Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Aftermath of Victory (Plus Cheese)

Well, they won. I'm enjoying being able to get to bed on time again. The first thing that I did after Papelbon's last strikeout was to call Dad. What is it about dads and baseball? I have very fond memories of this from my childhood: hitting balls that Dad pitched for me, little league, going to my first Sox game with Dad (Sox vs. Orioles. We lost, but I got to see Yaz play). Dad got season tickets to the Sox shortly after Mom died. All three of the kids instantly agreed that that was exactly a right thing for him to do. He's been enjoying them ever since. This year he was actually at Fenway when they won the pennant.

Saturday started cool and rainy, so I decided to get back into cheesemaking. This one went very well. I did a Gouda. It's the first time I've done a Gouda starting with 2 gallons of milk. The extra volume does make it easier to work with. I also got a new perforated flat ladle for cheesemaking. You can see it in the curd photo. It's much easier to work the curds with it. I felt much more confident cutting, stirring and draining the curds this time, and as a result got a particularly nice curd mass.

My best looking Gouda curds to date

The finished cheese looks nice, too. With the aging process this should be ready in late December. We'll use this one as this year's Christmas cheese.

The Gouda - Do not open until Christmas

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Random Bits

Regal Fritillaries. Photo by Ron Panzer.

On Tuesday, I drove down to McLean, IL. Never heard of it? Neither had I. It's this tiny speck on the map in the west central part of the state. I was making a pitch to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) for getting a permit for our Regal Fritillary re-introduction work. Sounds really bureaucratic and unpleasant, right? So not. I got to have a really pleasant drive downstate on a gorgeous fall day. The INPC are a super bunch of folks. They were a great audience for my 20 minute presentation, and are wonderfully supportive of the project. I got to have some good conversations during breaks, and they even fed me. Do I really need to add that they voted in favor of the project?

Speaking of regals, I got an interesting email this week. Some folks in Pennsylvania are doing a restoration project with their remaining population and got wind of our project. They want to compare notes and share expereinces. Yay. What makes the echange especially fun is that they got wind of our work through the blog. That's the first time that I have made a professional contact via my blog.

These guys are keeping me up past my bedtime lately. But it's so much fun.

The weather forecast for the weekend is bad, at least on Saturday. As a sign of winter, I may try my hand at cheesemaking again for the first time since last spring.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Turning 110

Leon turned 60 last month. Next month, I will turn 50 (I'm getting to the point where I can say that without hyperventilating). So this past weekend, roughly midway between the two birthdays, we threw ourselves a combined 110th birthday party.

The birthday boys toast each other
We were able to use the Museum as a party space. It was a lovely party. The weather was unbelievable. It was beautifully sunny and hit 80 degrees. The party had been planned for an event space in the Museum- but we had been told that we could also use the adjoining terrace if the weather was nice. I've been expresssing skeptecism since we made the arrangements last summer- but the weather turned out to be more than just nice.

Party guests enjoy the amazing weather

We had a beautiful cake (chocolate cake, raspberry mousse filling and chocolate ganache frosting), wine, hot and cold hors d'oeuvres, and the company of several dozen good friends.

Cutting the cake

It was a real treat to be able to take my friends through the butterfly exhibit. Many had never seen it before.

Some of our friends in the Butterfly Haven

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Meeting Harold

In my recent geek post, I mentioned a brush with fame that I had earlier in my life. In the summer of 1978, I was preparing to enter my senior year in college and working a summer job at EG&G. EG&G stands for Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier, and Edgerton was Harold Edgerton, the famous pioneer of ultra high-speed photography. I was working as a machine operator at the time, stamping glass bits to become parts of flash tubes of the sort found in copying machines. It was a pretty good job. The work was very repetetive, but otherwise not unpleasant and I was making reasonable money.

One afternoon in August a whole bunch of the company was off on vacation. I had been asked to spend the day manually injecting resin into the ends of the flash tubes so that the company could complete an order on time. The head of the department walked through with three guys in suits. He paused at my work station and said "This man is adding a stiffening agent to xenon tubes." It was a bit of a thrill for me. I was a lad of 20 at the time and looked about 14 (I'm not exaggerating). It was one of the first times that someone had referred to me as a man rather than a boy. One of the guys in suits handed me a postcard. It was a copy of the photograph Making Applesauce at MIT (shown above). I thanked him and they walked on. Someone later told me that it was Edgerton. I was both elated and crushed. Harold Edgerton! And I hadn't even realized it. I still deeply regret that I did not know at the time. I absolutely would have asked him to sign the postcard. I still have it.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mondo Chocolate (and Apples)

Monday night I attended a fundraising dinner for Chicago Wilderness Magazine. As dinner was winding down, someone helping to run the function came over to the table with a huge basket. "Doug, you won the chocolate basket door prize." My God. This sucker's HUGE. There must be at least 5 lb of chocolate in that thing. I pulled out some items for us to keep and then brought the rest into work. I'm sure my department is up to the task of putting a dent in it.

Since I'm sure that everyone's waistline is expanding just looking at all that chocolate, I thought I'd also post a recipe for one of my favorite autumn treats. I made this over the weekend.

Nobby Apple Cake

1 cup sugar
1/4 cup Crisco
1 egg
3 cups apples, pared, cored, and diced
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 teaspoon each of baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg
1 cup flour

1. Cream shortening and sugar. Add beaten egg
2. Add apples, vanilla, and dry ingredients. Mix well.
3. Bake in a greased 8" square pan at 350° F for 45 minutes


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Many Miles to Go

My passport will be getting a workouot. I have lots of travel coming up in the next six months. Some highlights:

In early November, I'll be visiting Mindo on the west slope of the Andes in Ecuador for a conference about exhibiting live butterflies.

I have tentative plans in early December to visit Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, Mexico. There is a meeting regarding developing a conservation flyway from Canada to Mexico for migrating monarch butterflies. I hope to be able to participate

Sometime in the dead of winter, Leon and I are discussing heading off to someplace fabulous and warm with Urspo and his partner.

In March, it looks like it will be back to the monarch sanctuary in Mexico, this time with a group from the Museum.

I travel a lot, but if all of this actually happens, it will be the most international travel that I've ever done in such a short period of time. I can't wait to get to Ecuador again.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Thanks to the many people that I have bugged (you're welcome) for participating in Blog Action Day. I wondered what to write for this. I could say that every day is Blog Action Day at Gossamer Tapestry. And while it's true that I blog about environmental issues a lot, that struck me as a bit smug. I debated over whether to compose an entirely new post or to link to some of my old ones. I have decided to do both. Below this posting you'l find something I put together specifically for today. In this posting, I provide linkes to some of my previous posts on envirnomental issues.

The post that best sums up what's behind my passion for the natural world is here, although this post also has a lot to do with it. I describe my work at Bluff Spring Fen in a bunch of posts, and there is also a whole lot of stuff about my work with butterfly conservation. Finally, there's a bunch of the natural world that I've experienced through travel, including some reflections on my favorite ecosystems.


One of Those Families

In celebration of Blog Action Day, I'm posting some memories spurred by the No Child Left Inside movement. This is a national move to reconnect kids with nature. It was spawned as a response to the influential book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. I am posting some rememberances of a family that did not experience nature-deficit disorder. That would be my birth family. For a lot of my readers, it's probably your family, too.

Growing up, there were any number of families in my home town whose identities revolved around one shared interest. The Cs were the sports family. Their four sons all dominated on the football and basketball teams in my high school. The Ss were the artistic family, the Ts were into music and the Ws were avid skiers. My family dabbled in several of these areas, but we weren’t immediately associated in everyone’s minds with them. We weren’t one of those families.

Mostly we hung out together. In our case, hanging out meant walks in the woods. Or fishing trips. Or weekend day trips to Cape Cod, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the coast of Maine. Self-guided trails with their pamphlets identifying flora and geological features figured prominently on those weekends. We became adept at locating the brown and white signs along the highways- the ones that directed to various natural features. Trips to Cape Cod meant the nature trails that threaded the National Seashore. New Hampshire meant the Kancagamus Highway and Franconia Notch.

My family’s travel activities were extensions of the kinds of things that we enjoyed doing together while we were at home. We started feeding the birds when I was in kindergarten or the first grade. I got my first butterfly net from the Easter Bunny at about the same time. Audubon’s Birds of North America and The Golden Guide to the Butterflies and Moths were both well-thumbed volumes in my household. Even today, although I’m considered the one who knows all about butterflies- every member of my immediate family can still identify many of the common species from southern New England.

Butterflies figured prominently throughout growing up. I remember having a butterfly net with me for most of the summers through junior high school. Even in high school, I was keeping live butterflies, mostly smaller species like blues, alive for weeks in small cages, feeding them sugar water. I remember taking a caged American Copper butterfly with us when we went apple picking in southern New Hampshire and marveling at still having the live butterfly in my possession when it snowed that afternoon. How could I have known then that my future career was being played out that day?

I guess at the time that I never thought of us as being a science family. My parents had no formal science training- indeed my dad was the first member of his family to receive a college degree. I think that my parents were always a bit bemused- proud, but bemused- that all of their kids spent at least some of their professional lives in science. Of the six members of my generation- myself, two sibs, and our spouses- four of us today make our livings as scientists.

Our interest in science did not grow out of having parents who were scientists. It grew out of having parents who were in love with the natural world, and who took the time to share it with us. To this day, our family remains very aware of the environment and of the changes happening in it. I can’t imagine living any other way. After all, we were one of those families.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Blogging for the Environment - Blog Action Day

Monday, October 15 is Blog Action Day. It's a challenge to bloggers to post something related to the environment on that day.

On October 15th, bloggers around the web will unite to put a single important issue on everyone’s mind - the environment. Every blogger will post about the environment in their own way and relating to their own topic. Our aim is to get everyone talking towards a better future.

A posting might be a photo, an essay, or a link to a previous post that you have done on the topic. The post need not be about the political aspects of the environment. A rememberance of a camping or hiking trip you particularly enjoyed, or a photo of the natural world would make great contributions. I've already signed on as a participant, you can join in here. Readers whose blogs I have linked to at the bottom of my blogroll (Science and Nature Blogs) may well already to be planning participation. So far, I know that the Dharma Bums are.

I'd like to challenge all of my readers who are also bloggers to post something on Monday. I typically don't "tag" folks for memes, but there are three readers not in the Science and Nature section of my blogroll who have previously expressed themselves well on this topic. So I'd like to extend personal invitations to UrSpo, Whirly Steve, and Mark H. to take part. Even if I haven't invited you personally, whether it's because you have said that you don't like being tagged (cough Homer cough), because I've never seen you write about the environment, or because you're likely to be participating anyway, why don't you give it a go? I'd love to see what everyone has to say.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

March 28, 1979

October 11 is National Coming Out Day. In celebration, I offer a rememberance of the day that I decided to come out of the closet.

In March of 1979 I faced a time of scary decisions. I was in my senior year in college, finishing up a very successful undergraduate career. I had just gained acceptance at 4 doctoral programs in various biochemistry departments around the country. I should have felt that the whole world was before me.

I was actually miserable. In part I was in the throes of unrequited love. My friend C and I had been close for about a year. He was smart, handsome, and funny. I was competely smitten with him. He, of course, liked girls. To further complicate matters, iwe were attending a very small college in rural New England. I knew only one other gay person. I feared the prospect of a lonely, miserable life spent in shame. Was I doomed to fall in love with, and be frustrated by, straight boys for ever?

Spring break came. I did not go to Ft, Lauderdale or Panama City. I went to Massachusetts to spend the week with my family. I wanted to spend time not lusting over thinking about C, not trying to fit in socially with people whose lives were taking them in very different directions from mine, but instead trying to figure out which of the four schools that had accepted me would be the one that I would attend.

When I am in need of emotional healing, I turn to the natural world. So on Wednesday of that week, I borrowed my mom’s car and drove down to spend the day on Cape Cod. I planned to drive down, eat fried clams, walk in the National Seashore and think hard about my school choice. Two memories from the drive remain vivid. I heard for the first time a song called Sultans of Swing by the then-unknown group Dire Straits. I would follow their music for decades to come. Partway through Boston, a news bulletin came on the radio announcing that there had been some sort of malfunction at a nuclear power plant outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The news spoke of little else for the rest of my journey- and for weeks to come.

I walked a lot that afternoon- over dunes, through maple and cedar swamps, and along beaches. It was chilly enough to keep me going as a means of staying warm. But instead of thinking about school choices, I found myself thinking about C and the pain of not knowing if I could ever find happiness with another person. I thought of how tired I was of feeling isolated. I wanted the pain to end, and realized that meant taking a very different approach from the hiding and being afraid that had dominated the last six or seven years of my life.

The funny thing is, even though I was thinking about things that had nothing to do with the main decision in front of me, my thoughts that afternoon led to my choice. If I was to get beyond my uncomfortable isolation, I’d need to find other people like myself. Were there any? Were they all weirdos? It was a chance I would have to take.

Of my four grad school options, two were clearly the preferred ones. I had received handsome (and very similar) fellowship offers from the departments of Biochemistry at Northwestern and the University of Rochester. I knew enough to realize that my immediate future lay in a city, and that there would be more prospects to come out in Chicago than in Rochester, NY.

The decisions I made on March 28, 1979 would affect the rest of my life to a degree that I could only dimly imagine that day. I would accept Northwestern’s offer and move to Chicago. I would try, if only tentitively, to come out of the closet. And I would come out on my own terms, letting nobody else dictate what that would mean. These decisions, which would prove to serve me extraordinarily well for the rest of my life, were made in beautiful surroundings on a day where it seemed almost possible that the world could end in nuclear holocaust;

Happy National Coming Out Day to my gay and straight readers alike.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Power of 0.0007

UrSpo recently left a great question in the comments. It bears a bit more examination than a simple answer in the comments section, so I'm responding in a full post.
Spo: I forget the % of actual prairie remains; and is it growing or shrinking?
The first part of the question is relatively easy. Over 99.9% of the prairie in Illinois has been destroyed (99.93% to be exact). This figure was arrived at from an inventory, compiled in the mid-1970s, of natural areas remaining in Illinois. The graphic that accompanies this post gives a partial illustration of just how small this is. The red area is 0.07% of the blue square. In the case of Illinois prairie, it’s important to recognize that the remaining fragments are not all lumped together in one single place. There are over 100 parcels of varying size left. To be an accurate illustration, the red section would have to be divided into more than 100 little bits, also of varying size, scattered in a seemingly random distribution across the blue field.

Faced with this staggering loss, it’s no surprise that people have been trying to save what’s left, and even to restore bits of land to their former ecological state. Which ties in directly to the Spo question. Sadly, even the identification of these tiny remnants of remaining prairie has only slowed the complete destruction. More than a dozen sites located in the initial inventory have been destroyed. So in some senses, the number has gotten smaller.

Counterbalancing this, ecological restoration activities have tended to make the number larger. But even this is not simple. In rare cases, people have managed to intervene at nearly the last possible moment. Invasive brush is removed from an area, fire is restored as the herbaceous vegetation recovers, and the tiny wisps of native vegetation that had nearly been choked out burst forth and a beautiful diverse ecosystem returns to life.

Much more frequently, the restoration ecologist is faced with the prospect of starting over. The invasive shrubs and trees are cleared, but unless the area is seeded with native plants, the future is an endless succession of weeds. Unfortunately, these prairie recreations are very different ecologically from remnant prairies. The floristic quality is lower. That is, the number of plant species present is lower, and those species that show up show a weaker fidelity to undisturbed prairies. The vegetative structure is also different. Animal species, particularly insects, are typically much less diverse.

What is the overall result of all of these trends? I don’t have hard, quantitative data. My guess is that the overall area covered with native prairie vegetation has increased slightly in the last 30 years, but that the area cloaked in very high quality vegetation has declined somewhat. It can be distressing to feel that no bit of original vegetation is truly safe, and that we will be left with bits and pieces of a poor imitation.

Restoration techniques are improving, and newer restorations show more promise of authenticity than some of the earlier efforts. Still, it can be frustrating when those with economic interests accuse conservation-minded folk of politically-motivated intransigence when we resist compromise on the 0.007% that’s still here. We won’t meet you half way? Hey, half way came and went a long, long time ago.


Monday, October 08, 2007

The Garden That Would Not Die

Glorious Eggplants

I can’t believe the weather this autumn. I’d be thrilled if I wasn’t concerned that the heat might be a reflection of climate change kicking into much higher gear. It’s a week into October, and the vegetable garden continues to produce like it’s August. I spent much of Saturday afternoon freezing eggplant. I froze three pints. We have two varieties coming in at the moment- the Asian variety that I posted about last week (Pingtung), and a beautiful Italian strain called Rosa Bianca. We’re also still getting tomatoes including a big orange one called Nebraska Wedding, a smaller red one called Stupice and two not pictured here: the nearly black Cherokke Purple and a very prolific cherry tomato called Mexican Midget.

Still Life #2 with Eggplant

I’m still harvesting summer squash. This was another successful experiment this year. I usually lose all of my squashes and cukes to squash boreres. I have found that by planting late, I avoid that problem. Next year, I will refine the technique a bit and try more varieties. There’s a ton of basil that I need to turn into pesto. The cold season stuff is, of course, doing great. We have huge Swiss chard and it looks like I’ll get my first ever crop of autumn lettuce.

Swiss Chard - Fordhook Giant

With the exception of the basil, everything in this year’s garden was started from seed. That’s a first for us- I usually buy flats of eggplant and tomatoes.

In unrelated news, I'm making lemoncello. Here are the lemon peels steeping in vodka. They're sitting on the reoof just outside of the bathroom window. I hope the toilet spiders don't crawl under the jar.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

Toilet Spiders -Take Deux

So I did the debunking of the toilet spider urban myth gig. Turns out, I was interviewed by host Don Wildman for the webcast portion of The History Channel's Cities of the Underworld. The piece will not be posted on The History Channel's website until January or February. I'll post a link when it becomes available. The interview was a lot of fun- very different than anything I've done before. We did multiple takes of things (a large number in some cases). Don was great to work with. He has a great self-deprecating sense of humor. At one point between filming, he was joking about the difficulty in maintaining his very deliberate unshaven look. My response: "nice scruff."

In addition to the debunking, we looked at some of the other creepier critters that we have. I hope that the stuff with the hissing cockroaches gets in because the host was definitely grossed out by them. It was pretty funny.

Some days I particularly love my job.

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Toilet Spiders

This afternoon I will be talking with The History Channel, debunking the urban legend of toilet spiders for a (ha ha) webcast. It just doesn't get any better than this.


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Autumn Rarity

Rough White Lettuce (Prenanthes aspera)

I recently got a call from a colleague at another local museum. He's trying to learn about prairie, and seeking to protect a small parcel near where he grew up. The parcel turns out to be one that I already know fairly well, and since it's just a few miles from Bluff Spring Fen, I agreed to meet him out there a couple of weeks ago. While there, we (mostly he) found a really rare plant that I'd never seen before. The wild lettuces in the genus Prenanthes are mostly woodland plants. There's a wetland plant called smooth white lettuce (P. racemosa), and a really rare plant of dry prairies called rough lettuce (P. aspera). There are just a handful of small colonies in the Chicago metropolitan area, including this one. We found a total of 5 plants in this population.

P. aspera is reputed to be relatively easy to cultivate. If someone is able to cultivate some plants in a seed garden, they should be able to provide it to some of the other prairie restoration projects that have appropriate habitat, and it may be possible to significantly increase the number of places where it grows. It's one of the really rewarding things about restoration- the opportunity to help really rare species hang on.

Did I mention that there was ripe seed and that we collected just enough to grow some out in a seed garden?

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Hi. My name is Doug and I'm a geek.

Ten things that give me away.

1. I love the periodic table of the elements. It’s one of the coolest things that I know of. Mendeleev rocks! A coworker owns a copy of the table that is actually autographed by Glenn Seaborg. I totally covet it.

2. I wear Dockers. And I don’t care.

3. In the 1980s, after I saw a Nova episode about his work, I developed a crush on Stephen Jay Gould.

4. I have never seen a single episode of Survivor, American Idol, or Dancing with the Stars.

5. I know how to use a slide rule (though I’m badly out of practice).

6. Growing up, the TV programs that most influenced me were Jonny Quest and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. This combination marks me not only as geeky, but gay and geeky.

7. When I still lived in Massachusetts, I met two famous people. I was much more taken by meeting Harold Edgerton than by meeting Liza Minelli.
(OK, that one loses me all of the remaining points on my gay card).

8. From the time I was about 10, the two things that I listed as what I wanted to be when I grew up were a scientist (really meaning a field biologist) and a meteorologist. Option #1 won.

9. I was on the debate team in high school.

10. My one possession that could be described as fag-fabulous is a test tube rack.

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