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.