Thursday, December 30, 2010

Water Shortages in the Suwannee River Basin

For those who missed it, here is a link to an article in today's Gainesville Sun about looming water shortages in the Suwannee River basin.

The full report is available here for download in PDF format from the Suwannee River Water Management District's website.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Amazing Cheese Story - Sign Up Now!

Based on enthusiastic reactions to our various cheese presentations, beginning in January we will be offering a four-session community education course at Santa Fe College, here in Gainesville. This will allow us to treat more comprehensively all we have done and learned in the past four years and will give expanded opportunities for us to interact with people who share our interest in cheese.

As noted in the brochure above (click to enlarge), we will be covering the history of American cheese as it has progressed from farm to factory and, recently, increasingly back to farmsteads. We'll describe our experiences with all the interesting people who are involved in the new American cheese. Most exciting, we will provide hands-on dabbling so participants can have a live experience with making cheese. Also, we will be engaging in a cheese tasting exercise that is certain to heighten everyone's appreciation for good cheeses.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Our Christmas Cheeses

Our friends at Cheese to You have again this year supplied us with a selection of delightful cheeses for the holidays. We intend to give some away as gifts, but may lose our resolve and decide to eat all of them. Of the cheeses shown in this photo, three are American and two are European. Clockwise, beginning on the lower left, they are:

Vella Bear Flag Brand Dry Monterey Jack. An American original from California, this cheese is an unexpected treat that little resembles the bland mass-produced Monterey jack cheeses we find in grocery stores.

3 Comptois Compte. Recognized as one of the world's great cheeses, this French alpine-style cheese is made from raw cow milk and aged for six months. It is a regional specialty and its name and unique character are protected by law.

Old Quebec Reserve Cheddar. This 7-year old version of North America's favorite cheese has an uncommon depth of flavor and the sharp granularity characteristic of fine, long-aged cheeses. If you haven't yet gotten hooked on cheddar, try this one.

Aged Blue Stilton. This blue-veined cheese from England is another regional specialty widely hailed as among the world's great cheeses. Related to and superficially similar to Danish blue, Roquefort, and Gorgonzola, many claim it is superior to all of them.

Meadow Creek Dairy Grayson. A product of southern Virginia, this is the only washed-rind cheese in the group. More pungent than the others, this cheese is of a kind with old-world Munsters and belongs to the family of smelly cheeses true connoisseurs seem to find most appealing.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Suwannee Lore

Those interested in the Suwannee River and Florida natural history in general will enjoy reading  A Naturalist in Florida: A Celebration of Eden. Best known for his work on sea turtles, author Archie Carr was a well-rounded naturalist with a particular liking for north Florida. This book is a collection of some of Carr's shorter works, assembled in the mid-nineties by his widow, Marjorie Harris Carr. Marjorie Carr was a recognized conservationist in her own right, having successfully campaigned for establishment of Paynes Prairie State Park. Until her death in 1998 she battled tirelessly for restoration of the Oklawaha River.

Two chapters will be of particular interest to fans of the Suwannee. "All the Way Down upon the Suwannee River" tells of the history of the river and unique features of its natural history, including fishes found nowhere else, the "Suwannee chicken" and alligator snapper (both turtles), and saltwater fishes that migrate far up the river, including large and fearsome bull sharks. Another chapter, "Suwannee River Sturgeon," provides interesting reading, but it predates the more recent discoveries about sturgeon life history.

The book is still in print (Yale University Press) and should be available in local libraries.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cheese for Christmas

We are annually faced with the problem of finding appropriate Christmas gifts for people who seem to have just about everything they want (at least in our price range). Lately we have gotten more creative in choosing unique gifts, but at the same time our friends and family members seem to have gotten more of the things they want. Most recently we have found that cheese is the ideal gift for those hard-to-please people because: 

1- Everybody likes cheese (everybody we know, that is).
2- Nobody has a closet full of unused cheeses.
3- Artisan cheeses are truly unique and can be given year after year.
4- Like other great gifts, cheese can be shared with others.
5- If you are lucky the recipient may share some cheese with you.

We are fortunate to know an excellent cheesemonger (Cheese to You) who selects the perfect cheeses for the special people on our lists and ships them everywhere. 

Oh, lest we forget, The Summer of a Thousand Cheeses makes a great holiday gift also.

Is the Suwannee Sound an Estuary?

An Estuary - NOAA image
I recall first learning that an estuary is “an arm of the sea.” Later the definition expanded to include “a drowned river mouth.” Still later, more technical definitions cited the characteristic prolonged mixing of fresh- and sea-waters and the input of nutrients carried by fresh waters flowing down from the land. The resulting abundance of nutrients has wide-ranging effects, and estuaries vie with grasslands and rainforests as the world’s most productive ecosystems.

The Suwannee River bight poses some problems for purists. Although the old river mouth clearly has been drowned by relatively recent (in geologic terms) rises in sea level, in no simple respect can the zone in which its mixing of fresh and salt water be described as “an arm of the sea.” It is closed on only one side by land and on the other side it is open to the Gulf of Mexico. This region where the waters of the Suwannee mix with the ocean waters of the Gulf of Mexico bears little superficial resemblance to the Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay, or other familiar estuaries where the river mouth is closed in on two sides. Flowing over the relatively shallow waters of the Florida platform, however, the fresh water discharged by the Suwannee mixes only gradually with the sea water of the Gulf and occasionally overwhelms it. From the mouth of the present-day Suwannee to the Cedar Keys and beyond, the brackish waters of this mixing zone are rich in nutrients. They are highly productive both of sea life and the shore-based life dependent on it. Archaeologists believe that the Native Americans inhabiting the area in prehistoric times fed almost exclusively on foods from these waters, and they are estimated to have been at least three times as abundant as the region’s current human population.
USGS Map Showing the Suwannee Estuary

Should one call it “the Suwannee Estuary?” Why not, because how else to best describe it? The USGS describes it as an estuary and shows it in dark blue on the adjacent map (click to enlarge).

Thursday, December 16, 2010

From the Adirondacks to the Developing World

A disturbing article on today's website told of the decline of manufacturing in the United States and the resulting loss of blue-collar jobs. It quoted a man in the booming business of selling used industrial equipment. In 2003 for the benefit of potential customers he began a newsletter announcing plant closures. His reports have averaged 150 plant closings per month, or more than 10,000 to date. Most equipment ends up in developing countries. He ruefully told the reporter that everything in manufacturing plants is recyclable except the workers.
The article got me thinking about the Benson Mines plant. In Gem of the Adirondacks I concluded that its machinery had probably been cut up and sold for scrap. I should have known better. I had seen, scanned a copy of, and even cited information from a brochure put out by the company auctioning off the equipment. Rather than being destroyed, it was likely sent off to Peru or some other distant destination where it was put to use. Despite the immediate harm done to our local community by the closing, I am cheered a bit to realize that everything in the unhappy event was not wanton waste; some of the human capital invested might have been saved. The plant shut down for good in 1977 and 33 years is a long time, but just maybe a few often-repaired parts of the old plant are still serving people somewhere.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Florida Salt Marsh Vole. Part II: A Glacial Relict

Meadow Vole Range (IUCN)
This map (click to enlarge) shows the current distribution of the meadow vole, Microtus pennsylvanicus, including the dispersed populations in New Mexico, northern Mexico, and the Lower Suwannee and Waccassaca River marshes.

How did the outlier populations get there, and how can the persistence of the Florida population be explained?

The Laurentide Ice Sheet (USGS)
How they got there is attributed to events occurring during the repeated advances of glaciers in North America. Note the map showing the extent of the most recent continental glaciation, which ended about 10,000 years ago. Ice sheets a mile or more in thickness obliterated most of the current range of the meadow vole.

Fossil evidence indicates that the meadow vole, with its habitats and other biota, shifted southward in response to the cooling climate and advancing ice sheet. When the climate warmed and the ice retreated, the vole and its habitats shifted back to the north, eventually occupying their current range. The Florida salt marsh vole and the other scattered southern populations became relicts ("left behinds").

How could most of the southern population of the meadow vole disappear and the tiny remnant Florida population manage to persist? 

In all likelihood the disappearance of the larger population had little to do with temperature tolerance. It is more probable that the south became inhospitable for meadow voles because it became more favorable for their competitors, predators, pathogens, and combinations of these biological agents negatively affecting them. 

Pieces of the Florida puzzle fit together when one recognizes that the edges of salt marshes are extreme environments in which relatively few species can survive. Having adapted to life in this harsh environment, for thousands of years the Florida salt marsh vole has hung on in a thin edge--a narrow habitat too severe for the competitors, predators, or pathogens that would eliminate it.

The School Bus

Aerial View of Wanakena ca. 1950s or 60s
Another cold snap in north Florida brings my memory back to December 1955, on the roadside near the New York State Ranger School in Wanakena. We would be waiting for the 8:00 AM arrival of the bus that would take us to the Central School in Star Lake. The cold was miserable, but as I reported in Star Lake (available from Lighthall Books), the school bus was one of the happiest memories of those days. We got to know all the children in Wanakena within the first few days and weeks. Better yet, we sixth- and seventh-graders got to rub elbows with Juniors and Seniors and began to look forward to one day being as trendy and sophisticated as they were.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Florida Salt Marsh Vole. Part I: What Is It?

Paddlers and hikers are extremely unlikely to see one of these elusive animals, but visitors should be aware that the salt marshes of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge are home to the Florida salt marsh vole, one of the world’s rarest (or at least seldom seen) mammals.
What are voles? As children we had never heard of voles, but were familiar with these small rodents, knowing them as “field mice” or “meadow mice.” Having tiny ears, blunt snouts, and short tails, they look quite different from the familiar house mice. When one was spotted near the house, my mother would remark, “Oh, it’s only a field mouse,” giving reassurance that it would not be infesting kitchen pantries or lurking in hollow walls.

The refuge is one of two known locations of the Florida salt marsh vole, the other being nearby Waccasassa Bay. The vole is believed to frequent dense mats of salt grass (Distichlis spicata). Salt grass grows on the upper edges of salt marshes and somewhat resembles Bermuda grass. The exact habitat requirements of the vole are unknown because only a handful have been observed.

Our Florida salt marsh vole is regarded as a subspecies (variety) of the common and widespread meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus), a species that ranges across the northern half of North America, from the Arctic Circle to coastal South Carolina, but no further south. Thus the closest relatives of the Florida voles (
subspecies dukecampbelli) are nearly 300 miles away. Other outlier populations occur in New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico. These isolated southern populations are believed to be glacial relicts. The meaning and significance of this will be discussed in a future blog.
University of Florida scientists from the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit are undertaking studies of this endangered population, and I hope to be able to report on the progress of their research in future posts to this blog.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Diamondback Terrapins

I am wondering if paddlers or others plying brackish waters of the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuges have spotted these small (7-9 inches as adults) turtles. Although conditions seem perfect and they should be plentiful, in my limited experiences as a paddler, I have never seen one. Nor have I heard mention of them. The FWS photo above is an animal from Maryland. Individuals in our region would be expected to be more colorful.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Making Cheese at Home

For the first cheese we made at home, we relied on a homespun recipe in the appendix of a book about cheesemaking history. For subsequent attempts, we purchased a copy of cheesemaking guru Ricki Carroll’s popular and well-regarded Home Cheese Making (see note). Later we bought Margaret Morris’s Cheesemaker’s Manual, thinking it would give us more technical detail. At that point we felt we had more than enough instructions. Nevertheless, the online retailer's computers noted our interest in home cheesemaking and began sending messages announcing releases of still more books of instructions. How many can there be? We wondered.
The answer is 25, based on listings on the website. We do not include a number of bulletins put out by agricultural extension agencies and other governmental organizations, counting in the total only books that by all appearances are commercial publications. The first one listed by Amazon came out in 1974 and in the subsequent 25 years, 10 more were published. In the most recent 11 years 14 more have come out, and five of those were published since the beginning of 2010.

Whether or not the accelerating production of new recipe books for homemade cheeses accurately reflects growth in the activity, it is beyond doubt that resources available to home cheesemakers have never been greater.

Note: Rikki's   Home Cheese Making was first published in 1982 and expanded in editions appeared in 1996 and 2002. The cover of the copy (3rd edition) we own indicates that 140,000 copies had been sold.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

White Ibises

Four adult and six juvenile white ibises on the Lower Suwannee NWR
We spotted this group of white ibises (Eudocimus albus) feeding in a shallow freshwater wetland on the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. This group is unusual in our experience because the darker-plumed juveniles outnumber the adults. White ibises are relatively long-lived, and in the groups we usually see adults are more abundant than juveniles.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Another New Small Tree

Gum Bumelia (Sideroxylon lanuginosum)

Closeup of leaves & twigs (click to magnify)
Here is another small tree from the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. This one is also from Shell Mound, not far from the mystery tree that turned out to be Soapberry (see my post from October 19). After tracking it down I think the new one is Gum Bumelia (aka Gum Bully). 

Like its neighbor Soapberry, Gum Bumelia does not seem to have been put to many uses by humans. However, it is tolerant of severe sites (like Shell Mound) and nurseries are said to have propagated it for use in revegetating denuded landscapes.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

More Wetland Plants

Here is a saltwater false willow aka narrow-leaved groundsel bush (Baccharis angustifolia) growing on the edge of the marsh. What appear to be blossoms are white hairs on the nutlets.

This southern redcedar (Juniperus silicicola) is uncommonly loaded with berries, where else but on Cedar Key? It grows close to the salt marsh, but appears not to tolerate inundation.

More berries, these on yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), another shrub that thrives on the margins of salt marshes.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Brazilian Pepper

Brazilian pepper with
and without drupes ("berries")
Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius) is an invasive exotic plant. A native of South America introduced as a landscape plant, it has become a widespread pest on the southern Florida peninsula. It is common on Cedar Key and although we haven't seen it on either, we strongly suspect it has become established on the Cedar Keys and Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuges. Visitors to the refuges should be on the lookout for it and report its presence to refuge staff.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

You Can Leave, But You Can't Get Away

Postcard View of the Star Lake Inn in its Heyday
It is obvious from our books that we haven't gotten away from the Adirondacks. And just last week we were reminded again that we probably couldn't get away, even if we wanted to. 

 We were giving a presentation based on The Summer of a Thousand Cheeses at The Village community in Gainesville, Florida. As a way of introducing ourselves to the 40 or so in attendance, we showed the covers of our earlier books in one of our slides. It was a lively group, and we fielded many questions.

As people were filing out a man came up. He had noticed Star Lake in the title of one of the books, and wondered what the connection was. Hearing that I grew up there, he asked if the Star Lake Inn was still in existence. He explained that in the summer of 1943 as a 16-year old he worked as a bellhop in the Inn, then a large and popular resort hotel. The Inn has been gone for four decades, but old connections never seem to disappear completely. The huge and expanding world became  a bit smaller when we discovered that two of us, at least, have a mutual acquaintance.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Cheese, Junk Food, and Health

An article in the November 6, 2010 edition of The New York Times purporting to be about cheese describes an apparent conflict within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While one part of USDA is encouraging Americans to choose healthier diets, another is working with industry to promote increased consumption of dairy products, particularly cheese. The implication is that eating cheese is inherently unhealthy. Of course this is wrong and therefore unfortunate, because the real messages of the article are important and worth knowing.

1) In a roundabout attempt to improve the plight of dairy farmers, the Federal Government is subsidizing big businesses like Domino's and other corporate fast food producers. This kind of government spending generates few complaints from politicians, even self-proclaimed deficit hawks.

2) By encouraging the inclusion of more cheese in processed foods, the USDA is abetting a trend that many people blame for homogenizing and degrading our cuisine. The industrialization of mainstream American cheese has led to plentiful, but mostly unremarkable products best used in processed foods. High in cheap calories and fat, the products (mostly pizzas) described in the article are a far cry from the real foods, including distinctive cheeses, that Americans increasingly demand. 

As we pointed out in The Summer of a Thousand Cheeses, good artisanal cheeses are eminently healthful when consumed as part of a sensible diet.

This New York Times article is not about cheese; it is about junk food. 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Newton Falls Challenged Again

After the optimistic and hopeful posts provided last week, I was shocked and concerned to see the news conveyed by this article in the Watertown Daily Times. Let's hope markets will improve, the niche market for Newton Falls Fine Paper products will improve, and the fine efforts of so many good people will bear abundant fruit.

Crunch Time for Adirondack Nonprofits?

An article "Gibson Starts New Group" in the September/October 2010 edition of Adirondack Explorer tells of the formation of Adirondack Wild, a new conservation organization founded by former employees of another conservation organization. The organization they left, Protect the Adirondacks, was formed in 2008 by the merger of two other organizations. Adirondack Wild was apparently too new to have launched a public membership and fundraising campaign, but Protect the Adirondacks had a full-page advertisement in that issue of the Explorer, as did the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the Adirondack Council. The Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy was apparently more frugal, having only a half-page advertisement. The Adirondack Explorer itself is a non-profit focused on Adirondack issues, and it also carried a full-page appeal for contributions.

With five Adirondack advocacy organizations with broadly overlapping missions appealing for support and a sixth likely soon to join them, we wonder whether the landscape is so crowded and the influence of individual organizations so diluted that few if any can be effective.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Red Mangroves

Cedar Key Red Mangrove in 2008
In his Field Guide to Coastal Wetland Plants of the Southeastern United States, Ralph Tiner identified Cedar Key as the northern distribution limit of the largely tropical red mangrove tree (Rhizophora mangle). We noticed one near Cedar Key's newly built Cemetery Point boardwalk in 2008. It is easily distinguished from the black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) by the red mangrove's distinctive stilt roots (click on the photo above to get a better look). The red mangrove also tends to grow in more regularly flooded sites. The single one we noticed was severely damaged by frost over the winter of 2008-2009, but had begun to recover by late 2009. The winter of 2009-2010 with its severe freezes was fatal, however. The hardier black mangroves that are abundant landward of this site suffered damage to the leaves from the freezes, but no mortality.

Damaged Red Mangrove in 2009
We wonder whether any red mangroves survive in the lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys area and will be actively looking for them. Perhaps the northern limit of their distribution has shifted southward on the Gulf Coast.

Red Mangrove Skeleton in 2010
We returned today (November 21, 2010) and took this photo of the skeleton of the red mangrove. The lighting was poor, but the characteristic prop roots show relatively well.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


We believe this little succulent plant, found not far from our home near the edge of a mixed marsh-black mangrove stand on the Cedar Keys, to be saltwort. Like glasswort, it is adapted for an environment in which fresh water is a rare, but essential commodity. There are two wetland plants called "saltwort," but this one (Batis maritima) is easily distinguished from the other (Salsola kali), which is a prickly plant frequently referred to as Russian thistle. 
(See my comment below).

The observation platform is frequently awash
Our recent visit coincided with a new moon and very low tide, making it appear that getting our feet only a bit wet we could walk from Cemetery Point on Way Key all the way to Haven Island, or from Sandspit Point all the way to Atsena Otie.

Another Great New Florida Cheese

Our friends at Cypress Point Creamery have added Loblolly, a tomme-style cheese to their offerings. We feel fortunate to be among the first customers to sample the new cheese. We enjoy their gouda- and havarti-style cheeses, but this one might just become our favorite.

Made from the raw milk of their resident herd of purebred Jersey cows and aged in their modern facility, the new tomme is full of character. If you serve it to friends, try to cut it so that each portion includes a bit of the tasty rind.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Born in a Cheese Factory and Aging Well

Russ and I recently received a note from a friend who is 93 years old and lives in Carthage NY near the Adirondacks. She likes the weather...even though it is in the 40s today and will probably snow, again, this week.

Her note included an article from the Watertown Daily Times about Cartha E. Heath Gaebel who just turned 100 years old. Is Carthage NY a Blue Zone?

What is the connection, you ask, to cheese? It seems that Mrs. Gaebel's parents operated the Sandy Creek Valley cheese factory. That's where Mrs. Gaebel was born. Like other cheese factory products..she aged very well indeed.

From an article by Rachel Maines published by The History Cooperative, I learned that Cartha's brothers Orrin and Malcolm Heath accompanied Elsie the Cow, an exceptionally handsome and famous purebred Jersey owned by the Borden Dairy, to her interviews and photo opportunities at the New York World's Fair in 1939. Cartha would have been 29 then. I wonder if she went too?

Newton Falls Revisited

Newton  Falls in 2003
Readers of Gem of the Adirondacks learned of the bleak fortunes of the little Adirondack community of Newton Falls. The hamlet was built around a paper mill, and the mill brought prosperity for nearly 100 years. But beginning in the eighties the mill went through a series of wrenching shutdowns, layoffs, and changes in ownership. Ultimately the mill, which once had employed 500, was shuttered. When my book went to press in 2005, the mill had been closed for five years, there was little hope it would ever reopen, the local economy was in shambles, and Newton Falls was beginning to look like a ghost town.
The story has taken a happier turn however, and it is one I could not have imagined following the former decline. In 2007 the mill reopened under visionary leadership, 100 jobs returned to the community, and the operation has since become a model for economically and environmentally sustainable paper making. This time the story is not mine to tell, and I encourage you to visit the Newton Falls Fine Paper website to read it in the words of the people who made this remarkable rebirth possible.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

On the Road Again

After a two-month hiatus, we will be taking our cheese project back on the road with a series of presentations in the Gainesville area. At 3:00 PM on Friday, November 12 we are presenting at The Village, Gainesville’s most popular retirement community. Then on 1:30 PM on Tuesday, December 7 we will present at Oak Hammock, an upscale retirement community associated with the University of Florida. On Thursday, January 13 at 2:00 PM our audience will be Prime Time, an informal adult education program. We have also put in a proposal to offer a four-part course on the New American Cheese for the Santa Fe College community education program during the winter term.

Presenting at the Adirondack Museum in August
Each presentation is different, in keeping with the interests of the groups, and because people sometimes attend more than one of them. Developing unique talks is a challenging part of the fun of presenting. It gives us a chance to share more from the interviews we did and show more photos of cheese makers, creameries, the animals that give us the great milk for great cheese, and the amazing farms where they live. We can share more about our agonies and ecstasies while making cheese at home and more about cheeses, creameries, and stories we have discovered since The Summer of a Thousand Cheeses went to press last May. 

The timing of the first two presentations may help to promote holiday sales of all our books, but we enjoy interacting with the people and we would be wanting to do this even if we didn't think everyone will want to give one of our books to those hard-to-buy-for people on the gift lists.
We had great publicity for our August presentations

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Transmedia Paddling Guide?

Mark and I met a few days ago to talk about the series of 14 paddling guides he envisions for the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuges. My role is helping to include natural history in the guides, pointing out features paddlers will be seeing as they travel along routes and providing informative stories about them. By the end of our meeting I had a set of excellent maps to work with and a better sense of how I should be proceeding.

Inspired by some other activities, I was led to speculate on how the paddling guides could not only be issued in multiple media formats, but possibly also how they might ultimately become interactive. Here’s how it might work:

The paddling guides, including maps, text, and photos are printed as laminated brochures.

Later the 14 guides could be bound together in book form, with expanded natural history information and more photos.

Or suppose the guides and the guidebook (as an e-book) were available for download. Users could print needed sections at home, or download the entire book onto a smart phone or i-Pad to be brought along on paddling ventures.

So far these materials would qualify as “multimedia,” but what about transmedia?

Suppose users could contribute observations and stories? Information posted on a live blog would report real-time observations. If connectivity were good, observations could be downloaded
or uploaded onto the blog in the field. For example a post might be, “The pair of bald eagles observed last week near waypoint SAN03 are on the nest and appear to have begun incubation.” Posts might be practical: “A fallen tree makes it impossible to ascend the Gopher River beyond waypoint 07.”

Ultimately the guidebook could be a living one, with updates as events are recorded. For example a section appended to one route might include a 10-year record of bald eagle activity at a particular nesting site.

This is already a fun project, even more fun when it offers a vision of the future.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Water, Water, Everywhere

Cabbage palms tolerate salt water inundation

 We expected biotic communities of the lower Suwannee to be influenced by water but were surprised and intrigued to learn that all is more complex and nuanced than expected.

Plants in the tidal estuary have plenty of water, but it is salty and they really need fresh water. As with the ancient mariner, finding a drop to drink is difficult. Stuck in a place regularly drenched by salt water, they need adaptations to deal with this hardship. As it turns out, the adaptations they have developed mirror those developed by plants living in deserts.

Move upstream to tidal freshwater swamps and you will find plants dealing with other problems. Drenched most of the year, their roots are encased in muck usually deficient in oxygen and they face a chemically difficult environment. They must deal with too much fresh water.

Move upstream some more and the problem of perennially saturated soils decreases as the frequency and duration of flooding decline. More kinds of plants thrive as water availability transitions from mostly stressful to nearly optimal. Water availability gradually becomes less of an issue, as in the upper floodplain forests, where the results of competition may hinge on other issues. Among these, tolerance for shade and fire are prime examples. And, of course further toward the uplands water may become unreliable and again may pose an issue for the things that live there. In sandhills in the Suwannee basin, lack of reliable fresh water may result in communities dominated by scrubby oaks and short-lived sand pines.

The adaptive mechanisms plants develop to deal with lack of water and those making them tolerant of shade are, for the most part mutually exclusive. The results of this dichotomy can be seen all around us, but this is a topic for a future blog. We’ll have one about the role of hybridization too, but we will need to do more boning up before we are ready to post that one. Stay tuned.

Glasswort, a tiny wetland plant resembling cacti in its adaptations

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Artisan Cheesemakers and the New Economy

Cheddaring at Beecher's Handmade Cheese, Seattle, WA
We were struck by an October 23 column in the New York Times by Thomas L. Friedman. He addressed changes needed if the United States is to prosper in the new economy. He cited Harvard economist Lawrence Katz's observation that today everyone needs to think of himself as an artisan. Participants in the new economy must bring some special personal quality to their jobs, whether it is developing i-phone "apps," providing haircuts or medical care, or working in a retail shop. Simply functioning as cogs in machines that deliver routine products or services will not bring about prosperity, either for individuals or for our society.

Of course this rang true in light of our research for The Summer of a Thousand Cheeses, and in what we have heard since the book was published. Time after time cheesemakers related stories that, although details and circumstances varied, conveyed the basic message that traditional dairy farms cannot be kept afloat if they sell only milk. Too many large corporate farms are producing too much low cost milk for smaller dairies to be economically sustainable. For some, however, adding value to milk by turning it into cheese and adding still more value by artfully producing uniquely pleasing products is proving one way to keep their farms going.

We had thought cheesemakers are unique, but upon reflection we are not surprised and certainly not disappointed to realize that we and our fellow citizens are seeking, expecting, and demanding quality in many other aspects our lives.

A St. Lawrence County, NY Dairy Farm in 2010