Got Water?

Got Water?

By: Steve Roark

Water is the world’s most healthy and inexpensive beverage. It can increase energy and endurance, prevent kidney stones, aid digestion, and regulate body temperature.  Yet few of us consume as much as we should.

It is surprising how much water your body loses in a day.  About two cups are lost just breathing, and another two cups are lost through perspiration just sitting around.  Another six cups are lost through kidney and intestinal function.  That’s 10 cups you lose just doing office work.

Because foods contain water, you obtain roughly 3 ½ cups of liquid a day through eating.  That leaves 6 ½ cups that needs replacement through drinking.  The standard recommendation is to drink six to eight cups of water daily.  But if you’re doing outdoor activities in the summer heat, you need way more than that.Water drop in water.jpg

The U.S. Army developed water consumption guidelines based on air temperature and activity level. When doing easy stuff in lower eighty-degree temperatures you need to be drinking a half quart of water an hour.  Hard activity requires three fourths of a quart.  Upper eighty temperatures require three fourths of a quart per hour for easy stuff, and a full quart for hard.  At temperatures above 90 degrees you need a quart an hour no matter what you’re doing.  And by the way, no amount of training or acclimatization can reduce your need for water.

Thirst is not always a good indicator of the body’s need for water, but there are some clinical signs that indicate a need for more water intake.  One is constipation, because the intestinal tract is given a lower priority for water than other parts of the body, resulting in hard stools. Dark, brownish yellow urine is also a sign of dehydration for the same reason, indicating the urine is highly concentrated.  This can lead to kidney stones and urinary infections. Dry mouth can also result from low water intake. Around 70% of your body weight is water, and almost every body function occurs in a liquid medium.  So face it, you need water, lots of it.

It’s best to stretch water intake throughout the day.  You wake up somewhat dehydrated, so drink a couple of cups first thing in the morning. Don’t drink a lot the first hour after a meal to give your stomach time to digest food undiluted by water.

When you first begin to increase your water intake, you may visit the rest room more frequently at first.  Not to worry, you won’t wear out your kidneys, and they will in fact have an easier time functioning.  Over time your body adapts and you won’t be going so often. It takes time to learn a new habit, but improving your hydration is a worthy health goal.

 

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Blackgum

Blackgum

By: Steve Roark

Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), also called tupelo gum and sour gum, can be found in almost any woodland in our area.  It grows on a wide range of conditions, from wet areas to dry ridge tops.

Probably the easiest feature to identify larger blackgum trees is the bark, which is dark gray to black, and with a blocky pattern.  The leaves are roughly egg shaped, smooth edged, and have a broad point on the end.  The leaf is broadest at the top of the blade rather than the more typical bottom. Branches are often at a 90-degree angle to the trunk, and the smallest twigs tend to bend backward towards the trunk.  The fruit is a blue-black berry that hangs from a long stem in twos and threes.

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In the woods, blackgum is moderately tolerant to shade, and is often found growing below the main tree canopy. But it can also reach into the canopy and becomes a large tree. Only occasionally found in pure stands, it is most often a scattered in mixture with almost every forest type. Blackgum is not an important timber tree, having poor form and a cross-grain that makes it very difficult to split for firewood.  It can be used as pulpwood and rough lumber for crate and pallet material.  It is very susceptible to damage from wildfire or mechanical injury, which allows a decay fungus to enter and hollow out the center of the trunk.

Many wildlife species consume the berries when they ripen in the fall.  Turkey, wood duck, robin, and several other bird species utilize the fruit, as well as black bear and fox. Deer and beaver feed on the winter twigs and buds. The tree is a good plant for pollinators, producing abundant nectar for honey.  And since the tree is prone to be hollow, it provides shelters and dens for cavity dwelling wildlife.

In pioneer times a hollow blackgum was cut to short lengths and made into beehives, hence the old name bee gum.  While avoiding it for firewood, farmers did use the wood for handles and rough lumber.  The bark had reported medicinal properties and was used by Native Americans to induce vomiting and as worm medicine for children.

Blackgum is a gorgeous ornamental if given plenty of room.  It is attractive at all times of year, but especially in the fall, when it is produces brilliant red foliage

 

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The Sounds of Nature

The Sounds of NatureSounds natural (1).JPG

By Steve Roark

When it comes to appreciating the natural world, getting out and seeing it is how it’s most often done.  We go on vacations or road trips to see beautiful things like forests, mountains, rivers, oceans, and canyons.  This makes sense, as we are wired to perceive the world mostly through the sense of sight. 30% of the neurons in our brain’s cortex is devoted to vision.  For comparison, 8% is used for smell, and only 2% is used for hearing.  One could conclude that sounds in our surroundings are not important, but I beg to differ. Sounds can have a profound effect on our emotions and sense of wellbeing.  Sounds can also be used to more accurately evaluate natural habitats.

First, let’s analyze sounds, which have three basic sources.  One is the geophony, the nonbiological sounds that occur in any given habitat.  Things like wind in the trees, gurgling streams, and thunder.  Another source is the biophony, which is all sounds produced by living organisms, such as crickets chirping or owls hooting.  The third source is any sound produced by us humans, called the anthrophony. Some sounds we produce are purposely pleasing, such as music. But a lot of it is chaotic and usually referred to as noise. Loud traffic, equipment operation, and so on.

It turns out that biological sounds can be used to better evaluate natural habitats and their health.  Normally field scientists determine wildlife presence in a given habitat by observing them. But this limits them to what can be seen in the viewing area their eyes can take in. Any wildlife hidden by vegetation is overlooked.  But many wildlife species vocally communicate in some fashion, and soundscapes can be recorded a full 360 degrees, even at night when viewing is limited. Recordings can be evaluated to determine the presence of individual species, along with an idea of their numbers. And if some voices drop out over time, it’s likely a sign something is wrong.

Along with visually enjoying our natural world, may I suggest that you also enjoy it phonically. Biophonies and geophanies are unique signatures of whatever natural area you find yourself in. So take the time and have the patience to stop, close your eyes, and listen. It will give you perhaps a better understanding and a sense of place. Concentrating on sounds will better allow you to be “in the moment”, which is good for the psyche according to health experts. Sounds have a powerful impact on our emotional state, affecting hormone secretions, breathing, heart rate, and brainwave activity. Think about how your alarm clock impacts you. That jolt you feel is also subconsciously felt when around other loud noises such as a jackhammer, and has proven negative impacts.  But things like ocean waves, birds singing, and whispering trees are found by most to be soothing and emotionally positive. So, get out there and see certainly, but also go listen.

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The Past and Present of Elms

The Past and Present of Elms

By Steve Roark

Elm trees have been appreciated by humans for many generations, primarily as a stoic large urban tree lining streets and shading landscapes.  During the 18th and 19th centuries it was one of the most popular landscape trees in Europe and America.  Native Americans also revered the tree for its medicinal qualities.   We have several native species.

The most common elms are American, winged, and slippery elm.  All three have an ashy gray bark with leaves that are spear shaped with a toothed edge with two different sized teeth, referred to as double serrated in forestry lingo.  The leaves are also distinct for their asymmetrical base, where one side of the leaf blade attaches to the stem lower than the other, creating a curved offset look that is easy to identify.  All elms have a small seed that has small round wings to travel on the wind.

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American elm (Ulmus Americana) is the stateliest of the elms and popular as a city tree.  Its fountain-like branching creates a beautifully arched canopy that is ideal for lining streets and provides a huge footprint of shade. It’s also prized for rapid growth, tolerance to pollution, strong limbs that resist wind damage, and leaves that decompose rapidly.  Unfortunately, Dutch elm disease (yet another introduced problem) has destroyed many urban elms.

Winged elm (Ulmus alata) is noted for the thin pair of corky wings that form on the branches.  It’s common in the woods around here. Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) has leaves that feel sand papery, and an inner bark that is called mucilaginous, meaning it gets slimy when chewed or soaked in water.  It has been used by Native Americans for many generations as a medicinal to dress wounds, sooth burns, and treat dry skin.  It is also said to be useful to treat a cough, sore throat, and ulcers.  The bark is commercially collected and sold for use as a healing herb. Powdered slippery elm bark is common in health food stores.

Elm has a very tough wood that is very difficult to split, so it is not popular for firewood.  Back in the horse wagon days it was used for wheel hubs because of its strength. It was also a popular wood to use for coffins and chair bottoms.

Elms has been a standout tree throughout history, and so there are many noted historic trees on record.  There’s the Treaty Elm in Philadelphia, where William Penn signed a treaty of peace with Native Americans.   The Washington Elm in Cambridge Massachusetts was the tree under which George Washington is said to have taken command of the Continental Army.  Most famous of all is the Liberty Tree on Boston Common, a huge canopied American elm which was a rallying point for the growing resistance to English rule.

 

 

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Firefly Light Show

Firefly Light Show

By Steve Roark

A peaceful form of summer entertainment is sitting out in the yard watching fireflies do their light show at dusk. And who hasn’t as a child stalked and captured “lightnin bugs” in a jar?  Fireflies are real standouts of the insect world, so let me illuminate you (yes, humor).

There are over 2000 species of fireflies on the planet, and our local representative is the Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis). They are easy enough to identify at night, but in daylight they are ¾ inch long beetles with black wings and a red area near the head with a black spot in it. It’s the male you see flying and blinking at night, as the female mostly stays on the ground, even though she has wings.Firefly photo.JPG

To cover the life of the firefly, let’s start with the bling… the winking yellow light.  While we enjoy the light show readily enough, the male’s real end game is to get the attention of a female sitting on the ground looking up at him.  The light signal varies among species, but ours traces a J shape.  The male will hover, then drop suddenly and flash near the bottom of his fall and then swoop back up, letting the light slowly fade as he rises. If a female likes what she sees, she responds by flashing at a specific rate after the male’s last flash.  A short flash dialogue may ensue (a form of flirting I suppose), helping the male locate her position so he can descend to mate.  Flashing of the eastern firefly is most active at dusk, which is earlier than most other species.  Also, their flash is yellow, while other species emit green.

A few days after mating, a female lays her fertilized eggs on or just below the soil surface.  They hatch in 3-4 weeks as larvae (called glowworms), which spend the rest of the summer underground hunting and feeding on earthworms, other insect larvae, slugs, and snails.  After overwintering, they resume feeding in the spring and eventually pupate and emerge as adults to start the cycle over.

Organic chemists are really into fireflies because the glow is produced by a chemical reaction (called bioluminescence) that produces essentially no heat.  It is so efficient that 90% of the energy expended is converted to visible light.  By comparison, the best we humans can do is the L.E.D. light, which only converts 20% of the total energy used to light. The chemical reaction occurs in something called a photic organ located on the abdomen.  The process is complicated, but in a nutshell when an enzyme called luciferase reacts with something called luciferin, you get light.

Tropical fireflies routinely synchronize their flashes among large groups, called biological synchronicity by the science guys.  A few places in the United States also have this occurring, most notably at Elmont in the Smoky Mountain National Park, where they will suddenly all blink in unison.  It’s a show that draws quite a crowd, so much so that to have a shot at seeing them you must enter a lottery draw.

 

 

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Let There Be Light

Let There Be Light

By: Steve Roark

Light is something we don’t think about  much, but almost everything that’s alive on the planet needs light for sight and energy.  Human eats cow, cow eats grass, grass grows on light… you get the picture. Scientists have studied light for centuries, but still don’t fully understand  it.

So what is light?   The quick answer is “the first thing God made”.  A more detailed answer requires delving into physics on you, so here goes.  Light is energy that takes form and moves as a wave.  The wavelengths that we can sense with our eyes are collectively called the visible spectrum.  Light is invisible to us until it strikes an object we are looking at, say a rose.  The rose absorbs all of the wavelengths in light except red.  This “red energy” bounces off the rose, enters our eye through a lens that focuses it onto the retina, which is packed with light sensitive cells called rods and cones.  Certain cells are stimulated by the red wavelength and send signals to the brain, which interprets the color and tells you “that’s red”.  I find it amazing that something invisible has all those colors hidden away, but rainbows are proof that they are all there.

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What is not fully understand is how light moves through space as wave energy, but when it strikes an object it acts like a particle of energy, which is called a photon.  Light is loaded with unique features.  It moves faster than anything else (186,000 miles per second) and is the universal speed limit: “thou shalt not go faster than light.”  Astronomers use light speed as a measuring stick, giving distances to stars in “light years”.  Star light is old. The light of the North Star (Polaris) left it 820 years ago to travel all the way to our eyes.  Feel free to be awed.

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Earthworms

Earthworms

By: Steve Roark

Since I enjoy an occasional fishing trip and dabble with a garden, I thought I knew a fair bit about worms.  Little did I realize what amazingly beneficial little guys they are. The two most common worms we have in our area are the nightcrawler and the redworm.  The nightcrawler is the larger of the two and can be 11 inches long and thick as a pencil.

Earthworms can be found in any moist, rich soil.  Nightcrawlers build permanent vertical tunnels that can be 4 feet in depth, while redworms only build horizontal tempEarthworm photo.JPGorary tunnels in the top 10 to 12 inches of soil. Redworms tend hang out in decomposing organic matter, while nightcrawlers are usually found in pure soil.

The earthworm body is reddish brown and divided into ring-like segments.  The head is the narrow, pointed end, while the tail end is more fat and blunt.  The only other noticeable features are swollen sections along the body, which are sex organs.  Worms have bristles on their underside that provides traction for movement through the soil, and if you pick one up you may feel these.  Earthworms cannot see or hear, but are very sensitive to light and vibrations.

Their lifestyle consists mostly of tunneling and eating decaying organic matter.  As they eat they also ingest large amounts of soil, and it is estimated an earthworm can eat and discard its own weight in food and soil each day.  This digestion of organic matter and spreading it underground greatly enriches the soil, while the tunneling improves aeration and drainage.

Earthworms are hermaphroditic, having both male and female sex organs.  The eggs of one individual must be fertilized by the sperm of another.   When mating, two earthworms are bound together by sticky mucus while each transfers sperm to a receptacle of the other.  After mating they both form a cocoon of sorts, which is then shed off.  As worm sheds its cocoon, its own eggs are mixed with sperm obtained from the other worm.  The cocoon is finally discarded into the soil with the now fertilized eggs inside.  Baby worms emerge about four weeks later, reach adulthood in 60 to 90 days, and attain full growth in about one year.

One scientist estimated that one acre of soil may contain 63,000 earthworms, which in a year’s time may bring 18 tons of soil to the surface and in 20 years create a new 3-inch layer.  No one argues about the tremendous virtue of worms to our soil and ecosystem.

Worms are consumed by many birds and animals and provide humans with fish bait.  They can be found on the soil surface on rainy summer nights or dug out of compost piles.  Some fishermen use vibration to drive worms to the surface by sawing on small trees out in the woods with an old handsaw.

 

 

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