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Objections to the year 2020, including the passing of eminent persons, have become social media feedstock. Future retrospectives will likely reveal little difference in the death rate of notables. Ordinary people continue to depart without widespread notice, mourned only by friends and family. Many of them are dying before their “natural” time during a global pandemic.

I am compelled to write this memorial as homage to someone lesser known, but still loved. It’s about another “ordinary” passing, but extraordinary for its details.

Aunt Zettie Martin died at age 87 on Monday, October 26, after just over seven months in a southwest Virginia nursing home. Zettie was a living embodiment of independence, having thrived solo for years after the passing of her mother and husband. When the novel coronavirus struck with shocking speed in March, 2020, I was finishing out my teaching semester remotely in Arizona, where I had gotten stuck after traveling during my university’s spring break. …


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View looking north from the Blue Ridge Escarpment, Patrick County, Virginia

Last week I journeyed home to Appalachia, looking for a wildlife spectacle that first captured my imagination in 1969: The emergence of Brood IX periodical cicadas. There are both 13- and 17-year species in the genus Magicicada. They emerge from underground, en masse, on these periodic long cycles, and are often referred to locally as “locusts” due to their biblical plague-like numbers. Locusts that devastate crops in many areas of the world are actually grasshoppers (order Orthoptera), not cicadas (order Hemiptera).

Cicadas feed on plant sap, and although their sheer numbers may damage plant tissues, they don’t kill the forest trees that insure their own life cycle. After mating, the females lay eggs in plant stems, which hatch into nymphs. The nymphs drop to the ground, burrowing down to begin a 13- or 17-year subterranean life of feeding and slow growth. The last growth stage emerges from the soil on cue, splitting out of the last exoskeleton, leaving behind myriad brown husks on twigs, trunks, and leaves. …


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Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Toolbox-vintage-werkzeugkiste-alt-02.jpg Attribution: Ctsu / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

What good is being a skeptic, unless you’re willing to poop a few parties?

Being an old school naturalist brings me lots of “What is this thing?” photos. Many are photographs of backyard bugs, plants, or snakes. I also come across forwarded creature clickbait by the boatload on social media. Look! Over there! It’s a [insert creature or object], photographed in [insert location].

Sometimes these photos are truly unbelievable, such as blurry photos of timeworn cryptozoological classics like Bigfoot and Nessie. Others are photos of actual, documented living species, tagged with locations outside the known range. …


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Spending time alone outdoors has long been the norm for me, from childhood until today. As a kid growing up in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, I spent hours upon hours, days upon days, weeks, and months, lying on my stomach, staring down at squirming eastern newts, bluegill sunfish, and whirligig beetles in our farm pond; or at water striders, crayfish, and brook trout cruising the clear, spring-fed creeks. …


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Inside the brewery at Antidoot — Wilde Fermenten.

What does it mean to be an artisan? What exactly are craft, artisanal, and heritage foods and beverages, and why have they seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years? What exactly do the words “artisanal” and “craft” mean as modifiers?

At the most basic level, these terms describe the pursuit of traditional, usually older food and beverage styles, as opposed to the mass-produced, profit-focused, standardized commodities of the industrial age. They typically also reflect creations that vary by region, locality, terroir and culture. …


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Calypso orchid. (Bureau of Land Management [Public domain]: https://bit.ly/36hkNFX ). Will this photo suffice, or would you rather encounter the real thing in a bog?

This is my second essay in a short series about technology, another stab at promoting nuance and critical thinking. My target is the not-infrequent claim that new technologies are always, or mostly, good. Or, at least, that the benefits far outweigh the costs, so we can consider the costs negligible.

I’d like to make a case that something akin to “full cost accounting,” as used in sustainability analysis, can also be helpful in evaluating technological advances, even if only in a qualitative sense.

I’m urging nuance and discrimination. Let’s consider both the good and the bad.

The use of the Internet in educational technology has myriad proven benefits. Computing power’s exponential increase (thanks for the Law, Moore) has put information and processing power undreamed of just a few years ago within pocket reach. Data analysis programs and educational apps are demonstrably beneficial for students, in many learning environments. …


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Image from a 15th century book of hours showing believed relations between the Western zodiacal signs and areas of the body. By Limbourg brothers — Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108849

These kids today, I swear!

OK, boomer!

I am constantly reminded that technological advancements are mostly good, or at least benign. After all, old farts have predicted the downfall of young people after the appearance of new every new information technology (schoolroom slates, the printing press, radio, television, the Innerwebs, etc. etc.), since time immemorial. In a recent example, we have a repost of “The Credible Hulk’s” online post, from “a principal’s publication, 1815”, which states the following:

Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. …


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Coccothraustes vespertinus (Evening Grosbeak), Wikimedia Commons, by Mdf [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Memory is constructed, and fallible. Nonetheless, sometime in the late 1960s (let’s say 1969, for the sake of argument), my nine-year-old self peered out a kitchen window, atop southwest Virginia’s Blue Ridge escarpment. An ornamental spruce tree’s branches just beyond were laden with heavy snow, a common winter occurrence there in the 1960s and 70s, at 36.733 degrees North latitude and 3,000 feet (914 m) elevation, along with deep, wind-driven snow drifts that sometimes lasted well into April or May, and extended sub-zero Fahrenheit temperatures (sub-minus 18 Celsius). Today, these conditions represent weather anomalies.

The moment I looked out, a big flock of birds like the male depicted above, along with drabber but equally intriguing females, swept down onto the branches. …


Visions of Fire

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Tropical Rainforest near Sumaco National Park, Ecuador (Photo by T. Knowles, July 2019)

The past two weeks have opened the eyes of many to an environmental, social, and global-scale catastrophe: Burning Amazon rainforests in Brazil. Fires in rainforests are nothing new, of course. They’ve been increasing in recent decades on all rainforest continents, due to expanding climate-induced drought, and especially to accelerated deforestation and burning for timber revenue, cattle pasture, and corn, soybean, and oil palm production.

The August 2019 fires in Brazil have accelerated beyond anything seen there in the last eight years. Many of these fires have been intentionally set by local people, to clear land for agriculture. Most are in areas previously cleared for cultivation, but some are in newly deforested areas being prepared for additional planting. The sheer scale of this year’s fires has been widely interpreted as a direct response to President Jair Bolsonaro’s promise, through policy and pronouncement, to open Brazil’s economy for mining and agriculture, while suppressing environment-focused NGOs (non-government organizations). …


A few of you expressed interest in watching how my Tucson landscaping project develops. Here’s a quick summary of changes to date, including some just completed plantings from last week.

As a reminder, here are a few photos from August —December 2018, showing how the yard looked just before, and after, I bought the place. You may remember that besides location (east side, closer to Saguaro National Park), the feature that really spoke to me was the big, quarter-acre, near-blank-slate lot, just begging to be turned into my own little biodiversity hotspot. Click the photos to enlarge.

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That begging back yard, August 2018. Panorama, so perspective is skewed :-)

About

Travis Knowles

Writing about natural history, biodiversity, skepticism, southern Appalachian language and culture. Opinions expressed here are solely my own.

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