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

Oct 29 2015

Hanging Out With Chipmunks, or Adventures Among the Dryodytes

Working Without a Net

Paddlesport cries out for its Thorstein Veblen — a modern‑day counterpart to that acerbic chronicler of the iconography of human foibles, whose Theory of the Leisure Class added the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to the English language. Don’t get me wrong, though. Canoeing and kayaking are among the most democratic of recreational activities. Though he grew up in an urban tenement, Farwell was navigating sewage‑flooded streets and fetid river backwaters while he was still learning his multiplication tables, in canoes he’d hammered together from discarded orange crates, years before he could afford to buy a horse‑collar life vest, let alone a “proper” boat. And it’s still possible for would‑be canoeists to kit themselves out for no more than the price of an iPad knockoff — if they’re willing to spend time combing the classifieds and sorting through the miscellaneous dejecta in yard sales, that is.

But conspicuous consumption plays an important part in our sport, nonetheless. Whether consciously or not, we compete to outdo each other in acquiring the symbols of status: trophy trips to the most distant destinations, the newest and shiniest boats in the showroom, the coolest clothing, the most gossamer gear… And nowhere is the competition for standing and status fiercer than in the matter of animal encounters. Who among us boasts of having communed with a common — the name tells you all you need to know — toad? But a fleeting encounter with a barren‑ground grizzly is something altogether different. You’ll have bragging rights on that one for years, particularly if you’ve captured your prey in pixels.

I’m not suggesting this is bad, by the way. The pursuit of trophy trips and gorgeous gear fuels an industry that provides jobs for hundreds of thousands (millions?) of good folks around the world, including a few impecunious hacks like me. And to my mind, that’s a Very Good Thing, indeed. Yet something important is lost in the relentless pursuit of the biggest and the best. Call it innocence, if you like. Or wonder. Or even reverence.


In any event, I try to keep my sense of wonder alive, even when I’m distracted by the temptations of the latest new big thing. And how do I do it? By taking time to look closely and carefully at what I see around me every day. You could call this a celebration of the commonplace, I suppose. Which brings me, after much hemming and hawing, to my subject: the eastern chipmunk… Read more…

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Oct 08 2015

Putting Potholes in the Picture

Of Time and the River

Who has a good word for potholes? Certainly not urban commuters, whose drive to work often resembles a gymkhana, with the only prize on offer being a chance to keep the car out of the tire and alignment shop for one more day. And what about cyclist commuters, those hardy iconoclasts whom you sometimes glimpse though a rain‑streaked windshield, darting among the phalanx of creeping cars like nervous herring swimming through a pod of killer whales? They play the game for even higher stakes, since dropping a wheel into a pothole often means a sudden, violent flip over the ‘bars, with mild concussion perhaps the happiest outcome.

In short, potholes don’t have much of a fan club. But there’s one exception: paddlers. Of course, hitting a pothole at speed when shuttling cars is never a good idea, particularly if your boat isn’t securely tied down. But river potholes are a whole ‘nother story. They’re scenery, not traps for the unwary. (Well, most aren’t, at any rate. Some are big enough to capture a boater, however. Read on.) I have fond memories of long days spent exploring the potholed cliffs along the river that ran past my grandad’s camp. I can still recall my wonder at finding water and pebbles — not to mention an occasional listless trout — in sculpted hollows many feet above the river’s surface. The sense of wonder even survived my disappointment in learning that flash floods had deposited the trout and pebbles in these cliff‑face aquaria, and not some mischievous river sprite. In fact, it was the realization that natural processes were responsible for the apparent miracle that engendered my nascent scientific curiosity.

And, in due course, this same curiosity gave birth to an article for Paddling.net. Which, in turn, gave rise to an influx of reader mail, much of which drew my attention to the paucity of illustrations. “Why didn’t you have more pictures?” my interlocutors demanded. The answer was simple: I wrote the column before I’d got my hands on a digital camera, and my stock of slides simply came up short on potholes.

That was then. Nowadays, I’m a digital girl through and through. Farwell is of a different mind. He keeps threatening to unearth his father’s old Smith Corona Sterling portable typewriter, leaving his computer to gather dust on a shelf. (No worry about power outages. No broadband fees. No helpful reminders that he’s using an obsolete browser whenever he checks a reference. Only words on paper. Hmm… There might be something in it.) Still, I’m not ready to go back to the future just yet. So let’s head down to The River for a virtual field trip. But first, we’ll pause on the riverbank for a short, illustrated course in pothole formation… Read more…

Potholes Like You've Never Seen Them Before

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

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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