Saturday, March 30, 2013

All Things Connected

Nature exhibits many poetic interdependencies.
"One could not pluck a flower without troubling a star."
Francis Thompson, Poet
Roman philosopher Cicero wrote, "Omnia vivunt, omnia inter se conexa" which translates from Latin to:
"All things live, all things are connected to each other".
Perhaps the exemplary confirmation of this notion is the procreation of plant species whose survival depends on the transport of pollen grains from one plant to another. Plant life requires insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals to carry their reproductive messengers, pollen grains, from one plant to another.
"When we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."
John Muir
Physical phenomena, like wind or flowing water, also carries and deposits pollen among plants.
"Pollinators are what ecologists call keystone species. You know how an arch has a keystone. It's the one stone that keeps the two halves of the arch together. If you remove the keystone, the whole arch collapses."
May Berenbaum, Entomologist
Skipper butterfly carrying a load of pollen grains on its legs
For carriers like butterflies or honey bees, grains of pollen adhere to their body parts allowing for the transport and deposition of pollen as the insect visits multiple plants.

Without help from other species, or physical phenomena like wind, the fertilization of plants by pollination would not occur. Organisms thrive by an essential mutualism between species and by using the physical conditions of an ecosystem to best advantage.
"We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness."
Thich Nhat Hanh, Monk


Saturday, March 23, 2013

In the Open Air

Painters of the 19th century, seeking a certain atmospheric quality of light, were drawn to paint realistic and impressionistic landscapes en plein air. En plein air is a French phrase meaning in the open air.

Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood
by John Singer Sargent (1885).
The popularity of plein air painting grew in part because the technological advance of premixed and  transportable oil pigments made it possible for artists to take to the field. But the popularity of painting in the open air also grew from a new-found appreciation of the natural world.

Europeans and Americans were in the throes of unprecedented change and undergoing a technological point of inflection (industrial revolution). The primary draw to painting in the open air was perhaps a recognition of the need to engage with ― and reconnect to ― the natural environment.
"For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life, the air and the light, which vary continually for me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere that gives subjects their true value."
― Claude Monet
Clouds in paintings by John Constable paintings were declared remarkably true to life. Scientists believed they could derive the season, or even the hour of the day from the skies depicted in Constable's paintings.

Cloud Study by John Constable (1821)
Claude Monet's Haystacks, painted between the summer 1890 and the winter 1891, exemplify the study of ―  if not near obsession with ― qualities of light and temporal atmospheric conditions. Monet painted a series of 25 canvases depicting haystacks in a field at Giverny. During that time Monet wrote to a critic,
"I am working very hard, struggling with a series of different effects (haystacks), but at this season the sun sets so fast I cannot follow it. . . . The more I continue, the more I see that a great deal of work is necessary in order to succeed in rendering what I seek."
Haystacks (1890-1891) by Claude Monet

A glimmer of light cannot truly be seen without much that is dark, and darkness cannot truly be felt without shadowy forms rising from the blackness.

― Anonymous


Saturday, March 16, 2013

A River - Time Experienced and Time Imagined

Lower Madison River
Untethered from the elevated stage of a drift boat, yet buoyed by a semi-submerged inner tube, floating a river is time experienced and time imagined.

Floating is an immersion in the lazy immediacy of time experienced ― elapsed, passing, and relative.

Floating also means confronting the existential binary state of time imagined ― beginnings or endings. We can only imagine the time that predates and postdates consciousness. We picture the future or conjure images of the past.

The story of beginnings is told by procreation in a river fishery and specifically, by the spawning of trout.

A female fashions a spawning site on the river bottom called a redd. She prepares the redd by fanning the river stones with her tail to remove lighter sediments. She creates a sediment-whisked oval depression, releases her eggs, and departs. A male follows her to fertilize the eggs.

The beginnings are as ongoing and relentlessly continuous as the endings.

Twilight of Ensuing Midnight

A fortnight from the ice break
Cutthroat trout spawn in steely kinship
A male will nudge and glide across the female
Feathering still pockets of a stony watercourse
And quivering by arteries of back-scattered light

Now below the headwaters where canyons call
The yaw of continuity counterweights solitary clouds
Our drift boat lingers between clutches of minnows
Floating closer toward an itinerary of purpose
Until the Milky Way oversees the canyon walls

Soon the stonefly hatch entices us
Three miles to a moon and upstream into July
By late August the trout’s diet is sodden terrestrials
Ants bees and spiders hasten toward a channel’s chance
Until meaty grasshoppers are September’s windfall

Yet we are suspended in a sweet water colored wheat
Like a no limit harvest of non-native species
Or browns we coax from the banks with streamers
We are a fifer’s delight in a jig under the hunter’s moon
Divining a hasty twilight of ensuing midnight

As there is an ensuing dawn, there is an ensuing nightfall. The story of endings is told by the trout's diet of nymphs and flies.

Salmonfly on Thimbleberry
The salmonfly is an jumbo-sized stone fly. It spends several years as a nymph inhabiting boulder strewn riffles before it crawls to the banks of the river after the high flow of spring runoff.

The timing of the salmonfly hatch varies and is short-lived. Once airborne the salmonfly's life as a flier might be cut short. Trout will rise to the surface to strike and consume the calorie-packed insect.

Floating the Madison immersed me in elapsed time -- that is,
"How much time do I have before the take-out point?
It also immersed me in passing time as I began to sense that everything has its own cadence. It is a cadence that is disconnected yet syncopated. In experiencing the of passing time my thoughts toggled between what I was experiencing and the awareness of what I was experiencing.

Floating the Madison immersed me in a recognition of relative time. My velocity was different and more directed by topography than the red-tailed hawk drifting on the canyon thermals above me.

Time on a river is time experienced and time imagined.

Brook Trout by Greg Keeler
"You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes."
Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Lake Ice Meditation

Many frozen lakes in North America will soon approach their annual ice-out. Ice-out is a harbinger of Spring. It heralds a season of warmer temperatures and of new and renewed life.

Lake ice displays many flow patterns and features over the course of a winter season like ice octopi and pressure ridges.
Gods Crossing
Pressure ridge on Lake Suwa
Japan's Lake Suwa is the site of a phenomena known as Gods Crossing. A hot spring in the lake causes ongoing circulation of warm water. When the lake ices over, the warm circulating water causes extruded pressure ridges. Local legend maintains that the ridges are formed by the gods crossing the lake.
Freezing and thawing of lakes has been recorded for hundred of years for cultural, religious and practical reasons. Ice records for Lake Suwa dates back more than 550 years.

The moment of ice-out is subjective:
  • for some, it's when the lake is free of ice; 
  • for others, it's the moment when navigation across the ice is no longer possible; and 
  • for others, it's when 90% of the lake is ice free.
Centuries of lake ice records give scientists insight into the climate conditions of the past.

"You never really know your friends from your enemies until the ice breaks"
― Inuit Proverb


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Earth Time

Time reveals only one direction: toward the future.

By comparison space has few constraints. Gravity tethers us, yet we may jump. We may move in any direction in space, yet time moves irreversibly forward. While we may remember the past, we cannot not travel back in time.

Earth time is perceived as sequences of events.
"Time is what prevents everything from happening at once."
John Archibald Wheeler
Snow Bank
Consider Earth phenomena as frames on a filmstrip that, for example, record the decreasing size of a snow bank.

As individual frames, we might detect evidence of a phase change from ice to liquid by the glint of the sun reflected on water drops.

If the frames were sped up so they were experienced in animated succession, and if the temperature was above freezing, we might imagine sublimation (the phase transition from solid to gas) as the snow bank shrunk.
"Time isn't just a label on each instance of the world; it provides a sequence that puts the different instances in order."
― Sean Carroll
Many scientists have observed the remarkable phenomena of the irreversibleness of these events. Science conceived of entropy as a framework to understand the tendency of these events to progress in a way that cannot be reversed.

Astronomers, physicists, and cosmologists call this irreversibility The Arrow of Time. The arrow metaphor captures the idea that time flows in one direction. As time flows, empirical evidence indicates that energy dissipates or disintegrates from well-ordered (low entropy) to disorderly (high entropy).

Hemispherical Sundial
On earth we experience time as repetition: Sun up, sun down.
"The Earth spins on its axis, and it's going to do so 365.25 times every time the Earth moves around the sun."
Sean Carroll
We experience repetitive seasons. Many of earth's processes occur over and over like the water cycle.

On, above, and below the surface of the Earth, water undergoes continuous change. The changes are explained by physical processes (evaporation, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff, and subsurface flow and by phase changes (liquid, ice, and vapor).
"The key to measuring time is synchronized repetition ― a wide variety of processes occur over and over again, and the number of times that one process repeats itself while another process returns to its original state is reliably predictable."
Sean Carroll
Time feels real to us. Our hearts pump rhythmic beats. We need time to frame perception and to order and make sense of the incoming data.
"Time is an illusion."
Albert Einstein
It feels as if time flows. However illusory it is, we sense time as the present constantly updating itself like oncoming river water approaching a bridge. We sense the future as anticipated (and unanticipated) events. The future remains distinct until it becomes the present. We sense the past as fixed and immutable.

Sensing the flow of time, we carry the framework of fixed past, immediate present, and anticipated and unanticipated future along with us like a familiar backpack that structures our thoughts and behavior.
"As if you could kill time without injuring eternity."
― Henry David Thoreau