Alerce, Fungi & Futures

Roots rise from shallow soil. Tomás Munita

The Valdivian Coastal Reserve was mentioned once in our pages, only in passing.

Tomás Munita

Strange, because if I was asked to name my favorite protected area on the planet it would be at or near the top of my list. The abundant but threatened alerce trees were part of the reason. A family story would explain more of why, and that is part of a larger work story that needs more attention another time.

A mushroom rises from the forest floor. Tomás Munita

The story below, featuring an adjacent protected area, stirs an intense place memory, and at the same time reveals much about a topic that was not on our radar at the time. And it says much about potential futures for that place. So, thanks to the New York Times climate correspondent Somini Sengupta (again and again) as well as photographer Tomás Munita:

Unearthing the Secret Superpowers of Fungus

Tomás Munita

In the fight against warming, a formidable ally hides just beneath our feet.

 — Toby Kiers took long strides across the spongy forest floor, felt the adrenaline rush in her veins and stopped at the spot she had traveled so far to reach. Into the ground went a hollow metal cylinder. Out came a scoop of soil.

Tomás Munita

Dr. Kiers stuck her nose into the dirt, inhaled its scent, imagined what secrets it contained to help us live on a hotter planet. “What’s under here?” she asked. “What mysteries are we going to unveil?”

The soil was deposited into a clear plastic bag, then labeled with the coordinates of this exact location on Earth. Continue reading

Net Zero’s Three Major Flaws

The flaws of Net Zero campaigns have been linked to several times in our pages. So have some of the inspirational yet problematic proposals like tree-planting initiatives and direct air capture. I recommend taking five minutes to read and view this to get a clearer view on the three major flaws with the latest buzzwords:

New Climate Promises, Same Old Global Warming

In what seems like a rapid shift of gears, corporations are finally jumping into action on climate change. Continue reading

Trees & Careful Planting

Fast-to-establish sassafras (Sassafras albidum), an Eastern native tree, has distinctively shaped leaves that fire up brilliantly in autumn. Michael Stewart/Courtesy Brooklyn Botanic Garden

One of the minor downsides to life in the tropics is decades of missed autumn leaves. But that downside is counterbalanced by so many upsides that the loss is trivial. And we have photos like the one to the right, as well as the possibility of travel (including to the botanical gardens featured in the story below), plus plenty of writing on the science of those colors, to dissipate the trivia.

Mr. Roddick is often asked to open up a tree’s canopy to let in more light. His answer is based on the tree’s species, its health and its age. “Better to train a young tree to fit into a garden as opposed to trying to change an old tree,” he said. Michael Stewart/Courtesy Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Besides, our trees are awesome for reasons other than color. They grow fast. Some of them fix nitrogen. And most of those we have been planting have a shading responsibility specific to the coffee we are planting. So this article resonates even if some of the particulars are not relevant to our land, trees, and related growing conditions. Margaret Roach has been a constant companion reminding me of all this, through her writings mainly on gardens in the north.

The base of an old London plane tree at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Tree roots on most landscape trees are shallow and prone to injury, yet we often fail to consider how our gardening and home-improvement projects will affect them. Michael Stewart/Courtesy Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Trees can take a lot of punishment, but they have their limits. Here’s how to work around them safely.

If trees could talk, they’d probably start by saying, “Enough with the insults already.”

In more than 30 years of working with trees, Christopher Roddick has made it a practice to listen to their unspoken language — and to show respect for some of the largest and oldest organisms among us. Continue reading

The Parthenon Marbles, Back Where They Belong

The Parthenon in 1875.

The Parthenon in 1875. Interfoto/Alamy

The Elgin Room of the British Museum in an undated photograph taken during the Victorian era.

The Elgin Room of the British Museum in an undated photograph taken during the Victorian era. Keasbury-Gordon Photograph Archive, via Alamy

The original Parthenon marbles belong back in Athens, in the museum built for them. With all due respect to my British friends, my opinion is informed partly by my mother being from Greece, but mostly by an impartial logic.

That logic is expressed in the article below, which also happens to lay out an interesting sideshow:

Robots at the Marmi di Carra marble workshop in Italy carved a replica of a horse head, the original of which sits in the British Museum in London.

Robots at the Marmi di Carra marble workshop in Italy carved a replica of a horse head, the original of which sits in the British Museum in London.

Few cultural disputes inflame British passions more than the disposition of the Parthenon Marbles. Public debate about the statuary has raged since the early 1800s, when the sculptures and bas-reliefs, which date from 447 B.C. to 432 B.C., were stripped from the Parthenon and other Classical Greek temples on the Acropolis of Athens by agents of Thomas Bruce, a Scottish statesman and seventh earl of Elgin. The marbles were purchased — some say looted — by Elgin during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, the occupying power; they have resided in the British Museum since 1817. Continue reading

Big Science

While working on my doctoral dissertation in the early 1990s I had a clear view into how big businesses, and industry associations, influence the creation of knowledge in research universities. The big science problem (not to be confused with the Big Science album) was clearly there, we all can see now. But I did not find it so problematic at the time. Bibi van der Zee‘s review in the Guardian makes clear why we should be more concerned about who funds the creation of knowledge, and what strings may be attached:

The Playbook by Jennifer Jacquet review – how big business takes on science and wins

A ‘guide’ for companies looking to counter unwelcome research exposes the corporate world’s dark arts

“Playbook” is a term that feels overused at the moment – mostly because of Vladimir Putin’s military adventures. Continue reading

Turtles & Tortoises & Negative Senescence

A giant Galápagos tortoise, only as old as it feels. Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

When I learn a new word–even if it is a word I cannot picture using in conversation but it represents a concept that is interesting and surprising, I consider that a good day. Jack Tamisiea, thanks for the science reporting here, and especially for the word senescence:

Tortoises and turtles don’t just live for a long time — they barely age while they live.

The black marsh turtles displayed negative rates of senescence, meaning their mortality risk decreased as they aged. iStock/Getty Images

For mammals like humans, aging is inevitable. No matter how many vitamins we take, skin sags, bones soften and joints stiffen over time. However, turtles and tortoises age more gracefully. Despite their wrinkled skin and toothless gums, species like Galápagos giant tortoises seem unscathed by the ravages of aging. Some show few signs of slowing down as they plod into their 100s.

To determine what drives these ageless wonders, two groups of researchers examined turtles, tortoises and their ectothermic, or coldblooded, brethren in a pair of studies published Thursday in the journal Science. Continue reading

Sylvia Earle, Her Deepness

Sylvia Earle. Illustration by João Fazenda

Yesterday’s post got me looking back at our attention to marine science over the years, making me wonder whether we have given that topic its fair share. Yes, probably, but more is needed. I already knew this name because it has appeared in our pages a few times over the years. But just recently I heard her name from two different people who have had the chance to know her personally. One of them, when I mentioned the name, replied with Her Deepness replacing Sylvia Earle’s given name. Thanks to Dana Goodyear, who had me at puma, but who also knows a thing or two about water, now this:

Without Sylvia Earle, We’d Be Living on Google Dirt

The marine biologist and aquanaut evokes a Bond girl with a Ph.D. To save a species, she says, you have to know it.

Do you like to breathe?” This is a question that the marine biologist and deep-sea explorer Sylvia Earle asks frequently. The ocean produces half of the oxygen on Earth. If it dies, humanity can’t survive, so humans better pay attention to it. Continue reading

Good Journalism, Excellent Environmental Coverage

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff. A white ibis flies over the Everglades, where many bird species nest each year. Restoration efforts in Florida’s “river of grass” have begun to show signs of progress.

The CS Monitor was the newspaper delivered to our home when I was growing up. Lucky me. These days it still offers good journalism, but is no longer a paper. They made the switch to digital-only in 2008. In earlier years of my monitoring dozens of news sources for this platform it was the source of numerous stories of environmental interest in our pages. But in the last few years, for no particular reason, I failed to monitor their website for stories. And then today, this:

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff. Birds look like white flecks from the air.

‘River of Grass’: Inside the quest to restore the Everglades

Richard Mertens Special contributor

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff. Three eggs sit in a nest in the Everglades.

Eight hundred feet up, the helicopter banks hard to the left. The horizon disappears. Mark Cook, an avian biologist, peers out his side window at a small irregular patch of water below. It’s hardly distinguishable from innumerable other patches that lie in every direction, dark and shining amid a ragged expanse of brown marsh grass and green tree islands. Continue reading

Adriatic, The Experience & The Book

When I first set foot in Croatia more than two decades ago it was for a project to assist the country in defending the coastal areas from the pressures of mass tourism development. Within a couple of years I was doing similar work in Montenegro. Before too long we were enough in love with the region to make it our family’s home for a year.

So seeing this book about the future importance of the region, by an eminent scholar, is both heartwarming and concerning:

“[An] elegantly layered exploration of Europe’s past and future . . . a multifaceted masterpiece.”—The Wall Street Journal

“A lovely, personal journey around the Adriatic, in which Robert Kaplan revisits places and peoples he first encountered decades ago.”—Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads

In this insightful travelogue, Robert D. Kaplan, geopolitical expert and bestselling author of Balkan Ghosts and The Revenge of Geography, turns his perceptive eye to a region that for centuries has been a meeting point of cultures, trade, and ideas. Continue reading

Kaboom! The First Successful Climate Raid Ever

Capitalism in the right hands: How a tech bro just rewrote Australia’s climate future

Until reading about them in this newsletter I read each week, Blair Palese, Peter McKillop and the Climate & Capital Media team were not on my radar. Now they are, and I enjoyed reading what they have written to Jeff Bezos about changing the game:

Capitalism in the right hands: How a tech bro just rewrote Australia’s climate future

  • Following a stunning shareholder coup, Australian software billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes becomes the world’s first corporate raider with a mission to radically reduce Australia’s carbon footprint.
  • Cannon-Brookes made billions in software, but he is not retiring from the game in order to “give back” in the gentlemanly pursuit of charity.
  • His victorious raid demonstrates that real climate action requires more than just writing checks.
  • Instead Cannon-Brookes channeled corporate raider Carl Icahn, investor Henry Kravis, feminist organizer Gloria Steinem, Cajun political strategist James Carville and to do what no person has ever done: Merge political, financial, shareholder, and climate action into a single, ground-breaking capitalist moment to take on global warming.
  • We thought Jeff Bezos should know Mike.

Dear Jeff Bezos,

Greetings from Climate & Capital Media. We tried to send you a message on LinkedIn, but there are like at least two dozen Jeff Bezoses and you are not one of them. We applaud your commitment to climate action and setting up the $10 Billion charitable Earth Fund.

But word in New York is you are a tad frustrated with the fund’s impact. Continue reading

Pantanal Priorities

The Pantanal wetlands in Brazil.

The Pantanal wetlands in Brazil. MARKUS MAUTHE / GREENPEACE

There is not much that has happened in Brazil in the last few years that I would consider good environmental news.

YALE ENVIRONMENT 360

So one more urgency is at risk of getting lost in all the rest (which may be part of a strategy). But making it easier to extract the extracted from the center of the continent is akin to adding fuel to a very big fire:

A Waterway Project in Brazil Imperils a Vast Tropical Wetland

The Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, has been battered in recent years by agricultural development, drought, and fire. Now, a push to turn the region’s key river into a waterway for soybean-laden barges threatens to alter the natural flows of this iconic ecosystem.

It takes 14 hours for Lourenço Pereira Leite to reach his fishing spot.

He and his brother-in-law chug along in a simple one-engine motorboat, towing their traditional fishing canoe behind them. Continue reading

Tertulia & Touch

Customers in Bookmongers of Brixton, a book store in London. Apps have struggled to reproduce online the kind of real-world serendipity that puts a book in a reader’s hand. Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

Yesterday’s post notwithstanding, my favorite book review in ages was published five days ago. A couple weeks earlier I had read an essay that riffs off the book, written by the book author himself.  And I was all in–hook, line and sinker as they say–after reading the author’s punchy riff. The reviewer, one of my favorite cultural commentators, filleted the book such that I had to question my susceptibility to the book author’s riff essay.

One reason I read book reviews in a variety of publications is to get the next best thing to in-store browsing; comparative criticisms. But finding and holding a book is a whole other thing. Alexandra Alter’s article, about how technology may afford that in a new way, is of interest; Tertulia, if you can simulate that sensation of discovery, I will be all in:

A New Way to Choose Your Next Book

Most books are sold online, where it’s impossible to replicate the experience of browsing in a brick-and-mortar store. Book-discovery apps aim to change that.

By some measures, the book business is doing better than ever.

Last year, readers bought nearly 827 million print books, an increase of roughly 10 percent over 2020, and a record since NPD BookScan began tracking two decades ago.

But all is not as rosy as it seems. As book buyers have migrated online, it has gotten harder to sell books by new or lesser known authors. Continue reading

What the #@ ϟ ⚛︎!

The first mention of humpback whales in our pages, more than a decade ago, was a very brief reference in a post explaining the tragedy of the commons, a precursor to Seth’s environmental history honors thesis.  One post mentions humpback whales in Monterey Bay but we missed the video above until now. There have been so many posts about these whales, that missing it makes the following book review all the more interesting to read to the end. Of course, since it is a review by Elizabeth Kolbert, about a book by Ed Yong, you will want to read to the end anyway:

The Strange and Secret Ways That Animals Perceive the World

Nonhuman creatures have senses that we’re just beginning to fathom. What would they tell us if we could only understand them?

One evening almost sixty years ago, a Tufts University researcher named Roger Payne was working in his lab when he heard a radio report about a whale that had washed up on a beach nearby. Although it was a cold, wet March night, he decided to drive to the shore. Continue reading

Three Cheers For Lawrence MacEwen

We missed this documentary film last year, perhaps because it was not reviewed in any of the news outlets we regularly monitor. But if you click the image to the right you can preview the film for a couple minutes. You will see it is about a man who spent his life protecting what he cared about. Since that is the underlying theme of the nearly 12,000 posts we have shared on this platform since 2011, it is cued up for viewing in our home this evening.  The film came to my attention in The Economist, and the accompanying photograph is unique in the history of obituaries in that publication or elsewhere:

The barefoot laird.

Lawrence MacEwen made a tiny island prosper

As soon as spring arrived, the young Lawrence MacEwen shed his shoes. Barefoot, he ran to school down the only road on Muck, a mile and a half of gravel mixed with grass. Barefoot, he jumped among the fallen basalt stones of the dykes built long ago by kelpers, who had made a living gathering seaweed from the rocks. Barefoot he climbed the craggy western cliffs, hanging on to heather for dear life, and scampered to the top of Beinn Airein, the highest hill, to look out past Eigg and Rum to Knoydart and the Cuillin Hills. Barefoot he would stand for hours on the beach below his house, so mesmerised by the rolling tide that he could not stir until his mother called him in for tea. His feet would sink a little into the white sand, embedding him in the place. Continue reading

Altered States & Perspective On Nature

Illustration by Ian Mackay

Matthew Hutson, who only recently came to my attention, has shared a story about a brief bit of inspired clarity in How I Started to See Trees as Smart that I find compelling. Not everyone can do what he has done to get this clarity, but isn’t that one of the great reasons to respect writers? If the subtitle triggers any bad memories you might have from your own experience with hallucinogens, try to get over it and read on. Reference to The Soul of an Octopus early on will calm any wobblies. The final paragraph, and especially the final sentence, are worth arriving at:

First, I took an acid trip. Then I asked scientists about the power of altered states.

A couple of decades ago, on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada, I was marching up a mountain solo under the influence of LSD. Halfway to the top, I took a break near a scrubby tree pushing up through the rocky soil. Gulping water and catching my breath, I admired both its beauty and its resilience. Its twisty, weathered branches had endured by wresting moisture and nutrients from seemingly unwelcoming terrain, solving a puzzle beyond my reckoning. Continue reading

Dendrochronology & Salvaged Wood

Salvaged wood first made an appearance in my life three decades ago while converting a barn into a house. Shaver Brothers made it possible to acquire “previously used” lumber to build ceiling beams, stairs and walls; install solid oak flooring and interior doors; a clawfoot tub; and otherwise complete a home with limited resources. Plus, we liked the idea of bringing new life to old things.

A cross-section of wood from a post-hurricane timber salvage operation in Nicaragua

My meager doctoral student stipend, supplemented by Amie’s salary from work producing home furnishings, meant that we needed to be creative in finding materials to build out a home. The pieces that Amie painted at work, akin to the one seen in the photo above (in our family room to this day, made by Amie and her co-workers at that time) was frequently salvaged wooden furniture.

And to this day salvaged timber like this piece of wood from Nicaragua (to the right), or the pillar at the entrance to our home (below left) provide highlights to our sense of home.

Decorative pillar from the one tree removed to build our home

So, by the time we met the artisans of Ceiba, we were longtime converts to the concept of salvage. And I am always on the lookout for more reasons to appreciate salvaged wood. My reading recommendation today is this article by Rivka Galchen titled Making New Climate Data from Old Timber, for reasons related to all that salvaged wood in our lives:

Illustration by Tyler Keeton Robbins

When an old building is demolished, its construction materials can reveal the secrets of the past.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Eastern Seaboard’s old-growth forests were cut down almost in their entirety. Today, trying to find a tree in this area that is more than two hundred years old is like looking for a button that you lost a few years back.But New York City—unlike the surrounding forests—is host to a great crowd of old wood. It’s just that it exists in the form of beams and joists within buildings. Continue reading

Still Life, Montenegro & Creative Explanation

Still life painted at The Faculty of Fine Arts in Cetinje, Montenegro

While working in Montenegro two decades ago I came across the painting in the photo above, which is in our dining room.

“Still Life With a Gilt Cup” painted in 1635 by Willem Claesz Heda, displayed in the grand central gallery of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

In our travels over several decades I was on the lookout for a reasonably priced painting like the one to the right, featured in the article below. Soft, luscious, and full of items to wonder about, the style made classic by Dutch still life painters was my hoped for find. Instead, I found the one in Montenegro, which nods to traditional form but is stark.

Willem Kalf, “Still Life with a Chinese Bowl, Nautilus Cup and Other Objects,” 1662/Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

It seemed perfectly attuned to my personal experience of Montenegro at that moment. While not typical of the themes we cover in these pages, but continuing with our admiration for creative approaches to explanation, this piece by Jason Farago will make your Sunday if, like me, you have a thing for still life paintings and do not know exactly why. It is one of the longest explanatory multi-media articles we have ever linked to, but if you have the time it is as effective as any museum docent. Most importantly for me, it explains the tradition of lemons that wittingly or not, the Montenegran painter was adding to:

Willem Claesz Heda, “Still Life With a Broken Glass,” 1642/Rijksmuseum

A Messy Table, a Map of the World

It was a grand time, but the party’s over. Continue reading

Microfauna, Microbiota & Other Wonders Of Soil

When a plant root pushes into soil, it triggers an explosion of activity in billions of bacteria. Photograph: Liz McBurney/The Guardian

I used the word microflora in the title of a post I wrote 3+ years ago, and today I learned something that serves as a correction. I used that word to distinguish from the better known charisma of megafauna. But there is a better word I should have used in that title, so I am using it in the title of today’s post. The word microbiota has made a few fleeting appearances in our pages, buried in the text of scientific explanations. This editorial by George Monbiot got me to look up the word microflora and from now on I will avoid the misnomer:

The secret world beneath our feet is mind-blowing – and the key to our planet’s future

Don’t dismiss soil: its unknowable wonders could ensure the survival of our species

Beneath our feet is an ecosystem so astonishing that it tests the limits of our imagination. It’s as diverse as a rainforest or a coral reef. We depend on it for 99% of our food, yet we scarcely know it. Soil. Continue reading

First Drafts Of History

First reading of the day was this essay by a historian linked to once and referred to one time previously. And next up, the conscience of our generation compounds the idea, or rather pounds the idea home about who is writing the first draft of what will become our history, by defining reality as we see it today. I have listened to conversations with Daniel Yergin twice recently, and acknowledge being sucked into his expert definition of how to understand the fossil fuel world. I appreciate McKibben’s cold water on my face:

Who gets to define reality?

A search for the climate high ground

“Realism” is the high ground in politics—a high ground from which to rain down artillery fire on new ideas.

To wit, this week the New York Times profiled Canadian energy analyst Vaclav Smil, who—alongside others like Daniel Yergin—has long insisted that the transformation from fossil fuels to hydrocarbons must take a long time. Smil is a good writer and a smart historian; he’s documented the many-decades-long transitions from, say, wood to coal, and coal to oil as dominant energy sources. Continue reading