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

Monday, October 25, 2010

New Adirondack Birds

Eight Loons on Star Lake in 2010
Growing up in Star Lake 50 years ago, my friends and I considered ourselves natural woodsmen with inborn knowledge of the plants and wildlife around us. In fact, we knew little. We exemplified those people who know too little to grasp the depth of their ignorance. Our knowledge of birds was mostly restricted to the larger and more conspicuous kinds familiar to almost everyone.

With that disclaimer, let me report that in recent years we have seen species of birds in and around Star Lake that were unnoticed and probably not there (or very rare) in the fifties and sixties. Here are the ones recently noticed:

Common Loons. We were aware of the presence of loons in the Adirondacks, but never saw one on Star Lake. We spent a lot of time on the lake, mostly in speedy motorboats, and therein may lie a connection; the constant high-speed recreational boat traffic of the time may have kept them away.

Wild Turkey. We have read that the mast-poor Adirondacks formerly provided insufficient winter food for turkeys. Sometime in more recent decades they developed the practice of feeding on winter buds, and this appears to account for their presence and current abundance.

Canada Goose. Those we have seen are probably the giant Canada variety, or so-called nuisance geese—resident populations derived from released individuals. They have shown up in many parts of the country.

Turkey Vulture. We did not notice them in the past and suspect they were either absent or very rare visitors.

Double-crested Cormorant. The appearance of this bird should be no surprise. Populations were seriously depressed by DDT in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, but recovered quickly. Cormorants are now abundant, increasing, and often unwelcome almost everywhere.

 Is global warming involved? Perhaps, but as noted above, other explanations suffice in some instances.

Canada Geese on Star Lake, 2007