Sunday, November 11, 2018

Happy Veterans Day 2018

Dan Wixson (left), Stan Lilley (center), and me (right) atop Bundy Hill - photo by Stan Lilley

Happy Veterans Day! 

Veterans Day is a celebration of all former members off the United States military.  Originally the holiday was known as Armistice Day and was used to commemorate those who served in World War One.  The name of the holiday was officially changed in 1954 to commemorate all living veterans.  With the exception of seven years ( 1971 - 1977), Veterans Day has always been celebrated on November 11th. 

This year's Veterans Day marks a particularly important event, the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War One.  After four years of warfare, combat officially ceased on the Western Front on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (11:00AM local time on November 11th, 1918).  The event is being commemorated with ceremonies throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

I celebrated today with a sunrise hike at the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's Bundy Hill Preserve.  I was joined on the hike by two fellow veterans.  Dan Wixson is a US Navy veteran (1982 - 1988).  Stan Lilley served in the US Army (1968 - 1994).  I served on active duty in the US Army from 1997 to 2001 and then in the National Guard for a further three years.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

When the gales of November came early...

Today marks the 43rd Anniversary of the wreck of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, the most famous shipwreck in the Great Lakes.

On the evening of 10 November 1975, the freighter S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was approaching Whitefish Point, MI with a full load of taconite (iron ore) in a Lake Superior storm.   Despite the hurricane force winds, the 729 foot ship did not appear to be under distress before it sank suddenly at 7:10 PM.  All twenty-nine men aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald perished.  To this day, the exact cause of the ship's sinking is unknown, but a rogue wave (or series of rogue waves) is the prime suspect.

 The ship was commemorated by Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot in his 1976 song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald".

The wreck site was visited by dive teams in 1989, 1995, and 1995 to survey the site and collect artifacts.  The ship's bell was recovered during the 1995 dive.  The bell was restored and now rests at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, MI. For more information on the Edmund Fitzgerald visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum website.

Although the Edmund Fitzgerald is the Great Lakes' most famous shipwreck, 1975 was not the first time that "the gales of November" turned deadly.  A November storm in 1913 claimed the lives of approximately 250 sailors, sank 12 ships, and foundered approximately 30 more ships across the Great Lakes.  This massive storm which lasted for nearly five days became known as the "Big Blow" or the "White Hurricane' among other names.

On 11 November 1940, a storm known as the "Armistice Day Blizzard" sank three freighters in Lake Michigan with the loss of 66 lives.  The same storm caused the deaths of dozens of duck hunters along the Mississippi River.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Early November in the (mostly) native pollinator garden

The growing season is almost over for the year.  Most of the native plants in our home gardens have begun to go dormant.  However, a few are still green - packing away more sugars in their roots to get a jump on next year .  One or two plants are still throwing up a bloom now and then.  The gardens are still a riot of colors, but now they are the subdued colors of fall and not the brilliant flowers of summer.  The biggest theme of the season though is "seeds" - pretty much every species is covered with seeds waiting to be dispersed by animals or by the wind. 

Over the next few months most of the plants will be knocked down by a combination of decay and heavy snows.  The plants that remain in the spring will be trimmed down near ground level.  I don't trim plants in the fall because they provide cover for hibernating insects and the seeds provide food for birds.  Those seeds that the birds don't get will be deposited into the soil to grow into more plants.  The leaves and stalks that fall to the ground form a natural mulch and eventually decay back into the soil - adding a healthy layer of rich organic humus.  I also allow all the leaves that fall into the gardens to remain and don't rake away the leaves that fall on the lawn.  I mulch those up with the mower and allow them to stay on the lawn - it's free fertilizer!

My work in the garden is not entirely done for the year.  I still need to plant a couple hundred tulip and crocus bulbs before the ground freezes.  I love the spring flowering bulbs - they're why I refer to the garden as a (mostly) native pollinator garden.

Here's a few pictures from this evening.

The garden at the back of the house

High-bush cranberries

Blue-stemmed Goldenrod seeds

Tall Coreopsis leaves turn a deep red

Rudbeckia triloba isn't doon yet!

Big-leaf Aster seeds

New England Aster seedheads surround our Monarch Waystation sign

Butterflyweed seeds
The view from the street corner

Northern Maidenhair Fern surrounded by fall leaves

Fertile fronds from one of several species of ferns

Japanese maples have finally started to drop their deep red leaves

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Pumpkin-spice massacre

Halloween was last week, but when I came home yesterday I found a gruesome sight on my front steps.  It looked like the scene of horror film, with guts strewn everywhere and a pair of hollowed out corpses flanking the steps.

The victims of the massacre?  Pumpkins.

The perpetrators?  Squirrels.

Every year we put pumpkins on our porch as a fall decoration and every year the squirrels chew on them.  This year the squirrels have gotten much more industrious and have completely hollowed out two of the four pumpkins (so far).  The squirrels are not eating the flesh of the pumpkins at all - it is all about the seeds. 

I expect that when I get home tonight I will find that the other two pumpkins have also been hollowed out and all of the seeds nibbled upon.

Our squirrels are industrious and will take advantage of any food available to themI intend to plant several hundred tulip bulbs in our flower gardens this weekend and I expect the squirrels to take their toll on those as well.  

I just wish that they would have left the pumpkins alone until after Thanksgiving...

Monday, November 5, 2018

Birch bark Canoe Build (Part 4)

The birch bark canoe build at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways (6650 E. Broadway, Mt. Pleasant) was completed on last week when its seams were fully covered with a mixture of spruce pitch, charcoal, and bear grease.  The goal of this event not just to build a canoe, but also to keep the knowledge and teaching related to canoe- building alive in the community.  

I was unable to be there while they completed applying and smoothing the pitch on the seams.  However, I did get to the Ziibiwing Center on Thursday (01 November) to get some pictures of the completed canoe.

The bow and stern were decorated with etching.

This section of the hull had a hole that needed to be patched.

Every seam and other possible leak has been sealed with pitch

Hardwood pegs hold the gunwale caps in place

The final product, waiting for launch.

The Tribe does not want this new canoe to be a museum piece.  Instead they want it to have a life and be used.  Consequently, there is going to be a launching ceremony this Saturday (10 November) at the Soaring Eagle Hideaway RV Park (5514 E. Airport Rd, Mt. Pleasant).  The event will begin at 10:00AM at the Ziibiwing Center.  Details are listed in the flier below.


Friday, November 2, 2018

Fall colors explained (repost from October 2016)

This is post was originally published in October 2016.  I like providing original content on this blog (and not just reposting thing I have previously written), but I have spent a lot of time in recent weeks explaining why leaves change color in the fall so I thought it was worth sharing again.

Fall colors at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Have you ever wondered why leaves change colors?

It's a simple question with a complex biological answer involving masking, sugars, and pigments.

Normally the leaves of most plants appear green to people with normal color perception.  They are green because they are filled with a pigment called chlorophyll.  Chlorophyll is responsible for photosynthesis - the sugar production in plants and some bacteria (and one weird sea slug that incorporates chlorophyll into its body from an algae - although the mechanism has been called into question by some more recent research). It is also responsible for releasing oxygen in a form that we can use.

When leaves change color in the fall, they do so because the tree stops production of chlorophyll.  During the growing season, chlorophyll is so abundant in leaves that it masks all other colors found in the leaves.  As the level of chlorophyll decreases, the other colors begin to show through the mask.

Leaves, unmasked!

Yellow and orange colors are caused by a group of pigments known as carotenoids.  These colors were present throughout the growing season, but couldn't be seen because of the abundance of chlorophyll.

Thank carotenoids for the golden fall color of Quaking Aspen

Red and purple colors are different.  They are caused by by a group of pigments known as anthocyanins.  These chemicals are produced in the fall when chlorophyll production ceases.  The sugars that are produced by chlorophyll require the presence of several groups of chemicals to help break them down so they can be used as fuel at the cellular level - one of these groups is known as phosphates.  Phosphates are molecules that form around an atom of phosphorus, an important micronutrient.  Because phosphorus is present in limited quantities in the soil, trees can't afford to lose their phosphates when they drop their leaves - instead they transfer the phosphates back into the branches, trunk, and roots. 

The red in these Sumac leaves comes from anthocyanins

When the phosphates are shuffled away from the leaves, the leaves have to use a different process to break down the sugars - this process results in the production of anthocyanins.  When the level of anthocyanins becomes high enough, and the level of chlorophyll low enough, the leaves will appear red or purple.

Sometimes leaves appear red in the early spring.  This happens because the tree also produces anthocyanins in the spring before chlorophyll production ramps up to summer levels.  Once chlorophyll production begins at full scale the anthocyanin production ceases and the chlorophyll masks the reds and purples.

Anthocyanins at work - fall color in a spring leaf of Red Oak

Brown leaves are produced by an entirely different process.  The brown is the color of the cell walls within the leaves - some trees do not produce large quantities of either carotenoids or anthycyanins, so we see the brown of the cell walls instead.  This also the reason why all fallen leaves eventually turn brown - the pigments fade away and we are left seeing the brown cell walls of the leaf.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Birch Bark Canoe Build (Part 3)

The birch bark canoe build at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways (6650 E. Broadway, Mt. Pleasant) is nearing its end.  The goal of this event not just to build a canoe, but also to keep the knowledge and teaching related to canoe- building alive in the community.  

In my previous post about the project, the stem pieces and manboards had been installed in the canoe.  Since that time the ribs for the canoe were bent into shape and temporarily attached to the canoe - I am not sure if steam or hot water was used to make the ribs pliable.  The canoe had to be weighted down and clamped heavily while the ribs dried into shape otherwise the outward pressure of the ribs trying to return to a straight form could destroy the canoe.  These ribs needed several days to dry so the canoe was left over the weekend.
The ribs nailed in place temporarily

Once the ribs had dried into their bent shapes, they could be removed and the final steps of the assembly could begin.  At this stage thin sheathing made from cedar was cut to length and fitted into the canoe.  This sheathing adds strength to the canoe (so you won't put a foot through the bottom of the canoe) without adding much weight.  Once the sheathing strips were wedged in place with a temporary rib, the real ribs were cut to length, their ends trimmed and the leading edge rounded to fit into the canoe.  The ribs were installed by inserting the ends under the gunnel and then tapped into place with a mallet.  The entire hull was soaked with hot water to make the bark more flexible and capable of stretching as the ribs were forced into place.  More water was added as needed.  This process was completed over the course of two days.  At this point the final stitching of the hull on the bow and stern of the canoe was also completed.

One half of the completed ribs

Drenching the hull in boiling water to make it more pliable

Carving a rib to its final shape - also note the completed stitching on the hull

Adding the cedar sheathing

Installing the very first rib

The ribs are tapped into place with a mallet

Once the sheathing and ribs were installed, there were only a couple steps left to complete the canoe. 

A view of the installed ribs and sheathing

The pieces of sheathing overlap on edge and end-to-end in two places either side the center of the canoe

The completed ribs

Notice how the ribs and sheathing of the ceiling mimic the ribs and sheathing in the canoe

Today I noticed for the first time that the 15 foot long hull is made of only two large pieces of bark- one more then 10 feet long and the other making up the difference of the 15 feet.

First the gunwale caps needed to be carved and fixed in place.  These were fixed in place with hand-carved hardwood pegs.  (A peg that I carved was the last one installed).  On the bos and stern, the gunwale caps were stitched into place as there is no place to insert a peg.

Carving the gunwale caps with a draw knife

Hot water allows the gunwale caps to bend into the proper shape.

Fixing the gunwale cap to the gunwales with hardwood pegs

Finally the seams of the canoe needed to be sealed with a mixture of spruce or pine pitch, charcoal, and bear grease.  The pitch is heated until all the volatile turpentine has evaporated from it then bear grease and charcoal are added until it has the right consistency to be works by hand onto the seams of the canoe.  This process will go on until tomorrow in several stages.  The pitch must be applied and then reheated to mold it into place.

A large milling stone was used to grind charcoal

Adding bear grease to the hot pitch
Testing for consistency

Stirring in charcoal

Demonstrating how to apply the hot pitch by hand - the key is to wet the hands with soapy water so the pitch doesn't stick

Many hand make light work

This pitch will be reheated and smoothed further

Once the canoe is entirely complete the Tribe plans to have a launch ceremony.  This is tentatively schedule for Saturday November 10th.  I will post more information as it become available.