Thursday, October 30, 2014

Emerald Ash Borers

Earlier this week, I partook in a ghost tour event here on Transylvania's campus. Using the bench in front of the Kissing Tree — a very old ash tree, and a very striking local landmark — as a stage, I told the one-hundred-percent true story of how the attempted murder of Constantine Rafinesque took place under that very tree. Seriously, though; it happened.

The scene of the crime, now the potential scene of another.


Soon afterward I learned that yet another invasive insect, the Emerald Ash Borer, has recently infiltrated Kentucky. Already I've grown rather fond of the Killing Kissing Tree, and so I've been doing some research on how to preserve it. The results have not been promising...

According to a 2005 tree survey cited by UK's College of Agriculture, EAB activity remains confined to certain "hotspots," yet those hotspots include the streets of Lexington, Kentucky! Though I haven't seen much of an effect on downtown trees — apart from the unrelated bacterial blight of Triangle Park's Bradford Pear trees — the recent announcement that all of Kentucky is now a regulated area for EAB infestation has me worried. If the entire state is now at risk, one can only conclude that the "hotspot" EAB populations have expanded, yes? And if they expanded, they must be reproducing more effectively — which suggests to me that these spots are even "hotter" than before. 

Is my reasoning sound? Is this just conjecture?

At any rate, we should take the time to learn the signs of EAB infestation, for the betterment of our dear tree. If everyone is looking out for the tree, even casually or halfheartedly, we should be able to catch any ash borer activity before it's too late. Don't let them distribute their filthy Communist literature in our neighborhood! Better dead than Red — er, Emerald.


No suggested literature today. If you haven't been able to find some appropriate seasonal literature by this time, I'm sorely disappointed in you.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ramblings on Naturalism

Today I have plenty of ideas sloshing around in my head, but few developed ones. 
Let's just pick one, and see whither it goes...

My last post was about our disconnectedness from nature — from produce, livestock, and natural resources, in particular. Having just read excerpt from John James Audubon's By Himself, this problem is framed in a new light for me. Or maybe it's just a very old viewpoint, just phrased in a different way; I'll let you decide that.

Thomas Cole - "Course of Empire," Part 2

Momentarily ignoring all of his artistic and naturalistic credentials, Audubon was a French-American gentleman of the early nineteenth century. Had he no interest whatsoever in nature, he still would have been within walking distance of nearly-untouched wilderness — for instance, the Ohio River, which Audubon described as it was before the advent of steamboats. Moreover, hunting and riding were popular pastimes among the gentry, and fishing seemed to be a popular communal sport among schoolboys and grown men alike.

In short, these people engaged with nature more directly and frequently than we ever did. They had the means and the free time, and it was much more difficult for them to live completely apart from nature. It was also more "dignified" to indulge in these outdoor activities; nowadays, hunting and fishing carry a somewhat rustic connotation.

A popular sentiment is that technology — computers, iPads, Android SmartBlenders, etc. — distracts us from the value of nature. I suspect, however, that even if these devices were not so widely used, we would still lack the spark that drove Audubon and his contemporaries. 

Our living spaces still have many connections to the natural world, but none that we can readily see. We've grown much more accustomed to thinking of ourselves as enclosed from nature, and we draw clearer boundaries between "inside" and "outside." Audubon went crazy over catfish — but suppose the idea of "catfish" no longer has relevance in our culture? Suppose we can't find catfish anywhere within our own living space?

Perhaps I'm speaking as an ignorant city-dweller. I was born in a city, and allergies have prevented me from venturing too far outside. Even so, it seems to me that the waning interest in naturalism is due to a lack of that which drove early naturalists to the subject.

So, erm, yeah. This was productive and profound.

"TOO LONG; DIDN'T READ" VERSION: Naturalists got interested in nature because they were surrounded by it. Now nature belongs to a niche part of society instead of the mainstream — so we don't have any passionate naturalists like those of yore.


Today's reading is, of all things, a Wikipedia article about the tale of "Stingy Jack." From all the versions that I read online, this is actually the most complete.

Using this story to supplement Dr. Atkins' comment on my last post, I'd like to take this time to advocate turnip jack-'o-lanterns. Not only are they a more "ancestral" form, but they're much more portable and versatile; I can imagine a good Headless Horseman costume using a turnip. I mean, look at this thing...

That's an authentic jack-'o-lantern from Ireland, looking more like a shrunken head than many shrunken heads I've seen. Spooooky.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Myth of the Pumpkin

With the trending demand for locally-grown produce, we often hear of "artificial" fruits and vegetables—produce that was grown with hormones, pesticides, selective breeding, or some other invention of the agriculture industry. And we sniff our noses in disdain. 

We tell ourselves that we would never dirty our mouths with volleyball-sized tomatos—or, heaven forbid, something as unnatural as a "Grapple™." We scorn the bagged lettuce, the orange-in-the-plastic-mesh. We wag our fingers at those rascally agricultural companies and their monster-sized farms, and proudly we tote our reusable grocery bags to the local farmers' market. Then we each take a sip of our Pumpkin Spice Lattes™, and in doing so we indulge in the same filthy lie that we publicly denounce!

Yes, my friends, the pumpkin is a lie.

A big, fat liar.
My US Size 10 shoe, for comparison.

First of all, most of our so-called "pumpkin-flavored" treats contain no actual pumpkin; but that's a different problem altogether.

The greater deception, much less well-known, is that the pumpkin itself is a man-made invention. The only "wild pumpkins" are Cucurbita feotidissima, or the "most fetid gourd," a stringy and foul-smelling gourd native to the Southwestern US and Mexico. Actual pumpkins are a cultivated variety of Cucurbita pepo and Cucurbita moschata. In other words, they're gourds that have been selectively bred to be orange and round; any distinction between "pumpkin" and "gourd" is totally arbitrary. 

The only difference, really, is that these basketball-gourds can't survive without human care. They require far too much water, and they're much too vulnerable to certain hostile elements. They're like Henry David Thoreau; they make a show of being "real" fruits that can survive on their own, but they still need someone to bring them a sandwich—er, plant food—on the weekends.

Now, to clarify, I don't object to the cultivation of certain traits in plants. That's simply agriculture. If we don't grow produce to meet our needs, why grow it at all?

What worries me, though, is how far removes we are from our food. This is another trending topic, yes, but the usual argument is: "We don't know where this meat came from." More troubling to me is the following thought: "We don't know what this fruit is, even though it's an integral part of our seasonal culture."

Our schools teach students about xylem and phloem, and angiosperms and gymnosperms, and cells and chloroplasts—but they don't say a peep about the plants that comprise large parts of our daily lives. History and biology are so segregated that to teach the natural history of a plant is unthinkable. Such esoteric, detail-oriented stuff is better left to colleges of agriculture, they say. But I would argue that knowledge of one's surroundings has an intrinsic value. Even if a person isn't going to cultivate gourds for a living, s/he ought to know about the world in which s/he lives. 

Otherwise, if we're living in ignorance of the natural forces that power our society, who is to stop the big agricultural companies (which we oppose so fervently, right?) from fooling us in an even bigger way?

If we can't recognize that pumpkins are not relatives of gourds, but are gourds themselves, what is to stop some company from passing an engineered fruit as a real one? Not an obviously-fake "Grapple," but, say, an "American Apple Squash." They'll introduce it gradually, subtly—and before long, we'll be eating "apple squash pie" alongside pumpkin pie as a national favorite? It's a matter of control, and it seems to me that natural history is our best defense.