The Scientific and the Sublime

Oak leaves with galls

2016: Reposting something from the archives here, because of an article in the news. Forest Bathing has become a tourist activity around the world!  http://www.seattletimes.com/life/travel/forest-bathing-a-mindful-walk-in-the-woods-no-getting-wet/

 

2010: Many plants sport growths (galls) caused by insects, and Oregon white oak has some spectacular large stem galls, as well as smaller, more fragile leaf galls. Here’s what the US Forest Service  has to say:

“Many gall wasps are found on oaks; those prominent on Oregon white oak include Andricus californicus, which forms large, persistent, applelike galls on twigs; Bassettia ligni, which causes seedlike galls under the bark of branches that often girdle and kill the branch; Besbicus mirabilis, which forms mottled, spherical galls on the underside of leaves; and Neuroterus saltatorius, which forms mustard-seed-like galls on lower leaf surfaces that drop in the fall and jump around like Mexican jumping beans caused by activity of the enclosed larvae.

Adults lay eggs in the leaves, twigs, or bark and the developing larvae signal the plant to produce the galls. According to A Field Guide to Insects and Diseases of California Oaks

“Adults are small wasps, typically no more than about 4 mm long . Larvae are small, whitish, and legless and develop completely inside larval chambers that form within the galls. Depending on the wasp species, each gall may have either one (monothalamous galls) or many (polythalamous galls) larval chambers.

Gall wasp larvae can apparently only induce galls in undifferentiated meristematic or cambial cells, [blogger’s note: these cells at the tips of growing points on the plant have not received the hormonal signal to become a particular type of tissue so the wasp larva is superceding the plant’s signal] so female wasps must lay eggs in specific host tissues (buds, leaves, etc.) when the tissues are at the correct growth stage.

Developing larvae produce substances that induce the plant to form a larval chamber of a structure that is unique to the wasp species and generation. The gall wasp larvae typically remain small while they induce the gall to grow rapidly. As the gall nears its mature size, larvae feed on nutritive tissue produced in the center of the gall and begin to grow rapidly. As the larvae mature, they induce lignification of the gall. In detachable galls, lignification may induce the gall to fall off the plant.

Larvae pupate within the gall and adult wasps emerge from the galls to initiate the next generation.

Many oak gall wasp species have two alternating generations; a sexual generation with females and males followed by an asexual generation with only females, which can lay fertile eggs without mating. Each of these generations produces a unique gall, often on different parts of an oak.”

The galls on the leaves in the photo above, formed by egg laying of the delightfully named Besbicus mirabilis are relatively new. At the center is a tiny hard nodule that contains the larva or, at this stage, perhaps the egg. Surrounding this is some white web-like porous tissue, all inside the thick-walled shell of the gall.

I found several large stem galls broken open on the ground recently, as if a bird or squirrel had been snacking on the larva inside. I took a stem gall – the one called an oak apple – from a cluster on an oak twig and opened it up. Suspended in the pithy tissue was a very hard round object. Inside this were two chambers full of wasp larvae you can see here [warning: close up of insect larvae, might remind you of maggots – skip ahead if you prefer!]

“oak apple” gall with wasp larvae

gall wasp larvae (likely Andricus californicus)

Hyper-parasitism – a parasite of a parasite – is not unusual in the insect world; parasites of caterpillars are themselves parasitized by even tinier wasps. So, besides the resourceful animals that know to break open these galls to get to the larvae, there may also be other wasps that lay eggs inside these larvae. Considering the armoring (both the outside of the gall and the chamber), it would be interesting to find out if there are any wasps that have evolved to gain access to these larvae.

You may be surprised by the females’ ability to reproduce without mating – this is also common in the insect world, especially among the species that have large population booms like aphids (born pregnant – not kidding!)

Okay, that was scientific. Now for the sublime:

While we were taking a break from sawing up a pile of slash from the restoration logging, I heard a woodpecker and walked toward the woods to get a closer look. We looked across a ravine at a downy, or a hairy woodpecker (according to Tom, who is the bird identifier) as it vigorously pecked away at the bark of an oak, possibly extracting insect larvae or beetles – organic pest control via the food web.

As we stood there, I was reminded of a great story in the NY Times about a study in Japan on the beneficial chemicals exuded by trees. The unfortunate scientific moniker applied to these wonderful substances is phytoncides, which sounds like something that kills plants, but actually was coined to mean “killed BY the plant”. These protective chemicals, produced to ward off insects and disease, have been found to benefit humans in subtle ways by regulating physiology and feelings of well-being.

Japanese researchers have been quantifying these effects, but the benefits of trees have not been news to the Japanese or many other cultures, which for millenia have recognized and sought out deep tree-connections).

The term for soaking up beneficial effects by spending time in the woods is Shinrin-yoku or “forest-bathing”. To me this is a good description of the sense of well-being and mental relaxation you get from immersing yourself in the forest experience. As Tom pointed out, all the time we spent in trees during our evolution should still influence our biology.

Gazing at a stand of oaks in the summer sun as their mature leaves reflect the light, is a qualitatively different experience from looking at conifers – which are a flat green whose needles seem to absorb light. The reflected green light of the oaks produces a corresponding lightness of being. Savoring this delightful moment, I was glad I had taken that break to get out of the blazing hot sun, and wandered off to look at a woodpecker.

 

See How Native Plants Deal With Drought: Two Native Plant Walks in August

For anyone within shouting distance of Yamhill County, Oregon (Portlanders out for a day of wine tasting, I’m talking to you), make your trip to wine country memorable and instructive by attending a Taylor Gardens native plant walk on August 27. Or, if you work near McMinnville, take a stroll with me in the evening at Miller Woods, the Soil and Water Conservation District property just outside town. That’s on August 29.

Here’s why it will be fun: you will learn to recognize 10 native plants that you might see in a landscape, or on a hike, even if you can’t tell a nasturtium from a petunia. You will find out how these plants can be used in your garden, and why they are great for wildlife!

Please come with us and enjoy the native flora up close. Oh, there are birds too – have you ever seen an Acorn Woodpecker? The plant walk at Winter’s Hill Winery on Sat, August 27 offers a chance to see and/or hear these birds of oak woodlands that look like clowns and sound like one of the Three Stooges. At Miller Woods, there are hawks, harriers, Pacific Slope Flycatchers, swallows, and red-winged blackbirds galore.

Did I mention wine? The Saturday, August 27 walk is at a winery famed for its luscious Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Rose, among others. They will let you taste for a small fee. Picnicking is free. And the view, well, you have to be there to believe it.

Here is a link to sign up for both or either of these walks. They are $10 each, and the kids are free.

Sign Up Now!

Delving into mollusks, a little

I was cleaning logs for mushroom inoculation and I came across a large snail. The logs had been sitting around so I thought it might have taken refuge there after foraging on pots of seedlings nearby, as slugs do. My first impulse was to toss it out into the hot gravel on the driveway and let it fry (I know, so cruel. I regret these thoughts, right after they pop into my head).

On second and better thought, since it was tucked up in thick moss on a log that came from the woods, maybe it was a native from the woods and not one of the many invasives that plague our gardens. Turns out (thank you internet) it probably is a native forest snail, Pacific Sideband (Monadenia fidelis), but I should probably confirm that with an expert.

Three things I learned while keeping it in a dish: it moves pretty fast (for a snail), I left the lid off its prison for awhile so it would come out of its shell and had to peel it off the bottom of the bookshelf far below. It took a little over a minute to scoot over the side of this container when I started to photograph it. That and it poops a lot. At 30 mm across, it’s not small. It seemed livelier in the evening, so nocturnal?

From the most helpful field guides here and here I learned that it grazes on lichens usually, so I was right not to persecute it. Perhaps more thought-provoking is that it has several cousins or subspecies that are endangered or rare in Oregon, mainly because their habitats are threatened. They live in discrete regions and locations. The Columbia River is one region of endemism for snails, as it is for many plants and animals.

Since I wasn’t out looking for snails and the like, I might never have found this guy/gal (hermaphrodite) if I hadn’t handled logs for the mushroom project. The snail somehow survived its tree being chainsawed down and cut up into logs, and then tossed in a wheelbarrow, stacked, and cleaned. I am daily reminded of the diversity beneath our feet and how valuable and delicate it is.

I will probably have to collect a hard copy field guide for slugs and snails. I admit to a love of field guides. And I have many. One of my favorites is on oak galls – yes, an entire field guide packed with arcane information. I devour introductory chapters on how the animal or plant fits into its ecosystem, taxonomy, photos, fascinating life histories that others have spent whole lifetimes working out. If you like to go down rabbit holes of information, you can’t do better than a nice field guide.

I took the snail back out to the woods today, it’s probably enjoying a bite of lichen now before sleeping off the adventure. I’ll recognize it when I see it again.

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Looking back at some posts you may have missed

Beginning this week, I’ll post a few of my old favorites from months and years gone by.

It’s winter 2013 here on the edge of the Oregon Coast Range, the fog has rolled in after unseasonable cold weather, and now the skies are dripping – a good time to look at our beautiful lichens.

Mostly dormant during the long dry summer, any bit of moisture brings the neon greens of nitrogen-rich Lobaria pulmonaria (lungwort) popping out of the background, inviting us to look closer at all the clothing on the trees and logs, ground and rocks. Lobaria and Usnea lichens make a nice orange to orange-brown dye for wool which imparts a distinctive fragrance and, usually moth proof characteristics!

Here is my short look at some of the charismatic lichens of our woods, originally posted in December of 2010.

Lichens are so…likable!!

Although very important, they are under-appreciated. The spongy, moist, fungus-friendly winter is dark and depressing to us mammals, but it’s high season for lichens.

That grey-green color of the oaks in the GVJournal masthead?   Lichens!

Here’s are galleries with some fun facts.

Oak branch with a load of assorted lichens

  • Biodiversity.

Lichens are incredibly diverse and able to grow in extreme environments. Their chemistry is important to the ecosystems where they grow. For example, they are an important source of nitrogen in forests, and in arid lands, they conserve valuable topsoil. But to do their job, they need undisturbed substrates to grow on.

They also provide an environment for many organisms to exist – tiny arthropods and invertebrates that keep nutrients cycling in the ecosystem.

Why away from cities? Because lichens absorb all their nutrients and moisture directly from the air, they are sensitive to air pollution. This quality is so specific, scientists use them to map air quality and pollution levels. They can also concentrate some metals and radiation and be hazardous to consumer.

In cities pollution-tolerant lichens predominate, some less tolerant ones are distorted or rather small compared to lichens in fresh, clean air. Several of the lichens on the tree branch above, and the two below are very sensitive to pollution, and also need very moist air so they can function. The high humidity in the coastal NW promotes the growth of large showy lichens in clean air zones like mature and old-growth forests.

Lobaria pulmonaria – “lungwort”

Pseudocyphellaria anomala – “netted specklebelly”

  • Some people are under the impression that the “load” of lichens is damaging to trees and shrubs, but this is not the case.

They use plants as a place to grow but there is no evidence of damage. In fact the massive increase in surface area may be one reason why forests are able to extract and transfer appreciable amounts of moisture from “fog-drip” to watersheds even when it’s not actually raining.

  • The colorful common names of lichens indicate their longstanding interest to us. Many are important to a number of wildlife species, and to humans historically and in modern times.

Food, camouflage, dyes, and antibiotics are among the uses that other life forms have for lichens. The long strands of Old Man’s Beard and other Usnea species are collected to extract its chemicals which have antibiotic properties. It also protects animals that use it for nesting material.

Some medium long Usnea longissima

The alga is able to photosynthesize, producing carbohydrates which are then channeled to the fungal partner. Interestingly, if the algal partner is cultured separately, the carbs hardly “leak” at all. The fungus makes it possible for the alga(e) to live in places it normally would not survive. The fungi and algae each look completely different individually, and only take on their lichen form when together.

Although the association is termed symbiotic, it appears that it’s not an equal partnership. Lichenologists consider the fungus to be the controlling partner “farming” the alga or algae.

Even though we’ve used them for millenia, there’s always something new to learn about lichens. Scientists are studying some extra fungi present whose exact function is unclear.

This can happen very quickly. If you spray a dry lichen with water, it will  absorb moisture and change color immediately. This is a sign it is active.

In fact, lichens need alternate wetting and drying to cycle carbohydrates back and forth between the fungal and algal partners.

Dry Summer Lichens – bumpy leafy one is Lobaria pulmonaria

The same Lobaria species when it’s moist

-A Gallery of Gopher Valley Lichens click to view-

A Gallery of Gopher Valley Lichens

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Thanks to lichenologist Katherine Glew (Univ of Washington) for teaching me about lichens. I can remember some of it.

Lichens of North America, by I.M. Brodo, S.D. Sharnoff & S. Sharnoff, and Macrolichens of the Pacific Northwest, by B. McCune and L. Geiser

Western Oak Looper – Beginning A New Generation

If you missed the news this late summer about the patches of oak devastation near Sheridan and other places in the Willamette Valley, here’s a hyper-local update (our property). When the damage is in full spate (i.e. the larvae are making oaks and doug firs look dead and blighted) it’s all about the caterpillars. Right now (mid November) I am seeing these moths everywhere flopping around on the ground. Their diaphanous wings seem hardly up to the task of finding a mate and laying eggs, particularly when they are rain-soaked. However, I’m sure we’ll be seeing their leaf-chewing offspring soon enough. By the way, there is a nice description of life cycles in that first link above. I highly recommend.

Perhaps these adults arrived from Dupee Valley or even as far as Red Prairie, where the oaks looked blasted last summer, carried on the wind of fall storms? They seem to be weak flyers so it’s hard to imagine them making the trip under their own steam.

It will be interesting to see whether our oaks get the same treatment next year, having escaped till now. See previous post for a good control method: our beloved brown creepers.

Western Oak Looper Used with permission:Jerald E. Dewey, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org Lambdina fiscellaria somniaria image #2252041

Western Oak Looper adult
Used with permission:Jerald E. Dewey, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
Lambdina fiscellaria somniaria

Oyster Yard 2013

It’s oyster mushroom season here in the Pacific NW. This is the domestic variety on our Oregon white oak logs. Soon it will be time to cut and inoculate a new batch. I think the next one will be combo logs of both shiitake and oyster. Should it be warm or cold weather shiitakes? Vote early and often using the contact form!IMG_4609 OystersOct2013 OysterYard2

Mac Farmer’s Market Day is Thursday 8.22

And we’ll be there with the mushrooms logs!

This will be the last day of this month that we’ll be at the market. If you miss us Thursday, you are welcome to use the contact form to get in touch to arrange a delivery, or you can use the payment buttons in the left sidebar.

We’ll be back at the McMinnville Thursday farmer’s market in late September.

Thanks everyone, for a successful day at the McMinnville market!

Thanks to everyone who came by, purchased a log, and praised the mushroom logs today at the market.

We had a group of excellent, enthusiastic, and fearless log lovers pass by our booth today. Thank you for purchasing logs and liking the whole idea of raising mushrooms in your own gardens!

Please stay in touch and send tales of mushroom growing, questions, recipes, and photos of your logs to the blog. We’ll be back at the Mac farmer’s market in a few weeks. In the meantime, feel free to send your comments via the contact form here in the sidebar.

Prairie Field Day Arrives – May 31

Gallery

This gallery contains 13 photos.

Many thanks to Amie Loop-Frison of the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District and her prodigious organizing skills to pull this off. It was a beautiful day, a fun tour, and an inspiration to see so many people interested in … Continue reading

Resident WBNs

Aside

The day before I took on the Scotch broom (previous post) I indulged in a day of scouting for birds and plants. It is so much easier to see birds since the tree thinning! I finally got a picture of the white breasted nuthatch (there are at least 2) in its element, with a tasty morsel of some kind – nowhere near a feeder!

© 2013 Taylor Gardens
All rights reserved.

© 2013 Taylor Gardens
All rights reserved.

March marches on

On the savanna in the late afternoon, surrounded by lichen-draped oaks; noting the attractive old ones, the new straight ones with potential beyond our lifetimes, mistletoe, galls. Mindfulness comes naturally.

In this video of early spring you can see the effects of not mowing. The reason was fire hazard followed by soggy soil, (drought/deluge) last fall. A lot of thatch from old non-native grasses and taller scotch broom remain; but I hope that will make it easier to kill the broom this spring. Mowing as a substitute for fire is not ideal, although better than nothing.

Other interesting things I found this day out will follow in the next post!

My Oregon Master Naturalist Cohort

Here, belatedly, is a short video of my Willamette Valley Specialization group in the Oregon Master Naturalist Program. This was the field portion of a day learning about birds and plants of the endangered Oregon White Oak Woodland and Savanna ecosystems. (With regard to Oregon white oak vs. Garry oak, see the note on Oregonian naming practices, on my other blog.)

Time. Maps. Closeup views

A previous post showed the general lay of the land over time in our neighborhood. Here is a closeup of changes we have wrought since we’ve been there. If you click on a photo it will take you to gallery view.

The first conservation treatment brought in a mower to cut down huge old growth scotch broom – scourge of Northwestern natural areas. Smaller trees were sheared on the west side, and near the middle of the 20 acres (2006-2007) to create the savanna and oak woodland. The relatively filled-in appearance after 1994 is likely due to a lot of regrowth of weedy brush (broom and blackberries) over disturbed ground.

Our latest treatment began in 2011. This is where you can see change on the landscape more clearly. We had more trees sheared, and a lot of larger diameter trees were removed – 2011 and 2012 photos show the opening of the oak woodland/savannah in the center and lower left (SW corner) near the pond, where the “boulevard” was opened along an existing pathway with removal of many smaller firs and some oaks).

Although the first treatment brought major changes on the ground, the activity is more obvious from the aerial perspective in the last couple of views – possibly because of the size and number of trees removed with the last cut. Over 100 oaks, and about 100 firs were removed, and they were larger than the ones that were sheared initially.

Another change that is more visible recently is seen in a faint diagonal opening just above the middle in the land of moose and squirrel. This is where fir trees were girdled and are now standing dead trees, plus three large snags intentionally left alive but with most limbs removed. Dead trees and a trail just above them look somewhat like the 1994 view before trees and brush filled in.

So, some real habitat changes now, encouraging the ‘traditional’ residents of the oak savanna and woodland. Got those white-breasted nuthatches (two at least) so maybe they will build a nest this year!

Perhaps I will take you on a video tour soon…

A Map Of Time, Time In Maps

This is a gallery of landscape changes in our little corner of the world. In a very short time (1994-2012), the local vegetation has been altered by land management quite dramatically. From our perspective (our 20-acre rectangle) it often seems overwhelming.

In 2005 we had a comfortable buffer of forest around us for the birds and wildlife we like to watch. We knew it was tree farm country, so logging was a given but, patchy as it was, it didn’t seem too traumatic. You can see the tree farms mostly blanketing the area in the earliest GoogleEarth map.

Then came a shift in land use – ‘conversion’ is the term – from timber to vineyards. Watch the photos as the trees begin to disappear. Vineyards and orchards sound like a sort of idyllic alteration, but think just a minute about what that entails. Conversion from old growth to tree farms is a step away from diverse, patchy habitat of a particular kind: spotted owls, flying squirrels, really big trees with a lot of carbon stored in their massive trunks, a lot of cavities for owls and other specialists. Old growth trees (250+ yrs) that store and hold – sequester – more carbon than any other type of forest. You can see that even in the earlier views, the connectivity between patches is important – those are corridors that allow wildlife and plants to move across the landscape either to escape the clearcutting or to find food or mates.

Timber farms, especially smaller ones cut in patches on a long rotation, (time between cuts), shelter many important organisms while they grow, and if those plants and animals are lucky, they can shift over to another patch when the clearcut begins. Technically, people are required to leave a certain number of trees and snags, but the rules about that are so lenient that it doesn’t really amount to anything ecologically important in most cases on private land. Federal forests are another story, as they are managed differently. The other thing about forestry is that there are relatively long periods between soil disturbance.

Now, step it up one notch with conversion from timber land to row crops, vineyards, or a hazelnut orchard. If you look, you can see that to the north and east of our 20 acres, all trees were removed, conifer, oak, even the ones that were formerly left by commercial forestry. Stumps were bulldozed, burned, and the land plowed. Two major changes that occur now are the absence of trees and shrubs, and soil disturbance on a regular schedule. Weed control and monoculture demand constant spraying, plowing, or both. All these activities restrict plant life and, importantly, affect the insects that can survive in disturbed habitat.

Unless a farm, orchard, or vineyard is conscientiously managed to leave patches of undisturbed habitat for native ground nesting bees, predatory insects, and other beneficials, the landscape is a depauperate one compared to a natural one.

In the gallery above, you can view the transition from 1) patchy timber harvest to 2) clearcuts on a larger scale (there is a large absentee landowner to the north and east of us who is progressively extracting all the monetary value from his timber, then selling off the land) then 3) conversion to vineyard to the east and north. Note the extremely clean patches and rows of plowed and planted crops. Oak trees that were left after cutting douglas firs were stripped off the land and sold for firewood. Thankfully, a few trees were left around a low spot on the east side, that is the source of a stream that flows across our property and down to Deer Creek. However, our hydrology is permanently altered. Erosion from the force of high water flows, and lower flows in summer are byproducts of vegetation stripped off the soil surface.

Next week – the closeup view of our patch before and after we acquired it.

Oh, Happy Day

There are two birds whose presence, to me, would signify that we have attracted the holy grail of bird residents: the Acorn Woodpecker and White-breasted Nuthatch.

I looked out the window, and LO and BEHOLD! There was a White-Breasted Nuthatch!!

What these species have in common is their fidelity to, or requirement for, a vanishing Willamette Valley habitat – open oak woodland and savanna. The nuthatch will go for mixed conifer/hardwoods which is exactly what we have. They are not the only species of concern here, just a couple I particularly like. A brand new publication online in two parts [ here and here ] called the Land Manager’s Guide To Bird Habitat and Populations in Oak Ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest provides a larger list:

Oak-associated bird species designated as being of conservation concern by the primary wildlife natural resource agencies in the Pacific Northwest…

  • Acorn Woodpecker
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Vesper Sparrow (Oregon)
  • Lewis’s Woodpecker
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Western Bluebird
  • Western Meadowlark

As I noted, to my delight, a White-breasted Nuthatch arrived recently at our feeder and on the trees by our house. Because I don’t currently have the proper camera or skills, here is a nice photo swiped from the above publication.

wbn

White-breasted Nuthatch. Photo credit Tom Grey. Published in Landowner’s Guide to Bird Habitat and Populations in Oak Ecosystems of the PNW. 2012

Our species – the slender-billed subspecies – resides west of the Cascades. Fat white belly, an impression of upcurved bill because the lower bill curves toward the straight, sharp upper; used for hacking or ‘hatching’ open nuts and seeds it wedges in tree bark – a fun fact learned from my new Christmas book, the Sibley Guide to Bird Behavior. Oh, so cute and spunky. I hope they find lots of holes in our old trees to make nests.

Collecting Lichens

So, after the wind storm, which seems not to have lived up to major storm watch warnings, out I went to collect lichens. In the photo on the masthead above, the light green color on the oaks is their thick covering of lichen – easily seen when the leaves are off in the winter. Lichens get blown out of the trees quite easily, and whole branches and twigs often litter the ground after a good storm (below you can see the green blobs that are those branches):

IMG_4157

IMG_4155

It’s always interesting to walk around the path that winds through the woodland and savanna. There are wonderful surprises in the landscape. For instance, now that the humidity hovers around 80% – 99% the mosses and lichens are in full swing. During the winter they green up when most plants are dormant; reproductive structures pop out when conditions are best for spore germination. [My previous lichen post may be instructive for what follows.]

HypogymniaThe round structures on the tips of the lichen above are called apothecia; they contain the spores. But what strikes me is the blue-green octopus that is the lichen body – combined with the apothecia it looks like an extraterrestrial organism.

Here’s an example of the colorful abundance of lichens. This branch I picked up  – and yes, there is a branch under there – is a little over 2 feet long, and 1/2″ thick at its narrow end. There are at least seven or eight species of lichens and two kinds of moss crowded onto the surface, totally obscuring the actual branch. Some lichens grow on others in a multilayered cacophony. Just imagine the surface area created by these lichens and mosses, providing a place for algae, algae-eaters, and other microorganisms and invertebrates to flourish. Birds often find tasty morsels among them, and also use lichens to build nests. There is so much diversity of life on a single oak branch, add to that the vertical structure they provide, and it is easy to see why they are so important.

IMG_4171Here is a look at what I have sorted out so far, separating and removing the different kinds from their twigs and branches:

IMG_4172What are my plans for this pile of stuff?

Lichen dyes for yarn and wool. Here is one of the dyed samples using Lobaria pulmonaria (left). The dye color depends on chemistry and is unrelated to the lichen color.IMG_4173

Ambitious plans and fall activities

I have decided to sign up for WordPress Post-a-Week. Although I admire and seek to emulate post-a-day people such as the Dragonfly Woman, whose exemplary blog sets a standard, weekly posting is my own new ambitious goal. However, due to my recent low production there is a current backlog of ideas and photos so I might be barraging you subscribers with several short ones. So, off we go.

Here is the view from Gopher Valley as late summer burns everything to a crisp:

I am embarking on part two of Oregon Master Naturalist training: on-site classes and fieldtrips for the Willamette Valley regional specialization. Last fall I took an online course from OSU, where the Master Naturalist Program resides. This is a wonderful Extension program course and I’m in the first wave of students moving through online and on-site training. When I get done, I will sign up for volunteer hours working with a non-profit or agency, and eventually it will help me be a better tour guide for our restoration project here in Gopher Valley.

This Friday I will spend the day at the Straub Environmental Learning Center in Salem and on a fieldtrip to Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge (our neighborhood refuge) talking about historical vegetation and landscapes in the WV. On Saturday it’s off to Silver Falls State Park for another day of classes and fieldtrips in the park to learn about and observe geology. Two of my favorite subjects.

Here’s a trailer for an interesting movie project that gives a taste of what there is to know about the Willamette River and the valley. They need donations to help finish the movie so if you’re looking for something good to support, now is the moment!

Post-harvest cleanup and revegetation commences, Rain Beetles appear

Well, the winter rains have descended. The final cleanup from this latest activity will have to be done next year. But, happily, the people with the equipment (R-J Consulting – check out the link on the blogroll) were able to get in, clean up the debris, and pile all the slash, ready for chipping. See the video HERE.

Usually slash is burned, but I hope we can chip instead. That will give us more mulch to work with, and the carbon will still go into the atmosphere, but on a much longer schedule than incineration. The increased sequestration of carbon from the trees left to grow will offset this somewhat (for the technical details, send me a comment!)

We also had two piles pushed off into the ravine, which is dry in the summer. Although this sounds like a bad idea, the extra debris can break the impact of rain drops, and slow down runoff to protect from erosion. And eventually the piles will melt down into the ground and add organic matter back to the soil, which also helps hold more water. There are no fish in these intermittent (mostly winter and spring) trickles, so this is an approved method.

The equipment operator will return next year with his wonderful skid steer machine with a mowing attachment to reduce the blackberries, poison oak, scotch broom and assorted branches to chips, when the ground is dry and most of the favored plants are dormant.

For the recap, here’s what we started with, at two different spots:

And this is the current scene (the large slash pile on the right is obscuring part of the treatment area:

It can be a bit shocking, but just look at these oaks – so many years living in the shadow of each other and the Douglas firs, and now they can breathe!

Although many won’t ever bush out like the huge open-grown savanna oaks that were never crowded, these will sprout from a number of dormant or buried (epicormic) branches and start to look better-clothed in a few years, although they will be narrow.*****************************

Grass seed on disturbed ground

The rains began in earnest, just as the machines finished up, so everything happened just in time. I spread 22 pounds of native grass seed and 3 pounds of forbs (aka wildflowers and herbaceous plants) as evenly as possible over 2-1/2 or 3 acres. For this I spent a day measuring out 50’ X 10’ plots and portions of seed to cover each. Thanks to Heritage Seedlings for advice and a good product.

Current plans are to conduct well-timed weed control at every opportunity, with every means possible, until the end of time.

A MUDDY BOOT DAY

Days spent tossing out seed on a slick, sloppy hillside were pleasant, despite the prospect of falling on my butt and sliding all the way to the bottom of the slope. A muddy boot day for sure – even the deer were sliding around.

One dividend of being out with the first fall rains was discovering this interesting creature:

It’s a RAIN BEETLE

Wings spread, furry body protected from rain and cold

(Pleocoma sp.) . These are comical, extremely furry-hairy creatures about an inch long. They come buzzing out with the fall rains in the Northwest, the males flying around with their fabulous, complex antennae oriented for female pheromones. They sound like tiny helicopters. They are our own northwest endemic species, except for those in Utah, which is a puzzle.

The females wait at the entrance to their burrows for mating, then go back underground. Weeks or months later they get around to laying eggs.

After they hatch, the larvae live underground, eating the roots of – you guessed it – oaks and conifers. The first soaking rains of fall are apparently a trigger for those that have pupated to emerge as adults.

I must look for them next year, as I’m not sure if they have coordinated emergence like cicadas, or if a few come out every year or every few years. They are native, and as such are not pests, except in cultivated crops like orchards. I surmise this is because their native habitat has been plowed and they’ve lost their natural food web relationships. They might be an instrument of natural selection, taking out the weaker trees. The larvae would be a tasty snack for a gopher, mole, vole or other burrowing creature and the adults are eaten by other mammals like skunks and raccoons or anything that can catch them, which is pretty much anything because they are very slow.

WHAT A WONDERFUL THING to be here when the beetles were. If we hadn’t cut so much vegetation, I might never have seen them, and if the logging, loading and slash piling hadn’t taken so long, I might have missed the rains; if Tom hadn’t found this place, I wouldn’t have this hillside to stand on, and if I hadn’t left Colorado, I wouldn’t have met Tom. I am so lucky.

Looking forward to another year of discovery and witnessing life converge on the present moment. Best wishes to all.

Recycling Oak Trees Into Mushroom Logs: This is Kinda Fun!

Edible mushrooms are a popular item to produce in Oregon – whether marketed by big mushroom producers, hand-harvested wild from secret spots, or grown on hardwood logs by home gardeners and as a cottage industry.

We just cut down a bunch of skinny oaks (see previous post). They were not saw-log quality, so we decided to try some mushroom logs. Some research revealed the method:

  1. clean off the thick lichen and moss blanket (saved those for other purposes like dyeing, floral supplies, and compost – mmmm, good stuff). This is no small task.
  2. I took the extra step of then washing each and every one with some biodegradable detergent and a brush to get the poison oak off. At this point, they were clean enough to eat off.
  3. obtain the mushroom spawn you desire (ours are shiitake and oyster from NW

    Bag o' plug spawn

    Mycological Consultants). We are inoculating logs, so we got the easy-to-use plugs – wooden dowels that are colonized with fungal strands.

  4. drill holes – lots of them! Into the logs, which must be kept moist and used within a couple of weeks of harvest. This introduces the preferred species ahead of any wood-rotting or other fungi that floats in from the surroundings (that is the hope anyway). And hey – you can smoke your cigar while you do this, as Tom has demonstrated.
  5. next, pound the plugs, and countersink below the bark to protect the spawn as it moves into the log over the next 6 – 9 months!

The mushroom strands need to grow into the wood and digest it to obtain food. They mostly look like mold at this point. Eventually, the fungus will get the signal to fruit, and if all goes well, the logs will bloom with mushrooms. After each flush or fruiting period, they need to rest. Then they will continue a fruiting/resting cycle until the food in the log is used up. These logs should last 2-3 years and fruit a few times each year. Although if they fruit naturally rather than being forced, it could be just a couple of times per year. They’re in the “laying yard” now, with regular watering to stay happy.

When they are all done – you’ve got some nice squishy organic matter to use in the garden, and the logs are back to the soil for a new life.

I also got some sawdust spawn, and made mushroom sandwiches with log sections turned on their ends. These should be nice for the garden, since when they are ready to start fruiting, you can sink them in your garden along a bed or path, and they will sprout from the top!

If you would like to reserve a mushroom log of your very own, send me a message using the contact page on this website. As soon as I’m sure they will fruit, I’ll likely be selling them at the markets in McMinnville, and I can set up a delivery schedule between Mac and Seattle along the good old I-5 corridor!

BON APPETIT!

The trees are coming down

Managing our little scrap of ecosystem is a ton of work.

This blog is a chronicle of our ongoing projects to adjust conditions here to favor, as much as possible, native plants and wildlife that were here when the Willamette Valley was a big, open, Indian-managed habitat.

If you are curious about the rationale for our work here, and why in the world we are cutting so many trees, I will intersperse some previous posts for a little background. Also there are some pages in the sidebar with more info; see especially my post on Tending the Wild.

For this final project, to get things going in the direction of oak woodland and savanna and away from congested dougfir and poison oak, we are logging about 2 acres of mostly scraggly second growth trees. (For the story up till now, In the Beginning.)

A good cigar makes the work go faster

Marked for removal

After getting funding and advice from the Conservation District, Tom and I measured and personally marked almost 300 trees FOR DEATH! Mind you, this is not an old growth temperate rainforest. It used to be much more open here at the edge of the Willamette Valley in an ecosystem that has suffered – yes, SUFFERED – the effects of over 160 years of abuse and neglect at the hands of people grazing, homesteading, logging, farming, and developing:

“… As the Kalapuya were displaced by EuroAmerican settlers, the amount of burning decreased, and as early as 1852, young firs and “oakgrubs” were reported growing up on the prairies. Present-day conditions show that, without fire disturbance, succession leads to invasion by trees and shrubs, often non-native, and the unique communities that evolved under the fire regime of presettlement times are lost.

In the 1850s, diverse conifer forests were found at higher elevations and on steeper slopes. Periodic fires maintained the tree communities on the hilltops and edges of the valley as either savannas with herbaceous understories or woodlands with open canopies and brushy undergrowth.

Cessation of burning changed the structure of these open woodlands by allowing repopulation of the openings with tree seedlings. Rapidly growing Douglasfir began to proliferate in many places, shading out the oaks. Settlers introduced exotic plants and grazing by cattle, sheep, and horses which significantly reduced the native herb layer.

Approximately 12% of the lower elevation 1851 woodland and savanna/prairie communities remain.” [emphasis added – actually some estimates of surviving habitat are much lower – jt]*

Crowded firs and oaks marked for thinning

Here is what the current project site looked like before thinning – very crowded, skinny trees competing for light, water and nutrients.

Restoration is often more like horticulture and gardening than anything else. Just think of it as thinning carrots – with a chainsaw.

Intensive management is not a new thing – before Europeans began the process of timber harvest, agriculture, and development, the landscape was not without human intervention. The thing is, it worked well for people, plants and animals, many of which are now extinct or endangered:

“The native people of the region, called ‘Kalapuya’ by the settlers after the native term for “long grass,” had periodically burned the valley in order to maximize their food and fiber resources. Tree-ring studies reveal that frequent fires occurred in the valley from at least 1647 to 1848. … The valley floor was thus kept in an early successional ecological stage that was essential for the persistence of the camas and tarweed, another dietary staple.”

*(© PNW Ecosystems Research Consortium. S. Gregory, L. Ashkenas, D. Oetter, P. Minear, K. Wildman, J. Christy, S. Kolar, E. Alverson.)

To get a perspective on just how prevalent Indian land management was, it is instructive to read M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources (University of Ca Press, paperback ed 2006).

Here are some excerpts that challenged my notions of America before Europeans:

“John Muir, celebrated environmentalist and founder of the Sierra Club, was an early proponent of the view that the California landscape was a pristine wilderness before the arrival of Europeans. Staring in awe at the lengthy vistas of his beloved Yosemite Valley, or the extensive beds of golden and purple flowers in the Central Valley, Muir was eyeing what were really the fertile seed, bulb, and greens gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting, and seed scattering.”

“California Indians did not distinguish between managed land and wild land as we do today… Interestingly, contemporary Indians often use the word wilderness as a negative label for land that has not been taken care of by humans for a long time…’The white man sure ruined this country,’ said James Rust, a Southern Sierra Miwok elder. ‘It’s turned back to wilderness’ (pers.comm. 1989). California Indians believe that when humans are gone from an area long enough, they lose the practical knowledge about correct interaction, and the plants and animals retreat spiritually from the earth or hide from humans. When intimate interaction ceases, the continuity of knowledge, passed down through generations, is broken, and the land becomes ‘wilderness’.”

*****

“Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities.”

Anderson documents that this level of detail extended to location, soil and microclimate, and timing of harvest based on when a plant was most suitable for a particular purpose. She cites others who have found this to be true:

“…[anthropologist A.L.] Kroeber’s 1939 field notes…record that the Yurok of northwestern California practiced burning at a frequency that was appropriate for each cultural purpose: burning of hazelnut for basketry occurred every two years; burning under the tan oaks to keep the brush down took place every three years; burning for elk feed occurred every fourth or fifth year; burning in the redwoods for brush and downed fuel control occurred every three to five years.”

She notes that all this management had the effect of increasing biodiversity and abundance. The absence of management has impoverished biological communities.

“Edible butterflies and moths, which were harvested in the larval and pupal stages, included the whitelined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata)…, and the pandora moth (Colorado pandora)…According to Western Mono elders, the pandora moth…used to be common on the west side of the Sierra Madre but now it is rare…Many Indians recalled that the tortoise-shell butterfly was common in chaparral (Ceanothus cuneatus) areas…and would come every year. It is now seen once every decade or so, and in some areas I has not been sighted for forty years.”

The savanna and woodland landscape was maintained from California north, through the inland valleys of Oregon and southwestern Washington, the Puget Basin, to the tip of Vancouver Island (see range map of Oregon white oak in the sidebar information on the “about oaks” page of this site).

So that’s the backstory on our efforts. Here’s what we’ve been up to this summer so far:

I. Thinning oaks, removing firs

Shearing the smaller diameter trees with the skid-steer shear. We can’t just start burning – there is too much fuel, and then there are the neighbors to think about. First the trees have to be thinned. Once there are fewer trees per acre, and some native grass established, it is very beneficial to burn. If we can’t burn, regular mowing is the less successful alternative.

The first pass was done by R-J Consulting Natural Restoration. First, the smaller trees, up to 12 inches or so in diameter, were cut at the base and stacked by the skid-steer shear. This amazing rubber tracked vehicle has multiple attachments for cutting, grappling, mowing and grinding. It’s very light and handy – minimizing soil disturbance and working with almost surgical precision.

You can see it in action HERE

II. Trees to Logs

Second step: cutting the trees too big for the shear. Our logger, Randy is a careful and judicious tree cutter. Also impressively accurate, making it look terribly easy – which it’s not. Since the trees needed to come down, please join me in enjoying the show without guilt – it is so impressive to see the big ones come down just in the spot they were aimed.

See Videos of all stages at http://www.youtube.com/user/GopherValleyJournal#g/c/F6ABAC5113E864BB

Limbing a tree – now it’s a log

It’s a mess. Logging is a messy business, no way around it. Slash and tree parts end up everywhere, gets pushed together, scattered around, etc. Logs get dragged around over the soil, and the dry clay loam becomes a layer of fluffy dust inches thick.

However, during the driest season, the least harm will be done to the soil. We waited until nesting season was over, and the birds and small animals should be mostly out of the way. It’s also quite a small (2 acre) area we are working in, so there will be ways for animals to disperse away, and for others to recolonize from adjacent habitat.

 Logs to lumber and pulp:

See the self-loader working HERE.

Self-loader taking the first load for the mill. I love those big machines!

Trees to logs – the deck


So that’s how we went from this:

Before

To this, in a few weeks:

After

Beginning to see more light

Stay tuned for:

III   The clean up – mowing and chipping

IV   Replanting and monitoring the results – starting to push the ecosystem in a new direction.

V  What can you do with some skinny oak logs?

VI  Burning??? We hope, someday.