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Full moon perigee of 2008 by Ron Hodges.

Full moon perigee of 2008 by Ron Hodges.

by Erik Baard

 

What a Wolf Moon this will be! Tonight will be the biggest full moon of 2009, and the glory it borrows from the sun will be reflected from every snowy rooftop, branch, and field…if the clouds break.

The moon increases in apparent size for two reasons. Routinely we observe an apparent swelling in the moonrise. Because of a quirk of human optical neurology we percieve the moon as larger on the horizon, rather than overhead. But the moon is also at times closer or further from Earth in different points of its elliptical orbit. Tonight is perigee, the closest pass. It will appear 14 percent larger and 30 brighter than what you’ll typically find for the rest of the year.

Near-full perigee moon. Captured Dec. 9 in Kingston, NY by Jeffrey Anzevino of Scenic Hudson.

Near-full perigee moon. Captured Jan. 9 in Kingston, NY by Jeffrey Anzevino of Scenic Hudson.

Of course, oldsters might tell a young’n that the moon was bigger and brighter when they were young. Well, they’re right in fact but there’s no way a human could detect it: the satellite is ever-so-slowly spiralling away from its host planet. Each year it stretches our gravitational bonds by about 1.6 inches (4cm).

The moon tantalizes us, draws us into the Cosmos beyond. At some level, this is our narrowness making us silly: we are born, live, and die in space as much as those who might do the same on any other world. Still, it remains a place of national posturing, from the Space Race of the 1960s to the emerging powers of India and China.

For an inner city child, however, the lure of the moon is that it reveals a real topography to his or her eyes from any street corner, even without expensive equipment or the crystal clear skies of the backwoods. As South Bronxite Neil deGrasse Tyson told me for a Village Voice article, a realm of personal possibilities was opened when he stared at the moon from his stoop through a pair of binoculars after his father took him to Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

“I saw the mountains and valleys and craters of the moon. It became another world, something to learn about,” he remembers. “I knew I wanted to be a scientist since I was nine years old and I never wavered.”

He is now an astrophysicist and the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium.

* As a side note, the mountains are seen better on a half or crescent moon, because features are seen in relief. Straight on, light bounces back up from every little crevice, washing out our view.

My own enjoyment of tonight’s delight takes me back to the wintry Snow Moon perigee of February 1988. I was staying over at Smith College with my then-girlfriend (who now works for an oil company — some things weren’t meant to be). Seeing her sleep inspired this poem (and forgive that WordPress always screws up spacing and formatting):

 

 
It is no matter of wonder
to me
 
that light should wander
from the nurturing warmth of the sun
 
across cold vast space

to the broad and barren moon

to the field of snow outside
to find

the peace of being lost

in my sleeping lover’s

black hair.

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Early childhood learning program.

Hour Children: Early childhood learning program.

 
(NOTE: WORDPRESS IS HAVING TROUBLE WITH POSTED DOCUMENTS. PLEASE EMAIL naturecalendar@gmail.com for an application and information!)
 
 

Save the child, save the planet.
 
Play matchmaker between nature and a kid from Hour Children, a group that cares for kids whose mothers are in prison or are recently released and working to start a new lives. Hour Children is looking for responsible adults to commit four hours each month to share new and healthy experiences with these young one, typically between the ages of five and eleven. Take a kid out to plant trees, hike in a park or botanical garden, bike a greenway, paddle or row at a community boathouse, garden, stargaze with amateur astronomers, bird watch, or swim at the beach. Do what you love, and share it with a kid sometimes.

Through the links below, please find an application form for the Friends in Deed program (which now has a Facebook group) and other materials:
 

APPLICATION:

hourchildren-online_mentoring_app4

 
Piles of research show that kids grow up healthier when they are physically active and have a relationship with nature. Their school performance improves and they are better adjusted. They are happier. The Earth will benefit too, with a new generation rising with environmental values born of these formative encounters.
 
“These kids are open to all kinds of things,” said Mentoring Coordinator Michelene Jones. “They just want something they can grab onto.” (So please pass this along to your other friends, who might also introduce the kids to great stuff in art, science, literature, business, sports, music, technology, civics, or other realms of knowledge.) A male mentor will be paired with a boy, while a female mentor could be paired with either a boy or girl. Men are in short supply, Jones added. A special “guys day” at Aviator Sports and Recreation has been scheduled. Call Hour Children at 718-433-4724 ext. 21 for more information.

The four hours per month can be all in one shot, or an hour weekly. It’s up to the mentor, in consultation with staff.
 
I sent my application in, and the next training session is January 9. My other experiences with Hour Children have been great. I’ve done just a bit of grunt labor (scrubbing donated highchairs, scraping basement walls, baking holiday cookies, assembling cribs, etc.), but it’s always been a joy. I’m confident you’ll have fun too!
 
As part of my commitment to the mentoring program, I will be returning the weekly Wildwire to Nature Calendar so that mentors (and parents, teachers…) have a quick and easy guide to eco-recreation in the city. If enough Nature Calendar readers want to participate, we can coordinate a monthly outing with the kids. My 2009 New Year’s resolution!

And so, a very happy new year to you, and hopefully a lucky kid who’ll get to know you!

— Erik

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newtown_pippin_toa

Imagine the sandy shores of Dumbo, Stuyvesant Cove, Hunters Point, South Beach, and Pelham Bay resplendent with bushes full of white blossoms that grow into delicious fruits akin to fat cherries as summer passes. Or seeing trees at City Hall, or in a school playground just inland from the Newtown Creek, heavy with sublimely sweet and tart green apples.

Welcome to New York City, 2015!

Well, potentially. Check this page in the coming weeks to learn how you can be part of bringing beach plums and Newtown Pippin apples back to NYC! It might even be possible to have the Newtown Pippin recognized as the official apple of the Big Apple. We have some amazing sponsors and partners already committed to plantings and helping others receive saplings.

Beach plums grow in sandy soil, even dunes, from New Jersey to eastern Canada. They sustain birds and delight beachcombers, and provide a living for those who make them into desserts. Industrialization erased them from our city’s shores.

Newtown Pippins were developed on the Queens bank of the Newtown Creek in the 18th century and quickly became known as the “prince of apples.” Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Queen Victoria were all ardent fans. Today they are grown by celebrities like Dave Matthews. They consistently win apple taste competitions to this day. The namesake creek has quietly descended into a state that should shame all New Yorkers. The nation’s largest oil spill leaches into it while combined sewer outflows continually assault it. The creek bed is laden with heavy metal wastes.

beachlg

May the restoration of these species remind us of how lush and wondrous our environment once was, and inspire us to act to replenish our city.

One key element of the campaign will be to excite city officials by providing a taste of these plums and apples. On Saturday, Dec. 13, we will carpool or take a train out to Riverhead, Long Island, to buy apples, cider, plum jams, plum pies, and other delicacies at Briermere Farm. While we are there, there will be some exploring, of course!

If you’d like to come, please email naturecalendar@gmail.com so that we can determine how best to coordinate travel.

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WeAddUp.com's "Plant Trees" icon.

WeAddUp.com

WE ADD UP, a culture-changing marketer (a “tremendous” one at that, says none other than Al Gore) features an essay by Nature Calendar writer Erik Baard on its blog.

Here’s a tease and a link to more:

_________________________________________________________

Give me sustainability and conservation, but not yet.

That’s a poor plea for the 21st century, but the American ecological sentiment seems to parallel the St. Augustine’s prayer for chastity and continence as a debauched youth. We seem to want to stay on the just-forgivable side of “sinning” against nature.

Is building a “sustainable economy” a matter of tweaking the machinery of our current lifestyles to stay narrowly within the Earth’s survival margins? Is conservation meant to secure images of natural plenty merely for our own peace of mind?

To save our environment, President-elect Barack Obama will have to do much more than raise automobile fuel standards, reverse President Bush’s ill-conceived executive orders, and invest in alternative energy. He must lead a profound culture change that redefines the material American Dream, or nurture the culture change that starts with us at the grass roots. Despite the campaign slogan “we are the change we need,” it’s truer to say that we need to change. Few voters want to hear that, and no politician will win on that theme.

Full article here:

http://www.weaddup.com/blog/archives/give-me-sustainability-and-conservation-but-not-yet/

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While you’re there, please take a look at WE ADD UP’s hand-printed, organic cotton shirts, each of which is emblazoned with a small action any one of us can take to improve the environment. WE ADD UP was created by artist Jill Palermo, whose “Plant Trees” t-shirt icon is pictured above.

To learn more about WE ADD UP, click here.

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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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by Erik Baard

 

 

One of the stupider “sports” people have come up with is pigeon shooting, where the birds are released from boxes into the line of yahoos’ ready fire. In a 1902 debate over a bill banning the sport from New York, a state senator compared that lack of humanity and sportsman-like behavior to shutting a doe up in a barn and then blasting her as she ran out the open door.

 

As nearby as Pennsylvania the practice persists, and New York City birds are being stolen to supply the madness. Fortunately, In Defense of Animals is part of the vanguard to stop it. This week the group conferred its first $2,500 award for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a person netting pigeons, also known as rock doves, in NYC. The recipient was Desi Stewart, a street sweeper with the Doe Fund. He spotted Brooklyn resident Isaac Gonzalez spreading seed and netting many pigeons on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officer arrested Gonzalez, who pleaded guilty in Manhattan Criminal Court on June 26, 2008.

 

It’s a shame Gonzalez didn’t go to prison, if only because we’ll miss the small ironic pleasure of letting him know of his idiocy in trapping for deathly amusement birds whose intelligence might have made them useful allies in alleviating the sufferings of confinement. Kindred criminal spirits in Brazil, at least, were smart enough to attempt to employ the birds as jailhouse smugglers, complete with little pigeon backpacks!

 

Pigeons have a growing fan base outside “the clink” (is my mother the only person who still uses that expression?) too. National Pigeon Day  was Friday the 13th in June, appropriately enough for such a besotted bird. In Defense of Animals, the United Federation of Teachers Humane Education Committee, the New York Bird Club, and luminaries ate pigeon-shaped cookies…and perhaps scandalously snuck a few crumbs to their avian honorees. The contributions of this species, including astonishing heroics in war, rescue, and acts of touching personal loyalty were recounted.  

 

City Councilman Tony Avella, who’s taken the lead on a number of animal rights issues, shared a moving observation. “They are often a city child’s first contact with nature and an elderly person’s only friends,” he said.

 

One might wonder why there isn’t a greater effort to control pigeon populations, for fear that they might crowd out other, indigenous species. To understand how little worry ecologists have in this regard, here’s a simple exercise: plant your own lush garden or grove of indigenous plants and trees and wait for the pigeons to show up. Or simply visualize the trees on your block being filled with pigeons. It simply won’t happen. The “rock dove” species feeds on the ground and prefers barren areas much like its ancestral cliff sides in Asia Minor. In other words, buildings and asphalt. Not that city life is kind to pigeons. In the wild they live about 14 years, but typically reach only two in urban areas. They do, however, breed a lot more.

 

If you’d like to get involved in the responsible care and control of pigeons in the city, try volunteering for Pigeon Watch. And remember, if you witness a pigeon netting in the five boroughs of New York City, call New York State DEC Officer Joseph Pane at 718-482-4941. If you need help in rescuing a pigeon of any age or condition, please visit New York City Pigeon Rescue Central. For the simple enjoyment of learning more about this species, one great place to start is Andrew Blechman’s book, Pigeons, which he calls “the world’s most revered and reviled bird.”

 

All this brings to mind that we’re at a sad centennial: it was in 1908 that zookeepers posted a $1000 reward (more than $23,000 in today’s dollars) for fertile, wild passenger pigeons. That awakening to the crisis was too late and the reward was never collected. Over-hunting and habitat destruction wiped out that species, which once filled North American skies in flocks of billions. Martha, the last of her kind, died in captivity in 1914. I’ll write more about this missing species of pigeons in coming weeks.

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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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