An Eight Million Year Old Living Species – The American Alligator

Alligators are a symbol of wildlife and untouched lands in the Southeastern United States.

We are all connected in the intricate web of life on planet Earth. 

During an excursion into Big Cypress Swamp and Everglades National Park in southern Florida I caught a small glimpse of the biodiversity there. Big Cypress Swamp is the only subtropical ecosystem in the continental United States. The environment is host to thousands of species. The American Alligator is one of them.

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  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Crocodylia
  • Family: Alligatoridae
  • Genus & Species: Alligator Mississippiensis

Alligators are the largest reptiles in America. The average size of a female is 8.2 feet long and the male which is larger, averages 11.2 feet. Exceptionally large alligators can weigh nearly one half ton – 1,000 pounds. These reptiles live in fresh water and inhabit slow moving rivers, swamps, marshes and lakes. Found only in the southern United States, primarily Louisiana and Florida, they range from North Carolina and Florida on the eastern boundary and as far west as the Rio Grande in Texas. Alligators do not travel far from the area they are born. Large adults are territorial and stay in a somewhat confined home range.

The American Alligator is one of  two alligator species that exist in the world. The other is the smaller Chinese Alligator. Both of these large reptiles evolved from ancient crocodiles that existed 84 million years ago. Researchers studying the fossil record of an alligator skull found in Marion County, Florida believe the American Alligator to be unchanged for the past 8 million years.

These fearsome creatures that survived the apocalyptic event that saw dinosaurs go extinct are relatively similar to their ancient predecessors. They retain a strong “armoured” body, muscular  flat tail and powerful jaws. Although alligators appear cumbersome they are actually quite swift and agile. They are good swimmers and on land can attain speeds of 35 mph for short distances. The short powerful front legs have five toes and the back leg has four toes. These are used to build nests when breeding and create burrows during dry seasons. The most fearful aspect of an alligators appearance is the long extended jaw and row of dagger like teeth. The powerful jaw has 74 to 80 teeth that allows the the alligator to rip and tear apart it’s prey. Over time these teeth wear down and are replaced. An alligator may go through 3,000 teeth in a lifetime. At the end of the long snout are the nostrils which are upturned to facilitate breathing when mostly submerged while swimming.

The armoured body consists of bony plates embedded across the back that are called osteoderms or scutes which are virtually impenetrable. It is quite amazing that these adaptive reptiles that have survived for millions of years have a brain that weighs less than half an ounce.

American Alligators are carnivorous. Their diet consists of fish, snails, invertebrates, birds, turtles, frogs and mammals. Alligators are an apex predator and a keystone of ecological health in swamps and marshes.

Alligators are ectothermic (cold blooded) and regulate body temperature by the sun, moving into warmer or cooler air or water temperature. They are most active in temperatures of 82 to 92 degrees and stop feeding when the ambient temperature is below 70 degrees. Alligators do not hibernate in cold weather but do go dormant when temperatures are less than 55.

American Alligators reach maturity when about six feet long which is in ten to twelve years of age. In April reproduction courtship begins, noted by the roaring of bulls to attract females and pronounce dominance of their territory. Breeding happens at night in shallow waters during May. At this time the female builds a nest of vegetation ten feet in diameter and two to three feet in height. Egg laying happens in May or early June when the female deposits 35 to 50 eggs in the nest and covers them with more vegetation. There is a 65 day incubation period that lasts towards the end of August. Temperatures inside the nest determine sex of the offspring. A temperature of 87.8 or below produces females, at 89.6 degrees 75% will be males and at 90.5 degrees mostly females develop. Inside the egg, the young start to emit a high pitched sound signalling the mother to remove the vegetative blanket covering the eggs. When the baby hatchlings emerge they are 6 to 8 inches long.

Crocodilians are the only order of reptiles that offer maternal care. The mother carries eight to ten hatchlings in her mouth down to the water by pulling her tongue down creating a pouch. At the water she opens her mouth and shakes her head gently side to side encouraging the young to swim out. Once in the water the young congregate in small groups called pods. Eighty percent will fall victim to predators, including birds, racoons, bobcats, otters, snakes, large bass and larger alligators. Those that survive can have a lifespan of fifty years in the wild.

During particularly dry seasons or drought when some waterways dry up, alligators will excavate a depression as large as sixty five feet along the waterway. When water levels return to normal the alligator vacates the burrow and other animals quickly move in. ” Gator Holes” provide critical sustenance for fish, insects, snakes, turtles, birds and other wildlife that inhabit these ecosystems.

Following WW II there was great concern across the Southern Gulf states about large scale commercial overhunting. The alligator population reached its lowest points in the 1950s and early 1960s. Hunting was essentially stopped by 1969. Louisiana and Florida banned hunting and trapping in 1962 followed by Texas in 1969. They did this by passing an amendment to the Lacey Act which is a Federal law that prohibits interstate commerce of wildlife. These actions brought attention to and helped to promote passage of the Endangered Species Act by Congress in 1973. Politicians in Washington have credited the Endangered Species Act with the recovery of the American Alligator as a success story. In fact at the time of the Act, the alligator population was counted at 734,000 and growing. This was accomplished by the efforts of the Departments of Wildlife and Fisheries in Louisiana and Florida a decade earlier. Today the alligator population in Florida stands at 1.3 million. In 1987 the Endangered Species Act reclassified alligators from endangered to threatened. Since 1988 the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission has offered limited recreational hunting and strictly controlled commercial trapping. Conservation methods now in place meet the three tenets of sustainability: economic, social and environmental concerns. These methods are useful in managing the population, provide meat for local residents and tanned hides to be used in valuable leather products.

The recovery of the American Alligator population from possible extinction is indeed a success story. However; this species, Alligator Mississippiensis is still threatened, primarily from destruction and degradation of wetland habitat by humans. Their loss would be a blow to biodiversity and to the ecosystem, affecting all levels of the food chain.

Remember this: We are all connected in this intricate web of life on planet Earth.

Happy Trails,

Dohn

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George Washington – Farmer

“To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.”     G. Washington

At the time of George Washington’s birth in 1732 there were thirteen individual colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America ruled by England. Commerce was primarily export of agricultural goods back to England and to the individuals and businesses that had invested in the development of the colonies. Social norms of accepted behavior amongst the hierarchy were of British origin. At age 14 young George Washington possessed a book of rules for good conduct titled 110 Rules of Civility. George wrote a copy for himself so that he might become more fluent in the rules of behavior and civility and thus elevate his position in social circles. These formative practices led to a lifelong commitment to fairness and integrity.

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Commander of the Revolutionary Army, former surveyor in the wilderness, fought in the French and Indian War, plantation owner, statesman, first President of the United States. I learned all this in varying degrees as I advanced through the classes at elementary school. What I remember about the early lessons was that George Washington could not tell a lie. The old myth about the cherry tree has long been debunked but the meaning of the little story is still true today. I have found in my own life that honesty is the best policy. Bravery, endurance, diplomacy, innovation, quest of knowledge all characterize Washington. In my day we were taught to emulate that behavior. I don’t think they teach that anymore in schools today.

“Honesty will be found on every experiment, to be the best and only true policy; let us then as a nation be just.”     G. Washington

George Washington – born February 22nd 1732, Virginia.

Thank you Mr. President for your service to humanity, your country and enduring examples.

Washington’s military and political career abound with examples and stories that let us give title to him as a great man. I find myself more fascinated with the lesser known achievements and true passion of Washington, his gardening and landscaping.

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George Washington inherited the estate of Mount Vernon upon the death of his half brother Lawrence in 1754. He worked constantly for the next forty five years to improve and expand the mansion house and surrounding plantation. Washington was a true visionary farmer. He experimented with new crops, fertilizers, crop rotation, tools, and livestock breeding. Washington also maintained a strong interest in landscape design and architecture throughout his adult life.

Washington himself designed all aspects of the landscape at Mount Vernon. He extensively redesigned the grounds surrounding the home adopting a more naturalistic style. He reshaped walks, roads and lawns; cut vistas through the forest and planted hundreds of native trees and shrubs. Well ordered grounds provided food for the mansions tables and were designed to be pleasing to the eye. At the time of his death the plantation had grown from 2,000 acres to 8,000 acres, consisting of five farms with more than 3,000 acres in cultivation.

“I know of no pursuit in which more real and important services can be rendered to any country than by improving its agriculture, its breed of useful animals, and other branches of the husbandman’s care.”     G. Washington 

George Washington oversaw all aspects of the pleasure grounds. His wife Martha Washington oversaw the kitchen garden, allowing her to keep fruits and vegetables on the mansion table year round. An interesting fact: Mount Vernon’s kitchen garden has been continuously cultivated for production of vegetables since 1760.

The Lower Garden as it was called was a formal space for the enjoyment of guests. Ornamental trees were interspersed on the perimeter of the garden while rows of vegetables and fruit trees for household use occupied the interior. Combing the attractive landscape with food production, these beds demonstrated the beauty of domestic agriculture and Washington’s artistic sensibility.

The Upper Garden had as its centerpiece a greenhouse that Washington had designed himself. At the time there were very few greenhouses in North America and none near Mount Vernon. Planning for the structure began in 1784. Within this elegant structure Washington cultivated tropical plants that could not survive the cold Virginia winters. The greenhouse was a place to grow lemons, limes and oranges and a gallery for exhibiting rare and unusual plants that were imported from around the world.

Close to Washington’s heart was a small private botanical garden. He tended this little garden himself where he experimented with new plant varieties. Situated below the Kitchen Garden was a four acre Fruit Tree Garden. Fruit orchards were also planted on the outlying farms. Apples, pears, cherries, peaches and apricots were common fruits grown on 18th century farms. To find trees for the natural landscape redesign of the property Washington easily found a supply of native trees in the surrounding woodlands. Aspen trees were planted along serpentine avenues and dogwood, maple and poplar were planted in shrubberies.

Another of George Washington’s innovative farming practices was the use of soil amendments. Use and types of fertilizer were little understood in early America. Washington erected a stercorary or dung repository building near his stables. Here he experimented with a wide range of formulas to find which worked best for different varieties of plants. Trials were done with horse manure, cow manure and chicken manure that was mixed with grass clippings, prunings and all sorts of organic matter to produce fertilizer for fields and gardens. The building even included perches for birds that their droppings were added to the mix below. Washington continuously strove to make farming operations at Mount Vernon self sustaining.

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In the 1760s the main cash crop at Mount Vernon was switched from tobacco to wheat. Within a few years after, a grist mill had been built which had two pairs of milling stones. One pair ground corn into meal for use at Mount Vernon, the other pair ground wheat into superfine flour for export to foreign ports. In 1791 an upgrade was made to the milling operation, installing improvements invented by Oliver Evans. The new automated system moved grain and flour through all steps of the milling process by mechanical means, with no manual labor. The new system also improved quantity and quality of the flour. This grist mill was capable of producing 5,000 to 8,000 pounds of flour and cornmeal a day.

Scottish born James Anderson was a skilled millwright that ran operations at the grist mill. Anderson had also been trained as a distiller and suggested to Washington that he might consider building a distillery for the making of whiskey and increase profits for the plantation. Work began on a facility in 1797. The distillery operated each of the twelve months and Washington became the largest distiller in the country, producing 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey a year. It was one of Washington’s most successful enterprizes. Ever conscious of self sufficiency, Washington built a hog pen not far from the distillery. Waste from the fermentation process was then fed to a growing number of hogs which grew to 150 animals in the pens.

When wheat became the main cash crop at the plantation, threshing was still done in a traditional manner. To separate the grain from the wheat stalks they were either beaten on the ground or treaded upon by a horse that circled around a center pole. This method was labor intensive and a good portion of the grain was damaged or unusable due to the waste and dirt that accumulated. Washington solved this dilemma in 1792 with his own invention, a sixteen sided barn.

The barn was two story affair that could accommodate an acres worth of wheat spread on the upper story. Horses were brought into the second story where they would be led in a circle for half an hour to forty five minutes, Their hooves effectively separated the grain from the stalk where it would fall between one & one half inch gaps in the floorboards to the clean granary floor below and then stored or loaded on wagons to be hauled to the grist mill. Everything happened in one place, under cover which reduced spoilage and loss, plus saving on labor.

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Three fisheries along the Potomac River reflect Washington’s entrepreneurial spirit. For almost forty years fishing operations brought in food for slaves, the paid workers and surplus was sold to provide profits for the plantation. Fish was an important part of the slave diet where each individual was provided with twenty fish per month.

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Preparation was hectic during the brief fishing season of the spawning run that lasted only a few weeks in April and May. Several processing camps were set up along the ten miles of shoreline, where all available hands were set to work. Different types of seine nets, some as long as five hundred feet, were stretched between boats along the river. The annual harvest would bring in a herring catch of over one million and shad numbered in the tens of thousands. On shore the fish would be sorted, gutted, cleaned and salted then packed into barrels for storage or shipping. Refuse from fish cleaning was loaded onto wagons and hauled to fields where it was worked into the soil as fertilizer.

Two hundred and twenty years after Washington’s death his legacy endures. After doing research on this article for George Washington – Farmer, I have a renewed inspiration to continue the preservation activities at my historic adobe house and eagerly await the arrival of the spring season when I can once again sink my hands deep in the garden soil and prepare for planting.

“Agriculture is the most healthful, most useful and most noble employment of man.”     G. Washington

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Did you know that George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, is privately owned? No Federal tax dollars go towards the management and maintenance of the property.

For many years the estate was passed on through inheritance to descendants of George Washington. In 1858 John Augustine Washington III great grand nephew of George sold the property for the sum of $200,000 to the non-profit Mount Vernon Ladies Association. The final installment payment was made on December 9, 1859. The Association took possession on February 22, 1860 – Washington’s birthday. Mount Vernon remains a privately owned property by the Association. It’s income is derived from charitable donations and the sale of tickets, produce and goods to visitors. The non-profit Mount Vernon Ladies Association continue their mission ” To preserve, restore, and manage the estate of George Washington to the highest standards and to educate visitors and people throughout the world about the life and legacies of George Washington, so that his example of character and leadership will continue to inform and inspire future generations.”

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After defeating the British in the Revolutionary War and gaining independence from foreign rule, George Washington thought his public service was done. He had been away from his beloved home Mount Vernon for eight years. On December 23, 1783 he presented himself before Congress in Annapolis, Maryland and resigned his commission as Commander of the Continental Army.

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Washington wrote a letter to his friend the Marquis de Lafayette dated February 1, 1784 … ” At length my dear Marquis I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac & under the shade of my own vine & my own fig tree.”

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Three years later public service once again presented itself at Washington’s door. The year 1787 found Washington traveling to Philadelphia to attend a convention assembled to recommend changes to the Articles of Confederation. Washington felt the Articles formed only a weak union and operated with financial and military impotence. Washington was elected to preside over the convention which lasted four months. This convention of our brilliant founding fathers produced the Constitution of the United States. Once the Constitution was approved by Congress, George Washington was selected by every elector to be the first President of the new nation. He is the only President to be elected by a unanimous vote, by the people. Serving two terms as President of the United States kept Washington away from Mount Vernon for another eight years.

Letter to Dr. James Anderson     April 7, 1797.     “I am once more seated under my own vine and fig tree, and hope to spend the remainder of my days … in peaceful retirement, making political pursuits yield to the more rational amusement of cultivating the earth.”     G. Washington

A few last notes on the politics of George Washington.

Washington administered the new government with fairness and integrity, assuring Americans that the President could exercise extensive executive authority without corruption.

“Guard against the impostures of pretense patriotism.”     G. Washington

Thomas Jefferson wrote this about President Washington … “His justice was the most inflexible I have ever known, no motive of interest or consanguinity, friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision.” 

“There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of pubic happiness.”     G. Washington

George Washington set a standard rarely met by his successors, although established an ideal they are all judged by.

After reviewing this article I am once more reminded and saddened that the current President, Donald Trump, has little interest in history and much less the ideals of our first President, George Washington.

Do well my friends and farm on.

Dohn

 

 

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A Memorial to Old Abe

“In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

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I’m fond of Abe Lincoln. Always have been. In grade school we learned the lessons of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Great men of history, governance and the nation. Models of virtue and wisdom, ideals that us young students should strive to incorporate in our own lives. I must have had a good teacher because I’ve never forgotten.

When I was but the age of twelve I had my first truly patriotic emotion. My family was spending a day at the nation’s capital in Washington, DC; part of our summer vacation. After visiting the Eternal Flame for President John F. Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery and spending several moments in contemplative silence my father drove us to the Lincoln Memorial. I’d previously seen statues, monuments and architectural structures of significance and wonder. This tribute to Abraham Lincoln I knew was different.

As I climbed the 57 marble steps I was in absolute awe and felt I was approaching some sacred space. Not a religious one but a place so entwined with the history of the nation as to be hallowed ground. A Greek temple of marble with tall forty four foot columns, the likes of which I had seen only in books. Once reaching the level of the temple floor the enormity of the nineteen foot tall statue of the 16th President  is fully realized.

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Seated on a chair with extended arms that rest on front chair legs of carved fasces, (a symbol of law and governance), Lincoln appears reflective. The scale of the statue gives the impression at first of being god like. I imagine Zeus or a pantheon of kings that aspired to greatness. However this is different. Lincoln’s hair and suit are rumpled, the square toed boots not rooted but restless. His countenance does not gaze downward from his mighty seat but outward towards the distance, across the great mall to Washington’s obelisk and beyond to the nation’s capital.

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The artist has created a statue of a man after all, not a saint or angel. My heart swelled with pride for my country. A country where a man of humble beginnings with only a back woods upbringing could elevate his position by listening, learning and treating all men honestly and fairly. A country where this man, Abraham Lincoln,  born in a log cabin on the frontier was elected as President of the United States and went on to save the Union. I was standing in front of this President and I felt so proud to be there. The memory persists.

Within two years of Lincoln’s assassination in April of 1865 a committee was formed to build a monument. Design work proceeded for awhile and then halted with lack of funding and a Congress that was dealing with the more pressing matters at hand. At the turn of the century another committee was formed with the task of securing proposals for a memorial to Lincoln. After some controversy over the site, an architectural design by Henry Bacon was approved by Congress and Daniel Chester French was commissioned with carving the marble statue.

It took eight years to build the memorial from 1914 to 1922. Henry Bacon’s inspiration came from the Parthenon of Greece the origin of democracy. There are 36 Doric columns surrounding the building, each one representing the states of the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. Numerous decorative engravings and symbols enhance the exterior. The front portal is open, there is no wall or door to restrict entrance. The monument is open to all, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The interior is austere, softly lit with minimal ornamentation. The statue of Lincoln sits in the central room of the building while there are two short chambers to the north and and south, that create an axis to the building. One chamber wall is engraved with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The other with the immortal words of the Gettysburg Address that we know so well.

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Much has been written about Lincoln. His life is well chronicled. There are volumes of his speeches from his early lawyer practice in Illinois to his time in the White House. I’ve read many. There are also many chapters recorded of his anecdotes and humorous stories which are still retold. I can’t decide which phrase would be appropriate here….”that this great man had a humble sense of humor”…or…”this humble man had a great sense of humor.” You decide.

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision, if they decide to turn their back to the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”              A. Lincoln  

Throughout his life Lincoln held in highest regard the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the laws written into the Constitution. His belief that a free people could govern themselves in this experiment of a democratic republic was unshakeable. He believed that given the truthful facts of a matter the population would make wise decisions. Mr. Lincoln would be shocked at the false rhetoric today and the consequences it has brought.

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the facts”.     A. Lincoln

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“It is with your aid, as the people, that I think we shall be able to preserve – not the country, for the country will preserve itself, but the institutions of the country – those institutions which have made us free, intelligent and happy, the most free, the most intelligent and the happiest people on the globe.”      A. Lincoln

At this particular time in the country’s history the population’s beliefs are divided. There are two major political parties, each convinced of its own brand of righteousness. Vile words are hurled at opponents. Taunts and jeers are heard in the halls of congress. The citizens of one party express outright hatred for the other in social circles and it goes as commonplace. The leadership in the White House has stirred the flames of passion with it’s own supporters. Instead of trying to strengthen the ties that bind us together the current president, in every speech has promoted divisiveness and discord. It is both alarming and unprecedented. It is a shame this president has no interest in reading history. He would do well to lift a page and learn from Lincoln’s writings.

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“If the American people will only keep their temper, on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end, and the question which now distracts the country will be settled just as surely as all other difficulties of like character which have originated in this government have been adjusted. ”     A. Lincoln

The Lincoln Memorial is a popular place to visit. It had almost eight million visitors in 1917. It is a rare example of a monument that has grown in stature over the years in terms of symbolic significance. The architectural form has not changed but the meanings articulated have been intensified, expanded and even altered by subsequent events. The memorial has personified the legacy of a complex man, been a tribute to the unity of the country after a divisive civil war and a central focal point for the civil rights movement. Many are those that have delivered speeches from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. To me, none are so memorable as the ” I Have A Dream” speech given by Martin Luther King that addressed 250,000 people gathered on the mall in August 1963. That speech has added to the legacy of Old Abe and expanded the meaning of the memorial to many. Each individual brings their own frame of reference when visiting.

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Abe Lincoln brought freedom to black slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation. However: that did not end racism. Racism still exists in America. In fact public displays of racism have been on the rise in the past few years. This discrimination is now directed not only at African Americans but also towards Jews, Muslims, descendants of Spanish origin and those of different sexual orientation and more. There are elected officials who have subtly or actively supported this anti-ethical behavior. The President himself said that ” there are fine people on both sides” after  a particularly violent demonstration by white nationalists.

Racism is not the only problem the nation faces. Politicians reap in huge sums of dark money while granting political favors to special interest groups and corporate donors.  The CIA, FBI and our entire judicial system has been attacked by this administration as being disloyal to him, negating the apolitical position those agencies have traditionally held. Despite the collective warnings of scientists on environmental concerns, pristine areas of wilderness and public lands are being sold off to exploitive extractive industries. Income inequality is discouraging when only a handful of individuals own more wealth than the rest of the entire population. America’s position as a world leader is being diminished as our allies are not given an ear but a lashing tongue of insults, meanwhile despots and dictators are given credence. Long standing protocols and procedures are being deemed irrelevant or ignored. Our system of three branches of government, each with oversight is dissolving while a Conservative Congress appears unable or unwilling to address this outrage.

I fear the nation is on a dangerous path. The Right Wing Nationalist movement of isolationism nor the jingoism of “Make America Great Again – USA, USA, USA” will not unify the country or begin to solve its problems.  My friends we can do better, we must. Above all a sense of decency must be restored.

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“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms,  it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”     A. Lincoln

The Lincoln Memorial is a moving and inspiring place to visit, it is also a disquieting one, for their remains a challenge, an ambient reminder of the nations still unfinished business.

Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809. Two hundred and nine years later I salute you Mr. President.

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Do well my friends,

Dohn

 

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Looking at the world through a windshield

 A Migratory Expedition Southward

Winter in the Rockies is a long season. Even in the southern Rockies cold and snow can be expected for a long six months. Staying mostly indoors sitting by the fire has it’s comforts but can also lead to stagnation. Mental, physical and creative abilities begin to deteriorate without some sort external influence. There are remedies, such as old and new authors to read, taking up a new hobby can be helpful, attending social gatherings, visiting a museum or art gallery can be inspirational or perhaps attending a lecture could break a cycle of repetitive winter drudgery. Another option would be travel. Visiting a new city or taking a cruise can lead to adventures not imagined. Migratory birds nullified the effects of a winter season long ago. They travel to southern climates.

The snow started to fall at the Lower Farm in October this year. Temperatures have been below freezing, new snows fall every month. Mid January I started formulating a plan. I was accomplishing nothing as to construction improvements or landscaping projects. An expedition was in order. I would be driving south for a distance I’d not attempted in quite awhile.

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Leaving Las Vegas, New Mexico driving east through Santa Rosa, Tucumcari and on to Amarillo, Wichita Falls, Dallas, Texas; Shreveport, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; Pensacola, Florida to Tallahassee where the road begins to turn south towards my destination of Fort, Myers, Florida on the Gulf Coast.

1900 miles of looking at the world through a windshield. The high plains and last sight of any mountains or hills, the prairie of west Texas sprouting hundreds of new wind turbines, herds of cattle, metropolitan islands of dense population, scrub woodlands, the vast Atchafalaya Basin of swamp and bogs, east of Pensacola a wake of devastation left after hurricane Michael, where 1000s and 1000s of pine trees are snapped and toppled. Broken. Lake City, Florida is my entrance to the north/south corridor of Interstate 75. Besides the areas around large cities, Florida’s I-75 had the most traffic I’d encountered in over a thousand miles. Around Tampa I noticed the temperature had risen significantly. At last warmth, real warmth in the upper 70s. Finally… Sweetwater Landing Marina on the Caloosahatchee River where my brother resides on a boat. I’ll be there the next month and a half as winter wanes.

The day after arrival I stripped down to shorts and T-shirt. No socks or shoes, no sweater, winter coat, hat or gloves. The sun kisses bare bleached skin. It’s wonderful. Migratory birds have the right idea. A change in climate does the body good.

While here I won’t be reposed on a beach blanket all day. This is an expedition afterall. Everglades National Park is on a high priority to explore. Not as dramatic as Yellowstone or the Tetons but an ecology found nowhere else on Earth. Tremendous amounts of water flow in a sheet across miles of flat terrain.A sea of grass they call it. Cypress swamps, mangrove swamps, bogs and marshes are a habitat for birds, fish, reptiles and insects that have adapted to an environment of shallow flowing waters. Once rested I’m excited to explore.

Meanwhile my feet are so happy not to be encased in thick socks and heavy boots. Living on a boat you are pretty close to being outdoors all the time. It is so pleasant not to be encumbered with the weight of winter.

For now, Adios.

Dohn

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A Composition on Decomposition

Exploring an Eastern Woodland

Healthy woodlands play an important part of maintaining biodiversity in the environment. They provide a habitat for all manner of species, flora and fauna. If that woodland dies off, from natural causes or removed by man, then the birds, bees, mammals, varieties of ferns and mosses must all establish new colonies, if such places exist. Healthy forests are important for all.

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How do forest soils provide enough nutrients to support such a quantity of trees over the years?

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Leaf litter, twigs and pieces of bark that fall to the forest floor accumulate as organic matter. Within months this litter begins to become part of the soil during the process of decomposition.

Decomposition is the process of decay that takes place when a living thing changes chemically after dying.

Decomposition in soils is a key ecosystem function that in part determines the productivity and health of the plants that grow there.

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There are thousands of types single celled fungi and bacteria in the soil. When an organism dies, fungi and bacteria begin breaking it down into its simplest components: carbon dioxide, water and nutrients.  As rot sets in on these organisms insects, worms and other invertebrates inhabit the organism and aid in the decomposition. This process of decomposition releases large quantities of essential nutrients to the soil solution, thereby making them available to plant roots.

There was a time in Earth’s distant past when organic matter did not rot. The Carboniferous Period (358.9 million yrs. ago – 298.9 million yrs. ago) was a time when fantastic trees with delicate fern like leaves and pencil thin trunks grew to 160′ tall in dense swamp forests. Vast areas of the landmass EuroAmerica was covered in marsh and swamp, the air warm and humid. Plants gave off so much oxygen into the atmosphere that plants, insects and animals reached sizes not known in today’s atmosphere.

At that distant time bacteria, fungi and microorganisms that initiate decomposition of organic matter did not exist. Microbes that could ingest lignin and cellulose – key wood eaters – had yet to evolve. The result was that as leaf litter accumulated and trees died and fell they remained intact. They did not rot. All this dead material piled over the other in damp swamps. Dead material would compress from the weight piled above, and be submerged in the moist soils eventually turning to peat. Heat and pressure compressed the mud and carbon holding matter over millions of years. When dead matter builds up faster than the rate of decay, layers of organic carbon become natural gas, oil, coal.

If bacteria had been around devouring wood they would have broken carbon bonds, releasing carbon and oxygen into the air, but instead the carbon stayed in the fibers of the wood. Ninety percent of all coal mined on Earth today is from deposits formed in the Carboniferous Period.

The Carbon Cycle begins with plants. In the presence of sunlight, green plants combine carbon dioxide from the air with water. This process (photosynthesis) creates the simple sugar glucose, nothing more than carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. The glucose and other sugars are the fuel for building plant structure, plant growth and reproduction. When plants die, carbon and other nutrients stay in the fibers. The stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere through a chemical reaction after death. Decomposition releases carbon into the air, soil and water. Living things capture this liberated carbon to build new life. This is the Carbon Cycle.

The release of carbon dioxide from soil has global implications. It occurs in ecosystems worldwide and contributes significantly to the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is a natural property of the atmosphere in which greenhouse gases prevent the transfer of heat from the Earth’s surface to outer space. A warming atmosphere will lead to a cascade of environmental impacts. Impacts such as global warming, sea level rise, alteration of precipitation patterns and increased storm activity can be expected. The rapid increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere began at the time of the industrial revolution. Coal and other fossil fuels are a convenient source of energy but when burned, the stored carbon is released into the atmosphere. This alters the balance of the carbon cycle and is changing the Earth’s climate.

Decomposition is a biological process carried out by bacteria and fungi. Bacteria and fungi are very sensitive to temperature. Colonies of microorganisms will face unknown threats in a warming environment. Climate change will also affect decomposition rates. As precipitation patterns are altered to very dry or very wet conditions, decomposition rates will decrease.

The meltdown of the nuclear reactor core at the Chernobyl power plant on the 26th of April, 1986 was an environmental disaster that had never been seen before. Because of high radiation levels an exclusion zone was established around the epicenter and the reactor was covered with a concrete dome in an attempt at containment. It wasn’t just people, animals and trees that were affected by radiation exposure at Chernobyl, but also decomposers: insects, microbes and fungi.

Scientists and researchers continue to study the compounding effects on the environment within the exclusion zone. What they have found is a significant accumulation of forest litter. This poses a fire threat that could spread contaminated material to a far wider area. Scientists have also noted that there has been very little plant decay in the 20 to 30 years after the disaster. Trees are not rotting. Studies are now being done at Fukushima in Japan to see if similar conditions with decomposers are evident.

The carbon cycle is so tightly tied to plant life that the growing season can be seen by the way carbon dioxide fluctuates in the atmosphere. In the northern hemisphere during winter, when few plants are growing and many are decaying, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations climb. During the spring, when plants start growing again, concentrations drop.

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The intricate bonds that bind the of the web of life are beyond my imagination. In our solar system there is nothing like it. A small blue marble in the darkness of space. Everything needed to support life is here. Nature has filled every niche with life. Even in death nature has provided a  way to recycle elements that induce new life. Decomposition plays a vital role in keeping a balance of Earth’s natural systems and cycles. In death there is life.

Human activity is disrupting the Earth’s systems of balance with dire consequences. I encourage all to learn more about the web of life, the environment and the ecosystems that exist where you live. Learn to love the planet.

Aloha, Dohn

Posted in Air, earth, environment, Nature | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Art in Saddlery

Western Americana

I had a horse when I was three years old. It was pure white with a thick molded mane and flowing tail. The reins were red and the saddle blue. I don’t remember where my young imagination took me on that rocking white horse but I loved to sit in the saddle and ride, ride, ride.

Recently I rescued an old western saddle from under a pile of used auto parts, old blankets, discarded clothing and other detritus. Only the saddlehorn was showing. I tugged and pulled, pushed junk aside and finally got it free. The stirrups and some straps were missing and mice had chewed away some of the skirt. The saddle was too far gone to incur the cost of repair and too worn to ever sit astride a horse again. Although in poor condition the saddle and remaining cinch is entirely covered with an intricately carved floral pattern. An interesting western artifact. I dragged it home.

Later that afternoon a neighbor stopped by to visit and I showed him my latest find, which was still sitting on the porch. He agreed that the carving was done by a master of saddlery and noted my enthusiasm for getting the saddle cleaned and oiled for display. The next morning the same neighbor showed up at my porch with a saddle slung over his shoulder. I had this old saddle out in the barn, he said, and thought you might like it. Now I have two saddles, each different but equally interesting.

I’m fascinated by the art in saddlery. The intricate hand carved floral patterns, stamped geometric designs and artful precision stitching are simply amazing. The addition of silver conchos and other decorative elements make custom saddles a true work of art.

Searching the internet for retail saddle and tack stores I was able to compare prices for different saddles. A basic English saddle or simple Western saddle can be had for as low as $250 to $300 dollars. A fancy custom saddle like this one, is in the $3,000 dollar range.

Leatherwork has been practiced since prehistoric times. Animal hides, an available resource through the ages, have been used as shelter, clothing, footwear, household furniture and an array of mechanical and industrial components. There is a vast difference between a tradesman who works in leather and an artisan who practices leathercraft. One will produce items of leather that are functional and durable. The other, the artisan will create things of beauty using curiosity, skill, imagination and a thorough knowledge of materials and tools to be used. Compare the art of a Native American wedding dress complete with beaded moccasins or a pair of fine Italian shoes – to what? Artistic quality stands above all others.

The earliest known saddles were little more than a padded cloth held in place with a girth strap used by the Assyrian cavalry about 700 BC. The Scythians developed a leather saddle (500 – 400 BC) that included padding and embellishments such as elaborate sewing, leatherwork, precious metals, carved wood and horn. Saddles had become a way to display wealth and status. Saddles continued to evolve per country and region. Design also evolved to meet specific needs for hunting, travel and for military purposes. The saddle eventually branched off into two distinct designs, the modern English and Western saddles.

The Western saddle or stock saddle that we know today is an evolved version of the Spanish vaquero’s working saddle. As working cowboys used their saddles, they underwent a gradual change to meet the demands of life in the old west. Today you can find saddles that match their intended use. There are ranch saddles, trail or pleasure riding saddles, saddles for rodeo events like roping, cutting, barrel racing and many other types.

This particular saddle with a relatively wide seat, well positioned cantle at the back and good sweep to the pommel in front would provide some comfort to a rider who might be in the saddle all day. It would be suitable for long trail rides or inspecting miles and miles of fence line in a day. It appears that this saddle was double rigged, that is it would have a cinch strap fore and aft and indicated by the extra slot near the front of the fender there was probably a chest strap at one time. All of this would have had elaborate carving as does the rest of the saddle. Specialty leather carving knives in the hands of an artist were used to create the overall flowing floral patterns. A thing of beauty.

The other saddle I now have, the one given to me by a friend, is a working saddle once used for herding and rounding up livestock.The high cantle and pommel would keep a rider firmly centered in the saddle while making quick turns or sudden stops. This old saddle had seen a lot of use in it’s day.

Parts of this saddle have been replaced or repaired. The horn for instance has been wrapped in new leather. Probably due to continuous use of dallying a rope around the horn while lassoing steers and horses. The stirrups appear to have been replaced at some time. The adjustment to length would originally have had buckles. Now they are permanently set to the leg length of the former owner with rawhide lacing. The carved stirrup leather does not match with any other decoration and is surely a replacement.

I’d say the decoration on this saddle falls into the category of folk art. The artwork was done by someone with a creative spirit that wanted to personalize this favored item. While cleaning and oiling this saddle I discovered something special. On one of the straps, probably scratched in with a jackknife is the name Romero. This is the same family name as the man who built my 150 year old adobe house and the following generations that lived here. This saddle may have belonged to my former neighbor Jesus’ Romero or his father Jacinto or maybe even his grandfather.

The decorative artwork on this saddle was not done with a leather carving knife but stamped with a metal die. The artist repeats a modified heart design at different places around the saddle. A rough heart shape cut from leather was added as a concho placed above the original leather circle conchos. Was the artist having romantic notions or in love when he created this art? We will never know. Another design element was the application of silvery tacks outlining the stamped hearts and across the top of the pommel and cantle. These tacks did not last and are long gone but the holes left by them indicate the artists intent.

I’m proud to have inherited these saddles. The one has a direct connection with the Lower Farm. The other is a piece of Western Americana. Both harken back to a time when horseback was the primary mode of transportation in these mountains and valleys. They will never be ridden into the mountains again.

As a piece of art it would be impractical to hang a saddle on my wall. Instead I plan to build a wooden barrel shaped stand with sturdy legs for each. When visitors stop by they can be used as alternative seating western style and a guest can let their imagination transport them where it may, which is the purpose of much art.

Happy Trails, Dohn

 

 

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Where did the breadbox go?

Found in an old cabin

In American kitchens of the 1940s and 50s, in nearly every home, a breadbox sat on the countertop. I know in ours it did, as well as every neighbor, friend and family. Ours disappeared from the kitchen about 1961, never to be replaced.

Description:

Metal breadbox.  Manufacturer’s mark – none.

Circa: 1940 – 1960

Painted metal box divided by shelf into two compartments, each with a hinged door. Above the shelf the door opens upward, lower portion opens downward. At the shelf partition height the upper  half of box slopes backward at a 45 degree angle. Exterior sides painted yellow,  interior and front background off-white with bluebell flowers and wheat stalks as decoration. On each side are two circular patterns made of holes drilled by a small bit.

Size:  Length- 13″   Height – 11″    Depth at base – 11″    Depth at top – 7″

Use: bread storage/preservation. (For best humidity level about two loaves.)

Popular in the U.S. before preservatives and plastic wrap a good breadbox would:

  • Keep the contents at room temperature – prolong edible storage time.
  • Have a lid loose enough to allow air flow, reduce condensation – helps prevent mold.
  • Have a lid tight enough to keep out insect pests and mice.

Stale Bread – Stalling is a process when starch in contact with naturally occurring water in bread causes a retrogradation where the starch turns crystalline – enhanced by cool temperatures/refrigeration. Not to be confused with dry bread.

Early 1900s and before there was no way to preserve bread once it had been cut. In 1928 Otto Rohwedder invented the first machine to slice bread. The machine also wrapped the loaf in wax paper. In the late 1930s Wonder Bread invented it’s own bread slicing/wrapping machine. By the 1950s , Wonder Bread with the red, yellow and blue balloon packaging, enriched white flour and added preservatives was nationally recognized as an industry leader. Turns out all the extra preservatives and plastic wrapping are not good for people – or the planet.

There has been a renewed interest in fresh bread. Particularly for local bakeries in ethnic neighborhoods. Fresh bread is an integral part of the new cuisine internationally. Artisanal breads are now on the menu of fine dining establishments, popular at boutique coffee shops and available in some super markets. Marianne Rohlich wrote in April 2001 an article about kitchen technology: “Fresh bread with great crust and moist interior is back. The reason for a bread box is clear: Store one of those beautiful loaves in a plastic bag and it will turn into a tough hunk of foam overnight…..But left in a paper bag on the counter; it will dry out in a day or so. Bread has to breath for the crust to stay crisp, that is why it is suffocated in a plastic bag or the refrigerator.”

So where did the breadbox go? It was overruled by preservatives and plastic packaging. Are they making a comeback? There are a lot of rustic, retro and modern models available on line. Personally I don’t see where most folks have any space amongst the coffee pot, toaster, grinder, mixer, blender; et. al. for a breadbox on the counter. One thing though; the breadbox has no electric cord. It uses zero power. It just sits there and does what it was designed to do, keep bread fresh.

Breaking bread together can make friendships last. – Old Flemish saying.

Happy Trails, Dohn

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