"It’s Only Natural: Geology, Environment, Wildlife & More" Archives

Mar 14 2017

A Primer on North Declination & Variation by Tamia Nelson

A magnetic compass is a simple instrument. Or so it appears. A needle or card, a graduated housing, maybe a lanyard ring… And that’s that. It doesn’t beep or chirp, it boasts no colorful map display, and it won’t tell you how far it is to your lunch stop. But twist and turn the compass as much as you like, and the needle (or card) continues to point toward the north. Magic? No. Magnetism. And before some physics Ph.D. takes me to task for playing fast and loose with the truth, I should add that the compass needle doesn’t really “point” north. Its orientation is determined by the north-south lines of force established by the earth’s local magnetic field. Still, the result is the same. The needle…er…points north.

What’s that? You’re not impressed? You say your GPS can do this, too, plus show you exactly where you are on the map? Right—though unless your GPS also incorporates a fluxgate (electronic) compass, it will lose track of north just as soon as you stop moving. Nonetheless, by comparison with the all-seeing, all-knowing GPS, the magnetic compass is a one-trick pony.

But what a trick! This simple, trembling needle—a Chinese invention, by the way—gave medieval Europe the key that eventually unlocked all the rooms in Gaia’s great house. That’s no small achievement. And the compass still has a place in paddlers’ packs—or better yet, on their decks and in their hands. A compass is self-powered and self-contained. It doesn’t depend on satellite coverage or batteries, and it’s not subject to sudden, inexplicable crashes. Every electronic device I’ve owned has failed me sooner or later, almost always without warning. No compass has ever let me down.

As simple and straightforward as a compass appears, however, it holds a dark secret. Its north is not the cartographer’s “true” north. Its needle doesn’t point the way to the soon-to-be open waters lapping around the North Pole. And therein lies a story: the story of the other north pole… Read more…

Two Norths

Originally published at Paddling.com on March 14, 2017

Dec 24 2016

The Last Chickadee by Tamia Nelson

The Old Ones were nervous. They took pains to hide their fear from the young birds now facing their first Winter, of course, but this well-meaning deception was always doomed to fail, and little Taiga felt more and more uneasy with every passing minute. Despite this, he made the most of the warm breeze that ruffled the feathers on his breast. He’d already survived one frigid night, after all, waiting patiently for the sun to transit the great unknown country between dusk and dawn, while clear ice formed right across the big lake. That night had seemed endless. He’d been wakened repeatedly by the penetrating cold, hoping each time to see the sun’s red orb inching above the horizon, but instead finding only the wan globe of an icy moon reflected in the frozen lake’s glassy surface. Not even dawn had brought warmth, and snow soon started to fall—big, lazy flakes that drifted down through the gelid air, flakes as light as down and as cheerless as the cry of a hunting hawk. It had snowed all day, blanketing the forest in a white shroud and turning the welcoming landscape into something alien and ominous.… Read more…

The Last Chickadee - Tamia Nelson

Published in incomplete and inaccurately portrayed form at Paddling.com on 23 December 2008

Nov 30 2016

Salmagundi: Of Portage Yokes and Little Lives
by Tamia Nelson & Farwell Forrest


a dish of chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, onions, and seasoning.
• a general mixture; a miscellaneous collection.

    — Oxford American Dictionary

Ever Vigilant

Summer, which not so very long ago stretched before us, full of promise and seemingly endless, is no more. And autumn, that briefest and most poignant of seasons, has come and gone in the blinking of an eye. The wheel of the year spins ceaselessly round, and once again Canoe Country paddlers find themselves on the threshold of winter. All but the largest lakes have frozen over, the rushing waters are mostly stilled, and our boats sit idle under roof or tarp. When “Our Readers Write” last appeared, we were roasting in the record‑braking heat that is our New Model Climate’s new normal. But now it’s ice with everything, and paddling has given way to remembrance of seasons past and dreams of seasons yet to come.

Our fellow travelers in the northern latitudes — those whose “little lives of earth and form” pass largely unnoticed in our species’ near absolute self‑concern — are also preparing for the coming months of chill privation. Each goes about it in his or her own way. The swallows fly south to warmer climes, the bats (those that haven’t already succumbed to Pseudogymnoascus destructans) retreat to their winter roosts in caves, the jays cache seeds by the hundreds in the crevices and hollows of trees, and the chipmunks make final forays in search of stores to add to already well‑stocked subterranean larders.

We’ve long felt that these “little lives” get short shrift. Tweet that you’ve seen a grizzly in your backyard, and your post will be retweeted endlessly. Write that you’ve crossed paths with a chipmunk, however, and the Twittersphere will rival intersteller space in its frosty indifference. This seems unfair. Grizzlies are undoubtedly rarer than chipmunks — and likely to get even rarer in the years to come — but the ubiquitous chipmunk has no less claim on our attention. A commonplace wonder is a wonder still. Would we miss the sun if it failed to return in the spring? You bet we would!… Read more…

Further Reading

Originally published at Paddling.com on 29 November 2016

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Nov 22 2016

Hidden in Plain Sight: Raising a Ghost on the Way to Clinton’s Folly
by Tamia Nelson

No, this isn’t what you’re thinking. I haven’t lapsed into partisan political commentary. This column has nothing to do with the news of the day. My subject is a canal, and though there is a political subtext, it concerns events that were a century old before the current contenders for high office were born. My story begins, not in a boat, but on the highway. I was skirting the western margin of the Adirondacks, on my way to the Mohawk River Valley and an old port city on the Erie Canal, when I spied a ghost. More about the ghost in a minute. First, though, let’s set the scene. The highway I was following threads between the Tug Hill Plateau to the west and the Adirondack Mountains to the east, never straying far from the north‑flowing Black River. You don’t often see the river from the road, but every now and then you can catch a glimpse of it across a farm field, and there are a lot of farm fields. We’re in dairy country. That hasn’t always been the case, however. Two centuries ago, the seemingly endless fields of corn were unbroken woodland.

This is where the ghost comes in. I had just negotiated a gentle bend when the roadway divided to go round what I first thought was a grassy median. As I got closer, however, I realized that the “median” was an old canal cut. I soon passed it by — traveling at 55 mph, it didn’t take long — but then, a short distance to the south, I saw what appeared to be a lock. Now my curiosity was piqued, and since there was a parking area next to the lock, I pulled off the road to take a closer look.

After all, how often do you get to see a ghost close‑up? And this was no ordinary ghost: This ghost had a tale to tell… Read more…

Originally published in incomplete form at Paddling.net on November 8, 2016

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

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