I’m becoming obsessed with Pinus palustris, the longleaf pine that once covered 92 million acres of the southeast from Maryland to Texas, but now exists in only a handful of preserves. I’ve not seen it in its natural state, only as old lumber repurposed. That’s a piece of it above, one of the benches at Brooklyn Bridge Park. I wrote about the strange coincidence of that wood being in my neighborhood for Humans & Nature. Here, with more pictures, are a couple of things I wrote when the picnic tables were new (again): Grain of the Universe and Against the grain.
A friend lent me her copy of Longleaf As Far as the Eye Can See where I learned much more about the trees and their world. Longleaf savannah is some of the richest habitat in the world: one survey at Fort Bragg (vast military bases have preserved the habitat, first by default and now by recognition that they couldn’t have a better place as a training ground) found 500 species of flowering plants per square kilometer. A square meter may hold 50-60 species. Some 30 genera are endemic to longleaf forests, which are really meadows, savannas, prairies. In comparison, the entire Appalachian province, with all its magnificence of trees and wildflowers, supports a (known) total of 2 endemic genera.
This longleaf savannah woodland is an evolutionary adaptation to fire — the region has some of the highest concentration of thunderstorms. The trees can grow for centuries, through firestorm after firestorm (since long before indigenous Americans used fire as their preeminent technology). They do not grow as massively as hardwoods, though: one profiled tree, for instance, nearing its 400th year, has a diameter of 14″. And it is still growing: according to the tale of its rings, it put on more girth between 1917-37 than it had in its previous hundred. These are trees that just get into their stride after a century or more.
It’s the older trees that have red heart fungus, which softens the heartwood. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers favor these for their cavity nests, which take a while to make and which they re-use. The destruction of over 95% of the wooded savannah has consequently meant these birds are on the Endangered Species List. Another fascinating connection is the high incidence of carnivorous plant species that make their home in bogs within the longleafs. “There are few other places on earth where so many plants have, in so many wonderful and diverse ways, restorted to the consumption of meat.”
I wrote this essay for Humans and Nature on the resonances of William Faulkner’s “The Bear” right here in Brooklyn, a long way and a long time since the “big woods” of the south. But there are actual remnants of those lost big woods just down the street from where I live, which got me thinking. I believe readers of B & B will be intrigued by my thoughts over at H & N.
This was a recent sunset over Governor’s Island. It was cold there on the edge of the water, colder than anywhere else around, but the sight was worth the bone-chill of time. But even when it’s not a technicolor spectacle — and this one reminded me of the many-initialed Turner — sunset on New York harbor is always a time to see a natural history marvel of another sort.It’s the gulls, mostly Ring-billed, moving to their night roosts. They are by and large silent. They seem to be moving just the outer halves of their wings, not quite gliding. Occasionally, one or two will do sudden plummets, like solos from the chorus. They were mostly heading north by northeast, along the East River, this time, but you’ll see them heading the other way to, in flight upon flight, sometimes just a few, sometimes crowds of fifty or a hundred. They are in search of roosts for the night. They look like effortless fliers, heading that last mile home to rest and peace. For an Earth-bound biped, it is a thrilling experience to see them coast upon the cold winds.
Sometimes in the shit-storm of bullshit that so overwhelms us, we just need to stop and look at the world. Given that it’s February and all the roses are imported from horror-stricken farms where the workers are brutalized and doused with toxic chemicals and then the roses themselves are stripped of their thorns — what the fuck is a rose without thorns? — it sure and hell is not a case of stopping to smell the roses. Come back in May and June for that, but remember that many varieties of even the live ones have be de-odored by their Dr. Frankensteins.
Instead, I offer you the speculum of an American Black Duck (Anas rubripes) beading a drop of water. And only a mere simulacrum of one, at that, an arraignment of digital data, a window of a window, but one that should still do something to set your hearts a-racing. How anyone could ever go back to the television again after seeing one of these with one’s own two eyeballs is beyond my understanding.
Feathers are colored in two ways or in a combination of these two ways: with pigments, or, as here, structurally. The duck’s speculum (the word means “window,” ladies) refracts the light striking it. The microscopic design of the feathers act as prism to broadcast what we read as iridescence. Structural color isn’t always iridescent, however: the blues, as in the Blue Jays, are structural not pigment.
And now consider what this must look like to another bird: birds can see ultra-violets that we can not because they have four cones to our three.
I don’t remember the last time I saw a Canvasback (Aythya valisineria). Whenever it was, the bird was in the water. This bright male surprised me on the rocks of Pier 4 at Brooklyn Bridge Park this afternoon. From a distance, with a few Gadwall around him in the water and on the rocks, I didn’t think the white blob was alive. There’s lots of weird stuff floating in the harbor, after all, and catching on the rocks with the waves and the tide. Then I tried to remember which ducks were so white. But once he pulled his head from under his wing… this dark sloping forehead and long tapering bill are distinctive. And so, obviously, is that white “canvas” back (and, out of the water, belly).And those eyes! Beautiful and mesmerizing.
This is one of our largest diving ducks. They are usually found in rafts with other Aythya genus ducks like the Scaups. When I posted this bird on the NY state bird list, a correspondent in Ithaca told me there were 50 of them up there amid thousands of Redheads, another duck not so common in NYC waters. I would like to see that.
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That’s not lipstick. Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis), the most common gull in the city.