Biography of a tree


Peter Crane’s ‘biography’ of the Ginkgo, and the responses to it from around the country and world, are a reminder of how much there is to learn from and appreciate about a single species of tree.  And the Ginkgo is well-known in comparison to tens of thousands of other tree species.  Telling the story of a species — writing such biographies — puts a face on biodiversity and makes us pause and realize just how special and amazing each species is.  We can’t see the forest for the trees unless we study ecosystems as wholes.  But it is equally true that we can’t see the trees for the forest unless we tell the fascinating stories of each kind of tree, too.

Dean Crane’s piece on his recent book:

For the Love of Trees

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Species sense, bionomy, and sustainability

14-fun-facts-about-dragonflies-1930-1321.jpg__800x600_q85_cropKD Dijkstra’s thought-provoking essay in Nature (citation below) is well-worth a read.  He argues that we — and most alarmingly, most professional biologists — have lost ‘species sense,’ focusing instead on functional aspects of life and the biosphere.  He describes biodiversity as the embodiment of sustainability, implying that our stated commitment to a sustainable future is inconsistent with our exploration and knowledge of its best prospects.  Because taxonomy and natural history as terms have been maligned as being old-fashioned and anachronistic, KD suggests in their place resurrecting Haeckel’s term bionomy.  If a new term would accelerate return of support for natural history I would be on board, but there is something deeper at work here.  Astronomy, for example, is a similarly old term and discipline seen as modern and respected.  That something deeper has more to do with the loss of what KD describes as species sense.  It is time that we come to our species senses before it is too late.

Dijkstra named a new species of Dragonfly to honor Sir David Attenborough on his 90th birthday, prompting his reflections on its broader context and what Attenborough has given to us through his remarkable career:!/menu/main/topColumns/topLeftColumn/pdf/533172a.pdf

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Living energy

[photo:] A large diameter beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) within the South Branch Beech Grove RNA (Photo: Chequamegon-Nicolet 2010)

“The tree is a living being, it is alive, like us, and maybe that makes it more meaningful to write on than dead paper.  The living energy of the sap will continue to flow around these shared words.” — Rebecca Rolnick, Unearthed, Spring 2016

I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Rolnick’s essay on “The Story Tree” in the just-released edition of the ESF literary journal Unearthed.  We do want to tell our stories.  We want, as she said, “something more permanent to pass on to our descendants,” those who follow.  Unearthed is one way to do so without scarring an unsuspecting American beech.  We are searching for other ways to tell our stories, too, such as the recent ESF participation in the Planet Forward summit in Washington, DC, videos cast to the outer reaches of Youtube, the Travis lectures, and scientific papers that nudge the direction of the fields we engage.  It is useful, too, I think, to view ESF itself as one particularly long-lived beech tree.  Each student, staff, faculty, and friend who joins our community leaves their mark on the College that is, like the story tree,  a living thing.  Every entering class brings energy that renews the institution as a whole yet is shaped by the accumulation of indelible marks left by those who came before.


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From Eocene to Obscene


Studies of climate change in the Eocene are instructive regarding the kinds of changes driven by atmospheric CO2 levels.  Those who take comfort in the fact that the climate has always changed — and it has — are clinging to false hope.  One of the lessons of most climate shifts in the past — even big ones: picture palm trees on the eastern Antarctic coastline and alligators in the Canadian Arctic — is that they were slow and gradual giving animal and plant life time to migrate or to adapt.  The obscenity of the current anthropogenic CO2 spike is that it is happening on a brief historical time scale as opposed to a protracted geologic time scale meaning that the flora and fauna have time to neither change latitudes nor adapt in place.

Eocene climate change study:


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Superhighway to zero emissions?

Electrical Wires_1

In a late January edition of The Conversation, NOAA scientist Christopher Clack shares results from the National Energy with Weather System (NEWS) simulator that suggest how high-voltage direct current lines, integrated into a transmission network rather than simply point to point delivery systems, could vastly improve the cost competitiveness of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, even in the absence of the breakthrough in battery technology everyone is anxious to see.

Acceptance of alternative energy sources by the public is closely tied to cost and the increased efficiency of direct current transmission opens exciting possibilities for increasing their price competitiveness.  A combination of such data-driven production and consumption patterns, parallel technological advances including both transmission and storage, and a bridging strategy from the status quo to something approaching meeting energy needs with zero emissions paints a very hopeful picture of the future.

Dr. Clack’s contribution to The Conversation and his recent article in Nature are linked below:



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Environment and Politics



Brian Black, professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State, has an interesting piece on the politicization of environmental issues in today’s The Conversation.  He describes the strong bipartisanship for the environment in the 1960s and 1970s, in the midst of tracking the history of environmentalism in the United States from Theodore Roosevelt to the present.  While environmental issues affect everyone and should be of equal concern to left and right, environmentalism has become a political football today with the losers, ultimately, being the environment and us all.  The punchline, the doorstep upon which he lays the ultimate blame for this polarization, is the voter.  Voters have driven this divide and voters will be required to close it.  This, in turn, translates into the urgent work of public science education.  Voters who understand how science works and the limits of knowledge, and who are given the latest and best information, are in the strongest position to correctly assess the situation and demand appropriate action from our politicians, regardless of their party affiliations.  This is a huge opportunity for our Center for A New American Environmentalism to redefine environmentalism in the public eye.  To tie it firmly and firstly to objective science.  To educate the public about what is and is not science, and how to sort knowledge from belief.  To encourage citizens to think deeply about what matters most and what is right in terms of our relationship to nature and natural resources.  And to engage society broadly in discussions of scientific issues so that environmental issues are again issues of humanity, not political parties.

Black article in The Conversation:





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Winning the Battle

Santa Cruz, Bolivia forest conversion between 1975 and 2003.  Source:  NASA.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia forest conversion between 1975 and 2003. Source: NASA.

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently, the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view. This has now come into view, and many people, albeit only a minority, are beginning to realize what this means for the continued existence of humanity. — E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

As in military campaigns, one can gain superiority technologically or the old fashioned way, with overwhelming numbers of troops.  In the battle Schumacher refers to, humanity is at a tipping point where it is bringing both an army measured in billions and equally overpowering modern technologies compared to the dynamics of the biosphere.  Humans now can, if not careful, literally win the battle and lose the war.

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