Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Visit to Buffalo National River

My wife and I just got back from a visit to Buffalo National River in Arkansas. It is a beautiful place to see nature at work. We stayed in an old hotel in Harrison, and planned our days in such a way that we could work around the intermittent and unpredictable rains. (I recommend the 1929 Hotel Seville in Harrison as a place that is close to the river but inexpensively elegant in case you have to sit around in the lobby during rain.) We did all of our hiking between rains on May 28. One of the main attractions of Buffalo National River is the green forests—which you cannot have without lots of rain.

Canoeists and kayakers revere the Buffalo National River for its scenic limestone cliffs:

But to an evolutionary ecologist, the river is also a living system. Along the river itself we saw lots of seedlings and re-sprouted saplings of box elder, sycamore, sweetgum, catalpa, birch, and persimmon. I do not know why, but we saw not a single cottonwood. These trees grow in areas disturbed by strong floods. If they get a chance, they grow into forests, at least the boxelders, sycamores, and sweetgums; the catalpas do not live long enough to become canopy trees, and the persimmons spread horizontally by underground stems rather than upward to reach the canopy. In a floodplain forest long undisturbed by floods, we saw very large birches and sweetgums, along with southern red oaks. This photo is of a very tall birch, but it was still leaning halfway over the way it did when it was a riverside sapling.

When we hiked along Mill Creek, we saw some floodplain forests that were almost monospecific stands of box elder:

The riverside forests and the bluff forests were very different. Some species, such as sweetgum, grew in both; but the bluff forests had no box elders. On a bluff, we saw at least one tree species that seemed out of place: a chittamwood tree, which I associate with drier forests. The bluff presumably provided an ecological refuge for this tree, which would not be able to compete with the tall oaks (white, northern red, southern red, and chinkapin) and hickories. Some trees such as pawpaw specialized on open spots on the forest floor. Mesic forests and drier forests have different conditions and different dominant tree species; but because of dry microenvironments, trees more common in drier forests can find a foothold in these mesic forests—this is one reason that mesic forests have such high biodiversity. (We did not, however, see any post oaks.) We recognized 42 flowering plant families; there must have been more. (It’s nice to have a spouse who, though not a professional botanist, loves plant families as much as I do.)

To accommodate search engines that may search for information about these trees, I will list some of the Latin names. Those of you who are not interested in Latin names, please skip to the next paragraph.

Acer negundo (Aceraceae), box elder
Asimina triloba (Annonaceae), pawpaw
Betula nigra (Betulaceae), birch
Catalpa bignonioides (Bignoniaceae), catalpa
Diospyros virginiana (Ebenaceae), persimmon
Liquidambar styraciflua (Altiginaceae), sweetgum
Platanus occidentalis (Platanaceae), sycamore
Quercus alba (Fagaceae), white oak
Quercus falcata (Fagaceae), southern red oak
Quercus muhlenbergii (Fagaceae), chinkapin oak
Quercus rubra (Fagaceae), northern red oak
Sideroxylon lanuginosa (Sapotaceae), chittamwood

We saw more than just plants, of course. It was also the perfect day for this beautiful species of fungus:


On the rainy day we visited Mystic Caverns, which are very beautiful:

And delicate: the oil from even one finger-touch can disrupt mineral deposition. Some of the stalagmites resembled Schmoos from an Al Capp cartoon; in fact these caverns used to be owned and operated by Dogpatch USA, a now bankrupt and vine-engulfed amusement park right across the highway.

The leader was a preacher and handgun instructor who preached us his guns and creationism gospel. He pointed out, quite correctly, that calcite deposits can form quickly; he should know, as he has watched them form. But he also showed us a limestone rock with crinoids in it, and claimed that they could only have come from The Great Flood. He did not consider the possibility that the crinoids were in the limestone parent material upon and around which the calcite deposits formed. I did not ask him any of a thousand possible questions. What would have been the point? Besides, I was the guy who belted out “Deep River,” an old gospel song, in the echo chamber (at the manager’s invitation). This was where the orchestra used to stand in the 1930s when this cavern had a moonshine still in the back and a dance floor. (Presumably some of the people, drinking moonshine, thought they were dancing until somebody stepped on their hands.) I chose to sing Deep River rather than to argue against a creationist. I was, after all, on vacation. Most of the people on the tour were what Mark Twain called Arkansaurians and would not have believed me; the others were young people, including a Japanese couple, who got rained out of their rock climbing plans and presumably already agreed with me. So this was not what one would call a teachable moment.

The Buffalo National River is a beautiful place to visit and to observe the natural world closely.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Stories as Adaptations

The stories we tell, whether fictional or “real,” are adaptations in social evolution. That is their function, and our brains have evolved to crave them. A people, or a person, without stories is without a framework of life and without hope.

Stories are experiments in which we test hypotheses about how to live in a world of limitations and conflicts. In addition, I believe that all stories are just one story, the story of love, which is always costly. Stories are not mere entertainment. They are the way we members of the primate species Homo sapiens live in the world.

As such, stories (whether fictional or not) must weave together plots that provide some sense of cause and effect (without which the world is meaningless) and offer some hope for going forward. Reality may, in fact, be unmitigated depression and hopelessness, but stories should not be, for stories are our way of coping with hopelessness and maybe overcoming it.

These are my thoughts after seeing a movie many of you have seen and all of you have heard about, Twelve Years a Slave. It is the story of a free black man living in New York, Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Georgia. Such kidnappings happened hundreds of times, and Northup was one of the few people to ever escape from this situation. For almost the entire two hours, I felt totally asphyxiated with depression. Nearly every person and event in the movie was the picture of hopelessness. Every time it looked like there might, just might, be a flicker of hope, it was dashed. For example, Northup realized that he might be able to use blackberry juice to make ink in order to write a letter to tell his friends where he was so they could rescue him. But his hopes were crushed by the treachery of the white man whom he trusted. The slaves were subjected to every imaginable indignity and suffering, and some that I had previously (despite my fertile writer’s imagination) never imagined, such as when the clinically crazy plantation master made his slaves act out ballroom dances so that he could pretend that he had a social life. Oh, it’s all true; slave owners did not treat their slaves as property, to be managed wisely, but would inflict suffering on them even though it entailed economic loss. The principal demon of the story personally beat his most productive slave nearly to death—a process shown in full graphic detail. Every possible hopelessness was depicted, such as Northup crushing his beloved violin.

At the end, I felt sick for being mostly white, as if the suffering of my Native American ancestors counted for nothing. But there were even blacks in this movie who were cruel. This movie made me feel filthy for being human. It’s enough to make you wish we would just go extinct.

This is not what a story is supposed to do. If Twelve Years a Slave were fiction, it would be totally unacceptable; its only saving grace is that this story actually happened.

But the producers of this movie made their story even worse than the reality. According to historical records, Northup’s white friends back in New York kept trying to locate and rescue him. Now this would have conferred a plot line of hope had it been included in the movie. But in the movie, the rescue was nothing but random good luck, when a random Canadian (Brad Pitt) happened to randomly pass through and take Northup’s message back to his white friends in New York.

What is the message of this story? That all humans are depraved? Or is it that we should, like Solomon Northup, persist in our circumstances no matter what they are just in case a one-in-a-thousand random rescue comes along? Neither of these messages offers any hope.

A story, in order to fulfill its evolutionary function, should offer a reason for hope, not just random good luck at the end. In this sense, the movie almost reminded me of the P.D.Q. Bach opera (by the humorist Peter Schickele) in which all the characters died at the end then got up and started singing “Happy ending, happy ending…” The producers of Twelve Years a Slave excised every possible element of hope, even the one that really happened.

The movie was very well done, and deserved the acclaim it received. My review is from the viewpoint of a scientist who sees stories as an evolutionary adaptation, and who also writes fiction. As a matter of fact, I finished writing a novel only two hours before seeing this movie.

The contrast with another famous slave movie, Amistad, could not be greater. Amistad, like Twelve Years a Slave, was based on a real event. But Amistad had a message of hope woven through it. If, in fact, it could be shown that the captives on the ship Amistad were part of an illegal (as opposed to legal) slave operation, there was the real chance that they might be freed by the American court system. Eventually, they were. And it was not random luck that freed them, but the persistent efforts of an old and retired John Quincy Adams. Amistad inspired me. Twelve Years a Slave just made me just want to crawl in a hole.

Why did human language and human intelligence evolve? Nobody knows. But I’ll bet one of the first uses to which either was put was to offer the tribes that developed these abilities a sense (even if it is a delusion) of hope that kept them going despite desperate circumstances and eventually made them prevail. We are the descendants of the people who told stories of hope, not those who wallowed in depression.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Price of Success

In my teaching and writing I have championed the idea of people getting outside to see the real world of nature: to walk in the woods, to hike in the mountains, to even get rained on once in a while, to see that the real world consists of trees, not of fake lumber-paneled boardrooms. This is especially important for children, who might otherwise grow up in front of a video game screen. My publicity on this point has not been mainly in an entry in my obscure (but good!) Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, and not as extensive as that of RichardLouv, but my message, like his, has been that people should take their kids outside in the woods.

Meanwhile, I like to walk in the silent woods and be alone. You can see where this is going. The more that people take their kids out in the woods, the less silence and aloneness I can enjoy in those same woods. As a matter of fact, I used to be able to drive to Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness and park in the lot and walk around the woods and bluffs. Now it is almost impossible to find a parking place there. Lots of parents and church groups and home schoolers take their kids there. And kids will do what kids will do. But at least they are not carrying electronic equipment with them and living in their internal worlds when they are out in the woods. And if I don’t like rambunctious kids, too bad. This is the price of success. I am happy to report that my aloneness in the woods is often disturbed by kids learning, at least a little, about nature.

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Poem As Useful As a Tree

I wish everyone could enjoy the beauty of trees as much as I do. Each one is a better poem than anything written by a human. Even ugly trees (and there are a few) are interesting. But if someone just thinks trees are useful, I’ll settle for that.

I had my botany students do an exercise in trigonometry, in which they measured a tree (each group had its own tree) and estimate the number of twigs on the tree. The results were astonishing. It is not unusual for a big oak tree to have 50,000 twigs.

Then I had them estimate their own carbon footprints, using websites that do the calculations. A typical number would be 50,000 kg of carbon dioxide per year from their activities.

Next I had them do some simple arithmetic. Just some multiplying and dividing. I had them assume (from actual measurements made in previous years) that each twig had 100 square cm of leaf area. This would mean a typical tree had 5,000,000 square cm of leaf area, which is 500 square m (they had trouble with this). If you assume (also based on measurements in previous years) that a typical tree absorbed 10 grams per square meter per day of carbon dioxide, this would be 5,000 grams or 5 kg of carbon dioxide per day. This may seem low to you, but remember these are post oaks in a dry forest. This means that it would take their tree 10,000 days to absorb 50,000 kg of carbon dioxide. Assume a growing season is 180 days. It would take the tree over 55 years to absorb that much carbon dioxide.

Which means there has to be 55 mature oak trees to compensate for one person’s carbon emissions.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Thomas More's Solution, part two

In the previous essay, I described how the sixteenth-century Catholic scholar Sir Thomas More proposed (indirectly, through a fictitious traveler named Raphael Hythloday) a perfect, communistic society. But More went further than just describing the perfect society. He criticized European societies, including the England in which he lived.

European societies, More indicated, made common people suffer. More asked whether having someone on their knees before you make your knees hurt less. How can someone else’s pain lessen yours?

More described the people of Utopia as doing things that would even today draw sharp criticism from conservatives. People voted for their church leaders and there were even a few female priests (something that even today the Catholic Church does not do). Utopia had state-sanctioned euthanasia. Adultery was punished but divorce permitted, thus removing the need for lawyers. (More was a lawyer.) More even admired Utopian courtship. Before marriage, the affianced partners got to look at each other naked so that they would know what they are getting.

War was unknown in Utopia. How did the Utopians manage this? They offered rewards to people from enemy nations who would betray the enemy.

More said that the Utopians were originally pagans but embraced Christianity. However, they banished any Christians who were intolerant of other viewpoints.

Above all, Utopia was a communist society, just like early Christian communities described in the second chapter of Acts. “Though no man owns anything, yet every man is rich.” And yet the rich in England, said More, were not as happy as any of the Utopians. Many sins die when money dies, said More. Wherever people starve, he said, the rich have full barns. He said that it was better “…to be rid of innumerable cares and troubles than to be besieged with great riches.” In England, wealth was measured by how much discomfort it causes to others. He described the love of wealth as a “hell-hound” that “creeps into men’s hearts…”

More has the fictitious Raphael Hythloday criticize sixteenth-century England in these words: “For what justice is this, that a rich…userer [banker]…or to be brief, any one of those who either do nothing at all, or else something that is not very necessary to the commonwealth, should have a pleasant and wealthy living, either in idleness, or in unnecessary business, when meanwhile poor laborers, carters, ironsmiths, carpenters, and plowmen, by such great and continual toil, as beasts of burden are scarce able to sustain, and again such necessary toil that without it no commonwealth would be able to continue and endure one year, yet get so hard and poor a living and live so wretched and miserable a life that the state and condition of the laboring beasts may seem much better and more comfortable? [That was one sentence, but a powerful one.—HA] For they [the animals] are not put to such continual labor, nor is there living much worse; yea, for them it is much pleasanter, for they take no thought in the meantime for the future. But these ignorant, poor wretches [humans] are now tormented with barren and unfruitful labor, and the remembrance of their poor, indigent, and beggarly old age kills them off. For their daily wage is so little that it will not suffice for the same day, much less yield any overplus that may daily be laid up for the relief of old age.”

Of course, More could simply say, “Oh, Raphael said that; I just wrote down his words.” Take that, Harry.

To summarize, More (through Hythloday) is saying, Rich people do very little that is valuable to the nation as a whole, while the poor work as hard as they can, doing jobs that are necessary for the survival of our nation, under conditions that would be considered abusive to animals, and cannot even earn a living wage, much less save up for retirement. The only thing missing from this statement to make it applicable almost five hundred years after it was written is that today the rich people accuse the poor of being lazy. Or at least, in Mitt Romney’s case, 47 percent of them. Today, as in 1516, bankers play around with other people’s money and lose a lot of it, woopsie, and still receive million-dollar bonuses.

I realize that there is likely to be no way that natural selection, whether biological or cultural, could produce a sustainable state of communism. More’s Utopia is a fantasy land easily invasible (I think that’s a word) by selfish people. But it might work on a small scale. More, after all, based his Utopia on vague stories he had heard about Native American tribes. My Cherokee ancestors really did hold all their land in common. More even located Utopia in a vaguely American geographical location.

If you have a better idea, leave a comment. Let’s talk.