Archive for November, 2013

Yes, it IS winter!

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

Motor Mill on the Turkey River

(Nov. 30 addendum to all you winter haters: You’re welcome! My earlier declaration that winter is here must have prompted today’s heat wave. I’ll take credit. But I reserve the right to say “I told you so” when the Arctic blast hits before next week is over!)

WINTER?

Not according to the calendar – but this November seems to have caught people and critters by surprise.

Our resident chipmunks, which normally don’t like cold feet, are still foraging under the bird feeder in a fresh blanket of snow. Guess they’re trying to fatten up on spilled sunflower seeds to get ready for hibernation. But they’d better not delay much longer. The TV weather guy is calling for below normal temps well into December.

Stoking up on sunflower seeds

Opossums typically try to sleep away the cold, too. But its tracks in the snow prove that at least one ‘possum remains out and about after this week’s storm and chill winds.

The fresh snow is littered with basswood and maple seeds, and the oaks are still clinging desperately to many of their leaves. The trees weren’t ready for the wintery blast, either.

Basswood seeds

We had tried to prepare for the season change by picking the last broccoli and kale and Brussels sprouts before we rolled up the electric deer fence. It didn’t take the deer very long to inspect our work, however. When the hungry whitetails realized the fence was gone, they quickly pruned every remaining leaf right down to the woody stems.

To wash down the meal, the deer returned to the bird bath, where they stood nosing the ice and looking toward the house in disgust. You’d think the human who lives there would have the charity to provide heated water!

Hey in there! I'm thirsty!

Our Amish neighbors still have a few shocks of corn standing in the field – and even the conventional farmers haven’t fully completed the harvest. You can bet the turkeys and deer have got those fields spotted for winter foraging.

Snowy shocks

Ice is creeping out from the banks of the river, and little crystalline rafts clink and swish as they’re swept along by the current and over the riffles.

Icy river

Let’s face it:

Iowa winter has started.

Don’t wait for the solstice to make it “official.”

Instead of grumbling about the cold and snow, why not feed the birds, try on your skis, or photograph the winter wonderland? It’s less than four months until spring!

How long until spring?

Costa Rica: Wow!

Sunday, November 10th, 2013

Scarlet Macaws

Quetzals. Crocodiles. Volcanoes. Macaws. Iguanas. Rain forests. Monkeys. Waterfalls. Ants. Agoutis.

Diversity only starts to describe Costa Rica. A recent visit there left us in awe at the array of life in this wonderful world.

Retired animal ecology professor Jim Pease led our little band of 10 Iowa curiosity-seekers on a trip similar to those he’s hosted for ISU students for two decades. Although we weren’t tested on his teachings and didn’t get academic credit, we relished the continuing education.

Catarate Waterfall

Surrounded by towering trees on a rain forest trail, we glanced down to see a fascinating line of green leaf fragments that seemed to flow across the path. On hands and knees, we marveled at the parade of leaf cutter ants carrying bits of leaves larger than the insects themselves. Overhead, the perforated tree leaves betrayed the ants’ harvest site. But the ants don’t eat the leaves; rather they “farm” them by storing them at their nests, then feasting on the fungi that grow on the leaf pieces they gather.

orchid

The number of life forms of the forest is almost unfathomable. Some biologists estimate that each tree may host another 100 species of plant life, ranging from vines to mosses, lichens, and epiphytes (plants that use a host plant for support, but receive their nourishment from the air or other surroundings.)

Birds – hundreds of species and uncountable individuals – flitting through the jungle are often unseen in the dense vegetation. In 10 days, our group tallied nearly 200 bird species, from drab big-footed finches to the absolutely spectacular scarlet macaws. For those who kept such lists, most of the birds were “lifers.” But it’s not enough to just check off another name when you see an emerald-green resplendent quetzal, a turquoise green honeycreeper, or a bulky-beaked boat-billed heron. You first must catch your breath, blink your eyes, and wonder at the evolutionary chain that has led to these avian phenomena.

green honeycreeper

Costa Rica boasts more than its share of marvelous plants and animals – in part because it lies at the crossroads of north and south, east and west. A mere three million years ago, the land pushed up to separate the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And that land became a corridor for the mixing of flora and fauna from the continents to the north and south. Add the elevation differences – from sea level to more than 12,000 feet – and Costa Rica can claim 12 different life zones providing habitats for countless unique species. By some estimates, the country and its Central American neighbors may contain up to 50% of the planet’s biodiversity.

Mt. Arenal

We visited a tropical dry forest, tropical moist forest, premontane moist forest, montaine rain forest, and sub-alpine paramo. Our heads spun at the mind-boggling variety of plants we encountered from the ocean shores, to the cloud forests, to the mountain valleys and ridges. Equally diverse bird communities thrived in these regions, as well.

Many Costa Ricans have recognized the attraction of these resources to tourists and biologists from throughout the world. Eco-tourism has become big business. The country also claims to have protected from 12 to 24% of its land in forests and national parks – although “protection” may be left to private individuals who still own the land.

Comfy crocodile


At Savegre Mountain Lodge, a 400-hectare mountain valley hide-away owned by the Chacon Zuniga family, we explored a tropical cloud forest. Several waterfalls interrupted a creek that tumbled through the canyon. Some of the trail network required rope hand-holds to stay on the steep paths. Other paved walkways wound through meticulously groomed gardens with flowers, shrubs, and feeders to attract hummingbirds, woodcreepers, tanagers, and dozens of other birds.

We Iowans sweat profusely in the heat and humidity, huffed and puffed as we hiked the winding mountain trails, and became acutely aware of being outsiders in a country where the main language is Spanish. Looking across a valley at a towering volcano emitting a wisp of steam, we knew we’d left the land of the tallgrass prairie.

Howler monkey

The grunts and growls of howler monkeys rolled down from the treetops at several sites, and iguanas more than three feet long seemed oblivious to people’s stares. Our sharp-eyed guides also spotted several species of tiny poison-dart frogs and lizards.

We also found some familiar “faces” among the unusual surroundings. Plants we keep in our homes – philodendrons, bird of paradise, begonia – grow throughout the forest. Along with the scores of new birds, we saw green herons, great blue herons, snowy egrets, Wilson’s warblers, black-and-white warblers, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, and other birds that visit Iowa. The coatimundi scrounging for scraps under a bird feeder reminded us of our pesky raccoons. And oaks dominated some parts of the mountain forests.

We’re accustomed to Iowa roads, most of which follow mile-square grids, with relatively gentle hills. In Costa Rica, many roads are cut into mountainsides. Randall, our bus driver, seemed unfazed by the winding, narrow gravel, lack of guard rails, playing “chicken” with big trucks, dodging motorcycles, and avoiding pedestrians.

Urban scenery . . .

In San Jose and a couple of other cities, Randall expertly maneuvered the bus through narrow streets, which were jammed with people, taxis, and parked cars. Iron bars, fences, and razor wire guarded businesses and residences – perhaps as much because of custom as for protection. For better or worse, Americanized businesses – McDonald’s, Burger King, Wal-Mart, automobile dealers – were scattered among the local shops.

Out in the countryside, coffee plantations, banana groves, and fields of pineapple reminded us that we were in the tropics. Brahman cattle grazed in pastures. Many gardeners raise tropical plants for the greenhouse trade.

Ocean sunset

A spectacular trip, to be sure. But we savored another northeast Iowa autumn – with yellow walnuts and maples, red Virginia creepers and sumac, purple asters and gentians, the bronze-purples of maturing prairie grasses, and the spectacle of migrating raptors and tundra swans – I feel at home.

Hightower and Friends Protest World Food Prize

Sunday, November 10th, 2013

Jim Hightower

A week of speeches and symposia, concluding with trumpet fanfares and appearances by world leaders, could not overshadow the controversy surrounding the awarding of the 2013 World Food Prize in Des Moines on October 17.

Activists organized the simultaneous Occupy the World Food Prize event to protest the World Food Prize being given to three researchers who pioneered techniques that have led to the development of genetically engineered crops. The work of Mary-Dell Chilton of Syngenta, Robert T. Fraley of Monsanto, and Marc Van Montagu, founder of two biotechnology companies, allowed production of corn and other plants that are resistant to glyphosate herbicide, and to a host of other genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now widely used in agriculture.

But former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, populist, and political commentator Jim Hightower blasted the alleged take-over of agriculture by such corporate endeavors. He said corporations have “hijacked our food policy.”

“Food is life, it is culture, it is community – not just a commodity to be manipulated for the selfish gain,” Hightower said.

Iowa activist Frank Cordaro, who organized the Occupy the World Food Prize event, and who was one of two protesters arrested at the World Food Prize ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol, decried the “problem with wealth in this country – the 1% vs. the 99%.”

Like past Occupy Wall Street protests, “Occupy the World Food Prize is following the money line,” Cordaro said. World Food Prize officials “are glorifying corporate agriculture. The prize isn’t the problem. Corporates are the problem – the global corporate system.”

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, spoke both at an Occupy the World Food Prize event and at the World Food Prize ceremonies. He urged “conversation and dialogue” between groups that seem to be poles apart.

Catholics believe that the Earth “is a gift offered by the creator to the human community,” Turkson said, so it is legitimate for humans “to intervene in nature and make modifications.” But humans should be stewards of the world over which they have custody, and should be guided by ethical considerations, Turkson said. They must “have the correct attitude” and “respect for the order, beauty, and usefulness of other individual living beings and their function in the ecosystem.”

That philosophy extends to the Church’s support of using science and biotechnology to end hunger, Turkson continued. But he said efforts to increase food production should be guided by ethics – fairness, justice, and the worth of human beings – and not only by profit motives. That means making improved food plants accessible to poor people as well as to wealthy farmers and agribusinesses. Businesses should be able to recover their research investments, Turkson said, but he warned against “excessive financialization of the fruits of research.”

At the World Food Prize ceremonies, Turkson called for labeling of GMOs. “Transparency” is essential to give people a choice, he said. Although a number of countries require labeling of products that contain GMOs, most U. S. corporations have steadfastly opposed the idea.

Turkson, who once considered a career in science rather than the priesthood, also urged researchers to use caution to avoid unforeseen consequences of GMOs. Genetic engineering must not cause the loss of natural species, he warned. We must protect our biodiversity.

Other speakers at the Occupy the World Food Prize event welcomed Turkson’s cautions about GMOs – but many obviously believed that the Church’s position is much too permissive.

“Agribusiness insults the Earth that God has made and exacerbates the problem of hunger,” said Julius Calvin Trimble, Iowa Bishop of he United Methodist Church.

“Occupy” speakers applauded an alternative to the World Food Prize. The U. S. Food Sovereignty Alliance awarded the Food Sovereignty Prize to The Group of 4 (a coalition of small farmers in Haiti) and to the South American Dessalines Brigade. Both grassroots groups have worked to preserve heirloom seeds and to assist small-scale farmers.

“The Food Sovereignty Prize is awarded to social movements, peasant organizations and community groups working to democratize – rather than monopolize – our food system,” the Alliance explained.

Hightower scoffed at the argument that corporate farming and GMOs are needed to “feed the world.”

“This is not a ‘feed the world’ movement. It’s a feed our profit movement,” he declared.

“We have massive production of food commodities in the world right now,” he argued. “But we don’t have a distribution system.” To get quality food to those who need it most, we need to “work with people themselves in their countries to have sustainable small farms.” Only minor technology inputs – such as improved irrigation systems – are needed, he asserted.

Hightower praised the activists and their goal to reduce the influence of corporate agriculture on food production.

Reconnecting people with the land and food production will take perseverance and patience – and reaching out to others to build their trust, Hightower said. Avoid bombarding people with facts and figures, he advised. The “hard sell” may not be the best approach.

“Martin Luther King did not say ‘I have a position paper,’” he quipped. “We’ve got to learn to tell stories, and have music, and poems.”

“The biggest, fastest-growing, most promising development in world agriculture is the good food movement, which is what you represent,” Hightower concluded.

“It is a movement that is reunifying producers with eaters, rural with urban, economics with environment, pragmatism with idealism, value with values.”