Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Tough Sledding

At the turning of the year, I wrote about the lack of snowmobiling action around here over the Christmas holidays. At that time, I reviewed the climate data from various stations nearby and concluded that a brown New Year's wasn't that extraordinary. Now here we are a month later, and still virtually no snow. The annual Snowmobile Rally organized by the Arcola Optimists went ahead last weekend, with posters proclaiming "We Have Snow!", but they had to trailer the sleds up into the hills where there actually was a bit of snow on the bush trails. There were only about a quarter as many riders as last year, from what I hear.

I'm also hearing comments from bloggers all over the continent about the mild conditions. Deb in Minnesota saw pussy willows in mid-January! Wondering what happened to our usual arctic high pressure systems, I thought to myself that maybe we've had them and just not noticed, because the arctic air is so warm.

Not so, according to this story from Yahoo News:

It's not like winter evaporated. It has just skirted the world's second largest country and focused its fury on other parts of the globe.

Arctic weather masses have left parts of Europe encased in ice. Greece has endured its heaviest snowfall in a decade. And an extreme cold snap across Russia sent temperatures plummeting to -40C and left dozens dead.

Oh dear. I hadn't heard anything about that. I did hear that there have been big disruptions in natural gas supply in parts of eastern Europe. That combination spells misery or worse.

Yet we go complacently along. I know that our home's heating system is doubly vulnerable, because the furnace won't run unless it has both natural gas and electricity. I've wondered about rigging up some sort of pedal-powered alternate drive for the fan, and a backup electrical supply if needed for the valve controls, so that we could at least have some heat as long as the gas supply was on. Then I get thinking that it might be simpler and better to just add a woodstove. I'd really like to rearrange the whole floor plan so that we don't have picture windows facing north and west, and most of the south wall taken up by an unheated porch. It just doesn't make sense for solar gain.

Then again, with the cloudy winter we've had so far, there wasn't much solar gain to miss.


Update - Wayne has more about mild weather in North America, and the long-term context.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Regional insufficiency

I've been musing about self-sufficiency, following some eager and at times heated discussions about it at maison madcap and Eleutheros' place many miles from Babylon. It strikes me that many people are working on growing more of their own food, and some are attempting their own supply of heat, water, and a bit of electricity to power their blogging habit. Not many are attempting their own automotive fuel, but many are reducing their dependence on cars, partly by not needing to shop as much, and partly simply by choosing to travel less. From my own direct observations of various back-to-the-landers and other conservation-minded people, I would note many of the same initiatives going on, plus a great interest in alternative building materials (particularly plastered straw bales, in recent years).

I realize that complete self-sufficiency is not necessarily of interest to anyone. You can make a great contribution to conservation without going anywhere nearly that far. You can make yourself much less dependent on the system, without cutting yourself off from it. Remaining somewhat connected, you can keep more involved in your community, and perhaps avoid drawing scorn or negative press for yourself and other self-sufficers by seeming too extreme. Perhaps most importantly, that last bit of change to become completely self-sufficient would presumably take much more effort than many of the larger changes you made more easily at the beginning. You may have better uses for that extra effort.

Having said that, it seems valuable to have the know-how for complete self-sufficiency preserved in living form across the wider community of self-sufficers. Maybe not everyone needs to be a blacksmith, but it would be good to know that there was a blacksmith around, not too far away, in case that skill ever became needed.

Thinking along that line, I noted that there seem to be several areas where self-sufficiency enthusiasts fairly consistently opt for manufactured items. I'm thinking of clothing (or at least cloth, needles, and thread), tools, and roofing. There are probably more, but those are the areas that come to my mind.

Does this bother anyone else? I love to sew, but I rarely bother because I can have second-hand or even new clothing for much less cost than the cloth to make my own. I guess between my Dad and my sister, there is probably enough skill and equipment to make a lot of tools, but again, the raw materials probably cost more than the ready-made tools. There are warning bells going off in my mind here, saying there has got to be some serious exploitation going on somewhere, for the finished goods to be cheaper than the raw materials. And if so, maybe these areas should be a higher priority in a self-sufficiency project than simple cost-saving per unit effort would suggest.

What would happen if there was a major collapse in the global economy, or some kind of trade shutdown for our country, so that we were forced to become more self-reliant? Obviously food would be an immediate issue. In the chaos, maybe the utilities that supply gas and electricity to homes would collapse too. So far, the popular self-sufficiency projects would be paying off. But what if the changes were more gradual, with changes in world trade patterns making all imports less and less accessible? Everybody would be scrambling to grow more food, but to do so, they would be needing tools. Everybody would be working a lot harder, and needing good practical clothes, and wearing them out in a hurry. How quickly would our domestic capacity to produce tools and textiles catch up with the demand?

I get the impression that tools and textiles are unpopular do-it-yourself projects because they take a lot of effort and skill. I've never given more than a passing thought to tackling either one, except that I'm curious about how my Scottish forebears used nettles for fibre for fine cloth. As for roofing, I think there are some accessible do-it-yourself alternatives available, but a good steel roof is worth it for the protection to your investment in the building structure, and for the clean water you can collect from it. Still, at times I've wanted to experiment with other roofing materials just to keep the options open.

All this time spent musing, when I could have been plotting the obvious steps to grow more of our own food this coming season, and make our house more energy-efficient right now. I think I've let my son fall asleep untended again, too. If you don't hear from me for a couple of days, let's hope it's because I've decided to actually get something done.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Where to begin?

(scroll down for an update)

A few months ago a brother-in-law sent me something about a highly efficient small wood stove that gasifies the wood before burning the gases. I didn't get around to looking at it in detail, but it looked promising. Now via Kate, I find this article on using pelletized grass fuels, from R.E.A.P.-Canada (Resource Efficient Agricultural Production).

The grass part caught my attention. Just last night, I was thinking that my push toward self-sufficiency will have to incorporate some form of grass-eating livestock, because grass is what grows here. Then I got thinking some more, and realized that pelletized aspen wood fuel is another thing to look at.

Of course, the first thing to do is to fix up the weather seals around this house. No time like the present. Er, except I really have to plow through some piles of paper - arrgh! Well, while I'm sorting paper, I'll make a plan to reduce the amount that comes in here, and prevent it piling up. I wonder if I could pelletize it?

Update - I did some more reading on the R.E.A.P. site and found that the pelletizing process is just the familiar, large-scale, rather energy-intensive process that's used to produce feed pellets for livestock. It can also be done at a small scale, but with the energy involved, why bother? I also discovered on the R.E.A.P. site, the Mayon Turbo Stove, which uses rice hulls or other crop residues directly as fuel. That makes a lot more sense. I'll be reading some more. A plain old woodstove would be fine, but I'm interested in this gasification process that (according to the reports I've seen) burns the fuel more completely, getting more heat with less smoke. If you're using local fuels sustainably, your greenhouse gas emissions are balanced by new fuel growth regardless of the efficiency of combustion. But more heat with less smoke could help to keep the neighbours friendly, and it would also mean less work gathering fuel!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Reason unbound

Via Kate at SDA: a study that sheds some light down the communication chasm between left and right.

The blog where Kate found reference to this study, Crumb Trail, looks intriguing. From what I've read so far, this author seems to be making an effort to keep reason free of the fetters of emotion. I could feel my own emotional reactions kicking in as I read the post about fertilizer and organic farming, but the exercise in patient listening was rewarding.

Another busy day for me: no more blogging until . . . until . . . tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I Got Out Alive


Did you miss me?

It wasn't that bad, really. I would have been back sooner, but the job just didn't seem complete until I'd washed all the newly liberated storage containers.

Election/Curling Report

I got a call a couple of days ago, asking if I could spare for curling at 9 p.m. on Election night. Then yesterday, Election day, I got a call late in the afternoon from another member of the same curling team, asking if my brother-in-law could spare for him. Then early in the evening I got a call from the skip's wife, saying that a third team member was out with a bad back, but what's more, the skip was a deputy returning officer over in the next town, and hadn't said anything to his dear wife about whether HE had a spare. (If you're counting, at this point you've noticed that all four of the original team members are gone or at least very doubtful.) We called another guy to spare but he said he wanted to watch the election results. (Why?? You can't change them by watching them! He passed up curling with us for THAT!!) So we clawed back one of the real team members from his drama rehearsal and made him the skip, with bro-in-law and I as spares (throwing three rocks each and doing LOTS of sweeping) and won the game for the absent skip/deputy returning officer.

I can see forgetting to vote because you're curling, but forgetting to curl because you're counting votes?! What's this country coming to?


p.s. I've been having too much fun lately. No more blogging until I clean out the fridge.

Monday, January 23, 2006

I - hate - Mondays;
Mondays I - hate!
I'm just a little grumpy,
and plus I'm gonna be late!
That's Ruth at lunch time - more or less a direct quote. I think I tucked the last line into place from something she had said a few minutes before. Poor kids can't even express their sheer grumpiness without getting their words turned into doggerel.

But I told her I was posting it, and she said "Awesome!" as she raced out the door for the afternoon at school. Today she won't have to go to Carlyle after school for band practice (that's "Division Band," made up of students from Stoughton to Redvers and north to Wawota). It was cancelled due to exams. Instead she has a practice with the Pathfinders, of a special, surprise dance number for Robert Burns night (Wednesday at the Legion Hall), and then a bit of time to do any homework and make sure her boots and uniform are ready for Cadets this evening. Most of her Mondays are marathons. I keep urging her to ask her teacher for the Monday assignments in advance, so she can get ahead on the weekend. But I have to admit, if it were me, I'd probably quit something.

You know the stereotype about mothers reminding their children to do their homework, bring home notes from the teacher, take their mittens, and so on and on? With Ruth and me, it's just about reversed. She's always checking ahead to make sure I'll leave room in the schedule for the homework, sign and return the school notes, buy the mittens, and so on. If I were inclined to be smug about my adulthood, that kid would cure me quickly.

Winter Botany #6

Just a tidbit before I go off to vote. I discovered a new word over at Wayne's: an infructescence is the fruiting stage of an inflorescence (which you've heard about, if you've been following this series). A very handy word for winter botany, in spite of my reluctance to use jargon.

I'm so conflicted. I just love words.

Friday, January 20, 2006

"Things are heating up in Nepal..."

That's what my Dad observed the other day. I wonder if he has been seeking out news, or if Nepal is finally getting some attention from the major news outlets.

Garth confirmed Dad's observation. He phoned to reassure me that he was okay, safe in his hotel for the time being, in case I had seen news of the day-long curfew imposed to thwart a mass demonstration against the king.

A fine time for things to heat up, just when we've started counting down the days to Garth's return. He assured me that he can get special police permission to travel if there's a curfew when he needs to get to the airport!

I can't begin to imagine how it would feel to watch the conflict escalate, if Nepal was the only home you had ever known.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Navigable waters

In a recent post by Kate at the CBC Election Roundtable, Conservative candidate Brad Farquhar comes across as a strong contender for what has been the outpost Liberal seat in Saskatchewan (Wascana; incumbent Ralph Goodale, Finance Minister). He seems to have a good sense of the issues that are most important to the constituents. Unfortunately, I think he is correct when he says:
People in Saskatchewan . . . . particularly scoff at the idea of Fisheries and Oceans having jurisdiction over some drainage ditch just because a canoe could navigate it for two days each spring.
On the face of it, yes, it's scoffable. However, I have no problem with a department called Fisheries having jurisdiction over a creek that is vital spawning habitat for the fish that my neighbours like to catch down in the Alameda Reservoir. Moose Mountain Creek is navigable by canoe for a few days in spring, if you're not afraid of riding the current right into a barbed wire fence. In a wet year, you can navigate sections of it right through the summer, although you may do a fair bit of wading and leave some of your craft's gel coat on the rocks. I need to get my own canoe, a cheap rugged one, to keep on exercising my navigation rights.

I'm not surprised that people turn away and scoff as soon as they encounter "Oceans" and "navigable." We tend to look at our little creeks and sloughs and assume that they are insignificant little runts, compared with the beautiful Columbia, the magnificent Mackenzie, the crucial St. Lawrence, or even the smaller rivers that grace our prairie cities. And yet, when you think of it, our little creeks and sloughs are the only surface water we have. In our dryland climate, where the farmers say we are never more than two weeks away from a drought, these tiny ribbons and potholes of moisture are vital to nearly all our wildlife. Nevertheless, most of us seem to have dismissed them from our minds and from our attention ever since we finished being curious children, and as a result, they are profoundly misunderstood.

Last season, I discovered the lure of the creek crossings, something I had missed as a child growing up back in the hills. I began spending quite a bit of time down there with my kids. One day my daughter and I were enjoying the shallow spill of water over the concrete crossing, a mile east of the 604. There are culverts through the crossing, but when the water is high, the current is too much for them, and some of the water flows over top. We were standing at its edge, watching the froth and the reflections of the sunset, when a neighbour came along with her sandwich and beer for a picnic supper. She and I got chatting, while Ruth continued to watch the creek. Suddenly she squealed with alarm.

Something was writhing in the edge of the water. Ruth's gut reaction was that it was some kind of octopus, just in front of her toes (hence her shriek); but it turned out to be a bunch of suckers stranded in the rocks against the downstream side of the crossing, right next to the powerful outflow from one of the culverts. The neighbour reached into the foaming water and caught one to show us up close. She talked about how much fun it is to fish, and invited us to come along when the local chapter of the Wildlife Federation organized a trip to the reservoir on "free fishing day." Then to my amazement, she commented about the "stupid fish, trying to go upstream." She seemed to think that the good big water was downstream, so of course these big fish should be trying to get there.

I explained that the fish come upstream to spawn, way up into the Tecumseh pasture and beyond. The fry find plenty of food and shelter all along the shallows of the creek banks, and gradually work their way back down to the reservoir as the water drops later in the season. During the spawning run, when the adult fish coming upstream reach the crossing, their way is barred if the flow through the culverts is too strong to swim against, and the flow overtop is too swift and shallow.

Photo by Ruth, April 2005

The neighbour was intrigued, and we decided to help the fish she had caught, by releasing it on the upstream side. It darted off toward the depths, got caught in the vortex over the culvert intake, and went downstream. Stupid fish. Mind you, I imagine that if a fish caught me, held me underwater for a while and examined my form, and then released me on the opposite bank, I just might stumble back into the drink.

If you have read about our canoe adventures on the creek last season (see links above), or if you've spent any time studying the creek yourself, you'll know that there's more than suckers living in it. I still remember those quiet young pike, and the painted turtle hurtling away like a thrown discus. That little creek just down the road is important for fish and wildlife, which in turn are important for many people in this area. To my mind, the question is not whether the creek should be protected, but how.

Fisheries and Oceans might be the wrong department; perhaps they should focus on the big waters with commercial significance, and let the Environment Department take care of the watersheds that feed those big waters. That's okay with me as long as the different departments recognize and value their interdependence.

Perhaps both these departments are at the wrong level of government to be protecting our creek. Personally, I would really like to see our Rural Municipal Council take an active interest in managing and protecting our surface waters, rather than being in conflict with the environmental regulators. I think it could happen, but it would take initiative from local people, deciding to learn more, talk to their neighbours, look for new solutions, and work with other government bodies to get support and cooperation instead of resistance and top-down across-the-board rules.

This brings to mind an ironic case I saw, on an oil flowline project, where the planners made it a priority to choose the best site for a river crossing and thus avoid trouble with Fisheries and Oceans. As a result, they became inflexible about the rest of the project, and refused to consider changing the route to skirt a large tract of native prairie on the valley slopes above.

It's easy to talk about what would be the best way to organize our government responsibilities, but the reality is that they are shaped by a long history of incremental change. Government terms of office are usually too short to make big changes. There is a legitimate push to minimize new legislation by finding ways to adjust existing programs instead of adding new ones. Unfortunately the end result is a complex web of regulations and programs which may work fairly well, except that at face value they can appear absurd and inspire scornful hostility from the people they were originally intended to serve. Then elitism sets in, with those who understand the workings and the history becoming dismissive or adversarial towards those who just want to make things work here on the ground.

Water issues are confounded by the fact that water pays no heed to boundaries and property lines. In the U.S., the Supreme Court is considering the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act. From the Environment News Service:
In October, the Supreme Court agreed to hear these two cases challenging the definition of federally protected waters. In both cases, the developers are arguing that they can pollute - even destroy - the waters at issue without a Clean Water Act permit. They argue that their right to pollute is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

[. . .]

Protection of tributaries was fundamental federal law long before the 1972 Clean Water Act, dating back at least to the 1899 Refuse Act, which barred discharge “into any navigable water of the United States, or into any tributary of any navigable water from which the same shall float or be washed into such navigable water.”

"Navigable waters" is an old, old phrase. It has a long and wide history of use as an organizing concept, to decide which waters are significant beyond the property within which they lie. We need concepts like that as baselines, as starting points for common understanding. We also need willingness and initiative to go beyond the baselines to protect the landscapes and living things that we hold dear.

Sadly, right now it seems that we don't even recognize the treasure winding through the pastures and fields just outside of town.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Winter Botany #5

is blue grama grass, Bouteloua gracilis. It's a tough little survivor, often found on the drier hilltops and ridges around here, and forming a larger component of the short-grass prairie that occurs farther southwest.

The seed heads are very distinctive, like little combs or thick downcast eyelashes. I'm trying not to get into heavy terminology here, but it is really tough to describe the intricate flowering parts of a grass without using special words. Please take a deep breath and bear with me; I hope you will discover that you, too, can tease useful information out of the apparent gobbledygook of a systematic description in a flora. Here is the description from the Flora of the Great Plains (don't worry, I'll translate):
[for grama grasses in general:] Inflorescence consisting of 1-many spicate branches; spikelets sessile in 2 rows on one side of each branch rachis; each spikelet consisting of 1 perfect floret below 1 or 2 rudimentary florets, disarticulating above the glumes; . . .

[. . .]

[for blue grama grass in particular:] Inflorescence with 1-3 curved branches, each branch persistent, 14-30(40) mm long, bearing numerous spikelets; . . .

An "inflorescence" simply means a flowering portion of a plant. Well, that may be an oversimplification, but it will do to be getting on with. Going back to an earlier post where I discussed daisies and dandelions and such: in those plants, one flower head is an inflorescence. It consists of a dense cluster of tiny flowers, and it may be only one inflorescence among many on a single plant. The term "inflorescence" draws attention to the arrangement of the individual flowers and other structures that go with them. Of course, in winter, we're not looking at flowers, but many of the parts remain in basically the same positions in the seed stage. Now before I do any more translation, I'll blend the above statements into one concise description of the flowering portion of a blue grama grass plant:
Inflorescence with 1-3 curved spicate branches; each branch persistent, 14-30(40) mm long, bearing numerous spikelets; spikelets sessile in 2 rows on one side of each branch rachis; each spikelet consisting of 1 perfect floret below 1 or 2 rudimentary florets, disarticulating above the glumes; . . .
"Spicate" just means spike-like, but we don't call it a spike because that term is reserved for the very simple arrangement where all the flowers are in one long cluster. In this case, the cluster may be all in one branch, or there may be several branches (which look like separate seed heads, but are all parts of a single inflorescence). Picky, aren't we? But with the hundreds of possible variations in different species, we have to be picky if we're going to communicate at all. So, when you look at the little comb above, you're looking at a spicate branch of the inflorescence.

"Persistent" means they don't fall off. Plants have all sorts of variations on the theme of dropping seeds, and each species has its own particular way of falling apart.

". . . bearing numerous spikelets . . ." Ah, more spiky stuff. You might think that each tooth in that little comb is a seed, but it's not. It's a seed plus other little parts attached to a tiny side branch. It's a spikelet: a "small or secondary spike." Recognizing these tiny sub-clusters of flowers (or seeds) is crucial to deciphering descriptions of grasses.

"Sessile" means "without a stalk." The spikelets are tight to the branch rachis. What's a rachis? It's the longitudinal support up the middle of a spike or spicate branch or such like. Basically the branch rachis is the branch itself, but the word "rachis" helps clarify where the spikelets are attached: along the branch, not at its tip or on side branches or anything fancy like that.

Speaking of a rachis, the description mentions that the spikelets are attached "in two rows on one side of [the] branch rachis." This is important. This is what makes blue grama so distinctive in appearance that you don't really need all this description - you can just look at the picture and say, "I know that plant!" (But then there's hairy grama, which I've never seen, or at least, never noticed that I was seeing, which differs from blue grama by having the "rachis of [the] spicate branch projecting beyond the terminal spikelet," besides being just a little more hairy where the leaves meet the stems. . .) Anyway, notice that all the spikelets are crowded to one side of the spicate branch; that's what creates the appearance of a little comb.

When it says, "each spikelet consisting of 1 perfect floret. . ." this is where I say, "Bother. That stuff is too small to see anyway." I do have a dissecting scope, and I'm not afraid to use it, but we already know this is blue grama grass. I won't get into the minute details of individual grass flowers (or florets) today.

However, that last bit about "disarticulating above the glumes" is interesting, and it's something that you can easily check in the field without picking a plant, rushing home to your dissecting scope, and then finding out that you picked something rare. First, "disarticulating" means coming apart at the seams, er, joints. We're back to the topic of how plants fall apart. "Glumes" are bracts found at the base of a spikelet. "Above" means - wait, you do need to learn this word - "above" means farther from the roots, closer to the outermost tips of the plant. In the case of blue grama, it usually doesn't mean higher off the ground. The spikelet dangles, so it's closer to the ground than the glumes where it attaches, but we say the spikelet is "above" the glumes. When it falls off, the glumes remain attached to the branch rachis. Here is an inflorescence (centre of photo) with two spicate branches, and all the spikelets fallen, so all that remains are the slender glumes like a row of ribs.

I've omitted a good deal of additional detail from the description, where it discusses how many nerves are in each glume, and what sort of awns are found on the parts of each floret - like I said, "Bother." But if I keep talking about grasses long enough, you're going to hear about the lemma and the palea, and I'll have to admit that you don't absolutely have to have a dissecting scope to find them; a hand lens and some patience will do.

Whew! Thanks for bearing with me through all that. Now we'll go back to some straightforward general-appearance qualities of blue grama grass. As you've probably noticed, it's usually a low-growing plant. Even the flowering stems are rarely more than about 30 cm tall around here, and the leaves are much shorter, forming a curly mat on the ground. The mat creeps outward in an expanding circle by short rhizomes (underground stems). Here is a rather small plant:

(the pale circular tuft below and left of centre). The silver-gray cottage-cheesy looking things behind it and to the lower right are mowed-off stems of pasture sage. (How do you like my botanical description for that plant?) The dark stuff showing to the right of centre is not soil showing through. It's a dried up growth which my intuition says is Nostoc, a nitrogen-fixing blue-green alga, but don't quote me on that. Feel free to correct me.

Here is another blue grama grass mat (on the left). Note the strongly curling leaves. Each one is only 1-2 mm wide. I suspect that the fine leaves and stems on the right belong to a dryland sedge species. What's a sedge? Well, for the most part, sedges are easily mistaken for grasses (unless you know what to look for). I say dryland, because sedges in general are known for their affinity for wetlands and damp habitats, but in our area there are just a few sedge species that have the opposite preference. You find them on those dry ridges and hilltops, along with blue grama grass, and growing only 5 or 6 cm tall. I've heard it said that short-grass prairie might be more properly called "short-sedge" prairie. As for the details of what to look for in a sedge, well, I think I'll leave that till I can catch one flowering in early, early spring. Wish me luck. This year, it looks like it could be tough to tell exactly when spring is.

Next in the series: you'll have to wait and see which way the muse takes me. Will I continue digging through my photos of grasses, or probe into the history of that vacant lot? Why so many native plants there? (Blue grama grass, sedge, prairie sage, and others I haven't mentioned yet.) Is it actually a degraded remnant of largely unbroken prairie sod? Or is it a once-disturbed but long-untouched piece of ground that was recolonized while there were still such remnants nearby? What part does it play in the ecology of our little townscape? What might its future hold?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Winter Botany #4

How it all began . . .

A little before Christmas, the dog and I paused somewhere in this vacant lot. She was checking out some scent or other, and instead of urging her along, I lingered. I don't remember why; perhaps I was stretching out the time before I had to face the chores at home again, or more likely, I was vaguely hoping that some friend would just happen by, if only I stood there long enough.

I looked down, and there at my feet was a friend indeed.

I've got lots more to say about this friend, and about the not-so-vacant lot, but I've decided to be a friend to myself and quit the midnight blogging. I've also invited some dear friends to visit tomorrow, so it might be a couple of days before I give you all the details. Meanwhile, any guesses on the identity?

Friday, January 13, 2006

Winter Botany #3

Makes me wonder why it took them so long to invent Velcro.

That's wild licorice, Glycyrrhiza lepidota, native to this area and found through much of the Great Plains. Yes, it's a close relative of the ancient herb known as licorice, according to this informative page. Apparently the roots are the sweet part, eaten raw or baked. I haven't tried them, but I am quite curious, because I love licorice candy.

In terms of broader relationships, it's a member of the Bean family, or Fabaceae. There's not a lot to see here to tell you that, except that if you brave those little hooks and cut through the bur, you'll find that it's actually a pod with hooks all over its shell. I am realizing that in winter, I do a lot of my ID just by sheer familiarity.

And yes, in winter the whole plant is indeed a rich red-brown. It jumps out at you from its backdrop of pale dry grasses.

Like all bur-bearing plants, it seems to literally jump out at you, even when you pick your way past.

That brings me to the other part of today's sticky topic: gumweed.

I learned a new word today: squarrose, meaning "with parts spreading or recurved at the end." And recurved means "curved backward or downward." Now take a close look at the heads of gumweed, or Grindelia squarrosa.

See the little curls around the edge of each head? Those are bract tips, curling out and down. In summer, this plant has bright yellow "flowers" which are actually composite heads of tiny florets. Such heads are typical of the plant family formerly known as Compositae (now called Asteraceae). Think of a dandelion; from one dandelion "flower" there suddenly appears a dome of hundreds of tiny seeds, each of which formed from a single floret in the dandelion head. Gumweed "flowers" look a bit like dandelion "flowers," except that each has a definite central disc with rays around it, like a daisy (also a member of the Asteraceae). Each ray belongs to a separate floret, and the central disc is made up of tiny florets also. Think of a sunflower; each seed forms from a separate disc floret.

Those of you farther south in the Great Plains may see other species of gumweed, but G. squarrosa is the only species found around here. The "weed" part of its name is very apt, since it is often abundant along roadsides and railroad grades, or across the less-used parts of industrial yards and gravel pits. It is native here, though, and sometimes provides a patch of colour just above a slough margin in a pasture.

The "gum" part of the name is even better. The bracts of the heads are so resinous that even in deep winter, or into the next growing season, the heads on a dry old plant will still feel gummy to the touch.

That concludes today's sticky topic. I have a T-shirt from the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, with illustrations of numerous burs, and a caption that says, "Stick with native plants."

Speaking of the NPSS, the annual general meeting and conference is coming up, February 9th to 11th in Yorkton. There will be speakers about climate change, invasive plants, seed testing and grading, and conservation programs. There will also be workshops on identifying weeds, identifying our native orchids, and botanical linedrawing. There's also a member slide show that's always fun, and of course there's the usual great food and great people. The registration brochure is here (pdf).

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Winter Botany #2

Not so fast . . .

A couple of you commented on the common plantain, saying you were glad to be introduced to a familiar neighbour. I immediately started back-pedalling in my mind, wondering how many different plants might look superficially similar. To paraphrase a Bertrand Russell quote that Madcap posted yesterday: The trouble with getting to know plants is that beginners are recklessly confident, and more experienced people are tediously cautious.

I hope I don't get too tedious here.

It just happens that, on my quick walk with the camera yesterday, one of the other plants I spotted was Triglochin maritima, or seaside arrowgrass.

Mind you, I should confess that the specimen I spotted yesterday was more distinctive than this one.

It also happens that as I was walking home last night with the groceries, I kicked away the snow at the base of what appeared to be a plantain spike, and didn't find any leaf remains at all. Full of doubts, I went back out today and found the plant I had labelled "common plantain" in yesterday's post. Sure enough, under the snow, I found what I had expected to find.

Large, broad, oval-shaped leaves (or what was left of them). All the leaves and spikes arise from one central point (the crown). You can see part of the outline of one leaf just below the centre of the photo. Its point of attachment is hidden in the snow to the right.

I also got a bunch more photos of the seaside arrowgrass. I'm not happy with the focus and resolution of these, but together I hope they give you some sense of the plant. It's hard to be patient with the camera when it's below freezing, and breezy. Mind you, for January in these parts, I can't complain!

This long slender cluster of seeds is called a raceme. In this case, it's a spike-like raceme. It differs from the spike (which we saw in common plantain) by having the seeds on little stalks, instead of attached directly to the main stalk. In the right-hand image above, showing racemes with most of the seeds gone, you can see the little stalks that supported the seeds.

Here is the seaside arrowgrass plant that I spotted yesterday:

(It's the straw-coloured raceme front and centre.) If you saw a tall specimen like this, you probably wouldn't mistake it for common plantain. (Note to self - include a familiar object in photos for scale.) The base of the plant (just left of centre in the image below) is very different from common plantain.

Instead of large flat leaves, seaside arrowgrass has long slender grass-like leaves. (There are three clearly visible, all extending almost horizontally to the right.) In fact, this plant is much more closely related to grasses than it is to plantain. BUT - before you get thinking that this is simple, there are some other plantain species that have linear leaves!

Why bother learning all this? Well, a chewed leaf of common plantain makes a nice poultice for itchy insect bites. Seaside arrowgrass is poisonous to livestock (although there's rarely very much of it, and in a healthy pasture, livestock will probably avoid it).

Also, the more you learn, the easier the learning gets.

The more you learn about the ways plants are related, the easier it is to learn new plants, because you will have more hooks to hang your knowledge on. I was startled to notice the superficial similarity between common plantain and seaside arrowgrass (at least in winter, with the leaves hidden), because they come from very different groups of plants. Plantain is a dicot, and arrowgrass is a monocot. And now that I've found the definitions in Wikipedia, I see that I have some catching up to do on the latest details of plant classification. Nevertheless, learning the traditional division of dicots from monocots gets you started on learning to tell plants apart by characteristics that are much more reliable than things like colour and size. I floundered for years, until I took one class called "Systematics of Saskatchewan Flora" from Mary Vetter at the University of Regina, and learned to recognize plants by families. It's much like being able to distinguish ducks from owls from sparrows. That way you don't have to flip through all the pictures in your field guide. I want to get a copy of Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel; it uses the family-recognition approach.

The more you learn about plants' preferred habitats, the easier it will be to identify the plants you see. One reason I recognized the seaside arrowgrass was that it was growing in a moist, saline location. How did I know it was saline? This is going to sound circular, but I knew it because of the plants I saw growing there. That and the white crust that appears on the soil in many low spots around Arcola. All the knowledge works together, much like getting comfortable in a new language and culture.

Here is the habitat where I found the seaside arrowgrass:

The tall specimen was in the unmowed part of the ditch, in the middle distance, while the short ambiguous specimen that I showed you first was in the foreground here, just in the edge of the ditch. Here's a close-up:
Unfortunately these photos make it look like there is one ovoid seed on each little stalk, but actually what you see is a cluster of six long thin seeds on each little stalk. (A monocot characteristic, generally: flower parts, and seeds or rows thereof, are in multiples of three).

And here are some more photos of common plantain, this time from the edge of my driveway, barely 100 metres away from the saline ditch shown above.

Here what you see are rounded capsules attached directly in the spike without little stalks, and each capsule contains a few tiny seeds.

So there you have it: probably far more than you will ever need to know about distinguishing seaside arrowgrass from common plantain in winter.

I had great fun doing this. I know I promised grasses today, but I will leave them for . . . the day after tomorrow. You see, I got a gorgeous photo today, and I can't wait to share it. So tomorrow's topic will be a couple of sticky plants. Then some grasses!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Winter Botany #1

I notice native plants in all sorts of places. This fall, with so little snow, and those ten days or so where I was walking Mom and Dad's dog two or three times a day, I've noticed numerous native plants around the edges of town. I kept thinking I would like to take some pictures and show how much you can figure out about the plants even in the dead of winter. Again and again I noticed beautiful late afternoon light, but didn't have the camera with me. Finally, yesterday, between listening to my daughter's woes about her busy schedule, and getting her fed before dashing off to curling tryouts with the Air Cadets, I snatched up the camera and went out for a quick walk.

It was a dull, grey day, not at all like those ideal days that I've missed, but I took pictures anyway. Almost fifty of them. Today I'll start with a few fun and easy plants. Tomorrow the grasses!

Rosehips can catch the eye, even if you're not looking for plants at all. These very low-growing roses (only about 10 to 15 cm tall) are probably Rosa arkansana, or prairie rose. They are persistent little plants, showing up in old seeded pastures and clinging along roadsides "between the grass and the grader blade," where they sometimes make a bright border of white-to-pink blossoms that almost hide the tiny shrubs beneath. I say "probably" prairie rose, because I didn't actually check for any identifying characters, just assumed on the basis of size and location. We have a couple of other rose species here, but they are usually larger shrubs, not found scattered in open grassland but rather in shrubby patches or as understory in woodlands.

Plantain, and probably not one of the native species. If I wanted to be sure which one, I would dig away the snow and look for leaf remains. Since it was growing on the edge of a dirt track in the old "brick ponds" area, I would expect to find large, oval-shaped leaves telling me it's Plantago major, common plantain, also known as "Whiteman's-foot" because it came into the area with Europeans and seemed to appear wherever they went.

There is another plantain with fairly broad leaves in the area, Plantago eriopoda, but its leaves are quite a bit narrower than common plantain leaves, and it has some wonderful brown wool in the crown (the base of the plant where all the stems and leaf bases arise - hidden in the snow). P. eriopoda also tends to favour saline soils, instead of showing up all over.

I was going to give you one more, but the kids are home. Check back tomorrow - hopefully I will have time to start to tell you how I know these plants.

Monday, January 09, 2006


I escaped the tyranny of busy-ness for a couple of hours the other day by reading "Once Upon a Marigold" by Jean Ferris. My daughter had left it lying out somewhere. It was a delight.

I was conscious of a sprinkling of political philosophy throughout the book, foreshadowed by the dear troll's membership in the LEFT Association (but LEFT stands for Leprechauns, Elves, Fairies, and Trolls). However, the philosophy was almost as eclectic as the setting, characters, props, and story elements, and for me it was all good fun.

Sometime afterward, I found myself thinking: "It's okay to be a little left-hearted, as long as you're right in the head."


p.s. If that's got you trying to remember a quote about having the heart to be a liberal when young, or the brain to be a conservative when older, you might be interested in what the Churchill Centre has to say about that quote.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

One less weird thing about me:

- as of this evening, I've been to a Combines game. It was 6-0 for the Wawota Flyers. *Sigh* According to the Big Six web site, the Combines haven't won a game yet this season, although the scores had been getting closer lately. Even this loss was much closer than some of the early games.

I had fun watching, anyway. I never watch pro hockey, so I'm easily impressed by a bit of stick handling or a quick turn. I'm happy if I can keep track of where the puck is most of the time. Next I'll start trying to figure out offsides and icing. Hmm, sounds like I'll be going again. I didn't much like it when it got mean, except for the fascination of seeing a guy skating toward the penalty box and laughing merrily with the ref. I might learn something about human nature.

Next home game is Tuesday, January 17th against Bienfait. I know, that name looks like "well done," but the way we pronounce it around here, we're talking about the destiny of beans.

To link or not to link

From the comments: "I added you without permission to the the Sask Blogs blogroll. If you don't think that's right, let me know . . ."

No problem, and thank you. If I've seemed ambivalent about people pointing links at my blog, it's not that I think they should ask permission. If I publish something here, then pointing a link at it is just like recommending a book, as far as I'm concerned.

The only reason I hesitate, is that I originally intended this blog to serve a more local audience. I haven't done much to promote that (such as posting notices of local events, or seeking out local stories, or advertising the blog locally), and the 'Gist has certainly drifted as I have found myself involved in other communities - blogging communities. When I am writing a post, I'm thinking about my audience, and from the comments I get, I'm guessing that many of my readers are fellow bloggers from all across the continent. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether it's just that they speak up, and people close to home don't.

Maybe I should get a site meter, but I'm afraid to, because I might spend too much time checking it!

So tell me, do you want more local content?

Should I keep my blog's sidebar more or less as it is (a glimpse into my own reading habits, plus an assortment of links that I judge to be of local interest)? Or should I add the Sask Blogs blogroll, and possibly other blogrolls? Personally, I tend to ignore blogrolls. I find the links that are hand picked by a blogger more interesting. Actually the top two ways that I find new blogs to read are:
2) adding items to the "Interests" and "Favourites" sections of my Blogger Profile (anyone can get one), and then clicking on them to find other bloggers with common interests; and
1) noticing new commenters at other blogs. If you browse the comments over at maison madcap, you can see the influence that Madcap's community has had on my sidebar.


p.s. If you're a blogger who has linked my site in your sidebar, and you're wondering why I haven't linked yours, don't take it personally. It may be just that I haven't got to it. I'm stalling about updating my links list, because I want to do some thinking about my selection criteria. Hence this post. Comments welcome!

Friday, January 06, 2006

Privacy and community

My daughter wanted to mail a card to someone who lives here in town, but she didn't know the P.O. box number. She asked the postmistress for the number, and was told that that information is private. She was quite irked at that, arguing that if we lived in a city, where there is door-to-door mail delivery, she could just look up the street address in the phone book, so what's the difference? In practise, we can just put the person's name on the letter, without the box number, and it will be delivered. The postmistress advised my daughter to do that.

However, I recall an incident a while ago, where a whole shipment of United Church Observer magazines got sent back to the publisher rather than put in the mailboxes, because the labels had only names and not box numbers. This was not a new situation, just a new postmistress. The subscriptions were paid by the church on behalf of its members, and the church had never asked its members to supply their box numbers. It hadn't been necessary. So, there was a big campaign to find out each member's box number and get it added to the subscription information.

All that aside, I got thinking about published directories, and privacy, and community. It crossed my mind that we could make a community directory of P.O. box numbers, with listings voluntary. But then I thought--no. For the small convenience, it would not be worth the exposure to ad mail. More importantly, I thought, even the small convenience may have a cost, in the long run. These days, it is possible to insulate yourself from a great deal of personal contact by getting your information through the printed word. If you can find all the information you need in a handy booklet, or here on the Internet, you may not go ask your mother or your neighbour or that friend of a friend who would surely know. Each time that you don't ask, there's a little thread of connection that doesn't get made, and your community is weaker for it.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Five Weird Things

I've been tagged by Kate:

"List five weird things about yourself, then tag five others to do the same"

Wa-ell, let's see now.

1) I live in Arcola and I've never been to a Combines hockey game. (I'm not proud of this; it just is. Maybe Saturday.)
2) I've been known to walk downtown pulling a cooler on a toboggan to get my groceries. I'd be making a habit of it, but there's not enough snow yet. (My teenage daughter is probably praying that it never snows again.)
3) I still let my mom buy most of my clothes. She just watches for whichever essential item looks most worn, and replaces it.
4) I love ballroom dancing, traditional dancing, anything that gets you matching patterns to music. In my generation, that's weird. (Scroll down in the link to see the Arcola Scottish Country Dancers - can you spot me?)
5) My idea of a perfect family outing is to bike down to the creek, climb down the dusty rocks, and try to balance through the culverts without getting wet. The kids love it too, although they'd rather we drove. Sigh.

As for tagging, any fellow bloggers who feel so inclined, consider yourselves tagged (just drop a note back here for those in pursuit of weirdness).

And you non-bloggers: how about this. Click on the comments link below and get your feet wet. Tell us all five weird things about yourself. Or if you're too shy for that, just tell the world a few weird things that I neglected to mention about myself.

Monday, January 02, 2006

New Year's Eve

Unable to travel home for Christmas due to a new batch of puppies, Kate got nostalgic about taking the snowmobiles out to chase hares and gaze at the stars. The truth is, there wasn't much snowmobiling action for her to miss around here, although the hares would have a tough time hiding in their white coats.

Sorry about the dim photo, but that's about the best I could do at 5 p.m. on New Year's Eve. Another unusual thing about this view (looking north from the highway just west of Arcola) is that you can't see the hills, only about 3 miles away and rising nearly 400 feet above this plain.

I spent the later part of New Year's Eve downloading the climate data for western Canada and browsing through snow-depth records for our area. I found some partial records for Handsworth and Willmar starting in 1980, but for a consistent and older record the closest station I found was Estevan, with data going back to 1955. I had been thinking these brown Christmas holidays were a new thing, but Estevan had Christmases with essentially no snow in 1957, 1966, 1976, 1979, 1986 and 1987, as well as the recent ones that I remembered from 1997 and 1999. A brown New Year's Eve is a little more unusual, but there was only 2 cm of snow on the ground in Estevan in 1956. Other years with little or no snow on New Year's Eve include 1979, 1980, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1997, and 1999.

When I compare these records with the partial data for Handsworth (in the hills west of Moose Mountain Provincial Park) and Willmar (south of Arcola), it seems to confirm my suspicion that we often have snow when Estevan doesn't, and the hills may have snow when the nearby plains don't. Handsworth had 6 cm on New Year's Eve 1986, and 7 cm in 1987. Maybe there weren't any brown Christmases at the farm when I was growing up, after all. I don't know what the snow is like over at Handsworth this year, but when I drove out to the farm yesterday, the hills were still looking very brown here.

Daily precipitation and temperature records are available for many more stations and much longer periods than the snow depth data. I wonder how hard it would be to model probable snow depth from those records, to estimate how many brown Christmases there were back in the early 1900s. It might be easier and more accurate to just ask around among the old-timers. Hopefully their memories are better than mine.

Anyway, if you're wondering how I marked the turning of the year, I didn't. It passed quietly sometime while I was exploring tables of snow depths. Garth was incommunicado in Pokhara, Nepal; otherwise it would have been fun to do a couple of phone smooches, once when midnight swept by over there, and again when it finally got around to us nearly twelve hours later.

His New Toy

That metallic object in the background is . . .

. . . the strainer from the kitchen sink.

I found it here in the opposite corner of the house, so I'm guessing that it gave him some considerable amusement as he batted it along.

Nothing is safe from him now, unless it's behind a closed door. I expect we'll soon be needing latches installed on the kitchen cabinets.

It's his electrical cord fetish that's the worst, though. I'm amazed he hasn't chewed through a live one yet. I forgot and left the sustain pedal for the keyboard on the floor, and not twenty minutes later, I found the cable nearly severed. I have cords tucked into gaps under baseboards, cords shielded behind boards braced behind furnishings, cords taped up along furnishings . . .it's starting to look like a choice between him and electricity!