Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Flowers of Fall

There are some things in life that even the most sheltered, sedentary person cannot avoid. I have one of these things in mind.
Here in Fall, the great pivot of the year, as skeins of geese flood southward, shores become ice-choked, and squalls push down the Appalachians, we are, for the most part, oblivious to it all. We are too busy to possibly have time to consider the great forces that drive our planet, we are too busy skirting the sidewalks of our concrete jungle, stressed out, face down in our cellular devices.

But there is one aspect of this great shift that you cannot avoid, that you can see by lifting up your head while sitting on the john, looking out the window, seeing the tree beside your house swirling in the wind. A tree that is green no longer.

Perhaps there is no greater alteration to our visual landscape than the fall leaf change. Winter is gray, summer is green, fall is... red, yellow, orange, brown, purple, whichever you need. Such beauty in the name of death.

What is going on? Why do tree leaves change color in fall? As with most scientific questions there is a simple answer, and then the seriously too complicated answer that is impossible to grasp. I'll bridge the gap for you.

In the summer, chlorophyll(the plant's food factory) is so concentrated in the leaves that its green color hides the yellow and oranges of other chemical compounds present. As chlorophyll begins to disappear at the onset of the cold season, the oranges and yellows are revealed. And what about the leaves that just turn brown? The brown is tannin, a waste product of the tree's life processes.

But why do the deciduous leaves die and fall to the ground to begin with?

Here in the temperate deciduous forests of North Carolina, the main reason is temperature. Growth only occurs during the warm summers and leaves drop during the fall so that the trees sit dormant during the cold winter. The loss of leaves helps conserve water that would otherwise be needed to maintain the leaves. And even though this system requires the tree to regrow new leaves in the Spring(a taxing chore), it is still more favorable than having to maintain functional leaves in the depths of winter.

SO ENOUGH OF THE TALK ALREADY... I'm sure you're starting to feel a bit too nerdy, so let's get back to the artistic, pretty side... LET'S TAKE A VISUAL TOUR!!! I've spent the past couple weeks accumulating some photographs for this article.. whether from backpacking in the Smokies to just poking around Chapel Hill.

Above and below, photos from the Blue Ridge Parkway in NC in mid-October. The vividness of this scape cannot be captured with a lens, it is too expansive... but I tried.

Above is the normal sight along the parkway, where the road is lined like this all day. Ever wonder why the Blue Ridge Parkway is the most traveled road in the country? This is perhaps the biggest reason of all.

Above, we're back in Orange County, outside of Chapel Hill. While meandering through Duke Forest today 10/29, I sat still and took stock of what was around me. Without moving I collected the following leaves. Note the different colors... Clockwise starting in the top left: Red Oak, Dogwood, Hickory, Grape Vine, Sassafras, White Oak, Red Maple, Beech, Tulip, Sweet Gum, Black Cherry, Willow Oak, Winged Elm.

Above is the winning leaf so far. Red Maple from Great Smoky Mountain National Park sitting on my desk. It looks like burnt earth splitting along veined fault lines, revealing the magma beneath.

And finally, the most decorated, flamboyant leaves of all belong to the Sugar Maple... Above is one floating in a creek in Battle Park, Chapel Hill.

I'm sure most of you have spent moments admiring the trees around you. But for the readers out there who are in the East, take another moment to truly appreciate it. Feel sorry for those scrubs out west(female or not) who have to deal with evergreens and deserts. We've got it best. And I guess Germany does too.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Learn the Warning Sign of Mental Illness

Today, I'm a study hall supervisor all day. I sit and make sure that kids do their work. If they don't have work, I'm supposed to make them be quiet. They are not allowed to talk, listen to i-pods, or put their head down. They must be what I want them to be. The walls of my trailer are covered with posters professing what's best for them. I can't help but laugh. You think the kids are gonna listen to this stuff? Check out the scare tactics on the posters:

Drugs and the body... it isn't pretty.
What you're served... what's one serving?
Learn the warning sign of mental illness.
Did you see her last weekend?
I can't believe she did that...
I bet she doesn't even remember what happened...
She was so drunk...
Call it what you want, it's still a drug.
Cheating: Talking about the test to the next period class.
Cheating: "Borrowing" homework.
Live for the future, not for the moment, sex can wait.
What Mommy does... baby does...

To get a visual idea, here are some examples:

Faith in the kids? Nah... I can't see it. My desk is a throne, the walls around me the bastion for propaganda. The walls are plastered with our lack of faith...

I look around the classroom, and the way I see it is this...

just like the baboon on the Serengeti...

He runs and fails. He humps his brother. His mother mortally wounds a rabbit so that he can practice making the final kill. He doesn't know how to do it and paws at it's back feebly... He eats a poisonous lilac berry by accident... One day he catches an infant gazelle... It's torn from his hand by another... He learns to climb trees to escape... mates with a sultry female in estrus... ignores his children until they do the same...


Things have been happening this way thousands of years, whether IT goes down in caves with fermented mammoth piss, with grog on an Atlantic crossing, or in the back of the Burger King. By having IT plastered on the walls of schools and on the tip of adult lips, all IT does is bring IT to the forefront of the kids' minds. IT makes them think about IT more. IT makes them curious. IT makes them want IT more.

Is a sexless drugless adolescence really the key to a successful adulthood? Is that the prelude we need? I think that has yet to be proven, and probably never will be.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lesson Time: Of Nuts, Trees, and Squirrels

Walnuts, pecans, hazels. Yummm. Everyone has an appreciation for nuts.

What do you think about when you munch these delicious kernels? Are you filled with panic that it might all disappear? Are you a health freak obsessed with anti-oxidants? Are you proud of your North American forests for producing them?

Or are you overwhelmed by the mystery of their creation? At least for me, I was perplexed as I devoured my walnuts. I wanted to know more.

Why would a tree go through the trouble of producing a nourishment-filled nut - and then not defend it properly? The shells of walnuts, pecans, hazels, etc. are all relatively thin. Isn't that basically giving away their embryos to anything that wants to eat them?

Pecans on a tree.

I began to do a little research, and realized that the answer was right beneath my nose. Or, rather, beneath the squirrels' nose, those ubiquitous, fastidious, bushy-tailed rats that make their home amongst us. And what are they doing all the time? They are carrying nuts everywhere. Fences, trunks, and stones are all home to their embedded nuts, stashed away to be eaten in the future, when pickings are slim.

And then it came to me.

Trees want squirrels to eat their nuts.

Trees work on the principle that squirrels aren't perfect. That among the thousands of nuts that a single squirrel stashes, he will never return to them all. Perhaps he will get run over and not return to a single one, and still... The squirrel has done all the work for the tree: taken the tree's seed, excavated a nurturing nest for it, and done this a thousand times over. The squirrel is the tree's ideal gardener. Hickory, pecan, and walnut trees are all competing to make the most appetizing nut, to see who will win the squirrels services... and we all know that competition makes for a better product!

We have squirrels to thank for the nuts we love to eat. Millions of generations of squirrels have been busy shaping them, hiding and sometimes forgetting the nuts that appeal to them most. And what appeals to them? It's simple: ones that are thin-shelled, easy to open, and fit inside their mouth. It is these nuts that have the best chance of growing into trees, and in doing so, perpetuating their style.

But, leaning back and thinking about this for a moment, there lies a potential wrinkle in this philosophy. Not all nuts are easy to open! What about the massive shells of brazils and macadamias? It is impossible to open these without the aid of some serious bludgeoning.

The impenetrable brazil nut.

The answer to these massive shells lies in the countries where they hail from. Both brazils and macadamias exist in regions(South America and Australia), where there are no harsh winters. Thus there is no need for animals to cache them in order to survive during the coldest months. Instead, nuts are eaten where they found, immediately, and usually right beneath their mother tree. This destroys the reproductive potential of the tree, so, nuts such as brazils and macadamias armor themselves accordingly, to prevent such disasters from occurring.
I hope you learned something. Now read this 3 times at least. Now you are prepared with great knowledge, either to impress someone or to annoy someone just trying to eat some nuts.

As I did research on this concept, I was aided greatly by the book The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples by Tim Flannery.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Diversion: Chapel Hill Disc Golf

Urge to explore. Urge to exert. Urge to compete. To excel. Yes, these are the desires of the human, the desires of the fit, the desires of me. How to accomplish these elevated goals? And for free?

Is there a way?

Play disc golf.

Disc golf expertly rides the crest between the mainstream and the unappreciated. It is a sport that is select yet free of requirement. What the hell does that mean? Don't worry, we'll explore that. But first, let's get a little background for the new-b's.

All through the country, disc-golf courses wind through suburban forest patches, most often as a section of a larger park. It's a part of the bigger picture and a thoroughly American creation.

Here in Chapel Hill, NC for example, the local course is part of the Outdoor Recreation Center, maintained by the university. On some holes you are within sight of volleyball and tennis courts, a rope course, or other practice facilities. On other holes, you are thoroughly immersed in the forest.

This is what you are greeted with at the first tee.

In bare essentials, disc-golf is similar to traditional golf. Birdies, eagles, bogies, drives, chips, and dog-legs are all part of the disc-golf lexicon too. But after that, things begin to change. For example, here is what I find in my bag of weapons:

My fairway driver. In a backhand throw it has a strong hook to the right. Easy to spot when I throw it 200 feet into the woods.

The auburn putter, heirloom of my father. Heavy and deep, it is most often seen in the chains. Lol. Or bouncing of the rim.

The beauty of this sport is that there is room for all. It is everything that traditional golf is not. It is not homogeneous. It is not white men coveting status, veins bulging from their buttoned-up collars, sweat hidden from their expensive slacks. On the disc-golf course your more likely to see bare skin shining, hairy, flabby, or not. Needless to say, the freedom of cutting loose is often undervalued. But not here. In a single round you will bear witness to a diverse assemblage. There are:

The true pros, that have refined the flick of their wrist to attack the dog-legs and let their disc soar for 400 feet if necessary.

The pros that want a workout, that finish the entire course in 30 minutes, running from shot to shot, hole to hole. I find these intimidating and off-putting. Odd and inaccessible.

The pros-in-training, that drain a birdie but follow it up with a tee-shot into the trees. They lack the consistency that we all covet. I am a pro-in-training.

And then there are the amateurs, that are either in their fetal stages, throwing just for the sake of throwing, or as a diversion while walking the dog.

What next? Well I can't leave everything up to the imagination. I'm going to give you a virtual tour of one hole. The 3rd hole in Chapel Hill. Daunting is the only word appropriate to describe it.

This is what it looks like on paper.

This is what it looks like from the tee. Can you ignore the water and launch? Or can't you?

After you throw over(or in it), this is your view looking back.

And this is what it looks like after 1 throw. :-)
As mentioned before, while playing, there is more to enjoy than just disc golf. The course is not sterile, like "normal golf." I love the outdoors. I love the observation of wilderness and the beating sun. I write down notes of what I see.

Down the sodden fairway a phoebe is sitting on the basket, but as we approach it retreats, first in circling flight and then onto the crown of a sweet gum.

For all the squirrels that make their homes here, I still expect more. Along the path, around the pond, a crouching squirrel turns into a cluster of brown leaves as I pass by it.

Behind the 7th tee, a black rat snake sits in the pine needle floor. I rush and grab it, its body contorting, recoiling and striking the top of my hand with it's unhinged jaw. I feel the rows of teeth dig in and release as I tug him away. Pricks of blood turn into isolated pools, and as I fling my hand on my next throw the blood scatters. Super beautiful.

The 12th hole skirts the backstop of the softball practice field, where Red-tailed Hawks are often seen sitting on the posts or wheeling in the sky, all too ready to laugh as a wild toss skids onto the diamond.

I urge you to explore. Just don't tell too many people. The bane of d-golf is a queue at the tee.