Fires: Wild and Planned

Fire is an important part of ecology of savanna and grassland biomes. I described my visit to the Texas arboretum.  That is the kind of place I would like to visit over and over, since I am sure lots of things are happening, seasonally and in terms of management.  Fire management is a big part and I was interested in looking at the results of different fire regimes. The three pictures show different fire management. The top picture was burned in the summer. The middle picture shows a winter burn and the bottom was burned in the fall. They should also have an unburned section for comparison.

I don’t know how long ago they were burned. The sign did not say and it is harder to tell than you might think. This sort of Savanna vegetation grows back very fast when the fire is not too hot. I would contrast that with a big burn I saw along Hwy 71. There were acres of dead trees and devastated land. I looked it up on the Internet and learned that there was a big fire here in 2010 that destroyed 600 homes and 30,000 acres. It was a hot and destructive fire.  It obviously jumped a big highway, so a fire break would not have worked.

I am certified by the State of Virginia as a fire manager. I would not trust my skills on the ground w/o lots of help, but I did take the certification course.  I wrote about fire here, here, here, herehere, & here, among others.  I just love the subject of ecosystem management. Below is a Virginia forest that had big understory burn.  The ferns you see in the picture are “fire ferns”.  They often come after the burn. This is two years after the fire. This was not a planned fire. It scorched the needles and some people thought the trees were dead. They were not.

Soul Restoration

I really do need to get out.  I just feel much better and can think more clearly when I have had my daily dosage of nature. I would go so far as to say that it restores the health of the soul. I got a good portion of this soul-saving medicine today at the Texas Arboretum and Lady Bird Johnson wildflower garden.

The park represents the Texas biomes, especially the hill country. It is an extraordinarily pleasant landscape, a kind of oak savanna. The signature combination is the grove of oak, often live-oak, among the wild flowers, as you see on several of these pictures.  Savanna is not a final landscape, i.e. it requires a couple things to keep it in place. The two most important factors are fire and grazing. Before cattle, BTW, it was bison that did the grazing. The African savanna has the many large ungulates.  The grazing was important both because of what it took and what it left behind. The grazing animals ate the grass but ate other plants differentially, creating more diversity. They also fertilized with their manure.  It was important that the herds moved. The savannas recovered in between grazing. Fire needed to be frequent enough to keep the trees from filling in entirely, but not so frequent or hot to kill all the trees.  In the absence of grazing and fires as described, the savanna will transform either into a closed woodland or a grassland w/o trees.  South American grasslands, like those around Brasilia, were  little different in their natural states, since they lacked those large grazing animals. Of course, fire is still a factor.

Both these factors are declining today in the U.S. We still have plenty of cows, but they are increasingly fed in lots or at least raised more intensively.  Fire is often excluded to the extent that people can do it.  In time, this will change the ecology. The arboretum folks are well aware of this and are figuring that into their management.  I will write a little more about fire in another post.

The dead oaks above are the victims of oak wilt. This has been a big problem for live-oaks in Texas.  It also affects red oaks to a lesser extent, white oaks not so much.  The malady is spread by insects and root grafts. It can be managed by separating oaks. This might involve digging trenches so that roots do not graft. We also need to be very careful about pruning (never prune oaks January to June) and moving wood (do not move firewood that may contain the fungus).  Even with good management, it is a devastating disease.  It won’t be as bad as chestnut blight or Dutch elm, but it is altering the ecology over large swaths of our woodlands.

I am not sure how dangerous the snakes are.  I know that there are indeed rattlesnakes in this sort of environment, but maybe the sign is more meant to encourage people to stay on the paths than the really warn about the rattlers. 

Across the Plains of Texas

It was a pleasant drive from Houston to San Antonio. I followed I-10 most of the way and could just leave it on cruise control. One thing is a little surprising. Traffic moves a little slower in Texas, at least on I-10 on when I was driving, than it does on I-95 in Virginia. You can actually cruise at something near the speed limit and not be passed too often like you were standing still. It is a more open road too. The thing I love about Virginia is the thick forests that are all along the highway. You are generally looking at trees all the way from Washington to the Carolinas. This highway in Texas has a lot more grass and open vistas. This is also beautiful, but different.

One thing you also notice in Texas are the flags. Texans love their state flag, which is prominent along most of the roads and on building tops. It is a pretty flag. Above is the headquarters of Alamo College.  I like the really big live-oak. Below is the street new Alamo College HQ. The place is gentrifying. It seemed familiar. I figured out why. The area was former light industry, which reminds me of Milwaukee were I grew up, and they have a cream colored brick, also like Milwaukee.

San Antonio just seems a pleasant city. I got to my appointment at Alamo way early, so I had a chance to walk around the neighborhood.  I spent about an hour.  It was a little hot, but worth the walk. Below is the Mexican restaurant where I had a good meal for $8.

The road from San Antonio to Austin, I-35 was not as nice.  There was traffic the whole way and along the road were strip malls and car dealers.  It seemed like a continuous semi-urban corridor. The only entertainment was a woman in front of me. She was ripping something up and throwing it out the window. Then we she passed some state buildings, she gave it the finger for a long time. I couldn’t figure out what was going on and couldn’t take my eyes off traffic long enough to see. She had Oklahoma plates. Maybe she bears some grudge against Texas. I didn’t take any pictures along the actual highway because I didn’t stop, but I took the one below from near my hotel in Austin, which gives the idea.

The hotel is nice, as Courtyards always are, but I was disappointed.  It is called Courtyard-Austin-Arboretum. I thought it would be within walking distance to some trees.  I learned that nothing is within walking distance of much of anything around here.  The “arboretum” nearby is a shopping area called that and some condos called that.  Below is where I had supper. I could walk there from the hotel, although you have to be careful crossing the road.  I thought Marie Callender just made frozen pies. Who knew it was a restaurant? Seems like mostly old people frequent the place.  I suppose that is now my demographic too.

Community Colleges in Texas

Community colleges are one of the great innovations in education. I wrote about them in an earlier post.  While in Texas I took the opportunity to visit community colleges in Houston and San Antonio. Both are working on programs in Brazil.

Houston Community College, Jackson Community College (MI), and Red Rocks Community College (CO) are cooperating in the US-Brazil Connect consortium.  They will send a group of students to Salvador, Bahia next month to tutor in English.  Brazilians are expected to come to these schools in the U.S. this fall.  Read more about it here.  I know our Brazilian friends are enthusiastic about preparing their workforce to the needs of today and this will be well received.  Meanwhile, our American community colleges can deepen their international profiles, a win/win.   I told the Director of International Initiatives at HCC, that we would visit the students in Salvador, either I will do it myself or ask our colleagues in Rio to do it.   It will be good to see what is happening and maybe we can be helpful.  I also met the woman who will actually lead the group in Brazil.

The next day, I drove to San Antonio to visit Alamo College.  I became familiar with Alamo last year when we helped a group of student from Rio Grande do Sul get visas for an exchange with Alamo. 

I am always astonished by the breadth and depth of connections that Americans and Brazilians make on their own.   We at the embassy and consulates try hard to make connections, but most of it happens w/o our help and much of it happens even w/o our awareness. The American nation truly is greater than the American government.  But we do try to facilitate these things when we discover them and I believe we do add value.   Alamo chancellor will make a trip to Brazil next month.  I told him that we could help and asked that we go along on some of the visits.  This is a win/win too.  We help each other make connections.  I also met the woman who is honchoing the connections and who has worked with Marcia in the past.   You can read more about Alamo here.

The Alamo people are interested in taking part in the MEC program for English teaching. They told me that they already run an intensive course on ESL for Mexican teachers and can do a similar one for Brazilians.

My pictures are from Houston.  I will add some from San Antonio tomorrow, but I want to get some sleep and don’t feel like editing today, yet I want to post this now. You can see from the pictures that Houston is a modern city, lots of glass and steel.  There is still some green and many nice live oaks. The top picture is the HQ of Houston Community Colleges.

Ordinary Days in the United States

One of the simple joys of life is just walking around w/o a rush.  You just have to put your feet on the ground. I had the chance to do a lot of walking and some running in the old places around Washington. Washington is one of the world’s great cities and great for running and walking.   One of the things I like is that you can be by yourself but not alone.  There are enough people around but you can get away from them.

They have the Mall all dug up.  The signs say that they are replacing the dirt with dirt that doesn’t compact easily, so that it can handle the crowds.  They are also laying some kind of drainage and water holding pipes so that it can stay green w/o lots of watering.  A lot of science, technology and engineering will go into this lawn and if they do a good job nobody will notice when it is done.

IMO they did a good job on the Mall in general.  You would not know to look at it, but the Mall is largely hollow, i.e. there are roads and buildings under it.  They didn’t want to build up when they built new museums a couple decades ago, so they dug down.

The Mall is getting a little crowded.  They built the Museum of the American Indian about ten years ago.  It is a superb building and the grounds are interesting.  I don’t think the museum itself is very good.  IMO, it lacks a focus.  They tried to accommodate too many groups.  The picture above shows construction of the Museum of African Americans.  I think that museums on the Mall should commemorate our common American heritage.  Our motto is still “e pluribus unum,” which means “from many, one.”  There is lot of room for pluralism in our country; it is what makes our country great, but there are only about 300 acres on the National Mall.

Above is the work on Gallows Road.  Notice the change in grade.  I wanted to take a picture before they were done. I think it will be very different later.

Forestry May 2012

The trees have lots of new growth.  Loblolly pines grow throughout the summer. In that, they are different from white pines and many others that throw up new growth only in the spring. But the spring time is the big growth spurt for the loblollies too. The trees on CP are now nine years old.  I recall how barren it used to look with a few pine springs barely visible among the weeds. It is good to recall this, since I have five acres of newly planted longleaf, which are looking even more desolate.  The picture above shows how trees have grown. Below is the new longleaf plantation.  Longleaf seedlings look like clumps of grass.  Of course some of the green you see in the picture really are clumps of grass or weeds. It will look good in a couple of years.  Eric Goodman also planted some bald cypress in the wet areas and third generation loblolly at one end.

Below is the closeup of a longleaf seedling.  We did good site preparation, with brown and burn last winter. This should give the little pines a head start.

 Below is a “vernal pond”, i.e. a big mud puddle, with lots of tadpoles. Amphibians need these sorts of things.  If the pond is permanent enough to have many fish, the fish eat the eggs and tadpoles. If it is too small, the pond dries out before the amphibians are through with their development.  These kind of ponds are not attractive, but they are a necessary part of the web of life.

Below the hunt club planted various wildlife food and warm season grasses to encourage wildlife, especially animals like Bobwhite quail.  Dominion Power, which owns the power lines, is paying us to offset the costs. It saves them the trouble and money of maintaining the cover.  I have 8 acres under those lines and not using it would be a waste. 

Below shows Boy Scouts clearing some paths.  I guess they win merit badges for woodsmen skills.  They need land to practice and I have the space.

Below shows my new sycamores. They are growing fast along the watercourses.  They volunteered a couple years ago.  I have been cutting out the box elders and other brush. The sycamores do well in moist soils and send down a thick network of roots that holds the banks. They are not much use from the forestry profit point of view but they are beautiful trees and they get really big. I am a little allergic to them. I cough when I cut a lot of branches. Sycamores have a very distinctive smell. I suppose there is some relation.  They always remind me of the brief time I lived in Indiana, on the banks of the Wabash far away.


Being back in Washington has the advantage of being able to do intellectual things, such as attending lectures, at low of no cost.  Alex & I went to two of them this week. We saw Jonah Goldberg launching his new book called the “the Tyranny of Clichés” at AEI and H.W. Brands talking about his new book, “The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr” at Smithsonian.  Both were lively speakers. 

Goldberg says that people use clichés as ways to shut off debate and delegitimize arguments they cannot win.  He gave the example of somebody saying “violence never solved anything.” This often ends a debate.  If you question the statement, it sort of implies that you support or at least accept violence. In fact, violence has solved many problems, especially violent problems.  And non-violence works only against people who are already not very violent.  Gandhi, for example, could be non-violent only because was facing an opponent – the British – that believed in the rule of law and was susceptible to persuasion. There may have been Gandhi type people in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union but they disappeared into concentration camps of Gulags with their voices forever silenced. Usually, potential Gandhis were silence before they even said much of anything at all.  Nazis and communists were skilled at identifying and liquidating potential threats even before they were manifest. 

I enjoyed the Goldberg speech, but it was more along political lines. The H.W. Brands was more intellectually interesting.  He is a historian talking about history and seems to have reached some of the same sorts of conclusions I have about historiography. In fact, when I relate what I recall he said, I am a little worried that it more what I think than a real description. 

Brands talked about the differences between writing novels and writing history.  Novels are more compelling to some people because you can have dialogue and you can know what people are thinking.  Historians almost never can do this. The problem is sources. People tend not to write down all their thoughts and even if they did, the letters or papers tend not to be preserved.

This is the big problem for biographers. Brands said that you can write about extraordinary people because people know that they should keep letters or make notes about what they say. You can sometimes write about ordinary people in extraordinary times because they know to write things down. That is why we can write history of common people during the Civil War because so many people wrote their thoughts.  I thought Brands took a courageous stand when he explained why he couldn’t write biographies of women.  Women, he said, tended not to have available sources.   

You could write a biography of Abigail Adams from her letters to John Adams, but that would mostly be a biography of John too.  In fact, that is what David McCullough did with his biography of John Adams.   This brings another interesting permutation.  The John & Abigail relationship is so rich for historians because they were so often apart when important things were happening.  If they are together, they presumably still talk about these things but they leave no record. 

Another disadvantage of history versus a novel has to do with conclusions.  A novel can produce a story with clear heroes, villains, beginning and endings. History is never so tidy. Beginnings and endings flow into each other and they rarely are clear. History never ends. 

I agreed with Brands’ distinction of mysteries from secrets. A secret is something you don’t know but in theory could find out.   For example, the plan of attack on Pearl Harbor was a secret, but it could have been known by the U.S.  A mystery is cannot be known. A mystery has to do with intentions and aspirations. Many times the person himself doesn’t really know what he wants to do before conditions become clearer. This is the case with the famous treason of Aaron Burr.  

Burr went west and was accused of planning to foment a war or maybe an independent movement in the West.  Brands says that there is no way to know what Burr really planned.  The circumstances never came together to allow him to make his move.   Brands also thinks that Burr probably did not have a firm plan in mind.  He didn’t know what he was planning to do. 

IMO, this is an important thing to remember in history.  We all like the good stories, but there are many mysteries in history.  They are not known to us now and can never be known. We like to think that all would be well if we could just have been sources, but this is not true. They are not unknown; they are unknowable.  

I kept on thinking of the dilemma of history writing. Is there history w/o historians? Obviously, things happen whether or not anybody is there to write them down.  But history is more than just a recording of one thing after another.  That is why we acknowledge Herodotus as the “father of history.” People recorded events long before Herodotus.  Herodotus’ contribution was to try to look at history through a kind of a system, to make explanations, not just record one damn thing after another. This means, however, that historians write their narrative and that their narrative is history. Brands gave the example of constellations. We recognize the big dipper, Aquarius, Scorpio etc. when we look at the night sky. But the stars that make up these constellations are in no way connected. They are thousands of light years apart. But once somebody points out the big dipper, you can never again look at the random jumble of stars w/o seeing the big dipper. We would hope that a historical narrative is more than a mere artificial imposition on a random and meaningless distribution, but clearly the intelligence of the writer imposes order. The interpretation is necessary to make it understandable, but it is not a metaphysical truth. Historical interpretations can change and they do.

In the end we didn’t talk very much about Aaron Burr.  Brands joked that we could get that story out of his book.  He did explain that he tried to write the book to be interesting like a novel.  He was able to do this because there was a good body of letters between Burr and his daughter Theodosia. For details, we need to buy the book.

My top picture shows Brands. He looks very severe in this picture and all the pictures I have seen on his books, but he is very engaging and friendly. The picture don’t do him justice. Below is the Hirshhorn Museum. They had some kind of projection on the building. It was well done. It must be hard to project on a curved surface like that.  

Alex Graduates from JMU

We had rain on and off but it was good to see Alex graduate from college.  He worked hard for this and I was glad to get home to see him do it.

Chrissy and Alex above; Mariza and Espen below

Alex followed a pattern that I think will become more and more common.  He started in community college in Northern Virginia and then transfered since his grades were good. I think this is a better system. Not only is it less expensive, but it allows the students to earn their way in.  Community colleges have open enrollment. The students can get better. The traditional entrance makes them jump a barrier when they are 18 years old. But then they are in.  I also think we should probably go in more for distance learning. College has become so expensive.  Many of the classes don’t really require residence. IMO, some courses would be BETTER as distance learning.  Kids could go at their own pace. 

I admire Alex. He chose to go to NOVA while still working at Home Depot, studied and finished.  He was particularly brave after he was attacked during his first semester at JMU. He never complained or asked for special treatment.  He came through. I am really proud of him today.