Archive for the 'It’s Only Natural: Geology, Environment, Wildlife & More' Category

Jul 09 2015

Confessions of a Turtle Taxi

Sittin in the Morning Sun

At first glance, the turtle’s world is very different from ours. Any creature that can spend half the year entombed in frigid mud, only to swim free as soon as the sun warms the waters above its temporary sarcophagus, doesn’t have much in common with you and me. Or so it seems. But appearances often deceive, and the apparent gulf between our lives and theirs is an illusion. We share the same earth. Breathe the same air. And we are equally dependent on the availability of abundant, clean water.

Water. It’s the turtle’s home.* And it’s also the paddler’s summer refuge. But our brief holidays from the daily grind are just that: holidays. However long we’ve been at the paddling game, no canoeist or kayaker is at home — truly at home — on the water. We’re visitors. Guests. Blow‑ins. Strangers in a strange land. Here today and gone tomorrow.

Yet this doesn’t prevent us from participating, however distantly, in the pageant of life in and around wild waters, even if our role is that of the onlooker. We are benign voyeurs. We do our thing. They do theirs. And then each of us goes his or her own way — they to attend to the serious business of raising their families and getting a living, we to continue our essentially passive (but always pleasurable) looking‑on.

Success in this watching game is mostly a matter of stealth. Splashing about and shouting back and forth between boats pretty much guarantees that we’ll see nothing. That said, even the quietest paddler will be hard‑pressed to take turtles by surprise. I seldom do. It makes no difference if they’re basking on a log, their backs toward me, seemingly lost in whatever species of reverie turtles experience. Long before I drift close enough to get a good look at them, they’ve sensed the presence of an unwelcome intruder and plopped into the water, leaving only a spreading web of ripples and an occasional bubble to mark their passage.

This preternatural alertness is easy to understand. Turtles are survivors. They even shrugged off the cataclysmic Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event that put paid to the dinosaurs. But we’re now in the midst of another great die‑off — one largely of our own contriving — and this time around, the turtle clan may not be so fortunate. The threats to their future include all of the usual suspects. Habitat destruction, commercial harvesting, the pet trade, introduced predators… Each of these takes its toll. Yet the greatest danger of all is one that dares not speak its name (not in the US Congress, at any rate): global warming.

Of course, there’s very little that I, as one person among seven billion, can do to check humankind’s pell‑mell rush toward the Exit, taking many of our fellow travelers on planet Earth along with us as we go. Nevertheless, I’m occasionally able to do something for individuals in danger of immediate harm, and whenever the opportunity presents itself, I do just that. Often the individual in question is a turtle in peril on the highway, spotted as I travel to or from a favorite backcountry destination by car or bike.

Which immediately raises a seldom‑heard question: Why does the turtle cross the road? … Read more…

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Oct 12 2013

The Scent of Apples: A Roadside Treat for Backroads Cyclists

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.

—  Robert Frost, “After Apple Picking”

This is another banner year for wild apples, and that’s good news for the birds and animals who depend on nature’s bounty to make it through the approaching winter. The apples are a gift that keeps on giving, too. The fruit which isn’t eaten in fall and winter freezes right on the tree. Then, come springtime, returning songbirds find the table already spread and waiting for them, offering a much-needed chance to recover from their arduous journey north before the demands of the breeding season begin in earnest.

Given the apples’ importance to wildlife, I don’t often eat them myself. (I’m a guest in the wild creatures’ home, after all, and no host wants a glutton for a guest.) Still, I do allow myself one or two treats now and then. And what treats they are! Wild apples don’t look much like the perfect specimens stacked up in bins at the HyperMart, but looks aren’t everything. One bite will show you what we’ve lost in making the transition to industrial agriculture. Of course, you need to discard your preconceptions. Wild apples are often small and irregular, with tough skins and frequent bruises. (That sounds like a lot of cyclists I know, come to that, including the one I see in the mirror.) They haven’t been waxed and polished, either. And you’ll probably find a worm in your apple at some point. Think of it as a protein supplement, if that helps. But what flavor! Sweet, subtle, and complex. Once upon a time, all apples tasted like this…

Wild Apple

But we’ve moved on. And speaking of moving on, a good apple year is also very good news for country-lane cyclists, who can often pick up a bite to eat right off the ground along the roadside.

Stopping for an Apple

The intoxicating perfume of ripe apples also makes a welcome change from the signature stink of suburbia, that all-too-familiar witches’ brew, compounded from equal parts of car exhaust, incinerated beef, and dryer-sheet effluvium. The only hard part for the cycling gourmet is stopping at one apple. But I do. I’ve missed more than my share of meals, and I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be hungry when there’s nothing in the house to eat. So in my menu plan, wild apples are a rare and valued treat, not a dietary staple. And when I finish off the one apple I allow myself, I always remember to toss the core into the tall grass, well off the road, where the seeds will make a feast for some foraging mouse or squirrel.

Who knows? One seed may escape the hungry mouths long enough to take root and grow a new tree, which in due course will drop still more apples to delight cyclists yet unborn. Now that’s a legacy worth leaving, don’t you think?

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Jun 01 2013

Make a B-Line for Wildlife:
A Modest Proposal for Rewilding American Roads

Life in the slow lane has many pleasures. You can smell the flowers, for one thing. Roadsides, vacant lots, and brownfields will soon be a riot of color. Even the medians of divided highways now play host to vibrant floral communities. And as more and more forests, fields, and wetlands are lost to development, these often-overlooked pocket wildernesses are increasingly important.

Where harried motorists see only a green blur, cyclists and walkers can focus on the details. Not that everything we see is pleasant to look at, of course. From late spring to early fall, highway maintenance crews and utility companies wage constant war on roadside “weeds,” shredding roadside trash and scything wildflowers with equal zeal. The result? The eggs and hatchlings of ground-nesting birds are destroyed. Small mammals lose their homes. And countless insects are starved of food. For days after the mowers go through, the road surface is carpeted with dead bees and maimed butterflies.

Why should we care about a few dead bugs? Well, with some 35 percent of our food crops dependent on insect pollinators, and with the health of wild bee populations already precarious, you could say our own fate is linked inextricably to that of the butterflies and bees. And some perceptive folks are already working to right the balance. A UK organization going by the name of Buglife is working to establish a network of flower-rich “B-lines” throughout England.

Such B-lines would help ensure the survival of bees and other insect pollinators, and these, in turn, could help English farmers grow more food, and do it more efficiently. That sounds like a win-win scenario to me. Want to know more? Then just click through to Buglife’s website.

It’s too bad we don’t have something similar on this side of the Pond, isn’t it? But we could. And it wouldn’t be hard. We could make a start by asking state highway departments and private utility companies to let the “weeds” grow undisturbed wherever and whenever they don’t create a hazard. Then we could all smell the flowers.

Further Reading

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

May 04 2013

Root and Branch: An Appreciation of Trees

Portrait in Black and White

I was still in grade school when the urge to draw became all but irresistible. In part, art class offered a welcome refuge from the demands of arithmetic and grammar, but there was a social dimension, too. I wasn’t the only would‑be artist in the class, and we all gathered at one table to swap tips and critique one another’s work. Each of us had a favorite subject, and my friend Kate’s was trees. Trees in winter, to be exact. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and under her patient tutelage I was soon capturing images of the trees around me, always working, as she did, from the ground up and from the trunk out.

My lessons continued when I spent weekends at her parents’ house. The dirt road that ran past the old clapboard farmhouse was framed on both sides by sugar maples, and Kate and I sat on her front porch, doing our best to reproduce what we saw before us. I learned about a lot more than the best ways to smear graphite on paper during those weekends. In fact, they were my introduction to the life of (and in) trees… Read more…

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

This article was originally published on December 6, 2012.

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!

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