reading the fine print

PHOTO POST

Who knew there was a Green Heron in our neighbourhood?

I’m sure many birders knew, but until this spring I didn’t know there is such a thing as a Green Heron, or that the Green Heron is hardly green at all, or that I had in fact seen and photographed a Green Heron a year ago.

More on herons later, but let’s agree that one can study and admire the fine features of many creatures while being quite unaware of their names.

Wingspan

The dragonflies that buzz around the reeds and lilypads at the edge of the marsh, for example, come in many colours, and might change their looks depending on the angle of the sun – but whatever their species, they are among the most beautiful sights on a steamy summer evening.

Stained Glass

The same can be said of Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), whose delicate orange blossom would be as beautiful by any other name.

Jewelweed

But of course the details matter greatly in many ways. While the native Jewelweed is no more or less beautiful than the somewhat similar Himalayan Balsam (see previous post, Before and After Flowers), the latter, recently introduced species is unfortunately far too successful in this environment, with the result that it can quickly crowd out most other plants.

Frogbit One

The same is true of European Frog-bit, whose tiny and delicate white flowers are now popping up around the edges of Bowmanville Marsh. Brought in to an Ottawa area experimental farm in 1932 as a possible decorative plant, it began to colonize many other bodies of water and is now widely established in southern Ontario and some northeast US states. Unfortunately, its miniature “lily pads” soon multiply to great numbers that snuff out many other plants, and which also spread easily when moved by contact with boats or moving water including the wake from boats. (See Ontario government fact sheet on European Frog-bit)

Frogbit Two

 

Shore Lunch

On the other hand, the Turkey Vulture is one of our more majestic indigenous birds, though it has the unglamorous job of cleaning up carrion. (They do not eat fresh meat.) When Turkey Vultures glide on thermals over the beach they are a welcome sight, as that usually means there is a dead fish or waterbird sending a pungent odour heavenward, and the Turkey Vultures have arrived to deal with it.

Sharp Look

One of the inescapable facts of living on the lakeshore is that there are lots of spiders – thousands, millions, gazillions? They make a mess of windows and outdoor walls, and ensure that the first person to walk through a doorway in the morning can expect a spider web across the face. Most of them are too small to successfully photograph with the equipment I have, but this beauty, stationed on the gatepost to our vegetable garden, is an exception.

Garden Guardian

 

Night Heron by Day

A fine heron by any name

And now about those herons. The Great Blue Heron is unmistakable and can be sighted on most paddling excursions in Bowmanville and Westside marshes, but the small herons are more elusive.

Adult Black-Crowned Night Herons are fairly easy to spot, as their white body and black-cap head stand out clearly against the green reeds. The youngsters, though, wear a better camouflage. Though the adult Black-Crown Night Herons and Green Herons don’t look at all alike, their youngsters bear many similarities.

I first became aware of the Green Heron a few months ago, when I spotted one in the still-short fresh green reeds along Soper Creek. Following that sighting I tried many times to spot the bird again, with little luck. But by late July I started to see young small herons, and learned it is easy to confuse the Black-Crowned Night Heron with the Green Heron – they both have predominately brown and white mottled feathers.

The juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron does not have a black cap, I learned, while a Green Heron wears a dark cap as both a juvenile and adult.

Looking at old pictures, I realized that in a post a year ago I had misidentified the bird at right as a Black-Crowned Night Heron, at a time when I wasn’t aware that Green Herons exist or that they might be found in this area.

At Roost

In the past two weeks I believe I have spotted juveniles of both species, though they are far more cautious and skittish than the Great Blue Herons. The youngster above, for example, retreated to a hiding place high in the trees beside Bowmanville Creek. It was only by drifting by very slowly that I found one angle with an almost unobstructed view.

And after many excursions at dawn and at sunset, I think I’ve finally captured a clear view of a Green Heron, below.

I Was Here All Along

Top photo: On An Arc (click here for larger view)

Disclaimer: the foregoing is not to be construed as advice from a certified authority, including but not limited to, ornithologist, entomologist, arachnologist, angelologist, ichthyologist, neuropsychopharmacologist, lepidopterologist, numismatologist, phytologist, dendrologist or other ologist, and is accompanied by no guarantee, either express or implied.

before and after flowers

PHOTO POST

With most summer flowers now fallen away or drying, it is up to butterflies and damselflies, grasses and fruits, to provide flashes of colour. While monarchs are drawn to the late-blooming Silphium, their caterpillars chew through Milkweed leaves.

Perspectives in pink (click images for larger views)

A wide variety of dragonflies and damselflies drift across from the marsh to our gardens – and clearly, for them this is a busy time of year.

Freefloat

 

Stars Came Out

 

Orange arrangement

Some of this season’s lilies are strikingly colourful even as they dry in the sun, and a few are still attracting pollinators.

Firedust

 

Listening Post

But sometimes you want to escape the heat. This rabbit relaxes on the beach in a cool morning breeze, having earned a break after a long night of pillaging gardens throughout the neighbourhood.

Coming-of-Age Story

On Westside Marsh, a trio of Mute Swan cygnets now look almost grown up, though their grey bills and mottled grey feathers still set them apart from their parents.

Under the Canopy

The flowers that are just now coming into bloom tend to be very tall. At two metres or more, the Himalayan Balsam is a good bit taller than its native cousin the orange-blossomed Jewelweed, which blooms a bit earlier. (The crushed stems of both species yield a clear juice that sooths the burn from Poison Ivy.)

Himalayan Balsam’s hollow but sturdy stalks are beautiful in their own right, though they are usually hidden deep in the understory. A tenacious competitor, it can quickly take over an area and produce a thick stand that leaves no room for other plants. Those who have had the experience of struggling to control a well-established stand realize this plant’s magnificence comes at great expense.

Jewelweed One

Its pink flowers are succeeded by an equally elaborate exploding seed pod that can distribute hundreds of seeds several metres in every direction. If you see a few of these flowers you might want to enjoy their beauty now – and then pull up the plants before they can seed next summer’s forest.

Jewelweed Sundown

 

Top photo: Monarchs’ Realm

 

house of orange

PHOTO POST

The star that burns most brightly in our garden recently is the Butterfly Weed (aka Pleurisy Root, Butterfly Milkweed). This not-so-common member of the milkweed family is said to attract Monarch butterflies.

Panorama in Orange (click images for larger view)

So far this year the Monarchs haven’t paid much attention, but other insects have certainly noticed these blooms. The Musca domestica (housefly) looks its resplendent best against a backdrop of Butterfly weed.

Transparency

Even where the flowers have little colour, it’s not hard to spot some flashes of orange. This dragonfly has flown across the road from the marsh to check out the arugula flowers, while bronze and brassy damselflies also flit around the garden.

Transparency II

 

Sunshadow

Intense summer sun plus a small but very welcome shower sped this sunflower toward maturity. Just two days separates these photos, as yellow-green quickly turns to orange.

Count To Three

The dry heat of recent weeks had many things switching to the hues of fall. With lawns drying up and many flowers withered, some days it looked more like September than July. The burnt ochre of the garden ornaments below – fragmented memories of someone else’s long-ago Mexican vacation – fit right in.

Repose

Some flowers, of course, still ring out in defiantly different tones.

Coiled Blue

Borage (above) and white water lily (below) look cool even when the sun is directly overhead in a cloudless sky.

Deep Light

Yet the palette in our corner of the world is trending toward yellow, gold, and orange, as rudbeckia, sylphium, and a flaming lily, below, come into their glory.

Orange Flows

Top photo: Buzz buzz (click here for larger view)

heat of summer

PHOTO POST

As the most intense heat wave in years takes hold of the lakeshore, the growth of some plants accelerates, others parch and wither, and many marsh-dwellers seek mid-day shade or the cool of twilight hours.

With a still bountiful supply of moisture, green plants in the marsh are tall and lush, though the air is steamy with transpiration.

Featured Creature (click images for larger views)

Water levels are dropping, exposing little isthmuses and giving grasses a chance to spring up out of the mud. This killdeer is feeding by sunset in Westside Marsh.

Stepping to the Sunset

Garden plants are remaining lush only if they are watered every day or two – but these Evening Primrose blossoms did grab onto a generous morning dew.

Primrose by Morning

 

Blooming Bergamot

Bergamot, above, and Viper’s Bugloss, below, answer the mid-day sun with particularly intense bursts of colour.

By a Thread

 

Ring Bill

Ring-billed Gulls, above, and Osprey, below, keep watch over waters of marsh and lake, and swoop down frequently to grab small fish.

Balance One

 

Balance Two

 

At Roost

The chilly waters of Lake Ontario can usually be counted on to keep the air a bit cooler – though on a calm night the cooling effect seems not to make it even 50 meters inland. Perhaps that is why two Great Blue Herons forsook their fishing grounds in the marsh one night and joined the gulls out on the Port Darlington breakwater.

 

Heron at Light House Rock


 

Top photo: Red Goose (click here for larger view)

Can nuclear power extend the economic expansion?

Also published at Resilience.org and BiophysEco.

Richard Rhodes’ new book Energy: A Human History does an excellent job of describing the scientific and technological hurdles that had to be cleared in the development of, for example, an internal combustion engine which can convert refined petroleum into forward motion.

But he gives short shrift to the social and political forces that have been equally important in determining how technological advances shape our world. That internal combustion engine might be a wonder of ingenuity, but was there any scientific reason we should make multi-tonne vehicles the primary mode of transportation for single passengers in cities, drastically reconfiguring urban landscapes in the process? When assiduous research resulted in more efficient engines, did science also dictate that we should use those engines to drive bigger and heavier SUV’s, and then four-wheel-drive, four-door pick-up trucks, to our suburban grocery superstores?

Unfortunately, Rhodes presents the benefits of modern science as if they are all inextricably wrapped up in our current high-energy-consumption economy, implying that human prosperity must end unless we find ways to maintain this high-energy system.

In this second part of a look at Energy (first installment here), we’ll delve into these questions as they relate to Rhodes’ strident defense of nuclear power.

To set the context, Rhodes argues that the only realistic – and the most ethical – way forward is a gradual progression on the path we are already taking, and that means an “all energy sources except coal and oil” strategy:

“Every energy system has its advantages and disadvantages …. And given the scale of global warming and human development, we will need them all if we are to finish the centuries-long process of decarbonizing our energy supply – wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, natural gas.”1

Three key points here: First, Rhodes recognizes the severity and urgency of the climate problem.

Second, he believes we have been “decarbonizing our energy supply” for centuries. That is true with respect to intensity: we now release fewer units of carbon for each unit of energy than we did in the 19th century.2 But in an overall sense, we emit vastly more carbon cumulatively (and vastly more carbon per capita) than we used to. It is the overall carbon emissions, not the carbon/energy intensity ratio, that matters to the climate.

Third, while energy production via natural gas has relatively low carbon emissions at the point of combustion, there is wide recognition that methane leaks throughout the production/transmission chain are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which may counteract the benefits of switching from coal to gas. Rhodes makes only an oblique reference to this critical problem in current natural gas usage.

It’s the issue of nuclear power, though, that really brings out Rhodes’ rhetorical heat. Consider this ad hominem attack:

“Antinuclear activists, whose agendas originated in a misinformed neo-Malthusian foreboding of overpopulation (and a willingness at the margin to condemn millions of their fellow human beings to death from disease and starvation), may fairly be accused of disingenuousness in their successive arguments against the safest, least polluting, least warming, and most reliable energy source humanity has yet devised.3

If someone warns that a social or technological development is likely to result in mass death, does that logically mean they want mass death, or that they are indifferent to it? Obviously not. They may well be sincerely motivated by a desire to save lives – just as those who promote the same social or technological development might sincerely believe that is the best way to save lives and promote prosperity.

So I think it is Rhodes who is being disingenuous with his ad hominem argument – even though I happen to agree with some of his substantive points on the relative safety of nuclear power.

What could go wrong?

As one who has lived for fifteen years just downwind of major nuclear facilities – first a uranium processing plant, more recently a nuclear power generator – I’ve had lots of incentive to study the potential safety hazards of the nuclear power industry. And on the issue of the relative operating safety of nuclear power generation, my conclusions have been much the same as those Rhodes puts forth.

I frequently take a short bike ride along the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail through the buffer zone around the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station. Is this a significant hazard to my health? Yes it is, but only because this route also requires me to share the road with trucks and cars for a few kilometers, and to ride right beside a stream of pollution-emitting traffic on Ontario’s busiest expressway.

As a close neighbour of nuclear facilities, my risk of death due to sudden catastrophic nuclear power accident is several orders of magnitude lower than my risk of death due to sudden catastrophic traffic accident. (Worldwide, well over a million people are killed in traffic accidents per year.4)

As for the health risk due to chronic exposure to the amounts of radiation that are emitted by a current Canadian nuclear generating plant, I fully concur with Rhodes’ more general conclusion: “Low doses of radiation are not only low risk; they’re also lost in the noise of other sources of environmental insult.”5

Likewise, I share Rhodes’ conclusion that shutting down our existing nuclear power plants for environmental reasons, while continuing to rely on coal for a significant part of electricity generation, is daft6 – we should replace carbon-emitting generating systems first.

In my region, I would be sorry to see Darlington Nuclear Station shut down if Ontario were still significantly reliant on gas-powered peaker plants, as it is now. And given that we have a very long way to go in electrifying personal transportation and home heating, our electricity demand may increase significantly, making the transition to a fully renewable electricity generation system that much farther down the road. In that context, I think our existing nuclear power plants are a better option environmentally than continued or increasing use of any fossil fuel, natural gas included, for generation of electricity.

But should we commission and build new nuclear power plants? That is a very different question. Rhodes recognizes that the economic viability of the nuclear power industry is very much in question, but he makes no significant attempt in Energy to resolve the economic question.

To adequately answer the economic viability question, we would need a much wider conception of science than the one that comes through in Rhodes’ book.7

Beyond physics and chemistry

The science Rhodes celebrates in Energy: A Human History falls almost entirely within very basic physics and chemistry. The discoveries and developments Rhodes discusses are highly significant, and they will always remain foundational – but they are not sufficient for a clear understanding of technological systems, which are also social phenomena.

A more recent scientific advance is essential in coming to grips with our current energy challenges. This is the concept of Energy Return on Investment (EROI). Over his long and distinguished career, ecologist Charles A.S. Hall posited that organisms, ecological communities, and human societies must derive more usable energy from their activities than the energy they invest in those activities. With this simple insight8, Hall gave economics a foundation in the very principles of thermodynamics that Rhodes reveres.

The resulting field of biophysical economics provides a deeper understanding of the socio-technological revolutions that Rhodes simply ascribes to “science”. After studying the Energy Return on Investment of major energy sources over the past 200 years, we can understand how the rapid exploitation of fossil fuels provided a huge boost in the the energy available to society, while simultaneously freeing the great majority of people from energy-procuring activities so that they could work instead at a wide variety of new activities and industries. We can understand that if any society is to use a high quantity of energy per person, while employing only a small number of people in its energy sector, then its energy sector needs a high rate of Energy Return on Investment.

With readily accessible supplies of coal, oil and natural gas, industrial civilization in the past 200 years has benefitted from a very high Energy Return on Investment. But with “sweet spots” exhausted or in depletion phases, the EROI of the fossil fuel economy has been in marked decline for the past few decades.

Thus one of the key questions about a supposed nuclear renaissance is, can the nuclear power industry achieve an EROI comparable to that of the fossil fuel economy we have known to date? Most published analyses say no9 – from an Energy Return On Investment standpoint, nuclear power generation is (at worst) not worth doing at all, or (at best) worth doing even though it will produce much more expensive energy than the energy we came to depend on during the twentieth century.

If nuclear power generation has a low EROI, in sum, it cannot and will not fuel a continued economic expansion.

Rhodes argues that nuclear power is vitally important because we really need it to extend our current model of prosperity to billions more people now and in coming generations, and he claims the mantle of science for this position. But a broader and deeper application of scientific analysis can deal with the economic viability questions about nuclear power that he simply sidesteps.

Illustration at top: high-voltage transmission lines on grounds of Darlington Nuclear Station, on north shore of Lake Ontario east of Toronto

 


NOTES

1Energy: A Human History, page 337 (return to text)

2This is a point explained in more detail by Vaclav Smil, who also gives a perspective on the relative degree of decarbonization. From 1900 to 2000, he says, “the average carbon intensity of the world’s fossil fuel supply kept on declining: when expressed in terms of carbon per unit of the global total primary energy supply, it fell from nearly 28 kg C/GJ [GigaJoule] in 1900 to just below 25 in 1950 and to just over 19 in 2010, roughly a 30% decrease; subsequently, as a result of China’s rapidly rising coal output, it rose a bit during the first decade of the twenty-first century.” Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History, page 270. (return to text)

3Energy: A Human History, page 336 (return to text)

4World Health Organization says there were 1.25 million traffic deaths in 2013. (return to text)

5Energy: A Human History, page 324 (return to text)

6This general statement must be qualified, of course, by noting that some particular nuclear plants should be shut down because their designs were inherently flawed to begin with, or because they have aged beyond the point where they can be maintained and operated safely. (return to text)

7Even if one accepts that the operating safety record of nuclear power stations is exemplary, there are the major issues of nuclear weapons proliferation, and the long-term storage of highly radioactive wastes. Rhodes doesn’t mention weapons proliferation, and he cavalierly dismisses the long-term disposal issue: “The notion that such waste must be successfully protected from exposure for hundreds of thousands of years is counter to how humans handle every other kind of toxic material we produce. We usually bury it, but we also discount its future risk, on the reasonable grounds that we owe concern to one or, at best, two generations beyond our own …” (Energy: A Human History, page 337, emphasis mine). Yes, that’s what we usually do, but in what sense is that “reasonable”? (return to text)

8Though the basic insight is simple, measuring and calculating EROI can be anything but simple. A key issue is deciding how far out to draw the boundaries of an analysis. As Hall, Lambert and Balogh noted in “EROI of different fuels and the implications for society” in 2014, “Societal EROI is the overall EROI that might be derived for all of a nation’s or society’s fuels by summing all gains from fuels and all costs of obtaining them. To our knowledge this calculation has yet to be undertaken because it is difficult, if not impossible, to include all the variables necessary to generate an all-encompassing societal EROI value”. (return to text)

9In Scientific American (April 2013) Mason Inman cited an EROI of 5 for nuclear electricity generation – lower than photovoltaic or wind generators, and only a small fraction of the EROI of 69 that Inman cited for global conventional oil production in 2011. In 2014 a meta-review of studies, EROI of different fuels and the implications for society, gave a mean EROI of 14 for nuclear power. A paper by the World Nuclear Association cites outliers among the published studies, highlighting a conclusion that nuclear generation of electricity has a higher average EROI than hydro or fossil fuel generating systems, and is “one order of magnitude more effective than photovoltaics and wind power”. (return to text)

Energy: A Human History – a slim slice of history and science

Also published at Resilience.org and BiophysEco.

“The population of the earth has increased more than sevenfold since 1850 – from one billion to seven and a half billion – primarily because of science and technology,” Richard Rhodes concludes at the end of his new book Energy: A Human History. “Far from threatening civilization, science, technology, and the prosperity they create will sustain us as well in the centuries to come.”1

Rhodes tells an engaging tale of energy transitions over some 500 years. Yet the limitations in his field of view become critical in the book’s concluding chapter, when he reveals which particular axe he is especially eager to grind.

Both the title of the book and its timing invite comparison with Vaclav Smil’s 2017 work Energy and Civilization: A History (reviewed here). There is a significant overlap, most notably in both author’s views that major energy transitions – from wood to coal, from coal to petroleum – have been multi-generational processes.

But Rhodes’ scope is far narrower, both in time and in geography.

Rhodes begins his story in sixteenth-century England. His cast of characters is overwhelmingly Anglo-American and male, with a sprinkling of western Europeans, and only a brief excursion outside of “western civilization” to discuss oil exploration in Saudi Arabia.

Smil, by contrast, starts his book in pre-history, with an erudite discussion of the energy implications of human evolution. He follows with more than 200 pages on developments in energy usage from ancient times to the Middle Ages, in Africa, India, China, Europe, and Mesoamerica.

Smil’s readers, then, arrive at his discussion of the industrial revolution and the fossil fuel era with an understanding that millennia of progressive developments, around the world, had gone into the technologies and social organizations available to sixteenth-century Englishmen.

The unspoken implication in Rhodes’ tale is that the men of the Royal Society of London started with a blank slate, and all our current technological marvels are due wholly to the magnificence of their particular current in science.

One question that never arises in Rhodes’ book is, how did it happen that a class of educated men had the time and resources to ponder theories, conduct long series of experiments, and write and discuss their essays? There is no mention that during these same centuries, the countries of western Europe were drawing vast quantities of basic resources from Africa and the Americas, at the cost of millions of lives.

In short, this is a woefully incomplete history of energy. But within those limitations, Rhodes writes engagingly and with admirable clarity.

A thermodynamic page-turner

For anyone interested in basic issues of physics and technology, the progression from scattered awareness of curious phenomena, to testable theories, to technologies that were applied on a mass scale and changed everyday life, makes a fascinating story. For example, observations of static electricity from a cat’s hair, frightening strikes of lightning, and the effects of magnets eventually grew into a comprehensive theory of electromagnetism. Rhodes ably outlines how this led through development of crude batteries, then to simple generators, and eventually to the construction of a massive generator harnessing some of the power of Niagara Falls for a new phase of the Industrial Revolution.

Likewise, his discussion of the long gestation of the coal-fired steam engine – which depended on an understanding of basic issues of thermodynamics as well as refinements in metal-working needed for the construction of high-quality boilers – illuminates important factors in the birth of the fossil-fuel era.

An excellent section on early oil drilling and refining processes leads to a fascinating aside: the profitable introduction of lead as a performance-enhancing additive to gasoline, notwithstanding severe health effects which were noticed and decried at the earliest stages of the leaded gas era.

Credit where credit is due

The social effects of these developments in basic and applied science have been sweeping and many of them have been salutary. It would be foolish to deny that science has played a major role in increasing life expectancy and making rapid population growth possible.

Yet many historians would argue that social and political factors such as labour rights and the push for universal education have been equally important.

Of most direct importance to Rhodes’ subject, it is clear that science was critical in helping us understand principles of thermodynamics and helping us harness the power in both fossil fuels and and renewable resources. But science has not decreed that, once having learned to extract and consume fossil fuels, we should use up these resources as fast as humanly possible. That trend, rather, is due to an economic system that requires profits to increase continuously and exponentially.

Likewise, science taught us how to use the fossil fuel resources which have helped boost our population seven-fold in the past 170 years. But science did not create those resources, which were cooking in the earth’s cavities for millions of years before the first protohuman scientist conducted the first experiment.

If, following Rhodes’ thinking, we give science the whole credit for making a population explosion possible, we should also credit science with blowing through millions of years of accumulated energy resources in just a few hundred years. We should give science credit for the fact that billions of people live in areas already being severely impacted by climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions (even though those people typically have used minimal quantities of fossil fuel themselves.) And we should ask, why can’t science come up with a cost- and time-effective way of replacing all those fossil fuels, so that all 7 billion of us plus our more numerous descendants can keep on living the high-energy lifestyle to which (some of) us are accustomed?

Ah, but science has already found a big part of the next answer, Rhodes might answer: nuclear power.

The questions raised by Rhodes’ concluding sections on nuclear power are complex, and we’ll dive into those issues in the next installment.

Illustration at top: “Bridge over the Mongahela River, Pittsburg, Penn.” from the Feb 21, 1857 edition of Ballou’s Pictorial, accessed via Wikimedia Commons


1Energy: A Human History, page 343

Colour in the eye of the beholder

Photo Post

The marshes are a sea of green, wild and garden flowers are coming into bloom, and one 24-hour period this week saw a burst of nesting activity by the Snapping Turtles.

Notwithstanding all the vivid hues, the tranquility of many midsummer days comes across beautifully in photos of minimal colour.

Waterbug (click images for larger view)

 

Spin

In our garden the Asiatic Lilly (above) and Sea Holly (below) were just about to bloom.

Sea Holly

The lawn is dotted with Daisy Fleabane (below).

Pink & Yellow

Even in the compost bin, an occasional “flower” sprouts from the dark decomposition.

Compost Flower

 

Beach Path

On the dunes and on the marsh, elegant forms rise from the sand and water surfaces.

Making Waves

 

Sunset Stride

As the sun dips below the horizon, a family of swans climbs out on a mud flat, while a turtle digs a lakeside nest to deposit her eggs.

Excavator

 
Top photo: Close Look (click here for larger view)

 

light lines

PHOTO POST

Bright light and shadows run through this week’s post, with photos from garden and forest, marsh and lakeshore.

When there’s a fork in the road, take it (click images for larger views)

 

Mullein

This Mullein plant, lit from the other side by early morning sunlight, grows just beneath a bird feeder. The spot is a favourite hangout for squirrels, who encourage the Blue Jays to spill as much seed as possible.

Feeding Grounds

Purple Finches (who always look more red than purple to me) also visit the same feeder.

I See Red

 

Goldfinch

The Goldfinches and Hummingbirds get their own special feeders.

Wing

 

Antennae

The above photo comes from a bit farther afield, on the bank of a small pond within the grounds of the Darlington Nuclear Station.

Below, the shadows of sunset play across the surface of Soper Creek where a submerged branch breaks the gentle current.

Ripple

On the same evening, a Kingbird rests above a logjam on Bowmanville Creek.

Kingbird

Dozens of Dunlins swirled along the lakeshore on a breezy afternoon, plucking insects as waves splashed over the stones.

Landing

 

Seven

 

Fast Runner

Every so often the birds would rise together in an instant, swoop out over the water in a fast-moving cloud, and circle back to a new spot a bit further down the shore. What caused these sudden flurries? The Dunlins, it appeared, didn’t appreciate the company of a Grackle, whose stroll along the beach repeatedly got too close for comfort.

Grackle

Kings of the Yukon: a travel story as deep and wide as the great river

Also published at Resilience.org.

It’s a simple truth: the slower you travel the more you see.

Kings of the Yukon, by Adam Weymouth, published by Penguin in the UK, Little, Brown in the US and Random House in Canada

This was impressed on me in the summer of 1988, as I traveled through the Yukon Territory at the frenetic pace of a bicycle tourist. Where the highway occasionally crossed the Yukon River, I sometimes shared campsites with a more patient breed of traveler, the drifters.

Arriving at the riverbank with little more than a sleeping roll and an axe, they had fashioned crude rafts and set themselves afloat in the current for weeks at a time. The stories they told – of rounding a bend and surprising a moose cow and calf swimming through an eddy, or waking up in the strange light of the subarctic midnight and not knowing where they were or what century they might be in – have held my imagination ever since.

British writer Adam Weymouth is a even better story teller than anyone I met that summer. His new book Kings of the Yukon recounts a 2000-mile canoe trip, from the upstream end of the river’s tributaries to its sprawling delta on Alaska’s Bering Sea coast.

As a travel tale the book is first-rate. But Weymouth’s keen interest in the Chinook – aka King – Salmon, and his listening skills when he meets dozens of river-dwellers whose cultures have been shaped by the migrations of this fish, combine to fascinating, awe-inspiring, and often heart-breaking effect.

When he begins his river journey at McNeil Lake he is just three days removed from his home in London. After a few weeks paddling downstream, however, his senses have changed to suit the new setting:

 

“I am able to focus in on a fleck of white from half a mile away, and spot a bald eagle sitting motionless, scarcely aware how I have done it. I find that I can tell a species of a tree by how it is moving in the wind, how the aspen leaves twinkle but the birch’s quiver. … I had always thought that learning birdsong was beyond my capabilities, but out here the songs are starting to stick: the dark-eyed junco, which sounds like a telephone ringing; the white-crowned sparrow; the raucous kingfisher. Despite my many years of city living, I think perhaps I might not be a lost cause after all.”

It’s not as easy to get to know the fish, which mostly slip by his canoe cloaked in impenetrably silty river water. Fortunately he can learn from people who have spent generations understanding the comings and goings of salmon.

There was a time when many great rivers in Europe and North America teemed with salmon. Gifted with the rare ability to live in both fresh water and salt water, many salmonids are born in shallow stream beds, travel far downstream and into the open oceans, and then return against the currents several years later to spawn in the same spots where they were born. But today deforestation, over-fishing, and the construction of dams have decimated salmon populations.

In the untamed rivers where salmon remain strong they are a prized food source. Their dependable migrations, plus the nutritious oils between their skins and flesh, make them a superb source of energy for people who must make it through long cold winters.

 

A steep decline

The Yukon River system is one of the richest remaining salmon habitats – but there too populations of some species have seen a steep decline. The Chinook Salmon, the largest and most prized salmon species in North America, has dropped both in numbers and in average size.

When I camped at an informal squatter’s village outside Dawson City in 1988, river rafters tipped me off to a great bargain – fresh whole Chinook salmon, sold for $2 a pound from coolers on the back streets of town. The resulting campfire feast was so memorable I wanted to share the experience with my son on our bike trip through the Yukon twenty years later. Alas, I was told the fish had become scarce, quotas were severely restricted, and sales were now banned.

A disappointment for a tourist – but a tragedy for the many native communities along the river. The most moving passages in Kings of the Yukon come when people share their feelings about the deep changes being forced on their cultures. For generations people have marked the seasons by the passage of the salmon, and the rituals of setting nets, stocking smoke-houses, cutting and slicing and drying the red-orange fillets into stores of dried fish which will last through the winter. Now they struggle to decide if they can catch just enough fish each year to pass on their culture to the next generation – or if even that minimal harvest will prevent salmon populations from rebuilding.

There are many viewpoints on why Chinook Salmon numbers have dwindled, and Weymouth is clear-eyed and even-handed in his treatment. He makes clear, too, why the salmon are important not just to people, but to the earth’s largest ecosystem, the boreal forest. The vast river systems ceaselessly carry silt and minerals – soil fertility – out to the oceans. But uncounted millions of salmon carry this nutrition back upstream to their spawning grounds where they reproduce and then die.

Besides humans, bears are the famously photogenic beneficiaries of the salmon runs. But the bears typically eat just the choicest parts of the salmon they toss from the rivers; most of the fish will decompose on the forest floor, and the very trees are dependent on a cycle of nutrition that spans many years and many thousands of miles.

Weymouth braids many strands into his story – the distinctive native cultures that spread out from coastal delta to arctic tundra, from rain forests to distant mountain lakes; the devastating epidemics introduced by whalers, traders and missionaries; the ongoing social catastrophe set in motion by a residential school system consciously designed to put an end to native ways of life; the rhythms of seasonal subsistence fishing camps and massive industrial processing plants; even the distribution centre that eventually sends plastic-wrapped slices of salmon to supermarkets throughout Britain.

By the time he paddles out the seven-mile wide mouth of the Yukon into salt water waves, four months have passed, darkness has begun its takeover of the subarctic nights – and his readers have absorbed as good an introduction to northern life as they could hope to find in a single volume.

Illustration at top: “Chinook Salmon, Adult Male”, from plates in Evermann, Barton Warren; Goldsborough, Edmund Lee (1907) The Fishes of Alaska, via Wikimedia.

The edge of summer

 PHOTO POST

While a few migratory birds are still stopping by on their way to nesting grounds far to the north, some resident birds have already hatched big broods. Meanwhile woodland flowers are hurrying to develop before the leafy canopies above cast a blanket of shade.

A few days ago a pair of Dunlins paid a colourful visit to Port Darlington beach, pecking at the wet sand in search of tiny insects. Since they nest along the Arctic coast and the shore of Hudson’s Bay these birds still have a long way to fly.

Travellers (click images for larger views)

Along Bowmanville Creek just north of the harbour, a ramshackle beaver lodge has appeared vacant since it was submerged by last spring’s high water. But this curious Mink seems to be quite at home.

Guardian

 

Preaching to the Choir

Two weeks ago there was little trace of these ferns beyond the stumps of last year’s growth. Now they have emerged and unfurled their fronds more than half a meter high. In the interim the muddy forest floor was dotted with fiddleheads.

Fiddlehead Duet

Another woodland plant is just about to present a well-kept secret. The intoxicating aroma of the Mayapple blossom will soon be present –  but you have to get down on hands and knees and peer under the umbrella-leaves of the Mayapple to find its single flower. The single delicious yellow fruit, similarly hidden, will ripen in August – and the squirrels will be ready.

Promise of a Flower

Under a tree on a sand dune, Vinca is now in flower.

Ground Cover

 

Rafting

In the marsh, shoots of green are just emerging amongst the sun-bleached stubble of last year’s reeds. A pair of Common Terns found that a couple pieces of the pithy cattail stalks make a fine raft.

The Great Blue Herons keep watch around the marsh’s edge for the many fish that ripple the water’s surface.

Focus

 

Sunday Morning

Pairs of Canada Geese are watching their nests throughout the marsh and along the creek banks – but some families have really gotten a jump on the season.

Slipstream

Top photo: Beachcombing (click here for full-size image)