Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Smell of Biodiversity

After the rain and snow event this weekend, I didn't think I'd see a single flame this week. Leave it to the fast drying nature of curled post oak leaves (which maximizes surface area), plummeting relative humidities (down to 22% today), and a long sunny day on Monday to bring that welcome smell of rich-woods-on-fire to my hair again.

Fuel moistures at the ground level were still pretty high, which meant that the 550 acres we burned saw an event best characterized as a "light surface fire" --one that burned off last year's leaf litter, but left some wet leaves in tact on the woodland floor. Historically, these were common on the landscape, sometimes occurring annually in the more flammable reaches of the Ozark Highlands. But in the event of an old fashioned woodland restoration project, a little light surface fire like today's won't cut mustard.

Today I was at the end of a crew with a drip torch, filling in where the fire stopped and stripping out hollows and hillsides in the middle of a beautifully restored woodland. Only three years ago we burned this same area with the wind fighting us all day in an event where I experienced my very first slipped disc after slipping on a boulder. I kept up with fires for the rest of the season, but the pain was....well noted on each event. Nevertheless, the April fire three years ago here crawled slowly and resolutely across the post oak/blackjack oak flatwoods, and in the end burned the whole area to mineral soil. Wind was our friend today, fuel moistures were still a little high, but I was on the road to Columbia by 4:30 because it burned out so quickly.

If I haven't reiterated enough the importance of diversity in a fire regime, I'll write it again: don't burn the same tract of woodlands every three years on the same date, with the same humidities, with the same fuel moistures. Diversify the fire regime to better mimic the natural processes that gave rise to our biodiverse systems to begin with. It's downright destructive to send hot April fires through the same tract of woods every few years. And conversely, it's worthless for restoration goals to burn when your fuels are wet, humidities never dip lower than 51%, wind speeds of 5 mph, and temperatures below freezing. Unfortunately, some in the field burn this way, and because of this, they will never have the beautiful, diverse, dynamic landscape that I burned today.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Shrinking songbirds

From the BBC:

Climate linked to smaller birds
By Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

Songbirds in the US are getting smaller, and climate change is suspected as the cause.

A study of almost half a million birds, belonging to over 100 species, shows that many are gradually becoming lighter and growing shorter wings. This shrinkage has occurred within just half a century, with the birds thought to be evolving into a smaller size in response to warmer temperatures.

However, there is little evidence that the change is harmful to the birds.

Details of the discovery are published in the journal Oikos.
"Many of these species are apparently doing just fine, but the individual birds are becoming gradually smaller nonetheless," says Dr Josh van Buskirk University of Zurich. In biology, there is a general rule of thumb that animals tend to become smaller in warmer climates: an idea known as Bergman's Rule.

Usually this trend can be seen among animal species that live over a range of latitude or altitude, with individuals living at more northern latitudes or higher up cooler mountains being slightly larger than those below, for example.

Quite why this happens is not clear, but it prompted one group of scientists to ask the question: would animals respond in the same way to climate change?

To find out, Dr Josh Van Buskirk of the University of Zurich, Switzerland and colleagues Mr Robert Mulvihill and Mr Robert Leberman of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Rector, Pennsylvania, US decided to evaluate the sizes of hundreds of thousands of birds that pass through the Carnegie Museum's Powdermill ringing station, also in Pennsylvania.

They examined the records of 486,000 individual birds that had been caught and measured at the ringing station from 1961 to 2007.

These birds belonged to 102 species, arriving over different seasons. Each was weighed. It also had the length of its wings measured, recorded as wing chord length, or the distance between the bird's wrist to the tip of the longest primary feather. Their sample included local resident bird species, overwintering species, and even long distance migrants arriving from the Neotropics.

What they found was striking.

Of 83 species caught during spring migration, 60 have become smaller over the 46 year study period, weighing less and having shorter wings. Of the 75 species migrating in autumn, 66 have become smaller. In summer, 51 of 65 breeding species have similarly reduced in size, as have 20 out of 26 wintering species. The differences in size are not big.

"On average, the decline in mass of spring migrants over the 46 year study was just 1.3%," says Dr Buskirk. "For a 10g warbler that's a loss of just 130mg."

But some species are losing more weight.

For example, the rose-breasted grosbeak has declined in mass by about 4%, while the Kentucky warbler has dropped 3.3% in weight and the scarlet tanager 2.3%. The trend is particularly noticeable among those birds that winter in the New World tropics of the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

"The headline finding is that the body sizes of many species of North American birds, mostly songbirds, are gradually becoming smaller," says Dr Buskirk.

However, their populations are not dwindling.

"So many of these species are apparently doing just fine, but the individual birds are becoming gradually smaller nonetheless," says Dr Buskirk. That suggests that bird species in North America are obeying Berman's rule, by evolving into a smaller size as temperatures increase. Though this change appears quick, it has taken place over at least 20 generations of birds. "There are plenty examples of rapid contemporary evolution over much shorter time periods," says Dr Buskirk. Whether the trend will cause the birds any long-term consequences is unclear.

"In one obvious sense, the consequences are positive," says Dr Buskirk. "That is, as temperatures become warmer, the optimal body size is becoming smaller." However, even though the species appear to be adapting to the new climatic conditions, it could still be that their average "fitness" in evolutionary terms, is going down.

"Evidence from other studies is that some species will benefit and others will be harmed, and it's not always the species we like that will be harmed," says Dr Buskirk. The jury is still out as to why any species responds to warmer temperatures by becoming smaller. Originally, biologists proposed that having a larger body surface to volume might help in warmer climates.

But more recent ideas suggest that animals might actually be responding instead to something else that correlates with temperature, such as the availability of food, or metabolic rate. "It looks like it might take a while before we know," says Dr Buskirk. His team says much more data is now needed to confirm this trend and to see if it is happening in animals other than birds.

For example, it took an avalanche of data before people became convinced that climate change is already altering when birds start migrating.

Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8560000/8560694.stm

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

sunt lacrimae rerum


When news came through the post last week that my thesis advisor was dying, I knew then that I had to put aside whining about the career choice I made and finally sit down to write her a long apologia on my lovely ecru engraved Crane's stationary. Not a fun night that was, perched crosslegged at my table thinking of my darling, diminuitive (in size only), highly pedigreed Bostonian professor who set me on the path to a fulfilling lifelong career in Latin Paleography. I failed my major professor by ditching my promising graduate career because "I'd rather work outside." So I sent her a long apology last week for failing her, an apology for being an ecologist, a single page handwritten note that turned into a veritable love letter to one of my favorite people. My letter arrived in her hands a matter of days before she died.

She had the patience of Job with many of her students, almost coddling them (especially the ones with weird parent issues or unwieldy emotional problems). In this past week, I've heard from several students who reported that on days when they had, for example, overslept for her Latin class, she would march across the street to the dorm, rouse the sleeping student, and when, finally, the student would appear in class, she would offer him coffee. And she meant it. She would fetch coffee for the student who overslept and interrupted her class. Ah, she'd never have done that for me.

I was in the camp of students she pushed to perform to the best of our abilities. I whined a lot to her, explaining to her that I'm not that smart, that I really "don't like" reading Caesar and I'd be much better served if we "only read Ovid, Horace and Vergil." She rolled her eyes a lot, slaughtered my papers, explained that she had no patience for my vehemence about my own ability. At one point in 1994, a bright sunny day in her office, she finally allowed me to explain in great detail why I don't like reading Caesar or Tacitus, and that perhaps I would "perform better" if we settled in on Vergil. We read lots of Vergil together that year, so much Vergil that I fell in love with him to the point that she trusted me with untranslated medieval glosses of the Aeneid to translate for my thesis. Early medieval Latin is really coarse, base Latin, but couple base Latin with my clunky translations and you'd have my thesis advisor reaching for wine as we sloughed through my assignments. Lots of placing her head in her hands, elbows on the old oak desk. Once, while having class in her darling Craftsman home (with two boisterous hounds named Mongo and Zulu), she instructed me to "go outside and run a few miles, then come back and let's try it again."

Ironically, years later, I was stuck reading Caesar again in graduate school. I wrote a voluminous paper on Caesar's clementia (which the author always bragged about -arrogantly- on the battlefield). If my thesis advisor ever showed clementia towards me, it was allowing me to only read Vergil and Ovid in my junior year. For that I'm grateful. (Give me Ovid, Horace, Vergil anyday. Beautiful Latin.)

She had a wonderful knack for obliterating my academic writing. One paper I wrote on Roman brickwork patterns (a topic which I love), she tore apart my translations, awarded me a B (which killed me), but didn't advise me to "find another major." So I kept at it. Maybe I'm as persistent as she is? And perhaps that's why she wrote a letter of recommendation to the Pontifical Institute that must have claimed that I can not only walk on water, but I can also turn well water into a fine, aged Chianti. There is truly no other way the Pontifical Institute would have accepted me without her blessing. I excelled in the paleography courses in my graduate career, and I never would have were it not for her persistence.

Over the course of the past week, my esteemed Medieval History professor told me that my advisor really cared for me, and had great hopes that I would excel in the field of Latin Paleography. I still have my enormous Classics library, and I can still read Latin and Greek proficiently, but I'm not excelling in any field, really (though I make a great minestrone...one that my advisor would love, actually.). So in my long letter to her last week, I explained how dear she was for having great faith in me and how terribly guilty I still feel for dashing her hopes of molding me in her model. My advisor was a brilliant woman, a remarkable cook, a classy Italian-American from Tufts and Harvard whose amazing character I can't even try to capture in this medium. She's larger than life, a wee, 4'8" woman whose fluent Italian comes with a Boston accent, but didn't hesitate to use all the expletives in and out of the book when the government ticket sellers at Hadrian's Domus Aurea tried to stiff us on the group rate.

I'm grateful that I had a thesis advisor who pushed so hard that when I finally made the grade, she wasn't congratulatory about it because she expected it from me all along. If only I could positively impact half the lives she did in her life.

Sadly, no one has posted plans for a big Roman bonfire/wake. The memorial service will be in the little Norman Episcopal church which she attended only during the Bless the Beasts Sunday when Mongo wiped his dirty paws on the face of a prominent lawyer's wife. Honoring her in a church is a little like using holy water for dishes. She deserves more than that.

This came through today, a link to an article published about her and her husband and gun ownership. It's lovely to see her smiling, to read her one line comment about guns, and to see her tastefully appointed house where I spent most of my senior year. It's a sad day when someone like her dies prematurely.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Stage 3: Augusta to Dutzow

Heading east on winding Hwy. 94 towards Augusta, the woodlands look flammable. Gentle rolling hillsides of white oak and her associates are parsed out on the landscape, interrupted by wide stretches of agricultural fields in the valleys. Hundreds of acres of restorable woodlands here, an Outer Ozark Border region almost entirely in private ownership.

Approaching the steep, quaint town of Augusta (est. 1836), row after row of tidy and well-pruned grapevines stand sentry on the outskirts of town. Before Leonard Harold, a follower of Daniel Boone, founded the river town, the area was inhabited by French fur traders and was a popular stop on a Native American trail. At the time of the 1830s survey, the area now known as Augusta was an excellent landing site along the Missouri River. By 1855, at the time of incorporation, Augusta was named Mt. Pleasant, though the river landing was commonly called Augusta Bend.

During an 1872 flood event, the Missouri River channel bend filled with sediment and the river changed its course, effectively cutting off the settlement of Augusta from the river. Railroads soon followed, capitalizing on the new land between the town and the Missouri River. Today, cyclists can ride the original KATY railroad line for 200+ miles from St. Charles clear across to the far side of the state while cutting through the heart of Missouri's Weinstrasse. Stop off at old railroad towns like Augusta for good food, wine, microbreweries, bed and breakfasts, and small bike shops to fill most of your bicycling needs.

Like Hermann, Augusta thrived on wine production before the days of Prohibition. Since the 1800s, Augusta's wine grapes have long been recognized for their superiority. Because of this long history of viticulture in the Augusta Region and the distinctive terroir which gave rise to Augusta's fine wines, the area became the first designated American Viticultural Area in 1980. The 15 square mile Augusta Region was on the map before Napa Valley.

So I found it appropriate to invite my dear friend Judy from my undergraduate years to meet me in Augusta, one of the original wine towns, for her first introduction to Missouri wines. Judy recently moved to the Soulard District in St. Louis, bringing with her from her residence in Europe a vast collection of incredible Bordeaux (she has cases of aging St. Emilion and Haut-Brion of various vintages), French pinot noir, Italian wines, some Eastern European wines, and even a nice selection of champagnes. Her boxed up collection fills a large room in her 1910 mansion. Missing from her wine selection are American wines. It is therefore incumbent upon me to introduce her to a good Missouri Norton and solid Willamette Valley pinot noir.

Of my favorite Missouri Nortons, Augusta Winery's 2005 Norton ranks in the top 3-- big, yet smooth, clean finish, heavy oak, with none of the acrid sourness that some less experienced vintners produce. Augusta Winery ages their some of their wines in barrels made of staves of green white oak, once used-white oak, and twice used-white oak. Some are also aged in French oak. This -along with the grapes and the minerality- helps to produce a beautiful, mellow Norton. Unfortunately, Augusta has sold out of the 2005 vintage and is now serving the 2007.

A trim young man with piercing eyes held court at the well-appointed tasting bar yesterday. He's very serious about the wine he serves, and, unlike in some other Missouri wineries, the barista also drinks dry red wine. Wanting Judy to have the same positive experience I've had with Augusta wines, I asked about the '05 Norton. The barista admitted that the '05 vintage was top notch, and that he reluctantly sold the last case to a customer back in October. Like me, he wanted to cellar some of it, but kept breaking into the bottles that were designated for aging. He's now plowing through his case of the '06 vintage, and suspects none will be saved for years to come.

At Augusta, ask for the special Norton tasting, which will allow you to taste the wine in customary wine glasses with a thick lip and compare it to Norton in a specially made Norton goblet designed in recent years by Reidel. With the $6 tasting fee, you can take home the Reidel glass which retails for $15. Just as Willamette Valley pinot noir tastes completely different in a Reidel pinot noir glass (compared to wine served in a -perfectly fine- wine glass made by Libby), the 2007 Norton is also affected by the bowl size and shape, the thin lip, the placement of the wine on the tongue. The Reidel Norton glasses are brilliant, and an appropriate choice for such a nice wine. I particularly appreciate the tiny, etched hand-scripted "Norton" on the base of the glass.

The 2006 Chambourcin is reminiscent of a bouquet of stargazer lilies, that floral nose with a cheerful light berry and buttery finish. Augusta Winery also makes a lovely Norton/Chambourcin/St. Vincent blend. Judy left Augusta with a case of wine--6 Norton, 3 Chambourcin, and 3 of the blend, and two Norton glasses. We joked about the likelihood of cellaring it for years, when really the cellaring would only last a few weeks. When nice wine like Augusta Winery's can be found 45 minutes from your doorstep, you can always go back for more to cellar. However, I reminded her about the status of the 05 Norton which is no more....

Up the hill from Augusta Winery rests a sprawling complex of pale pink buildings belonging to Mount Pleasant Winery. An enormous tasting room with a wrap around bar is filled with walls of Mount Pleasant wines. A vast departure from the small, intimate Augusta Winery, Mount Pleasant's tasting room was packed to the gills with groups of fancy women and a constantly revolving occupancy.

Mount Pleasant produces a wide variety of sweet wines; their best seller is a sweet wine called Ten Bucks, the label of which is adorned with dancing deer. We sidled up to the bar to taste the three dry reds they offered. Maybe the Norton had turned, and maybe all the people asking for "sweet wines only" were more common than those of us in the dry red camp. The Norton was thin, and a little sour with none of the heavy oak that normally characterizes this Missouri classic. On the other hand, Mount Pleasant's Cabernet Sauvignon was lovely, big, complex with a buttery finish. It was really quite nice, but way out of our price range.

Unlike most Missouri wineries, Mount Pleasant charges a 5$ tasting fee (which includes the price of the glass), so if you're only interested in two wines, just get extra pours of those two. Similar in scale and commercialism to Oak Glenn Winery in Hermann, Mount Pleasant likely attracts large crowds from St. Louis during spring and summer weekends.

Set out on Hwy. 94 westbound to visit Louis P. Balducci Vineyards, lovely buildings on a vast site that has been cleared of all trees. With names like Chiaretto, Aria, and Sonata, the wines here are heavy on the sweet side of the scale. Unfortunately (for all of us yesterday), none of the Balducci Vineyard wines are made to resemble Italian vintages. Once again, I suspect that the two dry red wines they offer, Aria (Chambourcin/St. Vincent blend)and Norton, had been opened in 2009 and languished awaiting those of us looking only for dry red wines. I think both had turned.

Needing a meal, we decided to mistrust the tasting bar Norton and settle in to a nice deep dish vegetarian pizza loaded with tomatoes and a bottle of Norton, labeled as "Missouri table wine." The restaurant is nice enough, and the fresh bottle of Norton was better than Mt. Pleasant's though no match for Augusta's.

According to the Norton Wine Travelers from South Carolina, Blumenhof Winery in nearby Dutzow produces one of the finest Norton-Cynthiana's in Missouri. They've tasted over 66 Nortons and left their recommendations for me to try. I looked for the Alabama Norton they liked so much when I was in Alabama, and I've tried the Illinois Norton which made one of their lists.

Strike three for a fresh bottle of 2008 Cynthiana at Blumenhof. The winery is nestled in a heavily wooded area with ample patio seating, a rich dark wood tasting room, and very affordable wines. I tried the Cynthiana and Chambourcin, and while I wasn't impressed with either, I bought a Cynthiana expecting the same results as at Balducci Winery. I'm blaming the bad taste on oxidation.

We didn't go to Montelle Vineyards, also owned by Augusta, nor did we visit Sugar Creek in Defiance or any of the St. Charles wineries, but Augusta convinced Judy that our wineries are worth exploring, even if you hit a bad apple.

And so, I plan to cellar the 2008 Cynthiana from Blumenhof, but will most likely break into the Augusta on the first float trip of the season, a true cause for celebration.