Category Archives: Nature

Articles on nature and the natural history of the Grand Traverse Region. From descriptions of geological strata or animals and plants of the Great Lakes states to nature walks and gardens of the region, this feature covers everything in the great outdoors.

Rats and Sparrows, Poplar and Ragweed: Traverse City versus Nature

Close to the railroad trestle across the Boardman River at Eighth Street, a large patch of ragweed grows tall, some plants reaching five feet high. It covers disturbed ground with a dense tangle of leaves and stems, never gracing the landscape with a hint of color. Not particular to good soil or poor, it grows wherever the soil has been disturbed, only reaching gigantic proportions under the best conditions. Though an annual, it comes up year after year unless attention is paid to its control.

Green ragweed, growing near Boardman River and Eighth Street, Traverse City, September 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

Ragweed will eventually go away as other plants move in to squeeze it out, but its retreat is often slow and uneven. Uprooting the plant gets rid of it for a scant year or two, but as long as the ground is bare of other plants, it will come back. The only real solution is to seed an area with something more desirable- grass or shrubs, for example. That, of course, involves a plan, disciplined labor, and money for seed. In the past Traverse City applied a simpler remedy: paying children to eradicate ragweed. While spreading wealth among the youth, it never quite did the job. Ragweed flourishes now as it always has.

With the building of the homes, railroads, farms, docks, and factories that replaced the great pine forests of the Traverse area came the pests that survive and thrive on the leavings of humankind: spilled grain from a mill, garbage left beside a house, a dump sited near residences, the river with its flowing cargo of waste and dead fish, horse manure that nourished clouds of floes. Rat and sparrows, locusts and flies- even unwanted plants like ragweed- arrived in our town and, like their fellow human immigrants, settled down to make decent homes for themselves. Seeing no future in the Old World, Norway rats fled to America, obtaining free transportation aboard boats shipping seed corn and food to the New World. Invited by certain misguided individuals who missed the birds of Europe, house sparrows were set free on the East Coast of the United States in 1852. It did not take them long to find Traverse City for it is noted in a Record-Eagle article of 1923 that a bounty of two cents was offered for every sparrow carcass brought in to the examiners.

Firearm control of animals was not confined to sparrows. Rats brought a richer reward than sparrows to young marksmen: ten cents per rat, the tail being sufficient evidence of a corpse. Of course, a wiser, and less violent approach would have been to make food unavailable to rodents and birds, but that simple idea would require time to take root in people’s consciousness. After all, shooting pests provides a certain satisfaction since success is easily measured by body counts, while eliminating food sources does not carry the same panache. Besides, the hunter’s instinct is never far from the surface in small towns of the American Middle West.

Undeserving of compassion, these hapless creatures were classified as “vermin” and were hated because they spread disease and filth about the city. More than the threat to public health they posed was the appearance of poverty and ugliness. They represented an insult to the civilization of a fine city: Traverse City, Michigan. To affronted townspeople, the only good sparrow was a dead sparrow; the only good rat was a dead rat.

The Record-Eagle joined the battle against vermin in 1924. Fresh from victories over the rat populations of Manistee and Muskegon, one Helen Caldwell became the field general for a local rat extermination campaign. Beneath a picture of Caldwell, the newspaper waxed poetic about the campaign:

Rodents and such were gathering fast,
When through the village street they passed
A youth [Caldwell] whose banner bore that strange device,
“Rat Poison!”

Straightaway unto Bill Hobbs she turned,
And he it was who firstly learned,
The power behind those magic words,
“Rat Poison!”

And he took her to the paper place,
Where the Record-Eagle entered the race
To shout and cry from the top of the page,
“Rat Poison!”

Then to the mayor she hied her way,
And with him also she had her say,
Which was and is and will be, too
“Rat Poison!”

The board of health sat on the case,
And a smile beamed over Doc Holliday’s face,
As he decreed for the city’s pests
“Rat Poison!”

Witherite, Barium carbonate, BaCO3; Hexham, Northumberland, U.K.; Collection of the Institute of Mineralogy, University Tübingen, 2009.

Barium carbonate was the poison of choice. It was to be mixed with meat, cheese, cereals and cake- even fresh fruit like bananas and cantaloupe (apparently, rat insisted on a smorgasbord of delicacies). Care would be taken to keep the poison bait away from pets (and children, one would presume). In case an accident should occur, the sufferer should ingest Rochelle or Epson salts as an emetic.

The mayor of Traverse City, James T. Milliken, issued a proclamation in support of the rat extermination program:

Inasmuch as every person in the city is supporting two rats at a cost of $1.82 each and inasmuch as this expense can be eliminated, it is with considerable enthusiasm that I endorse the rat extermination campaign which is now being waged in Traverse City.

In endorsing this campaign I also designate the dates from July 31 to August 9 as “Rat Killing Week” and urge every citizen, including every boy and every girl, to join this movement and make Traverse City a ratless city.

With such publicity, the campaign could not but succeed. A week into the campaign the Record-Eagle reported, “Traverse City’s rat population has decreased by leaps and bounds almost overnight, the rats in their poison throes, leaping and bounding out into the open air to die by the dozens.” The mayor’s call to the boys and girls had brought in ample evidence of rat slaughter: rat tails by the dozens were turned over to the local Rotary Club and prizes and rewards were distributed to the children. The sales of barium carbonate had gone through the roof at local druggists and there was heavy traffic in rat traps in hardware stores around the area. Everyone agreed that, if the City was not entirely “rat-free,” at lease a dent had been made in the rat population. Miss Caldwell would carve another notch in her belt as she left town.

Rats were not the only pestilence afflicting the City. In some years grasshoppers increased beyond the bounds of human tolerance, their numbers soaring as they fed in scrub land that replaced the pine and hardwood forests that occupied the land in the nineteenth century. Authorities did not mess around in doing them in: Arsenic was the designated poison. To this day, land close to the City is contaminated with arsenic residue, a substance deemed so toxic by the EPA that severe restrictions have been placed upon its use.

Animals seen as predators of game birds and sport fish were dealt with sternly. Crows in particular were targeted as a nuisance since they attached young ruffed grouse whenever opportunity presented itself. Consequently, in one year (1937) 2100 of them were killed by teams of marksmen composed of members of the local Dog and Sportsman Club. Mergansers, (diving ducks) were shot in large numbers on the Bay and inland lakes because of their appetite for fish. Even fish were not immune from human prejudices: it was reported that a half ton of dogfish (bowfin) were speared in Lake Leelanau in 1930. There were called “obnoxious” by the perpetrators, presumably because they were not good to eat and competed with more desirable fish for food.

Tree root destroying underground pipe. Image courtesy of A1 Sewer.

Animals were not alone in suffering punishment for getting in the way of human desires. Poplar trees were condemned within the City limits in the early twenties. Their crime? Their roots readily invaded sewage lines, sometimes causing unsanitary back-ups into people’s basements. Dr. A.G. Holliday, city health officer, insisted on strict enforcement of an existing anti-poplar ordinance after the City was forced to expend 200 to 500 dollars for the clearing of the roots from the sewers, an expense that would not be tolerated. It was noted in the paper that some citizens- in particular certain residents living on Sixth Street- would not suffer gladly this insult to their poplars. It is not known if their trees received a reprieve from the death penalty.

Casual observation about town nowadays reveals a plentiful growth of poplars of several varieties. Perhaps the vicious nature of the plant has cooled- or else city sewer system pipes are impervious to their probing roots. In any case, poplars have gained a small measure of respect- at least from some property owners.

Ragweed was another “planta non grata”. With its abundant pollen, it was known to cause hay fever, a problem back in the twenties as now. Northern Michigan was considered to be haven from the noxious weed. Hay fever sufferers flocked here in summer to find relief from the sneezing and runny nose they experienced in Illinois, Ohio, and Southern Michigan. In 1929 the City quickly went through its ragweed control budget of one hundred dollars in dealing out direct payments to children who would get ten cents for every hundred plants they brought in. Later, in the early fifties, movie tickets were distributed for armloads of ragweed which were carefully weighed to determine the number of tickets earned. On Occassion children who had allowed their plants to dry at home overnight were disappointed at the low weight totals of the wilted plants. It did not take long for them to understand that fresh ragweed weighed more.

The battle agains pests has hardly abated. In recent years Gypsy moths were subjected to airborne application of the bacterial spray Thuricide, that treatment saving the city’s ancient oaks and maples. Skunks invaded one city neighborhood shortly afterwards and began a miniature city of their own. Only a trapping program thwarted their plans for domination.

Invasive plants have marched into town, one species after another. Purple loosestrife was poised to cover every wetland until beetles were brought in to bring it under control. Baby’s breath, an escaped garden dweller, threatened to take over abandoned land especially by the railroad tracks. Autumn olive and buckthorn covered many acres inside and outside the city. Finally, an eight-foot high grass, Phragmites (aka, the common reed), has been recently sentenced to die through applications of topical poison. It cannot be allowed to take root upon the shores of lakes, river, and the Bay or else it will crowd out the natives.

There is a pattern of our responses to Nature’s assaults. At first, we call in the Army, Navy, and Air Force and give the battle all we’ve got. After time and expense, we back off, wondering if we cannot co-exist. Finally, we forget there ever was a problem and regard the pest as another somewhat disreputable member of the neighborhood. Maybe that should have been our approach from the beginning: acceptance of the pest’s right to exist, while denying it free rein to raise havoc. Respect within firmly set bounds. For that matter, it’s not a bad plan for humans. After all, we are an invasive species, too.

“Rats and Sparrows, Poplar and Ragweed: Traverse City versus Nature,” was originally published in Richard Fidler’s book, Gateways to Grand Traverse Past, recently republished under Mission Point Press in July 2017. Gateways is for sale at Horizon Books, Traverse City, and on Amazon.

Midge Swarms

We have all seen them, but we haven’t given them names: a swarm of tiny insects flying in a crowded formation often looking like a column.  Certainly, it is much taller than wide, its width usually not more than a foot or two at most, its height often taller than we are.  Our fear is that the insects will bite us, or, at the very least, we might inhale them.  Unlike birds and bats, we do not relish them either for flavor or for nourishment.  We steer clear of them and go about our business.

Magnified photograph of midge emerging from chrysalis. Image courtesy of http://www.abundantnature.com/

Midge swarms form in summer and early fall.  The insects comprising them do not bite, though that passivity is often not enough to keep humans from spraying poisons on them.  They transform from aquatic larvae, tiny forms resembling segmented worms, ready to mate upon emerging from their pupal cases, but not ready to eat since they do not possess the required mouthparts.  So it is they do not harm us.

Most members of the swarm are male: they seek to mate with females that pass through the mass of flying insects.  Upon being fertilized, the female will set about to lay eggs in the waters of ponds and ditches.  Several broods are produced during the year with the last overwintering in mud underneath the ice.

“Midge Swarm near Cass Street Bridge,” Richard Fidler, pen and ink drawing.

According to Donald W. Stokes, author of A Guide to Observing Insect Lives, midge swarms are often found close to water, often above prominent features called “swarm markers.”  These can be patches of light or dark on the ground, or high points such as the upthrust branches of a shrub or tree—or even the top of your own head!  A shiny black piece of plastic will attract a certain species, if one wishes to try an experiment.

Swarms may form in the morning, evening, or even mid-day, depending on the species.  Considering that the insects do not live for more than a couple of days, the observer cannot count on a week of entertainment.  New broods, though, will prolong the joy of avid midge watchers.

Stokes notes that, in a wind, the midges face in one direction and move forward to the limit of the swarm marker and back, the effect making it look like the entire swarm is dancing.  The resulting shimmy captures the interest of naturalists everywhere.  Unsurprisingly—given their awareness of nature, the Japanese haiku poets have written about the swarms (which they call “mosquito (or midge)) columns:

Across the mosquito columns
Hangs the floating bridge
Of my dreams.
–Kikaku

The mosquito columns,
Big and thick
As of a palace
–Shiki

The Capitol
Is visible through a hole
In the pillar of mosquitoes
–Issa

(translations courtesy of R. H. Blythe)

The poets often portray the fleeting lives of mosquitoes (midges) as emblematic of the fleeting existence of things we imagine to be great and eternal, things like palaces and the Capitol (Kyoto).  That is what we should take away from our experiences with midge swarms: the beauty and wonder of ephemeral things that live out lives unnoticed by us all.

Sudden Flooding Along the Bay: Are We Due for Another Seiche?

Map of Grand Traverse Bay, courtesy of WikiMiniAtlas.

How many times has it happened?   Along East Bay, usually at night or early morning, the water surges up, rising four feet or more from its normal level, only to subside within minutes.  In the past, roads have been flooded, docks floated away, and debris swept into the water.  Houses and cottages have been flooded and cars damaged by the flooding such that they had to be towed away for repair.  West Bay gets them, too, but East Bay, especially at the south end, from Five Mile road west to the Birchwood area of Traverse City have been especially hard-hit.

The 1950’s experienced a number of these events, not just locally, but throughout all the Great Lakes.  At first, no one knew what to make of them: newspapers called them “Tidal Waves,” often using quotation marks since everyone knew they had nothing to do with the tides.  The only similarity is that the water rose somewhat gradually, and not with an abrupt crash of giant waves on the shore.  In 1952, the Traverse City Record Eagle declared no one knew what caused them, but that observation was soon to change: a surge of water with immense waves swept up on the Chicago shore on June 26, 1954, causing the deaths of ten persons.  That tragedy sparked interest among scientists studying the phenomenon.  They would soon uncover the causes.

First in a series of photographs documenting a seiche in East Bay, 5 May 1952, from the Traverse City “Record-Eagle” (used with permission).

Gordon E. Dunn, Meteorologist-in-charge of the Chicago office, realized that, on past occasions, the surges always occurred after the arrival of a pressure increase associated with a rapidly moving storm front coming from the north.  On July 6, 1954, just ten days after the devastating surge described above, conditions looked nearly identical to those of that day.  Based upon his understanding of the event, Dunn issued the first seiche warning. Somewhat to his surprise given his scant knowledge, a moderate seiche did strike Chicago, one that caused little damage, much to the relief of all.

Since those early times, we have learned much more about seiches.  They are associated with fast-moving storm lines, especially those moving faster than 50km/hr.  There must be a significant pressure rise associated with those lines, with a long fetch of water covering the entire width of a body of water—Lake Michigan or Grand Traverse Bay–making for more the most dramatic events.  One factor Dunn did not understand was the most fundamental thing of all: storm surges bounce off shores and send reflected waves outward to interact with those coming in.  It is like a basin of water with a water disturbance that reflects off the sides, sometimes building into surges that are magnified by the coming together of different waves.  Surges and the receding of water can go on for days as waves interact, just as water in a basin takes time to settle if it is disturbed.  All of this happens during seiches.

Second in a series of photographs documenting a seiche in East Bay, 5 May 1952, from the Traverse City “Record-Eagle” (used with permission).

East Bay presents another aspect of seiches.  It has vast shoals—shallow areas—that extend from the south and west shores.  When rising water strikes them, waves grow taller, driving farther inland.  One of the descriptions of a seiche claims that the water rushed 30 to 40 feet inland from its usual position, but only in areas at the base of the Bay.  This “shoaling” effect is known to increase the severity of seiches.

East Bay also presents an obstructed range of open water (a “fetch”) that enables waves free travel down its length.  By contrast, West Bay has a narrowing at Lee’s Point on the west side and Bower’s Harbor on the east, after which it widens at the south end.  Contours of the land also affect the severity of seiches, and East Bay seems especially suited to maximize high water surges.

Third in a series of photographs documenting a seiche in East Bay, 5 May 1952, from the Traverse City “Record-Eagle” (used with permission).

This is not to say West Bay has not experienced them.  On April 1, 1946, a resident of Bay Street in Traverse City reported the water level rose two feet before subsiding.  An older story is told that in March, 1891, the city had been withdrawing water from West Bay for household use by means of an intake pipe that extended two hundred feet from the shore under twenty feet of water.  When the pumps started racing one morning, it was realized that no water was being moved at all.  Upon breaking the ice that covered the intake, it was discovered that the water had receded to the point that the mouth of the pipe wasn’t in the water at all.  Soon after, water levels rose, and residents were able to get water for their morning coffee.  The peculiarity of this event—occurring when the Bay was frozen—sets one to wondering if some factor besides a seiche wasn’t operating.

East Bay experienced three significant seiches in the two years 1952-53.  The May 5, 1952 seiche is interesting because we have access to hour-by-hour data about wind speed and direction.  Hour-by-hour after midnight the wind direction changed: 1:00 AM: out of the East at 7 mph; 2:00 AM: out of the west at 7 mph; 3:00 AM: out of the south at 10 mph: 4:00 AM: out of the west at 8 mph; 5:00 AM: out of the north at 12 mph.  The wind direction stayed out of the north after that time for the rest of the day.   Note the time of day: after midnight and early morning.  For reasons not completely understood, the biggest surges of water tend to happen in early morning up to noon.  Also note that the wind direction jumps from one direction to another, finally ending with a strong wind out of the north.  The effect is to pile up water on one side of the Bay, only to have it rush in from the north.  Given the contours of that body of water, that is exactly what you would expect in order for the biggest surge of water to occur at the southern end.

Fourth in a series of photographs documenting a seiche in East Bay, 5 May 1952, from the Traverse City “Record-Eagle” (used with permission).

Residents on the south shore of East Bay notified the sheriff of the flooding shortly after 4:00 AM, a time fairly consistent with the wind change out of the north.  After the first surge, water rose again and again, but never reached the high water mark of the first rush.  That behavior goes along with our present understanding of seiches as disturbances in a closed basin with waves that reinforce each other at times.

When will the next seiche be?  Who can say?  We should beware when a fast-moving storm line moves in from the north associated with rapidly rising air pressure.  The National Weather Service now issues warnings when conditions are favorable for water surges and high waves, and persons living in vulnerable places should take precautions to protect their lives and property.   It has been some time since the last big one and it is easy to become complacent in the absence of memory.  After all, Nature acts whether we are ready or not for what she gives us.

Godzilla vs. Spongilla: A Contrast in Life Styles

A sponge is the antithesis of a super hero.  It stays in place, sifting out plankton (microscopic algae and animals) from the water that passes through its body.  Its body is not of great interest, lacking appendages altogether, not even possessing tentacles that might enwrap evildoers and others that would do it harm.  Its personality is not engaging, either, since it does not have a brain. 

To get its food, it has many small openings that take in its tiny prey, and a few larger ones that expel the water it has cleansed.  The pumping system that carries on the circulation is primitive: cells with tiny whip-like appendages (flagella) line passageways, setting up the current.  There are no robust hearts in sponges.

A simple animal reproduces simply.  In some species of sponge, balls of cells (gemmules) form in mid- to late summer that can break off from the parent animal and grow into a new sponge somewhere else.  This asexual form of reproduction is perhaps the most common means of making new sponges.   However, sperms and eggs can be made inside its body, those fertilizing each other in a display that has nothing to do with affection.  You wonder, without courtship, without males showing off what they’ve got, what is the point of reproduction like that?

Sponges do have a skeleton of sorts, however.  In the ocean, some of them have a soft one made up of spongin, a substance that becomes flexible and absorbent upon being rehydrated.  Those sponges have been used for hundreds of years in the Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere for scrubbing everything from floors to human bodies.  Mostly replaced by plastic substitutes, they are occasionally used today.

Many years ago I took a course in invertebrates at the University of Michigan’s Biological Station at Pellston, Michigan, and was surprised to learn that we have a freshwater sponge that inhabits our lakes: Spongilla lacustris (a few other species can be found here, too).  As I observed it, its body most often was in the form of a greenish blob attached to sticks or pondweed–the green color, I found out, came from algae inhabiting the animal.  It was not at all gooey or gelatinous, but felt rough to the touch and a bit like glassy bits stuck together when dried.  Unlike its ocean brethren with its spongin, it had a skeleton made of crystal-like tiny elements made of silica, the same stuff that comprises most of our sand in Northern Michigan.

At least one animal appreciates Spongilla–but not for its appearance or life habits.  Spongilla fly larvae feed on it with zest, later pupating to become small flies we are certain to ignore among the multitude of other flies that hatch in lakes and ponds.  No life form–not even the sponge–is too humble to escape predators.

Spongilla is very particular about where it lives: it must have the cleanest, purest water around.  For that reason, it is considered to be an indicator of pristine, unpolluted lakes.  Far from being a pestilence, freshwater sponges are a gift.  We should not condemn them for what they are not—gifted superheroes of the animal world.  They are not delicious, not cute, not pretty, but they do constitute a component of our most treasured biological communities, the clear lakes that grace our landscape in Northern Michigan.  Let us rejoice in their presence here.

A Handsome Animal That Does Not Milk Cows: the Milk Snake

Milk snakes do not milk cows, contrary to legend.  They do hang around barns and other structures–sometimes houses.  Someone I know shares her dwelling with occasional milk snake intruders which apparently enjoy living in the crevices of the foundation.  It does little good to let her know that they are only looking for rodents and other small varmints—she does not like them.  To her credit, they have become only an occasional nuisance, and are only evicted from the premises rather than summarily decapitated, a common response of humans.

Image courtesy of the Virginia Herpetological Society.

I saw one quite recently, three feet of torpid elegance stretched across a bike path near where I live.  Fearing for its life–since it nearly blocked the right-of-way of bicycles–I stamped on the ground to get its attention.  With apparent nonchalance, it moved to one side and then into the tall grasses beside the river, its tongue flicking out every few seconds as snakes do.

Indeed, why do they do that?  Reference books tell me that this is their sense of smell, but that statement is not quite accurate, since the actual organ of smell is inside their mouths.  The tongue only samples the air outside.  Since they don’t bring air directly past their olfactory membranes, then they can only smell whatever comes to them on the wind, a strange mechanism at least from our point of view, since we can sniff.  What smells would they be sensitive to?  Rodents, one might guess, and other milk snakes, females especially–if a male snake is the prime actor.

Milk snakes are harmless, but that does not mean they will not attempt to discourage those who would cause it irritation.  Like many of its relatives, it will coil, hiss, and strike to incite fear in the hearts of its perceived enemies.  It should be forgiven for that behavior, not beheaded.

These creatures are most commonly seen in spring and fall.  They go after their prey after nightfall, seeking out mice with their flicking tongues, ready to wrap themselves around them in an instant, squeezing them so they cannot breathe.  That is what constrictors do.

The triangle on the head of this eastern milk snake is very distinct. Image courtesy of the Virginia Herpetological Society.

Milk snakes are given the name Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum, the “triangulum” element referring to a triangle or Y-shaped marking at the top of its head.  In larger snakes dull red bands decorate its body, but smaller ones will have brighter red stripes bordered with black, all set upon a creamy white background.

After your initial surprise at seeing one, you will have to admire this animal for its stunning appearance.  As so many snakes and reptiles are disappearing because of habitat disruption, they are to be treasured all the more.  Let us live in peace with them.

Want more on snakes? Check out these TADL books about snakes

  • Holman, J. Alan, Harding, James H., Hensley, Marvin M., and Dudderar, Glenn R., Michigan Snakes, Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1993, 2006.
  • Holman, J. Alan, The Amphibians and Reptiles of Michigan: A Quaternary and Recent Faunal Adventure, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

The Most Dreaded Wild Plant: Poison Ivy and Its Relatives

Poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak: the three poisons we have to take care not to touch.  The third doesn’t grow here, so we don’t need to worry about it.  Somewhat rare in Northern Michigan, Poison sumac is a tall shrub that grows in wet places—I have seen it in the Platt River valley, locally.  Ed Voss’s magnificent floral guide Michigan Flora shows a cluster of counties with the species: Benzie, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Antrim.  It is much more common downstate.

Image courtesy Joshua Mayer, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wackybadger/24016034905

Poison sumac will not be confused with other sumacs, the staghorn sumac, for example.  That plant has red berries and grows along fields and edges of hardwoods.  As a teacher, I sometimes had to quell students’ fears that they would break out from touching staghorn sumac.  Unlike that familiar shrub, poison sumac grows in places where you get your feet wet.  If it has berries at all, they are white.   The leaves have the shiny look of poison ivy, but have 7-11 leaflets.  Persons in search of pretty autumn color for their homes may be surprised to learn they brought it into the house.

Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is closely related to an Asian plant (Toxicodendron vernicifluum) which is used to make lacquer in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.  While serving in Japan, a dermatologist friend told me that patients came to him with a rash similar to that of poison ivy on the backs of their thighs.  The cause turned out to be toilet seats covered with the offending lacquer.

Image courtesy of OldFarmersAlmanac.com, CC-BY-NC-SA

Poison ivy grows in a variety of plant communities: sand dunes, banks, shores, and along roadsides and railroad tracks.  In the north, it does not climb trees, but remains as a small shrub, scarcely growing taller than two feet.  Its shiny green leaves are, indeed, in threes (“leaves of three, let them be”), but that characteristic is not at all helpful since strawberry leaves come in threes, too.   In contrast to the shrub form, it frequently takes on the growth habit of a vine in Southern Michigan, climbing a variety of trees, often to great height.  Manistee county, according to Voss, is the farthest north this variety is to be found.

Image courtesy of BlueRidgeKitties/Foter.com/CC-BY-NC-SA

Are two such radically different varieties—one a shrub and the other a vine—really the same species?  In most characteristics—leaf position and shape, length of leaf stems, inflorescence (arrangement of flowers on the stem), number of flowers, fruit size—they are similar, but not identical.  The vine form has aerial rootlets to cling onto tree trunks, while the shrub form has none.  If they are the same species, they should form intermediate forms upon crossing the two.  Have they been crossed to see what the offspring look like?

Unfortunately, my source—William T. Gillis’s article in the Michigan Botanist, Vol. 1, 1962—talks only about one failed attempt.  An early frost killed the buds on the growing hybrids.  Gillis did attempt to bring the northern rydbergii form to southern Michigan to see if they would begin to take on southern characteristics.  They did not.

Let us leave the subject to say that poison ivy is a highly variable plant.  One characteristic that all forms have is that they possess urushiol, the offending substance that causes the skin reaction in some persons.  It is not volatile, so you cannot get the rash from merely standing close to plants: you must break the resin canals in the leaves in order to be exposed.  Once exposed, it may take one or two days to react, or—in some cases—only a few hours, depending on the sensitivity of the person afflicted.  Dogs and cats can carry the allergen on their fur, and smoke from burning leaves can cause serious trouble.  It can even be carried on water—at least in the case of poison sumac, the species that loves to grow with roots in the water.

Rash caused by contact with Poison ivy, image courtesy of WebMD, CC-BY-NA.

Not everyone is sensitive.  Some persons can handle leaves and fruit with impunity.  However, you cannot always count on previous insensitivity to avoid the rash.  Sensitivity can change over time, and in either direction.  Steroidal creams and lotions ease the suffering of those afflicted, and the itching and angry blisters will disappear over time.  Still, a person will not want to suffer this assault every year.  So much the better to learn these plants and avoid them.

Aquaculture, Properly Implemented, Improves Public Water Use for All

by S.A. McFerran, B.A. Environmental Studies, Antioch University

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette recently weighed in on aquaculture. His opinion is that aquaculture would subordinate public uses of open waters in favor of private control. 

The open waters of Lake Michigan have been used for commercial purposes in the past and are currently used for commercial purposes. Aquaculture is a commercial use, as are marinas and trap nets already in common usage by commercial fishermen. Trap nets are set in the Spring and often remain on the lake bottom until fall. They are checked regularly and the fish are sorted and the nets returned to the lake bottom. A net pen for aquaculture is similar and like a trap net would not interfere with public use of open waters. With proper siting, scale and monitoring, pollution is minimal. (1)

What tools do the architects of an ecosystem have? Add species, subtract species (as with the sea lamprey), improve habitat and change goals. Fishery departments know a lot about the limnology of the lakes. Using that knowledge, places favorable to aquaculture could be identified. Limited operation could be allowed in those places. 

A worthy goal is the local production of fish by Michigan citizens in Michigan waters. Just as enthusiastic farmers sell vegetables at local markets, small aquaculture operations could offer fresh local fish at market. Large corporate fish operations should not be the goal. The goal is a citizen-led entrepreneurial process that allows aquaculture on a local basis. 

If government is making a determination on how many fish can be raised in the Great Lakes, it would be informative to know what the historic population of fish was. It is clear to anyone reading historic accounts of fishing in the Great Lakes that the population of fish was, in the past, much greater than it is now. In 1872, 39 million pounds of fish was taken. The total fish population was more than twice the present populations. (2) That alone puts to rest the argument against the resiliency of the Lakes. 

Additionally, other technical problems of aquaculture can be solved in Michigan as they are being solved in the rest of the world. (3) The State of Michigan has learned a lot about how to operate aquaculture in places like Platte River. That hatchery was once a big polluter of Platte Lake but they cleaned it up and now raise millions of fish pollution free. 

Another local success story concerns Harrietta Hills Trout Farm LLC, on the AuSable River, which has operated for five years without incident. The Department of Environmental Quality issued a permit for the farm that holds the operators to high standards which “requires weekly monitoring for phosphorus, which cannot, on a seasonal average basis, exceed 15 parts-per-billion in the 8.64 million gallons-per-day”. (4)

Ecosystems are complex. In recent history, marketing the experience of catching fish, and sport fishing in general, has subordinated any other possible use of the Lakes, including aquaculture. Both have a place in the Lakes. The Waters held in “public trust” are held for all the “public,” not just sports fishermen.

S.A. McFerran
B.A. Environmental Studies, Antioch University
Platte River, Michigan

(1) Diana, Jim, quoted from personal correspondence with the author, February 2017. Dr. Jim Diana is Director for Michigan Sea Grant, and is involved in leading the statewide program in its research, education and outreach efforts on critical Great Lakes issues, such as sustainable coastal development and fisheries.  When asked about pollution issues, specifically if Aquaculture pens can be operated without polluting the Lakes, his response was: “Absolutely. There are 11 licensed operations in Lake Huron on the Canadian side, and no damages have been determined from them as of recently. There was a problem in one area, with nutrient addition causing some algal blooms, but they moved to another location and all has been fine since.”

(2) Bogue, M.L. Fishing the Great Lakes – An Environmental History. University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

(3) “On January 11, NOAA published a final rule implementing our nation’s first regional regulatory program for offshore aquaculture in federal waters. In doing so, NOAA is expanding opportunities for U.S. seafood farming in the open ocean. NOAA and our partners are working to advance and expand U.S. aquaculture.” NOAA Fisheries. “NOAA Expands Opportunities for U.S. Aquaculture.” Accessed March 20, 2016. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/stories/2016/01/offshore_aq_rule.html

(4) Ellison, Garret. “In battle over Holy Waters, anglers put Michigan fish farming on trial.” M-Live. Accessed February 04, 2016. http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2016/02/ausable_fish_farm_grayling_hat.html

Aquaculture in the Great Lakes? Not a Good Idea

by Charlie Weaver

Is aquaculture—growing lots of healthy eating fish inexpensively through fish farming—a great idea?  NO!  The basic problem with raising many animals in a small space is poop.  Large net-pens (fish cages) producing hundreds of thousands of fish will generate untreated fecal waste in huge amounts.  This is essentially the same problem with other CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations)–too many fertilizing agents headed downstream which wind up producing massive toxic algae in larger bodies of water.   The Lake Erie and Toledo, OH water pollution disaster of 2014, is a perfect example.

Some have argued in support of aquaculture that the waters of the Great Lakes are a public trust, but that argument, to me, is precisely why aquaculture should not be permitted to pollute these waters.  According to Jim Olson, attorney with For Love of Water (FLOW), the waters of the Great Lakes are “a shared public commons for the benefit of citizens for navigation, boating, fishing, health, and sustenance.”

And, according to Dr. Howard Tanner, former Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries director, “…one net-pen operation can produce the equivalent of phosphate emissions from a sewer plant for 10,000 people.  This fish sewage will create filamentous algae, which will wash up on nearby beaches and rot and stink.”

Only in self-contained aquaculture facilities can the waste products of the fish be controlled and kept out of the people’s waters downstream.

Another problem with fish farms is the antibiotics used to control disease.  Again, the leftovers get flushed down the river or are mixed in with the lake waters and are then consumed by you and me.

Economics are another part of the big picture.  Lake Michigan sport and commercial fishing is a billion dollar industry.  Aquaculture can’t compare to that in generating jobs or money.

Michigan’s Attorney General Bill Schuette is on the side of protecting the environment.  He has ruled that fish farming does not improve the public trust for the uses listed above, and would necessarily interfere with or impair them.  Thus, it is illegal in his opinion.  He says that fish farming in the Great Lakes does not fall within the definition of “aquaculture facility” under the state aquaculture law, because the definition only allows fish farms in privately controlled waters.  Under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act as well, it is illegal to “occupy” public waters for primarily private purposes such as fish farming.

So my suggestion is to NOT purchase Rainbow Trout in the supermarket or order it in the restaurant.  That is the species usually raised in commercial fish farms.   Instead, go fishing in a nearby lake or stream in which trout swim and grow naturally and where it is legal to keep them.  Try to catch one or two, yourself.  It’s quite enjoyable and they are good for you, too.

About Charlie Weaver

Charlie Weaver is a retired fly fishing river guide on the Au Sable, Manistee, and Pere Marquette rivers.  He serves as a board member on the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, and belongs to the Anglers of the Au Sable (Adams Chapter of Trout Unlimited) and to the Clearwater Conservation Committee of the Sierra Club.

PO Box 1308
Kalkaska, MI 49646
ctejedor AT copper.net

Why Do Some Trees Leaf Out Sooner Than Others?

Why are some trees species eager to leaf out early in spring while others stay dormant until much later?  Poplars and maples break dormancy quite early, sometimes before the last frost, while black locust, oaks, and catalpa bide their time, often waiting until late May.  Certainly, as with most things in nature, many factors explain the difference, but here I would like to concentrate on one of them: the kind of wood trees make.

Longitudinal view of tracheid cells in wood.

Wood is the water-conducting tissue of a plant.  Under the microscope it appears to be made up of long, torpedo-shaped cells liberally sprinkled with holes to let water pass through.  Wood is mostly made of these cells–called tracheids.  Pine trees have no other specialized cells to carry water up the tree, but broadleaf trees do, vessels.

Vessels are not torpedo-shaped at all, but resemble soda straws.  You need a microscope to see them, but they are quite large as cells go, and that size can be a drawback.  If air bubbles form inside them or ice crystals form in a late spring frost, they can be damaged so that no water goes up to service the expanding leaves.

Trees with large vessels are especially at risk.  Just when buds need water from the roots, none is forthcoming.  The solution, for such trees as black locust and oaks, is to manufacture a ring of vessels early in spring to carry the water up.  The trouble is, it takes time to do so, time which the tree yields to other species that do not have to form a fresh layer of vessels, maples and poplars.  That means those species get the jump on those working to make new vessels.  Trees that make vessels lose out for a time in the battle for sunlight.

Cross-section of ring-porous wood. The large cells are vessels. The lines represent boundaries of growth rings.

For all that, they are quite successful.  Black locusts are “weed trees,” growing rapidly like weeds, whole groves of them joined together with underground rhizomes.  A white oak takes a different pathway, putting its energy into growing a single individual.  Both trees have a ring of vessels laid down in early spring, a ring clearly visible in the wood’s annual growth rings.  They will serve as the major plumbing system until dormancy in the fall. 

However, some ring porous trees leaf out early.  The explanation, according to one researcher, is evolution: they simply evolved in a warmer climate, spreading later to the North.  Science is never straightforward in the answers to questions it provides.

Shrubs leaf out early for a different reason.  They need to get as much sun as possible before the large trees expand a dense canopy of leaves above.  This year, see if that is not so: Do smaller native shrubs leaf out before the trees of the canopy overhead?

Image taken from the educational materials at Budburst.org

The time of leafing out—budburst some call it—varies according to the year, the habitat, the species, and the weather.  Naturally, a warm spring hastens the process, while days of frost inhibit it.  In these days of climate change, trees spread their canopies earlier on average than they used to.  They flower sooner, too, and they change color later in the fall.  In recent decades southern species do better than before in northern climates: Will pecans enjoy the newly changed winters of Northern Michigan?

One project —budburst—seeks to enlist amateur scientists in charting the leaf-out times for different tree species.  If readers wish to join this year’s study, they can sign up this year at budburst.org

All plates taken from; Mauseth, James D. “Plant Anatomy.” Benjamin/Cumming Publishing Company, Inc.: Menlo Park, California, 1988.

AQUACULTURE:  A Recipe for Economic Growth or Environmental Disaster?

In the broadest sense, aquaculture means growing water plants and animals for food, but in the Great Lakes area, it refers mostly to fish farming, raising fish in ponds or within nets in a defined area.  The practice is controversial with entrepreneurs claiming it can be done without harming the environment and environmentalists countering that it can threaten important ecosystems.  Whether it should be done in Lake Michigan or Lake Huron raises still more questions.  In this feature, two of our contributors, Stewart McFerran and Charles Weaver, take up the issue, each supporting opposing sides.

McFerran argues for aquaculture in his piece, Aquaculture, Properly Implemented, Improves Public Water Use for All

Weaver argues against fish farming in Aquaculture in the Great Lakes? Not a Good Idea

Enjoy the discussion!