Black Bull Friday, Deep Time

How do we understand Deep Time? The numbers are so big: Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago, life began a billion years later, life colonized land 450 million years ago… but how big is a billion, or a million? To get a feel for these questions, I planned a Walk Through Time on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving in the US.

I prepared for the event months in advance. Translating distance to time at a scale of one foot per million years, I walked up and down my road with a clipboard to write down the landmarks: Life begins at Woody Hills Lane. Photosynthesis begins just past the tobacco barn. The Great Dying of the Permian is at this cluster of mailboxes. I researched multiple resources to get my dates right, checked and rechecked the math. I tried it out with a few friends. Finally, I promoted the event and got enough RSVPs for a lively time.

On the day of the event, things were looking good. The weather forecast still held up. I cleared off the studio table to serve tea after the walk and started tidying up. I looked at my list one more time. “When does the Cambrian start again? Oh yeah, second path in the meadow. Right.” I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing until I had to go run a last-minute errand down the road. Until I saw Clyde.

Black Angus bull just like Clyde. Thanks Bernd.K for photo.

There he was, standing territorially, beefily, on the OUTSIDE of the fence. Munching grass at the edge of the road where we’d be walking. In fact, right at the point where we’d be pausing to talk about the emergence of Eukaryotes. I often have hostess panic in the last hour before an event but it’s usually because I can’t find enough cloth napkins, not because people might DIE.

I tried to cheer myself up with the idea that maybe bulls aren’t that dangerous, really. (I’m still a city girl at heart.) So I Googled “are bulls dangerous” and found articles like “Never Never Trust a Bull,” multiple references to “the most dangerous of domestic animals” and gory descriptions of people being trampled to death. The scene played out in my mind: AS IF Center visitors getting chased down the road, injuries, lawsuits, et cetera. It was now less than an hour before my event. I hastily blasted out emails and texts to anyone who could get in touch with the farmer. I started composing my embarrassing regrets announcement to participants: “Heh, heh, sometimes science gets thwarted by a lot of bull…” But the farmer showed up, got Clyde back in, and repaired the fence, just as the first Time Walkers started to arrive.

We walked eight-tenths of a mile down the road to the formation of the Earth, and paused about 20 times along the way to talk about the Great Oxygenation, the Great Dying, and other key events. It gave us a great perspective. After walking nearly a mile, we passed through long stretches of nothing but bacterial life, didn’t reach the dinosaurs until toward the end, and all of human history was about the size of a flea. Want to go on a Deep Time Walk? Contact me if you’d like me to set up one for your group. No bull.

Why are these people smiling? Because sex! We just passed through the marker for 1.2 billion years ago, in the Proterozoic era, at the beginning of sexual reproduction.

Phenology Trail

AS IF Center has set up a Phenology Trail, so that our researchers, community members, and visitors can help us monitor the timing of events in our forests.

Phenology is the study of seasonal changes — if you study phenology in spring, you might observe buds breaking, birds migrating northward, and insects emerging from pupae; in fall, you might observe seeds or fruit forming, fruit/seed drop, and leaf color change. Phenology used to be considered a quaint activity from a bygone era. However, with climate change, it has become newly relevant to monitor whether, how, and to what extent the timing of our ecosytems is being disrupted.

Our Phenology Trail is set up to monitor 17 tree species and one species of shrub. Next year we will add a few sites where we can reliably predict there will be large patches of certain herbaceous plants like Trout Lily, Mayapple, and Golden Ragwort which bloom in spring, and Goldenrod, Aster, and Wingstem which bloom in late summer/ early fall. Our trail is set up to correspond with some of the tree species on Warren Wilson College’s Phenology Trail, which is also part of a partnership with ETSU and UNC Asheville. AS IF Center/ High Cove is at higher elevation that the other three sites, so we’ll likely see evidence of a later spring and earlier fall. Over the years, we hope that data collected at AS IF Center, combined with data from those nearby phenology monitoring sites, will help illuminate how climate change is affecting the timing of our Southern Appalachian forests.

WWC student Dru Bennett tags a Shagbark Hickory

Thanks to Alisa Hove, plant phenologist and chair of Warren Wilson College Biology Department, for getting us started with our Phenology Trail. We appreciate the work of Alisa’s Plant Physiology class in labeling our first few trees. We are grateful to WWC student Dru Bennett who came out several days to label the majority of our trees, and to Wofford College Environmental Studies Chair Kaye Savage, who helped take GPS readings for a lot of them. We are using protocols developed by Nature’s Notebook, a website of the National Phenology Network, and that website is also where we will upload our data.

Next time you’re at AS IF Center/ High Cove taking a stroll in our forests, ask us for a Phenology Data Sheet so you can help us keep track of bud-burst, leaf-out, flowering, fruit/seed set, fruit/ seed drop, and leaf senescence on our trees. If you’re a community member, you might consider “adopting” a tree species to keep track of during spring and fall.

Here is a list of the trees (and one shrub) we are monitoring:

Scientific nameCommon name
Acer pennsylvanicaStriped maple
Acer rubrumRed maple
Aesculus flavaYellow buckeye
Betula alleghaniensisYellow birch
Betula lentaBlack birch
Betula nigraRiver birch
Carpinus carolinianaIronwood / American hornbeam
Carya ovataShagbark hickory
Castanea dentata x molliissimaAmerican chestnut x Chinese chestnut
Cornus floridaFlowering dogwood
Fagus grandifoliaAmerican beech
Lindera benzoinSpicebush
Liriodendron tulipiferaTulip poplar
Ostrya virginianaAmerican hophornbeam
Oxydendrum arboreum Sourwood
Platanus occidentalisAmerican sycamore
Prunus serotinaBlack cherry
Quercus rubraNorthern red oak

B&B Collaboratory #3

This is a guest post from Lisa Blackburn and Mark Boyd, who are art-science residents at AS IF Center through April.  (For more info on their residency, see our January 23 post, “Capturing Botanical Noise.”

The return of inclement weather has forced us back into our shops, where we continue to work on machines and devices to use on the site.  This brief interruption gives us time to do some testing, refining and troubleshooting of the natural/human interfaces, which will allow for smoother field work. It also provides us the time and space to clarify our goals and develop a logical plan of action.  We’re eager to get outside- there are already subtle indications of spring activity at lower elevations.

B&B Collaboratory #2

This is a guest post from Lisa Blackburn and Mark Boyd, who are art-science residents at AS IF Center through April.  (For more info on their residency, see our January 23 post, “Capturing Botanical Noise.”

Tree canopy in black and white. Photo by Lisa Blackburn

Unseasonably warm weather last week motivated us to spend time wandering through the woods. It gave us a chance to shift gears, observe, reflect and absorb the environment, and allowed our senses to relax and open up.  The temporary change of state resulted in  deeper consideration of the possibilities available for exploring the nuances of this place. We’ll continue wandering and tuning in over the next few weeks and identify a few spots for detailed focusing of our attention. For now, here’s a sampling of sound we collected that was triggered by a small tree on the AS.IF property.

Sound clip from B&B Collaboratory

B&B Collaboratory #1

This is a guest post from AS IF residents Lisa Blackburn and Mark Boyd.  (For more info on their residency, see our January 23 post, “Capturing Botanical Noise.”

Hi.  We’re Lisa and Mark.  Collectively we are the B&B Collaboratory.  We are not scientists, musicians, or academics.  Lisa is an intermedia artist, and we’re not quite sure what Mark is.  For now we’ll just say he’s a mechatronics poet.

We ARE both curious explorers of the bits of the world that are local to us.  We’re interested in the basic workings of natural phenomena. We believe there’s a lot more going on beyond the usual sensory surface of our experience of a place.  All natural things have physical energy in motion. We are looking for ways to make that energy more easily noticed and bring that information into the realm of our routine sensory perception.

We have a few ideas of how to do that, and how to share the results. We’re excited about finalizing the development of them and field testing at AS IF. If you’re around AS IF Center / High Cove and you see us working over the next few months, stop by and see what we’re up to!

Nancy’s Nature Notes: Winter Orchids

My creative process right now involves gathering some unusual materials. Today it was the stems of the fruiting bodies of mosses, an activity that reminded me somewhat of harvesting saffron. I spent hours up on the trail, not just doing the work, but really just because I wanted to be out in the woods. The trail was icy. In parts, the ice under the leaves released trapped air and let out a slow sigh when I stepped on it. Other parts were squeaky, and others were crunchy.

In a few spots, I found frost heave. This is caused by a “lens” of water in the ground — an underground puddle from previous rains, or from a spring. When water freezes and expands, it pushes up through small gaps between rocks, roots, and soil to make fingerlike projections. Frost heave loosens the soil and provides gaps for the tender roots that will sprout in the coming spring.

Frost heave on the trail

Winter is a great time to be in the woods. Far from being dead, the forest is alive and interesting, and it’s a good time for naturalists to focus on phenomena we might otherwise miss in the greener parts of the year. This is the first of several posts I’ll do on the joys of winter in the Southern Apps.

One of the great things about the chilly season is finding winter leaves. Forest wildflowers that produce leaves in winter make a trade-off — they expose themselves to cold temperatures, but they can make use of abundant light that reaches the forest floor while the tree canopy is bare. Three of our common orchids have winter leaves — two of which die back in summer.

The first of these, Crane Fly Orchid (Tipularia discolor), has a purple surface on the underside of the leaf. It’s thought that the purple pigment may help reflect the light back up into the leaf, making the most of the winter’s light… but there is also a hypothesis that instead, it acts as a sunscreen to protect the leaf from too much sun. The orchid’s single leaf appears in fall and remains through the spring. The flowers that bloom in summer are delicate and spindly, somewhat like a crane fly.

The leaves of Crane-fly Orchid have a purple underside.

Puttyroot, also called Adam and Eve (Aplectrum hyemale), has a large leaf with distinctive pin stripes. Like that of the Crane-fly orchid, this orchid’s single leaf is only found from autumn through spring, dying back in summer. The underground corms produce a sticky putty-like substance, giving the plant one of its common names. The flowers that emerge on a spike in late spring/ early summer are yellowish-green with dark red tips on the petals. This coloration makes it difficult to see against a backdrop of green, and leads some to describe it as “ghostly.”

Puttyroot leaves appear to be pin-striped.

Unlike the other two orchids, the leaves of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) are present all year round. Networked with a light colored pattern, these charming rosettes of leaves can be encountered in forests throughout most of eastern North America. They send up a spike of small white flowers in summer. The dried pods which follow are tightly clustered toward the tip, somewhat reminiscent of a rattlesnake rattle.

Rosettes of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain are present throughout the year.

Capturing botanical noise

AS IF residents will mic the plants. But not like this.

The Appalachian spring is characterized by ephemeral wildflowers, awakening of myriad little insects, and tree buds exploding in slow motion. Aaron Copeland wrote a beautiful symphonic piece to capture its charms. But what if the plants themselves make their own kind of music? How would we hear it? For the next four months, AS IF Residents Lisa Blackburn and Mark Boyd will be working on a project to explore just that.

As spring arrives and plant activity increases, Lisa and Mark will be using a variety of sensors to access imperceptible and barely-perceptible activity of natural elements including plants, insects, and weather. They will use the sensors and additional custom-built mechanical instruments to activate sound, light, and drawings derived from these inputs, and are also developing ideas for an on-site installation at AS IF Center. 

Their work will involve placing a small sticky pad (EEG monitor) to trees and other plants, for collecting minute electrical signals which they may convert to sound or visual information. They may also place small contact microphones on trees and other plants to capture sound information.

Can’t wait to hear what the plants have to say? Watch this site for stories and images (and maybe even sounds) as we follow the progress of this intriguing project.

Want to come for an art-science residency at AS IF Center? Application deadline for spring is February 15. Read more here.

Nancy’s Nature Notes: Flocking bluebirds

This morning on the front porch of the Yellow House I noticed two interesting phenomena. One, a sun dog at about 9am. This is a bright piece of rainbow that appears about 22º to the right or left of the sun when ice clouds are present and the sun is low in the sky.

Sun dog 22º to the right of the sun, seen from the Yellow House porch

Then I heard what sounded like a chatter of bluebirds. Because I didn’t realize they can sometimes flock in large groups in winter, I thought it must have been some other species of birds that “sound like bluebirds.” I grabbed binocs but at first I couldn’t catch a good look — they just looked like some random drab passerines. So I spent the better part of an hour scouring through Sibley’s, reading the bottom lines of each page, trying out different sounds to see if anything was a fit: toowhiip toowip? Nah. feefee chr-chr-chr-chr? No, not really. What about tsi tsi tsi tsi ti ti ti ti seeee? Um, no. Oh, hell, I’ll go make breakfast.

But as it turns out, bluebirds DO flock in winter, and because they are not in bright breeding plumage, they can look a little drab and unremarkable. Finally heard them again at the end of the day, grabbed the binoculars and caught a really good look. Yup, definitely bluebird.

If you’re in a place that has some open woodland near a field, stand quietly for a while and if you’re lucky, you may hear their gentle chatter. Or in Sibley’s words, “Song a pleasing soft phrase of mellow whistles chit WEEW weidoo and variations. Call of similar pleasant musical quality; a soft, husky whistle jeew or jeew wiwi, also a short, dry chatter.”

Data Sonification and Life Forms

One of the things we do as AS IF Center is to catalyze collaborations through Art-Science Matchmaking. I hope you enjoy this guest post by Judith Casseday about one such collaboration with Rob Dunn Lab.      – nl

I have a keen interest in data sonification that furthers our understanding of the data. This
blog post by Mark Ballaro and George Smoot increased my interest in exploring how modal/timbral shifts that are set in a familiar, well-tempered scale spectrum might illustrate data-driven relationships. Recently, I read a notice from AS IF about collaborating with Rob Dunn’s Lab on a project studying microbiology of sourdough. It felt like a dream! I have a two and half year old sourdough starter which is used to create 75% of the bread I eat, I recently studied cell biology and neurobiology, I have a deep interest in molecular chemistry about which I am just learning, and I am looking for a data sonification project. I sent the Dunn Lab an inquiry, they checked out my sound work, and I was invited to participate.

First I met with the sourdough folks at Rob Dunn’s Lab — Erin McKenney, post-Doctoral Fellow in Microbiome Research and Education and a research lead on the sourdough project, and Lauren Nichols, Dunn Lab Manager. I learned that the sourdough project is looking at the ecology of sourdough starter communities as relates to yeast and bacteria growth in flour when exposed to water and the local microbial environment. I attended a Dunn lab staff meeting and learned about the amazing research they are doing. All the projects are basically looking at how the smallest phenomena impact much larger phenomena and vice versa, the micro to macro to micro feedback loop. They keep finding that diversity is the key to sustainable growth and a healthy environment. I left the meeting excited and inspired! Next stop will be the AS IF Center in October, for a retreat with some of Rob Dunn’s collaborators on the sourdough project.

I wanted to sonify some data to prepare for the sourdough meeting, so I reached out to the Dunn Lab folks, and Erin McKenney sent me a data set to try my hand at. The data, from Erin’s dissertation study, is about nine lemur babies belonging to three different species, and enumerates how the microbial colonies in their guts evolve from birth to weaned. We have identifiable parameters that can be orchestrated to show changes over time. Perfect!

The lemur microbial data is on a massive spreadsheet with lots of terminology I don’t know… yet. This will be an interesting process as we work out exactly what the sonic illustration will depict. I sense that certain data will lend itself to sonification and that is the part I do not yet know. After spending some time studying the spreadsheet, I asked Erin how we can cluster some of the microbial data together, and she sent me the data sheets for the bacteria, classified at the phylum and class levels. The phylum-level data became my focus as there were only 35 phyla as opposed to 95 classes and 255 strains of bacteria. One of the lemur mothers had triplets so I decided to put together phylum-level profiles on this small group. Culling through the data for these specific individuals narrowed the number of phyla down to 24, then I made an arbitrary cutoff point of >.00 density for each phylum (Erin said this was fine and is actually a tool scientists use to declutter data). Now I was down to 15 phyla – a manageable number for timbral illumination.

The microbes were collected from the three lemur babies at six time points, from birth to nine months old. These time points were birth, nursing, introduction of solid foods, regular consumption of solid foods, and two times as they were weaning. Microbes were collected from the mother when she gave birth. Erin had the brilliant idea to have the mother’s phylum-level profile (which represents the stable adult community, and does not change over time) be a drone under the babies’ phylum-level profiles in the sound illustration. This allows you to hear when the profiles diverge and when they converge.

The sonic substance for all this is a phyla megachord that stretches from G1 to G5. Each phylum is voiced by a single pitch, so, for example, Protobacteria is G1. Since there are only thirteen pitches in a chromatic scale, some of the phyla would land on the same pitch, different octaves. There were five phyla that tended to have the highest presence in each sample, so I made them the Gs, and all the rest had separate, distinct pitches. I used amplitude to render the amount each phylum was present in each sample.

The next question was how to voice the individual profiles in order to hear the data as clearly as possible. After much experimentation, I decided to represent the mother’s voice as a woodwind with steady, slightly pulsing tone throughout. I chose bell-like voices for the three lemur baby profiles, letting each phase ring out four times over the mother’s profile. The idea is to listen and compare the mother’s profile with the babies’ profiles. Listen for the change (or lack of change) as the each stage rings in four times. What you hear is a uniformity of tone at birth that becomes more dense and dissonant as the phyla diversify with the babies’ diversifying diet. Then the final wean profile settles into more consonance with the mother’s profile.

You can listen to the lemur data sonification project here, and soon I’ll begin experimenting on sonifying data from the sourdough project.

-Judith Casseday


The American chestnut returns to AS IF Center

If you were to walk among the forests of the eastern United States over a hundred years ago, you would likely be walking in the shade of Castanea dentata,  the American chestnut. It’s estimated that there were about 3-4 billion of these majestic trees in the east, possibly making up a quarter of the trees in the Appalachians.

Original range of the American chestnut

The trees could grow to a massive size and provided food for wildlife, domesticated animals,  and people. The wood was incredibly rot-resistant — historic cabins with chestnut siding still stand in our mountains today, especially in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The chestnut seemed indestructible, until the first half of the twentieth century when chestnut blight arrived on imported Asian chestnut trees, wiping out entire forests all across the east within a period of about 40 years.

American Chestnut trees destroyed by chestnut blight, Chattahoochee National Forest, north Georgia, 1930. Photo courtesy of ChattOconeeNF.

Yet a few of the trees persist. Miraculously, the roots of some of the trees have stayed alive, producing shoots that leaf out and grow for about a decade, then when the sapling reaches reproductive age, it gets the blight and dies back, only to leaf out again a few years later. One of the most optimistic sights in the southern Apps is encountering one of these everlasting chestnut saplings on a summer hike.  You reach out to touch them, and you’re touching a sacred remnant of our past.

But you might also be touching the future. Is it possible we could restore our American chestnut forests one day? For over 90 years, there have been efforts to restore this beloved tree species, often using the genetic material of those brave saplings that persist in our woods. In 1983, The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) was founded to continue restoration efforts, and has been using a backcross method with Chinese chestnut species to develop blight-resistant American chestnut trees. They have developed genetic lines that are fifteen-sixteenths American chestnut, with one-sixteenth Chinese chestnut for blight resistance.

To support the TACF research and restoration effort, and as a gift to High Cove community and to Carol Jacobsen & Marc Poland whose land and facilities make our art-science center possible, AS IF purchased chestnut trees to be planted in our community this spring.

The seeds arrived in late winter and sat dormant in the fridge for a few weeks, little treasures packed in moist sphagnum moss, sealed in plastic bags. As the spring weather approached, several community members gathered at the Yellow House to select planting sites that would be optimal for chestnut — dry ridges with loamy, well-drained soils. Lucky for us, a geologist happened to be in our midst (thank you, Kaye Savage!) who got out her soil maps and advised us about site selection.

At the Yellow House, selecting optimal sites for our chestnut babies. L to R: Olga Ronay, Carol Jacobsen, Richard Martin, Kaye Savage

We had a late spring this year. It snowed, it stayed cold, it rained cold rains, then snowed some more. And then it snowed. And again. When spring finally came, it lasted about a week — then suddenly it seemed summer would be upon us. So we waited and waited for the right moment, then a week later, we were in a hurry — time to plant! One hot late spring/ early summer day, Olga and I geared up to plant our seeds. To keep voles and other small mammals away, we cut the top and bottom out of a beer can and created a metal sleeve for the seeds, burying them about halfway into the ground. To protect for deer, we made cages of goat fencing. Such a lot of hardware for one little seed!

Olga adjusts the deer-proof fencing around our chestnut seed.

We also planted a couple of seeds in pots that we will be tending throughout the year — when they are strong, we will plant the saplings next to their sister trees. Wish our little seeds good luck!

Good luck, little seed!

Addendum: Read this article from the Washington Post about biotechnology and the American chestnut, also featuring an image of a giant chestnut tree from our county in 1914!

American chestnut tree in Mitchell County (where AS IF Center is located) from 1914.