Friday, September 28, 2012

America's Crisis Solved!

Forget the dysfunctional Congress and America's exploding wealth gap.  Pay no attention to our ongoing wars in the Middle East, our sluggish economy and our widespread unemployment.  Ignore the presidential race with its sparring rhetoric, mega slush funds and voter fraud campaigns.  Don't fret about oil spills, global warming, environmental pollution or habitat loss.

Compared to our recent, most pressing problem, these political, financial, international and environmental threats to America were backpage issues, problems to be addressed in the future.  Now, thanks to pressure from the media and an impassioned American public, the NFL has settled its dispute with the referees.  No more blown calls!  No more angry fans!  No more stress for the billionaire owners and their millionaire players!

Yes, the NFL crisis was the major subject of conversation for many Americans over the past few months and it received plenty of airtime from our dominant news organizations.  Social injustice, political turmoil, homelessness and the futile deaths of young soldiers in Afghanistan took a backseat to this vital American obsession.  Now that the greatest threat to our country's welfare has been solved, we can focus on the less important matters.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

High Plains Fox

About half the size of a red fox, the swift fox of the High Plains is named for its ability to run down jackrabbits.  Primarily nocturnal, this smallest canid in North America spends much of the day in its den, emerging at dusk to hunt for mice, jackrabbits, prairie dogs, ground squirrels, birds and insects; an omnivore, it also consumes fruit and seeds.  The swift fox usually digs its den in sandy soil near rock outcrops, among the cottonwood groves of stream valleys or along fence lines.

Swift fox pairs are thought to remain monogamous throughout their life span (generally 4-6 years in the wild), and mate in late winter; kits (usually 4-5) are born from March to May, depending on the latitude.  Both parents care for the young through the summer months but the family begins to disperse in autumn.  Often active on mild winter days, swift fox may fall prey to golden eagles, coyotes or automobiles.

Extirpated from large parts of its range by predator culling in the early 1900s, this handsome fox has since been reintroduced in many areas and can be found across the High Plains from Alberta, Canada, to West Texas.  Today, loss of habitat to ranching and agriculture is the primary threat to its survival though, like most canids, it has learned to adapt to human encroachment.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mole Seasons

Like mushrooms, moles tend to surface during the spring and fall, when the soil is cool and moist.  Driven into their deeper tunnels during the heat of summer and the frigid months of winter, they follow their prey (earthworms, grubs, insects) into the upper layers of the soil when milder conditions prevail.  It is then, of course, that they endure the wrath of lawn masters, who attack them with a variety of chemicals and traps.

Rather solitary for much of their lives, moles mate in late winter and a litter of 2-6 young are born in a deep nest chamber by mid spring; each will be on its own within a month, equipped to dig tunnels at a phenomenal rate (up to 18 feet per hour for adult moles).  While their deeper channels are extensive and permanent, those close to the surface (that draw our attention and ire) provide access to temporary foraging areas.  Though we might mine these areas with a variety of poisons and contraptions, they can easily move off to greener pastures and any success that we might have is always temporary.

As naturalists know, moles play an important role in soil aeration and insect control and their "unsightly" excavations are the sign of a healthy ecosystem.  Mammalian insectivores (related to shrews and bats), moles often consume their body weight in prey through the course of a day and may ingest 50 pounds of invertebrates over a year; it is best that we leave the control of their population to snakes, skunks, raccoons, weasels, fox, coyotes and owls.  Better yet, reduce their natural habitat by widening your shrub borders and minimizing your lawn space; that will send the moles off to your neighbor's manicured carpet.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

King of the Mulch Pile

Last evening, as I prepared to leave our Littleton, Colorado, farm, I went outside to complete a few chores.  The sun had already dropped behind the Front Range but there was still enough daylight to get the work done.

Fifteen minutes later, I was distracted by a group of blue jays, shrieking from large shade trees at the back of our property.  Having seen a sharp-shinned hawk on the farm earlier in the day, I assumed that it was paying another visit; if not, they were surely reacting to one of the red fox that regularly hunt on our pastures.  When their raucous scolding did not abate, I walked back to see what was causing their alarm; to my surprise, an adult great horned owl had decided to perch on a large pile of wood chips near the end of our driveway.  Oblivious to their cries, he waddled across the mulch pile, trying out various sites before settling down to peruse the surrounding "lawn" and shrubs; clearly, he has used that mound as a hunting perch on other evenings.

Before giving up, several of the jays strafed the owl, looking like sparrows when compared to the bulky frame of the raptor.  Indeed, the scene evoked the image of King Kong, fending off attack planes atop the Empire State Building; in this case the potential victim was unfazed, merely ducking his head when the jays approached.  Eventually, the protesters tired of their efforts and flew off while the owl, king of this mulch pile, lounged on his throne until darkness enveloped our farm.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Mellow Month

Across natural ecosystems of the Northern Hemisphere's Temperate Zone, September tends to be a mellow month.  For most species, the challenges of breeding, nest building and child rearing have passed, the oppressive summer heat has abated and the stress of winter has yet to arrive.

We humans share this tranquility, energized by the cooler weather but not yet facing the traditional duties of autumn.  We are free to turn off the air conditioner and open the windows without concern for sweltering heat or a high utility bill.  Children are back in school and the frenzy of the holiday season is, for most of us, still months away.

Those of us who pay attention to nature recognize the quiet, unhurried behavior of our wild neighbors and this reinforces our own sense of well being.  While the songbird migration is underway, it goes relatively unnoticed, occurring primarily at night and devoid of the raucous congregations that October and November will bring.  Indeed, September is a welcome interlude between the incessant demands of summer and the social complications of the coming months.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

South Park Road Trip

Southwest of Denver, U.S. 285 climbs through the Front Range foothills and then drops into the North Fork Valley at Crow Hill.  Resuming its climb to Kenosha Pass, the highway continues westward along the river, snaking between the high wall of the Platte River Mountains to the south and the Mt. Evans massif to the north.

At Kenosha Pass (elevation 10,000 feet), a scenic reststop offers a broad view of South Park, one of Colorado's large intermountain valleys.  The north wall of the valley is formed by the Continental Divide as it curves to the west while the Mosquito Range, a southern extension of the Ten Mile Range rises along the Park's western edge; on clear days, the massive Sawatch Range, part of the Continental Divide, can be seen behind the Mosquito Range.  The east side of South Park is formed by the Puma Hills, backed by the Tarryall Mountains and the southern rim, not readily seen from Kenosha Pass, is closed off by Thirty-nine Mile Mountain, part of a Tertiary volcanic field.  The upper tributaries of the South Platte River rise along the Continental Divide and Mosquito Range, merging on the valley floor and flowing gradually to the southeast before cutting northeastward through the Front Range foothills.

Today, the mountain slopes were adorned with the gold of aspen groves and hazy sunshine warmed the air across the high altitude parkland, which has an average elevation of about 9200 feet.  Circling counterclockwise, I crossed large cattle ranches along the northern part of the valley, passed through Fairplay and then angled southward on U.S. 285 along the Mosquito Range to the distinctive form of the Buffalo Peaks; unlike the rest of that range, which is composed of Precambrian granite, these twin peaks, visible throughout South Park, formed from Tertiary volcanic debris that collected within a basin, later lifted by tectonic forces and sculpted by Pleistocene mountain glaciers.  Turning east on U.S. 24, I visited Antero Reservoir on the South Platte River, where Permian redbeds outcrop along its northern shore; out on the lake, flocks of American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants and rafts of mergansers prepared for migration.  A detour south on Colorado 9 took me down to the Thirty-nine Mountain volcanic field, thought to be responsible for producing the Florissant Fossil Beds (to the northeast) about 35 million years ago.  Returning to U.S. 24, I headed east and visited Eleven Mile Reservoir (also on the South Platte) where western grebes were abundant and especially vocal.  Continuing east, I crossed the granite-lobed Puma Hills to Lake George and then followed Route 77 northwestward through the scenic Tarryall Creek Valley, gradually climbing between the Puma Hills and the imposing, rock-studded slopes of the Tarryall Range; joining the usual mix of mountain birds was a lone osprey, fishing along the Creek and seemingly out of place in that high, rugged landscape.  Route 77 ends at Jefferson, on U.S. 285, completing my South Park road trip.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Mesabi Range

The largest of four Iron Ranges that stretch across northeastern Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Mesabi Range is 110 miles long, angling WSW to ENE between Grand Rapids and Babbitt, Minnesota.  Up to 3 miles wide, this chain of low hills was heavily mined for its rich load of iron ore throughout the first half of the 20th Century, peaking during the military buildup of WWII.  Today, most of its high grade hematite has been recovered but a new boom to mine taconite, a lower grade ore, is underway; while hematite is 70% iron, only 30% of taconite is composed of hematite and magnetite, requiring enrichment via pulverization, the use of binding agents and the final production of taconite pellets (65% of each pellet is pure iron).

While iron is widespread across the globe, composing 5% of Earth's crust and coloring the red-rock country of the American West and central Australia, mineable deposits of iron ore are relatively rare, having formed within ancient Precambrian rock (1.6-3.0 billion years ago).  Most geologists believe that the iron of the Mesabi Range initially eroded from Precambrian mountains and collected within the basin of a shallow sea; there, oxygen produced by early forms of photosynthetic algae and bacteria, converted the free iron deposits to iron oxide.  Up to 500 feet thick, most bands of the hematite run close to the surface in the Mesabi Range and open pit mines produced the majority of the ore.

Now barren, many of the Mesabi mine pits have become man-made lakes, stretching south of the numerous glacial lakes that speckle the Arrowhead of Minnesota.  Almost 3 billion years after it formed in Precambrian seas, most of the Mesabi iron ore has dispersed across the globe, now trapped within the steel framework of skyscrapers and the thick hulls of battleships.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Cost of Religion

Ingrained in childhood, religious beliefs are a source of faith and hope and, in some persons, a stimulus for charity.  On the other hand, they also instill fear, guilt and an intolerance of those who do not share the beliefs; the latter, of course, has been a common trigger for civil strife and war throughout human history.

Beyond its impact on the spiritual mindset of believers, the power of religious faith, rooted in the fear of death, has exerted significant influence throughout human society, primarily via its effects on politics and education.  Long an archenemy of science, religion impedes social progress by demonizing the fundamental tenets of biology and by opposing technologies such as birth control that are vital to the welfare of our planet.  Finally, religious organizations, often functioning with impunity, free of taxation and government oversight, amass a great deal of wealth with which to ensure their continued influence; financed by devoted followers, religious leaders and their hierarchies are often able to avoid scrutiny and prosecution, even when their actions and proclamations deny basic human rights to other groups.

Many will argue that the "good works" of religions far outweigh any negative impact that they may have on human society.  Others, myself included, feel that their cost, primarily as divisive agents of intolerance and as enemies of education, injecting delusional beliefs into the realm of science, far exceeds their charitable programs, most of which are tied to recruitment and indoctrination campaigns.  While we should not eliminate religious freedom, it is equally important that we uphold freedom from religion and begin to treat those organizations as the businesses that they have always been.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Animals at the Zoo

We took our grandson to the Cincinnati Zoo today, my first excursion to any zoo since our own kids were young.  The Cincinnati Zoo, long ranked among the best in the U.S., was one of the first to begin naturalizing their exhibits and significant improvements have occurred since my last visit.  Nevertheless, most of the caged wildlife seemed sluggish and bored and my mixed feelings about zoos were reinforced; the educational value of these institutions is undeniable but that benefit is balanced by the unfortunate incarceration of wild creatures.

Indeed, it is impossible to learn much about the natural behavior of animals once they are removed from their native habitat, however successful we might be in replicating its physical characteristics.  The educational value of zoos is primarily through introducing visitors (especially children) to the diversity of wildlife on planet Earth and, hopefully, instilling a commitment to protecting their native ecosystems.  Unless those goals are achieved, zoos, however visually appealing, are little more than show and tell menageries.

The most abundant and varied animal at the zoo today was the human being, represented by a variety of age groups, races, sizes and shapes.  Traveling about in family and social groups, they, like the caged wildlife, were on display for all to see but their behavior was unencumbered by walls and fences.  Capable of complex communication, their voices echoed through the park, at times distant and muted but often close, shrill and distracting.  Though also children of nature, highly dependent upon the health of her varied ecosystems , humans, convinced as we are of our innate superiority, lend a zoo-like feel to any natural environment.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Songbird Months

The number and variety of songbirds peak during two periods across the Temperate Zone of eastern North America.  From mid April to mid May and from mid September to mid October, we enjoy the largest mix of permanent residents, summer songbirds, seasonal migrants and, at the colder extremes of those intervals, winter songbird residents.

Typical permanent residents include cardinals, blue jays, tufted titmice, chickadees, robins, eastern bluebirds, cedar waxwings, Carolina wrens, white-breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches, eastern meadowlarks, song sparrows and a variety of woodpeckers.  Among our common summer residents are house wrens, blue-gray gnatcatchers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, various swallows, chimney swifts, common nighthawks, indigo buntings, northern orioles, gray catbirds, brown thrashers, scarlet and summer tanagers and a host of summer warblers, sparrows and flycatchers.  Pure migrants are primarily limited to northern warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets and certain vireo and flycatcher species while dark-eyed juncos, brown creepers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, red-breasted nuthatches, yellow-rumped warblers, golden-crowned kinglets and a number of winter sparrows may be encountered from mid October to mid April.

While the above lists are incomplete, they illustrate the wide variety of songbirds that inhabit or move through our region in the course of a year.  Novice birders hoping to maximize their sightings are advised to visit a diversity of habitat (forest, wetlands, meadows) and to plan their excursions for the early morning and late daylight hours, when these birds tend to be most active and conspicuous.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Voyeurs of Tragedy

Every year, on the days surrounding September 11, American television programming revisits the horror of 2001 with documentaries, docudramas and replayed coverage of the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC.  This annual obsession with reliving that tragic event, as if we need to be reminded of the details, is touted as a public service, an acknowledgement that terrorism still stalks the globe and a means to honor those who died in the carnage.

Yet, like all television programming, it is served up with the primary purpose of attracting viewers and, as media executives know, humans are perversely attracted to the specter of tragic events.  Just as crowds gather to watch a jumper on a ledge or tune in to learn every detail about a mass shooting, they long to hear desperate phone calls from the Twin Towers and, for the hundredth time, to watch airliners slam into the World Trade Center.

Do we honor the dead with this programming or do we merely satisfy the sadistic voyeurism of the human animal?  Can we not commemorate the historic tragedy without injecting it with the morbid curiosity of those who gawk at the plight of its victims?  We have already used that horrific event to justify eleven years of senseless combat which has taken many more innocent lives; need we also be entertained by the suffering and death of the September 11 attacks?

Afterlife Adventures

As my family has been instructed, I will be cremated upon my death and my ashes will be scattered in the Mt. Evans Wilderness Area, west of Denver.  After that, who knows where I'll end up?

Perhaps a harsh winter will leave my remains entombed beneath a snow bank for several years, eventually providing nourishment for a young bristlecone pine.  Absorbed by that long-lived tree, I may be part of its gnarled trunk for a thousand years or more, eventually re-entering the soil when the pine dies and crumbles.  Now nourishing the grass of a mountain meadow, I could be consumed by a snowshoe hare and thence by a lynx or a golden eagle.  Upon that predator's death, I would return to the wilderness, perhaps later flushed into the watershed of the South Platte via its North Fork, Bear Creek or Clear Creek.  If not trapped in one of many reservoirs en route, I'll make my way down the Missouri, entering the Mississippi at St. Louis and then float down to the Gulf of Mexico.  If caught up in the coastal marshes, I might be consumed by a wintering snow goose and then transported to the Arctic tundra for the summer.  If not, I may swirl about the Gulf for a few years before drifting into the Caribbean and then out to sea.  The Gulf Stream might deposit some of my remains on the shores of Iceland or the British Isles or, like Jonah, I might end up in the belly of a massive cetacean, stored in its blubber for decades.  Eventually, after succumbing to humans, killer whales or old age, its carcass will rot on the ocean floor and I'll re-enter the marine ecosystem.  Who knows, maybe a combination of ocean currents and tropical storms will transport my remnants to an exotic shore where, eons hence, compression, volcanism and uplift will place me atop another mountain range.

Of course, I could opt for embalming fluid and a cozy metal box beneath a manicured lawn.  But why miss the adventure of nature's enduring cycle?

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Birding Trifecta

As an avid birder, I have been fortunate to live in a number of fabulous birding areas over the years and, as I near retirement, we own property in three of the best.  Our home in central Missouri sits at the crossroads of bird migration in the U.S., hosting huge flocks of waterfowl in spring and fall, joined by American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants and many other water birds.  In addition, most birds that are seasonal residents in or regular migrants through the Temperate latitudes of eastern North America can be observed in this region.

Our Littleton, Colorado, farm sits near the foothills of the Front Range, offering access to five life zones within an hour's drive.  While birds unique to western foothills, mountain forests, alpine tundra and canyons are the obvious highlights, especially for visiting birdwatchers, the regional birding opportunities extend across the Piedmont and High Plains as well, including the seasonal presence of species such as mountain plovers, lark buntings, various longspurs, avocets, migrant shorebirds, sandhill cranes, bald eagles, white-faced ibis and a rich diversity of waterfowl that one might not expect to find in that semiarid landscape.  Finally, our condo on Longboat Key, Florida, looks out on Sarasota Bay with its spectacular variety of birdlife, including waders, anhingas, gulls, terns, ospreys, brown pelicans and wintering waterfowl, not to mention the shorebirds and seabirds on the Gulf beaches and the colorful songbirds that inhabit the mangroves and tidal creeks.  Short drives into the South Florida peninsula provide additional opportunities to observe caracaras, burrowing owls, Florida sandhill cranes, Florida scrub jays and other subtropical species.  Spending parts of the year in all three locations, I enjoy a birding trifecta that provides exposure to a fabulous diversity of natural habitat, each with its unique population of flora and fauna.

Of course, every region of this magnificent Continent hosts an interesting variety of resident and migrant birds, many of which cannot be found near our properties.  What better excuse to visit the northern coasts, the Great Lakes region and the Desert Southwest?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Season of the Hunter

On these chilly, dark, early mornings of September, Orion reappears in the southern sky.  Though this well-known constellation is a visual illusion, a product of our unique perspective from planet Earth, early man saw a hunter in that group of stars.

Of course, their interpretation was surely influenced by the season of its presence, stretching from the first chill of late summer through the long, cold, trying nights of winter, when Orion shines through the dry, clear, frigid air.  They likely welcomed this hunter as a sign that massive flocks of waterfowl and migrant herds of herbivores would soon arrive from the north, providing sustenance through the lean months of winter.  In this respect, Orion was both a promise of bounty and a warning of the coming hardship and, since they relied on hunting for their own survival, he was a cherished companion.

Today, equipped with the modern convenience of supermarkets, we may be less enamored with the hunter's appearance, knowing that the slide toward winter has quickened.  But, for those of  us who relish the crisp, colorful days of autumn and the invigorating chill of winter, Orion is a welcome sight in the southern sky.  For prey species, the season of the hunter is far less rewarding as predators gain a distinct advantage amidst the barren forests, windswept plains and frozen wetlands.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Edge of Autumn

Sitting in my office this afternoon, I am looking out at a wall of dark clouds, pushing in from the west.  Studded with thunderstorms, this front is the edge of autumn, promising a night of rain followed by the first glorious day of fall-like weather.  Our overnight low is expected to dip near 50 degrees F and tomorrow's sunshine will only produce an afternoon high in the mid seventies; both of those extremes will be twenty degrees cooler than what we have averaged over the past few months.

Nearly upon us, the dark clouds look menacing but their trigger, a cool, dry Canadian air mass, is dropping south behind them.  Assuming we avoid damaging winds and destructive hail, the heavy rains along the front will be more than welcome and the autumn air that plunges in their wake will provide the first convincing evidence of seasonal change.

No doubt, summer will battle back in the coming weeks but this sudden strike by old man winter is a  powerful blow from the north, a welcome invasion across the parched landscape of America's Heartland.  Darkness is now gathering at mid afternoon, lightening is flashing across the western horizon, shelf clouds are racing above Columbia and autumn's violent debut is at hand.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Costa Rica's Earthquake

Yesterday's earthquake off the west coast of Costa Rica occurred along a subduction zone where the Cocos Plate is dipping beneath the Caribbean Plate.  A remnant of the Farallon Plate, like the Juan de Fuca Plate off the Pacific Northwest and the Nazca Plate off South America, the Cocos Plate lies along the west coast of southern Mexico and Central America.  At its western edge, this Plate is both forming and diverging from the Pacific Plate along the East Pacific Rise, a mid oceanic ridge; shoved eastward, it is forced to subduct beneath the more buoyant Caribbean Plate.  As it dips toward the mantle, the leading edge of the Cocos Plate melts, producing a chain of volcanoes east of the subduction trench (along the west coast of Mexico and Central America).

Subduction zone earthquakes generally result from a sudden slippage of the overriding plate; in this case, the western edge of the Caribbean plate was pulled down by friction with the dipping Cocos Plate and suddenly rebounded upward.  Since subduction zones most often occur along coastlines, this upward motion of the overriding plate (usually a continental plate margin) also displaces the overlying seawater, potentially triggering a tsunami.

Fortunately, yesterday's magnitude 7.6 quake did not spawn a tsunami though its tremors were felt from Nicaragua to Panama.  The strongest earthquake to strike Costa Rica in more than twenty years, it will almost certainly be followed by a series of aftershocks as pressure is transferred down the fault lines.  In some cases, such subduction quakes also reignite volcanoes that rise along the adjacent coast.  Those who live along subduction corridors thus face the triple threat of earthquakes, volcanism and tsunamis.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Shuttle vs. Trees

In order to transport the Space Shuttle Endeavour to its new home in Los Angeles, some 400 trees will be destroyed along its final glide path.  While a promise has been made to replace them with twice as many young trees, the loss of the large, older shade trees has outraged many citizens.

Regardless of one's view on this matter, the decision illuminates man's tendency to place a higher priority on technology and development than on conservation.  The Endeavour, a powerful symbol of human achievement, will be paraded past an adoring public; in preparation, nature's handiwork will be sacrificed.  Of course, the financial benefits of the shuttle shrine will be reaped for generations to come and, as we all know, economics trumps nature in human society.

A more subtle revelation of this decision is our preoccupation with the past, often at our own expense.  We excel at commemoration but are less adept at planning for the future.  In our rush to glorify the past and to make our present life more enjoyable, we fail to address the long-term effects that our policies might have on the welfare of this planet.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

First Migrant Songbird

Yesterday evening, a female magnolia warbler was flitting about the lower branches of our black maple.  It was the first migrant songbird that I have observed this season, to be followed by many more from now until mid October.  Staying ahead of the autumn chill, which will suppress if not kill off her insect prey, she is headed for a balmy winter in Central America.  After enduring the excessive heat this summer, I do not envy her journey.

Named for the fact that they were first scientifically observed and classified in a grove of southern magnolias, during their migration, magnolia warblers actually nest in open coniferous forests across central and eastern Canada, the Great Lakes Region, New England and along the Appalachian Chain, as far south as Virginia.  Come late summer, they head for wintering grounds in Central America and the West Indies.  Attractively colored with a mix of gray, white, black, yellow and olive plumage, magnolia warbers are common migrants throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and are relatively easy to observe since they tend to feed in shrubs and in the lower branches of shade trees.

While some shorebirds begin their "autumn migration" by July, the songbird migration generally runs from early September to mid October, led by the dedicated insectivores such as common nighthawks, warblers and gnatcatchers.  Toward the end of their migration period, the fair weather migrants and summer residents are replaced by hardy winter songbirds, arriving from northern latitudes to spend the cold, gray months in the balmy Temperate Zone.  This year, drained by the long, hot summer, I can't wait to welcome them.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Morning Stress

As we awaken from the deep chasm of sleep, interrupted though it might have been by a series of dreams, the natural stress hormones of our body begin to peak, preparing us to face the challenges of life.  For early man, this biochemical reaction may have been especially vital, susceptible as he was to predators, storms and the other threats of nature.  Stoking his awareness and capacity for flight, cortisol and other hormones assured a rapid transition from the inertia of sleep.

While this natural process may be less crucial today, its effects remain and, at times, may have negative consequences.  Dragged from the carefree world of sleep into the reality of our modern life, we are suddenly flooded with problems that we managed to ignore throughout the night.  Recent turmoil, current demands, chronic worries and looming threats all come streaming into conciousness, raising our level of stress to what is often its highest point in the course of a day.  Indeed, medical studies have often demonstrated a high incidence of myocardial infarction (commonly known as a heart attack) during the early morning hours.

Awareness of this natural human trait is the key to avoiding its consequences.  Should you awaken and find yourself suddenly overwhelmed by the demands of the coming day or week, remind yourself that this is morning stress and conciously choose to ignore those problems for an hour or two.  By then, your biochemical engine will begin to cool down and a more reasoned approach to their solutions will become apparent.  As with most health-related issues, we have a good deal of control over the negative effects of this natural stress response.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

September Spring

Isaac's rains have spawned a September spring across central Missouri as dry, brown lawns and drooping vegetation have been reinvigorated by the abundant moisture.  Greenery is returning to the parched landscape, birds seem energized by the cool, damp weather and the winter-like death grip of our intense summer heat has, for now, been broken.

Indeed, deprived of moisture and wilted by the unrelenting sun, the vegetation of our State, while not completely decimated, had entered a state of estivation, dropping leaves and fruit to retain water in more vital tissues of the stems and roots.  Creeks and ponds, normally teeming with life during the verdant days of summer, had given way to dry, rocky beds and cracked mudflats, depriving many insects, tadpoles and fish of crucial spawning and maturation habitat and, in turn, upsetting the food chain for primary and secondary consumers. How the dry, stressed vegetation affected populations of resident herbivores and their predators remains to be seen.

Of course, the brutal summer had an impact on humans as well, causing many to retreat to air-conditioned shelters for weeks at a time.  With no grass to cut or shrubs to trim, yard work was confined to watering gardens and removing dead vegetation.  Few cared to visit parks or nature preserves in the intense heat, especially since the parched landscape had little appeal and the wild residents were inconspicuous, having escaped to cool, secluded woodlands.  Now, thanks to Isaac, we, like the plants and wildlife, are revived by the September spring, determined to relish the great outdoors before winter arrives to suppress nature's bounty once again.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Swamp Cooler

After a long, brutal summer, enveloped in hot, dry air, we in Missouri are now bathed by the remnants of Hurricane Isaac.  The familiar humidity of the American Midwest has returned, exceeded now by the swampy feel of the Tropics.  Moisture collects on windows and drips from plants and, even between showers, a fine mist hangs in the air.

Now near the center of Isaac's broad circulation, the wind is calm and low clouds hang above Columbia, trapping thick, balmy air near the surface.  Though the copious moisture is subtropical in origin, it has broken the intense heat that persisted through most of the summer.  Humid air is less dense than its dry, desert counterpart and cannot achieve the high temperatures that baked Missouri for the past few months.  In addition, the process of condensation consumes heat, falling rain cools the air and the blanket of dense cloud cover reflects the solar radiation.

Our current swampy air is thus cooler than the dry air mass that is poised to return in the coming days.  As the storm's center drifts off to the east, its backside moisture will give us a final dose of welcome rain before the heat and sunshine return.  Fortunately, now that we are two months beyond the summer solstice, our longer nights should keep the intense summer heat at bay and, over the next few weeks, we will slip toward the mild, colorful days of autumn.