Thursday, December 30, 2010

Holiday plant and photos from a walk

A few pictures that I took yesterday:
 An indoor tropical plant (I don't know the name), decked out in appropriate
holiday season colors.

 An old beech tree that I saw along a walk, with a little plaque.  This type gets
purple leaves in the summer, and is very nice.  Unfortunately, they don't seem to 
be planted very much these days, possibly because grass won't grow underneath them.

 Random forest scene.

Random roadside scene.

Two pictures at Dad's house, where I spent most of my childhood 
(and some of my adulthood).  The first is a view from the driveway,
the second is a view of the house itself later in the afternoon, just before sunset.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A unique view of early New England, part 1

 One of the most detailed accounts of the geography, climate, weather, plants, and animals of New England in the 17th century did not come from a person who lived there, but from an English traveller named John Josselyn.  A moderately wealthy man with connections to the original non-Puritan rulers of Maine, he travelled to the Massachusetts Bay colony and Maine as a fairly young man in the 1630s, and again as an older man in the 1660s (by which time Maine had become part of Massachusetts Bay).  He wrote two books, one called New England's Rarities, discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, and Plants of that Country, and the other one called An Account of Two Voyages to New-England.  These works, especially An Account of Two Voyages to New-England, are written in a meandering, sometimes almost stream-of-consciousness style.  An Account of Two Voyages mixes all sorts of information on New England with accounts of some of his own personal experiences and his opinions about various subjects ranging from geography meteorology to astronomy to mining to law and government.  In spite of his tendency to go off on tangents in his writing, it has a lot of interesting information about the condition of New England in the first generations of English settlement, and an interesting perspective on what New England looked like to an early traveler from "Old" England.

"The shore is rocky, with high cliffs, having a multitude of considerable harbors; many of which are capacious enough for a navy of 500 sail, ... the country within rocky and mountainous, full of tall wood, one stately mountain there is surmounting the rest, about four score mile from the Sea ... between the mountains are many ample rich and pregnant valleys as ever eye beheld, beset on each side with variety of goodly trees, the grass man-high unmowed, uneaten and uselessly withering; within these valleys are spacious lakes or ponds well stored with fish and beavers ... manifesting the goodness of the soil which is black, red-clay, gravel, sand, loam, and very deep in some places, as in the valleys and swamps, which are low grounds and bottoms infinitely thick set with trees and bushes of all sorts ... others having no other shrub or tree growing, but spruce, under the shades whereof you may freely walk two or three mile together; being goodly large trees, and convenient for masts and sail-yards.  The whole country produces springs in abundance replenished with excellent waters, having all the properties ascribed to the best in the world." - John Josselyn, An Account of Two Voyages to New-England, p. 37-38.

The description of a rocky coast and spruce forests probably reflects the time he spent in what is now Maine more than what is now Massachusetts - Josselyn doesn't always distinguish one part of New England from another when evaluating it.  It is clear that he was impressed by the abundance of both large trees and the beaver and fish along and in the lakes and rivers.  These resources that later became very depleted from intense use - beaver were almost wiped out in much of New England by the 18th century, which changed the whole landscape, greatly reducing the number of small lakes, ponds, and swamps, many of which had been created by beaver dams.

   It is also clear that there was plenty of fresh water springs in many places - always an important factor for early settlers.  The description of the richness of the soil is somewhat optimistic.  There is indeed good black loam in some parts of New England, but it is often quite thin, and in the more hilly areas there is often barely more than an inch of good topsoil before one hits clay or sand or bedrock underneath it.

"The mountains and rocky hills are richly furnished with mines of lead, silver, copper, tin, and divers sorts of minerals, branching out even to their summits, where in small crannies you may meet with threads of perfect silver; yet have the English no maw to open any of them, whether out of ignorance or fear of bringing a foreign enemy upon them ... The stones in the country are for the most mettle-stone, free-stone, pebble, slate, none that will run to lime, of which they have great want, of the slate you may make tables easy to be split to the thickness of an inch, or thicker if you please, and long enough for a dozen men to sit at.  Precious stones there are too ..."- John Josselyn, An Account of Two Voyages to New-England, p. 38-39.

Josselyn is apparently falling into the trap that many earlier explorers had fallen into - assuming that every part of the Americas was full of precious metals.  Although there were small amounts of metal ore in a few places, there were no large veins of metal ore anywhere in New England.  The reason that the English settlers weren't setting up big mines is that there wasn't very much to mine in the first place.  There were later a variety of stone quarries and smaller mines, but although New England became well-known for its rockiness, most of that rock did not have anything valuable in it.

One accurate thing that he notes is that there is no limestone or chalk in most parts of New England, in contrast to many parts of England.  The lack of rocks that produce lime meant that they usually had to import lime from elsewhere, and it also led to the soil in most parts of New England being quite acidic, with no lime to make it alkaline.

"The climate is reasonably temperate, hotter in summer, and colder in winter than with us, agrees with our constitutions better than hotter climates, ..." - John Josselyn, An Account of Two Voyages to New-England, p. 39.

Here Josselyn nails the most fundamental difference between the continental climate of New England and the maritime climate of old England - the wider temperature extremes.  When early explorers briefly landed in places like New England or Nova Scotia or Quebec or New York in the summer, they usually assumed that the winters must be mild.  This was based on the warm summer temperatures and the fact that what later became the northeastern USA and southeastern Canada are at a lower latitude and closer to the equator than much of Europe (Boston is on almost the same latitude as Rome).  The first winters that Europeans spent in these areas were usually an unpleasant surprise.

The comment about the climate "agreeing with our constitutions better" than warmer climates may actually be referring to the relative lack of disease, because disease was widely thought to be caused by the effects of climate on the "constitution" of the body.  For the white settlers, New England was one of the healthiest climates in the world.  Diseases like smallpox existed, but were less common than in Europe, while warm-weather diseases like malaria were also rare.  For the American Indians, on the other hand, the disease environment was a disaster, with even the occasional introduced European disease running wild among a population with very little resistance.

"Mid-March their spring begins, in April they have rain and thunder; so again at Michaelmas [late September], about which season they have either before Michaelmas or after outrageous storms of wind and rain. ... Cold weather begins with the middle of November, the winters perpetually freezing, insomuch that their rivers and salt-bays are frozen over and passable for men, horse, oxen, and carts ... The north-west wind is the sharpest wind in the country.  In England most of the cold winds and weathers come from the sea, and those seats that are nearest the seacoasts in England are accounted unwholesome, but not so in New-England, for in the extremity of winter the north-east and south-wind coming from the sea produces warm weather, only the north-west-wind coming over land from the white mountains (which are always, except in August, covered with snow) is the cause of extreme cold weather, always accompanied with deep snows and bitter frosts, the snow for the most part four and six foot deep, which melting on the surfaces with the heat of the sun (for the most part shining out clearly every day) and freezing again in the night makes a crust upon the snow sufficient to bear a man walking with snow-shoes upon it.  And at this season the Indians go forth on hunting of deer and moose, twenty, thirty, forty miles up into the country.  Their summer is hot and dry proper for their Indian wheat [i.e., corn or maize] ; which thrives best in a hot and dry season, the sky for the most part summer and winter very clear and serene; if they see a little black cloud in the north-west, no bigger than a man may cover with his hat, they expect a following storm, the cloud in short time spreading round about the horizon accompanied with violent gusts of wind, rain, and many times lightning and terrible thunder." - John Josselyn, An Account of Two Voyages to New-England, p. 45-47.

If the winters Josselyn describes sound a little harsher than those in Massachusetts or southern Maine today, with saltwater harbors freezing over deeply and 4-6 feet of snow, this may be because many parts of North America and Europe really were colder 350 or so years ago.  This was the later part of what is sometimes called the "Little Ice Age", a period of somewhat colder than average weather that lasted from the 1400s through the early 1800s.  This was an era when the Thames River in England and the canals of the Netherlands froze over deeply enough most winters to walk and skate on - and that was in the relatively mild winters of western Europe.  In New England, average winter temperatures were considerably colder than average winter temperatures today - Massachusetts probably felt more like Maine, and Maine might have been almost as cold as central Quebec.

Other aspects of the weather that Josselyn describes are quite familiar to modern New Englanders - the rainstorms of spring and fall, the icy crust that forms over snow from freezing and thawing, and the sudden changeability of the weather, where a small dark cloud on the horizon often means a total change of weather very soon.

Drifting snow and a sunset

The snowstorm didn't dump as much on us as predicted, but it was still a lot of snow and wind.  It stopped snowing this afternoon, but the wind was strong, with gusts up to 40 miles per hour (65 kilometers per hour).  The sun peaked through the clouds, revealing the blowing snow:

Later, as the sun was about to set it shone over the drifting snow in the field behind the house:

Then the sun approached and dropped below the horizon, illuminating the clouds in various shades of yellow, orange, red, and purple as the light got fainter:

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Heavy snow coming

So far, it has been a very low-snow season.  While other parts of the USA and Europe have been getting hit hard with lots of snow, we've gotten a total of maybe 2 inches, most of it a few days ago.  Today and tomorrow, though, we are going to get pounded by a storm that is supposed to bring at least a foot and a half of snow (about .5 meters for you metric folk in the rest of the world).  Hopefully we don't lose power - that's the only thing I worry about.  It's supposed to be windy, too, so it will be a true blizzard.

Snow - beautiful to look at, a pain in the posterior if you have to do anything outside.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas, everyone!  Since I've become used to posting pictures of plants, what better way to express holiday wishes than showing some pictures I took yesterday.  What is there to take pictures of this time of year?  Buds!

 Buds of Siebold Virburnum (Viburnum Sieboldii)

Bud of Great Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum)


Buds of Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana)

Buds of dwarf Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens, dwarf variety)

Buds of Azalea, not sure of species

Now, only 4-5 more months before the buds start opening into flowers and leaves!

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

More sunset pictures

The clouds were like a gray blanket yesterday,  but we suddenly got a flash of bright colors as the sun set.

Friday, December 17, 2010

I rarely get decent pictures of any kind of animals.  Unlike plants, they have a really bad habit of moving before I can get a good shot.  I still occasionally get a decent picture of some kind of animal.  Here are a few of insects:

 Butterfly - I don't know which kind

 Dragonfly (highly magnified from the original picture)

 Honeybee and fly on the same cluster of "Autumn Joy" Sedum flowers

Fly on Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

 Unknown insect crawling up the wall of the enclosed porch.  
I thought this one was interesting because its abdomen is shaped kind of like
some sort of medieval weapon.

Unfortunately, this one post almost exhausts my supply of decent insect pictures for the past year!

Monday, December 13, 2010

(Semi) evergreen plants

Even in the winter, some of the perennials remain at least party evergreen, although they are still basically dormant.  Here are a few of the (semi) evergreen flowering plants in the garden over this past weekend.  The leaves around them provide some insulation, plus I was a little lazy when it came to raking this fall!

 Coral bells (Heuchera)


 Lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina)

 Yellow Archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon)

Deadnettle (Lamium species)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Muted sunset

The sunset yesterday was a nice one, with gauzy, high clouds dimming the sun while scattering the light.

Today it was pouring rain.  We've had some pretty cold weather, but very little snow.  Every time precipitation is coming, it warms up enough to make it rain instead of snow.  I should not complain given how some other parts of the USA are getting pounded with snow - we've been lucky so far.  I'm not sure if the perennial garden plants are as lucky - snow is good for them in the winter because it provides insulation when it gets cold.

Stuff that's going on in my life

On Friday, I signed a purchase and sales agreement for a house.  It is a very nice place, in good shape, about 1000 square feet, and only about 2 miles from where I work.  Closing is not until early January, so I won't have to worry about moving stuff right over the holidays (though I will have to be packing, of course, and looking for some new but cheap furniture).  Overall, I am happy about my decision.  It does of course mean a large debt and less money in the bank, but I have calculated that I can handle it.  I'm not a big spender in any case, and I don't have many expenses beyond the basics of housing, food, utilities, etc. (though a good internet connection is almost a basic necessity to me!).  I've even gotten into the practice of keeping the heat lower and taking less showers to use less water, though I'm not sure if these will really have much of an effect.

My whole immediate family will be together for Christmas this year - me and my father, both my brothers, and my sister-in-law and niece.  Both of my brothers are living in Europe - the one with a family in Dresden, Germany, the other one going to school for a Ph.D. in Oxford, England, UK - so they will be making long trips.  I am looking forward to this.  The Christmas season has usually been one of my favorite times of year because I am lucky enough to have a family that gets along so well that our gatherings have a lot of the atmosphere of meetings of old, close friends, only even more so.  The older I get, the more I have realized how lucky and privileged I have been to have this kind of relationship, and I sometimes feel ashamed of taking it for granted too often.

I continue to wrestle with the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, sometimes with a lot of success, sometimes with no success.  In spite of the generally good condition of my "outside" life lately, my internal mental and emotional state has been veering between a combination of great happiness, confidence, and determination, and a combination of anxiety, self-hatred, depression, and negative thoughts and behaviors toward others and myself.  In the course of my internal struggles, I am making the disturbing discovery that I am very ready to ignore the interests and needs of other people in my struggle to defeat or at least contain many of my negative emotions.  I have long suspected that my OCD and the internal struggles that go with it have made me very self-centered in some respects, but recently this has become more serious and blatant than ever before.  On the other hand, I am not even sure if I am doing any actual harm at all - my anxieties include an obsessive fear that I am causing harm to others without fully realizing it, so I tend to not trust my own perceptions.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Weeds by the roadside

Some of the plants that I find most interesting are not in the garden:

Wild grapevines leafing out in the spring

Wild grapevine hanging from tree with my hand.

Poison Ivy growing up a tree

Numerous seedlings of Garlic mustard (an invasive weed) intermixed with other,
taller plants

 A mixture of vines, including Poison Ivy, Oriental Bittersweet, and Virginia Creeper

A large mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Random Garden Photos 2

I think that I should make this a regular feature over the course of the winter.  Hopefully other people will enjoy them, and I will get to look at some digital plants (and animals) that will partly make up for the lack of non-dormant plants outside now!

Honeybee on azalea flowers.

Pieris or Japanese Andromeda with new growth in the spring.
This variety has new growth that is red, which only gradually fades
to green by early summer.  To the left, a large hydrangea is just
starting to "leaf out".

Columbine hybrid with multiple layers of petals.

A perfect spring day in mid-May.  Scenes like this look especially beautiful
after month after month of drab, dormant ground in winter and early spring.

Monday, December 6, 2010

More atmospheric views

These are from last spring -

Late afternoon with clouds and airplane contrails

Closeup of airplane trail going behind clouds

The sun mostly hidden behind the clouds, but just starting to "peek out"

A hazy sun behind clouds, behind trees (and a bird)