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Posts Tagged ‘species’

by Erik Baard

 

As I walked past the Sunnyside Railyards yesterday I spotted a tree with a crown that each year is generously laden with green-gold pods. It’s rising up from beside the tracks, reaching eye level for strollers on the south side of the overpass. It occurred to me that while I’ve seen this kind of tree countless times throughout my life, I didn’t know its name.

 

When I focus on a tree these days, the first question I ask is its name, followed by “can I eat it?” For the latter obsession, I blame Wildman Steve Brill. The foraging instinct that he reawakened in me is useful not so much as a survival tool as a prime mover toward general ecological knowledge. Once I’ve asked that, the other questions come flooding: If I eat it, with what species am I now competing for food? If I can’t eat it, what chemicals are there to thwart me, and why? What species are able to eat it and what’s different about their physiology? Did those species co-evolve with the tree because they are superior vectors for spreading seeds?

 

Anyway, I did some digging and found some foresters who want us all to do some more digging…to uproot the species.

 

Oh, “Tree of Heaven!” Oh, “Ghetto Palm!” It’s amazing how a species can be viewed with such difference. We’ve already considered how the pigeon is “revered and reviled,” to use Andrew Blechman’s phrase, as a carrier of both the Holy Spirit and disease. Anthropologist Mary Douglas defined dirt, as opposed to soil, as “matter out of place.” The Ailanthus tree is indeed “out of place”; it’s an invasive species from eastern and southern Asia and northern Australasia. I also guess it doesn’t help that the male flowers of this tree smell like cat urine.

 

I couldn’t find a reason for its more flattering moniker, translated from the Ambonese in Indonesia. Folk medicine practitioners do make some intriguing claims for the tree though; Asian tradition holds that the bark is good for lowering heart rate, reducing muscle spasms, and, well, delaying a particular spasm that could cause your Fourth of July fireworks to shoot off a little too soon. Maybe it was an Ambonese wife who named the tree?

 

The inimitably New York name stems from the hardiness of this tree. Even when the city fails to green a community or lot, Ailanthus trees will find a way to grow. Park Slope has its London planes, while back alleys have the ubiquitous “poverty tree.”

 

That ability to thrive in urban wastelands spotlights another similarity between pigeons and ailanthus trees: despite being so opportunistic, they are usually benign to other, indigenous species because they specialize in unclaimed niches. There are places, however, where Ailanthus can be a destructive force. At forest fringes and clearings, or where new forests are being seeded, Ailanthus squeezes out slower-growing but essential native trees. One good case of this is Conference House Park on Staten Island. Volunteers are needed to yank young Ailanthus on Monday, from 1PM through 4PM. But be careful not to pluck similar-looking sumac, ash, black walnut, or pecan.

 

If you can help, RSVP by calling 718-390-8021 or emailing cheri.brunault@parks.nyc.gov as soon as possible.

 

And even as you’re thrashing the Ailanthus out of our city’s bucolic frontier in southern Staten Island, keep some gratitude in your heart for the shade it provides us when it seeds into the toughest hardscapes of the urban core.

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Garter snake mating ball. University of Oregon.

 

 

 

by Erik Baard

 

 

Cross-dressers are more often straight than gay, but there’s something irresistibly amusing about the fact that our language paired the words “garter” and “snake” for a species later discovered to be promiscuously homosexual in drag.

 

Well, at least chemically in drag. Male garter snakes (which live in all five boroughs in a variety of niches, ranging from dusty lots and wet drainage ditches to Last Chance Pond) awaken from hibernation in spring before the far-less-populous females in an attempt to secure best mating placement. Some males will then emit feminine pheromones and linger by the burrow entrance of a hibernating female. When males show interest, the imposter will lead them away and trick them into thinking their deed is done. The imposter will then cease emitting feminine pheromones and hurry back to the burrow to have his chance with the actual female.

 

Of course, with many more males than females, the process remains a bit messy. A happy couple will soon find themselves at the center of a huge “mating ball” (see the photo above, from the University of Oregon) of writhing males and a minority of females. Some researchers have even postulated that by tricking other males into thinking that they are female, an imposter might better survive the cold early spring, insulated at the center of such mating balls.

 

But homosexuality in “nature” is certainly not reducible to trickery. It’s varied and nuanced, and in higher mammals apparently most often centered on emotional bonding and pleasure. Yes, much as in humans. I do not doubt that many of our pre-human ancestors were homosexual and bisexual. Two years ago the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum restarted the periodic dialogue on this topic with an photographic exhibit of 51 such species called, “Against Nature.”

 

For me, the two most fascinating questions are why did homosexuality evolve and how did a sexual behavior coalesce in humans into a sustained and resilient Gay subculture? After all, while other species display homosexual behavior, only humans are Gay.

 

 

Many media stories about the 1,500 species in which homosexuality has been observed leap right to the phrase “gay animals.” As we look back on the weekend’s Gay Pride festivities, I think it’s important to bear (no pun intended but hey, I’ll roll with any bad pun) in mind a distinction between shorthand sexual definitions and a richer cultural and personal identification.

 

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