Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

A voice from Hiroshima, seventy years after the bomb

A snowy walk in Hokkaido, March 2006

Azusa smiles on a snowy walk in Hokkaido, March 2006

Azusa doesn’t send me many emails, maybe one every five years, so it was exciting to see her name in my Inbox. We met over thirty years ago when I lived in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. Azusa was still in college, I had just graduated. She knew English and was involved in social justice work.

In this new email Azusa wrote that the Hibakusha of Hokkaido, the atomic bomb survivors, were compiling a booklet of testimony to send to the UN. The material would be distributed during the month-long Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty meeting in April and May. She included an English translation of an oral testimony by Ms. Shizuko Saito, a 92-year-old woman who had survived the bombing of Hiroshima. Ms. Saito had never before told her story. Azusa wrote: “I tried to translate it but my English is so poor. Will you read it and check it out?”

Hiroshima 1945

Hiroshima after the bombing with city hall in the background

Of course! I traveled to Hiroshima and walked through the Peace Park where the burned, skeletal remains of Hiroshima’s city hall are now surrounded by a modern city. I was sickened by the photos in the museum, photos of burned bodies and of the massive destruction of Hiroshima. About 70,000 people died the day of the bombing and twice that many died shortly after. If I could help in the smallest way to help avoid another nuclear bombing, I would.

Saito Shizuko was 22 years old on August 6, 1945, a dressmaker in a village not far from the center of Hiroshima. She tells of the clear morning, then the darkness after the bomb and the people with burned clothing and peeling flesh. Leaning against her sister, she walked away from the burning city and later suffered from radiation sickness. My edit of her last paragraph reads, “Seventy years ago I had no idea what the atomic bomb was. If I had known, I might have reacted differently on that terrible day in Hiroshima. I am against war and do appeal for a total ban on nuclear weapons.”

A couple of weeks after Azusa’s email a package arrived from Japan. It included stapled papers with the title “Voices from Hibakusha — from Hokkaido to the United Nations.” On its thin pages I read story after story of the horrors of that day in August, 1945. Of the greasy, black rain. Of the dying people desperate for water. Of the strange illnesses that have followed the survivors through their lives, and the discrimination they encountered at school or at work. At the end of each testimony the writer asks for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Some request Japanese lawmakers keep Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution intact. The article says, “the state formally renounces the sovereign right of belligerency and aims at an international peace based on justice and order.” In 2014, Article 9 was weakened when the Japanese government gave more power to the Self-Defense forces, allowing them to engage in combat if their allies are attacked. The USA supported this move.

On August 6, 1945 Shigeru Sato was 17, a soldier digging bomb shelters. His position on a crowded train saved his life, though he still had burns and illnesses. He ends his testimony this way: “70 years later, Hiroshima revived so much that no one can feel the taste of those days. However, when it comes to August, I recall what happened that day.”

No one can feel the taste of those days.

The sovereign right of belligerency.

Thank you, Azusa, for helping me feel the taste of those days, for reminding me to keep working for the sovereign right of peace.

Jay, Azusa and Betsy on a snowy day in March, 2006

Tom, Azusa, Jay, SnowWoman and Betsy on a snowy day in Hokkaido, March, 2006

I brake for dinosaurs

Physically, they haven’t changed much in 215 million years, but their world sure has — as far as we know ancient turtles didn’t have to dodge motor vehicles.

Snapping turtle laying eggs on Glenwood Avenue in Queensbury. Archive Photo of the Day: Stuart Delman, Chestertown, NY

Snapping turtle laying eggs on Glenwood Avenue in Queensbury. Archive Photo of the Day: Stuart Delman, Chestertown, N.Y.

The modern snapping turtle has “only” been around for about 40 million years. From late May until early July when female snappers are out looking for places to dig a hole in which to deposit their leathery “Ping-Pong ball” eggs, you may see them egg-laying on sandy road shoulders or crossing the pavement. Sadly many such females, ranging in size from about eight pounds up to thirty or more, are killed by traffic.

Even more tragic is the fact that some motorists intentionally hit snapping turtles, which are unfairly blamed for killing off game fish and young waterfowl. Snappers are omnivores and feed on everything from aquatic vegetation to crayfish to carrion. During the height of summer the majority of their diet is plant-based. Despite decades of research from the 1950s to the present day that exonerates snapping turtles of all game-species murder charges, they are still seen as a threat to wildlife by those who fish and hunt. It’s not to say turtles won’t eat a trout or gosling, but in natural habitats they have no measurable impact on game species. Private ponds and other non-natural habitats are exceptions and can sometimes require turtle management.

This Protostega Gigas, a sea turtle from 70 million years ago, weighed up to two tons. At least it would have been an even match for your car. Photo: CLaire H., Creative Commons, some rights reserved

This Protostega Gigas, a sea turtle from 70 million years ago, weighed up to two tons. At least it would have been an even match for your car. Photo: CLaire H., Creative Commons, some rights reserved

A turtle’s shell, composed of a carapace (top) and a plastron (bottom) is an extension its vertebrae, and is essentially living bone that’s covered in tissue similar in composition to our fingernails. Unfortunately the shell is not as strong as it looks, and even if a turtle appears unscathed after being hit by a car, chances are it has numerous broken bones and internal injuries.

You can help a turtle cross the road as long as you follow a few rules. First, be safe. Don’t stop if you’ll be in danger of getting hit or of causing a traffic accident. You don’t want to get other drivers killed, even if it is a turtle-hitter. Second, listen to the turtle. If she wants to get across the road, it doesn’t matter if you think conditions on the other side don’t look conducive to egg-laying. If you turn her back she’s just going to cross again.

“The safest way to handle a snapping turtle is to ask someone else to do it.”

The safest way to handle a snapping turtle is to ask someone else to do it. In the water they feel safe and are generally docile. Bites are extremely rare in water. On land, however, it is a different story. Because snappers can’t pull themselves inside their shells as completely as other turtles, they’ve developed “attitude” to compensate. Their unusually long necks can reach around nearly to their back legs to snap with their toothless — but sharp — beaks.

Picking up turtles by the tail may seem like a safe method, but this can damage their spines. The recommended “turtle hold” is to grasp the carapace on either side near the back end. Remember the part about them reaching back past the middle of their shells to bite? I carry a scoop shovel in the trunk for turtle-herding.

Because road-killed snapping turtles are nearly always fertile females, road mortality is a real threat to their species. Snappers become mature by size rather than age, and begin breeding when their shells measure about eight inches across. A large female can weigh 25-35 pounds and have a shell of 15”- 20” in diameter.

Turtle shells are segmented like a mosaic. Each section, known as a scute, has growth rings that correspond to age, similar to the annual rings of a tree. These rings are how we know snappers in the wild can live at least 70 years, and quite possibly longer, though the average age is closer to thirty.

Slowing down near wetlands during breeding season can help reduce turtle mortality. You’re most likely to see snapping turtles during June from dawn to midday, and again in the evening. Also, let’s help restore their reputation by spreading the word that they are not a danger to fish and waterfowl. We need to respect our elders, especially those that have been around longer than the dinosaurs.

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Seeing the trillium

Today's Photo of the Day: Antoni Zaborek Wildlife Photography‎

Today’s iconic Photo of the Day: Antoni Zaborek Wildlife Photography

Overuse wears a word down, and one of the most eroded words in English now is “icon.” From icon’s original meaning as a representation of sacred awe, it has descended to mean merely popular and ubiquitous. Might as well say “cool.”

Icon: trillium. Noun Project

Icon: trillium. Noun Project

But we do have experiences that are genuinely iconic–seeing the heron in flight, the trillium in bloom.

Whenever I see a trillium, I want to stop and breathe, to do nothing but be in the presence. And then I want to write a poem; I want to consider perfection, purity, evanescence. A trillium is a thing seen that points to things unseen.

I haven’t written that poem yet, and today is not that day. But I’m not the only one who is moved in this way by the too-brief adornment of spring in the North Country.

Patricia Cambell Carlson wrote:

All along this hill: trillium
white as Christ’s robes when
He ascended into heaven. . .

Masiela Lusha called trillium:

The muse of three ivory words
Tied to one gravity of reason—
Tied to the gold pollen
Of birth and rebirth and rebirth.

Peter Pereira writes of their fading:

the trillium, its three-petaled white flowers
exquisitely tinged with purple as they fall.

And Sydney Lea recalls:

. . . a late trillium
glowed by a ledge like a lotus.
Right along the rain kept pounding.
I was mindful of all these things

What’s the last thing you saw that stopped you in your tracks? Share a mindful moment in a comment below.

Crazy worms are as bad as they sound

Raise your hand if you are tired of hearing about new invasive species. I’m right there with you. Aside from the fact that there’s too much bad news around as it is, we’re still working on a cure for those good old-fashioned pests that rival the common cold in terms of eluding conquest. Japanese beetles, European chafers, buckthorn, wild parsnip, Japanese knotweed — enough already.

We don’t need a new invasive species every year, but try convincing them, right? I half-expect to get a bulletin one of these days on some tropical soil-shark that stowed away in a shipload of potting mix. Probably it’ll feed on moles and woodchucks, but will also burst up out of lawns to swallow small pets, and gardeners might lose a finger while weeding. That would kind of put lily-leaf beetles in perspective, wouldn’t it?

Meet the new kid on the block,amynthas agrestis, the Asian "crazy" worm. It's big, it multiplies fast, and it eats everything. Photo: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Meet the new kid on the block,amynthas agrestis, the Asian “crazy” worm. It’s big, it multiplies fast, and it eats everything. Photo: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

So I’d be a lot more hesitant to tell you about a new and significant threat to forests, landscapes, and gardens if it wasn’t for the fact that you can make a real difference in preventing its spread.

The new pest is Amynthas agrestis, a super-size (eight-inch long) earthworm known as the Asian jumping worm, Alabama (or Georgia) jumper, snake worm or crazy worm. It’s sold as bait, and unfortunately is also hawked as a substitute for the harmless red wiggler used in worm compost bins. Its name comes from the fact that it moves rapidly on top of the soil, resembling a snake more than a worm. Lively and strong, it can flip out of your hand. Assuming you want to touch it.

Other than its impressive squirm factor (in every sense), what’s the problem with Amynthas agrestis — worms are good for the soil, aren’t they? Not so, my friend; crazy worms are an exception. These are not your grandparents’ worms. OK, that didn’t come out quite right. Let me rephrase it.

Here in the Northeast where glaciers scrubbed our bedrock bare a few years back, we have no native earthworms. There is debate, especially in the forestry world, over just how much of a mixed blessing our European earthworm species are, but I won’t get into that. Let’s just assume earthworms are good.

A native of Japan and Korea, Amynthas agrestis is a very different animal. Their reproduction, for example. Other earthworms are hermaphroditic, that is, they possess both male and female organs, but they still need to go out on a date with another of the same kind. Crazy worms, however, are parthenogenic, which means they are all females who spew out cocoons teeming with baby female worms by the hundreds without needing to mate. Ever. All it takes is one to make an infestation.

They also mature twice as fast as European earthworms, completing two generations per season instead of just one. And their population density gets higher than other worms. And remember, they’re big.

That adds up to an unprecedented worm biomass that will essentially consume all organic matter. This includes your lawn and the roots of annuals, perennials, and shrubs. In the woods, crazy worms destroy native wildflowers, wiping out trillium, bloodroot, Jack-in-the-pulpit, ladyslipper, and other understory plants. Ground-nesting songbirds like the oven bird disappear.

When an Amynthas agrestis infestation removes organics from soil, it becomes clumpy and granular and prone to compaction and erosion. Forest soils actually subside, exposing tree roots. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources invasive species specialist Bernie Williams stated bluntly, “Their introduction into our state poses a huge threat to the future of our forests.”

Amynthas agrestis can be distinguished from other worms by the band near their middle, called a clitellum. In most worms it’s thicker than the rest of their body. In crazy worms it’s even with their body, and is milky white to gray in contrast to their dark color. Size and behavior also set them apart.

Crazy worms are transplants, and that’s how they often spread. Whether in a potted plant from a garden center or a gift from a South Carolina relative, these monsters hitchhike long distances with transplants. They also move from infested areas, mostly in southern states, in shipments of mulch.

There are two ways of telling if your potted plant harbors dangerous fugitives. One is to turn it upside-down and gently remove the root ball. If crazy worms are present, some of the roots, as well as some potting soil, may be missing. The thing is, there may only be young worms present, or very few, so damage might not be evident.

A better solution is a mustard solution. Mix a gallon of water with one-third cup of ground yellow mustard seed and pour this slowly into the soil. It won’t hurt the plant, but worms (even “good” ones) will come to the surface and you can check for miscreants.

Because of their acrobatics, crazy worms are valued as fishing bait. This is illegal in most places, but it does happen. To be safe, anglers should securely cover bait containers and destroy all unused bait by placing it on bare concrete and crushing it. If you have a household worm bin, only use European red wigglers, Eisenia fetida, which won’t survive outdoors over the winter.

With a presence in Wisconsin and Minnesota, Amynthas agrestis is hardy to USDA Zone 4 and possibly colder. Right now there are at least five known crazy worm infestations in Warren County, N.Y., and it is likely there are plenty more throughout northern New York State.

If you suspect you may have found crazy worms, please call your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office or New York State Department of Environmental Conservation office.

If you think it’s an invasive soil shark, though, I don’t want to know about it.

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Stopping to smell (and eat) the flowers

Hawthorn in bloom at the Guelph Arboretum. The flowers are good for the soul, and may strengthen cardiac muscle, too. Photo: Lesley Wilson, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Hawthorn in bloom at the Guelph Arboretum. The flowers are good for the soul and may strengthen cardiac muscle, too. Photo: Lesley Wilson, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

It’s well known that stopping to smell the flowers, both in a literal and figurative sense, can help reduce stress and lower blood pressure. Taking a moment to be fully present and appreciate life — and to take a whiff of whatever might be in bloom nearby — is good for the heart. What’s not as widely known is that stopping to eat certain flowers could also benefit your cardiac muscle.

Due to the delayed spring, many trees and shrubs are a little behind their typical bloom schedule, and everyone (everyone who is a flowering woody plant at least) is in a hurry to bust out with flowers. The serviceberry (juneberry) is barely done flowering in some upland locations, and our native black cherries are in bloom, though their small grape-like clusters of mini-blossoms are less showy than those of domestic cherries. Apples, wild and cultivated, are in most cases replete with white blossoms.

A tree only makes flower buds in late summer of the previous year, and the amount generally reflects the condition of the tree at that time. Vegetative buds are also set the previous summer. However, if these are damaged by weather or insects in springtime, a tree can release dormant buds under its bark to make new leaves. This is why a late freeze that destroys tree buds may put an end to a season’s fruit crop but it won’t kill the trees.

Another wild tree, a cousin to apple, will flower through the end of May. Fence rows and pastures are festooned with the brilliant white blossoms of hawthorn, a small tree in the rose family native to North America. There are many species of hawthorns, and they would be more popular if they didn’t sport long thorns tough enough to puncture tires. Hawthorn fruit, sometimes called thorn apples or haw apples, are good for making jelly — I make some most every fall — and at times were an important food source for pioneers. The wood is quite strong and hard.

But it’s the fragrant and attractive hawthorn flowers that have a rich history of medicinal use as cardiac tonic. Hawthorn flowers, along with its leaves, are often dried, powdered, and made into capsules, or sometimes used for tea. Native healers and others who use herbal remedies have often been doubted, but in many cases they end up supported by science. Ginkgo and St. John’s Wort are two examples of traditional medicine vindicated by research.

Although hawthorn hasn’t been endorsed by the American Medical Association yet, several studies have shown hawthorn has beneficial cardiac effects. An article in the July 2002 issue of the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing stated that hawthorn “…consistently demonstrates its ability to improve exercise tolerance and symptoms of mild to moderate heart failure.” However, the authors admit, “In order to properly use hawthorn in the treatment of heart failure, a large, controlled, multi-center trial… is needed.”

Given hawthorn’s abundance, if it is proven to be beneficial it could be practically free. Which leads to the question of who exactly would fund such studies.

If you can find the time, consider going for a walk this week to smell some hawthorn flowers. If you want to try any, please check with a licensed medical practitioner first. And do watch out for those thorns.

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Too much to take in

Cub Reporter toy typewriter, 1950s. Photo: Vintage Toy Archive

Cub Reporter toy typewriter, 1950s. Photo: Vintage Toy Archive

The job has changed a lot for me since last fall when NCPR rolled out its new design, and will change more as we develop a wider net from which to draw new stories and features into the website. One of my hats has become curator-in-chief, and part of every day I spend crawling through the tubes of the internet looking for interesting stories, great new music, photo essays, and things that haven’t got a name yet.

Most but not all come from public media–radio programs, a few podcasts, blogs, aggregators, email newsletters, news feeds, etc. It’s all grist for the mill. I grind it as fast as I can.

But my inbox is like a firehose. From that I try to sip a few items that are timely, useful, or otherwise of interest to the NCPR audience and bring them onto the front page, send them out in email, share them via Facebook, or all three.

The problem is that I am one guy with just two eyes, and I’m interested in what I’m interested in, and I like what I like. So from this week’s NPR breaking news emails, I did share the death of B.B. King, but didn’t share the death sentence verdict of the Boston Marathon bomber. I featured a video of two French daredevils swooping in jetpacks over Dubai, but not the tragic loss of U.S. Marines in the Nepal earthquake relief effort. I prefer science news to political campaign news. And since most NCPR stories come with a news focus, I err on the side of arts and culture in my selections from outside the shop.

So, first I miss a lot, being just one guy. Second, I exclude a lot, having my own individual inclinations and my own ideas about what you all would like to see.

One way to amend this would be for you to lend me a hand. Collectively, NCPR friends cover a huge amount of ground. I reckon you are curious and wide-ranging in your online time. You use sources I’ve never heard about. You can see into my blind spots.

As an exercise in crowd-sourcing, take just the last few days. What did you run across that made you go “Huh.” What did you expect to find covered at NCPR that wasn’t there? Something you heard, or read or saw that made you exclaim like Inspector Gadget, “Wowsers!” What is your go-to source for great stuff online (besides NCPR, of course)?

Give me a link or links to stories I missed, or a great news source, or a favorite site or newsletter in a comment below.

I could use a whole news patrol out on the beat for NCPR. There’s just too much to take in. But I’ll take your submissions and assemble a page — sort of an alt.NCPR. It could become an ongoing thing. We could issue special badges, maybe have a secret handshake. No paycheck, though — sorry.

Getting to the root of your tree problems

As far as trees are concerned, root damage is the source of all evil. Well, most of it anyway — chainsaws and forest fires aren’t so kind to trees either. Regardless of the worrisome signs a tree may develop, whether early fall leaf color, tip dieback, slow growth, or even some diseases and insect infestations, the problem is below ground in the majority of cases.

Contrary to popular belief, 98% of a tree's root system is in the top 18 inches of soil, and exten out well beyond the canopy in a "root plate". Image: UCDavis

Contrary to popular belief, 98% of a tree’s root system is in the top 18 inches of soil, and extends out well beyond the canopy in a “root plate”. Image: UCDavis

Part of the issue stems from a flawed understanding of tree biology. There is a lot of tree-root apocrypha floating around the public consciousness. One myth — let’s call it the Legend of the Big Taproot— maintains that trees make enormous deep taproots. While the legend allows that a few side roots may branch off, the key element is the Big Taproot.

It’s true that trees such as oaks and walnuts have a significant taproot when they’re young, but in maturity their root systems look like a pancake, not a carrot, the same as other tree species. Most of us have seen trees that have blown down, but that monster taproot has yet to be spotted. It’s no coincidence that the flat root system one sees on a windthrown tree is referred to as a root plate.

About 90% of tree roots are in the top ten inches of soil, and 98% are in the top eighteen inches. A tree’s roots extend, unless there’s an obstacle like a road or building, at least twice the length of its branches. This is a tree’s root zone, a broad, shallow, vulnerable mass of roots.

Sadly, the Big Taproot Legend has dreadful health implications. For trees, at least — who knows what it portends for our well-being. If we believe tree roots like it deep, we won’t think twice about adding soil or fill, or even paving some of the root zone.

What’s wrong with that? To survive, roots need oxygen, which they get directly from soil pores. Even though they make oxygen when they photosynthesize, trees can’t transport it through their vascular tissues that work so nicely for carrying water, sugars, and nutrients.

Soil compaction from operating vehicles or equipment within the root zone causes the same problems. In wet soil conditions, even excessive foot traffic can cause enough compaction to mash soil pores shut and exclude oxygen. In these cases, roots slowly suffocate, and the tree will eventually show symptoms of decline.

Excavating or trenching within a root zone severs some tree roots and usually compacts the rest. Sometimes root damage will kill a tree outright within a few years, but more commonly there will be a prolonged decline over five to ten years or more. Because of the time lag, secondary, opportunistic agents often get the blame.

As with relationships, where trees are concerned the problem at hand is often not the real issue. Imagine glancing out the window one day to see wood chips the size of baseballs raining down from your favorite white pine. You rush outside with your Kevlar umbrella and discover an army of Jig Sawflies, their carbide blades freshly sharpened, power-sawing their way down the trunk. As they smirk at you atop the mound of pine chips, you search the Internet for an exterminator, knowing you’ll miss sitting under the pine’s yellow foliage.

Wait a minute! Yellow foliage? How long was it like that? Maybe there’s something else going on here. A strong, happy tree will be able to respond to insect feeding by manufacturing chemicals known to scientists as Bad-Tasting Stuff to repel them (bugs, not scientists). It will endure some loss due to insect feeding, but it will be able to keep the balance in its favor.

Let’s think back on your white pine. Wasn’t that the one that you worked so hard not to hit with the backhoe when the septic went in six years ago? Or was that the one the gas company trenched near ten years ago? It doesn’t matter. Human activity compromised the root system and resulted in the demise of the tree years later. Sawflies or no, that pine was doomed.

By now you may be thinking, I could sure use another coffee, or, how do trees in those little concrete squares (tree pits) in the sidewalk survive? The difference is that they are put there as little tykes and never come to depend on a normal root system. They’ve adapted to available root space and are considered “unhappy.” Mature trees that have a large root system suddenly cut or damaged to the size of tree pits are considered “dead.”

You can preserve trees in a construction site by cordoning off the root zone at least to the tree’s drip line (branch length) with snow fence before the project begins. Keep in mind that even stockpiling material under trees causes root damage. If driving near trees is unavoidable, adding four to six inches of wood chips or gravel (two-inch or larger) to the traffic pathway will help.

A little Morris dancing near trees is OK, but not too often. Running backhoes under trees? Ungood. Photo: Adrian Pingstone, public domain

A little Morris dancing near trees is OK, but not too often. Running backhoes under trees? Ungood. Photo: Adrian Pingstone, public domain

If excavation within the root zone is unavoidable, cut roots cleanly, flush with the trench wall. If possible, lay wet burlap over the root ends until back filling is done. If over 50 percent of a tree’s root system needs to be cut, it’s probably best to remove the tree. Any significant root damage, including compaction, can lead to future instability of the tree.

To repair damage already done, act quickly — once symptoms show up years later it’s usually too late. Hire a tree care company to loosen the soil with high-pressure water or air injection. Soil injections of beneficial microbes in a solution of dilute sugars and various natural compounds have been shown to be valuable. If this isn’t in your budget, aerating on a 2-foot grid using a soil auger (1-2” diameter by 18-24” long) will help.

Don’t add soil to the root zone or create raised bed gardens around trees, and try not to drive or park within it. So long as the soil isn’t wet, Morris dancers are acceptable, but not on a regular basis, and only if they first remove their bells.

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Three days to get there

Even though it happens pretty much the same way every year, the speed at which the world greens up in spring always takes me by surprise again. Last week buds and mud, this week leaves blasting out so fast the trees almost groan with the effort. The rhododendron by my door is in full bloom. Yesterday it was only halfway there, the day before–closed buds.

It reminds me of a haiku I wrote a few years ago now:

First day–dime-sized leaves.
Second day–quarter-sized leaves.
Third day–full-blown leaves.

If this is your mind on work, you might want to take a day off. Photo: JD Hancock, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

If this is your mind on work, you might want to take a day off. Photo: JD Hancock, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

It wasn’t written about spring—not directly anyway. But I wrote it after a three-day silent meditation retreat, or sesshin, as it’s called in the zen tradition. It takes time for the mind to settle down. But after a few days of nothing, a few days of banishing concerns as they arise, just breathing and sitting and walking in silence, something begins to unfurl. The fidgeters become still, the diaphragms of the coughers loosen up, the compulsively sociable become comfortable in their own company. They call it “sesshin mind” and it blossoms out around the third day.

Which may explain why people (why I) am so stressed and tired out by the working life. Two days away from work only gets you partway there. Weekends are never so short as they are this time of year. Cooped up so long over the winter, nose to grindstone, cranking it out–when spring comes you want to bust out like cows do on the first day of open pasture feeding. You want to dance; you want to do everything. No weekend can contain all that pent-up demand.

But three days? I could, how you say, work with that. Full-blown weekend.

First day—frolic some.
Second day—rest, rest, rest, rest.
Third day—be at peace.

We Americans may be famously workaholic, but it wouldn’t hurt to occasionally take Herman Yenwo’s advice to body builders, “If your neck gets bigger than your head, then you need to take a day off from the gym.” Just sayin’.

Suddenly, good-bye to all that

Up next: more Pacific Ocean. Lucy Martin and Craig Miller in California last fall.

The west beckons: Lucy and Craig in California last fall.

Nearly sixteen years ago, our little family of three moved from Hawaii to Ontario.

We expected to be in Ottawa for about 5 years – long enough to enjoy exploring new things. We never imagined making it permanent.

So what happened? Well, we liked it. A lot! Even after my husband’s employer at the time, Nortel Networks, imploded. We liked it enough to become dual nationals. We liked it so much that my comment on what might lie ahead was “I’m not done with Canada yet!”

Along the way, I picked up a rewarding relationship with NCPR that lasted just shy of a decade. As a part-time stringer I was free to cover pretty much whatever I liked – from Canadian politics, to urban Ottawa and its rural surroundings.

And how did that happen? Well, in the fall of 2005 my husband Craig and I took a station tour in Canton. Both of us had worked for Hawaii Public Radio in Honolulu, so it was fun to go see NCPR. Craig snuck Ellen Rocco aside and asked if she could “do something” with me. Sort of like the old Henny Youngman joke: “Take my wife! Please!”

I was mortified. My husband the stage mother. Ambush accomplished, the queer request was dropped into Martha Foley’s lap.

Martha asked what I might have in mind. Still reeling, I babbled off a string of (not even!) half-baked ideas.

She finally said, “Well, go out and bring me something.” And so it began.

I’d been a number of things at Hawaii Public Radio: studio operator, production assistant, news anchor and program host. But, apart from a few features done as a lark, I hadn’t done much “real reporting”. I’m shy you see. And I hate to offend anyone, as tough reporting is apt to do. Still, it can be healthy to stretch out, now and then.

Legendary voice coach, the late David Candow (seated) at NCPR in 2010. Standing, left to right: ,Ric Cengari (Vermont Public Radio), Chris Knight, Lucy Martin, Sarah Harris, Angela Evancie, Melody Bodette (VPR).

Legendary radio coach, the late David Candow (seated) leading a 2-day workshop for NCPR and Vermont Public Radio in 2010. Standing, left to right: Ric Cengari, Chris Knight, Lucy Martin, Sarah Harris, Angela Evancie and Melody Bodette.

I’d also never worked with an editor before. That proved to be a much-needed learning experience!

As you should already know, Martha is an outstanding news director, a gifted editor, and a super nice person. Smart, funny and committed. Her main problem is shoehorning anything more into her busy schedule.

NCPR turned out to be an excellent place to hone different skills. Although I ended up covering many topics, my favorite projects combined audio with slide shows.

Lately I’ve mostly been blogging. Because that’s a much faster way to start and finish something – it’s possible to go from concept to publication in under an hour.

Slide shows and blogging bring me to web guru Dale Hobson. As far as I’m concerned, he’s “the man”. If it needs doing, Dale gets it done. And anything he touches gets improved.

Sadly, I have yet to master Martha’s main lesson: “focus!” (She probably has a different mantra for those who already grasp brevity.)

I’m not sure what pearls of wisdom Dale would impart. But, reading his posts, I know I am at the feet of a master. Watch and learn, grasshopper.

It would take too long to sing the praises of all the fine folks at NCPR. But special mention must be made of Ellen Rocco. She’s a wellspring of vision, smarts and heart. Ellen gets the mission and works tirelessly to make it happen. If you think NCPR is a great station – and I certainly do – it all comes down to good people doing their best for a supportive community.

True, it’s not exactly lucrative work. But it is rewarding. It’s a license to explore and ask… pretty much where ever curiosity may lead. It’s a chance to share and serve. To help make things better.

There’s no end of fascinating people and activities in this region. Fortunately, NCPR wants to include Canadian content too. It’s a good home base for putting stories from the Great White North on the NCPR/NPR map. And I really hope someone else – with more ambition than I had – will pick that up and take it further.

Much as I love it here, it’s time to leave. Fine young son is grown and gone. I have elder care on the horizon. We have decided it’ll be better to tackle that from the west coast. Craig and I will be moving to Vancouver Island pretty much as soon as we sell our house.

Leaving is sad. It’s exciting too, as Vancouver Island is a lovely part of the world.

I thought we’d be doing this a few years hence. But I am already gone. For the past two weeks I’ve been in California, helping an Aunt who had the bad fortune to break a hip and have a stroke all in the same week.

Listeners, readers, colleagues and everyone I’ve interviewed … thank you! Thank you for stories that ranged from important to fun. I guess I owe my husband a hearty thanks too!

And here’s to more adventures ahead. I am ever so grateful for our experiences here.

Aloha and mahalo nui loa!

The anatomy of thunderstorms

Thunderstorms are funny things. They can be beautiful, with spectacular displays of lightning streaming like fireworks across mottled purple and green skies. They can be loud and imposing, windy, or relatively calm. They can be pleasant spectacles, watched from the safety of a home on a hot summer day, or terrifying forces of danger for a stranded hiker.

As May approaches, so does the first thunderstorm of the season. Warm air and light breezes combined with moving storm fronts makes for a brew of spectacularly unpredictable weather during the late spring.

Before a storm occurs, a lot has to happen to create just the right circumstances for a thunderstorm. First, there has to be a lot of moist air hovering near the ground. This is often the case in valleys and areas near mountains, where air continuously cycles throughout the day, pushed upward in part by the geographical barrier of the hills.

Next, that moist air must be heated by radiation from the sun. Thunder storms typically occur in the summer months, not just because the air is warmer, but because the ground is exposed and thus absorbs radiation from the sun as hear instead of reflecting it upward the way a snowy surface does.

Once warmed, the moist air will continue to rise, encountering increasingly cooler air as it does. This process is called convection. As the moist, warm air rises, it cools and water molecules condense on particulates in the atmosphere, creating a cloud of water vapor (NOAA).

As the cloud continues to rise, more and more of the vapor it contains condenses until it reaches upward in a mushroom-like column. Once the very top of the cloud reaches air whose temperature is below freezing, the condensation droplets begin to freeze into ice crystals, grabbing other particles along the way.

Diagram of a Super Cell Thunderstorm, Photo: Britannica Kids

Diagram of a Super Cell Thunderstorm, Photo: Britannica Kids

Just as warm air rises, cool air falls, and this perpetual cycle of moving air causes water particles to collide. When they do they may rub against each other or rip off part of each others’ crystal structure, generating small sparks and charges. If the cloud is big enough for charge to grow across the whole structure, it will shoot out feelers, bolts of lightning “seeking” a conductive surface to complete the circuit within the cloud.

All the while, the condensed water may precipitate, falling as rain or being kicked out of the convection cell as hail. Winds pick up as the convection cycle churns the air around the storm, and the temperature near the surface of the Earth drops.

Lightning, one of the most perilous features of thunderstorms, is unpredictable. We know how it is generated, and that it occurs when opposite charges build up within a cumulonimbus cloud or between a cumulonimbus cloud and an object on the ground. Once a substantial potential has developed, electricity is discharged as lightning. Energy from a lightning channel or leader can heat the air around it to 18,000 degrees F (NOAA).

Only about 10 percent of lightning strikes are fatal. About 70 percent of people struck by lightning report that they experience permanent effects such as personality change, brain damage, or burns. The odds of getting struck by lightning in a given year in the United States are 1 in 700,000 (National Geographic News). If you find yourself within earshot of thunder, you can reduce the likelihood of your being struck by seeking shelter. If you are in the woods, it is best to get below tree line and to avoid tall, free standing objects.

Lightning Strikes Tree, Photo: NOAA

Lightning Strikes Tree, Photo: NOAA

This tremendous force causes the air molecules near the leader to separate, creating sound waves that travel through the air as thunder. Thunder can be heard from up to 25 miles away from the lightning that causes it.

When heard at close proximity, it resonates as a series of disturbing clicks, like the gentle tapping of a circuit connecting in a high school physics classroom. People who have been struck by lightning describe hearing such clicks in conjunction with the hairs on the back of their necks rising in response to the build up of static charge in the air around them.

If you are particularly interested in extreme weather, you can participate in The National Weather Service’s SKYWARN project. SKYWARN is a data collective comprised of collaborative work by community volunteers. It has been running since the 1970’s to help NWS better predict storms that will likely cause a lot of damage.

For more resources regarding lightning safety in the backcountry, check out the National Outdoor Leadership School’s (NOLS) website.