Category Archives: nature

Colorfully resplendent

Spring is a fascinating time of the year, even if winter unpleasantly returns for this week. Besides sharp changes in the weather, the color palette undergoes dramatic changes. White, gray, and black snowdrifts give way to brown and yellow grass, which gives way to verdant yards speckled with an occasional white clover or yellow dandelion. Flowering shrubs, early blooming flowers, and brightly plumed songbirds are colorfully resplendent. Seeing plants poke up through the ground and mature is always awe-inspiring.

The seasonal change is not just a feast for the eyes. There are treats for the other four senses, too. Seasonal sounds also change dramatically. Red winged blackbirds arrived early this year and in melodious droves. House finches and cardinal songs start just before dawn. The owls are quiet because they are most likely feeding their young. The wind rustling through trees with small leaves sounds so much nicer than icy branches clattering together in a gale force howling blast from the northwest.

Taste gets a smaller workout than the other senses. It is warm enough to barbecue outside without worrying about igniting several layers of clothing or dropping food because one cannot feel the tools in a gloved hand. Gas grills are very hard to light at temperatures under -20°F. It is true that catching snowflakes on one’s tongue is a treat, but only until frostbite sets in, which is usually about 90 seconds or six snowflakes. Taste’s season is summer, when fresh home-grown vegetables, fruits and berries are abundant. Frozen raspberries from last summer still taste sweet, even if they turn to mush when thawed.

Touch is the least affected sense, but it has a very special treat: the weather is no longer numbing cold. The sunshine is warm rather than biting. Green grass feels better on bare feet than jagged chucks of ice. Everything feels softer when it is not frozen solid.

One cannot understate how important smell is during springtime. There are few smells available during the winter because the nose freezes rather quickly. Once the snow melts and the sun warms the soil sufficiently, the fun begins. Daffodils are an early spring arrival and have a nice fresh smell. Crocuses have a very faint and delicate smell. Magnolias, rhododendrons, lilacs, and azaleas release delicate perfumes in the warmer air. A few weeks later, fruit trees bloom and their fragrance attracts pollinators and the occasional human admiring the scent.

Along with the sensory treats, there are a few, um, “gotchas” which become prevalent with the warmer weather. For example, I picked my buddy up from the airport last Friday. It was a very warm day, so I had the air conditioner running in the car. Once we got back to the drop off point, I shut off the air conditioner and rolled down the window. The pungent odor of recently thawed and now decomposing dog excrement stunned both of us. Of course, both of us remember the Cheech and Chong “Cheborneck” routine off the “Los Cochinos” album, so I said “Good thing we no step in it!”. At the end of “Cheborneck”, the dialog is “Let’s go eat!” and “Yeah, eat!” We had a good laugh because of it before grabbing the burger, fries and chocolate milk shake topped with whipped cream special at the Uptown Diner. Taste did get a little workout that evening.

Enjoy these seasonal treats with a loved one, especially a treat of touch. Hugging your special someone is easier without seven extra layers of clothing, holding hands is easier without mittens or gloves, and one does not have to scream sweet nothings past ear muffs. Touch seems to get shortchanged in the treat department, so do your part to correct that oversight.

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Cool, cool rain

“April showers bring May flowers”, or so the old expression goes. A winter with very few major snow events left the Twin Cities area dry. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issued burning bans and restrictions covering over 80% of the state. Grass fires along roadways courtesy of cigarette butts burned in the southwest corner of the state. Help is on the way with the latest round of cooler and wetter weather through the middle of next week. Some cool, cool rain has already kick started spring bulbs, greened up yellow and brown lawns, and opened leaf buds on trees. Hennepin County is finally in the low fire danger category; last Thursday the fire danger was extreme.

April Fool’s day saw the first thunderstorm of the season. It dropped needed rain but came with unwelcome high winds. Cool, dry weather persisted until yesterday. Today’s rain is enough to ensure back yard firepits get a workout when the rain finally ends. Having friends sitting around a fire, talking and joking, and enjoying some barbecued food is a wonderful change from being trapped indoors for several months.

I created a new bulb garden around the Autumn Blaze maple in the front yard and planted the bulbs last week. The twenty hyacinth and twenty tulip bulbs will take a while to poke through because of their planting depth. The fifty grape hyacinths (muscari armeniacum) should pop up quickly since the planting depth is shallower. It took three trunk loads of rocks to complete the border. Lucy would be pleased with the result. She absolutely loved spring and fall.

One treat I had over Easter weekend was watching a pair of falcons build a nest in a large cottonwood tree. Southwestern Minnesota has a surprising variety of raptor species. There are a couple of breeding pairs in the area and the mourning dove and rock pigeon population in Luverne, MN is manageable again. Turkey vultures also soared in large lazy circles overhead. The prairie is still mostly brown, but there are signs of spring and new life. Prickly pear cactus plants are less shriveled and the trees are sporting small leaves or very fat leaf buds.

While the forecast for the next couple of days is cool, wet, breezy, and windy, nicer weather soon follows. Please take the time to enjoy a nice spring day with family and friends (or a nice autumn day for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere). Having a connection to the special people in your life helps get one though the dreary and dismal days.

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Brain freeze

Most people are familiar with “brain freeze“, that incredibly painful headache which occurs after ingesting ice cream or some other very cold foodstuff or beverage. The frequent and sharp cold snaps in this area are causing brain freeze of a different kind. People get headaches when they see the upcoming weather forecasts, or hear the incessant grumbling about the cold, and then their brains “freeze” or go numb to better cope. Cabin fever is nearly at pandemic levels. Some of the luckier souls booked flights to warmer areas. Those left to brave the arctic blasts piled on extra clothes and extra portions at meal time.

It gets cold in the upper Midwest during winter. Minnesota does not have a monopoly on mind-boggling and face-numbing wind chills, but for the past week, most of the coldest air keeps finding its way here. The East Coast is getting the brunt of the snow, but we’re taking on the cold. For example, Lucy’s hometown of Embarrass registered -41°F yesterday morning. About an hour later, Cotton reported -42°F. Those readings were air temperature, not wind chill. When it gets that cold, a barely perceptible breeze creates about ten extra degrees of wind chill cooling.

Some species, most famously bears, hibernate when it gets cold, but not all creatures have that luxury. Even though it was -12°F yesterday morning, a fox and a rabbit playing out the ancient saga of hunter and hunted created a ruckus audible inside the house. After a few seconds of zig zagging though the backyard and kicking up snow plumes, both parties exited the property by slipping through the three-inch gap between the gate and the gate post at full speed, though it appeared the rabbit did have a fraction of a second advantage. That meant the fox probably did not get dinner and a fur stole for its efforts. By noon the temperature rose above zero and a few squirrels ventured out looking to add to their larders. Chickadees and cardinals flitted about looking for a meal and a mate. Apparently, hunger and hormones clear brain freeze quickly.

For humans, not so much: I wish I had a nickel for every time I saw someone dressed in a parka, shorts and sandals yesterday afternoon. Most of the sightings were near the University of Minnesota campus, which is probably not the best advertising for its undergraduate and graduate education programs. Acts of defiance are effective only with proper forethought and belief conviction. Risking frostbite while auditioning for the Darwin Awards while hoping it goes viral on the social medium du jour merely proves cognitive dissonance.

If the number of vehicles dropping through the ice on lakes statewide is any indication, spring is on its way. The days are getting longer, the intense cold snaps are not lasting as long, and baseball spring training games start in under two weeks. Hope springs eternal, if you will pardon my pun. My management training included hearing the truism “hope is not a strategy” ad nauseam, but hope provides the starting point for a strategy. Hope is the engine that inspires a person to set a goal and devise a plan to achieve that goal. If one’s hopes pin on winning the lottery, one must first buy a ticket. Hope for the best, plan for the worst, and the result will always be somewhere in between.

Stay warm if your area is in the deep freeze. Good luck and be careful while clearing snow if your area is getting buried. No matter where you are, give your special someone an extra-long hug and enjoy the warmth. It helps thaw brain freeze faster than wearing a parka and shorts.

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Si vis ver, para hiems

A Roman writer named Vegetius wrote a book called “The Epitome of Military Science” about 1,600 years ago. One line in the book became quoted widely, although it eventually shortened to “Si vis pacum, para bellum” (If you want peace, prepare for war). The Twin Cities metro area is preparing for spring (si vis ver), but is also preparing for winter (para hiems). January was delightfully warmer than normal with a few bitterly cold days, but February to date is chiller than average. Tanker trucks are slowly driving though the neighborhoods spraying a brine solution containing salt (sodium chloride) and calcium chloride on the mostly bare streets. Winter is half over according to the calendar, but the potential for freezing drizzle and 2″ – 4″ of snowfall has the various departments of transportation taking precautions. A sign that spring is getting closer is that baseball’s spring training season begins later this month. Pitchers and catchers report later this week. We hope for a quick end to winter. Another sign of impending spring is the over/under for vehicles falling though the ice on metro area lakes in a week is now three. Thankfully, there were no deaths or injuries reported from these incidents. Las Vegas betting establishments may have an updated betting book next week. I have a feeling the number will be at least one.

Perhaps a better adage is “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst”. Many rodents stash food just in case the winter is particularly harsh. Birds seek out high fat and oil content foods starting when the days shorten. Humans in Minnesota prepare by hauling the six different weight jackets and four different styles of boots out of storage thereby replacing the shorts, sunblock and sandals that got used on the four decent summer days we see in an average year. Jumper cables, a snow shovel and a snow scraper with brush took the place of beach towels and coolers in a vehicle trunk. Grocery stores heavily advertised ice cream treats at discounted prices while increasing prices for hot beverages and soups. Airline tickets to warmer destinations climbed higher.

Thus far, the seasonal snowfall is about 40% below the 30-year average to date. After an extremely wet June which quickly took the area from moderate drought to flooding, the lack of snowfall is prompting concerns of mild drought when spring finally arrives. At this point, it does not appears the area is stocking up on sand bags to stave off potential flooding. A potential salt shortage caused by last year’s crushing snowfalls has been a non-issue this year…so far. Constructions have benefited from the lack of snow and an average number of bitterly cold days, but have also endured occasional delays to unusually strong wind.

Uncertainty in weather forecasts causes preparedness problems. Road salt costs money, requires storage space, and is effective in a narrow band of temperatures. Calcium chloride is more expensive, requires storage space, but is more effective in a wider range of temperatures. Sand and gravel require storage space, work in most temperature ranges strictly for traction, but cause in increase of windshield damage claims. Given a limited budget and limited storage space, find the most optimal balance of removal methods based on information that is wrong seemingly 60% of the time. Or better yet, find a balance that can change according to conditions and get a properly working supply chain in place. Farmers plant crops, many of which are sensitive to drought, hail, too much rain or not enough sunlight. If a long-range forecast indicates a drier than average growing season for which the crops are planned and planted accordingly, but the year is wetter than expected, the farmer receives diminished yields or total crop failure impacting an entire year’s operating revenue.

Creatures face a similar dilemma, albeit without a well-coiffed highly paid talking head showing “wowie” eye candy computer graphics and pointing to a chroma key screen for about three minutes. Gathering food is energy intensive and increases the risk of ending up as a food source for another creature. Too much food can rot, draw scavengers and cause bacterial and mold infestations leading to disease. Too little food means the creature risks starving or freezing to death. They do not have the luxury of easily gathering more or less food, and they definitely do not have the advantage of cooperation and a supply chain.We try to prepare as best we can, hoping for warmth and sunshine while preparing for blizzards and deadly cold.

Once we lose hope, no amount of preparation will help. In addition to helping our loved ones out with provisions, we also help them with our love and support. There are always unexpected and traumatic events which arise which render plans useless: health issues, unexpected unemployment, relationship problems, loss of a loved one. It is then that one finds out how supportive family is and who are the true friends. Drawing on their love and encouragement rekindles hope, and hope creates the strength to keep moving forward.

If you are fortunate enough to have a special someone in your life, take the time to give that person an extra-long hug today. There is always room in the heart for one of those, they don’t expire or decay, and they provide  immeasurable strength. For those of us who do not, please try to make someone’s day brighter. Your kindness may provide the hope the recipient thought was lost.

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A cozy fire

Bonfire season got off to a good start this year. There was just enough rain in September and early October to keep a bonfire from burning down the neighborhood and the wind would become still after dark. Most of the tree leaves fell off in three brief periods which also helped minimize risk of an out of control fire. Warm days, almost summer-like, faded into cool evenings. It was nice to get several evenings of having bonfires and not feel guilty about incomplete yard work.

November is starting out in its usual Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde self. Sharp temperature swings, gloomy skies and strong winds prevailed the first few days of the month. Now, the dreaded “s” word (snow) is creeping into tonight’s forecast, although some areas north of the metro area have enough to turn grassy areas white. Strong winds and a lack of rain the past week or so made having a bonfire impractical and dangerous.

We are the only creatures that have mastered making and, for most part, controlling fire. I have not seen any raccoons with Zippo lighters or squirrels with matches yet. Without fire, modern civilization would never flourish. Wood and stone can only build so much. Building an automobile or a computer requires fire for smelting metal ores or restructuring aromatic hydrocarbons to make polymers. Ancient civilizations thought of fire as one of the essential elements. Cultural mythologies had stories of gaining control of fire by theft from the gods or a gift from an animal. Fire gave humanity the ability to keep wild animals at bay, to harden the sharpened points of wooden spears and arrows, to cook food, and eventually, to make metal. Perhaps that is why people generally are fascinated with fire. Fire also gave humans the ability to make paper, plastic and ink which the glut of candidate signs from this year’s mid-term elections will confirm. Not every advancement is perfect.

And yes, fire can warm up a bitter cold day and light up a dark night. Cooking hot dogs, toasting marshmallows or making S’mores are an added benefit, of course. Fire is also the perfect document destruction method and is much more fun and faster than running a shredder. Gathering friends and family around a fire on a still autumn night is very relaxing and quite fun, even for the fire tender. Watching someone with a lot of camping experience keep a fire pit maintained and smiling ear to ear is one of the many benefits. There is something primal about fire, but not in a fearful way. That separates us from other creatures.

There will be some breaks in the weather and I am certain that a few more fires will burn before it is too cold to stand outside for any length of time, or the snow is too deep to trudge to the woodpile. Until then, enjoy a cozy fire and the company of loved ones.

firepit in use

Fire light, fire bright, first spark I see tonight…

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Show me a sign!

“Show me a sign!”

How many times in our lifetimes have we encountered a difficult stretch and wondered aloud if it was ever going to end, asking for a sign from above to give us hope? How many times do people turn to fortune-tellers, good luck charms, psychics or horoscopes for a hint of the future? Would we even know a divination sign if we saw one?

Humans are supposedly the only creatures capable of rational thought. Rational thought is analytical: identify, quantify, specify. During our lifetimes, we absorb a tremendous amount of information and we use that information to make decisions. We can take events from our past, remember the outcomes, and use that knowledge to make an informed decision. In most cases, past outcomes become the basis to determine the most probable outcome for a future event. Most probable, however, is not an absolute certainty. Unknown or highly unlikely outcomes called “Black Swan” events can arise, sometimes favorable, sometimes not. For example, matching all the numbers in a huge jackpot lottery on one ticket is highly unlikely, usually in excess of 120,000,000:1.

My area participates in a number of lottery games. The MegaMillions game recently had a jackpot in excess of $200 million USD. Even by taking the lump sum cash option and leaving almost half the money on the table, it would be enough for me to stay retired. A friend of mine was having an unbelievable run of positive events happening, so we joked about spending a dollar each and buying tickets. About an hour before buying my ticket, I found a four-leaf clover while out on a hike. Four-leaf covers supposedly bring the finder good luck because of a rarity of one four-leaf clover per 10,000 three-leaf clovers:

4 leaf clover

A four-leaf clover is supposedly lucky, so why didn’t I select the winning MegaMillions numbers on my ticket?

The day after the drawing, I found I had matched one number. Unfortunately, it was not enough to win anything. My friend fared worse by not matching a single number. So much for using a good luck charm to forecast the future. The odds of winning the MegaMillions lottery with one ticket is 258,890,850:1, or roughly 2,589 times as rare as finding a four-leaf clover. I saw several people carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot buying lottery tickets. How can a rabbit’s foot be lucky because it came off an animal after an unlucky event? Other animals have fared poorly in our quest for divining the Divine. Goat livers or chicken entrails, anyone? At least other divination items like crystals look nice and brewed tea leaves is a healthy beverage.

Weather forecasting is seemingly a 50/50 proposition when projecting out over a week. Many people with a minimum of weather watching experience can predict if tomorrow is warmer, colder, or wetter than today. Those same people are unable to predict tomorrow’s temperature to within 3°F accuracy or precipitation within 0.1″. For most of us, a general guide to tomorrow’s weather is enough. Some occupations require accurate weather for ten days in the future. Certain types of concrete can handle small amounts of precipitation falling while curing; too much rain can damage or destroy it. Using a crane is not advisable during high winds. Planting crops before the final frost of the season will seriously influence harvest yield.

Weather very much affects farmers. A growing season stretches out over several months and a crop destroyed by an unexpected frost or torrential rain is a substantial loss of time and money. Weather folklore came about through thousands of years of observations and noticing certain natural phenomena. Some folklore roots are more wishful thinking (or wistful thinking if the year’s crop lies in ruins) rather than solid observation. In the Upper Midwest, woolly bear caterpillar stripe size is supposedly a harbinger of the upcoming winter. Woolly bear caterpillars eventually metamorphose into Isabella tiger moths, not meteorologists. Another forecasting myth involves the groundhog. If the groundhog sees its shadow on Groundhog’s Day (February 2, exactly the halfway point between winter and spring), six more weeks of wintry weather should occur. With an accuracy of less than 40%, which is worse than the expected 50% of pure chance, perhaps the groundhog is better suited for predicting winning lottery numbers.

woolly bear caterpillar

Does this sort of stripe on a woolly bear mean a mild or frigid winter?

Remember that humans are mostly rational thinkers when they are not distracted with associating completely unrelated events into a prediction tool (see “woolly bear caterpillar” above). Accurately spotting future trends is a holy grail humanity has sought for millennia. Economic forecasts, actuarial tables, weather forecasts, and lottery number picks all strive for accuracy. Some of the supposed economic forecast signs are which team wins the Super Bowl, women’s skirt lengths, men’s underwear purchases (men choosing to “go command” must skew the data), and during the period when Alan Greenspan headed up the Federal Reserve Bank, the thickness or thinness of his briefcase.

Public safety is also at stake. Predicting the virulence and spread of a pandemic has many variables. Invasive species affect certain sectors of the economy. There is a delicate balance between erring on the side of caution and “crying wolf”. A far simpler example of future prediction is the invasive species warning sign that I saw in a park:

wild parsnip warning sign

Even though no wild parsnip is presently in the park preserve, there is a warning sign because wild parsnip spreads quickly.

There is no known infiltration of wild parsnip in the park. It does spread quickly and may appear in the near future. If people see the warning often enough, the hope is they will avoid contact with wild parsnip if or when it appears in the future.

Perhaps the best harbinger of future events is being in the present moment. Decisions made in the present influence the future. While we cannot change the past, we might change the future by being aware of the past and applying that knowledge to the present. It beats slaughtering a goat or maiming a rabbit. Be flexible with your plans because Black Swan events can and do happen. Have a good support team in place to help you through the rough times and enjoy the good times; be prepared to do the same for them.

Those of you who have a special someone in your life have won a lottery with odds exceeding 7,000,000,000:1. You have found the one person on this planet right for you, a person who makes you smile and laugh, who brightens your day when times are dark, someone whom you unquestionably trust, who supports your dreams, celebrates your victories, dries your tears and calms your fears. That is a prize more valuable than a nine-figure jackpot. Give that person a meaningful hug and I will make a 100% accurate prediction for the future: you both will smile and feel content every time it happens.

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by | October 26, 2014 · 12:58 pm

The seasonal roller coaster ride has begun again

After a Goldilocks “just right” run of delightful weather, the Twin Cities area is cashing its reality check. The past week has seen below average temperatures and dreariness reminiscent of late November rather than early October. I know there are birds still around, but the past couple of days have been extremely windy. The high winds are causing the trees here to sway like brightly dressed drunken revelers trying to dance (or stagger) a conga line, with some of the trees stripped bare. Watching crows fly backwards and then doing loops is always an odd sight, but they seem to take delight in the wind caused acrobatics. The slate gray sky mutes the colors on the trees until the sun peeks through a break in the clouds to brighten things up. There are many clues that the seasonal roller coaster ride has begun again.

There are different smells in the air. Furnaces are waking after a long slumber and the indoor air has a hint of burnt dust odor for the first few runs. Fireplaces are crackling and the neighborhood air smells like wood smoke. The people lucky enough to burn birch have a warm house and the outside air has a wonderful smell.

There is a different feel in the air. Office buildings that were uncomfortably warm are now chilly as the HVAC system starts its several day switch over from air conditioning to heat. Open-toed shoes, shorts and tank tops are spending more time in closets and lightweight jacket sightings are more commonplace. The mornings start out still and chilly and the afternoons end up mostly sunny and windy. Temperature swings of 30°F or more are common.

There are different tastes available now. Nearly every dining establishment and coffee-house has pumpkin flavored items on the menu. To be accurate, the pumpkin flavoring is artificial in most cases, a witch’s brew of organic chemicals that fake out the taste buds. Like the current bacon craze, pumpkin is showing up in everything but gasoline and laundry soap, though those two staples are probably healthier to consume. Apple harvest is underway and cinnamon scent wafts from bakeries.

Even the sounds of the season change. Apartment complexes with boilers and radiators hear the thud of water hammer until the system purges the air from the lines. Windows spend more time closed than open muffling the sounds. Convertibles blaring loud music and motorcycles with loud exhaust systems stay in garages longer. High school football game sounds carry for several miles from the field of play with cheering and music. Beaches are silent but shopping malls are busier. Dried leaves crunch underfoot and leaf piles become tempting frolicking targets for children and young-at-heart adults.

Couples enjoy the cooler weather. An outbreak of cuddling started recently and probably will not abate until the heat and humidity of next summer arrive. Unlike the flu or the common cold, many people would prefer a case of the cuddles. Cuddling is contagious, but it has health benefits including stress and anxiety reduction. If you have a special someone, enjoy some cuddling time whenever possible. It beats sneezing and wheezing and it will help you manage the seasonal roller coaster ride.

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