At Home in Nature

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Ancient and modern wilderness preservation

Though the names of Roosevelt, Mills, Muir, Thoreau are known in the United States as advocates for conservation of natural resources, the first time natural resources were conserved by a government was during the reign of the Emperor Ashoka I of what is today the Indian subcontinent.  While the first efforts at conservation were religiously motivated and our modern conservation is motivated for economic and political reasons, the result was surprisingly the same.

Emperor Ashoka reigned in 269 BC, and converted to Buddhism 5 years later after conquering all of what is today known as India, Pakistan, some of Iran, Burma and Tibet.  One of the first human rulers to write autobiographical information, and express not only his laws but the reason behind his laws in writing, we have an intense understanding of his mind.  In one such account, he wrote “I conquered the Kalingas eight years after my coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, I came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now I feel deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.”

In penance, he freed his people, but they remained loyal to him because of his strong dedication to the Buddhist faith, his fair laws, and humanitarian principles.  Under his reign, we also saw the first acceptance of religious freedom (other religions were tolerated and Buddhists were not given special privileges, he commanded “All religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart” and “Contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. I desire that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions”), but monks sent to convert the Greeks, Chinese, Tibetans, Egyptians and Africans, and numerous Buddhist laws were proclaimed, ranging from protecting animals from cruelty and in some cases from hunting, to the protection of flora, fauna and the land itself.

The conservation of nature began first with a protection for particular species and kinds of animals from the Emperor’s own plate and hunting.  Then, as Ashoka’s faith grew, he ceased hunting and limited the number of animals that others could hunt in a year through a system of licenses (much like we have today).  Rare animals were especially protected, but so were new mothers and animals that were young (just like today).  Integrating animal cruelty with preservation efforts, Ashoka commanded (among other laws) “cocks are not to be caponized, husks hiding living beings are not to be burnt and forests are not to be burnt either without reason or to kill creatures. One animal is not to be fed to another.”

Like today, large and small animals were protected.  Even queen ants were protected by Ashoka.  Also, like today, animals (and people) were guaranteed rights to health care and shelter.  Free roadside rest stops were provided much as trailheads and trail services are provided in some of our parks, with food, water and shelter for people and animals.  He wrote, “I made provision for two types of medical treatment: medical treatment for humans and medical treatment for animals. Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown. Wherever medical roots or fruits are not available I have had them imported and grown. Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals.”

The result of a conservation system being the same whether religiously or secularly motivated is not astonishing when it is understood that, as Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of man.”

Star watching for farmers

Look to the skies just before sunrise and you’ll see something interesting: the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter appear to be in a line!  Though not actually in alignment, our perspective from Earth makes them appear so, but it is a good time to consider that in ancient times, people would look to the stars for an understanding of what to do in their agriculture.  It came naturally, as farmers used the light of the moon to get a few more hours of work done at night.

Though more recently, religious groups have claimed that stars and planets exert influences on our crops here on earth through their “energies,” in ancient times, the farmers would watch the stars to get a better idea of what time of year it actually was.  You see, the modern calendar and all its conveniences was not available then, and sometimes June would be in the middle of the winter, and November would be in the warmest part of the year.  It took the ancients a long time to perfect a solar calendar that actually worked.  Until they did, they relied on the stars to know the season.

The Dog Star, Sirius, was a good indicator that summertime was at its peak.  With the rising of Sirius, farmers would prepare to harvest potatoes and other heat sensitive crops, cease tilling, bring water to their fields, and otherwise bunker down for extreme heat.  By counting the moons, they knew when it was likely to be safe from frost to plant.  Each star and planet had its season.

The farmer LJ Columella was the first to describe an agrarian calendar based on stars and planets.  His work, On Agriculture, is still used by many farmers today even though we now have a reliable solar calendar to tell us the months and seasons. 

As superstition was gained after the age of reason, people began to become confused: did the stars cause the seasons, or did they simply mark the changes of the seasons?  The mythology associated with the stars and planets began to influence people, and new religions based on the ancient worship of the numerous deities that the ancients worshiped arose.  Permaculture is one such modern system that advocates utilizing planetary energies to improve harvests, but even Columella, who worshiped Mars thousands of years before Permaculture was ever considered, would tell you that the stars don’t tell you what to do: your knowledge that the stars are regular in their rising and setting against the passage of the seasons lets you anticipate seasonal trends in weather.

Today, farmers still work late by the light of the moon and still enjoy star watching, but now farmers enjoy starwatching for the joy of it, because they can look at a calendar to know what needs done at any given time.  But one of the greatest parts of that joy is remembering the days before the solar calendar and using the stars and moons to help in your farming.

In a jiffy or a moment?

We use the words daily without thinking of them.  But we have to remember that units of measurement have becoming increasingly standardized and based on units of ten.  Long before meter / foot debate began, long before we were using dollars made of 100 cents, long before we were using only hours, minutes and seconds to define our day, units of time were also of various unstandardized lengths.  Most of these are leftovers from lunar or stellar calendars when years were divided by 360 days and each week was 6 days (look in the Bible for references to when the 7th day was invented during a transition from the Paleolithic stellar to the lunar calendar, long before the solar calendar was invented).  They just don’t mean much of anything any more.  For example, a moment is a medieval unit of time equal to 1.5 minutes or 1/40 of an hour.  This seems arbitrary, except that it was 1/4 of a minute, which before mechanical clocks, used to be measured at 1/10 of an hour.  A jiffy (while redefined as 1/60 of a second in modern times) used to mean as fast as lightning flashed.  So, next time someone asks you to wait a moment, start your watch and count down!

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Duckling's first swim

Big news in the bird world this week: ducklings are now being seen in parks across the front range! How do ducks stay dry in water? Ducks and other waterfowl have an oil gland at the top of their tails, from which they spread oil around all their feathers.  Ducklings, however, are not born with a functional oil gland.  The mother duck will spread her own oil on her ducklings so that they can safely swim right away without getting waterlogged. 

If you are raising ducklings without a mother duck, they will not have their own oils at first and will be unable to swim safely.  Even a shallow dish of water can be fatal to a baby duck.  Whenever they get wet and have no oils, they will get cold and maybe even die if they are not kept warm enough and helped to dry off. 

But when is it safe to give your ducklings water to play in?  They love to play in water even when they are too young for it, and it is tempting to give them some even right away.  There is no standard age that has been agreed upon for when it is safe.  Some people say at 4 weeks old they have a functional oil gland.  Some people say wait until 8-12 weeks old, because their oil gland does not function well until they have their adult feathers mostly or fully grown in.  One duck farmer even says to give them supervised water play time every day from the time they are 3 days old, and then put them under a heat lamp and help them dry off until they can do it themselves: this farmer claims that the regular early exposure to water encourages early and healthy oil gland development.

In my own professional opinion, it is first of all very difficult to keep the ducklings from playing in their drinking water – even if you get or make a special water container to keep them out.  They will get wet.  It is safest to monitor their drinking time for the first few days to a week, and give them water at regular intervals through the day, taking it away after they’ve all had a good drink.  That way, they don’t get all wet and cold while you’re not watching, and they have a chance to dry off in between drinking times. 

Second, you will know just by watching your ducklings when they start to repel water from their feathers.  Before they can stay dry, they will look and feel very wet whenever they’ve been playing in the water.  After a certain age they will not look soggy.  For my ducklings, this was at around 3 or 4 weeks of age.   At this point, I let them have drinking water without supervision.  However, to be safe, I would not let them swim until they began to get their adult feathers significantly growing in, at around 8 weeks.

Chemical communication - lessons from lobsters

In their examination of communication within lobster populations (Chemical Communication in Crustaceans 2011, Part 3, 239-256), Doctors Juan Aggio and Charles D. Derby found that chemical communication through both urine and blood emissions plays a large role in lobster social behavior.  “Lobsters are fascinating animals that use chemicals as messages regarding their sexual status, their standing in a social hierarchy, and whether they affiliate with or avoid conspecifics. This, plus their economic importance, makes them important models for the study of intraspecific chemical communication. Our chapter is an overview of these processes, including the types of interactions between lobsters influenced by chemicals, how those interactions are affected by chemicals, and how these chemicals are detected. Since “lobster” refers to a common body plan rather than a taxonomic group and thus includes animals of differing phylogenetic relatedness and lifestyles – most notably clawed lobsters, spiny lobsters, and slipper lobsters, their use of chemicals in intraspecific interactions is diverse. Whenever possible, we compare the different groups of lobsters, though the amount of data available for relevant behaviors varies with the lifestyle of lobsters. Clawed lobsters use urinary chemicals processed by the olfactory pathway to identify previous opponents and maintain a stable social order, which is important because only the most dominant males will mate. After a hierarchy has been established by fighting, subsequent rematches are shorter and less violent, with urinary chemicals playing a key role in this process. Mate choice and mating behavior are also mediated by urinary olfactory cues. These behaviors are disrupted when one of the animals either has a compromised olfactory sense or is not allowed to release urine. Although there is less available data, the picture seems similar in spiny lobsters, with females using urinary chemicals from males as one of the cues in mate selection. Both spiny and slipper lobsters form dominance hierarchies, but little is known about how they are influenced by chemical signals. Conversely, spiny lobsters have been extensively studied regarding the mechanisms of aggregation and avoidance. Aggregation is mediated by urine-borne chemicals and avoidance is mediated by blood-borne chemicals, both processed by the olfactory system. Molecular identification of these compounds will be critical in allowing researchers to study the neural processing of intraspecific chemicals.”

Among the numerous ways that animals communicate, chemical communication is the most species – specific.  Unlike touch, sight and sound, taste and smell can send a signal that is directed specifically at members of the same species.  Because these signals are very easily intercepted by predators and other enemies, the chemicals are usually disguised and the actual communicator chemical present among all the chemical camouflage can be very difficult to detect.  Insights into lobster communication will lead to better understandings of our own reactions to smell and taste, both physiologically and emotionally. 

Increasing tuber set in potatoes

Michael Glenn Hickey of the University of Texas studied various devices for increasing potato production in West Texas (THE EFFECT OF SOIL TYPE ON STOLON NUMBER,TUBER INITIATION, AND TUBER VOLUME IN IRISH POTATOES, 1977).  “Potatoes in West Texas are grown for an early retail market which requires harvesting prior to maturity. Early tuber set would allow more time prior to harvest for tuber bulking. An extended period of tuber bulking would result in higher numbers of marketable tubers, thus an increase in yield. A knowledge of some of the factors influencing tuber initiation would aid in the understanding of early tuber set.”

Early emergence, of course, helps.  “The percentage of plants emerging is shown to decrease with decreasing clay content in the soil. Plants in all three soils failed to show any marked differences in early emergence, up to 17 days after planting. From 17 to 31 days after planting the differences in plant emergence were more significant and the distinct textural difference appeared.”

But the friability of the soil is only part of the reason for early emergence: potatoes are strong enough to push their way through even hard clay.  “The textural differences can be attributed to the differing moisture relations in the three soil types. Increasing the clay content results in an increased moisture retention. Moisture that was held in the proximity of the seed piece would aid in increasing the percentage of emergence. The water retention capacity of the Patricia soil was extremely low. Water moved through the soil and little was retained around the seed piece. Thus a drying out effect between waterings existed in the Patricia fine sand that was not as evident in the Amarillo and Pullman soils. The drying out of the soil between waterings would affect any weak seed pieces. This would result in poor emergence of plants, especially during the later period of plant emergence.”

Raising temperatures in greenhouses are not necessarily a good idea, once summer temperatures have arrived: high temperatures can reduce iron uptake and also greenhouse effects can alter the moisture content in the soil: “Plants growing outside of the greenhouse exhibited a higher percent emergence than those inside the greenhouse. Better water relations outside the greenhouse could possibly account for the difference. Lower relative humidities outside of the greenhouse would permit a more uniform drying of the soil, this would compensate for the rapid water movement in the sandy soils and permit a more even moisture distribution for the three soils. High soil temperature, above 21 C, has been shown to inhibit plant growth of potatoes (Somnerfeldt and Knutson, 1968).”

All this goes to show the reasons why higher tuber production is achieved through mounds, and the grow towers that are typically used for the cultivation of potatoes: under such conditions, moisture is easily maintained neither high or low, and temperature is also regulated.  Other species that rely on similar constancy for their crops rely on mounds (such as ants farming fungi), and human farmers would do well to emulate them.

The effect of climate change on trees

In their Consequences of climate change on the tree of life in Europe (24 February 2011, VOL 470 NATURE pg 531), the Doctors Wilfried Thuiller, Sebastien Lavergne, Cristina Roquet, Isabelle Boulangeat, Bruno Lafourcade & Miguel. B. Araujo report that climate change will effect some species of trees more than others, resulting in dramatic changes to the ecology as ecosystems become redefined by different trees. “Reductions in phylogenetic diversity will be greater in southern Europe, and gains are expected in regions of high latitude or altitude. However, losses will not be offset by gains and the tree of life faces a trend towards homogenization across the continent.” The Doctors say that “Climatic tolerances vary across species, causing some species to be more vulnerable to climate change than others. Because climate tolerances are not randomly distributed across phylogenies, species sensitivities to climate change are expected to be clustered along the phylogeny. It follows that if vulnerable species are closely related, shared internal branches of the tree of life have higher risks of collapsing.” Their estimates for changes in phylogenetic diversity versus scenarios of random extinction for plants, birds and mammals (graphs, above) demonstrate 2 scenarios: a, Emission scenario A1F1; b, emission scenario B1. The grey area is the quantile range of projected phylogenetic diversity due to range contraction (from 2020 onward), randomly scattered across the sample of trees.
 
 
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