Always to the frontier

Sunday, July 27, 2014

North America Exterior: St. Thomas

Remember that harsh and cruel winter some of us living in, say, the vast majority of northern and central North America just went through?  Well it seems that your blogger was caught up in the house looking longingly at the outdoor world covered beneath so much snow that he up and ran outside the moment he saw the first signs of warmth rise to shoo away that mean polar persistent air mass.  April came to show us that our continent is brutally extreme when it comes to seasonal temperature shifts, and all of a sudden the southern Great Lakes were blessed with numbers like 70 rather than numbers like -12 which had been recorded only weeks before in mid-March.  I had intended to write a post about our Caribbean south lawn... er... water feature, but instead found myself playing in the dirt and writing for other blogs.  Have no fear, I came back, found that people were still reading this crazy thing, and decided to make a promised visit to a sample island in the Caribbean, namely St. Thomas.

Now yes, you might have noticed that while St. Thomas is indeed an overseas possession of the United States, you probably also noticed that it is far removed from anything resembling the 50 united colonies back on the mainland.  For starters, she does not even sit on the North American plate, but on the neighboring Caribbean plate.  Her culture is distinctly different, her time zone is a very un-continental/maritime Canadian Atlantic time, and she is way, way more tropical than even the toastiest parts of deep Texas and passably more tropical than rainy Southern Florida.  There is a distinct lack of big box stores here, frost and snow are imaginary concepts, and the island was pretty much still the sunniest and warmest part of Denmark (international version) until a 100 years ago; even Puerto Rico can claim closer heritage with the rest of the United States through colonial Spanish roots.  The island is and was hardly a resort masquerading as a country, however, as it became a going concern when the Danish discovered that using African slaves to ship sugar and rum around the world was profitable, a mercantile heritage which later transformed itself into a breeding ground for tourists and the jewelry industry. 


This has a lot to do with the lay of the land.  St. Thomas is a small place, all of maybe 15 miles across at the most, and quite a lot of it is vertical in nature.  She has beaches, but she also has cliffs and steep descents to the shoreline and is surrounded by incredible coral reefs.  Those looking for broad, level expanses of sand covered over by hundreds of Coconut Palms are probably actually imagining the coral islands of Grand Cayman, Cozumel, or the Bahamas.  That is not to say that the place is far from a dream tropical resort paradise, as the climate manages to stay pleasantly in the 80's with plentiful sunshine and sea breezes a majority of the time.  The backdrop of the vertical nature of the place certainly also adds to the postcard image:


That said, it also presents the average farmer with a bit more blessing than the coral islands.  The soil here is just a little bit more amiable to the ways of the plow, and while slaves made life lucrative for Danish plantation owners, the island was certainly under cultivation.  These days, a simple glance at the satellite map can show that the opposite has largely taken hold; much of the undeveloped landscape has returned to some semblance of the monsoonal forests and possibly savannas which covered much of the Virgin Islands.  Simply put, there is not a whole lot of room for the island's residents to keep the economy going on a subsistence basis or through the use and extraction of natural resources.  In contrast, continued links to the United States have allowed the island to look beyond immediate concerns through an expanded economy, much like the islands always have, at least since the triangular trade got the first bonds set in place.  True, the culture and government was Danish, but the economy surely passed a fair amount of trade to the much more proximate Americans.  Here, as on St. Croix, what does survive in the man-made world of previous eras does not look to far off from, say, a narrow street in colonial Philadelphia, Williamsburg, or Charleston.  The overhanging gables might seem a bit more New Denmark than New England, but then again New England is a far cry from the Carolinas. 


Back to natural things, the island is definitely not what one would call a rainforest, and gets about as much rainfall each year as we do here in Great Lakes country.  That said, despite the presence of cacti and the like, she is also hardly a desert, but something more like a wonderful place which is not too hot, not too dry, not too wet.  Much of what has started to re-vegetate consists largely of tropical forests with deciduous (in the dry season) trees:

This probably made the place very attractive, even to those with money primarily the goal of founding a colony.  Especially in Virgin Islands National Park on neighboring St. John, ruins of many Danish plantations can be found among the recovering vegetation.  Much like the colonial policy of taming the wilderness that took place in the Thirteen Colonies, the Danish colonial pattern was one of using as much of the land to full agricultural potential as possible, and so very little pre-settlement landscape remains in plain view.  That said, while the landscape of much of the Caribbean has been very much turned into an anthropomorphized ecosystem, small bits and pieces of the tropical wonderland that the first Spanish adventurers and colonists made their way to over 500 years ago can be found for those who come here not to shop but to find a place far away, yet ever more abundant with familiar mangroves, Coccothrinax palms of relation to those in the Everglades and Keys, yuccas, and Spanish Moss.  Then too one can find reminders of a world very much similar to that of the ante-bellum United States, albeit a bit further south, a world forever changed from when the First Born once lived here, who like the First Born peoples of the South, cannot really say much... like the original landscape they are long since gone. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Expanding The Horizon

American Voyages is dedicated to the exploration of North America, which I have thus far defined as being anything a part of our continental plate and landmass, as well as attachments such as the parts of California not on our plate.  Under this definition, I also include Cuba and the Bahamas, which have at least enough common features in fauna, flora, and history to be considered North American.  Where do I draw the line elsewhere, however?  Do I exclude Guatemala and Belize simply because they have more in common with the rest of Central America than they do with Mexico?  Do I refuse to talk about any of the Caribbean, especially when it does have a significant link to our continent?  In general, I started up this blog to show people what they have in their backyard (and as a secondary goal, to dispel myths about Mexico), and the thought of getting just a bit more tropical than what Oaxaca or southern Florida has to offer starts to look more like promoting knowledge about what people have in mind for their next vacation.

Ah, but there are people who live and have lived on the many islands beyond the reach of Floridian or Yucatan beaches.  The history of the three major North American nations is very much connected to what was going on in the Caribbean.  Many of the colonials there set up domestic, semi-representative governments just like the colonials in the North American mainland did.  Alexander Hamilton, along with a great many other British colonists living in the "West Indies", either lived in the Thirteen Colonies/United States or had involvement in trade between the various colonies and Britain.  Much of this trade involved the movement of rum, sugar, spices, and the "commodity" needed to make it all possible, slaves.  In this regard some of those distant islands were not too distant in culture and climate from some of the American South.  Barbados, for one, is very keen on reminding people that much of their population was once in the supplicant position in this culture. 

Many American ports would also bear a bit of a visible connection with distant islands.  New Orleans and Charleston have in many ways seemed more connected with the life of the tropical mariner and chic associations with motherlands back in Europe.  Florida, of course, had for the longest time been the meeting place of the Spanish Caribbean with mainland North America, and still largely is, particularly in Miami.  In return, Cuba has always seemed like another world from the rest of the Caribbean, even after American cultural connections were shut down once Castro took power.  From another angle, Cuba and Mexico have often expressed love and affinity with one another, as if sitting at another table focused on one another and no one else in some grand Latin American ballroom.  The Caymans Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos these days find themselves being sent similar love letters from fellow Commonwealth member Canada; the banks and financial concerns on the islands certainly reflect this budding, if unconsummated relationship.  The story gets more fascinating further south.  So why not shake off the last of the winter blues and visit some of those lands across the Straits of Florida?  Our first destination will be St. Thomas of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Winter 2014, A Final Farewell

Spring looks to be finally upon the continent, even towards more northerly reaches.  While the alpine heights of the mountains and the more distant north will not experience the hints of a growing season until June, more temperate lands have started to feel release from what has truly been a difficult winter.  Were it not for the snow many of us (except, sadly, on good portions of the Great Plains) had, the landscape would look like a disaster area.  Here in Southeastern Michigan we experienced the grip of the sort of cold best reserved for Northern Ontario, and our friends on the other side of Lake Michigan were even worse off.  In contrast, much of the far west experienced relative warmth... except for one place.

Thanks to a special friend for taking this shot for me. 
This would be in Washington, Utah, a place otherwise noted for being at the edge of the Mojave Desert and thus prone to mild winter days in the lower fifties and chilly nights hovering around half of that value.  Now and then snow can fall in this land, as it did in record amounts back in 2008, but in general the thaw comes around quickly and winter rains, rather than fluff, prepares the red land for a floral display of utmost brilliance when spring sunshine warms the scenery.  Things are warm again there now, but back in December they almost got as cold as they did back here in Michigan; some days did not go above freezing.  Nearby Zion National Park recorded sub-zero temperatures.  Most of the native flora handled this somewhat well, but some had a rough time, including the palms seen above.

Those are crossed California Fan Palms (Washingtonia Filifera), a palm otherwise noted for its incredible cold tolerance.  While they do not grow native in this particular part of the Mojave, they can be found less than a hundred miles away in an isolated grove in northern Clark county, Nevada, and in general they can handle the climate anywhere lower than 3,500 feet around there pretty well.  They can handle periodic freezes and snow just fine, with the storms of 2008 barely phasing them.  Unfortunately, that little corner of Utah got just a little too cold for comfort, for too long.  Many palms and tender plants bit the dust in what was well below any sort of normal occurrence.  In the meantime, nearby coastal California never got even close to that cold, nor did it see any sort of rejuvenating precipitation, snow or otherwise.  This winter has simply been out of control for everybody, which is not a good sign when taken in conjunction with temperature and precipitation swings wild in the other direction even just last year (and especially 2012).  I'm not going to go on a tirade about Climate Change, but I am saying to keep an open-mind; this is not proof that things are going screwy up there in the sky, and it is not "how winters used to be when I was a kid" either.  My parents at least claimed there were thaws in January and March was actually March and not what January should average out at.  Out there in extreme Southwestern Utah, they have also been growing palms for quite a while too, meaning that this was extreme and not so much a return to "how things used to be".  I encourage them to try again with the palms, or at least start planting Joshua Trees (Yucca Brevifolia) a bit more; both can take the heat, both can tolerate the cold, both can definitely shrug off the dry.

Oh, and for a little more information on the picture, we have two western classics out there, one more Plains and Inter-mountain, Sinclair Oil (I know, ironic in a post about winter not being normal), and one more Pacific western, In-N-Out Burger, which in all bust the most impossible climates puts a signature pair of crossed Fan Palms (usually California variety) outside of their restaurants.  Hopefully they try again, or wait to see if the things survived; our North American palms are exceptionally hardy.  

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Treasures Of The North And Winter: Redtwig Dogwood (Cornus Sericea)

In addition to the birches, willows, and mountain ashes which make up the broadleaved gang of the Boreal north, one can also find a nice collection of dogwood, sometimes nearly to the Arctic treeline.  One in particular ranges even further north and bit further south than our Sorbus friend which we visited on ye olde blog yesterday, the magnificent Redtwig Dogwood (Cornus Sericea).

All but the last two of these pictures are taken from a tamarack swamp/fen (pretty sure it is actually a prairie fen) about two miles from your author's dwelling near South Lyon, Michigan.

While most winter interest deciduous plants try to fall back on great features like berries or persistent fall foliage, the Redtwig adds spice to the landscape with wood alone.


They like the same sort of cold winters that Sorbus seems to like, but because they like to get their feet good and soaked (or at least within root range of some plentiful water; I have seen them higher up on stream and pond banks), they don't range as far south into the Appalachians as the Mountain Ash or spruce and firs do.  There are some amazing cool, wet areas in West Virginia and Maryland where this dogwood and its best tree friend, the Tamarack (Larix Laricina) can be found at the far end of their eastern southerly range.  On the other hand, they extend well south into parts of Mexico where a combination of persistent water and artificial north provided by altitude allow them to thrive.  A subspecies is also found along the Pacific coast as far south as the mountains around Los Angeles, a rare find for a climate which does not have much in the way of eastern North American wetlands beyond its vernal pools (which does in fact have some populations of this remarkable plant).

USGS Geosciences, please never stop giving us awesome maps.  We love you.  Very much.

That said, they are indeed a northern plant, and I would definitely classify them even as a Boreal plant, and thus another gift of the winter lands.  Around here, they are a common feature of the swampier parts of the world, and they often form pretty amazing gatherings, as if nature did have some sort of aesthetic plans in mind and desired mass plantings.


Filling a swampy niche and having evolved within a balance, they never tend to completely form monocultures, even while they do dominate the scenery.  When the sun catches these things they turn an incredible bright ruby, but even in the dull overcast winter days they are far more brilliant than most cameras can even hope to demonstrate.

 

They grow slowly, and the old wood does turn brown even while the newer wood is the same amazing red:

Not the best image, but this old wood versus new wood is demonstrated by the emerging red stem from the central branch here.

In general, though, they tend to form an understory beneath taller wet foot trees like cottonwoods, the lovely Tamarack...

 ...and in a particular lovely combination of color and grace, the Black Willow (Salix Nigra):


Finally, they look amazing against the snow, almost as if to proclaim that not only is this winter and snow not so bad, it is positively enchanting.



Thankfully, Redtwig is pretty popular in the nursery trade, and even if Siberian Dogwood (Cornus Alba) seems to be flavor of the month lately, this is one case where even gardeners in its native land are falling head over heels for our friend.  Heck, there are even golden and green cultivars/selections out there!  Apparently you can plant all three as far south as the lowland Carolinas and parts of Georgia and Alabama, but I would imagine that like any northern plant, they probably do best in wet conditions with colder winters back home; they certainly do not naturally occur much farther south than the Great Lakes, at least at lower elevations. 

I do not know how the early colonists would have seen this plant and have yet to run into early botanical and garden literature regarding it, but the First Born absolutely loved it and used it in everything from smoking mixes to wound treatment.  Redtwig would make an excellent candidate for serious ethnobotanical study, and if this blog did not have a more general focus beyond ethnobotany (I know, I know, sometimes I get carried away with it) I would probably bore you all with a good solid set of posts on findings about good old red bark shrub. 

Oh, and this is just our friend in the winter.  In the spring it bears white flowers, in the summer these turn into white berries,and they all look great on those ribbed leaves.

Again as with our friend Sorbus, this apparently also occurs in northern Illinois, classic eastern Tallgrass Prairie country, a far cry from anything Boreal.  If anyone reading this knows more, by all means, share! 

Note: Cornus Sericea has also been known as Cornus Stolonifera

Friday, March 21, 2014

Treasures Of The North And Winter: American Mountain Ash (Sorbus Americana)

Most conversations I have had with people about my northern (i.e. pine tree and really cold winter country) heritage usually include discussions on what exactly grows up in the land of frigid winters and gentle summers.  Many people assume that the farther north one travels, the more one runs into coniferous needle-leaved trees, and that the horizon is nothing but spruce after spruce.  Just as residents of the lower north (southern Great Lakes, Midwest, Northeast) assume that Florida is one giant palm plantation, or that the desert west is nothing but sand dunes devoid of life, residents from said lower north down to the the rest of the continent picture the Boreal north as a land of excellent Christmas trees and the odd moose or bear bursting through the needles.  In truth, spruce are the most northerly occurring trees, right on into the tundra in fact (albeit as a very small form that takes centuries to hit an inch tall).  They are very quickly joined by willows, birch, aspen, and best of all, by something that looks like it should not grow in this land of the anti-leaf, the American Mountain Ash (Sorbus Americana).

Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  North Carolina, with some Tennessee in the background.
 On the upper slopes of Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina.

 As you can see, our friend the grand Mountain Ash looks, like the northern growing sumacs, to be a palm tree that got lost along the way.  Despite growing in an otherwise rugged setting, the tree (others insist it is a tree-like shrub) has delicate looking foliage and a branching structure that looks like it would get absolutely broken apart in heavy snow and ice.  Believe what you want, however, because this fine specimen of a plant really only grows where things get somewhat brutal:

Thanks, USDA!

Most of my pictures of them come from North Carolina, despite the fact that this is indeed a tree I have grown up with for a long time.  The good olf Sorbus is indeed a tree of eastern Boreal Canada, growing right on up to James Bay.  Not until I was specifically plant hunting and noticed it stood out among the Spruce-Fir forests of the higher Appalachians did I really think it was anything unique!  Yes, it has the same good characteristics in both Ontario and North Carolina, and it stands out from the forests in the Laurentians:

Somewhere in the forest north of Brent, Ontario and south of Deux-Rivieres, Ontario.

As well as it does in the Blue Ridge and Smokies:

Off of the summit of Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina.  They really do look weird with the conifers.

Along the main road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, eastbound side, not exactly sure, but high enough to see the transition between coniferous and deciduous forests.  On the top right there is also a heath bald full of rhododendrons and kalmia!




Yet I always seemed to think of it as part of the scenery, taken for granted.  This is probably because it is not a "northern" looking thing; just as the kid who got excited over pine trees did, so do people who get excited over spruces and rhododendrons which happen to grow best where the Sorbuses do: 

They really do offer a nice foliage effect together.  I am sure by now that any gardeners reading the blog are getting some ideas!  This was taken on the road leading up to the summit of Mt. Mitchell.
Let's face it, you all looked at the flowering Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron Catawbiense), and why not?  The Sorbus looks like any old sumac (or worse, a Tree of Heaven [Ailanthus Altissima]) growing in an abandoned city lot might. This holds true until the winter comes, however, and the true glory of Sorbus Americana enters the landscape, it's berries:

Another fine tree from the Ontario Laurentians, probably about 6 or 7 miles from the other one pictured in this post.  Both were set in some fairly dark and lovely spruce-fir forests.
Somewhere in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, most likely on the path to Munising Falls near Munising, Michigan.
The berries, of course, are preceded by flowers, which truly makes this an all season interest tree:

Flower buds!  This was at Mt. Mitchell and taken mid June.




Clingmans Dome.  I arrived too early at the high elevations, and too late at the lower elevations, to get a full bloom.
I don't have any photos of the plant in full bloom or naked in the dead of winter with those bright red berries really standing out against the landscape, but it does not take too much imagination to realize that this is a tree which proves that noticeable seasonal changes are not a bad thing.  Indeed, this tree might have even given a bit of a boost to early colonists who had to deal with an actual winter or were heading into the dark and mysterious mountain or northern interior.  It was a welcome splash of color in the winter landscape, and would have reminded them of their own Sorbus back across the sea, the Rowan Tree (Sorbus Aucuparia), which people had considered to be good for everything from making jelly to fighting off witches.  That said, it seems that Aucuparia still gets more notice and stock in the nursery trade; in keeping with the current few posts and their theme on the blog, it is important to note that this is probably because the European version can be grown in warmer spots than the North American version.  Again, however, this is not say that our version is weak and tender, as it can grow out of some really difficult soil:

Somewhere along the Blue Ridge Parkway near north of Mt. Mitchell.

Somewhere on Mt. Mitchell.  As you can see, the soil is pretty shallow before bedrock is reached.  This particular Sorbus is joined by a nice blanket of blue alpine flowers, Mountain Bluets (Hedyotis Michauxii).
And of course, our version can also handle the colder end of the spectrum better than even some of the hardiest northern broadleaved trees.  This tree just happens to be hardy in the other direction, the one that no one claims to like!

By the way, if any Illinois people are reading this, I would love to hear/see anything on the wild population in your state, which is far more prairie than Boreal. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Remembering Winter

This past winter has really done a number on the people of eastern North America, and perhaps the most insane among us on this first day of not-so-Spring are otherwise known as gardeners.  While most long for warmer weather and the end of things such as road salt and scraping off the windshield every morning, the gardener is a different sort of folk who simply longs for a return to leaves, flowers, and matters vegetable in general.  This time of year, both people thus long for the coming of that which is not winter (even when they might otherwise miss Spring in the process) and fail to notice that even back in late December, any amount of snowfall and cold was welcome and sought after.  Indeed, in a few more months we will most likely all be complaining about the heat instead, and then long for heavier meals, holiday things, and even a nice bracing chill to the morning air.  In California and much of the desert southwest, people definitely wish they had our snowpack and colder air so as to moderate the powerful effects of prolonged drought.  People in the American southeast definitely mock northern types with tantalizing pictures of blooming spring flowers, but trust me, I saw many of them get very excited up high in the spruce forests of the southern Appalachians wishing that they could grow such things as spruce and fir in their yards.

Historically, people actually liked winter in the frigid north.  The mild winters of the European homelands of the Second Born often contrasted sharply with what they had back home.  The French in Quebec often complained about it, but they also found that it toughened them up and made them into a culture of adventurers and explorers.  The various folks of the eastern American seaboard delighted in having common festivals of snow and ice play that were far and few between back in rainy England and Holland.  Everyone in general loved being able to make maple syrup and sugar, especially in Vermont, Quebec, and Ontario, where sub-cultures actually developed around the noble maple species and it's economic boons.  The annual rite of tapping the maple tree was a harbinger of Spring, but this was not possible without the frigid winter to precede it.  Very well, you say, winter then is a sacrifice to be had to enjoy the more colorful periods of the year.  Perhaps, but winter is far from lacking color.  Bare earth, evergreens both needled and leaved (rhododendrons and certain ground covers keep their leaves even in the north, and some oaks retain their fall color until the following Spring!), snow, seed heads, bare branches, and berries conspire to create some of the most amazing scenery of the entire year.  Since winter seems to keep dragging on in some places, I offer that we take a look at some of those Northern wonders which make the winter scenery up here something even the magnolia and palm clad Southern folk can drool in envy over. 

And don't worry, these winter blues are going to make us feel even more fantastic when things do warm up nicely!  Let's face it, if the seasonal cycles were truly that terrible, no one would still be living here.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Best Big City Place To Stand In Toronto

One of the most interesting places to stand and gaze at the financial fortresses of downtown commercial Toronto is on the northeast corner of Bay and King streets.  You can look around in all directions and see nothing but tall buildings (including First Canadian Place, the tallest skyscraper in Canada) all around, with an effect rivaling that of Manhattan's financial district surrounding Wall street.  The canyons created by the tall buildings produce a windy effect on the local micro-climate, and the sun is blocked out for much of the day.  If you want to see what such a high urban setting is like, this is definitely the place to stand in slack-jawed wonder.  More than this, though, this particular corner (actually just a little bit to the north, say about ten steps or so, on Bay street) features a really impressive view of the CN Tower:


I had presumed that this view had been forever lost in the face of continuing high rise development along the lakeshore, but the signature feature of the Toronto skyline was still exposed as of February 2014, framed ever so nicely by the Toronto Dominion Centre and it's neighbor, which I assume is the Standard Life building (all banks look the same to me).  The CN Tower is definitely one of those things that most people do (and should) come to see when touring Toronto, but most visitors never seem to give it a second thought when it comes to views of the structure itself.  It seems to blend in, albeit as an essential element, of city skyline shots, especially those taken from Lake Ontario, but the way it silently dominates even land side views of the skyline is even more impressive.  When I was growing up, I remember being able to locate Toronto from even as far away as Rattlesnake Point on the Niagara Escarpment near Milton, from the height of land on the Oak Ridges Moraine to the north, or most impressively, from atop Queenston Heights alongside the Niagara River.  That particular view had always struck me as being the mythical vantage point of Canadian sovereignty, an emblem of the might of Canadian rail power which now extends from Ocean to Ocean to Gulf, all within the view of one of the most important battlefields of Canadian history and just yards from the American frontier.  Sure, it's an overly romantic and silly sort of patriotism, but...

Let's just say it felt good to see it still standing there, probably not even noticed by half the people in the city who were otherwise too busy looking down at their shoes, the pavement, or their smartphones, people too busy to look around and be happy and enjoy this immense gathering of humanity of all shapes and sizes merged into one working, tolerant whole.  This viewpoint, taken at one the most artificial and busy vantages of Ontario, a province otherwise noted for incredibly vast stretches of wild land, probably never even stirred so much as a smile in the somber people milling about me when I took the photograph.  That's just fine, because despite all that, I have to say that I felt pretty good being in the heart of a place that has so much more to do.  Toronto is photogenic, and she does have some pretty amazing views.