plants and trays just go on and on to the vanishing point.
Every house has it's own style of heating and ventilation, which are critical for keeping the plants within their growing conditions, and helping prevent mold, fungus, and insect growth from taking advantage of the small succulent little plants, much sought after by these organisms. As with other things in nature, the young shoots are the tastiest, and are often the most vulnerable as well.
They are always trying to maximize space in the greenhouse without cheating something out of it's sources of light, water, airflow, and nutrients. And all while trying to make them easy to get to.
These young starts are on large metal tray-tables that slide on rollers to create aisles, then slide back for watering. The roof is also on a computerized system for opening the vents and controlling fresh air, and temperature.
"The Language of Nature is Mathematics" - Galileo Galilei
Luckily most of these plants are annuals, which aren't as large of a concern to us nursery inspectors. Our definition of the plant materials we need to inspect is normally, "Materials that will over-winter outside in the Wisconsin climate," but we do inspect geraniums and most other plants that come in from other countries (even if they were inspected there before shipment) as there have been problems with viruses and insects brought in that didn't show up before the plants began to mature. Everything was super-clean here.
I thought these were going to be "upside down" tomatoes from a distance, but no, more ornamentals. Wow, there is a lot of weight hanging there.
I want that one. No, not that one. THAT one.

March 23rd, 2011 - Tales From The Wing Seat

recent Facebook discussion got me thinking about another one of those 'Travel Trips from Hell' of mine that happened long, long ago, one that I had pushed so far back into my little locker with all the other Travel Trips from Hell, nightmares, embarrassing moments from childhood, that it was deeply hidden under some bad hangovers and tacky memorabilia. 
Long ago and far away, I had been a field service technician for a 24 hour photofinishing laboratory known as Guardian Photo. The things that went on there during the 'normal' all-night shifts, things like people putting smoke bombs down the film chutes into the splicing rooms causing mass-evacuations, workers being served cease-and-desist orders in the middle of their shift, others being handcuffed and dragged away for god-knows-what, or irate boyfriends ramming cars in the parking lot were all taken in stride and could fill a chapter on their own. But let us focus on one trip away from the glitz, drudgery, and all-night party that was 24 hour photofinishing at that time. That time was the early 1990's.
This trip had me getting up early one morning on a weekday, (already a freakish start as I worked 10 PM to 6 AM and was lucky if I was getting to bed at 10 AM after a few dark beers in those days) and hopping a flight to Detroit (Dee-twa) from Minneapolis, where I would then board a small commuter aircraft and fly to Fort Wayne, Indiana.
In Fort Wayne, Indiana was the Kodak Printer Maintenance School. This was a fancy name for an industrial bay that accepted printers from local photofinishing labs to be used as demonstration examples for repair instruction by Trained Kodak Factory Technicians. 
Sounding honest and noble on the surface, actually what was happening was that the local photo-finisher would send their crappiest broke-down piece of junk printer to the school and by the time we were done learning with it, they would have a nicely repaired and rebuilt machine, with a full overhaul having been performed on it by a group of students and factory-techs. How nice for them. Well, the premise was that we would see real-life problems that we might actually see in the field. And that was true, provided our own machines back home were crappy broke-down pieces of junk that had a zillion prints on them, which most usually were. So I guess it was a practical school. And I since didn't have to pay for it, so much the better.
The first leg of my flight to Detroit was uneventful. It was a nice day, sometime in the early spring of the year, I was kicking back and napping most of the way. 
Arriving in Detroit however, the weather was beginning to change. Thick fog was rolling in, cold damp breezes had begun to blow, and freezing drizzle peppered the airport windows.
Inside the gate, the boarding notice for Fort Wayne was called, and as I approached the doorway, it was clear that I was about to board the smallest commercial aircraft that I had ever seen. It had two propeller engines, one on each wing, and about twenty seats, judging by the number of windows.
As I walked out on the wet tarmac carrying my flight bag and began climbing the roll-up stairway attached to the plane, (that was about eight steps long total) I was thinking, I have never boarded a plane without a jetway before. Weird. I felt like I should have been wearing a trench coat and fedora, and have this mornings paper tucked under my arm as I tapped out my pipe on the handrail.
A cold mist stung my face as I stepped into the cabin and promptly clanged my head on the roof of the door. "Watch that," said the captain flatly as he shuffled papers in the tiny cockpit. "Yeah, thanks" I thought, as I made my way down the cramped aisle past other people rubbing their heads.
After finding my seat and staring blankly out the window for a few minutes, I notice a maintenance guy vaporizing out of the fog. He climbs a footstool, and opens a small hatch on the left engine. I watch him. From his bag he pulls out a quart of oil, and holding it deftly in his left hand like a grease-monkey in a George Raft movie, he plunges a metal filler-spout through the top of the can with his right hand and crams it down into a hole somewhere unseen beneath the cowling. I'm imagining the 'glug, glug, glug' from the can and thinking, "What's he going to do next, duct tape a crack in the prop...?!" {editors note: this is what happens when you don't tape the prop}
He yanks the can out while removing the spout in one snappy motion, with only a minor amount of oil dripping on his jumpsuit. Then he backs up a few steps, and while chucking the oil can into the back of his truck gives the pilot a thumbs-up. The engine turns over with what seems to be an abnormally long amount of chugging and shuddering, and finally a haze of pale blue smoke bellows from the exhaust, re-enforcing the stain that is already on the wing. Did the other engine start? Yup. We are now ready for take-off. I guess.
If I remember right, the flight was supposed to take about an hour and a half. The plane was manned by just the pilot and co-pilot, with no stewards or stewardesses. 
A video screen slowly emerged from the center aisle ceiling and a deteriorating tape-recorder voice explained where things were, what to insert into where, and that there would be no beverage service. It retracted again with little fanfare.
Soon we were bounding down the runway with both engines gunned up, cutting through the thick clouds of ground fog at what I imagined was top speed. I'm hoping the pilots can see better than I can, because I can't see a damn thing, and it takes me a second to realize we've even left the ground.
Maybe half of our twenty or so seats are filled, with mostly business types and the token parents with their screaming child. From my seat over the right wing (I guess I just naturally gravitate there), I can look straight down the aisle and into the cockpit. 
These were the days before security-sealed cockpits, and I can see the pilot and co-pilot with the yokes in their hands, along with a large green science-fiction-movie-looking radar tracking console shared between them. A bright green line tracks a circle on it with blobs of yellow beneath.
Once we get to "altitude", which I'm guessing is a few feet over the tops of the tallest buildings, the pilot comes on the intercom and explains that, "Hey, we're in for a bumpy ride today folks... looks like we've got a lot of cloud cover all the way to Fort Wayne... but we'll do our best to give you an enjoyable trip... keep your seatbelts fastened AT ALL TIMES, and sit back and enjoy the ride..." he says, just as we hit some turbulence with a sickening free-fall drop that makes his voice go up at the end. 
A short time later, I'm beginning to realize that I am not enjoying the ride. Our little craft is bouncing around the sky, moving forwards and sideways and vectoring into the fourth dimension all at the same time. It's like we're being blown by some unseen wind, and all I can see out of any window is milk. An occasional wisp of contrast goes by, but it's not enough to give my mind something to grasp to create the image of perspective, stability, or direction. It's just milk, milk, milk. I'm beginning to feel a little green around the gills.
My eyes wander around the diffuse light inside of the plane trying find something to focus on, and I begin to notice how grungy it is. My dog-eared copy of Hammacher Schlemmer has an obscene doodle on it's cover and numerous Cheetos are ground into a carpet of indeterminate color at my feet.
Soon I am grasping for some form of tantric meditation that will keep my stomach from rolling independently from the plane. Don't look at the milk. The milk won't help you. Hammacher Schlemmer is not helping. Ground Cheetos are not helping. Eyes closed, not helping. As I realize this and open my eyes, I notice the kid is no longer screaming. Well, that's something, I think. As I look over to his seat, I see why. His parents are showing him how to use the barf bag. Other patrons are using or seemingly thinking about using their barf bags too. The plane is playing a meandering one-note song of dual engine humming, struggling to maintain that one note and not quite doing it. This is soundtrack is accented by an occasional retch.
"Keep it together" I whisper to my stomach inwardly, and as my eyes go from rolling up inside my head to up the aisle towards the cockpit, the moment they reach the radar screen which is the only thing with any real regularity within my vision, it brightens for a moment, then shrinks into a single green dot, finally blipping out to a shade of dead pastel green like an old TV set. The co-pilot stares at it expectantly for a moment, then reaches back and draws the plastic accordioned curtain to the cockpit closed quickly, meeting my eyes for a fraction of a second. I look away and groan inwardly.
More milk goes by the windows. More retching. More roller-coaster dives and swoops. I never liked roller-coasters all that much. Focus. Let the mind go blank. Let the stomach be at peace.
Okay, say I DID want to use a barf bag, I should have it handy right?  I'm not giving in, I tell myself, I'm just preparing for any eventuality that might occur. I go through the seat pocket in front of me: Hammacher Schlemmer... Cheesy laminated evacuation instructions with 80's hairstyles... In-flight magazine, never read... and a barf bag. NO! A FULL barf bag. Ugh.
That's disgusting, I think as I try the next seatback pocket. Another full barf bag! The NEXT seatback pocket. Full barf bag. I collapse back into my seat and withdraw into my own private horror.
Example 'A':  Barf Bag.
Notice the full range of applications listed at the bottom of the bag.
Twilight Zone music begins to play inside my head as images of William Shatner looking out his window at a gremlin go by. But no, now it's just... milk.
Soon my lack of attention is snapped by a voice over the intercom announcing "THAT WE WILL BE LANDING IN FIVE MINUTES." 
Five minutes! I can do this. Focus. Don't look out the window. Don't look at the barf bags. Don't look at the Cheetos. Just, breathe and don't look at ANYTHING.
After the longest five minutes of my life, the ground is finally coming up to meet us. Or rather we are meeting it a little too quickly, and with a hard thump, an overhead compartment opens up, launching someone's briefcase airborne. Luckily it hits an empty seat and takes a nifty bounce before hitting the aisle floor and sliding into the bulkhead. No one says a word.
The microsecond we've stopped our forward momentum, my green passengers and I bolt for the cabin door. No one looks at one another. Goodbye, barf bag nightmare. 
Goodbye plane, I hope they clean you this time. Hello Fort Wayne, Indiana. It's SO good to see you.

March 6th, 2011 - Witchy Willows

Our snow has been 'come and go' lately, but I have been out snowshoeing in it as much as possible when it's around.
The other day we got a fresh six inches and I went over to 'Calhoun Park' in New Berlin, WI.
Calhoun is about the hilliest close wild place we have, which isn't saying all that much, this is southern Wisconsin and isn't exactly the Alps, but the place does have three sledding hills.
Anyway it's more than enough to get my heart rate pinned after about ten minutes when I'm wearing the big (28") Sherpas and using poles and wrist weights.
Here is a view from the upper trail. As you can see, the snow came from the north. Exclusively. A bit of a one-sided storm. 
This is not a black and white photograph by the way, that's the way it looked. 
Kind of the "bas-relief forest".
The next day much of the snow had melted off, but I put the Sherpas back on and walked out our patio and down along our little "creek".
It's been fun exploring along the creek, and this is about the only time of year it's easy to do. 
It gets really muddy and marshy in the spring, buggy in the summer, and really overgrown most of the year. The snowshoes get me around the seeps and over the prickly black locust. 
Well, most of it.
Yes, there is a creek there. Well, a flowage.
Is it a 'navigable waterway?
Depends upon the size of your boat, I guess. The beaver consider
it enough to try and dam up, so that to me, makes it official.
If you follow the creek far enough to get behind the neighboring apartment complexes, you come upon the scrubby willows full of "Witches Brooms."
These are weird growths that  make the twiggy branches look like, well, old besom brooms
A bit Harry Potterish. 
We also see them fairly frequently in evergreens when inspecting Christmas tree farms.
There are numerous things that can cause these strange growths. Often they are thought of as being "galls", but don't always fit that definition in the strictest sense of the term.

According to Paula Flynn from the Iowa Department of Plant Pathology, "In medieval times, mysterious and unexplainable occurrences were often blamed on witchcraft. Brooms during this time were made of bundles of twigs. 
The term witches' broom comes from the German word Hexenbesen, which means "to bewitch (hex) a bundle of twigs" (besom).
Witches' brooms occur on many different woody plant species, including deciduous trees such as hackberry, maple, and willow, and conifers such as pine and spruce. 

Here's a double.
There may be only one broom per tree, or they may be many scattered throughout the tree. In some cases, the brooms are quite large in size and are easily spotted. In others, they are small and well-hidden.
A number of stresses, both biological and environmental, can lead to the formation of brooms. Organisms such as fungi, phytoplasmas (bacterial-like organisms), mites, aphids, and mistletoe plants can cause abnormal growth when they attack a host tree. 
Environmental stresses that injure the growing points of branches can also trigger the formation of brooms. 
Some brooms appear to be caused by genetic mutations in the buds of the branches. Unlike brooms caused by living organisms, there is usually just one broom per tree when the cause is a genetic mutation. Pinpointing the cause of a witches' broom can be difficult, especially if the formation is related to an (abiotic) environmental factor."
Cool stuff. Mutant plants. And there is so much of this when you really start looking closely at growing things.
Cultural history, natural history, genetics, physics, botany, ecology, environmental science, and aesthetics all twisted up in some scrubby little branches. And these are the things that we can actually see
Imagine what is there that we cannot see...

March 3rd, 2011 - A Public Service Announcement - You May Be Wasting Money

My position as a Plant Pest & Disease Specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture brings me a lot of interdepartmental email. And I read a lot of Press Releases that I probably wouldn't if it wasn't for my job.
In Wisconsin, the Department of Agriculture operates under the "DATCP" or the "Department of Trade & Consumer Protection". As agricultural inspectors, we are responsible for the consumer protection of the growers, dealers, and end-users of plant materials, trying to make sure you get what you think you are paying for: plants free of pests, and plants that live up to their description and guarantee. Yes, some plants do come with a guarantee.
Another department under the DATCP umbrella is the state's main "Department of Consumer Protection", and within that resides the "Department of Weights & Measures." I read their releases religiously. It is to this entity I would like to draw your attention.
Weights & Measures is one of those near transparent governmental branches that works hard for you everyday, but unless you go looking for it, rarely do you realize the importance and numbers of what they do.

W & M Inspectors check the accuracy of gas pumps, prices at the checkout registers, grocery store scales, package weights, home heating fuel deliveries, and ALL other products sold by weight or measure. 
In 2010, DATCP weights and measures inspectors completed 192,045 inspections at 5,513 business locations throughout the state. 
The National Conference on Weights and Measures (NCWM) estimates that weights and measures inspectors nationwide save the average family about $600 a year.

Here's the Wisconsin 2010 Weights & Measures Summary:

Number of
Total Accuracy
Gas Pumps30,26499.6%97.8%
Price Scanners
(Items Tested)
Retail Scales8,72999.6%97.5%
Package Weight
(Packages Tested)
*Percentage of time a consumer would be charged accurately or undercharged.
** Includes all overcharges and undercharges.

When you look at the accuracy rates and think of the sheer volume of transactions involved with these different measuring devices, it boggles the mind. Just because your sleek, super fast, convenient, carpal-tunnel inducing price scanner at the store down the street rings up your breath mints at $1.79 doesn't mean it's right EVERY TIME.

After testing over 29,000 items, it was only right 96.8% of the time. If your gun was going to fire a bullet out the barrel 96.8% of the time, and a bullet in your face 3.2% of the time, would you shoot it?

We put a lot of trust in our technology and take for granted that it is doing us right.

In June of 2010, a weights and measures investigation led to the conviction of a St. Croix County man. 
John Rassbach, of Rassbach Oil, was sentenced to four years in prison on 14 criminal counts of theft. Rassbach was ordered to pay $165,000 in restitution for stealing heating fuel from customers by overcharging through underfilling their tanks.
15 companies paid civil forfeiture settlements – totaling $216,461 – in 2010, as a result of weights and measures inspections into the following issues:

Wisconsin CVS Pharmacy, L.L.C.$93,332Inaccurate prices
Waukesha Wholesale Foods, Inc.$24,126Short weight seafood
Supreme Lobster & Seafood Co.$22,245Short weight seafood
Eastern Fisheries, Inc.$13,857Short weight seafood
Home Depot USA, Inc.$9,276Inaccurate prices
Roundy’s Supermarkets, Inc.$9,100.50Short weight seafood
Aldi, Inc.$7,756Short weight seafood
Marder Trawling, Inc.$7,756Short weight seafood
Topco Associations, L.L.C.$6,235Short weight seafood
Milton Propane, Inc.$5,570Short weight LPG cylinders
Schnuck Markets, Inc.$5,570Short weight seafood
New Horizons Supply Cooperative$5,023.50Short weight LPG cylinders
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.$3,161Short weight seafood
Abbyland Truck Stop, L.L.C.$2,406Short measure fuel
South Padre Seafoods$1,047Short weight seafood
In these settlements, none of the businesses admitted to committing the above-mentioned violations.

That's a chunk of change. And a lot of people are paying money for ice with their fish. Some quotes had it worked out to $23 a pound for some of the ice-stuffed seafood.

In 2009, state weights and measures inspectors conducted 178,844 inspections, including: 28,979 gas pumps, 25,637 price scanners, 7,538 retail scales and 110,539 package weights.
Twelve companies paid civil forfeiture settlements totaling $504,347 in 2009 as a result of weights and measures inspections. Many of these cases involved price scanner issues. 

It sounds pretty dry, but this week is Weights and Measures Week in Wisconsin.
"This week marks the signing of the first weights and measures law by then President John Adams on March 2, 1799. Wisconsin's Weights and Measures program dates back to 1839, when the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature enacted a law to standardize weights and measures."
So hat's off to your Weights & Measures people!

I am currently working on a presentation to teach people observational skills. One of the factors in observation is knowing what to look for. I vow to do better at this myself, and notice more things around me. Wasting money should be a pretty good motivation...

Here are some things you can do.

As far as gas pumps go:

>    Compare the price on the pump with posted advertisements to make sure they are the same.
>    Make sure the pump’s dial resets to zero before you start to pump gas.
>    Check to see the price per gallon remains the same throughout the pumping process. If the price changes or the numbers appear to skip, black out, or advance too fast that you cannot read them, there may be a problem.
>    Make sure the meter stops running when you stop the pump.
>    Check the price computation for accuracy. (Pump prices round up to the nearest whole cent.)
>    Always get a receipt, even when paying by cash, as this is your proof of purchase.
>    Review the receipt and make any errors known to the store clerk immediately.

General shopping:

>    Write down prices or special sales as you shop. In grocery stores, consider writing the price on packaging without a price tag. 
>    Bring the store's ad with you. Some advertised specials such as 25% off or a two-for-one sale may not be in the computer, and the cashier must enter them manually. 
>    When sold by weight, all items must be sold by net weight. The wrapping or container should not be included. This also applies to packaged items, which must indicate net weight. 
>    At the checkout counter, watch the display screen as prices appear. If you think you are being overcharged, speak up. Ask the cashier to make any adjustment before you pay. Some stores simply adjust the price; others deduct an additional amount or offer the mispriced item for free.
>    Check your receipt before you leave the store. If you have already left the cashier’s lane, talk to a store manager to correct any mistakes.

Wisconsin law requires stores to charge the lowest advertised price and refund any overcharges. Most overcharges are unintentional. Regardless of the reason, the law requires refunds when consumers are overcharged.

So hey, don't believe everything you read. Stop, Look, & Listen. Eat your vegetables. Wash behind your ears. Just kidding. 
But if we keep cutting the budget, you may have to do this stuff yourself from now on.
Even as it is, W & M inspectors can only test so much. 

So Caveat Emptor: "Let the Buyer Beware."
You're the next contestant on: IS THE PRICE RIGHT??? 

For more weights and measures information in Wisconsin, or to file a consumer complaint, contact the Bureau of Consumer Protection on the web at; via e-mail at; or call toll-free at 1-800-422-7128.

Public Service quota completed. Over and out.

March 1st, 2011 - Trees

The White Pines are showing their gold jewelery this time of year.

The White Birch are taking on some attributes of the red barn.

The Jack Pine's cone is an engineering masterpiece.
Set to open up at different temperatures, 
from early summer's heat to a wildfire inferno,
the tree times it's germinations for a better chance
at long term survival.
The Black Locust is a hardcase.
Nasty spines greet you when it's a young whip,
then when it gets big and old and crotchety,
it's lumber is the best for fenceposts.
They say it lasts 25 - 30 years, untreated.
The Juniper is a cool plant. Like the Black Locust,
 it takes a long time deciding if it's a shrub, or a tree.
This is a Juniper berry, the thing that gives gin it's flavor.
The green bow tie is the branch scar, which
up close looks like a very complicated net of plumbing.
The white dot is a drop of sap.
Why is it blue?
Because a vest doesn't have sleeves.
Trees need a place to grow.
This is the creek behind our apartment compartment.

February 27th, 2011 - Aztalan

A couple days ago, our little family (Sharon, Happy the Dog, and myself) made a pilgrimage to my favorite clothing manufacturer; Duluth Trading Company's flagship store now housed in a former Mustard Museum (now hardware museum, clothing store, and more) in the middle of the troll-ridden downtown of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin.
That was cool and all, but on the way back east down "94," I suggested we stop at Aztalan State Park, in the town of Aztalan, and near Lake Mills, Wisconsin.
The Aztalan archaeological site has intrigued me since I stumbled upon it during a web search for something else. It's a true enigma. 

Many say, "It's the most important archaeological site in Wisconsin." It certainly is a unique place, with a lot of unanswered questions.
There is what is described as a "stockade," at least in the form of what the white man calls a stockade, and many mounds that have been found to have been used for food storage, burials, and ceremonies. It is built along the Crawfish river, which is actually a tributary of the Rock River, but I doubt these names mean anything to the peoples of the time when this was an active village.
From the DNR site: "The Indian occupants who built these stockade walls have been traced to a mother site at Cahokia, a large Middle Mississippian settlement in west-central Illinois located near present day St. Louis, Missouri. Cahokia housed 20,000 people and covered five square miles. At the north end of Cahokia's "urban" center is the 14-acre Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthen construction in North America.
The people who settled Aztalan built large, flat-topped pyramidal mounds and a stockade around their village. Decades of archaeological research, including carbon dating and tooth samples found at the site that were traced back to Cahokia, have provided some clues to the culture that created these mounds. It was once a village and ceremonial complex of about 500 people that thrived between 1000 and 1300 AD before the site was mysteriously abandoned."
It was a very developed little "city", unusual in many respects. It gives the impression that there was much planning involved here, and that sustainable living was happening for an extended period of time. For example, "fish weirs" were built with rock that extended underwater into the river, sort of the equivalent of our "wing-dams" on the Mississippi, to divert fish into shallower pools, presumably for capture or easier access. 
"One side of the river was a wide open prairie, rich with flowers and grasses. The other side was wooded providing timber for building and wildlife for hunting. The area has dozens of springs, which to Indian people are sacred entrances to the fertile underworld.

Corn, a staple food source for the Mississippian Indians, would also have grown well in the area (and still does). Also, games of skill were played here such as "chunkey", a contest that involves throwing spears at a disc-shaped stone.

"The village flourished for about three hundred years, then sometime around 1300 AD, the Aztalan Mississippians, like their relatives at Cahokia, seemingly vanished. There are no legends telling what happened and no written accounts since the Indians lacked a written language.
Mississippian culture was still active in areas that are now the southern and southeastern states. The Spanish conquistador Hernando DeSoto and early French explorers described the Indians' customs and beliefs." There is evidence of trade with these cultures in the remains of Aztalan, including copper implements.
One hypothesis suggests the Mississippians left Aztalan when they ran out of resources. There is evidence in Cahokia that some people were malnourished – subsisting too much on corn and lacking a diet rich in protein. New climate models indicate that the Midwest also might have suffered a serious drought at the time. Violence in the region might also have chased them out of Aztalan.
Some speculate that the Oneota Indians moved into the area and were strong competitors for resources. Major Oneota occupation sites have been found at nearby Lake Koshkonong as well as near La Crosse and along the Mississippi River.
More than 80 percent of the Aztalan site has not been excavated. While some artifacts are now housed at Aztalan, many pieces are scattered throughout the area, with a large number curated at the Milwaukee Public Museum." 
Sounds like another pilgrimage waiting to happen.

So for now, maybe that's all there is to say, until we can go back and see more. Maybe a visit in the warmer weather, take some tours and explore more. There is still plenty of wildlife in the area, as when we were there, turkey tracks ringed the "stockade" while deer and raccoon tracks were plentiful near the river.
It is an interesting place, an old place, with many layers of "old." I am glad there are still places like this.

February 25th, 2011 - The Old Soft Shoe

Last week after the snow had all but disappeared from around here, I was actually thinking about taking the sandbags out of the back of the truck, putting the ice scraper under the seat, and pumping up my bike tires. So of course Mother Nature had to graphically remind me that it is still February in Wisconsin.

Lucky for me I like to snowshoe. I recently traded an old bike for two pair of vintage snowshoes, and sometimes in the winter I get paid to snowshoe around dormant nurseries looking for Gypsy Moth eggmasses. Last Tuesday was such a day.
It was that sorta wet / sorta dry type of snow that likes to hang in the trees until late in the afternoon, aided by a nightly pre-application of freezing drizzle, or "frizzle" as we say in the trades.

So it was really cool peering down the endless rows of snow-covered willow, ash, and other nursery trees as I softly shuffled by, while scoping the big trees around the outside fencelines.
Thinking about it now, I probably should have taken a short video of it, but I don't seem to think in video, at least for the majority of the time.
That reminds me though, I do have a couple vids I shot last Christmas tree inspecting season that I should pull out and share. (Scrawls note on junk mail envelope 
hastily pulled from the recycling bin and already over-crowded with illegible notes). 
Anyway, it was an awesome little walk in the woods, I didn't find any signs of Gypsy Moth, which is good, but also kind of unsatisfying for me at the same time because I didn't find any. It's a no-win type of situation.
One thing I did find though was a heck of a lot of sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) damage on the pines.
What these birds do is hammer away at the trees making strange, almost Asian-looking character patterns, usually formed from repeated horizontal drill lines. They create sapsucker "wells" and let the sap run for awhile, then come back to lap the sap (they really don't suck it, it's a misnomer, they should be called "sap-lappers").
They also take a few insects that are attracted to the flowing sugary carbo treat, for a little protein don't cha know. Kinda like little sausages to go with your syrup and 'cakes.
Many of the well-patterns in the trees are just horizontal lines, but some of the heavily pecked and presumably extra tasty trees had very developed intricate character alphabets written on them in sapsucker braille.
The other thing that's cool about this process is that tree itself starts putting up a defense to the drilling, by filling the holes from the inside with little "sap-plugs" to stop the drip and seal itself off from the elements.
You can see some of these plugs in a few of the holes in the photos, they look like little eggs. (Some may actually be eggs, insect eggs, but the insects usually don't lay them this close to the outside of the tree until the weather warms and they figure they will have a better chance for survival in more moderate temperatures).

Another novel thing I came across was this saprophyte growing on a completely downed and debarked tree. It's some type of fungus - that I should probably know the name of but don't...But hey, I can accept that, I can barely remember my own name, that's why they give me a badge on a string to wear around my neck. The interesting thing (to me anyway) is that this particular fungus looked as though it had been growing in and around some bore-holes in the trunk, probably caused by a bark-boring beetle or other insect. I haven't often seen this type of "behavior."
Well, one organism's trash is another organism's treasure...

Other recent notable snowshoeing outings brought back some interesting pictures of the prairie at Retzer Nature Center in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
This week, right on cue, Old Man Winter (Oh yeah, it's still officially winter) brought on another storm, and poof! A nice white blanket for snowshoeing after my afternoon class at Retzer on Wednesday, after all the snow had virtually disappeared during the weekend.
Here's a quick little hacked together panorama (QLHTP) from the top of the prairie "hill" at Retzer looking mostly west towards Sussex, WI, and south towards the fens down in the little valley:

Sorry about the stitching and the dark corners, I blame it on "my cheesy little camera." (MCLC) Click on the image to view it larger and see if you can find the sun and moon.
They are both there in the same picture (It's a 360 degree pano).
I suppose if you were a really good astronomer, you would know where to look for them at 43.013246 N, -88.29939 W, facing SW on Wednesday, ‎February ‎23, ‎2011, ‏‎5:36:04 PM.
I for one, am not.
Hey! Make the most of winter - there are only a few weeks of it left...!

February 20th, 2011 - Leftovers Again...?!

Yup. Here's a few pieces I found moldering in some sundry folders, filed under "I should blog these sometime."

On July 19th, 2010, a tornado with ripped through the small town of Eagle, WI, bearing winds of between 111 mph and 135 mph. It cut a swath 4 miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, destroying at least 25 homes and damaging hundreds more.
Last November I drove through Eagle on my way back from southeastern Wisconsin, on a cold but sunny day. I was just taking the road less traveled, doing what my co-worker calls "getting your nose dirty" by riding the backroads and keeping your eyes open. "Try a road you have never been on, and hook them all together," he says. So I was.
By November much of the storm's damage had been cleared away, but the thing that struck me as I rolled into town was the cemetery.

The row of oaks along the east side had been snapped off five to six feet off the ground right down the line, and the oldest of the trees had been literally topped. Snapped in half as it were. Sad to see, but awesome nature none the less.

It's kind of a spooky old place, even on a sunny day. There is a "Boot Hill" in the middle of the lot, complete with dilapidated concrete crypt housing the town's founding fathers, I guess. Or maybe it's a keep for the local voodoo queen, who departed after "mysterious  circumstances". (I'm making that up. I think.)
I wanted to come back for the evening light and get the tangles of the trees silhouetted against the sunset, but it was not to be, not on this day at least.
The city had done a good job cleaning things up, but bearing in mind this was five months later, there were still many trees to limb, and still this massive pile of huge ancient oak to sort out. 

Some nice table-top and furniture material there. I vowed I would go back in the evening someday, just to see if my spooky impressions were correct. I'll have to check the sun tables and see when the sun is on line to "go down" over Boot Hill.

These next photos I didn't take myself, but borrowed them from Wikipedia, after one of those, "I'm looking for something else, but WHAT THE HELL  IS THAT...?!" searches.
Turns out this unique vehicle is called an "Amphirol," designed and built in the southwest Netherlands in he 1960s
It is a "screw-propelled vehicle," with it's propulsion provided by two large, hollow worm gears that it rides upon. 
The Amphirol is able to navigate the sticky clay revealed by the outgoing tides and, owing to the hollow tubes, "swim" through the water during high tides.
Note the beached boats in the background.
With it's top speeds of 7.7 MPH on mud and 6 MPH in water, it is not setting any land speed records. 
However by adapting two independent transmission units, it makes it possible for the screw cylinders to be deliberately driven in the same direction, so that the vehicle can crab sideways on dry land at the rather alarming speed of 19 MPH. 
When moving sideways, steering is effected by angling the front of the cylinders so that they are no longer parallel – giving it a large minimum turning radius. This lends it to modern-day purposes, such as compacting tailings from industrial processes.
Primarily though, Amphirols are used for ground surveying, grooving the surfaces of newly drained polders to assist with drying, and to carry soil-drilling teams to remote, barely accessible locations.
I want one. Or at least I want to drive one. I also want to drive a Sno-Cat too. I might have a more realistic chance at that. I know where one is anyway.
Here's some more links about screw-driven and similar vehicles, including an early "snowmobile." And one with the Ampirol on a cool old Pathé newsreel, fighting fires and running the polders in Holland.

Last but not least, just a photo I personally need to see in the middle of February: one of our favorite beaches on Lake Michigan, in the middle of summer.
This beach is a little south of Two Rivers, WI, and it's great. 
The dog loves it. Seems like it's always uncrowded, good for meandering down and pondering the world, and it has a sand bar that goes out into the lake for many dozens of yards. Kind of the epitome of a sandy Great Lakes beach in my mind.

Here it is on a little bit of a wilder day.
Okay, back to spring cleaning, and daydreaming about driving weird vehicles.