Thursday, November 30, 2023

Cruising the Ocean and a Sea of Grass.

Looking out at the ocean from the balcony of a Celebrity cruise ship

We took a cruise this month, and we had a balcony that allowed us to watch the ocean from our stateroom. I spent many hours just sitting and reading and watching the sea go by, and marveling at the immensity of the view outside.

Looking out at the ocean always makes me feel small, almost insignificant. Its vastness, its seeming permanence, puts many things into perspective.  Paradoxically, it also imbues me with a deep serenity that makes cruising a favorite way to relax in between bouts of work.

In almost the same way, looking out across vast grasslands gives me the same feelings. There is this spot nearby with a large field of grass where I sometimes park my car and just spend an hour or two reading. The panorama might be a colorful green or a rust red instead of the dark blue of the seas, but the solitude and the tranquility of the landscape never fails to make me happy. 

I sit and read by a sea of grass

This equivalence between an ocean and vast grasslands is replete in literature and history.

When European settlers first arrived, they encountered what many described with wonder and awe as a  "sea of grass" that spread for 60 million ha, and stretched from the Rocky Mountains to what is now Indiana, and from Texas north into Canada. These were of course the prairies of that time, most of which have been diced and sliced and now occupy but a fraction of their previous immense area.

But the feelings of almost religious wonder at the vastness of grasslands might actually be inherent in our makeup. In Egyptian mythology, the afterlife is depicted as an endless Field of Reeds (A'Aru),  where the souls of people who have passed away can exist in a bountiful paradise. 

Field of Reeds (Moon Knight, Marvel)

In a similar way, the acclaimed film Gladiator depicts the afterlife as a vast field of wheat, with the protagonist running his hands through the wheat in one of the most iconic scenes in the movie.

The endless fields of wheat in the film Gladiator

In Dan Simmons' Hyperion, the planet Endymion contains a region called the Sea of Grass, which the protagonists must cross using so-called wind-wagons that surf above the meters tall "grass".

Dan Simmons' Hyperion and The Sea of Grass

"My God," breathed Brawne Lamia.

It was as if they had climbed the last hill of creation. Below them, a scattering of docks, wharves and sheds marked the end of Edge and the beginning of the Sea. Grass stretched away forever, rippling sensually in the slight breeze and seeming to lap like a green surf at the base of the bluffs. The grass seemed infinite and seamless, stretching to all horizons and apparently rising to precisely the same height as far as the eye could see. There was not the slightest hint of the snowy peaks of the Bridle Range, which they knew lay some 800 kilometers to the northeast. The illusion that they were gazing at a great green sea was nearly perfect, down to the wind-ruffled shimmers of stalks looking like whitecaps far from shore.

"It's beautiful," said Lamia, who had never seen it before.

Barring aside the improbability of windwagons being borne on the tops of masses of plants (no matter how strong the culms), the idea of travelling above vast seas of grass to distant lands is irresistibly attractive, and even romantic. Perhaps such adventures will be possible in far-off places with less gravity than ours, but for now, I'm content to just spend time by my decidedly more earthly landscape.

*sighs and goes back to reading Hyperion, while gazing at the dark brooding masses of clouds now gathering above his Sea of Grass*

Where's that windwagon?

Saturday, November 25, 2023

The Muscovy Duck Intervention

Mounds of Zoysia matrella (Manila grass) along banks of canal leading to the sea

I was walking along the main thoroughfare Lloyd G. Smith Boulevard in Aruba last week when I came upon an odd sight in Wilhelmina Park.

The tiny Zoysia matrella (aka Manila grass) is a common turf grass in tropical countries, where it is sometimes known in the horticultural world by the incorrect name "Zoysia tenuifolia". It is in the subfamily Chloridoideae and forms thick beautiful sod using both aboveground stolons and underground rhizomes.

Muscovy duck strutting in Wilhelmina Park, Aruba.

I had been wandering around Wilhelmina Park, and was now looking at the river/canal that emptied into the sea, and lay between Governor's Beach and Renaissance Beach. Curious looking mounds of grass dotted the banks of the river, and so I walked gingerly to a particularly prominent cluster of these mounds. The mounds were soft to the touch and velvety looking, and rising from them were multitudes of very tiny flowerheads.

Zoysia matrella flowerheads

I had never seen so many flowering Z. matrella before, and  because they were so tiny (less than 5 mm length) I had to take some time photographing. I was so engrossed in my work that I almost jumped up in surprise when I heard a hissing sound almost next to me.

A really weird looking bird had suddenly appeared, and it was strutting back and forth close to me in what I took to be a threatening manner. In many ways it looked like a regular duck, but it had a red warty face that only a mother could love.

Zoysia matrella flowerhead showing white anthers and purplish stigma

It was also hissing like a snake, and bobbing its head up and down rapidly. I stepped warily away from it and prepared to defend myself, but the bird simply continued to look at me and bob its head up and down.

Did it have some nest hidden near the river bank? Was I somehow trespassing into its territory?

What I took to be the remnants of duck feathers next to Z. matrella flowerheads

I wondered too whether the duck had been using the mounds as a nest, because I found remnants of what seemed to be bird feathers on the grass surface. Perhaps I really was invading its turf (no pun intended), and so I immediately vacated the area and went back to the nearby path.

It was only much later when I googled and identified the critter, that I found out Muscovy ducks use the head bobbing motion as a friendly greeting. I also found out that this species could not quack like normal ducks, but instead hissed, and so there was nothing sinister about the sounds it was making!

I felt sorry I was slightly mean to the duck. I had tried shooing  it away from the mounds of Z. matrella, not knowing it was simply trying to be friendly. It may have been ugly as sin, but it meant well, and next time I'll learn to not so easily judge a book by its cover.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Buffelgrass invasion in the ABC (and why people should be worried)

Clusters of Cenchrus ciliaris (buffelgrass) with whitish flowerheads in Aruba

To say that the southern Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao (which are fondly called the ABC islands) have a somewhat small number of grass species would be accurate, and these include quite a few invasive species that are also prevalent in many other Caribbean countries.

During my visit to these islands last week, one of the more prominent invasives was Chloris barbata (subfamily Chloridoideae), its digitate inflorescence a common sight in disturbed areas. This species was present not only in the most urban of areas, but it popped up even close to the beaches.

Chloris barbata in Bonaire's Te Amo beach

But a more ominous invasive in the ABC is Cenchrus ciliaris (of the subfamily Panicoideae, syn. Pennisetum ciliare, aka buffelgrass in the USA), which has been notorious for its ongoing threat to the iconic Saguaro in the southwest USA. This species crowds out native vegetation, and because it exists in dense clusters, it can create continuous fuel sources for fires. Such fires are deadly to the Saguaro and other desert plants, which have not evolved to live through it.

Cenchrus ciliaris near Mambo Beach in Curacao 

C. ciliariis is from Africa and parts of the Middle East and Asia, and it was brought to the USA as a source of cattle forage and erosion control. It can tolerate arid conditions, and is thus a good fit in the semi arid environments of the ABC islands.

During a bus excursion around Aruba, I saw large fields of what I took to be this species beyond the main urban areas. But even in the very midst of the few towns that dotted these islands, I found C. ciliaris hiding in plain sight.

Cenchrus ciliaris in middle of road in Curacao

In Curacao, rows of this grass lined the canals emptying into Mambo Beach, and I even found it in the middle of a street in front of the Maritime History Museum!

The presence and continued proliferation of this species in the islands should be worrisome to authorities and to the inhabitants. The history of C. ciliaris in the American Southwest has demonstrated its ability to overwhelm native habitats, and the recent huge fires in Hawaii that killed hundreds is a warning about what can happen if people are surrounded by fire-prone invasive grasses. The fact that buffelgrass has been recorded as burning up to 871 °C, and indirectly recorded to temperatures of 900 °C. (MacDnald et al, 2013), is testament to its potential threat to the environment and people.

Masses of flowering C. ciliaris in Aruba

Hopefully, the authorities in the island have been taking steps to address this before it has the potential to become a major problem.

Literature cited

McDonald, C.J., McPherson, G.R. Creating Hotter Fires in the Sonoran Desert: Buffelgrass Produces Copious Fuels and High Fire Temperatures. fire ecol 9, 26–39 (2013).

Friday, November 10, 2023

Help pass the North American Grasslands Conservation Act of 2022

A storm is passing over the nation's grasslands (image by Christian Collins, Wikipedia)

 What is the North American Grasslands Conservation Act of 2022?

In 2022, Senators Ron Wyden, Amy Klobuchar, and Michael Bennet introduced a bill which would take bold actions to conserve and restore native grasslands in North America through voluntary, science-based efforts. This will help conserve grassland ecosystems in order to sequester carbon, prevent wildfires, and stop the further loss of wildlife. It will also address and support the interests of various stakeholders, including ranchers, farmers, Native American Tribes, sportsmen and sportswomen, rural communities, and others.

Why is this needed now?

Grasslands, including sagebrush shrub-steppe systems, are some of the most threatened ecosystems in North America and in the world. In 2021 alone, more than 800,000 ha (2 million acres) of native grasslands in the Great Plains and Northern Great Plains were converted to agricultural cropland (mostly wheat and corn). This area is significantly larger than the entire state of Delaware, and it was lost in just a single year! 

If we are to save these open ecosystems that are essential wildlife habitats and critical for rural economies and carbon sequestration, then we must act now.

What will it do?

The Act would initiate the following actions in support of its overarching goal to conserve native grasslands:
  1. Create a North American Grasslands Conservation Council

    This council will help develop an overall conservation strategy, as well as recommending and selecting specific grassland projects. It will be composed of Federal, State, Tribal, and conservation organizations, in addition to different farming, ranching, and grazing groups.

  2. Establish Regional Grasslands Conservation Councils

    These numerous councils will give recommendations, support, and advise on grasslands projects for their specific regions. They will be composed individuals from regional conservation organizations, ranchers, Tribes, and State wildlife agencies.

  3. Formulate a North American Grasslands Strategy

    The Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service will coordinate with the councils to develop an overall strategy to conserve grasslands, including:

    • identifying areas at high risk for grassland habitat loss
    • spotlighting conservation areas with high potential
    • identifying at risk populations of grassland obligate bird species
    • establishing specific goals for enhancing grasslands

    This strategy would not exist in a vacuum, but draw on existing local, State, Tribal and regional conservation plans and wildlife action plans.

  4. Establish a grant program for grassland conservation

    This will support projects for conservation, restoration, management, and education activities, and can include:

    • prescribed burns
    • management of invasive species
    • grazing management training programs
    • projects that conserve intact grasslands at risk of conversion to cropland, residential or commercial development

  5. Support native seed crop research

    The Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture will carry out research relating to native seed crop systems, in order to help improve our understanding of native seed technologies and promote adoption of native seed cropping systems on rangelands. 
    Some examples of such research include:

    • agronomic research to improve the understanding of native plants as seed crops
    • research on plant seed physiology to improve seed quality, storage, and seeding success in the landscape
    • development of best management practices and technologies for seed production, seed storage, and reseeding success in the environment.

  6. Establish a program to study regenerative grazing

    The Act will establish a program to holistically study the ability of regenerative grazing practices on Forest Service and BLM lands to mitigate climate change. Some regenerative grazing practices include:

    • silvopasture
    • season of use
    • forage and biomass management
    • range monitoring methods

    Using such practices on test and live projects can then allow assessment of their effects on soil health, carbon sequestration, watershed biodiversity, and air quality
How can you help?

All it takes is a couple minutes and nothing more from your end. 

The link below to the North American Grasslands Act website will have a form that can match you with the relevant local elected officials and automatically send them an email letter showing your support for grasslands.