Swarms

I’m sure you are familiar with murmurations of flocking birds. I am too. But I cannot look away.

At times, up to a million birds move as one. I don’t understand the physics or the biology.

But obviously, the starlings do.




Fragments: A Fresh Coat of Paint

Swarms

I’m sure you are familiar with murmurations of flocking birds. I am too. But I cannot look away. At times, up to a million birds

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Same Blogger, Different Porch

Stay tuned while Elderly Dog learns New Tricks, 

and the dust settles on Fragments–Still from Floyd

by Fred First

Yes, I’m aware this is quite a bit different from what surviving Fragments readers have seen here since 2002. 

I can’t say for certain that the life of this blog is going to extend anywhere near into the future as far as it extends into the past; same thing, with even greater certainty for the blogger. 

Recent intense and repeated attempts to hijack this site from numerous countries around the world have caused immense headaches for my longsuffering blog host and friend, who has finally evicted these digital thugs. Unfortunately, you’ll have to shop elsewhere for your personal plumbing dysfunctions, guys. 

This is a first post to allow me to poke around Elementor–the publishing platform interface that will–if I decide to–make a much more varied and visually appealing website. I have to keep in mind that simplicity has been a big part of the charm of maintaining a blog for almost 20 years, and that nothing more than “words and pixels” are what I offer. 

In case you’ve missed it, I’ve been posting over at
Earth First: Field Note from the Southern Mountains since last October. I’ll likely cross-post there concurrently with Fragments, but sometimes, only one place or the other. 

I’ll be able to do more with photographs, hopefully, and with much progress up the rather steep learning curve–just now as the yard and garden will demand more and more of my increasingly limited energy. 

But we’ll see. Hopefully this new platform will be the vitamins I need to risk pouring my thoughts onto a page, with pages in bottles bobbing already in countless seas. Some are actually read! Will this one be?

Sunrise Cloudscape

IF Power is Out on a Three Dog Night

The wife and I are living under the jurisdiction of a new Energy Domain: new to solar panels, new to heat pumps and new to Generac propane generators. We are not so new to power outages, and wondering about “best practices” if, say, the power is out extending into and lasting through at least one night. In winter. Which could be soon-ish.

I have learned that the whole-house generator can be switched OFF manually, so am thinking to conserve propane but keep the toilets flushing, the freezer from defrosting, cellular batteries from reaching zero, the pipes from freezing and the wife from suffering a melt down– by kicking the generator on for an hour every four.

I guess my greatest unknown is what to do about heat. We have a 31k BTU Buck gas stove in the Hanger–the timber frame room with the vaulted ceiling and gobs of cubic footage overhead that is somewhat of a challenge to heat the the most cold-natured resident’s preference. We have a small 1500W quartz space heater for heating people or a bedroom if the generator is running. And we have the heat pump. How best to use those heating assets during the theoretical (but inevitable) power outage?

An additional factor I just discovered this morning. The thermostat was on 69 but the temp at the control was 68. I wanted to boost it to 70 mostly because the Hanger stays 4-6 degrees cooler than whatever we set at the thermostat.

I didn’t think it would but it did: the electrical boost kicked in because the heat pump by itself when it is in the upper 20s outside is not capable of generating sufficient heat of two measly degrees in a reasonable time without assistance. And wow the air coming out the vents was HOT when heated with the electrical boost.

Two feet of snow: good for covering freezer food against the north wall when power was out for 36 hours.

SO: Power’s out, and I want to run the generator as little as possible. When I cut the Generac on for that hour every four, should I engage the electrical assist to put as much heat in the house as possible, while using ??? more propane-generated kilowatts than the heat pump alone? Will the Generac even operate heat pump? I guess we’ll find out.

Meanwhile, the solar panels are useless if the grid is not intact; and we did not install a battery to take juice from the grid to pull from in these circumstances.

The ice does no harm, but the array is just a big inert slab of expensive glass until the sun comes back.

So there’s my situation, and I’d be happy to know what to expect and how best to manage our utilities until AEP reconnects us in a day or two of being without electricity. I won’t even muddy the waters here with the sense of risk that intentional ill-willed power outages might happen at more than the local level and last far longer than one caused by branches on power lines. Won’t go there. No sir.

Much of our snow, briefly on the ground, blows on through, stage-left, heading south to Carolina

Space is a Crowded Place

For so many missed celestial events between 2000 and 2020, I suffered lack of interest as an observer because we could not see much sky from home in a deep pocket in between ridges. That has changed since we moved. Seeing the coming and going of so many new-to-me objects now when I scan the constellations from our new big-sky home, I began to try and catch up with what I’ve missed. Sorry if this is old news to everyone else. Apologies for the video-dump below. So fire me. ¯\_(?)_/¯


This screenshot from Sky Safari app (on my phone yesterday morning, which makes the point that these space computers are up there, day and night, listening, watching, taking notes) gives you some idea of what a crowded place the heavens have become. (And btw, professional astronomers are not happy.)

Ariane is European; Iridium may be your phone data link, and SL is Starlink

FLASH(WAY)BACK: I am standing on my back steps watching Sputnik in disbelief that I am seeing a manmade star sliding silently against the heavens, imagining I could hear its haunting ping, claiming space for mankind—but mostly for Russia, our enemy du jour.

So with so many countries putting so many “smart-objects” in the sky at an accelerating pace, what is the so-what? Will a new satellite soon have to parallel-park to nudge into its own slot in the sky? And what are they doing up there anyways?

A big part of the answer to that question as far as the US has to do with it can learned by coming up to speed on SKYLINK, a project of SpaceX. And how I wish I’d been motivated and then able to witness this birthing from the mothership from our ridge-bound pasture in May, 2019. In the early hours, the payload of dozens of satellites would have revealed a straight line of bright spots through binoculars before each satellite moved into its programmed orbit. Unforgettable. But don’t grieve. Tens—hundreds of thousands more Skylink bright spots are planned.https://player.vimeo.com/video/338361997?autoplay=0

This is not nearly granular enough to show the full mesh of Earth-orbiting satellites now, much less in ten years.

Rather than spouting all the interesting stats and facts about Skylink, I highly recommend watching this video to see how all the pieces of this project fit together and matter to data-users on the ground.

So where does this end? Is space the wild wild west to be won by the dude with the biggest purse? Remember: what goes up…

“In February 2019, a sister company of SpaceX, SpaceX Services Inc., filed a request with the FCC to receive a license for the operation of up to a million fixed satellite Earth stations that would communicate with its non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellite Starlink system.” ***

And while we’re here, consider the New Shepard-Blue Origin project—another twig of the same SpaceX program, whose proximate end is a soft precision landing on the moon, and ultimately, manned flight to Mars. And speaking of the Angry Red Planet: Yes, one more after the Blue Origin video.

Serving Suggestion: Watch 1) launch to separation (it takes only 4 minutes to reach this altitude) starting at 37 minutes in; and the deorbiting of the reusable launcher rocket and 2) its soft, precision-targeted landing starting at 43 minutes.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/O97dPDkUGg4?start=2226&rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0

And lastly: Bloody Mars High-Def videos! Last time I watched footage from Mars only a year or two ago, the scene was rather bleak, flat and featureless, the optics and the mobility of the first rovers being very limited.

Not so the later missions that brought back this amazing 4K footage. The most striking feature to me is the obvious stratified water-deposited rock strata—and apparently the water is salty and there is a huge amount of it underground. Amazing new knowledge, indeed!

Digital Maps to Nature Literacy

Compass, Map, Direction, Degrees, North, East, South

TOOLS TO MEET OUR NEEDS

We create tools to work for us: to dig foundations, to hoist steel girders for bridges, to record our words and thoughts for others or capture a likeness of another in a silver emulsion of an early photograph. Over the course of history, need drives those who make things to meet those needs by building tools to do the work. It is just who we are–two-thumbed, bipedal, big-brained inventors who get things done.

And at every turning point when threats like the new horseless carriage or speaking telegraph or moving-picture tube is about to enter public life, we think the worst will happen. Even the advent of books was looked on with a jaundiced eye by the church and the politicos who feared that if everybody had the facts, the top cats would lose exclusive control of “the truth.”

And so I found myself wrapped in this historical skeptic’s discontent the first time I held my smartphone up to an unknown fern and it spat back an answer in seconds. I so wanted it to be wrong, but it nailed it.

Academic or enthusiast-botanists before the late 20-teens would have spent countless hours to ID an unidentified plant, thumbing and stumbling through the thousand pages of a branched dichotomous key to the vascular plants of North America. They would have had to learn the ponderous dysphonic terminology of plant life. They probably all carried a hand lens with them in the field, because the keys often turned on the presence or absence of barely visible features not easily discerned by the unaided eye. It was slow and tedious work.

Those field botanists of yester-year would hold the unnamed plant in their hand, perhaps for hours; or if dried and pressed, it might have been examined multiple times in the herbaria over the course of a semester, struggling to give said mystery plant its proper Latin name. Visiting multiple populations of the plant in the wild might have been required at different stages of growth to know for sure–to examine the entire plant through time– roots and stems; flowers and seeds.

Butterfly Milkweed

ON GETTING WHERE WE WANT TO GO

Given the struggles of ancient botanists like myself, this instant digital plant identification of the there’s-an-app-for-that age seemed on first use like a cheap shot. It threatened to demystify botanical variety and reduce a season’s blooms to just so many pretty faces in somebody’s image gallery–snap it and forget it, and with practically no investment of time, energy or effort. Add another species to a life-list, because it’s all about having the most numbers. Some bird watchers have the same itch.

But I have had a change of heart, and recant my former heresies and skepticism. I can’t live with the hypocrisy any longer. And I justify this in my own mind, thusly:

You will no longer find me carrying a yard-wide Virginia Gazetteer, splayed out and crumpled in the passenger’s seat when I explore the backroads. That would be foolish now when all I need is Google Maps–a tool I don’t even have to touch but can simply tell where I want it to take me or show me where I am. This facility leaves me to focus on the details of the terrain and the town or countryside I’m driving through. The technology not only offers convenience; it allows me to center on the journey without anxing about with the route to the destination.

Granted, I am still a better navigator because for so many years, I poured over paper maps until they fell apart at the creases. I gained a visceral knowledge of the cardinal points and stayed oriented in space by the seat of my pants–after sufficient hours attending to the exact WHERE of my life in the environment of the moment.

I’d prefer we NOT (young and old) have a screen under our noses 24/7 but that ship has sailed. And if a body is going to be always with said screen, it could be used for worse uses than finding our way, geographically or botanically.

Hay-scented ferm understory, Blue Ridge Parkway, Floyd County Virginia

HAVING NAMES FOR THINGS CHANGES WHAT WE SEE

Digital tools exists now to give correct scientific and common names to the trees, wildflowers, amphibians and birds we see–if we bother to go outdoors. They can offer even the home-schooling parent, untrained hiker or park visitor a NAME for a thing, and that is the essential first step towards creating the world we want. Let me explain this odd claim.

Having a name for a previously-anonymous yellow flower you see on your morning walk brings it into a kinship with you. That particularity brings into your acquaintance a previous stranger now familiar, so that when you meet again, there will be the nod of recognition. But we need more than casual acquaintance in the natural world if we are to really know enough to care enough to do enough to matter, seven generations hence.

So snapping that image in Seek or PlantSnap is just a beginning–and not always a reliable one at that. The AI technology is not complete or perfect, which you know when you get an identification of a plant that offers the revelation stating “This plant is a “Dicot.” This is like a facial recognition program telling the FBI that the perp in the mugshot is “Human.” Not so helpful.

And it is always best to take the ID given by the app and follow up with web or book confirmation that you are, indeed, looking at Common Mullein. The digital ID is a serving suggestion, and almost always, more work needs to be done to at least compare the AI results with trusted botanical or zoological resources. Even small children can compare a web picture to the creature in hand (or in jar with lid with holes punched.)

Assorted catch-and-release salamanders, Mt Rogers naturalist rally

NO MORE ANONYMOUS STRANGERS

Giving nature’s non-human beings names should be just the beginning of a relationship. Having been introduced to a moss or a tree by the snapped image and then to possess a name for the thing–this is an invitation and an obligation to take the next steps in making friends of the planet’s non-human beings.

No plant or animal you find is abstract or theoretical or potential. That Cardinal Flower is as real and as alive and as much connected to Earth by history of kinship and community as we are. Don’t you want to know more, having been introduced and on a first-name basis now?

Finding an orange flower along the roadside in June, your digital tool can tell you that it is known as Butterfly Milkweed. And next year, riding along that same road in early June, you’ll know to be expecting it, and also have an idea generally for where this particular plant tends to be found–field and roadway margins and open places, not deep woods or marshes. Now you’re becoming ecologically aware across the seasonal cycles.

And as you look more closely at the milkweed’s unique features that set it apart from, say, the Daisy family, you might begin wondering why those tiny flowers have that odd configuration of petals that are different from the petals on a sunflower. Armed with the name, you’ll dig deeper and understand the amazing method of pollination that sets the milkweeds apart from almost all other flowering plant families. You’ll discover that the milkweeds produce a white sap (and have the AHA! recognition that this toxic milky sap is the origin of the name) that gives Monarch butterflies, who feed on these plants, protection from being eaten.

Moss sporophytes of Haircap moss cover a fallen log

NATURE LITERACY IS IN OUR HANDS

If we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, let’s be thankful for an educationally-broadening benefit from our use of the ubiquitous tool that many humans possess on their person no less regularly than they possess eyes and ears: their smartphones. Use them to begin to grow a base of nature-knowledge and kinship. We’ll call this your child’s growing nature literacy in which the young learner comes to know the names and then the ecology, anatomy, taxonomy and natural history of as many of the things living in their common space as they can over an entire lifetime. What a great project to begin for children schooled at home–which at the time of this writing is essentially ALL children in the times of Covid19.

Now you have started on a journey of becoming worldly-wise. Nature literacy is just the first step. As it grows, it engenders a sense of place–a local context of YOU in space and time; you and the stories you hear and tell about the creatures you have known by name through the seasons. Sense of place over time leads to what I call a “personal ecology” by which you grow to see yourself as every bit as woven into the rhythms and workings of forest and wetland, meadow and mountainside as the downy woodpecker you ID’d by the Audubon app just yesterday. Personal ecology brings you—yes I mean YOU—into the Great Web of life the planet over, makes you an embedded citizen of the Biosphere.

And when you grow up or grow older with this way of seeing and knowing yourself as a member of the dedicated crew of Spaceship Earth, when you deeply know by name and understand and care for your bit of Earth that you call home, you’ll be drawn naturally to care for and about all living creature in all living places or habitats or biomes the world over.

If we can attain to this new relationship with nature, our species can move away from eco-apathy and planetary dysfunction towards eco-empathy. The human species can become a sustaining—rather than a depleting—resource towards the Ecology of Well-being.

To reach that end, every law or regulation, policy or behavior that contributes to the long-term health of the planet’s living systems, we will support. If they do the opposite, we will oppose them. Nature literacy gives us the foundational knowledge to make such judgments and take action.

That may seem like a reach, but this is my sense of how important it is to “know them by name” as a first step towards a world we want to leave as legacy for our children. We are their field guides. They will go where we lead them, and if a pocket phone app can open their world to the biosphere, then by all means, start there.