A glow to the west caught my eye. The weather system I spoke of on Friday came and went and brought with it the rain and snow which had been promised. I checked the spring house and can report that our water reserve has risen an inch and I am grateful. Temperatures have moderated and there is moisture in the air which gives it an edge and somehow allows it to pass, magically and without interruption, through layered shirts and jackets. The animals are quiet and contented. We have been fortunate that the horses have been able to get by on the little bits of green which remain scattered about the hills. They have been receiving a daily ration of grain for several weeks but now that the ground is covered by a thin blanket of snow they have been protesting for hay. I acquiesced over the weekend and determined that they would share half a square bale each afternoon. They tucked into today’s offering as if they hadn’t eaten in days; the lush green leaves of August disappeared quickly. The smell of freshly baled second-cut hay is wondrous; if I were synesthetic or perhaps overly prone to bouts of what has been called the Proustian phenomenon I could observe that breathing in its aroma (or that of haylage or a recently spread field) can transport me to times, places, and events long forgotten. Moreover the look and feel of fine hay has prompted me, on occasion, to try it … only to discover that it takes more chewing to choke down a single blade than I have patience for and, after all, it doesn’t taste as good as watching the animals would lead you to believe. The sheep have been taking advantage of a round bale that I put out some time ago to accommodate a large breeding group isolated on pasture that had been heavily grazed. Although there might have been enough forage to maintain the group it wouldn’t have been wise to let them overgraze for they would have pawed the ground to bring up divots from which they would have gleaned growing points and roots. When the skies cleared on Thursday it got cold, the ground froze, and that made moving the tractor over pasture with the second bale possible. Because I have yet to exercise the annual ritual of hitching a drum of concrete to the back of the Deere (to act as a half-ton counterbalance to the bale which is spiked to the loader at the front) the loaded ride was slow for lack of traction; the unburdened ride back to the barn was faster. I’ll attend to the drum and see to mounting tire chains. Feeding bales in this way reminds me of Devons which once grazed our fields; these were beautifully colored (red), majestic, and uncharacteristically intelligent and self-aware for bovines. I miss the bulls especially. They were powerful, quick, and smart; I never, ever, turned my back on one. Their eyes were small and expressive. I was mindful of their capacity for mischief and never underestimated them. What then do I miss? I miss being with them, watching their breath condense in the cold air of winter, marveling at their strength, and watching them grow. I miss my relationship with them, detente, the unspoken agreement we would reach that allowed for peaceful coexistence. My obligation was to minimize handling, pasture the cows where they were always within sight, and feed and water such that they should never want; theirs was to stay within a fenced perimeter. The geese are adjusting to the cold as well. Following the practice of an experienced local breeder we provided Louisa and Benwick their own jacuzzi this summer, a kid’s wading pool purchased at our local discount store. Now that temperatures are dipping below freezing it’s been a bother to free the thick accumulations of ice which form overnight. To make things easier I replaced the jacuzzi with a smaller stock watering tank. Although many folks believe that geese and ducks require water to paddle in, that’s not as important as it is that they have enough liquid water to wash with. When geese forage, the two small nostrils positioned on either side of the beak can become plugged with soil and flushing these is important, as you may imagine. The chickens were, and continue to be, very seriously displeased with the snow for, if you did not know, chickens hate more than almost anything else having their feet cold and especially cold and wet. I opened the door to the layer house early the morning after a long night of freezing rain and snow only to discover, when I returned in the afternoon, that none of the ladies had ventured from the confines of their shelter. The wood stoves work day and night to keep us warm. Many folks cover their wood but I have always found tarps difficult to manage, especially in wind. Although we get snow we don’t get much rain over winter so keeping firewood dry isn’t difficult. Last week’s weather however made for some damp fuel. One gets around this with good heat in the box and a willingness to sacrifice BTU’s to dry the wood before it burns. The sweet aroma of wet oak reminds me of wood freshly split which reminds me of the many who, over the years, have lent a hand. Many thanks to you all. So much to observe. So much to remember and attend to. Darkness has fallen and I am anticipating what tomorrow may bring. For the Holidays one year not long ago my daughter had shirts especially printed, one said, It’s Always Something … while the other announced, It’s Never Nothing. Indeed.
Given the way in which blogs are presented, I am convinced that posts which reside more than a scroll or two behind the most recent are doomed to languish and to be forgotten. Because I believe there is value in looking at contributions from days, weeks, and even months ago, I have decided to post a gallery of images presented during November of 2012. Perhaps it will be interesting to scroll through these and to compare them to those presented during this past month. Be patient, it may take several minutes for all of the images to load fully. Hovering over an image will reveal its title. Clicking one will take you to a carousel view and you can either move through the collection or click the links to read each post in its original form. Note that this is the eighth in our series of retrospective posts. If you’d missed any of the others you can find them all by using the search feature in the sidebar to the right, simply search for retrospective.
Those that prognosticate the weather are calling for precipitation. They say it will begin as snow, transition to sleet, and then end as rain … lots of it apparently. It will be messy and uncomfortable to be sure but I welcome both the mess and the discomfort. Our agricultural water supply flows from a drilled well at the barn while our domestic water is drawn from a shallow lens which rides above the underlying aquifer. Although we have never been certain whether this latter supply is sourced from the adjacent aquifer or from mountain springs there has never been any doubt that, whatever its source, this water is precious to us. Like many, I never thought about water and where it came from when I was growing up; I knew that cold came out of the right faucet and that hot came from the left and that seemed well enough. Given that my parent’s home was served by a municipal supply I do not believe we were ever without, even on the rare occasion we would lose power. Water just was. I know better now that water is a privilege, not a right, and that it doesn’t just happen. It is something we think about, here on the farm, every day. Neither we, nor all of the living things with which we share our ground, can do without it for very long. I make these observations because the weather promises to be wet over the next few days; and on those same days I’ve got to get to work, butcher turkeys, do chores morning and evening, and both friends and family will be traveling the roads to celebrate the coming Holiday. But I would not stop the rain. I would not stop it because it has been dry in our part of the world for the last little bit and I have been watching the level of our water supply drop, slowly, steadily, inexorably, since September. We are fortunate that the immediate source of our water collects in a spring house conveniently situated in a natural swale surrounded by Birch, Chestnut, and Walnut trees. I have written about this place before and mentioned that if you peer into the reservoir you will see salamanders and newts darting to and fro, kicking up clouds of dusty sediment as they scuttle along the silty accumulations of years. We were told, by previous owners of the farm, that back in the day folks took to putting a Trout or two down into the water in spring time. They’d allow these to feed and to fatten. In addition to providing a succulent feast come autumn we suppose these beasts were also Canaries in the Coal Mine and would act as valuable indicators of water quality as well. I check the level of our reserve several times each week. The pipe to the house is set six inches from the silty bottom and the water level is currently six inches above the pipe. A sink full of dishes may drop the level an inch while a load of laundry or a shower may use twice that amount; so, you see how our supply is limited. Although water in the spring house is recharged within an hour or so the reserve will never rise above the level of the surrounding water table which is dependent upon rain. So you see, I welcome the coming storm. I welcome it gladly. If you do not live with nature or close to it, if you are not dependent upon it in a very immediate and intimate way, you may think that rain is necessary only as an end to the successful production of food crops. While that is certainly true, there is ever so much more to our dependence upon rain in good measure. I don’t mean to come across as some sort of elitist but it seems to me that if you have grown accustomed to turning a faucet and expecting water you are less likely to appreciate its scarcity and its value. If you have, by chance, experienced water rationing in your part of the world perhaps you know of what I speak. As I write I note that many locations far west of here are, and have been, experiencing severe drought conditions. As I look out my window I see snow falling from a very dark and foreboding sky. I am delighted … and very grateful indeed … let it rain.
That’s Siegfried (second from the left) with his girls Jill, Nichole, Annette, and Aster. This small breeding group was established just over a month ago with much fuss and running about. All is quiet now, and that’s good, we’ll have lambs come spring. I captured this colorful sunset two weeks ago when the grass still held its color and one could make out leaves on the distant trees. Change has been upon us and we had a windy night and a cold start this morning. The thermometers registered 55ºF in the living room and 15º outside. Joanna did not stir until I had set fires in both stoves. The wood we are using in the cook stove is last year’s surplus. It has been exposed to the elements and shows its age; it is less dense than it was and can’t quite take the stove through the night. Moreover, the wind and cold combined to increase the draft and the thing went out sometime before dawn. I have yet to go out to do chores but have seen signs that the animals too have registered the abrupt change in the weather. The dogs would prefer to be out of the wind. Argus lay deep within one of the sheds and has yet to unfurl. Hank is waiting patiently by the barn. Although the horses have situated themselves to catch the warmth of the rising sun their twitching ears belie their otherwise immobile stances … they anticipate their daily scoop of grain. I have shooed the chickens from the front porches several times already; like the horses they too are doing what they can to warm themselves. Nuthatches, Titmice, and Chickadees have queued politely in the bare branches of the Mulberry. They take turns at the feeders in constant but unhurried succession. The absence of cats is unusual. I know however that Harry, Calvin, Peter, Onyx, Tolly, Moses, and Merlin have each ensconced themselves comfortably somewhere … in a hay bale or in some sunlit corner out of the wind. They, like the dogs, will resume their appointed rounds later, when the sun has warmed the frigid morning air. Sounds too tell of the conditions out-of-doors. Joanna put out the laundry and I can hear the clothes line straining as blankets catch the wind like mainsails on a summer’s day. The stoves too respond to each rising gust. Most times the swift movement of wind across the chimney tops ensures good daft and quick fires below. Rarely however, due to chaotic and turbulent flow across and down the tile, we experience a brief reversal of the usual tide, an event which stirs us from our seats. I will gather my energy, don boots, gloves, hat, and coverall to do chores. Liquid water will have turned to ice, a sure sign that it is time for the annual ritual of installing water heaters. All of the animals will note my departure from the house and slow walk to the barn. Their attentions will focus on what I am doing and how my actions may influence theirs. It is another day with much to attend to. The earth will turn, daylight will dwindle, evening will descend, and night will come again. The animals will forage, rest, chew, and then settle down to sleep. Each of us will endeavor to do it all again come light of day.
Some will have perhaps noticed the recent dearth of pretty pictures appearing on this Pairodox blog. Indeed, it has been nearly a month since I have been out with the camera; either the weather has been uncooperative or there simply hasn’t been time. Given these unfortunate circumstances I have once again taken to the archive and present here an image taken last spring of one of Joanna’s layer hens. Have you ever marveled at the beautiful flourish of red tissue which adorns the heads and chins of most chickens? Although these may be characteristic of individuals of both sexes the most elaborate adorenments are found among males. If you were to guess that combs and wattles were structures of sexual advertisement and allurement you’d be correct. In addition, however, these elaborate tissues play an equally important, and perhaps primary, role in the regulation of body temperature. Birds are able to maintain a core temperature with metabolic heat and we refer to them as endothermic homeotherms. Other organisms whose body temperature is influenced by and varies with the environment are, in contrast, ectothermic poikilotherms. As such, and as the weather turns cold, birds have the capacity to ramp up their internal fires to keep warm. Unfeathered surfaces, such legs and feet for example, present some difficulty in terms of heat loss and this is especially so for waterfowl. Many birds which routinely have their feet in water (even moving water which may be supercooled) possess a pattern of blood circulation in their lower limbs called counter current exchange in which outgoing arterial blood runs immediately adjacent to incoming venous flow. This apposition of outgoing and incoming supplies cools the arterial blood (thereby preventing loss of heat to the environment) and warms the venous blood (thereby preventing depression of core temperature). Birds will stand alternately on one foot and then the other to reduce contact with the frozen ground. During the warmer months birds will spread their wings to dissipate heat and can often been seen panting to expose wet surfaces of the mouth and throat to allow for evaporative cooling. Other unfeathered surfaces such as the comb and wattles provide expansive surfaces for radiative cooling but are in danger of freezing during the coldest days of winter. When our girls raised show birds they would coat these especially delicate surfaces with Vaseline as a way of providing additional protection from frostbite. And, lastly, did you know that you can determine whether a hen will lay brown or white eggs by looking at the color of her ear lobes (the patches of pigmented skin in back of and below the eyes)? The general rule is that if she has red lobes (like the girls shown here) she’ll lay brown eggs, and if she has white lobes she’ll lay white eggs. It’s always interesting to me that animals make such reasonably good sense.
The comb types shown are classified as (left to right and top to bottom)
Strawberry, Buttercup, V-Shaped, Pea, Cushion, Single, Walnut, and Rose.
[The source for the beautiful line drawings is TBN Ranch.]
As promised we now return to the topic of animal gears. I begin by admitting that my memory fails me for although I can tell you that the research which first announced this discovery appeared in September, I cannot recall where I learned of it. My best guess is that I came across some micrographs while searching for images to illustrate a recent, and not unrelated, post which concerned the leaping ability of the flea. The internet being what it is I now know that this story has achieved nearly viral status; it was the subject of a report on NPR, and was even the topic of a post at another WordPress blog. The story is a one which involves the nymphs of a little Planthopper by the name of Issus. In much the same way as the flea, Issus leaps great distances as it moves from place-to-place. To jump in as straight a path as possible it is important that Issus’ rear legs be in perfect synchrony. You can imagine how asymmetries in jump trajectory could be generated if one leg or the other lead, lagged, or otherwise jumped-the-gun during launch. As a mechanism to ensure that the legs act together, a tiny set of gears may be found along the trochanter which is, in human terms, much like a knee joint between the coxa and femur of the leg. The action of the gearing is to synchronize the legs by providing a mechanism which links their movements.
Interesting, to be sure, but what strikes me most about reports of this discovery is the tone of surprise adopted by nearly all who describe it. Is it because people believe so strongly that only humans are capable of feats of engineering and good design? Do we not understand that a great number of human architectural constructions are simply mimics of nature’s own? A long-ago post about mimetics which appeared here focused on the many parallels between natural and artificial forms, and recognized that these parallels fostered the development of the field of Biomimicry which looks to nature for answers to solutions to human problems. So, given that solutions to many of our engineering challenges had already been solved, perhaps millions of years ago, why are we surprised when we discover something like Issus’ geared legs? Perhaps because the first principles of good gearing were developed and practiced by humans, including Leonhard Eular, back in the eighteenth century such that people think that we got it first? Guess what? We didn’t.
Do you recognize the image? It is a still from the film dramatization (Return to Oz) of L. Frank Baum’s 1907 text Ozma of Oz. These are Wheelers. If you look closely you will see that these fanciful folk sport wheels, rather than hands and feet, as terminal appendages. Isn’t it curious that Wheelers only exist in the make-believe land of Oz and that truly wheeled creatures are not part of the world’s realized menagerie? Although our hands and feet articulate freely about wrists and ankles, simple engineering precludes complete rotation about the joints. [Yes, the owl is able to rotate its head through 270º but only as the result of significant modifications to its circulatory and skeletal systems.] Because animal bodies are large, the movement of materials via simple diffusion isn’t very effective so they require all sorts of systems to do this more efficiently. Not only does the circulation pass the wrists and ankles, but so do bits of the nervous and lymphatic systems, not to mention bones and musculature. For obvious reasons then these articulations are not able to spin freely about the skeleton which supports them as an axle supports a wheel.
But what about the very smallest of living things? Because of their limited volumes and relatively large surfaces they are free of systems infrastructure (i.e., no plumbing) and are able to rely on diffusion to move things from place-to-place. Do we know of biological wheels among the bacteria, for example? The answer is yes and these include molecular rotary motors. These sound pretty complicated but they aren’t really. As analogy think of how the energy of falling water can be harnessed to drive a water wheel. Water flows from where it has higher potential energy (high up the mountain) to where it has lower potential energy and, as it passes the wheel, some of that loss in potential is passed to the wheel which may drive a hydroelectric power facility, for example. In much the same way molecular motors rely on gradients of protons which supply energy as a driving force. Remember that diffusion is the passive movement of molecules, in this case protons, from an area of high concentration to an area of lower concentration. As protons in areas of high concentration move down their gradient they provide the energy required to spin the motor at 1000 RPM. In the case of the bacterial flagellum, protons run through something called the stator which drives a free-spinning shaft which is connected to a hook (which acts as a universal joint) which is connected to the long flagellar filament. [Ok, so maybe it's not quite that simple ... energy from the cascading protons drives conformational changes in stator proteins which drive conformational changes in rotor proteins which cause rotation of the shaft, hook, and extended flagellar filament.] The image on the left shows a micrograph of the bacterial flagellar motor with a schematic on the right. The short video below shows an artist’s rendition of a moving bacterium and its incredible molecular motor. [The title of this post comes from an essay which may be found in the collected series by S.J. Gould entitled Hen's Teeth and Horses Toes.]