Category Archives: Nature

Obscurities: Anthropause

I came across this word today, and knew I had to find out more: Coined by scientific researchers in 2020, it refers to the impact on wildlife that Covid-19 has had; specifically, the pause of mankind on a global scale through lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Whales have changed their conversations – it’s quieter out there, with fewer cruise ships (those massive floating cities can drown out every other sound in underwater monitors for an hour as they pass by); Pumas have been spotted roaming through Santiago, Chile, and flocks of Flamingos have landed in the waterways of Mumbai, India. The wild animals that live in cities, coming out only at nights in normal times, have started coming out to play in broad daylight. Birds, who have had to learn to call louder to attract mates in areas with traffic, can suddenly be heard loud and clear.

Not all changes have been positive, however; we live in a complex world, and in a world where some people will take advantage of the situation: Poaching has risen, as has Amazon deforestation. But on the whole, wildlife has benefited from the absence or reduction of human activity and presence. Roadkill has been reduced, and in those areas near nesting sites, such as beaches, birds have been laying more eggs than in previous years, possibly because they feel safer and are less disturbed by human noise pollution. Studies are beginning to emerge about just how the withdrawal of humans on a mass scale is impacting the environment and wildlife, and I hope that one of the results of such research is a plan for making our lives on a global scale become more compatible with, and supportive of, nature and natural rhythms.

In the meantime, with lockdowns continuing in many parts of the world (and because one never knows when and how travel restrictions will return, and no one wants to get stuck paying for a hotel in a foreign country for weeks on end of quarantine, travel is largely self-restricted), mankind is safely behind closed doors, and wildlife will come out to play.

Photo credit: NY Times, Andrew Stuart

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The Nature of Time, or the Time of Nature

Did you know that, as animals get bigger, their pulse rates slow down and their lifetimes lengthen? This means that, from hamster to elephant, each gets around 1 billion heartbeats, though the hamster only lives around 3 years, while the elephant lives for 70; because the elephant’s mass is enormous, their pulse (30 beats per minute) is far lower than the hamster’s (450 bpm). For more information on this, please click here.

This phenomena makes for an interesting juxtaposition when other creatures cross our paths; because each creature has a different metabolic rate, time is relative: A mosquito has plenty of time to move out of our hand’s way because her faster metabolic rate makes our movements seem slow motion; by contrast, if a redwood tree or a yew tree, each of which can live hundreds or even thousands of years, could tell us how it perceives us, perhaps our lives would seem like a blip in time by comparison.

Slow motion filming is becoming not only more popular on platforms such as YouTube, with channels like The Slow Mo Guys, Smarter Every Day, and How Ridiculous, to name a few, but it’s also becoming more accessible as the cameras and their capabilities improve and they come down in price. Even more accessible is time-lapse photography, which has become so prevalent in our media that we might not even recognize that what we see in a few seconds took days of one shot per hour to set up.

Louie Schwartzberg is considered the pioneer in time-lapse cinematography, and you’ve seen his work, though you might not realize it: If you’ve ever watched, for example, the logo clip of Warner Brothers Studios at the beginning of a film, you’ve seen his time-lapse rolling clouds. At the moment, Netflix is showing “Fantastic Fungi”, a film about, well, Fungi, and Schwartzberg is the genius behind the film. It’s a fascinating look into the time of nature, as well as the nature of time.

To watch a fascinating behind-the-scenes video about Fantastic Fungi, with interviews from the cinematographer, please click here. Enjoy!

Photo Credit: IMDB, “Fantastic Fungi”

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Psychology Undusted: The Doorway Effect

We all know that experience of walking into a room with a purpose and immediately forgetting why we went in there. Don’t worry, you’re not alone, and it’s not a sign of senility or even a question of age: It’s a function of our working memory that glitches by going through a doorway – as simple as that.

Our brains process a lot that we don’t even think about: We breathe without a thought, we walk in a straight line usually, we can walk with relatively good balance (unless there’s something else interfering, like alcohol or an ear infection), and we can think about a myriad of other things while walking, sitting, or even laying down – all thanks to the grey matter inside our skulls. We can create something physical or something using words or music, and we can differentiate between events of the past, present, and the future.

But sometimes our brains chuck out things it considers irrelevant or no longer required; our working memory is constantly adjusting to the new circumstances we find ourselves in in any given moment, so it creates what are known as “event boundaries” – and one common boundary in our physical world is a doorway. We can also have virtual doorways: when we move from one circumstance to the next, the events are segmented or “compartmentalized” in our brains; this is known as the “location updating effect”, or simply, “the doorway effect”. You may have wanted to get an ingredient for dinner from your pantry; but when you walk through that doorway, your brain mistakes the temporary requirement as no longer applicable and moves on to the next circumstance facing you. That leaves you standing there with a blank expression, wondering why you’re there.

In this age of relentless bombardment of marketing, of internet, or of being able to face-time or Skype or WhatsApp with friends and family in any time zone at the touch of a screen, it’s no wonder our brains sometimes feel overloaded and chuck out something we actually needed to remember just a bit longer. But there’s a trick to remembering what you forgot: Just walk back through the doorway into the room you had the thought in the first place, and it should trigger that forgotten purpose.

PERSONAL UPDATE:

For those of you wondering how we are doing: My husband starts chemo this week; it’s been an up-and-down ride, and planning further ahead than a day has been a waste of time, so we’re taking one day at a time. After a week in the hospital with an infection and a round of antibiotics that also messed with his stomach and digestion, he’s beginning to feel a bit better, and is gaining a bit of weight again. We have holidays over the next few weeks, so when he’s feeling up to doing something, we can take day trips out. Today, we drove to a nearby nature reserve and enjoyed watching nesting storks and large prey birds, as well as Highland cattle. we’re taking life very slowly right now. Thank you for your prayers and well wishes!

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Virtual Tour 7: Maple Syrup

It’s time for another tour! Today’s tour takes us on a sweet-tooth trip: Maple syrup, and how it’s made.

Usually made from the sap of sugar-, red-, or black maple trees, this sap is stored during the cold seasons in the trunks and roots of trees before winter to keep the tree conserved and primed for the warmer season; when the temperatures rise, the tree is ready to go – it begins moving sugar from its roots to the twigs, supplying the energy needed to grow new shoots and leaves. At this point, if the tree is “tapped” by drilling holes into the trunks and attaching a collection container, the sap flows, and can be processed into maple syrup; when done properly, the tree won’t be substantially hindered in its spring production.

But why is sap from the maple tree so dominant? What about other hardwood trees? There are at least 20 tree species that can be tapped for sap, including hickory, pecan, birch, sycamore and walnut; but while the maple trees can be tapped from January to March, as long as the nights are below freezing and the days are warmer, and they produce about 40 litres sap for 1 litre of syrup, some trees, such as the birch, can only be tapped for 2-3 weeks, and because the sugar content is much lower in this tree, it would take about 60 litres sap to make 1 litre of syrup. Walnut trees can be tapped from autumn through spring, but its syrup tends to have a bitter and astringent taste, and so it’s not a popular flavour.

When you consider that tapping a tree produces drops at a time, harvesting is a slow process; it explains why some trees are less preferred by producers, as their volume-to-production values are lower. A major factor in maple syrup production is that, before the colonization of North America, sugar maple trees were the most abundant trees in their areas; as the most dominant biomass, it was natural that they were the most experimented with, and early Native American tribes recognized their potential – they used the sap for everything from sweet snacks to medicines and poultices, and passed on their knowledge to early European settlers.

A cheap alternative is a “maple-flavoured” syrup, which is nothing more than corn syrup with flavouring and colouring added; but corn syrup (also known as glucose syrup), which is made from the starch of corn and is a common sweetener in many pre-packaged foods, can lead to insulin resistance, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. It increases your appetite, promoting a vicious cycle, while the real deal, maple syrup, provides at least 24 antioxidants (according the healthline.com); these can neutralize free radicals, which are believed to be among the causes of ageing and many diseases. As with anything containing sugar, however, it should be enjoyed within reason!

So, now that we’re all on the same page as to what maple syrup actually is, let’s go on our tour!

The Wheelers Maple Syrup site gives you its background, how its produced, and much more.

The New England Maple Museum, in Pittsford, Vermont, takes you on a historical journey through the local sugaring industry, with an online shop.

The Food Insider takes you on an 8-minute insider’s tour through a video: “How Real Vermont Maple Syrup is Made

I hope you enjoy exploring these links, and admit it – how many of you have a hankering for pancakes now?

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Virtual Tour 5: Switzerland

View from Lihn, Switzerland. Taken by Stefan Huesler in March 2005

Today’s tour brings you to my neck of the woods, so to speak: Switzerland. How many mountains we have here depends on who you ask; whatever the exact number, I can say that it’s hundreds. Even the Swiss Plateau, while technically lying between the Jura Mountains and the Alps, is mostly hilly. But perhaps what Swiss would consider a hill, others would view as a mountain. So what’s the actual difference between the two? That’s a grey area, at best: A hill is a landform that rises above the surrounding terrain and does not usually have a defined summit (peak); a mountain has a limited or defined summit area, and rises 300 metres or more above the surrounding landscape. While hills may be a result of glacial flow, erosion of surrounding regions, or faulting, mountains are formed through volcanic activity or faulting. But notice – both hills and mountains can be formed by faulting (the shifting of tectonic plates).

Whatever you call them, Switzerland is full of the beauties. They influence weather, sometimes dramatically, from one side to the other; while Lugano usually has Mediterranean weather, the northern side of the mountains has a cooler climate. Once, as we came over the Gotthard mountain pass from Lugano toward home on a warm, sunny day, we saw a wall of white cloud ahead, clearly defined on the road; when we drove into it, it was absolutely white, and we were unable to see much ahead. Not fog. A cloud. Where we live, our wet weather usually comes from the local mountain range; if the wind shifts from that direction during a grill dinner on our balcony, grab your plates and get inside before it hits.

Did you know that the term homesickness comes from the Swiss German word Heimweh (= home + ache)? It was exported in the 17th century by Swiss merchants and mercenaries working abroad, and refers not to family or house, but to the mountains and their longing for the sights of the Alps.

Below are a few links:

With the first, you can choose various panoramic starting points, exploring visually and/or with information about each point of interest.

Switzerland Virtual Tours

The second link takes you to live webcams in Switzerland, where you can see what’s going on. Keep in mind that if you’re looking at these webcams at the time of my uploading this blog (February 2021), we are currently in lockdown due to the second wave of COVID-19, so activity is far less than when shops are open (if you’re looking at town centres or skiing zones), though in town centres you’ll see kids riding bikes home from school in the afternoons, around 16:00 Swiss time (e.g. the town centre Appenzell webcam). Come back in a few weeks, and activity will have picked up once again. Hopefully!

Swiss Webcams

The third link takes you to a YouTube live webcam feed that switches locations occasionally, giving you an overview of several sites. The music they play over this live feed is a bit monotonous, so I’d suggest turning on your favourite musical alternative and muting the actual video.

24/7LIVEWebcams,Switzerland- YouTube

However you choose to enjoy this tour, welcome to Switzerland! Let me know what you viewed, and what you experienced, in the comments below!

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Virtual Tour 4: Arboform, aka Liquid Wood

Our fourth outing together isn’t a museum, but a topical tour: Yesterday, I bought a hair comb when I went shopping; it looks like plastic, and it feels like plastic, but it is 100% biodegradable liquid wood. Having a curious mind, I came home and did a bit of research into the topic, so I thought I’d take you along on my discoveries.

Liquid wood, trademarked as Arboform, is a bioplastic made of natural ingredients, including lignin, which is the structural material found in plants and some algae, and cellulose, which is also a key structural component for green plants and algae as well as smaller organisms. The exact formula is a trade secret, of course, but the German inventors, Helmut Nägele and Jürgen Pfitzer, developed this thermoplastic in 1996, founded a company 2 years later, and in 2010 they won the European Inventor Award for their work.

Because of the properties that allow it to be melted and moulded like conventional plastic, its uses are limitless; but because it is made of natural ingredients, it is biodegradable – it can be disposed of in the ways wood could be, e.g. by burning or sawing, and will break down over time, as wood does. It may well transform the world of mass production and material sciences. What this product also does is use as a main ingredient a waste product from the paper-making industry – lignin.

The plastics industry created a huge problem that they never found a solution for, and they know it. But now, anything plastic can do, Arboform can do better. Literally. With more and more people trying to cut plastic out of their purchasing choices, this is the only logical solution to those who claim that plastic is the only alternative. Look around you right where you’re sitting: What plastic objects do you see? Speakers? Keyboard? A disinfectant bottle? Imagine every piece of plastic around you made from biodegradable products that, when you’re done with it, won’t harm the environment for hundreds of years afterward.

Below are a few examples of how it’s being used:

For a short tour of the factory, click the image below:

While Arboform can take care of the future, there is still the massive problem of the legacy of plastics that takes 10 minutes to drink a bottle of water out of, and 500 years to break down. There are other initiatives and efforts to clean up the environmental catastrophe; below are a few links if you’d like to learn more about the issue and how you can have an impact for the good.

No Plastic Waste

TED Talk: A radical plan to end plastic waste | Andrew Forrest

The Ocean Clean Up Project

Himalayan Life: Mountain Plastic Projects

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Virtual Tours 3: Vigeland Museum and Park, Oslo, Norway

Our next virtual tour takes us to the capital of Norway, the city of Oslo. There are many amazing places to visit in the city, from the Armed Forces Museum to the Viking Ship Museum. But by far, the largest is the Vigeland Park and museum.

The park is the life work of sculptor Gustav Vigeland, the result of over 40 years’ work. There are over 200 sculptures in granite, bronze and wrought iron, from the gates, across a bridge, past a large fountain and to the Monolith mound. The museum itself was his studio, and includes many of his sketches, mock-ups, and smaller works.

Vigeland’s motivation for the sculptures was to portray the breadth and depth of universal humanity, from birth to death, in as many stages of emotions and ages as he could capture. He intentionally left the titles of his works vague, allowing viewers to interpret through their own experiences. The reason that most of the statues are naked is for that same reason – he didn’t want a style of clothing to detract from the timelessness of the collective experience of humans, regardless of culture or era, age or gender.

I have been there twice, and it will always be on our list of things to do in Oslo when we are able to go; Oslo is one of my favourite cities, which is saying a lot as my husband and I tend to avoid cities on holidays, preferring nature and out-of-the-way spots instead. But like London, Oslo is packed with history and museums. Below are two of my own pictures, taken in August 2013.

The fountain, as the water was shut off
The Monolith: 45 feet tall, with over 400 individual figures

So, who was Gustav Vigeland (1869–1943)? Born as Adolf Gustav Thorsen, he became one of the most famous Norwegian sculptors, and also has the distinction of being the designer of the Nobel Peace Prize medal. His father was a cabinetmaker, and one of his brothers, Emanuel Vigeland, became a noted artist. Gustav learned wood carving at school, but the sudden death of his father forced him to leave school to help support his family. The name Vigeland comes from the area where his grandparents lived, and where he lived with them for a time. He came to the attention of Brynjulf Bergslien, a sculptor, who took Gustav under his wing. His first personal exhibitions in Norway were in 1894 and 1896.

The Nobel Peace Prize, as designed by Gustav Vigeland

In 1902, he was involved in the restoration of the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, which influenced his art by the inclusion of dragons as the symbols of sin and as a force of nature fighting against man. Shortly thereafter, the city of Oslo gave him a studio in which to work, and the location of his growing exhibition became Frogner Park, now known to many as simply Vigeland Park.

The exhibition can sometimes evoke strong feelings; I’ve heard one person call it demonic because it portrays nudity; at the end of World War 2, one critic thought it “reeked of Nazi mentality”. But I have been there, and can honestly say that both of those sentiments are unfounded. If people are uncomfortable with the human form in its simplicity, they will have difficulty understanding the thoughtfulness that went into each sculpture. As to the second critique, some of the characters are posed as wrestling with various symbols – as everyone wrestles with things in various stages of their lives. Coming from the mindset of someone still stinging with the Nazi’s rule during World War 2, it is easy to understand how they could have interpreted any struggle in that light.

Below are a few links to take during your virtual tour:

The Vigeland Museum

The Vigeland Park

Vigeland from the perspective of a modern stone sculptor

A quick walkthrough tour

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Virtual Tours 2: Electric Ladyland Fluorescent Museum, Amsterdam

Come along with me on this next tour, as we explore the world of florescence. Today’s featured museum is the only one of its kind in the world: The Electric Ladyland Fluorescent Museum, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, is an interactive “participatory art” museum; visitors can get creatively involved in the artwork, see fluorescent minerals light up, and can have their eyes opened to just how many common objects around us fluoresce. When was the last time you looked through your vegetable drawer with a UV light? Tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, bell peppers, coconuts… they all emit UV light waves.

First, what is fluorescence? It is also known as “black-light” glow; in other words, it shows up under UV (ultraviolet) wavelengths. Man-made fluorescence differs from nature’s spectacles of bioluminescence in that the latter doesn’t require external light – it is generated by an internal chemical energy in the organism. There are also examples of fluorescence occurring in nature: Syenite, also known as yooperlite or sodalite-syenite, is not a common rock, but does appear all over the world in pockets; in fact, about 15% of all minerals fluoresce. Check out this link to see where syenite can be found near you. Take a UV torch (flash light), and hunt for them at night. They look like plain rocks under normal lighting conditions, but glow under UV. There are also animals that don’t have bioluminescence, but do glow under UV lights, such as scorpions. To watch a short video about hunting along Lake Michigan for yooperlites (these start at 8:00), and see a glowing spider (19:23), click here. At 18:43, you can also see an example of phosphorescence.

Yooperlite – Credit: Reddit, uRyunysus

Phosphorescence is what we also know as “glow-in-the-dark” when it comes in a paint form. The emission of visible light persists after this substance has been exposed to a light source; it fades over time, but the light “charges” the phosphorescent material, such as stars on a child’s ceiling, and glows for a time. This is the paint you also see marking airplane’s escape routes (I hope you never need them!).

Radioluminescence is, as its ominous name implies, a result of the decaying of radioactive isotopes; when mixed with a radioluminescent phosphorous chemical, the decaying radiation particles agitate the phosphor into emitting visible light. Believe it or not, Radium paint was used for over 40 years on the faces of watches, compasses, and aircraft instruments; if you are in possession of your great-grandfather’s or grandfather’s glowing watch, you might want to reconsider that. Radium emits gamma rays… think “Incredible Hulk”. Joking aside, the reality was far grimmer: The episode of history that became known as the “Radium Girls” and the impact it had on industrial safety standards deserves an article all of its own. Shockingly, radioluminescent paint may still be used in specialised applications, such as diving watches.

Radium clock. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I hope you enjoyed this short tour through all things glowing. What do you have around your house that either glows in the dark, or emits light under a UV light? If you don’t already have a UV torch (flash light), you can buy one fairly easily online. If you’re brave enough, take a tour of your home in the dark – UV is known to show up things that have perhaps been missed in your cleaning routine; they will show you what foods you eat that fluoresce; and you’ll most likely learn a few things along the way! Have fun!

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Nature Undusted: Magnetic (Gravity) Hills

When I was growing up, I went to a place called Silver Dollar City (in Branson, Missouri) several times; it is a family amusement park with rides and various attractions. One of my favourite attractions was a house that played with your mind: It had water running up a drain, floors that tilted at different angles from room to room, and optical illusions that played with proportions and directions in your perceptions. You simply couldn’t trust what you felt or saw while in that house, and when you came out, it took a minute or two to right your bearings again.

But did you know that there are natural anomalies? Throughout the world, there are areas known as magnetic hills, magic roads or gravity hills. Due to the surrounding geography, the road or stream may appear to be going uphill, when in fact it’s going downhill; this makes water look like it’s flowing upward, or cars in neutral appear to be defying gravity by rolling uphill. It’s nothing more than an optical illusion, but such places attract visitors, the curious and the thrill-seekers.

Wikipedia has a list of over a hundred recognized places; chances are, there might be one near you.

To see the phenomena, click on this link to a short YouTube video about New Brunswick, Canada and the history of what was first known as “Fool’s Hill”.

Magnetic Hill

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