Botany in Popular Culture: Close It Quietly by Frankie Cosmos

Frankie Cosmos – the stage name for Greta Kline and also the name of her band – is not a new thing but was new to me in 2019. Their music is classified broadly as indie rock or indie pop, and could easily be placed in a number of subgenres. I, however, consider it punk. The songs are short, emotionally raw, unconventionally structured, simply arranged, and independently produced. That’s punk enough for me. Their most recent album, Close It Quietly, is easily my top pick for best album of 2019. The reason I’m saying this here on a blog about plants is because plants are featured in some of the lyrics. But it’s more than that really.

Quite often plants find their way into the lyrics of songs. They are, after all, great subject matter for all kinds of art. The special thing to me about the lyrics of Close It Quietly isn’t so much that plants get mentioned, but the sentiments that surround the references and the lessons learned from them. It may just be personal bias, but to me the plant references are more than just cursory. They come from a place of connection and personal relationship. Plants have things to teach us, and when we are open to it – which is often during challenging times in our lives – we can hear their lessons.

Trees receive the bulk of the plant references on this album. Like the song “Trunk of a Tree,” for example, in which Greta sings, “You’re the trunk of a tree / silent, filled with clarity.” That’s no surprise though. As David George Haskell writes in his book, The Songs of Trees, “To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.” There is great wisdom in trees. Confiding in or consulting with them can help bring clarity to a moment or feeling. This doesn’t have to mean anything weird – just being among trees and observing them in a reflective way will do the trick.

What follows is a list of some of the songs on Close It Quietly along with their plant references and some thoughts about them.

“41st”

This song is pretty fitting for the start of a new year, with the first line asking, “Does anyone wanna hear the 40 songs I wrote this year?” Looking back, maybe it was a crummy year. Perhaps you weren’t treated well, or maybe someone in your life didn’t turn out to be who you thought they were. There may be some comfort in knowing that you’re not the only one going through such things. Glancing up at the trees, Greta sings, “I look at the branches and hold a mirror up / They’re looking at me and say, ‘You don’t have a comb, do ya?'” The tangled branches of trees speak of past difficulties. As it turns out, we all have challenges that we’re trying to move past.

“A Joke”

We often find ourselves under pressures to be or act a certain way – to conform to some standard that was decided by someone else. Timelines created by other people direct our lives and tell us how or where we should be at a certain age or point in life. But, as Greta notes, “Flowers don’t grow in an organized way. Why should I?” It’s okay to be yourself, and there is no rush to become someone or something else.

“Rings (on a Tree)”

Sometimes we have to walk away from relationships, particularly when those relationships are not good for us. It’s never easy, but perhaps you’ll come to the realization that “it was wrong, so wrong / to try to hold on to a fallen tree / one that wouldn’t even look at me” or one that wasn’t “holding arms out lovingly.” It doesn’t mean that person wasn’t or still isn’t meaningful to you in some way. It’s just that it’s time to move on.

“This Swirling”

In our worst moments we are “like a dandelion,” and “just a little bit of breath blows [us] apart.” Our lives feel as chaotic as the swirling of a dandelion fluff tumbling through the air. However, a closer look reveals that a dandelion seed in flight is actually more stable than we originally thought. Perhaps we can take some comfort in that.

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The Flight of the Dandelion

The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) comes with a collection of traits that make it a very successful weed. Nearly everything about it screams success, from its asexually produced seeds to its ability to resprout from a root fragment. Evolution has been kind to this plant, and up until the recent chemical warfare we’ve subjected it to, humans have treated it pretty well too (both intentionally and unintentionally).

One feature that has served the dandelion particularly well is its wind-dispersed seeds. Dandelions have a highly-evolved pappus – a parachute-like bristle of hairs attached to its fruit by a thin stalk. The slightest breath or puff of wind will send this apparatus flying. Once airborne, a dandelion’s seed can travel up to a kilometer or more away from its mother plant, thereby expanding its territory with ease.

Such a low-growing plant achieving this kind of distance is impressive. Even more impressive is that it manages to do this with a pappus that is 90% empty space. Would you leap from a plane with only 10% of a parachute?

Dandelion flight was investigated by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, who used a wind tunnel along with long-exposure photography and high-speed imaging to observe the floating pappus. Their research was presented in a letter published in an issue of Nature in October 2018. Upon close examination, they observed a stable air bubble floating above the pappus as it flew. This ring-shaped air bubble – or vortex – which is unattached to the pappus is known as a separated vortex ring. While this type of vortex ring had been considered theoretically, this marked the first time one had been observed in nature.

Seeing this type of air bubble associated with the dandelion’s pappus intrigued the researchers. About a 100 filaments make up the parachute portion of the pappus. They are arranged around the stalk, leaving heaps of blank space in between. The air bubble observed was not what was expected for such a porous object. However, the researchers found that the filaments were interacting with each other in flight, reducing the porosity of the pappus. In their words, “Neighboring filaments interact strongly with one another because of the thick boundary layer around each filament, which causes a considerable reduction in air flow through the pappus.”

The pappus acts as a circular disk even though it is not one, and its limited porosity allows just enough air movement through the filaments that it maintains this unique vortex. “This suggests,” the researchers write, “that evolution has tuned the pappus porosity to eliminate vortex shedding as the seed flies.” Fine-tuned porosity and the resultant unattached air bubble stabilizes the floating fruit “into an equilibrium orientation that minimizes [its] terminal velocity, allowing [it] to make maximal use of updrafts.” The result is stable, long distance flight.

Wind-dispersed seeds come in two main forms: winged and plumed. Winged seeds are common in trees and large shrubs. They benefit from the height of the tree which allows them to attain stable flight. While such seeds have the ability to travel long distances, their success is limited on shorter plants. In this case, plumed seeds, like those of the dandelion, are the way to go. As the researchers demonstrated, successful flight can be achieved by bristles in place of wings. The tiny seeds of dandelions seen floating by on a summer breeze are not tumbling through the air haphazardly; rather, they are flying steadily, on their way to spoil the dreams of a perfect lawn.

Further Reading (and Watching):

Introducing Herbology Hunt

This is a guest post by Jane Wilson.

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Many people are “plant blind”. They walk through areas of fantastic wildlife or just down their street without noticing what grows there. Even plants growing in the gutter have an interesting backstory.

The term “Plant Blindness” was first put forth by Wandersee and Schlusser in 1998. Without an appreciation of plants in the ecosystem, people will be less likely to support plant research and conservation.

Herbology Hunt was born out of a love of plants and wild places and a determination to get kids outdoors and really looking at their environment. One of the founders started Wildflower Hour on Twitter – a place for people to share photos of wildflowers found in Britain and Ireland – and from this was stemmed a children’s version, which became Herbology Hunt. The Herbology Hunt team put together spotter sheets for each month of the year. Each sheet includes five plants that can be found throughout the month. They were made available as a free download, so schools and individuals can print them for use on a plant hunt.

By the end of 2018, we had created a year’s worth of spotter sheets. We are now looking to promote their use throughout Great Britain. Eventually we want to reward children who find 50 of the plants with a free T-shirt, and we will be looking for sponsors to support this. We have been supported by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland and the Wild Flower Society who have made the monthly spotter sheets available. They can be downloaded here or here.

Herbology Hunt Spotter Sheet for January

The Wild Flower Society has a great offer for Juniors interested in plants – it costs £3 to join and you get a diary to record your finds.

Going outdoors and noticing wildlife has been shown in some scientific studies to improve cardio-vascular health and mental health. A herbology hunt must surely be a good thing to do with children to help them get into a better lifestyle that will benefit their future health. We hope that many families and schools will use our spotter sheets as a way to help children become more passionate about the environment and enjoy the benefits of being outdoors.

Check out the Wildflower Hour website for more information about Herbology Hunt, along with instructions on how to get involved in #wildflowerhour, plus links to social media accounts and the Wild Flower (Half) Hour podcast.

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Also: Check out Jane Wilson’s website – Practical Science Teaching – for more botany-themed educational activities.

Botany in Popular Culture: Laura Veirs

I love music for its ability to conjure up emotions, create a mood, and inspire action. The music of Laura Veirs has always inspired me to get out into nature and be more observant of the wild things around me. Her music is rich with emotions, and I feel those, too. However, when I think of her music, I can’t escape images of the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it.

Found within her nature-centric lyrics are, of course, numerous botanical references. After all, plants and their actions make excellent subject matter for all types of art. And with that in mind, Veirs asks rhetorically in the song Rapture, “Doesn’t the tree write great poetry?”

When it comes to botanical references, the song that jumps first to mind is Lonely Angel Dust, starting off right away with these lyrics: “The rose is not afraid to blossom / though it knows its petals must fall / and with its petals fall seeds into soil / Why toil to contain it all? / Why toil at all?” Plants produce seeds in abundance, as mentioned in Shadow Blues: “Thousand seeds from a flower blowing through the night.” And, as in Where Are You Driving?, they’re seeking a suitable spot to plant themselves: “Through clouds of dandelions / seeds sailing out on the wind / hoping you’ll be the one to plant yourself on in.”

 

Flowers come up often in the songs of Laura Veirs. In White Cherry, “cherry trees take to bloom.” In Nightingale, “her heart a field in bloom.” In Make Something Good, “an organ pipe in a cathedral / that stays in tune through a thousand blooms.” In Sun is King, “innocent as a summer flower.” In Cast a Hook, “with watery cheeks down flowered lanes.” In Life Is Good Blues, “Messages you sent to Mars came from a crown of flowers.” Grass and weeds get a few mentions, too. In Summer Is the Champion, “let’s get dizzy in the grass.” In Life Is Good Blues, “tender green like the shoots of spring / unfurling on the lawn.”

Trees are the real stars, though. Veirs makes frequent references to trees and their various parts. This makes sense, as trees are real forces of nature. So much happens in, on, and around them, and images of the natural world can feel barren without them. First there is their enormousness, as in Black Butterfly, “evergreen boughs above me tower / were singing quiet stories about forgiveness, ” and Don’t Lose Yourself, “we slept in the shadow of a cedar tree.” Then there is their old age, as in Where Are You Driving?, “tangled up in the gnarled tree,” and When You Give Your Heart, “falling through the old oak tree.” There is also their utility, mentioned in Make Something Good, “I wanted to make something sweet / the blood inside a maple tree / the sunlight trapped inside the wood / make something good.” And then, of course, there is the fruit they bear, as in July Flame, “sweet summer peach / high up in the branch / just out of my reach,” and then in Wandering Kind, “a strange July / a storm came down / from the North and pulled out the salt / and it tore out the leaves from the pear tree / my canopy.”

Many of Veirs songs create scenes and tell stories of being in the wilderness among rivers, lakes, mountains, and caves. Chimney Sweeping Man, for example, is a “forest resident” who “walks[s] quiet through the forest like a tiny, quiet forest mouse.” In Snow Camping, Veirs tells a story about sleeping in a snow cave in the forest, where “a thousand snowflakes hovered,” “a distant songbird [was] singing,” and “the weighted trees” were her “only home.” But sometimes those forests burn, which is captured in Drink Deep: “Now the raging of the forest fires end / and all the mammals fled / I smell in the charred darkness / a little green / a little red.” Later in the song: “the fire closed his eyes / tipped his flame hat and slipped through the dire rye / we wandered romantic / we scattered dark branches / with singing green stars as our guide.”

Nature can also be empowering, and Veirs often refers to things in the natural world as metaphors or similes for the human experience. In Cast a Hook, Veirs adamantly asserts, “I’m not dead, not numb, not withering / like a fallen leaf who keeps her green.” This line comes up again in Saltbreakers: “You cannot burn me up / I’m a fallen leaf who keeps her green.” In Lake Swimming, Veirs addresses change and how some of life’s changes may wound us but we can still shine – “shucking free our deadened selves / like snakes and corn do / … / Old butterfly / I’ll dance with you / though our wings may crumble / we can float like ash / broken but the edges still shine.”

 

The botanical references Veirs makes in her songs are not the only things that excite me. Birds, insects, mammals, fish, and worms all find a place in Veirs’ lyrics. This is why, after more than a decade of listening to her songs, I find myself coming back to them again and again. There is a sort of kinship we feel for each other when we share in common a love of the natural world. I find that in the music of Laura Veirs.

More Botany in Popular Culture Posts:

Book Review: Grow Curious

In the early 2000’s when I was really getting excited about learning how to garden, one of the first resources I turned to was a website called You Grow Girl by Gayla Trail. I probably saw it mentioned in a zine about gardening. Something about it felt very punk rock. Trail’s site was different than other resources, and it spoke to the anti-authoritarian, non-conformist in me. Reading through the About page today, Trail’s punk rock spirit hasn’t waned, and I can see why her site appealed to me.

Now with well over two decades of gardening experience to draw from, Trail continues to run her site, has written five books (including one called You Grow Girl), and her “contemporary, laid-back approach” to gardening remains essentially the same. In her words, she “places equal importance on environmentalism, style, affordability, art, and humour.” Her “aim has always been to promote exploration, excitement, and a d.i.y approach to growing plants without the restrictions of traditional ideas about gardening.” We share these sentiments, which is why when I learned of her most recent book, Grow Curious, I knew I needed to read it.

Grow Curious by Gayla Trail accompanied by a pressed leaf from Trail’s garden.

Grow Curious is an activity book for gardeners of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels. It diverges from most books about gardening in that it is not a how-to or a what-to-plant-where guide. It is instructional, but only in ways that are less about getting our chores done and more about helping us explore our gardens in order to see them in a new light and open our eyes to the remarkable world that is right outside our door – a world often overlooked because we have work to do. Trail’s book is also meant to reinvigorate any of us that may be a bit disillusioned by the act of gardening – having misplaced our spark along the way, lost in the drudgery of it all. It’s about stopping for a minute, looking around, and seeing things we maybe haven’t noticed before but that have been there all along.

Because Grow Curious is a compilation of garden activities (“an invitation to play”) interspersed with prose, there is no need to consume it chronologically. Activities can be done in order or chosen at random. They can be skipped altogether or done at different times of the year. The book, however, is organized by season, starting in spring and ending in winter. In this way, the story of the birth and death of the garden is told, a polarity that Trail reflects on throughout the book. In the introduction to “Fall,” she writes of the growing season coming to a close and the garden becoming “a scene of decay.” The garden’s death can help us come to terms with other deaths, including our own. On a brighter side, the return of spring can bring a newfound sense of “hope, transformation, and optimism;” along with “the energy of renewal.”

Botanical rubbings – one of dozens of creative, garden activities found in Grow Curious by Gayla Trail

The bulk of this book is a series of activities that are meant to, as the subtitle proclaims, “cultivate joy, wonder, and discovery in your garden.” In general, the instructions are minimal – a short paragraph or two; a single sentence followed by a list of things to observe or do. In this way, you have the freedom to explore and make things up as you go, without worrying about rules or whether or not you are doing it right. Activities include touching an insect, observing the shapes of leaves and stems, smelling soil, taking pictures from new and unusual angles, visiting your garden in the dead of night, et cetera. Some activities are more involved, like raising a caterpillar or researching something to death. Other activities require little effort, like pulling up some plants to see what color their roots are or tasting an edible plant part that you have never tasted before. To facilitate advanced exploration, many of the activities include ideas or ways to “Go Further.”

Among the pages of activities are Trail’s musings on gardening and life (as it relates to gardening), and I found these to be equally intriguing.  Like her thoughts on fear and insecurity: “I was inexperienced and uncertain, full of my own fears and excuses.” And her “balanced” view on pests in the garden: “Since our insect partners often depend on the so-called bad guys, it turns out that a balanced garden needs both.” Her encouragement to observe the differences between wild plants and weeds that grow within and beyond the borders of our gardens, and her plea for us to “invite wildness” in, noting the “knotty labyrinth” that exists between “wild” and “cultivated” – “social constructs that we place in opposition to each other.”

Orange roots of California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). “As you’re digging up, moving around, and planting out new crops, trees, bushes, and perennials this fall, take note of plants that have colourful roots.” — Gayla Trail

If you have been following Awkward Botany for a while, you can probably see why this book is right up my alley. If you enjoy reading Awkward Botany, this book should be right up your alley, too.

Book Review: Weeds Find a Way

At what age do we become aware that there are profound differences among the plants we see around us? That some are considered good and others evil. Or that one plant belongs here and another doesn’t. Most young children (unless an adult has taught them) are unaware that there is a difference between a weed and a desirable plant. If it has attractive features or something fun to interact with – like the seed heads of dandelions or the sticky leaves of bedstraw – they are all the same. At some point in our trajectory we learn that some plants must be rooted out, while others can stay. Some plants are uninvited guests – despite how pretty they might be – while others are welcome and encouraged.

But weeds are resilient, and so they remain. Weeds Find a Way, written by Cindy Jenson-Elliot and illustrated by Carolyn Fisher, is a celebration of weeds for their resiliency as well as for their beauty and usefulness. This book introduces the idea of weeds to children, focusing mainly on their tenacity, resourcefulness, and positive attributes rather than their darker side. “Weeds are here to stay,” so perhaps there is a place for them.

The book begins by listing some of the “wondrous ways” that weed seeds disperse themselves: “floating away on the wind,” attaching themselves to “socks and fur,” shot “like confetti from a popped balloon.” And then they wait – under snow and ice or on top of hot sidewalks – until they find themselves in a time and place where they can sprout. Eventually, “weeds find a way to grow.”

Weeds also “find a way to stay.” We can pull them up, but their roots are often left behind to “sprout again.” Pieces and parts break off and take root in the soil. Animals may swoop in to devour them, but weeds drive them away with their thorns, prickles, and toxic chemicals. In these ways they are a nuisance, but they can be beautiful and beneficial, too.

This illustrated story of weeds is followed by some additional information, as well as a list of common weeds with brief descriptions. Weeds are defined as plants “thought to be of no value that grow in places where people do not want them to grow,” adding that even “misunderstood and underappreciated plants that are native to a region and have multiple uses” can be labeled weeds.

The concept of weeds as invasive species is also addressed; some introduced plants move into natural areas and can “crowd out native vegetation, block streams, and drive away wild animals.” That being said, weeds also provide us with “endless opportunities to study one of nature’s most wonderful tools: adaptation.” Weeds are problematic as much as they are useful, it’s simply a matter of perspective.

A criticism of this book might be that it doesn’t focus enough on the negative aspects of weeds. There is plenty of that elsewhere. The aim of this book is to connect us with nature, and as Jensen-Elliot writes, “you don’t need a garden to know that nature is at work.” When there is a weed nearby, nature is nearby. Weeds “adapt and grow in tough times and desolate places,” and they make the world beautiful “one blossom at a time.”

Field Trip: Coolwater Ridge Lookout

I spent this past weekend camping with friends near Grangeville, Idaho. I was attending the annual meeting of the Idaho Native Plant Society. Meetings in the boring sense of the word occurred, but they were brief. The bulk of the weekend consisted of long hikes on guided field trips. This post is a pictorial tour of a small fraction of the plants I saw on the Coolwater Ridge Lookout trail which is located in the Bitterroot Mountains  – my first of two all-day field trips. From where we were hiking we could look down at the canyon where the Selway River was fixing to meet the Lochsa River to form the middle fork of the Clearwater River. This is a part of Idaho that is basically too beautiful for words. At some point I will have more to say about this particular location, but for now here are a handful of semi-decent photos I took while on the hike.

A view from Coolwater Ridge Lookout trail. Looking down at the Selway River Canyon.

A view from Coolwater Ridge. Looking down at the Selway River canyon.

Erythronium grandiflorum - yellow glacier lily

Erythronium grandiflorum – yellow glacier lily

Leptosiphon nuttallii - Nuttall's linanthus

Leptosiphon nuttallii – Nuttall’s linanthus

Polemonium pulcherrimum - Jacob's-ladder

Polemonium pulcherrimum – Jacob’s-ladder

A view from the ridge. Looking down at the Selway River Canyon.

Sambucus racemosa – red elderberry

Phlox diffua - spreading phlox

Phlox diffusa – spreading phlox

Ribes viscosissimum - sticky currant

Ribes viscosissimum – sticky currant

Senecio integerrimus var. exaltatutus - Columbia groundsel

Senecio integerrimus var. exaltatutus – Columbia groundsel

Synthyris platycarpa - kittentails

Synthyris platycarpa – Idaho kittentails

Vaccinium scoparium - whortleberry

Vaccinium scoparium – grouse whortleberry

Viola glabella - pioneer violet

Viola glabella – pioneer violet

Cheilanthes feei - Fee's lipfern

Cheilanthes feei – Fee’s lipfern

Stay tuned for photos from the second of two field trips. In the meantime, go outside and see some nature.

The Making of a Kill Jar

I often hear stories from plant lovers about their initial nonchalance concerning plants. The common refrain seems to be that they were fascinated by wildlife and largely ignored plant life until they came to the realization that plants were integral in the lives of animals and play a major role in shaping the environments that support all life. Such an epiphany spawns an insatiable obsession with botany, at least for some people.

I seem to be on the opposite trajectory. It’s not like I have ever really been disinterested in animals; I’ve just been significantly more interested in plants and haven’t bothered to learn much about the animal kingdom (with the exception of entomology). My growing fascination with pollination biology (see last year’s Year of Pollination series) isn’t much of a stretch because insects have always appealed to me, and their intimate interactions with plants are hard to ignore. Ultimately, it is my interest in urban ecology and wildlife friendly gardening that is driving me to learn more about animals.

I started this year off by finally reading Doug Tallamy’s popular book, Bringing Nature Home. Tallamy wrote a lot about birds in his book, which got me thinking more about them. I then discovered Welcome to Subirdia, a book by John Marzluff that explores the diversity of birds that live among us in our urban environments. I then found myself paying more attention to birds. Many bird species rely on insects for food at some point in their lives. Plants regularly interact with insects both in defending themselves against herbivory and in attracting insects to assist in pollination. It’s all connected, and it seems I wouldn’t be much of a botanist then if I didn’t also learn about all of the players involved in these complex interactions.

So, now I’m a birdwatcher and an insect collector. Or at least I’m learning to be. Insects are hard to learn much about without capturing them. They often move quickly, making them hard to identify, or they go completely unnoticed because they are tiny and so well hidden or camouflaged. With the help of a net and a kill jar, you can get a closer look. This not only allows you to determine the species of insects that surround you, but it can also help give you an idea of their relative abundances, their life cycles, where they live and what they feed on, etc.

insect net 2_bw

As the name implies, if you’re using a kill jar, your actions will result in the death of insects. Some people will be more pleased about this than others. If killing insects bothers you, don’t worry, insect populations are typically abundant enough that a few individuals sacrificed for science will not hurt the population in a serious way.

Kill jars can be purchased or they can be made very simply with a few easy to find materials. Start with a glass jar with a metal lid. Mix up a small amount of plaster of paris. Pour the wet plaster in the jar, filling it to about one inch. Allow the plaster to dry completely. This process can be sped up by placing the jar in an oven set on warm. When the plaster is dry, “charge” the jar by soaking the plaster with either ethyl acetate, nail polish remover, or rubbing alcohol. I use nail polish remover because it is cheap and easily accessible. It doesn’t work as quickly as pure ethyl acetate, but it is less toxic. Place a paper towel or something soft and dry in the jar. This keeps the insects from getting beaten up too much as they thrash about. Once the insect is dead, it can be easily observed with a hand lens or a dissecting microscope. It can also be pinned, labeled, and added to a collection.

There are several resources online that describe the process of collecting and preserving insects, including instructions for making an inexpensive kill jar, which is why I am keeping this brief and will instead refer you to a couple of such sites. Like this one from Purdue University’s extension program. It’s directed toward youth, but it includes great information for beginners of any age. This post by Dragonfly Woman is a great tutorial for making a kill jar, and there are several other posts on her blog that are very informative for insect collectors of all experience levels.

I guess you could consider this part of my journey of becoming a naturalist. Perhaps you are on a similar journey. If so, share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below.

Documentary: The Sagebrush Sea

Last month I posted a few photos of some of the weeds and wildflowers of the Boise Foothills. In that post I touched briefly on the ecology of the foothills, and a few readers expressed interest in more posts about this topic. It is definitely a topic I would like to explore further, but it is not one that I know a ton about. In fact, despite spending the majority of my life residing in this high desert, sagebrush-dominated ecosystem, it has only been in the past few years that I have really gained an appreciation for it. Perhaps that’s understandable. This landscape, which initially appears drab, lifeless, and boring, is not easy to love at first…until you do a little exploring, at which point you find it teeming with life, loaded with diversity, and worthy of admiration.

That is one of the themes of a new PBS Nature documentary, The Sagebrush Sea, which debuted on PBS in May 2015. The film is an intimate view of what’s really going on in this vast, seemingly empty landscape that many of us simply ignore, passing through on our way to somewhere else. It is an introduction to a fascinating ecosystem, shaped and formed by extreme events and inhabited by plants and animals that have unique adaptations that allow them to survive the harsh conditions of the high desert. Some of these plants and animals can be found nowhere else on earth. For anyone looking to learn more about the ecology of the Boise foothills and/or the larger ecosystem of which they are a part, this is an excellent place to start.

The-Sagebrush-Sea

The sagebrush steppe is a plant community dominated by sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata and its various subspecies) and bunchgrasses. At one point it covered as many as 500,000 square miles of western North America – hence “the sagebrush sea” – but human activities have reduced it to half that size. The plants and animals in this ecosystem have been coevolving together for at least 2 million years. Sagebrush is, as the narrator of the film says, “the anchor of the high desert,” living up to 140 years old and helping to ensure that the desert doesn’t become a dust bowl. Sagebrush also provides food and shelter for a great number of species.

The Sagebrush Sea was produced by the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, so while lots of other plant and animal life get adequate screen time, the birds of the sagebrush steppe dominate the film. One species in particular, the greater sage-grouse, is the star character, driving the film’s narrative and speaking for the protection of this threatened and underappreciated ecosystem.

A view from behind a male greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus ) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

A view from behind a male greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus ) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Sage-grouse are endemic to the sagebrush steppes of the intermountain west. They are sensitive to disturbances and are “tied to unbroken expanses of sage.” Their breeding grounds (leks) are large patches of open ground, but when they aren’t breeding (which is the majority of the year) they are taking refuge in the sagebrush and grasses. The females make nests below sagebrush, where they blend right in, camouflaged from predators. Sage-grouse consume various plants and insects throughout the year, but their diet consists mainly of the evergreen leaves of sagebrush. Just 200 years ago there were up to 16 million sage-grouse in the sagebrush sea, today that number has been reduced to around 200,000. Due to such a steep decline, they may soon be added to the endangered species list.

Because sage-grouse are so reliant on healthy, intact, widespread sections of sagebrush-steppe, they are considered an umbrella species. Taking measures to protect them will simultaneously spare and even improve the lives of numerous other species with similar requirements. To begin with, there are a handful of other bird species that nest nowhere else except in sagebrush, specificallly the sagebrush sparrow, the sage thrasher, and the brewer’s sparrow. Other animals feed on sagebrush and rely on it to make it through the winter, such as pronghorn and mule deer. Sagebrush is also considered a nurse plant, providing shade and moisture for grass and forb seedlings growing below it.

The sagebrush steppe is threatened by the usual cast of characters: habitat fragmentation, urban and agricultural development, invasive species, climate change, etc.  Some specific activities like cattle ranching and oil and gas drilling also come into play. While The Sagebrush Sea briefly introduces some of the major threats to this ecosystem, it does not dwell on any single issue or point fingers in any one particular direction. For one, it is hard to place blame when there are so many factors involved; but more importantly, the filmmakers wanted the film to be accessible to everyone in order to foster a greater appreciation for the sagebrush sea and a consequent desire to protect it. The debates regarding this part of the world are heated enough, and those directly involved are already well aware of the issues.

This is a beautiful film. The images it captures are captivating and at times breathtaking. Apart from the sage-grouse, various animal families are introduced throughout, each one stealing your heart. My only complaint is that, at only 53 minutes, the film is too short. Luckily, the world they depicted is right outside my door, and I am now even more inspired to explore it.

To learn more about sage-grouse conservation, visit Sage Grouse Initiative.

Book Review: Rambunctious Garden

Last month in a post entitled Making the Case for Saving Species, I reviewed an article written by Emma Marris about doing all we can to prevent species from going extinct, even when the approach is not a popular one – like introducing rust resistant genes into native whitebark pine populations. Intrigued by Marris’ words, I decided to finally read her book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild Word, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for several months and had been on my list of books to read for at least a couple of years before that. At only 171 pages, Marris’ book is a quick read and comes across as an introduction to some sort of revolution. Its brevity demands future volumes, which are hopefully on their way.

rambunctious garden

The general topic that Marris addresses is how to do conservation work in a world that is riddled with human fingerprints, especially coming from a perspective that human influence is and has been largely negative. What should our goals be? The traditional approach has been to restore natural areas to a historical baseline. In North America, that baseline is usually pre-European colonization. So, we remove introduced species and we use whatever records we have and data we can gather to make natural areas look and function as they did several hundred years ago.

But there are some concerns with this approach. Rewinding time requires massive amounts of money, labor, and time, and if that historical baseline is ever achieved, it will require great effort to keep it there. Also, a number of species have gone extinct and there is no way of replacing them (unless we introduce similar species as proxies), and some species require large areas to roam that even our most spacious parks cannot accommodate. And then there is the challenge of continual change. Anthropogenic climate change aside (which complicates conservation and restoration efforts in serious ways), the earth’s ecosystems are in a constant state of flux, so holding a site to a pre-determined baseline makes little sense when viewed from a geological timescale.

There is another issue – which is in part a semantic one – and that is, we seem to have a distorted view of nature. We like to think of it as being apart from us, away from us, somewhere wild and pristine. Marris writes: “We imagine a place, somewhere distant, wild and free, a place with no people and no roads and no fences and no power lines, untouched by humanity’s great grubby hands, unchanging except for the season’s turn. This dream of pristine wilderness haunts us. It blinds us.”

We are blinded because “pristine” is a myth. Every inch of the globe has been altered in some way by humans – some areas more than others – and disconnecting ourselves from nature in a way that makes it unattainable deters us from the perception that nature can be all around us. Nature is not found only in national parks, nature preserves, and other protected areas, but in our backyards, on our rooftops, along roadsides, in the cracks of concrete, and in farm fields. Nature is everywhere. And if nature is everywhere, then conservation can happen everywhere.

After a brief overview of how we (Americans specifically) arrived at our current approach to conservation and restoration, Marris dives into some new approaches, visiting sites around the world and talking with biologists and ecologists about their work.  She explores rewilding (Pleistocene rewilding even), assisted migration, embracing exotic species, novel ecosystems, and designer ecosystems. The subject matter of each chapter in Marris’ book is worthy of a post or two of its own, but I’ll spare you that and suggest that you read the book. The controversy that surrounds these novel approaches is also worth noting. A few searches and clicks on the internet will lead you to some fairly heated debates about the ideas that Marris puts forth in her book, as well as some criticisms of Marris herself.

Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia) - a critically endangered tree species native to a tiny corner in the southeastern United States that is not likely to survive the coming decades in the wild without assisted migration.

Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia) – a critically endangered tree species native to a tiny corner in the southeastern United States that is not likely to survive the coming decades in the wild without assisted migration. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

My view as an outsider – that is, one without a high level degree in ecology and lacking years of experience working in the field – is that the tools and methods outlined in Marris’ book are worth exploring further. Certainly, each natural area must be approached differently depending on the conditions of the site and the goals of the managers. [Marris offers a great overview of some goals to consider in her last chapter.] Ultimately it is up to people much smarter and more experienced than I to sort it all out. But I heartily encourage thinking outside of the box…for whatever it’s worth.

And that brings me to what I loved most about the book. Controversy aside, Marris’ clarion call for a paradigm shift is a welcome one. Nature is all around us, and regardless of what land managers and the powers that be decide to do with large tracts of land “out there,” every individual can find purpose and beauty in the nature that surrounds them, whether it be the street trees that line our neighborhoods or the vacant lot growing wild with weeds down the street. We can decide to let our yards go a little feral, to plant some native plants, to encourage wildlife in urban areas, and to even do a little assisted migration of our own by planting things from nearby regions just to see how they will do in our changing climate. In short, we can garden a bit more rambunctiously. And we should.

This is how Marris puts it:

If we fight to preserve only things that look like pristine wilderness, such as those places currently enclosed in national parks and similar refuges, our best efforts can only retard their destruction and delay the day we lose. If we fight to preserve and enhance nature as we have newly defined it, as the living background to human lives, we may be able to win. We may be able to grow nature larger than it currently is. This will not only require a change in our values but a change in our very aesthetics, as we learn to accept both nature that looks a little more lived-in than we are used to and working spaces that look a little more wild than we are used to.

Read a short interview with Marris about her book here, and listen to a discussion with her on a recent episode of Out There podcast.