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

Oct 06 2017

What Good is a Dead Tree? by Tamia Nelson

The Others have an answer to the question in the title. But is anyone listening? Tamia is.

The Expert looked at his watch, and gave his companion a thumbs-up. The job wouldn’t take long. A flight of finches exploding into the air. Neither man noticed. The Expert eyeballed the old pine. He didn’t see the red squirrel clinging to the trunk. He saw only the brown needles and the bare limbs.

“What good is a dead tree?” the Expert asked, not expecting an answer. His companion knew the question was purely rhetorical. And he marked the pine for removal.

The two men thought they were alone. But they were wrong. And the Others who were present did their best to answer the Expert’s question. He wasn’t listening, though. Perhaps he never had. In any case, his companion was anxious to get going. Time is money, after all, and the Expert had more trees to condemn.

Yet the dissenting voices of the Others continued to make their case, long after the Expert had gone. It’s too bad that no one stayed around to listen to them. Blue jays would have told him that they took shelter in the pine whenever an icy norther blew down from Canada. As so would the Nashville warbler who often found a meal among the dead and dying branches, too. Nor were they alone. The Others included red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, hairy and downy woodpeckers, rose-breasted and pine grosbeaks, black-capped chickadees, common redpolls, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Not to mention a chipmunk, and the red squirrel — the same red squirrel the Expert didn’t see.

What good is a dead tree? The Others know, even if the Expert does not. Their pine is a home to some and a source of food to many. It offers a refuge in storms and a vantage point in all weathers. And as it decays, it returns nutrients to the soil, nourishing the young pines that will shelter and feed generation upon generation of Others.

Another dead pine, not far away from the Others’ tree, give turtles a place to sun themselves after the spring has freed them from their icy prison. They tunnel up from the black ooze into the light.

What good is a dead tree? Now you, too, can answer this question. The Others won’t be heard. You will, though. But only if you choose to speak.

A Living Dead Tree (c) Photo by Tamia Nelson

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Feb 09 2013

Brick—The Roadway Less Traveled By (But It Could Make All the Difference)

Cyclists paved the way for cars. Literally. Long before the masses embraced internal combustion and took to the highways and byways on four wheels, cyclists were lobbying for paved roads. If you often ride on gravel or dirt you’ll know why. When you’re going somewhere on your bike—as opposed to simply killing time on singletrack between airings of the X Games—you soon learn to value a smooth, hard, stable surface. But the freedom of the paved road isn’t free. Asphalt and concrete slab surfaces are, for all practical purposes, impermeable. And when heavy rain falls on a well-engineered, impervious roadway (or shopping mall parking lot), the water does what comes naturally: It runs off immediately, swelling local streams to flood stage and overwhelming urban sewer systems.

From the narrow perspective of a highway engineer, this is a very good thing. You don’t want your roads turning into rivers, after all. But environmental geologists look at things differently. If you prevent rainwater from soaking into the ground, you impoverish local aquifers. And when you then hustle that water into the nearest river or stream as fast as possible, you increase the damage done by shoreline erosion, as well as raising the probability of catastrophic flooding farther downstream. In the past—and all too often, even today—highway engineers have seen this as somebody else’s problem. Their job was to keep the roads open to travel. Preventing floods and shoreline erosion wasn’t part of their job description.

But things are changing. Extreme weather is becoming commonplace everywhere. Torrential rains now follow hard on the heels of prolonged droughts, and impervious paved surfaces make both extremes worse. As we pave more and more of the earth’s surface, less and less water is returned to the underground reservoirs that feed our wells and reservoirs, leaving us more vulnerable to drought. And as we build more and more paved roads, we direct ever larger amounts of runoff into neighboring streams and rivers. This increases the likelihood of destructive urban flooding. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

Of course, even highway engineers like to see water coming out when they turn the tap. (Some of them own shoreline property, too.) So they’ve started to consider alternatives to impervious asphalt and concrete slab paving, and this has led them to take a second look at one of mankind’s oldest building materials: the common brick.

Needless to say, some folks are more receptive to new ideas than others. While I don’t see much pressure for constructive innovation in my own backyard—”We like it the way it is” has been the local motto for as long as I can remember—that’s certainly not true everywhere. Marcos Netto, TNO‘s Southern Hemisphere Correspondent, lives in southern Brazil, and when I first saw his son’s photo of Paralympian João Correa and his “guardian angels” …

Team Itati-Stem-Rotary by Joao Arthur Netto

I couldn’t help but notice that the pavement under João’s wheels looked like brick. And Marcos—he’s the tall “angel” in the center of the picture—quickly confirmed that my eyes hadn’t deceived me. Here’s what he had to say:

Those are cement bricks. They are manufactured using conventional cement and are available in various shapes. The most common ones are either rectangles, hexagons, or an almost S-like shape, achieved with the use of one rectangle and two squares.

The bricks are all laid by hand by companies which specialize in it. The price is based on the square meter, and it's as much as 30 percent cheaper than asphalt. After laying, and assuming no heavy traffic rolls over the bricks, the paved area will remain in place for decades. If the area has fertile soil below the bricks, grass might grow between them, making it a lot more interesting to look at.

Bricks are used mostly for parking lots and areas where there is no heavyweight vehicle traffic, but for a long time I've seen them on some streets where they've suffered no significant damage. The only real problem is when there's a need for underground work to repair some gas, phone, or sewage lines. The bricks must be removed before excavation, and even with careful work they will never be replaced the same way, which is visible on the street or parking lot.

There is another version of brick paving for high-impact traffic areas. This involves intensive preparation of the base where the bricks will be laid, making the underlying ground weight-resistant.

You are right about the advantages regarding water on brick paving. Bricks make evaporation and ground absorption faster, thus making it less expensive to install drains in the area.


Now here are some more examples of brick paving:

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving


OK. What’s not to like? Brick paving combines beauty with utility and economy, which makes it a very attractive option for parking lots, town squares, and low-traffic residential streets. Of course, it won’t offer cyclists as smooth a ride as new asphalt, but I’d be more than happy with the trade-off if it meant that the water kept flowing from my tap and fewer homes (and businesses) were lost to floods. What about you?

Marcos Netto on the Tiles

Further Reading

  • Brick,” a Wikipedia primer on this ancient building material, plus …
  • Block Paving,” another Wikipedia article, short but informative, and finally, …
  • Permeable Paving,” Wikipedia‘s take on the big picture. It seems that brick isn’t the only option.


Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Jul 07 2012

Move Over, Niagara!
Our Southern Hemisphere Correspondent Reports From Brazil’s “Big Water” Falls

There’s nothing special about waterfalls, is there? Almost any stream large enough to appear on a quad has one or two tucked away somewhere. But these are everyday waterfalls. They’re well worth a visit, to be sure, but they’re not likely to take your breath away. The Cataratas do Iguaçu (Iguaçu Falls), on the other hand, are WATERFALLS. Located in the Iguaçu River, on the border between the Brazilian state of Paraná and the Argentine province of Misiones, this U-shaped complex of 300 islands and 200-plus-foot drops dwarfs North America’s Niagara Falls. (“Poor Niagara!” Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have exclaimed on first seeing Iguaçu.)

Despite this, I might have gone to my grave ignorant of the falls’ existence, but for the efforts the indefatigable Marcos Netto, our Southern Hemisphere Correspondent, who recently visited the Parque Nacional das Cataratas do Iguaçu—a World Heritage Site—and sent along some truly spectacular photos to jog me out of my mid-summer torpor.

He certainly succeeded. His first photo was taken well back from the falls proper. It’s what the film trade calls an “establishing shot.” But even at this great distance, Marcos reports that the earth under his feet trembled from the shock of falling water. That’s no surprise. Iguaçu comes from the Guarani words for “big water.” So both the river and the falls are well-named. See for yourself:

Netto Iguassu Falls

Now let’s move closer:

Netto Iguassu Falls

You can get some idea of the scale from the large riverboats along both shores in the photo above. (Right-click on any image to embiggen it.) There’s another riverboat on the far right in the following shot, too:

Netto Iguassu Falls

And here’s a shot that gives an even better idea of the extent of the waterfall complex:

Netto Iguassu Falls

These aren’t bad for photos taken with a cell phone—a Nokia N8 smartphone, to be exact—are they? But when I said something to this effect, Marcos lost no time in reminding me that it’s the “little piece of hardware behind the shutter” that makes a shot work. And so it is.

Visitors to the national park don’t have to board a riverboat to get a close look at the falls, by the way. Piers let them walk right up to the brink:

Netto Iguassu Falls

It’s wet work, though, so you’d better have a good rain jacket. On the other hand, if the light is right you’ll see a spectacular rainbow:

Netto Iguassu Falls

And we humans aren’t the only visitors:

Netto Iguassu Falls

This is a quati, or ring-tailed coati, a close relative of the North American raccoon.

Of course, even the best still photos can’t really do justice to moving water. So Marcos put his Nokia to work again to capture this short video:



What a place! And thanks to Marcos Netto, you (and I) now know exactly how much catching up little Niagara has to do!

Netto by Netto

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Jun 12 2012

Tales of a Turtle Taxi: This Lady’s Not for Turning

With the onset of warm weather, turtles are out and about on the roads. Most are females, who leave their home waters to search for sandy soil in which to deposit their eggs. I met this formidable lady on a town road. While not the largest snapper I’ve encountered, she was pretty good-sized—perhaps half again as big as my helmet. And she had a disposition to match her appearance:

This Lady Is Not for Turning

She’d just begun to cross the road when I first saw her, and I decided to offer her a lift. But as soon as I got close she swiveled around to face me. She moved with lightning speed, too. Try as I might I couldn’t get behind her. (For what I hope will be obvious reasons—the name is a clue—it’s important to approach snappers from the rear. See this page for details.) Things were not going according to script. So I opted for Plan B: gentle persuasion. A windfall limb would serve as my shepherd’s crook. I figured I’d stay with the lady, nudging her away from any danger, until she was off the road and out of harm’s way.

But Plan B was no more successful than the direct approach. When my improvised shepherd’s crook got too near her, the lady simply snapped off the end. Her feelings in the matter were manifestly clear. I didn’t need a second demonstration. Which left me with only one remaining alternative: watchful waiting. So I placed what remained of the deadfall limb in the road to alert oncoming cars and retreated a good 30 yards, hoping that, once I was out of sight, my reluctant fare would decide it was safe to cross.

Success at last! No cars appeared—I was prepared to wave them off if they had—and the lady completed her journey without incident. Soon she was paddling happily in a stream.

On the March

After removing the remains of my truncated shepherd’s crook from the road, I continued on my way, glad that this little drama had ended happily. My fare might have spurned my proffered lift, but she reached her destination alive, making the trek on her own terms. As the remains of less fortunate creatures constantly remind me—I found another snapper further down the road, smashed to pieces by a passing car—even quiet country roads are killing grounds. I can do nothing about that, of course. All life is cheap in the Republic of Happy Motoring. But every now and then I can offer some assistance to a fellow traveler. It’s a good feeling.


Further Reading


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