Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Lucky to Be in Tulsa: The Twelfth Message from Fluff the Cottonwood Tree


I am happy that Stan has stayed in touch with me after he moved to France. He was glad to leave Tulsa, but I, speaking as a member of the species Populus deltoides, am lucky to be an American.

Almost everywhere in the world, mistletoes are parasitic. In Oklahoma, they grow mostly on elm trees, which are weakened by the Dutch Elm Disease. But in Europe, the elm trees (les ormes, Stan calls them) are stronger, and most of the mistletoes (gui, they are called) grow on black poplar trees (peupliers noirs, or Populus nigra). European black poplars are nearly identical to American cottonwoods, as I noted in my previous essay. If I had been a European cottonwood instead of an American, I would be loaded down with mistletoes. This photo that Stan took in December shows a typical black poplar.

European plant species are similar to, but usually not the same as, American plant species. But the ecological relationships—in this case, parasitism—do not always line up the same way. Evolution has played out along a slightly different path in Europe. Both America and Europe have elms, mistletoes, and cottonwoods, but in Europe it is the cottonwoods, more even than the elms, that are heavy with mistletoes. And in this one case, it has been good luck for me, an American cottonwood.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Direct Experience with the Gulf Stream: A Word from France

I just found out that my iNaturalist app still works even in Europe. I just identified a plant that was growing in someone’s garden here in Hoenheim, France: the primrose jasmine, Jasminum mesnyi. With very beautiful yellow flowers.

Blooming on December 29.

I also saw abundant male catkins, newly emerged, on a hazelnut bush (Corylus avellana), and also on alders (Alnus glutinosa).

Wikipedia says the male catkins emerge very early in the spring. This is an understatement. We also saw an evergreen barberry (Berberis beali) in full bloom as long ago as December 20.

The winter days in France have been mild. There was light snow, which immediately melted. This is all due to the Gulf Stream, which brings warm tropical ocean water into the north Atlantic Ocean, and with it lots of moisture. Nearly every day has been chilly, not cold, and cloudy. Both of these things are due to the Gulf Stream, which I have heard about all my life. The winters have so far been warmer here at 48 degrees north latitude than in Tulsa at 36 degrees north. This week has been very cold, which means down to about 20 F. Meanwhile almost all of America was hit by winter storms.

People are growing leeks and mustard leaves in their gardens. In December. There are hundreds of public garden spots which anyone can rent, but they are almost never available because once you have rented your spot, you generally keep it for decades. People have constructed playgrounds for their kids and even humble houses in their garden plots. In America, we had a little bit of urban gardening, but not to the extent we have seen it in France.

The Gulf Stream has been ameliorating the climate in Europe for thousands of years. It is not the product of global warming. In fact, some scientists have predicted that a global-warming-related alteration of ocean circulation might plunge Europe into cold temperatures, although this is considered unlikely. But it does demonstrate how dependent the economy of each country is on climatic patterns. Climate catastrophes have been happening in America, and America remains more susceptible to climate catastrophes (droughts, storms, wildfires) than Europe, in which Mediterranean drought caused huge wildfires in 2023.

I am thankful to now be living in a part of the world that is less likely than most other places to suffer climate catastrophe in the near future.

Friday, January 5, 2024

Welcome, Stranger, part two. French, part two

I recently moved to France from America, as I have written in earlier essays. Many Americans are annoyed at the subtlety of the French language. I embrace it, but some people try to find work-arounds. 

One example is gender. As someone once said, every French noun is either a girl or a boy, and you’d better not get them mixed up. There are some patterns but no clear rules to distinguish them. In Spanish, nouns ending with -a are usually feminine, and nouns ending with -o are usually masculine. There are a few exceptions, such as la mano, the hand. But in French there are no general rules. Sometimes, in word pairs, one is masculine and the other feminine, such as le bois (the woods, masculine) and la forêt (the forest, feminine). But there is not much of an alternative to just learning the gender while learning the noun.

It often does not help to read the noun, even when it has a definite article. The school, for example, is l’école, and the L could be either le or la. You just have to learn that école is…um…I forgot.

American writer David Sedaris used one creative approach. Just get two of everything. For instance, the box is le boîte (notice the circumflex indicating that there used to be an x there), a masculine noun, and the bottle is la bouteille, feminine. But for the plurals, the definite article is les: les boîtes, les bouteilles. So just never refer to a noun in the singular and you’re safe. I think Sedaris, as always, was just being humorous. Because the gender never disappears. When you say the boxes to which, it is les boîtes auxquels, but the bottles to which is bouteilles auxquelles. Fortunately, when you are talking, people cannot (I think) tell the difference between auxquels and auxquelles.

The French language is just one thing that the French proudly defend as part of their cultural uniqueness. In an upcoming I will tell you about more ways the French are culturally unique, and provide an evolutionary background for it.