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Yesterday was the first day of autumn. Our Alberta family members reported beautiful yellow trees in their park. Thursday’s harvest moon was spectacular in Northern California according to our nature-loving middle child. Our youngest said it was raining in Berkeley, a typical fall day there. Just like here.

Two falls ago we were in New England where the leaves were in full display. Yellows, oranges, reds. A magnificent canvas painted across the Berkshire hills.

Watercolor Autumn © SR Euston

Watercolor Autumn
© SR Euston

But all is not well in leaf land. According to a 23-year study of the Harvard, MA Forest, fall colors now arrive three to five days later, correlating with the 2° Fahrenheit rise in average Northeast temperatures.

So what? The leaves will just start changing later. Except…leaves also change color based on day length. It’s the combination of shortening days and turning colder nights that alert the trees they need to begin preparing for the long winter ahead by ceasing to create sugars with the green chlorophyll in their leaves. As the green fades, the underlying yellow pigment begins to show through. Ultimately the leaves dry and fall.

Not so with the red pigment, anthocyanin, which is actually produced as a result of cool nights and sunny days. As those conditions change, the most noticeably affected may be the glorious bright red sugar maple. Not only may they no longer be in suitable habitat as the climate changes, they’ll like produce fewer of their signature red autumn leaves.

Not only is this a heartbreaking loss for those who relish a red sugar-maple-colored fall, it’s not great economic news for the leaf-peeping tourist trade in a swath across the Midwest to the Northeast and south to the Piedmont, an estimated $25 billion per year economic engine.

Guess climate alteration isn’t just for polar bears and ice caps anymore. Seen any good leave change recently? Seems we’ll need to grab the chance while we still can.

Autumn Leaves © SR Euston

Autumn Leaves
© SR Euston

For more info see: http://biology.appstate.edu/fall-colors/will-global-climate-change-affect-fall-colors

and: http://des.nh.gov/organization/commissioner/pip/factsheets/ard/documents/ard-25.pdf

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Madera Creek © SR Euston

Madera Creek © SR Euston

On Monday we visited a beautiful, remarkably biologically diverse habitat, Madera Canyon, in the Santa Rita Mountains about 15 miles southeast of here. Renowned for its bird life and rare riparian habitat, it’s a naturalist’s paradise.

Or so they say. While it’s true Madera Creek is running (an unusual and delightful) event, water music was the only sound I heard the whole morning except for airplanes and a crow (or maybe it was a raven, I didn’t see it.) And along the trail we saw any number of unidentifiable plants including a flexible, soft two-needle pine, (like a white pine but it has five needles or perhaps it was a mutant three-needle Chihuahua?), and a multi-trunked shrub with alternate, smooth, leathery oval leaves with grey undersides (like a silver buffaloberry but they don’t grow in Arizona).

For me, this describes my all-too-common naturalist experience: Rarely do I see anything (especially wildlife) and if I do I can’t figure out what I’m looking at (especially plants). So I’ve come up with a few observations and recommendations for other amateur naturalists as they head out on the trail:

  1. You’ll almost never see what’s in the guide. Be it animal, vegetable or mineral, your specimen will always be unique.
  2. So go ahead and be decisive when identifying. Probably nobody else saw that bird you just  pointed out. And if anybody did, do they have a photo? If not, louder, bigger and absolutely certain usually wins. So go for it. Case in point: that was a Mexican Jay we (hardly) saw in Madera Canyon.
  3. Shrubs are a real thicket. Oaks too. Nobody knows and don’t let anybody  tell you otherwise. Your Emery oak is bound to be somebody else’s Gambel’s. Not to worry. Even the oaks don’t know. They’re too busy interbreeding. And shrubs? There’s a reason why most guides use line drawings. It’s up to the identifier to sketch in the details. Ferns and grasses? Forget it.
  4. My best advice? Marry a naturalist who’s been looking around at the natural world longer than you have. Even better, marry one with an encyclopedic memory for everything from the Golden Guide to North American Birds to the Boy Scout Handbook to Thoreau’s Journals (all fourteen volumes). Then go forth (together) and identify!
    Unknown Pine © AME

    Unknown Pine © AME

    Unknown Shrub © AME

    Unknown Shrub © AME

    Naturalist on the Snowy Trail at Madera Canyon © AME

    Naturalist on the Snowy Trail at Madera Canyon © AME

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Llano Estacado: An Island in the Sky edited by Stephen Bogener and William Tydeman. Texas Tech Press, Lubbock, TX. 2011.

No matter where we go, one of our very first stops is the local library. Here at the Joyner-Green Valley branch of Arizona’s Pima County library system, I picked up a very slick publication called southwest BOOKS of the year 2011, an annual culling and “best of” list—22 in 2011—chosen by a distinguished panel of regional writers and readers and awarded by the Pima County Library. One of the award books, Llano Estacado, from Lubbock’s Texas Tech, had this description: “ this stunning coffee table book is a compendium of photography commissioned to record the Llano, with complementary essays by authors knowledgeable about the region.”

As a New Mexico llano lover I was anxious to take a look.

It certainly is a coffee table book: large format, black and white photos accompanied by appropriately long essays. The library’s award description points out that neither the photographers nor the essayists were given much direction. True enough. Some of the essayists tried to link to the photos; others used only one. For others just the thought of the llano served as a launch pad to say whatever he or she wanted to say about: Lubbock, conservative cowboy culture, old friends, childhood memories, or aquifer depletion in an arid area where cotton and cattle join oil as extractive industries.

New Mexico is rarely mentioned; the Llano seems a West Texas phenomenon. Interestingly, of the fifty-plus photos only two show the Llano as it intrigues me—without humanity and our desolating impacts, glorying in its sheer raw nature. Both are from eastern New Mexico.

Many of the essays hit literary high notes and maybe that’s what the nature part of nature writing inspires. Still, I often was left wondering “huh?” or “why?”

The final essay which takes the book’s second title “An Island in the Sky” is a great introduction to the history of the llano.  I wonder if it might have served better as the first essay to set the stage. And I really could have used a clear simple map. The book’s map which spreads across the cover, front inner to back outer, is overly detailed and very difficult to read, especially for anyone who sees it library-style, with its dust jacket tightly taped down.

I have included an extended excerpt from the Rick Bass’ essay “Waiting.” For me it crystallizes being human on the llano. And as a life-long wanderer, I really resonated with this idea from Sandra Scofield’s essay “Readings”: “Home…isn’t where I live. Home is what feels familiar even if I’m out of place.”

**********************

From Rick Bass, Waiting, an essay in Llano Estacado. An Island in the Sky, edited by Stephen Bogener and William Tydeman. Volume 6 in the series, Voices in the American West published by Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas. 2011:

“Again and again (maybe we don’t always see what we want to see; maybe we can be instructed, or re-instructed, yet, to see things differently), I witness in these photos not the scrappy pride of yore nor the calm content of relative (or perceived) self-sufficiency in the subjects, but instead the outer edges of despair. I do not want to see despair or confusion, nor passivity or waiting, but there it is, again and again….

Doubt is a bitter, weakening thing, as debilitating, I think, as regret. I want to believe I am not seeing what I think I am seeing….

About those landscape photos: they strip away my childhood memories of a more spacious and vibrant and resilient relationship—the town and communities of the Llano, at the healthy edge of further, farther, less-managed landscapes—and reveal, like a surprising glance in the mirror for the first time at a lined face and graybeard stubble—how can this be?—a land stretched very very thin. And upon that living canvas, that fabric, our species has made mistakes; unremarkable, uncomplicated mistakes, generally involving overreaching, often but not always tinged with greed, or at the very least a lack of respect for anything beyond ourselves, and then, fairly quickly, as things sagged or went away, a lack of respect even for ourselves. Simple mistakes and assumptions made on a large canvas repeatedly across time, out in the wide-open, in a land not of bounty but, more often than not, relative paucity. Mistakes made not in the remote backcountry of the West, nor paved and chromed over by the glitter of urban dreams and desires, nor masked by the vegetative uproar and foliated disguise and clamor of either the Northeast or the deep South, but instead mistakes made out in the clear wide-open, illuminated by a brilliant aridity that is, in the end, less forgiving than other landscapes, and I fear, less resilient….

I am not judging. Maybe there wasn’t time. I am not suggesting any of us would have done any differently. I am just looking at the evidence, or what seems like evidence, in these photos….

I am not by nature a pessimist, but the further and farther we go on this journey, the more irritated I become with false or reflexive hope, as opposed to the more difficult brand of earned hope. I hope that someone, somewhere, somehow, will rescue us from this jackpot we seem to have suddenly gotten into. But it seems disrespectful, as well as foolish, to bank on it, and to simply wait. If my heart knows anything, it is that the road does not necessarily go on forever, and that some parties do finally end.”

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