The Songs of Trees: headed to press!

I’m thrilled to announce that my next book, The Songs of Trees, is scheduled for publication on April 4th, 2017. After several years of traveling and writing, the proofs are in and the book is moving into production. 

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The cover art features a photograph of young, pink leaves of Lecythis pisonis, “Monkey Pot Tree,” in Yasuní Biosphere Reserve, Ecuador, the location of my opening chapter. (Pete Oxford / Minden Pictures / Getty Images.)

As publication date approaches I’ll share more stories from my journeys, including some photos and audio clips from the trees whose lives I studied. For now I’ll say that my method at each tree was simple: I sat, listened to each tree and its many neighbors, and tried to attend to the many songs wrapped into and around each tree. What is a tree song? The many harmonies, discords, and relationships — ecological, cultural, physiological, evolutionary — that give a tree its life. Through these masters of connection, we learn something of the networks that give life its substance and beauty.

The following overview from my publisher, Viking, gives a taste of the places that I visited and the songs that I heard:

The author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Forest Unseen visits with nature’s most magnificent networkers — trees 

David Haskell’s award-winning The Forest Unseen won acclaim for eloquent writing and deep engagement with the natural world. Now, Haskell brings his powers of observation to the biological networks that surround all species, including humans.

Haskell repeatedly visits a dozen trees around the world, exploring the trees’ connections with webs of fungi, bacterial communities, cooperative and destructive animals, and other plants. An Amazonian ceibo tree reveals the rich ecological turmoil of the tropical forest, along with threats from expanding oil fields. Thousands of miles away, the roots of a balsam fir in Canada survive in poor soil only with the help of fungal partners. These links are nearly two billion years old: the fir’s roots cling to rocks containing fossils of the first networked cells.

By unearthing charcoal left by Ice Age humans and petrified redwoods in the Rocky Mountains, Haskell shows how the Earth’s climate has emerged from exchanges among trees, soil communities, and the atmosphere. Now humans have transformed these networks, powering our societies with wood, tending some forests, but destroying others. Haskell also attends to trees in places where humans seem to have subdued “nature” – a pear tree on a Manhattan sidewalk, an olive tree in Jerusalem, a Japanese bonsai– demonstrating that wildness permeates every location.

Every living being is not only sustained by biological connections, but is made from these relationships. Haskell shows that this networked view of life enriches our understanding of biology, human nature, and ethics. When we listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, we learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.”

Publication date is six months away, but pre-orders are already open:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

Books-A-Million

IndieBound

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It is a joy and a great honor to share what I hear and learn, both in book form and here on my blog. To all who accompany me in my rambles by reading, sharing, commenting: many, many thanks.

Posted in The Songs of Trees | Tagged , , , | 27 Comments

Major bird kill at Sewanee’s Memorial Cross

A scene of bird carnage at Sewanee’s War Memorial Cross on the campus of the University of the South (photo credits: Sandy Gilliam):

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The cross is a tall white structure, brightly illuminated all night by spotlights. It stands on an overlook on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, surrounded by hardwood forests, and visible from many miles away in the valley below. The night of the kill — 26/27 September — was cloudy and birds got caught in the dome of light, circling circling circling until they killed themselves by smashing into the out-sized reconstruction a Roman instrument of execution. Over 130 birds were killed.

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Catbirds

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Sora rails and American redstart

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Yellow-billed cuckoos and wood thrush

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Pied-billed grebes, nighthawk, and nightjar

Many bird migrate at night, avoiding predators, staying cool, and navigating by the stars. Bright electric lights disorient them and many are killed each year in collisions with communication towers, buildings, and other artificially lit structures. The numbers killed in this way are hard to know, but one recent review estimated “hundreds of millions (building and automobile collisions), tens of millions (power line collisions), millions (power line electrocutions, communication tower collisions)”.

Data from ebird.org (an online database of millions of bird sightings) reveals the migration patterns of birds. The following graphs are from the “Central Hardwoods” and “Appalachian Mountains” of Tennessee (to run your own analyses, click on “explore data” at ebird). The height of the green bars on the graph indicate abundance. Each species has a different seasonal pattern (some are here only in the summer, others surge through in migratory pulses, and many are winter visitors). For many migrant songbirds, mid-September through early October are peak times for movement through our region. These migrants are often very abundant in the forests around Sewanee: every bird taking the overland route from the northern US or the the vast Canadian boreal forest is winging through the southeast.

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Within a few hours of the discovery of the dead birds, staff from the University’s offices of Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability and Physical Plant Services were developing a plan to rework lighting to avoid future kills during bird migration. Many thanks to Nate Wilson, Sandy Gilliam, Greg Rollins, William Shealey, and colleagues for their rapid and proactive response.

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Merrymeeting

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At the confluence of six rivers and a long tidal inlet: 9000 acres of part-salted water and mud known as the Merrymeeting Bay. Forty percent of Maine’s freshwater flows to the Gulf of Maine through this inland delta. The Gulf’s waters surge into bay twice daily, pushed by oceanic tidal forces but slowed by their long passage through the rock cleft that is the lower Kennebec River. High tide here is hours later than on the coast.

For decades, the waters were so polluted that paint would peel from any building located near the bay or its upstream rivers. Great rafts of dead fish flowed out with the tides. The stink worked its ways into the growth pattern of towns. Apart from huge brick-walled mills — now shuttered or turned to self-storage units — towns and farms turned their backs on the river and bay. Only the poorest parts of town had water views. Unlike the southern Maine seacoast that is now largely encrusted with expensive houses, shores here comprise rock, poisoned mud, and a few scattered hunting lodges. This leaves room for others: Eagles are common, although their bodies are spiced with the toxic remnants of upstream industries. Signs warn humans not to consume the fish, but eagles don’t give a damn about what they read. The flow of some chemical effluent is now diverted into other rivers, other bodies, in other lands. Outsourced, to benefit America’s waters and retail outlets.

Wild rice grows in abundance on the mudflats. In late summer bobolinks flee the mown inland meadows to feast in the rice thickets and roost. Now, at the equinox, the bobolinks are winging away to try their luck in a southern continent. Ducks gather in their place to dabble at rice and aquatic insects. Below the water, endangered short-nosed and Atlantic sturgeon swim slowly upstream, nosing through a vestige.

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Posted in Travels, Water | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Reminder of what flies over unseen on autumn nights

A sora, dead on the road outside the post office in Sewanee, Tennessee. These are wetland birds of the north. A dry road gutter in a town built in the southern forested uplands is a far cry from the sora’s usual marshy home.

img_20160912_133918895 This is not the first dead rail that I’ve seen on Sewanee’s roads during the autumn. Their nocturnal migratory flights carry them over the Cumberland Plateau. Perhaps they are lured then confused by the “security” lights that festoon our small downtown area. An early morning driver must have struck this bird as it wandered the road.

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Those stubby wings are well adapted to movement in the dense vegetation of marshes. They’re also powerful enough to carry the birds — those that escape our lights and tires — over the Gulf of Mexico to their wintering grounds in Central and South America.

Listen as you walk in the evening: autumnal migrants are streaming through the skies every night, calling as they fly. Chirp, tzup, zzip, the sound of hundreds of thousands of memories of wetland, forest, and prairie, winging bird-thoughts south, away from the leading edge of winter. We’re hearing part of the landscape’s mind in motion. On the roads, in the morning, tiny flecks of lost understanding.

 

 

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Art installation and allegory: Grimes Ave, Ocean Point.

Imagine that you own a large house overlooking one of Maine’s most scenic shorelines. You might ask yourself: How can I best honor and enjoy the privilege of owning property adjacent to this grand meeting of ocean and land?

The obvious answer: Artillery. Set up launching pad for fluorescent orange clay targets, fling them over the shoreline and ocean, then gun them down. The shrapnel falls into the commons, the sea and rocky tidal zone. People wandering on the rocks, along your property line, enjoy a bright confetti of broken clay amid the barnacles.

To crown the sport, erect a sign asking passers-by to be… respectful.

Rachel Carson’s Edge of the Sea…updated for gunners.

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Posted in Travels | 10 Comments

Scaly quiz

This is a:

a) Baby pangolin

b) Squirrel-chewed balsam fir cone

c) Section of fish skin with placoid scales

d) Bud of a cycad plant, a reminder of the Mesozoic

e) Other

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Hint: Photo taken (1) in Maine where autumn is underway, (2) near overenthusiastic weed-eaters.

Answer: The inside of a not-quite-mature milkweed seed pod, cut then exposed by lawn care devotees. Each seed is attached to a “coma,” a bundle of silky threads that puff open into a wind-catcher when the seeds break free. The silks are remarkably soft, like the fluffiest bird down. Luckily for those of us who like softness and need warmth, the Québécois are now cultivating milkweed for use as clothing insulation.

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Mastery through simplicity: Tide pool springtails, Anurida maritima

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As if the tide pool surface was ice, hundreds of small gray animals skate and jiggle over the salt water. Not a single one of the animals is wet. None sink. In gusty wind their swarms blow back and forth within the confines of the rocks that wall the tide pools. In still air, the animals’ tremulous movement draws them into ever-shifting amoeboid shapes.

Anurida maritima, the “seashore springtail,” has a distribution that encompasses most of the rocky shores of the North Atlantic. This species’ daily rhythms are tuned to the tides. At low tide, the springtails disperse over the exposed rocks, scavenging for food (including discards from mollusc-throwing gulls, as I discovered a few weeks ago). About an hour before the rising tide submerges them, the springtails retreat to rocky crevices and huddle. When the tide reaches its full height, the animals are fully submerged. This rhythm seems to be controlled from within: they keep up the cycle of activity tuned to the tides even when removed to a lab.

Not many animals can be so amphibious. Oxygen, in particular, is hard to come by. Land animals have lungs adapted to air, sea creatures have gills that can extract oxygen from water. There is not much room for an “in between” state. Animals with lungs hold their breath underwater, then surface to gasp more oxygen. Marine animals exposed at low tide close their shells and trap doors to keep their gills moist. Springtails manage to break these rules and thrive by adopting the path of simplicity. Oxygen enters their bodies across their skin, so during high tide they wander in the open air without lungs. When submerged, the waterproof hairs on their bodies hold a layer of air close to the skin, like a diver’s air tank.

The springtails use more than their body hairs, though, to carry them through 3-4 hours of submergence at high tide. They seek out rocks whose undersurfaces allow several springtails to huddle within an air bubble. If they’re lucky (and clever) enough to find a good spot, the bubble keeps the animals oxygenated through the entire high tide cycle, acting like a lung into which oxygen diffuses from the sea water. By the end of the tidal cycle the bubble is depleted — it shrinks and eventually disappears — and the animals must tolerate low oxygen for a while. Then, when the waters recede, they are free to wander the wrack and see what washed up on the falling tide.

Relatively simple though this strategy may be, it is extraordinarily successful. Close inspection of rocks reveals the springtails wandering nearly every surface at high tide. There seem to be thousands of them in a single square meter. These close relatives of the insects may lack wings, internal breathing apparatus, and elaborate body appendages, but lack of anatomical sophistication has unlocked feeding and living opportunities for which no other creature seems able to compete.

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Posted in Archosaurs | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Ocean teenagers leaving their shed clothes everywhere

Small horseshoe crab shells have started littering the wrack line in Middle Bay, Maine. Every high tide brings more, sometimes half a dozen shells for every meter or so of wrack.

These are not dead crabs (the May full moon mating frenzy left plenty of those), but the discarded exoskeletons of molting juveniles. Young horseshoe crabs spend the first few years of their lives in the muddy bottom of the bay, just below the lowest reach of the tide. In August they molt, crawling head-first out of their old shells, then the animals swell up and harden their new armor. The cast-off shells wash ashore. Mature horseshoe crabs don’t molt, so these shed skeletons are all from growing youngsters. I’d guess the one in the photo is about two or three years old. This year’s hatchlings are still less than an inch across.

These are good things to find. Although the species is protected in Maine, horseshoe crab populations elsewhere have been hammered over the last decades by harvesting for bait and for bleeding (to yield chemicals used in human blood tests). Seeing new generations coming along is good news for the horseshoe crabs (who’ve been around largely unchanged for >400 million years) and for the migrant birds that depend on their springtime eggs for food.

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Great new book: “I Contain Multitudes” by Ed Yong

News flash: A fabulous new book about microbial life (which, it turns out, is all life) hit the shelves yesterday.

Ed Yong is an outstanding writer whose elegant, witty prose describes a revolution in biology. Our new understanding of microbes upends much of what we thought we knew about medicine, conservation, ecology, and many other fields. I Contain Multitudes takes us into the labs and the field sites where this revolution is unfolding. Ed not only delivers a book full of incredibly important ideas, he lets us inhabit the processes that gave rise to these ideas. Including the correct way to obtain an anal swab from a dangerous animal.

If you have a strong intellectual immune system — one that is skeptical of the overblown claims that sometimes spill from scientific discoveries — Ed is a great guide. He’s clear-headed about both big ideas and bad ideas. His is a refreshing rigor in a time of journalistic bombast.

And, if you’re looking to see the world with new eyes, sloughing away the tropes, voice, and stale hypotheses of textbooks, you’ll love this book. The Atlantic, where Ed works as a science writer, has a timely excerpt about the microbial dimension of Zika and mosquitoes.

I strongly recommend doing yourself a favor and getting your hands on a copy. And by “your hands” I mean the dozens of species that comprise the communal entity formerly known as your “self.”

 

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Living flypaper

On the edge of a mountain bog in Maine, a thumbnail-sized plant grows amid the mosses:

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This is sundew, Drosera, a carnivorous plant, ready to ambush.

Darwin devoted twelve chapters of his 1875 book, Insectivorous Plants, to the anatomy, behavior, and physiology of a European species of Drosera. He writes:

During the summer of 1860, I was surprised by finding how large a number of insects were caught by the leaves of the common sun-dew (Drosera rotundifolia) on a heath in Sussex. I had heard that insects were thus caught, but knew nothing further on the subject… I gathered by chance a dozen plants, bearing fifty-six fully expanded leaves, … it was soon evident that Drosera was excellently adapted for the special purpose of catching insects, so that the subject seemed well worthy of investigation.

The results have proved highly remarkable; the more important ones being—firstly, the extraordinary sensitiveness of the glands to slight pressure and to minute doses of certain nitrogenous fluids, as shown by the movements of the so-called hairs or tentacles; secondly, the power possessed by the leaves of rendering soluble or digesting nitrogenous substances, and of afterwards absorbing them; thirdly, the changes which take place within the cells of the tentacles, when the glands are excited in various ways.

We now know that sundews are forced into a carnivorous mode of existence by the poor soils of the bogs in which they live. They are starved of nitrogen and, not being able to find any through their roots, resort to feasting on flying nitrogenous sources, aka insects. (If extra nitrogen is added to their roots, they back off from carnivory.) The “dew” on the plants’ leaves is sweet and sticky; the droplets lure and trap passing sugar-seekers. The plants’ movable hairs and leaves then draw their victims into the center of the rosette of leaves where glands digest then absorb the meal.

Insects also serve as pollinators of the sundew’s flowers. You’ll note that the flower stalks holding opening buds in the pictures above are very tall. Natural selection evidently says: don’t eat your pollinator for lunch.

My camera could not capture the full beauty of the sundew’s leaves. The following photo by “I, Petr Dlouhý” (generously shared under a Creative Commons license) gives a glimpse. The last thing a gnat sees before The End:

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Posted in Plants | Tagged , , | 6 Comments