Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

THE LAST BUTTER-AND-EGGS
By: Joel E. Byrne

The flower in question, Butter-and-eggs, is a common, two shades of yellow, roadside one, Linaria vulgaris, in the snapdragon family. I tracked them this fall at a place… Playfairville rapids… in the Mississippi River not far from Lanark. When there were only a few left late in October, I began to feel an acute sense of the loss of all summer flowers, sunny days, warmth, et al. Thus the poem was born.

I came alone to the riverbank
There to take my ease,
To see the sounds and smell the sights
Of rapids, woods and breeze.

And on that slate-gray autumn day
I found a single flower,
So confident its sunny strength
I marveled at its power
To conjure thoughts of cobs of corn
Rolled on sticks of butter,
Of poking yokes with buttered toast,
Of round things warm and good to hold,

But dark thoughts irresistibly
Crept in with the cold:
There stood a living Butter-and-eggs
Amidst its ruined clan,
A host of shriveled faces,
And death was on the land—
Rank on rank the withered stalks,
And soon there would be snow.

I shuddered in the fading light,
And straightened up to go,
But that solitary flower
With yolk and butter suns,
That stalwart last snapdragon
With me was not yet done;
It drew me down and held me,
The dragon lips did part;

A soothing whisper issued forth,
Most cheering to the heart:
‘Do not lament my passing
Or the dying of the throng,
This is the way it happens—
A sleep, and then ere long
The reappearance of everything:
The leaves, the flowers, the song.’

Joel E. Byrne

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Submited by Sheila Edwards
December 20th 2005

Stromatolites Unknown

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During September’s MVFN meeting, Jim Bendell mentioned the stromatolites near Champlain Bridge. Chris Hume and I were intrigued, so after getting an idea of where they were, off we went. Not really knowing what to look for all we saw were concentric circles, slightly mounded, split by fissures, with odd little tuffs of grass. Not nearly as entrancing as watching a Great Blue Heron or having frogs leaping away while paddling, or spotting a salamander in the glare of a flashlight. The day was nice, the surroundings calm, we didn’t get lost, the picnic went well – just not as earth shattering as it could have been.

Back to the drawing board. What were we looking at? Why were they so important? There are some things one can appreciate without much knowledge, like the butterfly greenhouses at Carleton, or seeing a Great Grey Owl; not so the stromatolites. These odd mounds turned out to be heavily eroded, extremely old fossils; in fact, the oldest type of fossil known.

They are not the tiny fossils found on the shores of Lake Ontario, but a whole connected area of fossils. They were created by communities of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) and other microbes, when this area was covered by warm salt water. The calcite produced by the cyanobacteria and the normal sedimentation of minerals becomes trapped within the sticky cyanobacteria, which then settle and start to harden each night.

Over time, a solid mound is formed, with a new cyanobacteria colony growing on top. Mounds form on top of mounds, which eventually fossilize. Glaciations and other erosion mechanisms resulted in our stromatolites becoming relatively flat. Looking at the stromatolites one sees concentric circles, indicative of the cycle of colony growth and sedimentation. The pattern of the rocks is reflective of the tides and currents.

There are other, smaller, examples of stromatolites along the Carp River near Fitzroy, along the Ottawa River near Dunrobin Shores, and along the Jock River. Today living stromatolites can be seen off the west coast of Australia and in the Bahamas.

Only by seeing the stromatolites were we led to further study, and through further study we understood and thus appreciated what we saw. Some things one need only see to appreciate but the circular pattern of learning and seeing results in a richer experience; an increasing appreciation of nature.

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WEASELS
By: Cliff Bennett

Weasels are active hunters of our forests, with an abundant appetite for rodents. Usually, they are secretive, slinking through the underbrush, around wetlands and through open woodlands.

Sunday evening, July 7, Lynda and her mother and I were sitting outside under our sun canopy enjoying a late afternoon drink when we started to notice a rustling in the leaves and a slight, plaintive pleading coming from behind the nearby rock wall. Suddenly, pouring around the end stone came not one but six baby weasels, stumbling over each other. The gaggle of light brown and white mammals headed out over the lawn, under the picnic table, between our feet and continued to the wall of the house.

At this point, they paused to regroup and then turned to the left and followed the foundation until they disappeared around the back of the house; all that is except one wee fellow. He stopped short of the corner, turned, looked me straight in the eye and whimpered pleadingly at me as if I were it’s mom. That pause was enough to confuse him and he started back between my legs.

Not wanting him to imprint on me, I barked sternly, hoping to turn it back on the path the others had taken. Not this guy! He rose on his hind legs, turned his head from side to side as if to say “What song is that you are singing?”. Trying to shoo him away, he started a game of touch tag, scooting around the table legs. I had no choice but to ignore him and return to my seat. Eventually, he retreated to the same path the others took and disappeared around the back of the house.

However, that wasn’t the end of things for the young weasel returned to our arena about ten minutes later, stopped, looked enquiringly at us as much as to accuse me of steering him down the wrong path. We ignored him and he retreated back the way he came from behind the stone wall. I’ve no idea where the rest of the litter got to.

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IT’S HERON’S TURN
By: Joel E. Byrne

This happened Sunday October 2, 2005 at “The Pool” (my nickname for the spot).

It was early October, a time of great change in Lanark Highlands. The colours were coming! I was touring the byways searching for early patches of crimson leaves. The close of day found me standing on a riverbank completely enraptured by the play of light and shadows on a limpid pool. Suddenly, a huge feathered creature came into view, gliding swiftly down the river valley, wheeling and plunking down awkwardly in the crown of a silver maple. Ah, a Great Blue Heron. After this undignified landing, it stretched its neck to full length the better to survey its dining table— the swift water and eddies of the Mississippi River where it narrows to the Playfairville rapids.

I watched the heron, it watched me. I had my trusty 7×50 binoculars at hand, but did not raise them, because the previous day I’d learned a lesson. This heron (and here I presume it was the same heron that has steadfastly returned day after day to this very spot) was not at all happy about being stared at by binoculars. Such an intrusion seemed to agitate it. In fact I’ve concluded that my ogling of it the day before forced it to try to stare me down; when this failed it crouched, shifted from foot to foot several times, and flapped off in a huff, giving me a baleful look.

That wasn’t going to happen again. Heron had been working his way down to this productive spot where he could enjoy the last rays of the sun, and check out the fishing. He was still hungry and there were plenty of fish and frogs; he would have no trouble filling his belly. All he had to do was wade quietly, and wait. Concentrate, then stab with speed and precision. No distractions needed. He did not relish a huge pair of glassy eyes following his every move, stalking the stalker, so to speak. Heron fished best alone. I climbed the bank, got into the car, and drove away slowly, leaving the windows down on the river side, listening to its rush. I will be back, as well as heron, and we will share the river’s hospitality, in peace.

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Submitted by Celina Tuttle
10th October 2007

Autumn: a time of idyll observation, or is it?

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Fall. It’s marked by spectacular bursts of color and periods of idyll observation. It’s a time to watch leaves spiral lazily to the ground, one where sunlight filters through canopies of orange, yellow and vivid reds. The smooth, silver bark of beech trees contrasts sharply with the craggy black and grey of maples and the corky bark of the hackberry. Lacy fronds of balsam, cedar and hemlock sway gracefully above carpets of red and gold pine needles; gardens and streets are littered with crisp brown leaves. The aromatic scent of cedar and the damp, rich smell of wet leaves carries on the slightest of breezes.

Well, perhaps it’s not such idle observation. There’s always a burning question. What causes the change from the verdant greens of spring and summer foliage to shades of brown and yellow and the brilliant oranges and reds that sometimes takes our breath away? What determines whether a leaf will be purplish in color, a mellow yellow, brilliant red or dull brown, and what causes trees to shed their leaves?

The leaves of trees provide most of its food and nutrients through a process called photosynthesis. Chlorophyll, a molecule that gives most plants their green color, is an important ingredient in photosynthesis, as is sunlight. Chlorophyll uses the sun’s energy to transform carbon dioxide and water into sugars and starch.

Along with the green color of chlorophyll, there are yellow and orange pigments in leaves. These pigments, the carotenoids and the xanthophylls, are in the leaves for most of the year but are overpowered by the large amounts of green chlorophyll produced during the growing season. In the fall, with fewer hours of sunlight, leaves are unable to produce as much chlorophyll, their green color begins to fade and the yellow and orange pigments are revealed. The hackberry, birches, elms and poplars change color in this way.

Another cell pigment in leaves, anthocyanin, causes the red and purple colors in maples, sumacs, dogwoods and ashes. Sugar is trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis stops in the fall and is changed chemically into anthocyanin. The pH levels of the tree’s sap will determine whether its leaves turn red (acidic sap) or purple (alkaline sap).

In other trees, the anthocyanins and the carotenoids combine to create the deep oranges, reds and bronze colors that mark our local hardwood forests. The brown leaves of the oak and some other trees are caused when tannic acid, an astringent found in tree bark and pine cones, combines with the carotenoids.

Another process, occurring at the same time as the colors change, causes the leaves to fall. Cooler temperatures and less daylight stimulate the growth of a layer of cells, called the “abscission” or separation layer, between the leaf stalk and the woody branch. These cells slow the exchange of water and carbohydrates between the leaves and the tree’s roots, as the tree begins its winter dormancy. Food trapped in the leaves becomes the pigment for red and purple-colored leaves.

Other factors influence fall colors. Early frosts will cause leaves to die before the abscission process begins and they may drop before the fall pigments develop. Photosynthesis, the production of green chlorophyll, will continue with warm weather and the colors won’t be as vivid. Low light and water levels will diminish the color of the leaves.

Celina Tuttle is a member of the Urban Forest/River Corridor Advisory Committee, the aim of which is to ensure our urban forests and river corridor are healthy, attractive and available for future generations. Questions may be emailed to the Committee’s Chair, Jim McCready, , and will be considered as topics for future articles.

FUN FACT: What do autumn leaves and ripening bananas have in common?

The green color in unripe bananas comes from chlorophyll, the same pigment that gives green leaves their color. As bananas ripen, the chlorophyll breaks down and disappears, revealing the yellow color, which has been there all along. The yellows and oranges of autumn leaves are also revealed as their chlorophyll breaks down. Other changes also occur as bananas ripen: the starches change to sugar and the flesh softens as pectin (a carbohydrate) breaks down. Source: www.sciencemadesimple.com
 

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