Thursday, June 22, 2006

Messing With Mother Nature

There's a new housing development being built a few miles from our place. According to the signs it's going to be a swanky place. You've seen the ads, "Starting in the low $zillions$." That kind of stuff.
There had been an old house back in there before they started raping the land. The place was so wooded I didn't even know the house was there until they started ripping down the trees. This housing project will probably have some fancy name like Forests Forever. They scraped off all the topsoil so they can buy it back before they plant the lawns that will look like golf greens. They'll replant non-native species of trees in some monoculture that was never supposed to exist. Developers love to correct obvious errors nature has made.
But tonight we had a deluge. It rained as hard as I’ve ever seen it, except for a few years ago in Hong Kong when I watched in rain more than 16 inches in as many hours. That was scary. Today's storm was bad enough. Major flooding throughout the northeast Ohio area. When I stepped off my bus I could not see the street. Water, on a major thoroughfare was as high as the first step.
I got to my car, looking like the proverbial drowned rat and headed for home. Ooops, the road was blocked. Emergency flashers of various colors told the tale--no getting through that way. And that way was the only way I could go.
I waited in the parking lot of the strip mall, calling people on my cell phone in hopes of finding a sympathetic ear. Mostly I got laughs and "Wow. Must be bad." And comments referring to my mental powers and coming in out of the rain.
Finally the rain backed off, as did the rushing water. Through my binoculars I could see the cops were letting SUVs and trucks swim through the flood. Finally they let us little guys through. I was trying to figure how that particular dip in the road created such a flood. The water should have just drained into a creek that feeds into the river far below. This is the edge of a ravine, I thought.
Then I saw the problem. The huge scar on the land; the bald spot the construction people had created, when they chopped down all the trees and replaced a deer track with a ribbon of cement. It had all been had washed away. They had created the perfect, dehydrated landslide. All it need was for someone to add water. The huge mud slide that trees could have easily controlled, plowed the land, ripped up the man-made path, fancy signs and all. Even some construction equipment was washed nearly into the road.
I'll have to drop the developer a note and tell him to rename the spot "Mudslide Gulch." Seems more appropriate, now, however his marketing folks might not go for it.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Blowin’ in the Wind

The other day I thought I’d extend my lunch hour a bit and visit the new Bob Dylan exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s one of the few advantages of working in downtown Cleveland. It was a gorgeous day. As I approached the Rock, I noticed the newly installed wind turbine at the Great Lakes Science Center (next door neighbor of the Rock) was up and spinning.
I’ve seen these monsters at a distance elsewhere. This opportunity to see one up close and personal was too tempting.
The turbine needs a breeze of 8 mph to get cranking. In a wind of 31 mph it hits its peak output of 225 kilowatts—enough juice to power 300 refrigerators. At 56 mph the turbine has the good sense to shut itself down so it won’t be damaged. This one will provide about seven percent of the science center’s electrical needs.
As an environmentalist I have mixed emotions about these wind-powered electric generators. First, there are the aesthetics of the three-armed monsters and the blight on the landscape. And second, there are the birds that run into them.
This Vestas V27 model weighs more than 26 tons. Its total height is about 150 feet—60 feet taller than the science center and 13 feet short of the Browns stadium, its neighbor to the west. Each blade is 44 feet long.
I expected to be blasted by wind and noise as I walked beneath the spinning blades. Hmmm. Nearly dead silence. Traffic noise was more of a distraction. And there was no wind. No smoke. No one upping the price of anything with plastic numbers on a plastic sign. Nothing was being spilled on the ground. Nothing but sunshine, blue skies and the wind ruffling my hair.
Okay, maybe aesthetics aren’t an issue. I looked at this thing as a big piece of sculpture and it fit within the parameters of my definition of art.
I held my breath as two ring-billed gulls and a couple of rock pigeons prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice and headed for the spinning blades. All the birds veered off within 25 feet.
The Cleveland Museum of Natural History will be doing bird studies at the site. According to the folks at the science center, it’s unlikely bird deaths will exceed even one percent of those from other human-related sources—including house cats, buildings and autos. It seems the issue of bird deaths from collisions with wind turbines is site specific.
Cleveland Public Art has commissioned artists Allan and Ellen Wexler to create a permanent educational art installation surrounding the wind turbine.
I like the idea of clean energy. I don’t know how long the payback will be on this project, however it looks like a good deal for Cleveland and maybe elsewhere. Clean, renewable sources of power make a lot of sense. Why not use this technology where we can? Makes one wonder how many other kinds of clean energy this country could create if it wasn’t pouring sand down so many rat holes thought to contain oil.
To my knowledge, no lives were lost in the creation of the energy generated by this wind turbine. No press disinformation has been issued about weapons of mass deception. You look up at the clean white lines of the wind turbine cranking out energy and possibilities with every spin. And you can’t help but recall that famous Dylan line, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Some Trip

Road trip! Nothing like a road trip when you know the destination and opt to take a different path to get there. That’s what we did; Susan and I flying down the highway like a couple of low-level Canada geese. Wingtips barely touching. We were honking out Elvis tunes, caring less about the words than the rhythm. Mid-seventies and sun shining so bright we wore sunglasses dark enough that people thought we worked for Homeland Security.
Blue sky above. Mountains ahead. Trees and streams below. Birds all around zipping out of our path. White-tailed deer stopped by the sides of the road to gauge our progress. They had that look in their eyes like humans just told their jobs had just been outsourced to China.
The alarm startled me and I realized it was Monday morning. What a drag. Mondays must be god’s punishment for an enjoyable weekend. Where’s the damned oatmeal?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Attack of the Wild Coyotes

Living on the edge of a national park has its advantages and its moments. You accept the challenge of wild white-tailed deer eating your hostas (and anything else that’s green) and wild cotton-tailed rabbits threatening whatever the deer miss. There’s an occasional encounter with the wild skunk you’ll laugh about five years from now when the smell finally gets out of your house, and the clever raccoons seeking a sweet-treat who manage to wreck havoc on your hummingbird feeders.
The payback is an occasional over-flight by a pair of majestic bald eagles, or witnessing the mating ritual of wild turkeys in an open field. Nothing like uninhibited sex in the early morning to stop traffic.
Last night we had about the best nature can offer in this part of the land. It started at 1:45 AM. A single, distant winnowing howl woke me. At first I thought it was the Eastern screech-owl. I was hoping, at least, because we’ve not heard them this spring and fear the urban sprawl has driven more of these essential predators further afield.
I sat bolt upright as the winnowing rose to a more fevered pitch. The single voice was joined in chorus by another soprano and a couple of altos doing the harmony parts. The rhythm section came alive and soon the whole pack was yipping, barking and crooning to some primeval—make that atavistic—melody. Coyotes! It sounded like all the coyotes in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park had arrived for a sing-along outside our condo. Actually the number was probably closer to six. And the coyote’s cry can have a ventriloquist’s bent to it, making you think they’re in one spot when actually they’re 180 degrees the other direction.
It’s intriguing how the primal, quavering cry of the coyote evokes an equally tingling sensation of primitive danger in humans. When the animal finally emits its short, high-pitched yips, you realize you’ve been holding your breath and begin to relax. The hair on your arms settles down and you stop clinching your teeth. Only then, when you realize you’re safe from attack (they have more to fear from us than we do of them), do you really listen to what this little wolf, as its name from the Aztec language suggests, has to say.
Howling coyotes usually do so in two seasons; January and February when searching for a mate (they mate for life), and September and October when the mother is calling her young and they answer back in unison.
So what was this pack howling about in mid-June? Just for fun, probably. Bunch of guys leaving the watering hole late at night who felt like howling; your basic animal stuff.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Close Encounter

We had a close encounter with nature at our place this weekend. For the uninitiated it was one of those things fraught with peril. For a former amateur bee keeper is was like looking at an old photo album, stashed away in a box and only vaguely remembered.

We were sitting on the deck mid-afternoon on Saturday, trying to figure ways to avoid all the things that needed doing and that we've been putting off. I heard traffic noises, which was unusual since our condo sits back a decent distance from the road. I said something brilliant, like, "I know that's traffic I'm hearing, however if I didn't know better I'd say it was bees swarming."

Sure enough, it was a honey bee swarm; thousands of them, almost right over head. As a bee keeper I had witnessed bee swarms many times. Always with mixed emotions. The bad news is, as that swarm leaves your hive, the bee population, thus honey production, is greatly reduced. The good news is that this is the manner in which bees naturally reproduce and expand their species for their critical role in the grand scheme of things.

I have no idea where this lot came from. They were feral, probably, and looked healthy. We watched them settle into a safe spot in a decorative cherry tree. Thousands of bees surrounding their newly anointed queen while the scout bees went looking for a suitable hive spot. It was getting dark and cool and damp so I knew the bees would sit tight for the night.

Morning dawned with clouds and rain. The bees had settled down and I was a bit concerned that if the scouts did not find a hive spot soon, and the sun did not warm things up so these ladies could start finding nectar, this swarm might be in trouble. They stayed in place all day until late afternoon when the sun broke through the drizzle and clouds.

Unfortunately we missed the leaving. I checked on them and everything was as it had been; an hour later they were gone. The arrival of a swam appears about as disorganized as anything you can imagine; thousands of bees flying in every direction. The departure is the opposite. As if of a single mind, the bees fly off in a solid cloud, the destination whispered to the queen in some bee-like manner by the scouts.

I Guess I Shouldn't Ask

Recently, while making a hasty retreat toward home following a multi-tasked trip to Lexington, Kentucky (that included too-little fishing), we passed a camper-trailer being pulled by a gas-hog SUV. I looked at the contraption this family was hauling, and would probably tell friends they use for camping.

The trailer unit was one of those pop-up things. After it's all settled and leveled on its cement pad in some ghetto of a campground, they crank it up, plug in the electric, get the kids watching television and then--the part I really don't understand--turn on the air conditioner. This thing had an air conditioner on its roof. Think about it: If you're going camping, isn't the outside, unconditioned air what you're after? And on the practical side of the issue: If it has canvas sides, you obviously have to seal the windows and doors. But then doesn't that conditioned air leak through the canvas and pollute the unconditioned air? And wouldn't the sound blot out the singing of the birds?

What we need is a new word for "camping" that applies only to these folks with "campers." Their definition of the activity is too divergent from mine and I'm kind of stingy when it comes to sharing definitions.

In Defense of Pigeons

Pigeons--rock pigeons--need a good PR person. Maybe we should have kept the name, rock dove. Sounds more peaceful. Granted, occasionally while doing what comes naturally, a pigeon's course will intersect with human's in a manner humans would not prefer. Everyday, however, we stand in their food dish and should be prepared to pay the consequences--and the dry cleaning bills.

A co-worker came back from lunch the other day, justifiable upset about "those rats with wings" that had pooped on her fashionably correct blouse. Summer had finally made its arrival in Cleveland so it was time to shed dark blues and greys we usually wear and get out the pinks and yellows in her case.

I thought this might be a good opportunity to give a biology lesson and strike a blow for my avian friends. When you start by saying, "Rats don't have wings ..." and then move on to, "They're just scavengers, you know, so if we ..." you immediately loose your audience.

Later that day, out of the eyeshot of co-workers, I took a look at the infinite variety of colors and patterns in pigeons. They are really attractive birds. If they lived in the woods we birders would get sweaty palms trying to identify them. However, since they live in the city we choose to ignore and degrade them, like many other things in the city.

So when those multitudes of rock pigeons get their act together and hire a good PR agent, I suggest her first duty should be to designate a "Take A Pigeon To Lunch Day." They seem to like to do lunch.