Thursday, February 27, 2014

Obesity & Food Labels

Today, the FDA announced new regulations regarding food and menu labeling, highlighting the caloric content of  a typical serving.  Unfortunately, while accurate public information is always welcome, the labels will only be read by persons who are motivated to limit their caloric intake and those committed to a healthy diet.

Most adults who overeat and almost all children pay no attention to food labels.  Someone prone to consuming giant sodas and large amounts of sugary foods are not likely to change their habit in response to information on the package.  Like cigarette use, warning labels are appropriate but not terribly effective in changing behavior; public education, social pressure, limitations on advertising, taxation and age restrictions on purchases have significantly reduced tobacco use in our country and a similar approach will be necessary to turn the tide of obesity.

Parents are the key to modeling healthy habits in children, aided by preschool and elementary school programs that encourage good nutrition and regular exercise.  Unlike tobacco companies, which have long denied the health consequences of using their products, food manufacturers have demonstrated some sensitivity to the obesity scourge but must go a lot farther in reducing the sugar content and improving the nutritional value of popular childhood foods.  In the end, the attack on obesity must begin early in childhood and involve the concerted efforts of parents, social programs, school systems and the food industry.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pot & Health in Colorado

Colorado has long been recognized for its relatively healthy population.  The State's sunny, mild climate, magnificent landscapes and superb variety of natural ecosystems encourage outdoor exploration and Coloradans have, on average, been thinner, more active and more prone to healthy lifestyle choices than Americans in most other States.

One thus wonders how the exploding pot industry will affect those health statistics.  While occasional, casual use of marijuana will likely have minimal effects on an individual, smoke will induce some lung injury in those who regularly inhale the product.  The potential for addiction is always present among those with such genetic tendencies and the long term effects of marijuana use remain uncertain.  Though the limited ingestion of alcohol has been shown to have some positive effects, especially on the development of cardiovascular disease, benefits from most popular supplements have not been demonstrated in scientific trials; on the other hand, the great majority of drugs, whether illicit, prescription or over-the-counter, have known potential side effects and pot is just another drug.  Then there are the risks to non-users, including their involvement in marijuana-related accidents and their exposure to second-hand smoke.

Time will tell if Colorado's social experiment will have a negative impact on the health of its population.  The financial rewards enjoyed by the State may be more than balanced by the health costs that arise from widespread marijuana use.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Achievements & Regrets

When we humans reach middle age, we begin to take stock of our lives.  That assessment tends to focus on our achievements and our regrets, pertaining to relationships, family, our career and our personal goals and interests.

Some of us deny having regrets while others minimize their achievements; of course, neither of those purported views match reality and generally reflect an inflated or depressed level of self esteem.  The rest of us fall across the spectrum, acknowledging that our life has been defined by a mix of achievements and regrets and sensing that the balance is tipped in one direction or the other.

Problems arise when we become satisfied with our achievements or obsessed with our regrets.  Both can lead to inertia, convincing us that our productive life has ended or that perceived mistakes will forever taint our accomplishments.  The solution to these self-imposed dilemmas is to challenge ourselves with new goals and to accept the fact that regrets are part of human life; when we direct energy toward our passions, we are less likely to dwell on past mistakes, however real or imagined they might be.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Waterfowl Invasion at Eagle Bluffs

As I approached Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning, a large flock of snow geese moved northward through the Missouri River Valley.  Once inside the preserve, I found another massive flock feeding in a field, restlessly swirling about as others arrived from the south.  Joining the snow geese were flocks of greater white-fronted geese and, by my count, 22 trumpeter swans.

Farther south in that fabulous floodplain refuge were sizable numbers of Canada geese, mallards and gadwalls, mingling with smaller flocks of American coot, northern pintails, common mergansers and the largest flock of hooded mergansers that I have ever encountered at Eagle Bluffs.  Other sightings included immature bald eagles, great blue herons, killdeer, red-tailed hawks and northern harriers.  Throughout my visit, more flocks of snows and white-fronts arrived from the south, circling overhead before settling down to rest and forage with their noisy cohorts.

While the migrant geese and swans will soon move on to the north, they are leading a waterfowl invasion that will peak from late March to early April.  Over the next six weeks, the number and variety of ducks will increase dramatically, joined by American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants, horned and pied billed grebes and a spectacular diversity of shorebirds.  For many birders and naturalists, the spring and autumn waterfowl migrations are the highlights of nature's year.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Few Snows, One Magpie

Traveling back to Missouri yesterday, under clear, blue skies, I hoped to encounter large flocks of snow geese; after all, we are entering the peak period of their annual spring migration.  Discovering a small flock over Park, Kansas, I took it as a sign that many more would appear further east.  Alas, while flocks of Canada geese were numerous, no additional snow geese were encountered before darkness enveloped western Missouri.

On the other hand, I was surprised to observe a black-billed magpie cruising over the Interstate about 10 miles west of Salina, Kansas.  Common throughout the Intermountain West, abundant along the Colorado Front Range and fairly common on the High Plains, these large, flashy corvids are easily identified.  While they, like other birds, may wander about during the winter months, I had never seen a magpie so far east on my numerous trips between Colorado and Missouri.

Yesterday's observations (or lack thereof) highlight the nature of birding.  On any given hike or journey, common, expected sightings may not materialize while a rare or unusual discovery proves to be the highlight of the day.  Indeed, surprises and uncertainty feed the passion of birders.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Risk of Avalanche

The number and severity of avalanches have been exceptionally high in Colorado this season, especially in the northern and central mountains.  A series of heavy snowstorms, accompanied by high winds, have created conditions that favor the development of these powerful snowslides; unfortunately, a number of fatalities have occurred.

Avalanches occur on slopes that are steep enough to exert gravitational forces on the snow but not so steep that deep snow will not accumulate; in general, that includes slopes with grades of 25 to 65 degrees.  In addition, they are most likely to develop after heavy snowstorms, before the new fallen snow settles and binds to basal layers; windblown snow is especially unstable.  While the typical freeze-thaw cycle helps to stabilize the snow, rapid and dramatic changes in temperature increase its instability.

Though avalanches endanger humans, wildlife and structures, they open swaths in the forest that, in the end, are vital to the health and diversity of the mountain ecosystem.  Those killed in avalanches are generally snow-shoeing, snowboarding or skiing at sites that do not lie within the boundaries of ski areas or parks and where avalanche experts have not had the chance to evaluate and mitigate the risk.  Regional or Statewide avalanche warnings should always be heeded and backcountry recreation should be avoided in the days following a heavy snowstorm.  Of course, it is the occurrence of such storms that often draws those individuals into the mountains; while many are prepared with helmets, shovels and locator beacons, collision with boulders and trees will negate the value of those measures and the only reliable means of preventing injury or death is to heed warnings and avoid high risk terrain.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Common Goldeneye Suitors

After two weeks of spring-like weather, the ice and snow has gradually decreased along the Front Range urban corridor.  In concert, wintering waterfowl have spread out from the South Platte River and  are now found on most ponds and lakes throughout the valley.

Yesterday morning, on a hike through South Platte Park, in Littleton, I came across a quartet of male common goldeneyes surrounding a lone female.  As she did her best to ignore the suitors, diving repeatedly for her breakfast of aquatic invertebrates, the males performed their distinctive courtship display.  Snapping their heads backwards, bills pointed toward the clear blue sky, they delivered brief, frog-like calls; between these displays, they attempted to chase one another away from the female.

Common goldeneyes are common winter residents in the South Platte Valley, often seen in the company of buffleheads, hooded mergansers and other diving ducks; on the other hand, they are seldom encountered in large flocks and are most often observed in pairs or small groups.  By April, they will head for Canada, Alaska and northern New England, where they nest in tree cavities near lakes and streams.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Sap also Rises

As the late winter sun climbs in the southern sky, sap is rising in sugar maples and in some other deciduous tree species.  Tapped for maple syrup production, the xylem sap of the sugar maple is generally obtained during February and early March in the northeastern U.S.

Since this sap rises before buds open and leaves unfurl, its movement cannot be explained by the "pull" of transpiration on fluid in the xylem tubules.  Neither is there evidence that the flow is triggered by a pressure gradient between the roots and the xylem in the upper trunk and limbs.  Rather, current scientific evidence suggests that the freeze-thaw cycle of late winter alters the pressure of gas (primarily carbon dioxide) in the xylem tubules, drawing in fluid from the adjacent xylem cells when gas is absorbed and inducing upward osmotic flow through the cells.

In trees and other plants that do not manifest a late winter sap rise, the xylem flow commences in spring when buds open and transpiration begins.  While the xylem sap contains a varied percentage of sugars and minerals (depending on the plant species), it is primarily a water transport mechanism; nutrients for leaf growth reside within the buds and, once the leaves initiate photosynthesis, they manufacture sugars for the entire plant, distributed via the phloem sap.  Sugars not utilized during the growing season are stored as starch in the roots, stems and buds.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sports, Swimsuits & Sexism

It seems almost every news, sports and variety program this week has made reference to Sports Illustrated's annual Swimsuit Issue.  It is a mystery to me how that respected sports publication ever decided to initiate this tradition; obviously, marketing had a great deal to do with that decision but some of us find the hoopla to be disturbing on a variety of levels.

One need not be a prude to be taken aback by the nature of the photos which depict, young, attractive, busty women in a variety of seductive poses; since beach volleyball is the only American sport that comes close to that attire, one might ask what this Playboy format has to do with sports coverage.  Sure, the pages provide free decor for bar rooms, gas stations and the closet doors of teenage boys but are we asked to respect Sport's Illustrated for this overt sexism?

In an era when at least a third of college women experience some form of sexual abuse and college male athletes (not to mention military academy cadets) are regularly suspended for such activity, the glorification of sexism by a major American sports magazine is, in my opinion, both insensitive and inappropriate.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR

Once a chemical munitions depot and the site of a pesticide factory, Rocky Mountain Arsenal, in northeast Metro Denver was designated a Superfund Cleanup Site and has since become one of the largest urban National Wildlife Refuges, spreading across 15,000 acres.  Most of the refuge is covered by shortgrass prairie but scattered ponds, wetlands and groves of cottonwoods offer diverse habitat for wildlife.  A Visitor Center, located near the entrance, provides an introduction to the human and natural history of the area and offers a variety of free tours and nature programs.

Those inclined to explore the refuge on their own can drive the Auto Tour route which zig-zags through and past all of the component habitats; in addition, trails lead into those habitats from parking areas that are spaced throughout the refuge.  The tour road passes through a large bison enclosure where those large, native herbivores are easily viewed; visitors are encouraged to remain in their vehicles and maintain a safe distance from the bison.  Other permanent residents of the refuge include bald eagles, a wide variety of raptors, mule deer, coyotes, black-tailed prairie dogs and a host of prairie and riparian songbirds.  Nesting species of note include bald eagles, burrowing owls, Swainson's hawks, Virginia rails, American avocets, long-eared and short-eared owls, Say's phoebes, eastern bluebirds, lark buntings, lark and grasshopper sparrows and black-headed grosbeaks.

This morning, the weather was mild and sunny but a strong west wind raked the refuge, sending legions of tumbleweeds across the fields and roadways.  Despite the wind, most common winter residents were observed, including a large variety of wintering waterfowl.  To reach the Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, take the Quebec St. exit from Interstate 70 and head north; signs to the refuge will direct you right (east) on Prairie and then left (north) on Gateway.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Hotspot Fields and Ridges

A volcanic hotspot is produced by a mantle plume, which pushes up into the crust, melting bedrock and, in most cases, erupting at the surface to produce lava flows or volcanoes.  The hotspot itself is stationary but may resolve over millions of years.

As the crust moves over a hotspot, a chain of volcanoes or lava flows is produced; as one might expect, the oldest of these are farthest from the hotspot (in the direction of the crust movement) while the youngest is nearest (often over) the hotspot and may be active or temporarily dormant.  Once a volcano moves away from the influence of the mantle plume, it becomes extinct and will not erupt again.

Hotspot volcanic fields result from a hotspot beneath continental crust while volcanic ridges form on oceanic crust, producing volcanic island chains which represent the high points of the ridge; examples of the latter are the Hawaiian and Society Island Chains in the Pacific Ocean.  In North America, hotspot fields are widespread in the western U.S.; since this continental plate is gradually moving westward (as the Atlantic Ocean continues to open), the oldest, extinct volcanoes in a field are at its western end while dormant or active volcanoes are at the eastern end (near or above the hotspot).  Examples include the San Francisco Volcanic Field in northern Arizona, the Snake River Plain-Yellowstone Field and the Raton-Clayton Field of northeastern New Mexico; the latter field is thought to be extinct.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hysteria on the Farm

The recent mild weather and longer periods of daylight have triggered the hysterical calls of northern flickers on our Littleton, Colorado, farm.  These common woodpeckers, which are often observed feeding on the ground, are entering their breeding season and will soon be hammering away on dead limbs and metal roof vents.  Fortunately, I successfully discouraged one of them from drilling a nest hole beneath the eave of our house; flickers generally excavate a new cavity each year, donating their old home to squirrels and cavity-nesting birds such as chickadees, bluebirds and prothonotary warblers.

Joining in the seasonal chorus are a pair of collared doves that have taken up residence on the farm since their species invaded the Front Range over the past decade.  Their distinctive calls, a bit less mellow than those of mourning doves, echo across our property throughout the day but are most prominent in the early morning and late daylight hours.  Though they do not nest on the farm, a pair of red-tailed hawks have been cavorting overhead and their loud cries add to the frenzy of February.

But it is the hysteria of the flickers, building well before the upslope snowstorms of March and April, that offers reassurance that winter is losing its grip on the Temperate Zone of North America.  And it is the fervor of their calls that seems to ignite the explosive tide of spring.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Nod to Sam's Courage

Though we have lived and worked in Columbia, Missouri, for 16 years, I have always been a casual Tiger fan.  This week, however, I have become a big fan of Michael Sam, the star defensive end who announced his homosexuality in advance of the NFL draft.

It is difficult enough to be openly gay in our intolerant theocracy let alone in the homophobic world of professional football.  If drafted (which seems certain), Sam will be the first, openly gay participant in a league known for its violence and machoism.  Of course, there have long been other gay players in the NFL who have chosen not to reveal their homosexuality.

While Americans take pride in the freedoms of our society, an undercurrent of racism and intolerance persists, rearing its ugly head in random acts of violence and in the dubious statements of right-wing politicians.  We are all free to enjoy the many benefits of American society unless we look suspicious, do not speak English, do not believe in a deity or do not share the rigid beliefs of religious and political zealots.  Fortunately, some individuals, like Michael Sam, have the courage to rise above that intolerance and expose the ignorance that fuels it.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Lovesick Mammals

It is fitting that Valentine's Day, the annual, commercialized celebration of romance, occurs in mid February.  After all, this is the time of year when many mammals roam about in search of mates, ensuring that their young will be born in spring or early summer, when conditions will favor their survival.

Raccoons, opossums, skunks and various mustelids are among the suitors and the increase in their roadside carcasses bears witness to the focused nature of their activity.  Fortunately, many will survive our concrete ribbons of death and their next generation will be conceived.  Of course, as with the human species, it is the female that accepts or rejects the determined male suitor, swayed by whatever traits she might find appealing.

Unlike humans, our wild neighbors need not demonstrate their love with flowers, candy or diamonds.  Since most are not monogamous, neither do they carry the burden of conflicts that may have tainted the intervening months.  Driven only by instinct, these lovesick wanderers can zero in on their target, free of regret, insecurity and the fear of rejection.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Death of Capital Punishment

This week, the Governor of Washington announced that he will not enforce the State's death penalty law during his term, joining the Governors of Oregon and Colorado who had previously expressed the same policy.  Among the other States, 29 retain the capital punishment option while, in 18, it has been outlawed.  When it comes to the frequency of executions, Texas is the overwhelming champion.

Long criticized for its inhumanity, its ineffectiveness in crime prevention, its excessive cost and its uneven enforcement, the death penalty is gradually fading from American society.  Like other progressive policies, such as the abolition of slavery, the advance of civil rights and support for gay marriage, the dismantling of capital punishment will eventually be accepted by all States.  Even today, its enforcement is relatively rare (Texas excluded), with less than 2% of those on death row executed last year.

While individuals may disagree regarding the use of death to punish crime, no one can deny that our legal system is fallible and it's clear to everyone that wealthy and well-connected criminals are far less likely to face execution.  One of the great ironies of American society is that avid supporters of capital punishment tend to be conservative, religious persons who strongly oppose abortion, citing the dignity of human life.  Not long from now, we will look back on the death penalty as one of the last vestiges of our unenlightened era.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Blame it on the Jet

Throughout most of this winter, the jet stream has produced havoc across a large portion of the Northern Hemisphere.  While it generally assumes a horizontal flow across central latitudes during the winter months, ushering in a series of storm systems and milder interludes, it took a different track this year and, until recently, seemed unwilling to budge.  Its stagnant undulation produced dramatically different but equally unwelcome weather in adjacent regions.

Streaming northeastward into southern Alaska, the jet brought mild air and copious rain, significantly reducing the winter snowpack; at the same time, this northward shift deprived California of its usual Pacific storms, greatly exacerbating the State's ongoing drought.  Dipping through the central and eastern U.S., the jet allowed Arctic air, displaced by the warm Pacific inflow, to plunge southward, bringing frigid weather to the Heartland and freezing precipitation to the Coastal Plain.  After directing a series of storms across the Northeast, the jet stream took aim on Europe, lashing the west coast of England with high waves and flooding rains.  Even Sochi, Russia, the site of the Winter Olympics, has been a victim of the fickle jet; unusually warm air has hampered efforts to maintain ideal snow and ice conditions.

Fortunately, this pattern has begun to break down.  The Pacific inflow has shifted southward, dropping heavy snows on the Cascades and Sierra Nevada, and a more typical, west to east jet stream should put an end to Arctic outbreaks (at least for now).  Hopefully, its menacing effects in Europe will abate as well.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Leaving the Arctic

Yesterday morning, we left Missouri for our Littleton, Colorado, farm; the temperature at dawn was 5 degrees F.  Heading west on Interstate 70, we encountered a frigid, snow covered landscape all the way to eastern Colorado.

Enroute, the air temperature gradually climbed to the mid 20s on the High Plains but plunged a bit on the south side of the Palmer Divide, where a southerly upslope produced an icy fog.  Once we crossed the divide, however, the skies began to clear and the temperature rose into the upper 30s, the warmest weather that we had encountered in weeks.  As the latest winter storm pulls off to the east, bringing more snow and ice to the southern U.S. and the Northeastern States, a southwesterly wind will  descend along the Front Range, producing afternoon highs from the upper 40s to the upper 50s; it will feel like the Tropics after enduring Arctic air for most of the season.

While Denver is renowned for its proximity to ski areas and may receive snowfall from September to May, it and other Front Range cities enjoy a relatively mild winter compared to areas in the Upper Midwest; for example, the average high temperature in late January is about 40 degrees in Denver, compared to the upper 20s in Chicago.  Though the high elevation and thin atmosphere increase solar heating, the primary reason for both the frequent snow and the mild winter interludes is the city's location at the base of the Front Range; upsloping air from the Plains (especially from the northeast) produces snowfall (if sufficient moisture is present in the atmosphere) while downsloping air from the mountains brings mild conditions and sunny skies.  As the air sinks from mountain elevations, it dries out and heats up; such chinook winds rapidly melt the snow on the Piedmont and can bring May-like warmth in the midst of winter.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Importance of Place

In this global economy, it is often necessary for individuals to move about as they climb the ladder of their chosen career.  In like manner, those in training must be willing to relocate in order to obtain the education that they seek.

Many will be successful regardless of their location, having committed themselves to tasks that will propel them toward their goals in life; on the other hand, such devotion is easier when one lives in an appealing and comfortable environment.  Of course, the nature of that environment varies widely among individuals; in some cases it is defined by the proximity of family and friends while, in others, it is determined by the availability of certain cultural or natural amenities.  We may be a city or country person, we may favor the mountains or the coast or we might enjoy a cold or a warm climate.  Some are enamored with rivers, others with deserts; some thrive on the congestion of cities while others seek the close-knit community of small towns.

In my opinion, place is vital to our happiness and sense of well being.  Since personal comfort is key to one's productivity, it follows that our environment plays a major role.  Some persons, focused more on titles or fame, may disagree, but most of us know that an attachment to place resides in our soul.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Greater Caucasus Mountains

Sochi, Russia, the site of the current Winter Olympic Games, sits along the east coast of the Black Sea; northeast and east of the city rise the Greater Caucasus Mountains, where alpine events are being held.

The Greater Caucasus Mountains, oriented WNW to ESE, form a high, 800 mile range between the eastern shore of the Black Sea and the western coast of the Caspian Sea.  Their geologic history dates from the late Oligocene and early Miocene Periods, about 28 to 25 million years ago, when they crumpled skyward as the northward moving Arabian Plate compressed the southern edge of the Eurasian Plate (a process that continues today, unleashing frequent earthquakes in the region).  Within the structural anticline of this mountain ridge, crust disruption also favored the development of scattered stratovolcanoes; the largest of these is Mount Elbrus, 18,510 feet, the highest summit in the Greater Caucasus Range.

While most of the Caucasus Ranges have been heavily developed for logging, ranching and mining, the western end of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, near Sochi, has remained relatively pristine and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Endemic species include tur (bighorn sheep), ular (wild turkey), black grouse and the rare Caucasian leopard; among the other wildlife are brown bear, lynx, wild boar, bezoar goats, chamois and Caucasian red deer.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Hominin Footprints in England

As I half-watched, half-listened to the news last evening, my attention was drawn to a report that "human footprints" had been found in England, dating from almost 1 million years ago.  Of course, I knew that this could not be true since we humans did not evolve in Africa until 130,000 years ago and did not reach Europe until about 40,000 years ago.  The footprints thus predate humans, Homo sapiens, by at least 700,000 years.

In fact, the footprints, discovered last May on a beach in Norfolk, England, are thought to be those of Homo antecessor, a hominin that lived from about 1 million years ago to 600,000 years ago; fossils of this early hominin were found in Spain in 2007.  The footprints, preserved in compacted mud and thought to be about 900,000 years old, appear to have been left behind by two adults and three children as they foraged along an estuary.  A warm interglacial period of the Pleistocene, preceding the Wisconsin Glaciation, allowed these nomadic hominins to wander farther north than had previously been documented; at that time, England was contiguous with France (i.e. the English Channel did not exist).

While the complex lineages of the Homo genus remain uncertain, it is certainly wrong to refer to these footprints as being "human."  Homo erectus had evolved in Africa about two million years ago and spread from that Continent within 200,000 years, moving eastward toward Southeast Asia (they were the first hominins known to leave Africa).  Neanderthals and Denisovans arose in Africa about 350,000 years ago, having split from a common ancestor that evolved about 650,000 years ago; Neanderthals did not reach Europe until 300,000 years ago (300,000 years after Homo antecessor had become extinct) and disappeared about 30,000 years ago as humans colonized the continent.  The footprints in Norfolk, England are fascinating clues to the puzzle of hominin evolution but they were certainly not produced by humans.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Beneath the Snow

As this brutal winter extends into February, a thick layer of snow covers the lawns, fields and grasslands of the American Midwest.  Shimmering in the frigid sunshine, the white blanket seems to have smothered nature's cycle of life.

Yet, beneath the snow, life goes on.  Meadow voles tunnel under its protective covering, less visible but still vulnerable to the keen senses of winter's predators.  Cottontails and chipmunks have retreated to their burrows and true hibernators, including woodchucks and ground squirrels, slumber deep in the ground, oblivious to the winter storms that rake the surface.  Insulated by the snow and leaf litter, mice, shrews and a host of invertebrates feast on seeds, berries and hibernating insects.  Moles tunnel deeper into the soil, pursuing earthworms and grubs, while fungi spread their mycelia through the decaying vegetation, recycling nutrients, nourishing the root systems of dormant plants and storing energy for their own reproduction.

Though spring seems to be a distant promise as we struggle to clear our sidewalks and driveways, this diverse web of life continues beneath the snow.  Indeed, without it, we could not enjoy the color and fragrance of the coming season.  

Thursday, February 6, 2014

CVS, Tobacco & Capitalism

As I was publishing my post yesterday, related to American tobacco exports, CVS, a major pharmacy chain, announced that they will stop selling tobacco products by October of this year.  They concluded that their commitment to healthcare was compromised by peddling a product that is associated with a wide range of illnesses, including major causes of death across the globe.

While those of us who are passionate about preventive health care applauded their decision, some business pundits derided the policy as an economic mistake, implying that CVS and other companies should focus on increasing profits and not be sidetracked by politically correct policies; in concert, the shares of CVS drifted lower on the pre-market ticker.

The CVS decision and the Wall Street reaction demonstrate the nature of unbridled American capitalism.  Corporations are devoted almost exclusively to improving their top and bottom lines; while many are involved in social programs and philanthropy, such activities offer the side benefits of community exposure and tax deductions.  Doing the right thing is not always on their radar, a fact illustrated by the economic disparity that has come to define American society.  Kudos to CVS!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Exporting Death

While we fret about the growing problem of heroin addiction in the U.S. and spend millions to disrupt its illegal importation and distribution, our country condones the export a drug that kills far more people across the globe.  Since the government no longer offers price supports to tobacco farmers and since the use of cigarettes is gradually falling in the U.S., Big Tobacco has set its sights on developing nations where large populations of impoverished and poorly educated citizens relish the availability of American brands.

As tobacco cultivation falls in the U.S., most of the tobacco used in American cigarettes is now imported from other countries.  Nevertheless, our nation remains the largest exporter of cigarettes, sending the largest percentage to Southeast Asia.  Free of advertising restrictions in those countries, tobacco companies market their deadly product to foreign youth, ensuring profits for generations to come.

Many (if not most) Americans would oppose the sale of tobacco products to young, uneducated citizens of developing countries; tobacco is, after all, one of the leading causes of preventable death on our planet.  However, a significant number of Americans unknowingly support Big Tobacco by investing in mutual funds that hold tobacco stocks in their portfolios; the high dividend yield paid by those companies boosts the annual return of the funds.  If we are truly concerned about addicting impoverished youth to the deadly habit of tobacco use, we must ensure that we are not investing in their deaths.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Wabash River

Rising in western Ohio, the Wabash River flows northwestward into Indiana, where it passes south of Ft. Wayne.  Ninety miles from its source, the river's flow is blocked by the Huntington Dam; below that structure, the Wabash continues westward to Lafayette and then southward to Terre Haute.  Below the latter city, the river angles SSW, forming a 200 mile border between Indiana and Illinois before entering the Ohio.

Major tributaries from the north include the Little and Tippecanoe Rivers in Indiana and the Vermillion, Embarrass and Little Wabash Rivers in eastern Illinois; the primary tributaries from the east are the Wildcat, White and Patoka Rivers, which drain most of central Indiana.  The Wabash watershed covers 66% of Indiana and the river's segment below the Huntington Dam, more than 400 miles in length, is the longest stretch of free-flowing river east of the Mississippi; indeed, the Wabash is the largest south-flowing tributary of the Ohio River.

Of more significance to naturalists, the Wabash watershed is renowned for its biological diversity.  According to the Nature Conservancy, this river system harbors five of the forty most diverse river segments in the United States.  At least 150 species of fish and 50 species of freshwater mussels inhabit this riverine ecosystem where a host of private, public and conservation organizations are working to protect and restore its vast network of floodplain woodlands and wetlands.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Celebrity & Drug Addiction

Following the death of yet another celebrity from a drug overdose, we are once again left to wonder how such a talented and wealthy individual could succumb to such a fate.  In my opinion, the answer to that question involves two factors.

First of all, as I discussed in my post Creativity & Depression, creative individuals often have manic-depressive tendencies, manifest by periods of high productivity alternating with episodes of inertia and despair; like other human traits, the intensity of these highs and lows vary widely among individuals.  During the episodes of depression, some resort to alcohol or drugs to soothe the pain of self doubt; celebrities, facing the expectations of an adoring public, may be especially susceptible to this behavior.

On the other hand, addiction is a disease that affects all segments of human society; as the current epidemic of heroin use is demonstrating, drug addiction and overdose deaths are not limited to celebrities and inner city junkies. While the death of a celebrity is immediately flashed across the internet and covered by the national media, the great majority of overdose deaths are not brought to our attention.  As a result, we tend to associate such tragic events with the world of actors, musicians and other celebrities and too often ignore the consequences of substance abuse and addiction within our own communities.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Snows over Vandalia

Returning from Cincinnati this afternoon, we encountered a large flock of snow geese circling above Vandalia, Illinois.  On their way to Arctic breeding grounds, they were likely searching for a safe resting and feeding site on the broad floodplain of the Kaskaskia River; smaller flocks were also seen above the Mississippi Valley, near St. Louis.

After wintering on cropfields and in wetlands of the Southern U.S., snow geese begin their northward journey in February, with the vanguard flocks arriving during the first week of that month.  They may linger in the Heartland for a week or more but will soon move on to other attractive rest stops further north.  While some areas (such as the Kaskaskia floodplain) are used every year, flocks may alight on almost any field or grassland, producing spectacles that are often flashed across the Internet by inspired observers.  By mid March, most of these hardy travelers have departed for more northern latitudes.

The landscape of central Illinois is still gripped by winter and a light snow dusted the brown fields and barren woods as we drove toward Missouri.  But that vocal flock of snow geese, the first I have observed this season, offered reassurance that our climb toward spring has begun.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

First Month of Spring

Though it is generally included among the winter months of the Northern Hemisphere and often brings some of the heavier snows and more potent Nor'Easters of the year, February also harbors many of the early signs of spring.

Within its first week or so, snow geese begin to appear in the Heartland, stopping by to rest and feed on their way to the Arctic; close on their heels are greater white-fronted geese, the first wave of American white pelicans and early ducks such as northern pintails.  In February, great horned owls are already caring for their brood and permanent residents such as magpies and red-tailed hawks are building nests or engaged in mating behavior.  While a less stable jet stream brings the storms mentioned above, it also brings more frequent warm fronts and the higher sun keeps ice and snow from lingering on the open fields.  In our wetlands, skunk cabbage melts its way through the frozen muck and, by the end of the month, spring peepers and chorus frogs call from the icy pools; closer to home, crocuses, hyacinths and other early bulb plants appear in city parks and suburban flower gardens.  Cottontails generally produce their first litter by the end of the month and other mammals, including raccoons, opossums and skunks are wandering about, in search of mates.  Finally, throughout February, the silence of winter gradually fades as a chorus of birdsong, led by cardinals and robins, reclaims the mornings.

Of course, some of these seasonal events will depend on the weather and, after this year's frigid winter, the cycle may be delayed for those related to soil and water temperatures.  Chances are, however, that February, as maligned as it is by many humans, will deliver spring to America's Heartland.