Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Best Time of Year in Oklahoma

May in Oklahoma is the most beautiful time to be outdoors. The summer heat has not yet begun, and all the flowers are open. Sure, you have to go out between rains to see them, and you have to dodge a few tornadoes, but this is the time of year that makes me glad to live in Oklahoma. Come about August and I’m not so sure.

This is why the Oklahoma Native Plant Society chooses mid-May as the time for the annual Wildflower Workshop. On Saturday, May 16, a few dozen wildflower lovers took a field trip to three places in south central Oklahoma.

The first was one of the last remaining native prairies in south central Oklahoma. On U.S. 70 west of Durant, it used to be called Carpenter’s Meadow until it was divided up for “development.” Most people saw it as a green and brown square that was a mere canvas for construction. This includes the huge new Methodist Church. However, two of the church members (Dr. Connie Taylor, botanist, and Dr. Gordon Eggleton, physical scientist, both retired from Southeastern Oklahoma State University) are scientists and they managed to convince the church to not convert every last square meter of the property into turf. It was Connie who led the field trip on this little patch of prairie.

After some light rain, the ground was quite soggy, but this did not keep the native plant enthusiasts from walking all over the prairie to find dozens of plant species such as the green milkweed Asclepias viridis (a milkweed that is beautiful even when the flower is not yet open) and Tephrosia virginica, a legume.

The prize, of course, was the prairie orchid Calopogon oklahomensis.

This patch of prairie is threatened not only by churches and businesses but by fracking as well. Notice the fracking well in the background behind this white larkspur Delphinium carolinianum.

Wet and muddy, we got in a bus and went to Ft. Washita, an old fort that was built by the federal government to protect the Chickasaw tribe, which it had forced out of their homeland and into Oklahoma, from the Caddo tribe which was already in Oklahoma. The rocks were crammed with mollusk fossils, as in photos I have posted previously on this blog. It was not long before we were looking for native plants, even right down in the grass beside the picnic tables. ONPS past president Adam Ryburn is always on the lookout for females; this time, it was females of the buffalo grass Bouteloua (formerly Buchloe) dactyloides.

Unlike most grasses, buffalo grass has separate male and female plants.

Down in a low trough in the turf, in the middle of a cemetery full of unmarked Chickasaw graves, there was what looked like little weedy plantains. But a closer look revealed that they were Ophiglossum adder’s-tongues, which are fernlike plants. I took no photos because the lawn mower had not left much.

Our last stop was at the Blue River in Johnston County. Because the granite underneath has not eroded much, the soil is thin and well-drained, which promotes a profuse growth of wildflowers, and allows the Blue River to be relatively clear and have rapids, unlike the usual lazy Oklahoma river that flows past muddy banks formed from limestone soil. The most noticeable flowers were the yellow Coreopsis lanceolata and the deep red Gaillardia pulchella. Down by the river, however, you can also find some magnificent Tradescantia flowers.

Thin gravelly soil on top of the granite boulders allows small plants to grow that would otherwise be shaded out by larger plants. These include the stonecrop Sedum, a flowering plant; velvety smooth mosses; and thin tangles of clubmosses.

A forest fire had destroyed the whole forest in 2011, but many of the trees and shrubs are growing back as thick clumps. Beautiful fungi were sporulating from the dead wood.

Recent rainfall has sent the Blue River into flood stage. However, seaside alders (Alnus maritima, one of the rarest tree species in the world) bravely held their ground (literally! They create the islands they live on) in the roiling waters.

This portion of the Blue River has not been known to have arrowroot (Sagittaria), but some corms of arrowroot had been washed in by the floodwaters and might start a new population there. Forests recover well from, and thrive in the face of, fires and floods. But the prairies cannot survive when the soil is scraped away and turned into parking lots and fracking fields.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Brain Takes a Nature Walk

I am currently reading Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. It is one of several books based on modern psychology that give us new insights into what our brains are like—insights that are both disturbing and liberating.

I already knew that the brain does not present us with an objective picture of reality. I thought that it processes sensory information into a model of reality, one in which the information from the environment is presented to us in a useful fashion. For example, I knew about sensory fatigue, in which an unchanging sensory input is soon ignored by the brain. This keeps the conscious brain from being overwhelmed by information. I also knew that color is an illusion. The brain uses inputs from three kinds of retinal cones to create a false-color picture of the environment, one in which ripe fruits are red so that they can be easily spotted by hungry animals without having to think about the complex mixture of wavelengths reflected from the environment.

And this is what I have been teaching my classes for almost three decades. But it turns out I might be wrong about this. The brain does not, apparently, process sensory information into a model of reality. Instead, our brains (according to Eagleman) internally generate a picture of reality. That is, what we see, hear, and feel is a model that the brain generates from its own memories and expectations. The brain uses sensory input only to modify and adjust this model as needed.

I took a walk in the woods this morning. It was the perfect time for a walk on Turkey Mountain, just outside of Tulsa. A Tuesday morning is almost the only time the parking lot is not full. The temperature was perfect, the sunlight was clear, and the leaves were light green, soft, and profuse (they will later be dark green, hard, and scraggly). It was also the last time for a while: the abundant rains that have suddenly filled our low reservoirs will return tomorrow. I walked on trails I have explored dozens of times. My mind pretty much knew where to make my body go. My mind utilized sensory input only to modulate where my feet moved so as to position themselves correctly on the rocks that my subconscious mind probably already knew were there. I could not have walked blindfolded, but just a few visual data are all that were necessary to allow me to walk—a few more than usual, since I had to avoid mud holes that others before me had not, and fallen branches and trunks.

Every person who was on the trail had a different mental image of it. Some joggers noticed only where the rocks and mud were, as they ran along listening to headphones. Some hikers saw little more than this, perhaps being aware of the vaulted canopy of branches overhead, as they concentrated mainly on their own animated conversations. The brains of dirt bikers had to do quick calculations of velocity and momentum, not having time to notice anything else.

And then there was me, the botanist. I noticed all the different kinds of trees: no matter how many times I see them, I feel like they are old friends. I wonder how many other hikers realize just how many kinds of trees there are. I also noticed the spatial patterns of the trees: the post oaks in higher and drier spots, the red oaks in the lower and wetter spots. I also noticed that poison ivy and aromatic sumac (with which it can be easily confused) never grow in exactly the same place, the former preferring shadier and wetter microclimates. Moreover, pollinating insects do not get poison ivy and smooth sumac (whose flowers look almost alike) mixed up since poison ivy is blooming right now and the smooth sumac flowers won’t open until at least next week; and they cannot confuse either of these with aromatic sumac, whose flowers open before any of the leaves have come out.

Here are photos of poison ivy flowers, and the gigantic leaves!

I also notice the bark of each tree. My daughter thinks I have a picture of every tree trunk in Oklahoma, but I know I’ve missed more than half of them. Bark is beautiful, each species having its own kind, each life stage having its own kind, and each tree having bark that reflects its own personal story of experience, growth, and recovery, as in this post oak that has had to start its life over again at least twice:

I see the forest as a functioning system in space and time, rather than as a backdrop for my own human activities. My brain noticed all these things because I consciously decided to look for them.

But my brain ignored a lot of things that other scientists could have pointed out to me. I am sure there were lots of insects, and insect galls, that I did not even see. To me, an insect-damaged leaf was one to ignore when taking photos, instead of a vital piece of information to understand the food chain of the forest. It was only by chance that I noticed a wild bee pollinating a Phacelia flower.

As for birds, you have to look closely to see the indigo buntings, whose blue backs appear black at first glance. A geologist would be able to explain how processes millions of years ago produced sandstone in some places, and shale in others, on what is now Turkey Mountain, and until recently I walked right past fossilized impressions and even petrified wood of prehistoric lepidodendrid trees without even seeing them. My brain was in plant mode just as the joggers’ brains were in don’t-slip-in-the-mud mode. I, too, entered the forest with an internally-generated model of what it was supposed to be like.

I would like to leave you with this thought. You can always enjoy a place more if you look closely and start noticing things. If you keep your brain in energy-savings mode, so that it responds only to threats and inconveniences, you are  missing the joy of being alive. Of course, I do not need to say this to anyone who is reading this essay right now! And the people who come to the forest only to jog might, in fact, find themselves surprised and pleased at discovering something about the forest through which they had merely intended to run.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Insights from an Old Book

I ran across an old book in my office yesterday. It is not old enough of a book to be historically important, like The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace, nor is it a classic like plant ecologist John L. Harper’s Population Biology of Plants. You probably cannot find this thirty-year-old paperback anywhere except in the basement of an archiving library. It is Studies on Plant Demography: A Festschrift for John L. Harper, edited by James White. John L. Harper (1925-2009) was one of the most famous plant ecologists of the twentieth century. The scattershot of 24 papers in this book gave examples of different ways to study plant population biology, and reflect the great diversity of approaches that Harper took in his own research. The papers in the book are about everything from weeds to crops that act like weeds to pandanus trees to temperate forests. They describe processes such as how plants spread by underground runners, to how they space their branches out just right to help them compete against their neighbors for light, to how they invade new continents. It represented the best efforts of plant ecologists in 1985, back when illustrations were still done by hand with mechanical pens and Zipatone.

I planned to glance through the book a little and try to find a general take-home message. I quickly realized there was none. But before I put the book in my give-away pile, I had a sudden realization. The fact that there was no way to summarize the book is the message. Different species of plants, different populations of plants within the same species, and even the same individual plant can have an enormous variety of ways to not only survive but to spread and prevail over their competitors. I looked up from the book and around at the plants in my back yard. Of course! While none of the plants in my yard use all the different possible ways of spreading, each one uses several. I had just finished cutting down hundreds of sugarberry saplings. Birds spread their seeds, but that is not the only way sugarberries persist in my yard.  If you cut a sugarberry sapling, a half dozen others will grow from its tiny stump. Sugarberries thrive in the sun but also persist in the shade. I looked up at the wisteria vines. Not only do they send thick and sometimes enormously long branches through the privet bushes, but also along the ground, where they produce roots at the nodes. I was watching a war of all the plants against all the other plants in my yard, each one using numerous tactics or strategies. My yard is not tidy; I have not forced my plants to keep to their own little patch of ground spaced out like doodads on a blanket. I let them go wild, perhaps naively thinking that they would play nicely together.

While I might have expected simple rules in the natural world, what I beheld was a crazy diversity.

There was one other thing I noticed from this book. Near the beginning was a list of all of John L. Harper’s publications as of 1985. His very first publications, in 1950, were about the ability of different breeds of bananas to resist Panama disease, a fungal pathogen. While Harper and the numerous ecologists who followed him have mostly studied “pure science,” in an attempt to understand nature, Harper himself began with an important concept in agricultural research: we need lots of genetic diversity in our crops in order to save our agriculture from disease. If a disease kills one breed of crop, we need to have another breed to take its place. The crazy diversity of nature, or even of an untidy back yard, is the key to the success of life on Earth.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Darwin at a Class Reunion

Happy May Day! Workers of the World Unite—not for communism, but to make the world better in whatever way we can.

I have just posted a video in which I, in the persona of Charles Darwin, am briefly addressing the 40th reunion of our high school class. Lindsay (California) High School, Class of ’75! I made the video expressly for people who were not there and who might be wondering why I would post what seems to be a personal video on my science YouTube channel. I explain the reasoning in the video, but the sound quality leaves something to be desired (echoes from the walls) so I will write a brief essay on the same subject (not a word-for-word transcript; I want to improve on my words).

I begin by asking the question, What adaptation makes humans unique? There are many adaptations that are very highly developed in humans, compared to other animals. The one that first comes to mind is intelligence. We are clearly the most intelligent animal species on the planet (sorry to those of you who still think dolphins are smarter). But what kind of intelligence? Our brains have evolved a particular kind of intelligence. We do have logical intelligence; we can apply our brains to figure out problems logically, but we have to work at it. But the kind of intelligence that comes intuitively and easily to our brains is social intelligence. In high school, I had the reputation of being very intelligent, in the logical sense, but I was surrounded by a lot of peers who had tremendous social intelligence. And I here claim that social intelligence, in which my classmates were at least as good as I was, is humankind’s greatest adaptation.

One kind of social intelligence is what I call horizontal culture: a network of interconnections among animals in which they can help each other out. You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us! This takes a lot of brain power, in order to keep track of each individual and what kind of person each one is. Humans are really, really good at this kind of intelligence. But then, so are dogs and wolves and meerkats and prairie dogs. Ever been in a wolf pack? Neither have I, but we can imagine what it is like. You mess with one of them, you mess with all of them. Humans are really good, but not unique, at having highly-developed horizontal culture.

Another kind of social intelligence is what I call vertical culture, and this is the thing that humans do perhaps better than any other animal species. We can remember—for decades—what our friends are like. Forty years can pass, and we can practically take up where we left off as if no time has passed at all! When I went to my class reunion, I had literally not seen any of those old friends for four decades. (The only ones I had contacted in the meantime were not at the reunion.) Yet there we were, filling each other in on the news of our lives, with cultural bonds undiminished over time. The memories of the time we spent in band, or in Japan during sister-city exchanges, or in Jim Kliegl’s plays, were still fresh.

Perhaps the most unique feature of human vertical culture is we remember our friends and loved ones who have died. Carolyn, who organized the reunion (thanks forever for that!), set up a little memorial for our friends who had died. Does any other species of animal do this? I have read that elephants remember their dead. If you play back a recording of a beloved elephant that has died, the other members of the herd will display actions and sounds that seem, to us, like grief. But we humans are much better at this than elephants. Our social intelligence allows us to not just remember those who have gone before but lots of things about them. And to love them forever.

Our old Spanish teacher, Jesse Guerrero, told us, regarding the invitation to join our reunion, “I needed this.” Social bonds over time are as necessary to our brains as is food and oxygen. All of us at the reunion, not just Jesse, need this. And all of the rest of the readers of this blog.

My reunion was not just enjoyable but it gave me a deep satisfaction to participate in this deeply satisfying and uniquely human experience.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Classical Music and Geology

Okay, I’m going out on a limb here to create an analogy. But we need a little fun once in a while.

My favorite classical composer has, for many decades, been Antonín Dvořák. Every one of his pieces, whether symphonies or smaller works, consists of beautiful melodies, some of the best ever written. However—and I hesitate to criticize this master of music—that’s pretty much all it is. Melodies, strung together, occasionally showing up again in modified form, but not quite fitting together when they do so. The New World Symphony is a good example.

Some of  Dvořák’s pieces, however, do have structure. His tone poems (such as Wodník, or the Watersprite; The Wild Dove; The Noon Witch; and The Golden Spinning Wheel) were deliberately written around old Czech legends. And for other Dvořák pieces, such as Symphony 8 in D major, I have imagined stories. But even in these cases, the structure is episodic rather than woven together as a fabric.

My second favorite classical composer has, for many decades, been Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He wrote good melodies too, but within a much more limited range than Dvořák. Most of Mozart’s melodies were various forms of scales. For example, the final movement of his last symphony is pretty much just descending major scales, with some occasional ascending scales. They are incomparably beautiful, though, incomparable to anyone except Dvořák. But Mozart’s melodies fit together. In Dvořák’s music, you could never really guess what was coming next, but in Mozart’s music, everything seems to follow from what came before. You feel astonishment and surprise, only to realize that you should have seen it coming. I have listened a lot to his Gran Partita while following the study score. The twelve instruments fit together to form beautiful vertical chords, yet each instrument has a beautiful melody that interweaves with the others horizontally. A perfect fabric.

Mozart’s music reminds me of smooth layers of limestone, in which every layer is in place. Surprises frequently come in Mozart, as in limestone: unpredictable discolorations caused by various forms of iron, as in the photo.

Dvořák’s music, however, reminds me of conglomerate, which consists of a jumble of rocks (frequently limestone in Oklahoma) cemented together by calcium carbonate cement that has leached from the rocks. Each rock is a beautiful surprise, but the overall structure is a jumble.

Both limestone and conglomerate are beautiful, but in different ways. I will conclude by noting that some early-twentieth-century academic music (mostly listened to by music professors) reminds me of the alluvium in the bed of the Arkansas River. The rocks have been broken apart into such small pieces that they no longer have any recognizable individual beauty, and they are mixed in with bits of trash in various states of weathering. I know I am not the only person who feels this way about atonal music.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Landscape Thick with Stories

Every landscape is a palimpsest thick with stories. Where I live in Oklahoma is an example.

First, there is the story of its evolutionary past, for example when the part of Oklahoma in which I live was the bottom of a shallow sea, creating limestone filled with seashells, or when the Ice Ages caused Oklahoma to be cold and dry, a place where spruce trees and mastodons lived.

Second, there are the primordial human effects just after the most recent Ice Age. The native peoples who originally lived here were hunters and gatherers, but they deliberately manipulated the environment. They often set fires, which cleared away some of the forests and created grasslands on which game animals could graze and browse. The post oak forests were open and light because the fires did not often kill the large trees, and the oak seedlings could resprout.

Third, there are the secondary human effects caused by later immigrants, not only whites but the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Muskogees, and Seminoles, and later by dozens of other tribes. Not only the whites but the “Five Nations” of natives displaced from the east brought agriculture and ranching.

Finally, there are the modern effects caused by the exploitative human economy: urbanization, pollution (especially from oil extraction), and global warming.

When I walk or drive through Oklahoma, I think about all of these layers of natural and human effects on the landscape. I see myself as part of that last layer (I hope a less destructive member of that layer than are many other people), and therefore as part of a complex set of stories.

In contrast, when someone drives a big truck as fast as possible, spewing black smoke from the tailpipes, they are experiencing only one story: “me, me, me, me.”

Another place that is a palimpsest of stories is central California, where I will be going to my fortieth high school class reunion tomorrow. The San Joaquin Valley was once a vast marsh teeming with wildlife, with water coming into it from snowmelt through the Kings, Kaweah, and Tule Rivers. Today nearly all of this water has been diverted into agricultural irrigation and (to a lesser extent) domestic use.

The landscape has been totally altered into agricultural fields and weed patches, with just a few exceptions. When I grew up there, I thought I was lucky to live out in the countryside, away from the air pollution of Los Angeles. But today, and even back then, the air quality of the Visalia-Tulare-Porterville area is one of the worst in the nation, and the environment was (is?) permeated by pesticides. The story of human alteration and pollution of the land overlies the natural environment. And part of the human story includes economic injustice: migrant farm workers barely make a living, in that pesticide-drenched land, on vast farms owned by rich corporations.

We need to be able to read the palimpsest of stories on the landscape in order to understand the Earth on which we live and which is endangered by our activities.

Friday, April 17, 2015


We can all think of people that we consider intolerable, whether on the world scene or locally, and that we wish could simply be swept out of the way. The same way with many situations that we consider intolerable. Time to get on our high horses and clean the place up, right?

But of course this is impossible. We know that. What I am saying here is that it is also not a good idea to even try. I realized this while I was reading Robert Trivers’s book The Folly of Fools, a book about deception and self-deception. Early in the book he writes about nest parasitism, in which birds such as cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other species, and the parents of the other species feed and raise the cuckoo chicks. How could natural selection have produced birds that are so stupid as to be deceived by the cuckoos, especially when the cuckoo chicks are often much bigger than the birds’ own chicks? Surely natural selection could have been able to produce birds that could count up to, say, three, and realize that there are too many eggs in the nest, or recognize the big chick as being awfully weird-looking.

Natural selection could have done this but did not. One reason that Trivers provides for this is the cost of false positives. If parent birds start ejecting chicks, they might eject some of their own. The cost of ejecting even one of their own chicks might outweigh the benefit of ejecting the parasites. Furthermore, in the absence of nest parasitism, it makes sense for the parents to feed the biggest chicks the most, since those chicks are the ones most likely to survive. The risk of a false positive—host birds ejecting their own large chick thinking it to be a grossly oversized parasite—might outweigh the benefit of ejecting the parasite.

And so when I encounter intolerable people, I will try to just sigh and think of such people as cuckoos, and when I encounter intolerable situations, I will just think of it as a dirty nest. If the problem is easy to fix, I will fix it, but otherwise I will just save myself the cortisol and forget about it. Easier said than done, but that is my goal.