Friday, March 30, 2012

Carbon Sequestration in Sagebrush Steppe

Friends of mine called the drive from Boise to Mountain Home, ID, “The Big Ugly.” The one who wasn't driving tried to be asleep by the time they passed the outlet mall on the eastern fringe of Boise. The sleeping friend didn’t have to see the expanses of exotic, invasive cheatgrass that dominate the 40-mile stretch.

This grass was able to invade after the native vegetation was killed by the fires that splash blackened smudges across the area most summers. Green for only a few weeks in spring, cheatgrass spends most of its life as a blanket of short, brown stems, leaves, and bristled seeds. The seeds attach to your socks and work their way down into your boots. They use their travelling tricks to spread into other areas where the native plants have been killed or weakened, where they take root.

My friends had lived in Boise long enough that they remembered when the trip east out of Boise was lush with a shrub forest of sagebrush, tall native bunchgrasses, and evanescent wildflowers in spring. The varied plants wove a tapestry of different shades of green that woke up from winter in waves: first the bluegrass, then the squirrel tail, then the needlegrass and wheatgrass filled the areas between the shrubs. The forbs took turns showing off. Some years the balsamroot astonished my friends with washes of yellow across the hills. Other years the lupines gave it their all and created a pointillist painting with touches of blue. On some trips the red paintbrushes shone and other times it was the yellow ones.

My friends lived next door to each other and worked together for years; they knew each other's stories. But the sagebrush and grasses and wildflowers spun them a new tale each time they traveled to Mountain Home and beyond.

In addition to entertaining my friends, the native sagebrush vegetation also did a far better job of capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide than the carpet of cheatgrass now does. The Big Ugly contains much less carbon in its soil than it did previously, researchers from Boise State University have found.

You can learn more about the study in a piece I wrote for BSU’s Division of Research and Economic Development.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Rare Idaho Wildflower Gets National Coverage

Although it is rooted to a southern Idaho mountaintop, Christ’s paintbrush (rhymes with “mists”) has gone national. The U.S. Forest Service has highlighted the plant on its Celebrating Wildflowers webpage for the Intermountain West.

Christ’s paintbrush, which only grows in one small area, is an unusual kind of hybrid plant. In her Master’s degree research at Boise State University, Danielle Clay found that it is a homoploid hybrid. Although closely related plant species often cross breed, they rarely produce new homoploid hybrid species.

Many hybrid offspring have two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. But homoploid hybrid offspring end up with just one set and so have the same number of chromosomes as both of their parents. This usually results in homoploid hybrid offspring crossing back with one or both of their parental species until their unique genome disappears. But occasionally, as with Christ's paintbrush, homoploid hybrid offspring are so different from both of their parental species that they cannot cross breed and a new homoploid hybrid species can develop.

After I wrote about Danielle’s work for BSU’s Division of Research and Economic Development, the university allowed us to reprint the piece, with Danielle’s photos, in the Idaho Native Plant Society's newsletter, Sage Notes. The Forest Service saw the article and BSU gave the agency permission to use the story and photos from the INPS newsletter on their website.

Celebrating and Learning about Wildflowers

While Christ’s paintbrush boasts a unique origin, all paintbrushes are unusual plants. We talk about their red, yellow, pink, or purple flowers, but what we really see are the colorful flower bracts that nearly hide the tiny, green flowers. If we looked at the roots of one of these plant under a microscope, we would see finger-like structures called haustoria. Paintbrushes use these to tap into the roots of other plants to obtain water and minerals. These colorful wildflowers are not true parasites because they have green leaves that produce food through photosynthesis; paintbrushes are called hemiparasites, or partial parasites. This is why we find them sprinkled across landscapes like paprika and growing next to other plants, such as the sagebrush in the photograph.

The Interesting Plants page of the Celebrating Wildflowers website introduces Thieves from the Heath - Mycotrophic Wildflowers. These are true parasites, as they have no chlorophyll. This frees them from the green color scheme of most other plants and lets them explore other options. For instance, Indian pipe, or ghost plant, is a translucent, ghostly white. This unusual plant was Emily Dickinson's favorite flower.

Unlike most true parasites, mycotrophic plants do not get food and water directly from other plants. Instead, they tap into the mycorrhizal fungi that coat the roots of many plants. The fungi, with their masses of tiny filaments, or mycelia, help the plants absorb soil water and minerals, especially phosphorus. The plants return the favor by providing the fungi with food produced by their photosynthesizing leaves.

If Emily Dickinson had known how Indian pipe obtains its food, I believe she would have been even more impressed with this plant.

Friday, March 2, 2012

"Can you grow your own food?"

Guy McPherson's mother-in-law asked him that the first time he visited her after his wedding. "She's a doomer, too," Guy said, when he told me the story.

I visited Guy last spring at his off-the-grid straw bale home in New Mexico, where he grows his own food.

I woke up each morning on the trampoline near the juniper tree. By the time the sun started coming up the cold had scrunched me down inside both of my sleeping bags despite long underwear, fuzzy balaclava, gloves, and warm socks. I placed a camping mattress between me and the mountain air that swept down the canyon to settle beneath the trampoline at night.

By mid-morning the sun was gold and soft above the mountains and the goats had been milked and fed, eggs had been collected, and the chickens and ducks had left their houses for a day of foraging. Guy and his two apprentice farmers traded off chores with the young family that shares the 2½ acre homestead with Guy and his wife. Mike and Karen Sliwa, the apprentices, had left careers as high school teachers in Phoenix to spend time learning from Guy.

By lunchtime, Karen and Mike had helped transplant new seedlings into the developing gardens, planted young apple trees in the orchard near the irrigation ditch, and were learning how to install a hose bib and French drain beyond the citrus greenhouse. I handled the less thought intensive work: tidying and expanding the network of barked walkways, clearing brush, and moving rock. The goats watched the activities from their pen and commented frequently. They mentioned how much they would enjoy a walk along the road to browse the shrubbery.

By early afternoon I was gulping down water between wheelbarrow loads while the others finished the French drain and discussed how to build an inexpensive solar water heater for the outside shower. The ducks stayed cool in the irrigation ditch and the chickens kept to their shadiest dust bath spots. Even Lillian, the most talkative goat, had quieted down.

After a late afternoon lie-down, it was back to the goat shed to milk and feed before dinner. After we had eaten, the chickens and ducks were back and needed to be closed up in their snug houses. Then we humans relaxed with a bottle of wine, poetry by the fire, or a game of cards in the outdoor kitchen.

I was one of Guy McPherson's apprentices in his previous life. He was a professor and I was his Ph.D. student. As his apprentice I learned to design experiments, analyze data, and write scientific manuscripts. I learned to be a research scientist.

It wasn't until I was back to visit, and was eating the chocolate croissant he had bought each of us at the Student Union, that I realized Guy was always teaching. When I mentioned something that puzzled me, say, the chances of firefighters being able to put out a large wildfire in Arizona or one of Christopher Hitchens' books, Guy would respond with an entertaining and informative mini-documentary on the topic. I learned that he called these opportunities "teachable moments."

Guy didn't leave a successful career, comfortable life, and large network of friends and colleagues because his mother-in-law wanted another farmer in the family. Guy walked away to his most important teachable moment: fighting the complacency of our comfortable American lives to show us how to thrive in our looming post industrial future.

He states the obvious when he says that our current American lifestyle can't last. Our economy is based on energy from cheap fossil fuels, but we've used up the cheap stuff. Now we're competing for the hard-to-get, expensive stuff with more people who want more energy. We've also used up the inexpensive natural resources. The math simply doesn’t work. Add in staggering national and personal debt that we don't want to repay and we're in a world of hurt.

As an apprentice scientist, and Guy's friend, I welcomed his earlier teachable moments. I listened and made his knowledge my own. I don't feel the same way about his current message. "Acknowledging reality is a huge step, and one that most people are unwilling to take," he says.

But many people have acknowledged reality and embraced Guy and his vision. He has an avid and well-connected following on his blog, Nature Bats Last, and on social media. His blog posts often receive over 100 thoughtful comments.

On his YouTube channel, Guy takes visitors on a tour of his homestead and explains how he lives and grows food. My favorite video introduces the animals and shows the gardens in their summer glory.

Can I grow my own food? I think so, if I can do it in Senegal, West Africa. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I was a simple life apprentice in a Senegalese village for two years. We used kerosene lamps, latrines, wood fires, and got our water by pulling it out of the ground by hand.

If I were a bettin' gal my money would be on Senegalese farmers to thrive best in the post industrial world. They might not even have to miss a round of sweet green tea. Although the Senegalese may have fewer resources and less technology available to them, they adapt and survive because they live in a traditional society where people help each other.

People accuse Guy of being a pessimist. I'm one of those people. He may be a pessimist, but he's not wrong: we're in for dramatic changes. And despite what others say, Guy considers himself to be an optimist.

He points out that Americans may be uniquely prepared to deal with cataclysmic social upheaval. In Reinventing Collapse: the Soviet Example and American Prospects, Dmitry Orlov concluded that Soviet citizens were, on the whole, better prepared for the collapse of the Soviet Union than Americans are for our future. But he found that we Americans are champs in one category: we're great at helping each other and working together in the face of catastrophe.

Guy is optimistic about his ability to grow his own food and adapt to a post industrial life. He's also optimistic about the people in his valley. It's one of the reasons he chose to teach his most important lesson from there.

In a recent talk, Guy described a party in his community. "So we've got a multi-millionaire literary agent, a cowboy--dressed to the nines, because it's an opportunity to go out--and a guy from the land trust. And they stood there and talked to each other for 45 minutes as if they cared about each other. Which they do."

"This is a really big deal," he went on. "If we're going to thrive in the years to come, it'll be because we implement the kind of creativity and compassion and courage we are capable of demonstrating as human animals in the world. That's the only way forward."

For more information:

Mike and Karen Sliwa's web pages - and

The film being made about Guy and his community -