Monday, October 29, 2012

A Plague with an Upside?

My office phone rang with a missing plants report: cheatgrass had disappeared in Winnemucca, Nevada. It was the spring of 2003

When the rangeland manager on the phone saw the first bare areas, he was surprised. When he found whole valleys without plants, he called the new plant ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Boise. I said I didn’t know where the cheatgrass went, but I’d take a look.

We were looking for a fugitive with few friends. Weedy, nonnative cheatgrass usually blankets large swaths of the Intermountain West with nearly pure stands. It moves in after native plants are killed by fire, weakened by drought, or repeatedly damaged by people or livestock. The plants sprout in the fall or early spring across the lowest, driest parts of the West. Cheatgrass sinks deep roots while it waits to zoom ahead of the native plants when the weather warms. Before it dies each spring, the plants produce a bumper crop of seeds to continue the cycle.

A few days after the alarming phone call, I stood in what had been rangeland. It looked as if the area had been bladed for a large housing development. The few surviving plants were about as far apart as city streets. The survivors were all native perennials that were living it up with the cheatgrass gone: they used the abundant water and food to grow larger than usual.

The edges of the denuded area looked as if the ‘dozer driver had stopped for lunch and not come back. Miles of bare soil ended abruptly in normal-looking cheatgrass. The far border of the dieoff only went partway up the slope of the nearby mountains, as if the ‘dozer driver thought better of working on steep slopes.

I had a long list of ways plants can die; I needed help narrowing down my list. I stopped at the nearest ranch and asked about the mystery.

The couple working in the corral was somewhat younger than the century-old ranch, but they hadn’t seen a year without cheatgrass before. “My son says it’s army cutworm. He lives up the road,” said the woman, who wore a painful-looking shiner inflicted by one of the horses.

The son, Jim, described seeing insect larvae “eating every green shoot” on a warm, dry January evening. “It was warmer than today,” he said, as I shivered in the June dusk in front of his house. Jim did what researchers do: he photographed the insects and took some to the local U.S. Department of Agriculture office. The entomologist ID’d them as army cutworms.

As I drove away, I congratulated myself on inquiring locally to solve the mystery in record time. Then I did what researchers do: I got a second opinion.

“Army cutworms??” My entomologist friend’s voice shot up in surprise. “No way. Army cutworms would never eat that much cheatgrass.” She vouched for the insects--they were innocent. I needed a third opinion.

The next entomologist laughed out loud. I went back to my list of Ways Plants Can Die.

Walking to and from work, or driving to remote field sites, I went over my mental list: Frost? Cold air drainage might damage plants in the bottoms of the valleys and leave those on nearby slopes. Fungal root disease? Unlikely during a warm, dry winter--fungi need abundant moisture. And how could it kill ALL the plants in an area? And why would it suddenly stop killing plants at the edges of patches?

Months later, a second witness came forward. A researcher in northern Utah had seen larvae destroying his cheatgrass experiment.

Finally, that fall, I found an entomologist in western Colorado who had seen army cutworms devouring cheatgrass and crops in his area. He suspected that the insects had help, in the form of a disease that weakened the plants. The outbreak of larvae hadn’t surprised this witness, as he’d noticed more miller moths than usual the previous fall. Miller moths are adult army cutworms.

Although few people know army cutworms in the Intermountain West, residents east of the Rockies know both larvae and adults all too well.

Between its summer wildfires and winter blizzards, Colorado’s Front Range suffers semiannual plagues of miller moths. Billions of the insects invade in spring and late summer as they migrate between the Great Plains and the Greater Yellowstone area.

The moths annoy local residents by loitering around lights, invading homes, and defecating on walls. Media describe “squadrons” of moths “attacking” and “dive-bombing” people. The insects’ unpleasant habits make it hard to appreciate the impressive journey these tiny creatures complete: on a 2 inch wing span, miller moths make a thousand-mile round trip on their summer vacation.

The moths that fly through Denver and Fort Collins each spring hatched in the soil of the Great Plains the previous winter. The army cutworm larvae hide underground during the day and come out to feed at night. Sprouting fields of wheat, and other crops, are just the right height for the hungry insects.

The cutworms' nocturnal habit makes it hard to catch them in the act of destroying crops. The young larvae are so tiny that it's hard to see them at all--until it's too late. The insects earn their moniker when they reach 1½ inches and are mostly jaws. After consuming all the food in an area, the army marches off in search of more. The destruction ends when the troops stop, drop, and pupate in the soil. They emerge several weeks later as miller moths.

Although a long, wet spring can persuade the moths to linger and feed along the Front Range for weeks, their summer home is high elevation slopes around Yellowstone Park. The insects feed at night and congregate among the rocks of cool talus slopes during the day. The gatherings of moths are grizzly bear banquets. By eating as many as 40,000 moths a day, the bears get up to half their yearly energy from the maligned miller moths.

In late summer, the surviving moths turn their back on the Rockies and head back east to the Great Plains. Or do they all? Do any of the Yellowstone moths fly west? Or do "our" miller moths spend their summers in talus slopes closer to home?

Farmers in the Great Plains check their fields for army cutworms, homeowners along the Front Range recalk their windows before the miller moth migration, and Yellowstone’s bears count on the plump insects to get them through the next winter. But the army cutworm outbreak of 2003 was a surprise attack in the Intermountain West. We don’t know exactly why there were so many larvae that year or even where the adults spent the previous summer.

I blame army cutworms, perhaps working with a pathogen accomplice, for the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of acres of cheatgrass in the Intermountain West in 2003. The weather was perfect for the insects, the cheatgrass disappeared when the larvae were feeding most voraciously, and their need to stop eating and pupate could account for the sharp borders of the bare areas. (Full disclosure: some other researchers scoff at the idea.)

We haven't had a big army cutworm year since 2003--or seen big cheatgrass dieoffs. But the insects are still here, waiting for their next opportunity. Our warming climate could give them many opportunities in the future.

Army cutworms need both a mild winter and lots of eggs to reach impressive numbers. That means lots of miller moths have to return from their summer journey. When we see high numbers of miller moths in late summer, followed by a warm, dry winter, we need to start looking for army cutworms on our rangelands. When we see bare areas where we expect to see cheatgrass, it’s time to get out the seeders and reseed those areas with native perennial plants. Without competition from cheatgrass, the seeded plants will be able to establish vigorous stands that can hold the line against cheatgrass.

In August and September, I trapped and counted miller moths in the foothills of the Boise Front. Pheromones--scents that female moths make to attract males--lured males into the traps.

I'll do this every year, so I'll know when to start looking for army cutworms and watching for bare areas. And the next time someone calls with a missing cheatgrass report, I'll start with my prime suspect.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Echos of My Grandmother's Garden

The sign said, "Please ring the bell." I reached for the cord and was seven again.

My two brothers and I had just escaped from the car where we had spent two days tormenting each other with words and looks. Six fugitive feet thumped the slate stones around our grandmother's porch and past the well to the dinner bell waiting on a metal pole next to her garden. We took turns pulling the thick wire and filling the garden with sound. We pulled to announce our arrival, we rang for the joyful noise of it, we sounded a greeting to our cousins on the next farm.

My turn peeled across the wheat field, around the corner of the hen house, among the black walnuts in the woods, over the backs of the cows in the lane, and across the wooden bridge at the creek, which might have sheltered trolls. I let go of the wire and the tones slowed, softened to silence.

I hadn’t rung a dinner bell since that summer, when we spent six weeks on our grandmother’s farm while our dad went to summer school.

The bell that invited me to ring it this time perched on a wooden tower in a campground two thousand miles and many decades from my grandmother’s farm. I looked up at it through red geraniums, white alyssum, and blue trailing lobelia. U.S. and Washington state flags spread from opposite sides of the tower like wings.

This time, my peels disappeared into the s forest that threatened to swallow the campground. My hands itched to pull the cord again and again. I wanted to punch through the trees and bounce the sound off the trunks of the Doug fir and Sitka spruce, let it echo across hollow clear cuts, and send it cascading down the rocky gorge of the Little North River nearby. I overpowered the seven year old in me after two rings and forced my fingers to release the cord.

Long before I had an excuse to reach for the cord again, a woman in jeans a size I haven’t squeezed into since high school walked briskly around the corner of the bell tower. She wore a bucket around her neck made from a restaurant-sized tin can with holes in it for a string. Raspberries filled a third of the can and pulsed with sugar pumped into them by the summer sun.

"I’m glad you rang the bell," she said. "I was in the garden."

Ann introduced herself and opened the office. She told me that she and her husband shared the bounty of their large garden with guests. The blueberries weren’t quite ripe, but the raspberries were at their peak, and many kinds of greens were ready. Greens? I needed greens!

I had escaped Boise’s 100-degree bright summer for camping and hiking in the dripping moss and fairy tale fog of the Olympic Peninsula. Headed south on the coast highway, I struggled to keep my eyelids open against the pressure of a lumberjack-sized lunch. I squinted at the Washington atlas and saw an RV Park hugging the road in Artic, the town named through poor penmanship: the founder meant to name the place after his wife, "Arta," but a clerk misread his writing.

I sighed and heaved the atlas back onto the passenger seat. I’d been welcome in Olympic National Park, but private RV parks rarely allow tenters. The ones that do often banish fabric accommodations out of sight in the noisiest, muddiest corner, closest to the highway. The manager of a park where I wanted to stay in Oregon explained why: "Our RVers don’t like tenters.”

I started camping when RVs were as rare as showers in a Forest Service campground. Our parents took us to Interstate State Park, near our home in Minneapolis. I was enchanted by the stiff, musty canvas pup tent our dad set up in the back yard for a trial run. Two end poles kept most of the heavy tent from collapsing, with the help of a tangle of oily jute ropes and muddy wooden stakes with flat mushroom tops.

As I ran on the trails and jumped in and out of the potholes at the state park, I dreamed about sleeping that night in the tent. I could hear the wind shaking the stiff canvas and smell the oily fabric. My first night outdoors! But our dad made up beds for my younger brother and me in the car. In the car? That wasn’t sleeping outside! I’d been in a car before. I salve that childhood disappointment every time I set up my tent or shake out my sleeping bag or on a sandy beach during a river trip.

I glanced halfheartedly at the Artic Park sign as I passed. So halfheartedly that I couldn’t read it all before it disappeared behind me. On my second pass, I read "Tenting" and "Bicyclers welcome" at the bottom. I pulled in and walked to the office. Next to the office was a bell tower.

As Ann told me about the park and garden, a grizzled Garrison Keillor lookalike came in. She introduced her husband, Roy, who seconded Ann’s welcome. I asked about the squirrel dashing up and down trees, slashing its tail and jabbering at me as if I’d parked in his spot. Roy said it was a Douglas squirrel; the two of them were on opposite sides of the War of the Bird Feeders.

Ann showed me the garden and invited me to pick a bowl of raspberries for my breakfast. She assured me she hadn’t gotten them all. “Everyone’s at a different height so they see different berries. But please leave the Cascade berries; we use them for wine.” I was welcome to Swiss chard, lettuce, and kale, plus oregano, fennel, and something lemony from the herb garden. "Anything but the foxglove," Ann summed up.

My grandmother’s garden stretched from the dinner bell to the field that was in wheat the year we stayed six weeks. My young eyes could hardly imagine an end to the garden. I wanted to dig my toes into the damp soil under the scratchy straw, but Grandmother kept the rows of tomatoes, green beans, carrots, lettuce, strawberries, and asparagus firmly mulched.

Gladiolas next to the fence by the hen house were the only nonedible crop. I can still see her walking into Quaker meeting, her determined stride, leaning forward slightly, with a slight hitch of age, carrying a sturdy blue vase of "glads.”

We kids didn’t know what good food was. Vegetables and greens were obstacles to consume so we could go back to playing with the toad in the back yard, messing around at the creek, or watching the hogs in the barn lot. Home-canned morels were weird looking and gross. Lucky for us, our dad didn’t trust his mother-in-law's skill at identifying ascomycetes: he didn’t want us eating those things. My mother and grandmother didn’t argue; they served themselves a few more.

In Ann and Roy’s garden, I picked a grocery bag full of greens and herbs, plus a bowl of raspberries for breakfast (berries consumed while picking not shown). A net bag made a great camp salad spinner. I added sliced baby carrots, olive oil, and lime juice for the perfect antidote to a lumberjack lunch. A beer catalyst brought complete recovery.

I was writing in my camp chair at dusk when a white truck pulled a trailer past my site and circled around to an empty spot. A man got out and walked to the office. A moment later, the dinner bell rang.

Roy walked over from the house to check the man in. In a splash of light near the bell tower, the men talked about traveling, trailers, and trucks. They talked so long that a girl, a little older than I was when I rang my grandmother’s bell, left the trailer and walked to the office.

She waited for a break in the conversation to ask, "Can I ring the bell?"

“Sure,” said Roy.

The sound spiraled up from the bell tower to the Douglas squirrel’s nest. He lifted his head, listened, then tucked his nose under his tail and went back to sleep. The sound bounced across the berry canes, the salad greens, and the herb garden to the forest. The trees didn’t notice the sound, but I did. She rang for both of us when she pulled the cord again and again.

As I got ready for bed, an invisible orchestra of crickets scratched away under a Milky Way I see so infrequently that it always astonishes me. I zipped into my sleeping bag and thought about the fresh raspberries waiting for me in the cooler.

I hope that girl has a grandmother with a dinner bell in her backyard and a farm with a creek beyond the garden. Or was that the first real bell she’d heard among the electronic beeps that crowd, fill, deafen, clang, bang, her life? Would she pick berries and greens in the garden the next day? Or does she only eat food from the grocery store?

I wonder if the girl longed to leave the trailer and sleep in a tent as much as I did on my first camping trip. Will she find the same magic in sleeping outdoors that I do? When I set up my tent for the last time, I hope she'll be doing the same thing somewhere, and thinking about her journey from joyous bell ringer to confident camper.


Note: In telling this story, I combined two conversations into one, to improve the flow.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

My Sister-in-Law Crosses Another Thing off Her Bucket List

I baked a red velvet cake for my mother’s 88th birthday. I found most of the ingredients in her cupboards and used up the last of her powdered sugar. The way I see it, using things up and clearing out cupboards at my mother’s house will save me time down the road. She had already cleared out her cake pans and cake carrier, which I borrowed back from my niece.

The cake was one of my most successful creations: dense, bright red layers of buttery sweetness hiding under an innocent white cloak of cream cheese frosting.

My mother and I insisted that my niece and brother take ALL the leftover cake home. My niece took cake home to her roomate, Molly Pan, an actress now based in Hollywood. My brother took cake home and put it in his refrigerator.

My sister-in-law was up early the next morning to feed her vacationing brother’s rabbits before work. She opened the refrigerator, saw red velvet cake, and was back in elementary school.

She stayed home sick from school and got up in the middle of the day. Her mother had already done a half day's work. She was drinking coffee and eating cake.

The young patient's appetite improved. "Can I have some cake"?

"No. No, you can’t have cake for breakfast. You need to have cereal."

"I don’t want cereal. I want cake"!

Tears didn’t produce cake for breakfast; she had cereal. She told herself that someday, she was going to have CAKE for BREAKFAST.

My sister-in-law reached for the red velvet cake and crossed another thing off her bucket list.