This view of life

Spring is such a wonderful time of year, a time of birth and renewal. Something tells me that it is perhaps easier for most of us to appreciate the former of these occurrences. One allows ewes and rams to co-mingle for several weeks in the fall and, come spring, lambs arrive. But perennial plants are able to lay dormant over winter and, at the appropriate time, break dormancy to return to the business of growth and reproduction. Sure we know of diapause and every school kid has learned that bears hibernate through the most difficult weeks of winter. But plants do this in such a remarkable way that it is important to take special note. Consider, in a physiological sense, what a plant must do to ensure winter survival. First, it must manufacture stores of carbohydrate to support some minimal level of physiological activity throughout the winter. No growth. No reproduction. The organism must generate enough ATP (the energy currency of cells) to stay alive. Second, deciduous trees must do chemical inventory and withdraw everything of potential use from their leaves and then jettison them (the leaves) as winter liabilities. All of that material, along with the nutrient stores, must be transported down and into the roots. Once all of this is complete imagine that genes which were active during the spring and summer must be turned off and, at the same time, genes involved in baseline physiological maintenance must be turned on. And, these cascades of activity must be reversed come spring. Consider, that all the genes involved in these activities are in every cell. Have you ever stopped to consider that each and every one of us started life as a single cell? That cell had two complete sets of DNA, one from Mom and one from Dad. That single cell gave rise to the many trillions of cells which now comprise your body. Although the constituent cells of all of your organs have the very same DNA, these cellular sub-populations behave differently. How it is that muscle cells behave like muscle cells and liver cells behave like liver cells if, in fact, all of these cells have the same genetic material? All of the appropriateness of plant physiological response is dependent upon the expression of certain genes and the suppression of others. It turns out that gene expression may be influenced by the cellular environment within which any particular cell happens to find itself as well as in changes in any number of other environmental variables (biotic and otherwise). How wonderful life, in its myriad forms, really is. I find myself, several times during the academic year stopping in the middle of lecture. No matter whether discussing counter-current exchange in the molluscan ctenidium to one group or chromosomal nondisjunction to another, I’ll stop, look up and into the surprised eyes of my students and ask, Isn’t this elegant? I’ll plainly admit that I couldn’t devise anything more so. All of life’s solutions are ancient and optimized. I could continue but will, instead, end by quoting the very last sentence of Darwin’s monumental work, On the Origin of Species. Not many recognize these words as Darwin’s own summary of the elegance and beauty of Natural Selection, the phenomenon he explained to scientists and to the thinking world, more than a century-and-a-half ago.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

All of nature is a wonder. Truly. To be lucky to know just a little bit of how it all works is a joy. To know its secrets doesn’t, to my mind, take away, but rather adds to my sense of wonder and admiration.


Jellicle cat

Barn cats will have their stories and Merlin has more than his share. He, like so many other Jellicles, found us one day and, rather than continue on his way, decided to stay. We have been glad of it. I’m not sure how many of his proverbial nine lives remain. Surely eight, perhaps fewer. Merlin is a very lucky cat and, if you were to ask him, I think he would agree. He has always gotten along well enough with the other barn cats and has paid scrupulous attention to the established hierarchy. Not too high on the pecking order, Merlin has always been quiet, respectful, and deferential. One afternoon, several years ago now, we noticed a number of cats moving quickly toward the woods. When Joanna arrived at the source of the confusion she found what she describes as a whirl of brown and white which eventually resolved into Merlin trying to extricate himself from the jaws of a Bobcat. When faced with the situation [parallels to which seem to happen often around here, and most recently involved a Grey Fox and one of the hens] Joanna rushed at the melee and shouted, with authority, DROP IT! And the Bobcat obligingly did, and fled. Merlin, still alive, immediately ran for cover. With some effort we extricated him to find the anticipated lacerations and called our veterinarian for advice which was, Bring him in. Upon closer examination it was discovered that the attacker’s teeth had established a good grip on Merlin’s skull and lower jaw. Swift kicks opened Merlin’s underside from stem-to-stern; he was in tough shape. Our very good friend (and large animal veterinarian) Bob knows his stuff and rises to the occasion on especially challenging cases. Two days, as many drains, and dozens of stitches later Merlin was home for an extended recuperation. When he was well he took up residence once more in the horse barn. He likes it there. He’s quite jumpy now and starts at most movement and at unfamiliar noises. I’m afraid he suffers from the feline equivalent of PTSD. Wouldn’t you? Spring has arrived at the farm and all but the very last bits of snow and ice have disappeared. The winter seemed especially long and very cold. We fed round bales of hay to Ari (the horse with whom Merlin shares his digs) this winter and Merlin took quick advantage of the abundance of loose forage. I have never seen a cat build a nest in this way before but build one Merlin did, and it looked to keep him very warm and comfortable. On the coldest of nights he would even pull a blanket of hay across the top of his little niche. Clever, jellicle, fellow is he.


Mud season

I am grateful, the thermometer reads 51ºF. Less than one week ago we were well below zero. Although I have little tolerance for the sound of drip, drip, drip (more often than not, it portends disaster) I have welcomed the sound today. The sun is high and, when the wind is quiet, it warms my shoulders from above and my face from below as its illuminating rays reflect off the subsiding blanket of snow and ice. I could find the barns with my eyes closed for the sweet perfume of wet hay has settled over the pastures.The sheep have not been thrifty and have trampled much of their feed as bedding. The icy mattress which took months to form thaws rapidly as does all exposed ground. Our thick soils are good at producing a particularly soupy sort of mud, and I don’t much like this mud season. I have fallen on the ice more times than I would like to recount, last week alone, but would rather skid and dance briefly in the mud than slip and fall prey to the unforgiving force of gravity, even one more time, on ice. I welcome the return of liquid water. That may sound strange but because we have been so cold for so long, natural pools of water have been scarce and Joanna and I have worried about the birds and the deer. We were glad to know that a nearby spring was producing a small but constant stream. The thick blanket of ice which formed one evening last week must have been especially difficult for the deer. Their legs are so thin, seemingly unprotected. The ewes stuck close to their feed but managed to beat a path to their trough. I walked back and forth between the water for the rams and their shelter, once each day since the ice settled, to be sure that they could find their way through the otherwise unbroken sea. The roofs are now clear and I can see a bit of gravel here-and-there along the lane. The blue sky is lovely, the birds seem lighter and fly faster through it. They spill seed, carelessly, from the feeders. The opportunistic deer park themselves in just the right places to greedily collect the spoils. The reflected light of winter makes that season bright. The ground, this time of year, will become progressively darker as layer upon layer of snow and ice melts. Each stratum giving up its treasure, frozen within, such that the ever-increasing accumulation darkens the ground until the snow is gone and the trove dissolves into the soils below. The buds are swelling and our lamb crop is due to arrive anytime within the next week or so. And then surely spring will have arrived. We felt the need for a walk this morning. Joanna headed off along the trail, still knee-deep in snow, while I donned my waders and took to the water nearby. The stream lay deep within a narrow gorge and because the sun has not been all that high there was still lots of snow piled along the icy banks and atop a uniform sheet of ice which lay between them. It wasn’t until I made my way, upstream, to the dam that I spied photographic potential. I was able to walk along the wall of the outflow which provided good vantage from which to photograph this receding ice sheet.


Retrospective twenty-four (February 2014)

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 present here a gallery of images presented during February of 2014. 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. This is the twenty-fourth in my series of retrospectives. You may find interest in taking a look at the retrospective from two years ago and if you missed any of the others, you can find them all by clicking Retrospective in the tag cloud in the sidebar.

Art prints

I have been watching the ground. I have been watching, especially under the feeders, around the corn crib, and by the porch. I have been watching the feeders because of the constant activity there. I have been watching the ground deep inside the crib because that is a place where the snow doesn’t quite reach. And I have been watching the porch because the railings provide ample space for perching. I have been looking for places where the snow isn’t too deep, just a thin layer, and where there is something dark underneath. Flat places. My quarry is more likely found on cloudy days and may be hidden by the warmth of full sun. I have had a glimpse on calm days, for wind erases evidence of its passing. I compete with the barn cats, for they too stand vigil. Yesterday, after months on the hunt, I finally glimpsed my elusive prize, and so too did Tolly. I saw him dart and I quickly grab him by the scruff of the neck and told him that I did not need help. I scolded him, for fear he might mar my prize. I deposited the intrusive feline several feet away from my delicate subject. He returned, so I put him inside the corn crib. He could only watch as I moved to capture my unsuspecting prey. I approached quietly from above. I stepped lightly and with care as I looked about. There were so many. Which could I capture quickly, and effectively? Which was complete and in the best condition? I greedily focused my attention on two pairs. In a fraction of a second I had them. I opened the door to the crib and released the confused cat – poor Tolly.


The colors of spring

Because winter seems to have brought more than its share of snow and cold, time with the camera has been eliminated from the daily (even weekly) schedule. We have been spending much of our time keeping the stoves stoked, the animals fed and watered, the lane plowed, and the walks cleared. And so it is that I have been at a loss for material to post. The other day, however, I remembered that there were a few rough posts in my drafts folder. I hope you enjoy these images from the spring of 2014 and take them as a promise of things to come. I wrote, last May, I have been out with the camera a few times and have taken, almost as after-thoughts, some pretty botanical images. Because I didn’t think any could work as a post in its own right, and because I didn’t want any these to be forgotten, I’ve put together a gallery for you. Enjoy, clockwise and from the upper left, the Iris, Poppy, Maple, Yellow Flag, and Poppy once again.

Prince Rupert’s Drop

I have been a science teacher for more than thirty years and believe that, at this point, I know a little something about communicating the nuances of the discipline. The other day my students were studying cnidarian tentacles for views of the stinging cells characteristic of that phylum. Later in the day I received an email from a student who sent a link to a fascinating video of nematocyst dischange recorded at an astonishing 130,000 frames per second. After viewing the video, one of a series entitled Smarter Every Day, a number of other video selections flashed up on my monitor and, among them, one in particular caught my attention. If you’ve got six minutes and thirty-eight seconds to spare I highly recommend that you take a look at the video entitled The Mystery of Prince Rupert’s Drop. Although it is not my intention that this post should be the first in a series which critiques similar videos, I could not resist posting this one. It is extremely well done. If I had interest and patience enough to watch this clip, several times, then it must be good.

By the way, Prince Rupert is the Prince Rupert (Rupert, Count Palatine of the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria, 1st Duke of Cumberland, 1st Earl of Holderness, 1619 – 1682) and, although not a scientist himself, he played an important role in the history of the namesake drops by being the first to bring them to Britain in 1660. He gave them to King Charles II who, in turn, delivered them to the Royal Society for scientific examination in 1661.

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