VMN conference 2023

By chance, this year’s Master Naturalist conference was held in Southwest Virginia, so the Doctor and I hauled down I-81 once again to Abingdon.

I took the opportunity to check off four more State Parks on my Trail Quest: Hungry Mother SP (huge rhododendons on the Lake Trail: this trail would be even nicer when they’re in bloom); Natural Tunnel SP (a lovely patch of Hearts-a-burstin’ (Euonymus americanus), but the trail markings were not as good as I’ve come to expect); a mad dash to Wilderness Road SP before dinner back in Abingdon; and Southwest Virginia Museum, all 1.5 acres of it.

natural tunnellimestone underfootPresentations and field trips for the conference focused on the karst landscape underlying much of the area. Sinkholes, karst fensters, and natural tunnels are plentiful when the limestone is just a few inches below the surface. At right, you can see the bedrock cropping out below this flowering Pink Thoroughwort (Fleischmannia incarnata). Laura Young with DCR/Natural Heritage explained that property acquisition for The Cedars Natural Area Preserve is a little different than usual: rather than striving for contiguous lands and eliminating inholdings, the idea is to protect specific resources, like sinkholes, with small purchases. On Sunday, Terri Brown with UVA’s College at Wise presented in the classroom on karst landscapes.

To the east, in the Blue Ridge, Kevin Hamed took us on a salamander scramble on Whitetop Mountain in the Grayson Highlands. In a small patch maybe 100m in diameter, we found more than a half dozen species, including the rare Weller’s Salamander (Plethodon welleri) (but tolerably common in this locality) and Blue Ridge Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus orestes).

Rounding out the conference were classroom presentations by Jeremy Stout (with the Nature Center at Steele Creek Park); Mike Pinder of Virginia DWR on freshwater fishes of Virginia (nifty GoPro videos of Leuciscidae and Percidae: logperch conservation is an ESA success story, and their rock flipping behavior is adorable); and a sassy chat by Kate LeCroy (soon to be with Rhodes College) on mason bees.

ID corner: 3 (Putting some teeth into it)

I was out on a field trip in Rock Creek Park, and a question arose about common names for one of our nonnative viburnums, Linden Viburnum (Viburnum dilatatum) (an observation from Lake Fairfax Park). This plant is distressingly common in a couple patches along the trail leading from the Nature Center and Planetarium down to the creek.

Discussion of Linden Viburnum led to talk of Japanese Snowball (a/k/a Doublefile Viburnum) (V. plicatum), another nonnative that shares with Linden Viburnum two field marks: parallel leaf veins ending in teeth, and red fruits (maturing to blue-black in Japanese Snowball).

While it is true that Linden Viburnum is relatively more common in D.C. than Japanese Snowball, I have definitely seen both in Fairfax County, and probably Japanese Snowball in Rock Creek Park.

Which leads us to Guelder-rose Viburnum (V. opulus), which I have incorrectly identified in the past as Japanese Snowball in Reston. The leaf shape is quite different, but it’s easy to be distracted by the showy inflorescences ringed by sterile flowers, a trait common to both. It’s possible that the Reston shrubs were planted, since they’re just off blacktop paths near benches and frisbee fields.

Which is all to say that I fell into the rabbit hole of identifying tooth-leaved viburnums in the Mid-Atlantic, and as a result, I wrote up a brief comparison table: six nonnatives and five natives.

There is a native with sterile flowers, found in the mountains, Hobblebush (V. lantanoides).

A lot of what I have called V. dentatum (Arrow-wood, native) may actually be V. recognitum, recently raised to species rank. Weakley et al. write in the Flora of Virginia app:

Because [these two species]… were lumped in previous Virginia studies, the relative distributions, abundance, and habitats… are not entirely clear. It appears that their ranges are largely sympatric in the state and that specimens of intermediate morphology sometimes occur.

TL; DR: for our field trip: Linden Viburnum, pushy invasive in D.C., and the most often found.

My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion

Sasha Denisova’s piece is an effective smash-up of memory play and topical satire, with a rotating set, live and canned video projections, and other theater tricks. With a recurring image of a huge mosquito with Vladimir Putin’s face surreally attached to it, there’s no question where Denisova and her titular Mama (always welcome Holly Twyford) stand on the current conflict.

Sasha’s Mama keeps herself grounded with traditional kitchen solutions to basic problems (no fridge? keep butter cool by submerging it in water), even as her appeals for relief in Kyiv climb the ladder of implausibility. A phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is followed up by interviews with increasingly powerful leaders, both global and extra-global. The projections enable what might be the first and only artistically defensible deepfake videos, as supporting cast member Linsday Smiling impersonates Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz in turn.

Director Yury Urnov employs other theatrical devices, including a slithering, bloodsucking Putin (Suli Holum in a full-head Putin mask) that brings to mind the depersonalized work of Jean-Claude van Ittalie. Holum, as narrator, Daughter, and stand-in for the playwright, keeps the audience engaged with a warm, charismatic connection.

  • My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion, by Sasha Denisova, directed by Yury Urnov, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

It’s live theater: at Sunday evening’s performance, Twyford cut her hand while Mama was slicing onions and haranguing Zelenskyy on the phone. With professional aplomb, she called for a hold while bandages were quickly fetched.

Some links: 96

Power line grassland

pendentabundanceNelson DeBarros led a walk for the Potowmack Grass Bunch and FCPA staff to a power line easement along South Run. This is a high-quality patch that probably benefited from a fire on 1 April. About an acre was burned.

I recorded one grass observation (to maintain my Grass Bunch apprenticeship), Nuttall’s Reedgrass (Greenechloa coarctica), but mostly I went after yellow forbs, as is my wont. Maryland Golden-Aster (Chrysopsis mariana) is new to me, and it’s always good to have someone help with an ID of Bearded Beggarticks (Tickseed Sunflower) (Bidens aristosa).

Purple False Foxglove (Agalinus purpurea) is hemiparasitic on graminoids and other hosts. Another illustration of my (not well-articulated) principle that every organism has a different way to make/buy/beg/borrow/steal a living from its environment.

Chuck it

Reminders from John D. Cook and Valerie Tiberius that my next planning session should focus on deciding not to do something. I already have an Evernote card titled “Books: I will never get around to reading, probably” (for example, Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Terry Pratchett, and a few treatments of Joseph Cornell). And most of my personal Trello boards have a stack labelled “Deferred.”

It’s time to take this to the next level.

Some links: 95

Sacramento 2023

Boots on the ground (well, sneakers) in Sacramento. I met the abundant Valley Oak (Quercus lobata), host to a wasp that induces huge apple-like galls; got reacquainted with Spotted Towhee (Pipilio maculatus); found new dragonflies, like Variegated Medowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum ); puzzled over yet another carrot family member, Bisnaga (Visnaga daucoides); and watched a small flock of songbirds that iNat and I are still sorting out.

SanchoHere’s faithful Sancho the Chevy Bolt, my rental car, taking a break in the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, where I unsuccessfully sought a jinx bird who shall remain unnamed. eBird reported only a few individuals lingering in the week prior. All in all, August is rarely a good month for birding, wherever you are in the north, but this trip wasn’t just about birding.

The arboretum at the University of California, Davis was quite nice, and worth the quick trip. And the Crocker Art Museum, newly expanded since my last trip west, was a pleasant surprise. There’s some great ceramics there, and a decent collection of 20th and 21st century work. More Wayne Thiebaud than you usually get to see.

going outarriving 2arriving 1I rode the light rail out to Folsom and had a dish of ice cream in memory of Mom.

Summary statistics and other data for the trip:

  • Observations of Chris Ware in Oak Park: 0
  • El car numbers: 5030, 2621, 5374, 5471, 5483, 5195 (twice), 5573, 5291, 5435, 5198, 5286
  • Trainspotters spotted: 3
  • Zephyr Salutes (none returned) along Moon River: I lost count

A passage in Jonathan Franzen’s recent “The Problem of Nature Writing” struck a note with me:

The very presence of a piece of writing leads us to expect an argument from it, if only an implicit argument for its existence. And, if the reader isn’t also offered an explicit argument, he or she may assign one to the piece, to fill the void. I confess to having had the curmudgeonly thought, while reading an account of someone’s visit to an exotic place like Borneo, that the conclusion to be drawn from it is that the writer has superior sensitivity to nature or superior luck in getting to go to such a place. This was surely not the intended argument. But avoiding the implication of “Admire me” or “Envy me” requires more attention to one’s tone of written voice than one might guess.

Whether it’s Borneo (never been) or the Blue Ridge, it’s true that I am fortunate to have the resources to travel across the commonwealth (and sometimes the country) and to bring back a bit of documentation. And I try to remember that I’m fortunate.

I keep this blog (a) to exercise my writing muscles, (b) to occasionally demonstrate to someone else that I can string sentences together, albeit with capricious use of punctuation and conjunctions, and (c) to leave a record for myself that I can come back to. OK, every once in a while (d) I get to write about something cool that I accomplished.

I’m too old to be the object of someone’s admiration. I guess that I need to keep that in mind.

California Zephyr 2023

A few snaps aboard Amtrak train 5, the California Zephyr, from Chicago to Sacramento via Denver and Salt Lake City.

climbingClimbing the mountains along South Boulder Creek, Gilpin County, Colorado.

through the divideHaving crossed the Continental Divide via the Moffat Tunnel, we’re now following the Fraser River downhill to its confluence with the Colorado.

somewhere on the downslopeUhh, somewhere on the Colorado River, still in the state of Colorado. (I failed to save my GPS fix.)

basin and rangeAnd the next morning, having crossed Utah in the dark, here we are in Churchill County, Nevada, northeast of Reno.

Good food on both Amtrak trains (the Zephyr and the Capitol Limited). After three days you sort of get used to the bumpy ride. The Capitol Limited was 45 minutes late into Chicago (largely due to an automated systems failure at CSX); the Zephyr was two and a half hours late into Sacramento (late start due to two different cars that needed to be swapped out; amplified by an unplanned detour through the Union Pacific yards at Reno). Better than I expected!