24 May 2011

Engineers v Biologists

There are science and math jokes out there.  There is no point searching, ‘cause they are not even witty to a nerd like me.  But, I did make a short story out of the standard style of comparison (not quite) jokes. 
Here goes:

A biologist and an engineer hunt for the elusive strongest vine in the world.  They think they see the plant robustus vinefera in the woods, but they cannot get to it.  The plant grows on the opposite side of the swamp.  The biologist asks the engineer, “What do you see?”  The engineer replies, “It’s that straight vine with the flowers jutting out at right angles; the one that is actually holding up the tree.”  The biologist disagrees and talks for the next hour about the symbiotic relationship between the tree and the vine and how the plants and animals interact … and that’s why it’s the strongest vine in the world.  The engineer asks, “So, which vine are you looking at?”  The biologist replies, “The one that meanders along its length, but falls vertical with the buttery florets opposite each other.”

Okay, not sidesplitting comical, but at least, “Aw, that’s stupid,”… with a smile.  Anyhoo…

The mighty Mississippi is raging and the engineers are fighting with nature to control the beastly waters.  The river used to wind through the forests and fields.  The floodplain was wide and capable of handling upstream flows, snow melt and storm waters.   Early Americans lived with the river’s wild ways and took care of the river, as the river’s bounty provided for them.
One day, along comes Mr. Commercial Interest and the desire to make nature better for making money shipping goods.  Engineers designed levees, locks and dams, confining the waters within a defined width to ensure deeper waters for vessels carrying coal, minerals, forestry and agricultural products to ports around the world.  Conduct an internet search for Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway as an example of waters created for commercial navigation and the seven year fight against the channel.
Pour water into a plastic cup.  Squeeze the cup.  See, the water rises within the container.  Now, imagine the scope billions of times over.  The Mississippi got hugged too much and is now pushing back; mad at the engineers.   The engineers are now scrambling trying to save homes and farms and the U.S. is spending millions to manage this disaster.  We biologists, won’t say, “Told ya.”  But, you know what we’re thinking.
Nature wins… period.  In the near future, I believe that the biologists and contemporary engineers will work together to restore the landscape and make provisions to mitigate historic decisions to control the mighty Mississippi.  Okay, maybe I’m too optimistic, but it is my hope that the politicians and money changers will do what is best for everyone.  Nah, I’m not believing what I just wrote.  Big business will get what they want and everyone else just has to move.
There are some engineers and biologists who are interested in doing the right thing.  Yes, and they are African American.  The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) website header tagline states, “To increase the number of culturally responsible Black Engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community.”  An equivalent organization home for biologists is the African American Environmentalist Association (AAEA) [Blog].   The statement on their website includes, “The AAEA is a national, nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to protecting the environment, enhancing human, animal and plant ecologies, promoting the efficient use of natural resources and increasing African American participation in the environmental movement”.   
African American engineers and biologists have studied and worked in an atmosphere that has limited cultural concern about the needs of communities of hue.  Yet these specialists have excelled at their chosen professions, working within a system that is deficient in African American representation, particularly in leadership.  They focus on all of us, with consideration of the interests of populations underserved by mainstream decisions and actions.  Soon enough, all American communities will be equally respected, thus creating a diverse, safe and healthy environment much better than we have today.
We are all in this together.  The strengths of African Americans in both fields ensure our continued existence in the most sound and wholesome environment possible.  We should shout out the brilliance of African American biologists and engineers.  America must listen.  These African Americans may ultimately rescue the U.S. from the nation’s poor historic infrastructure and development choices. 
Thank you, in advance.
Thanks: publicdomainpictures.net

20 May 2011

Grass or Weed?

Maryland Governor O’Malley signed the Fertilizer Use Act of 2011.  The law establishes requirements for specialty fertilizers and sets maximum limits for nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizer.  It’s about time.  Oh, my, we have got to save the Chesapeake Bay!  Mouth and eyes wide open with hands on my cheeks.
Property owners use excessive amounts of lawn chemicals in search of the perfect luscious single color deep green lawn.  It’s past time for these practices to stop.  Most of the chemicals run off into streams and end up in the Bay.  The Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in America is suffering ‘cause we want to keep up with the Joneses.  Now, if someone violates the new law, they will be fined.  One or two thousand dollars should be enough for someone to start enjoying the lawn with multiple shades of green and those cute little dandelions.
Okay, what do we do?  Can we make our own?  We’ll yeah, but you won’t hear it from me.  There are many homemade recipes online including ingredients such as beer, soda, syrup, soap, ammonia and some that even include liquid lawn fertilizer.  What?  Unless you are a botanist with a background in soil science, you are highly likely to be wasting your money on these lawn tonics.   It has taken many years for commercial fertilizer companies to come up with a mix for specific geographic areas and most of them will not be right for your particular lawn.  Much of the fertilizer sprayed and spread on lawns gets washed away in the rain, so folks tend to over fertilize hoping some it will stick.   Walk around and look at those hay colored lawns.  Dollars and common sense down the storm drain.  Meanwhile, the Bay is dying under the pressures of excess nutrients and sediments that flow from our houses to the homes for the fish, oysters, turtles and ducks; very lame.
Plants are sensitive and susceptible to burning from misapplied chemicals, be they natural, organic or poisonous.  Your lawn is an ecosystem made up of vegetation, worms, insects and the occasional mole.  Those living organisms do just fine.  It’s us with the problem, well, not me.  How ‘bout that?  My lawn, more like a diverse patch of weeds, vines, flowers, grasses, ants and other species unknown is pretty, to me, and the kids love picking the purple and yellow flowers.  I like it just fine.  My neighbors spend tons of money on chemicals and hired lawn cutters…. and they still have dandelions, clover, and mud.    If we have a bald spot, we scrape the soil, add seeds and water.  Soon enough, grass and weeds fill in the spot.  Done. 
We have got to change our mindset about the aesthetic yard.  Gardens are beautiful.  A small grass lawn area is fine.  Native grasses, various trees and shrubs are even better.  Check out Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping in Maryland.  Plants suited for your home environment are less costly; do not require much watering and maintenance; and they provide habitat for the birds, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels and the sneaky cat that roams our neighborhod.  One day, the Bay may recover.  I hope so. 
Let the weeds begin! 

04 May 2011

Wetlands What’s Up

What is that mucky dark wooded depression at the bottom of slopes at the edge of the road?  What is that long stretch of grasses that reach out to the river?  What is that scraggly looking area with the short trees and crooked shrubs?  They are all wetlands; forested, emergent and scrub-shrub and they all benefit our human environment.  But, they don’t look so pretty.  The aesthetics of the swamp, marsh, and bog are in the eye of the beholder. 

All of these areas have functions and values including habitat for aquatic and terrestrial species such as birds, snakes, frogs, beavers and deer; food chain production; nutrient removal; groundwater recharge/discharge; water filtration; flood water storage; erosion control; and they provide recreational and educational opportunities for us. 

Not all areas that appear wet are wetlands.  A wetland is identified by water loving plants; soil that is soaked in water; and water that is around long enough to influence the soil and vegetation.   There is a huge field of study that focuses on wetlands.  There are wetland and wildlife biologists, soil scientists, ecologists, and botanists who all play a role in identifying wetlands; learning about wetlands; educating the public; and managing these areas to ensure their special functions and values continue to sustain our environment. 
What does it mean to us?  Wetlands are an important part of the diverse land and water forms that make up the earth. Wetlands represent the base of our food chain.  The creatures that make up our seafood rely on these areas for the earliest stages of life.  Wetlands filter pollutants that can impact the juvenile and adult species of fish¸ shrimp, crabs and oysters that make up our Sunday dinners and summer cookouts.  Wetlands also hold onto storm waters and release them slowly so that heavy rains do not destroy the land with fast flows of high waters.  The wetlands along rivers, bays and oceans act as buffers between tides and higher elevation land.  The plants in these areas break up wave energy;  slow water flow; and keeps the water from reaching banks that would wash away upon direct contact with fast moving waters.   
Wetlands are an experience.  There is nothing like standing on the edge of a huge tidal wetland.  You can smell the salty sea and watch the ducks and osprey hunt for food.  The sounds of the waves and wind are calming.  The various plants and sandy beaches make up an art scape that no human can replicate.   The forested and scrub-shrub wetlands are fun to tromp around.  You can jump over small streams; duck under fallen trees; touch the odd-patterns of tree trunks and limbs; and look at the beauty of the flowers, mushrooms and moss that make up the floor of the swamp.   Getting through a wetland is a challenging puzzle.  In some places, the trees grow so thick that you can’t go through them; some areas have high water; some have tufts of grasses that you can use like rocks to hop from one place to another.   Some areas have hard bottom and others have a soft mucky bottom where you can sink up to your knees.   With practice, you could learn how to get through a marsh, but do not count on coming out clean.  The hardest challenge is to get out of a wetland.  Usually, they are at the base of a steep slope.  Imaging climbing almost vertical up a steep slope using tree limbs to hold onto.  See yourself climbing up a narrow steep stream valley clogged with logs and limbs.  Wetlands are fun.  Next time you go, look for skunk cabbage.  This plant really smells like a stinky skunk.  Yuck!
Whatever, they smell bad and they are havens for mosquitos and snakes.   They are nasty, dirty and creepy.   Swamps are worthless and we should just fill them and build on them.  That mindset is what killed those folks of color during Katrina.   The damage would not have been so severe if the wetlands along the gulf were allowed to naturally increase from the build-up of sediment from the rivers.   There would have been a huge buffer of wetlands between the water and the people living in the low-lying areas.  Those low elevation areas were historically wetlands and the impact of Katrina is a devastating example of what happens when you push people into those “worthless” lands. 
Nature takes care of us, but we don’t take care of nature.  Nature happens; let it!  That’s what’s up with wetlands.