Cedars of Yreka

A few days ago we were sitting at the patio table and watching the trees in the backyard swaying gently in the breeze. We noticed puffs of what looked like yellow smoke coming off the Deodar cedar.

It was pollen, of course.

Here’s what the estimable Sunset Western Garden Book had to say under the entry for Cedrus (true cedars including C. deodara):

Male catkins produce prodigious amounts of pollen that may cover you with yellow dust on windy day

3rd printing May 1989, p. 272

I’ve had to hose off the table twice more since then!

According to botanists there are only four true cedars. One is this species, C. deodara, also known as the Himalayan cedar (its native range). The famous Cedars of Lebanon (C. libani), mentioned in the Bible, are also in the genus Cedrus. The other two are also Mediterranean, the Atlas cedar (C. atlantica) and the Cyprus cedar (C. brevifolia). True cedars are members of the pine family (Pinaceae).

European naturalists encountering new plants in the Americas named them with systems imported from overseas. There are no true cedars in the Western Hemisphere but there are cedar-like trees that were tagged with the name. Ubiquitous in California forests is the incense-cedar or Calocedrus decurrens, a member of the cypress family (Cupressaceae). We have one in our yard. Heading north into Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska you find the widespread Western red cedar (Thuja plicata), also in the cypress family. If, like us, you have an arborvitae among your plantings, that’s a relative—Thuja occidentalis.

Back here at home we moved the patio table from outside to under the overhang to keep it free of pollen. Tree pollens are particularly fine and dry compared to flower pollens and are thus easily spread far and wide. Although Deodar cedar pollen is not classified as an allergen, I’m convinced that my runny nose, itchy eyes, and hacking cough last week had something to do with all that yellow stuff floating around my back yard.

Lately the days have been beautiful and smoke-free, so I’m not complaining!

Cold, Rain, and Snow

It’s not bad to be wrong. Sometimes being wrong is the only way to find out how to be right.

Or at least get closer.

The forecasts for the upcoming winter here in the West are not encouraging:

There is literally a “sliver of hope” in the map above for us here: the tan-colored triangle in northwest California along the Oregon border just might include Yreka!

This is a little less depressing. We may get our usual precipitation, which of course isn’t much, but it doesn’t look like a banner year.

Here’s the one that spooks me a bit:

I don’t want “warmer than normal” I want “cooler than normal”!

Despite our best effort, weather and climate forecasting is still pretty tough. The models are saying the chances are good we will have a warmer, drier winter.

Meteorologists and other scientists have to remind themselves that all models are wrong. They are just models after all, no matter how sophisticated, and a model is not reality.

Models get corrected and updated frequently precisely because they are wrong, and like I said earlier sometimes that’s the only way to get closer to being right.

So I sure hope the models are wrong for this winter. Bring on the cold, rain, and snow!

Rain

A little, anyway. Not hardly enough, of course.

It’s knocked down the smoke some, perhaps the wind can take care of the rest.

Summer in the Golden State is losing its luster. It was never my favorite time of year, despite being a schoolteacher and a baseball fan! I like the rainy time which is from November to April in most of the state.

There are mountains between me and the Pacific. The Shasta Valley and environs are in the rain shadow of the Klamaths. Suffice to say it is dry here, like much of California.

Like most California cities, Yreka is an oasis sustained by plumbing. We have a water source, Fall Creek, that is a few dozen miles from here so we need a pipeline. Our green lawns and healthy gardens are an illusion. Left to itself, the land here would support juniper, ceanothus, and star-thistle!

Fires have ravaged the West this year. You’ll hear lots of reasons for it, and they are all true. Years of aggressive fire suppression have built up impossible fuel loads in the forests. Logging cutbacks have multiplied that effect. Arguments over policy and bureaucratic inertia have stymied progress. Population growth has put more people on the wild land interface. Climate change has increased the frequency and severity of weather and fire events.

Whenever you are presented with a complex problem, be suspicious when presented with a simple solution. A complex problem is one that can be approached from a variety of perspectives which yield a variety of potential solution paths. At the very least, a complex problem requires a multiplicity of solutions.

Most of the time we solve complex problems by just pushing ahead and seeing what happens, then adjusting on the fly. The problem now is that things are moving too fast. When we just push ahead without forethought, without at least an attempt at planning and problem-solving, we fall back on old habits, old biases, and outmoded ways of doing things.

Engineers often write impossible-to-solve equations for phenomena they study. So they have to make good approximations instead, and that helps guide their work. We need to do the same thing as a society. We don’t know the best way, but we can make models from what we do know, and use those to generate ideas.

And we need the poets on these things, too. They don’t work with differential equations, but they solve equally thorny problems like how to express truth and beauty in the fewest words possible. So they know how to imagine, and see beyond the limits of the language. We will need that to fuel innovation.

The future of life here in the Golden State will likely require an entirely new aesthetic. The California Dream is transforming before our eyes. Let’s get creative and build anew, and stop worrying about what went on before. The most important question is “what shall we do next?”

In the meantime we could use some more goddamn rain!

A truckload

I don’t like to go outside on the really smoky days and today is one of those really smoky days. Here’s the AirNow monitor:

So it got me to thinking, how much air do we breathe every day?

I took a number from HowStuffWorks to get an estimate. They use 11,000 Liters per person per day. The American Lung Association says 2,000 gallons per person per day. That converts to 7571 Liters. I expect there will be a lot of variation in this estimate.

I found I could easily mostly fill a 4-gallon trash bag exhaling normally in one minute. The bag was not at capacity as I had my hand holding a twist in the top few inches, so I estimated the amount with a little geometry. The full part of the bag was a weird, pointy, oblong shape, so I imagined it as a right circular cylinder. I set 12 inches as the average height, 4 inches as the average radius, and used the formula Area = πr2h and got 603 cubic inches. A gallon is 231 cubic inches, so that’s about 2.6 gallons.

If I breathe air at a rate of 2.6 gallons per minute that’s 156 gallons per hour or 3744 gallons per day. That’s over 14,000 Liters. I guess I’m a “heavy breather”!

I don’t think much of my estimate, but I note that it aligns with the other estimates so I will assume their estimates are reasonable. I suspect I would breathe at about half the rate when I sleep, so my 14,000 Liters would then be closer to 10,000 Liters.

So how big is 10,000 Liters? Is 2600 gallons easier to visualize? How about 350 cubic feet?

The cube root of 350 is about seven (7 x 7 x 7 = 343). Imagine a box 7 feet on a side: height, length, and width all about seven feet. That’s how much air you need every day.

Another way to imagine it is in cubic yards, which is about thirteen. Our local garden supply outfit can deliver 10 cubic yards of rock in one load with their ten-wheeler dump truck. Those concrete mixers you see hold about 8 cubic yards.

So if you want to know how much air you need each day, it is at least one truckload!

Tarweed

The smoke has kept me inside. I did go for a walk on Tuesday and regretted it—I should have worn an N95 mask. My throat was scratchy and dry for some time afterwards. Pollution from wildland fires is nasty! And the worst part of it is that the visible stuff, the ash and smoke, are not the main issue. The issue is the very small stuff, the little bits 2.5 microns and smaller. A single cell of E. coli is about 3 microns in size so these particulates are not visible to the human eye. (A micron is a micro-meter or 10-6 meter, about 0.00004 inches.)

One thing I did see on my walk was Madia elegans, also know as Common Madia, Spring Madia, or Tarweed. Here’s a photo:

Madia is regularly seen along roadsides, in uncultivated fields, and in disturbed areas. It is native to California and the West and a similar alien species Madia sativa, is found on the coasts. The flowers open up in the mornings and face the sun and then curl up in the heat of the afternoon and at night. Around here they bloom for most of the summer and as you can see they linger into autumn.

I’m not much of a photographer but here’s another shot:

Madias are known as tarweeds because of the pungent oils that make the stems and leaves sticky. The seeds were harvested by Native Americans for food.

As you can see it is a sunflower, or composite flower, known botanically as a member of the family Asteraceae.

Cigarette smoke contains “tars” as well as nicotine and these contribute to the health impacts on smokers’ lungs. I guess as I was wheezing around the block I was thinking it was like being in a room full of smokers!

You’ll need a mask

I took this from the EPA site AirNow.

It doesn’t require a sensor to know the air is bad. And it is very bad here in Yreka.

I know we are lucky—so far—as people in nearby communities have lost their homes because of the fires.

We are at the mercy of the winds. In the old days they had Aeolus, the divine keeper of the Anemoi, or Winds. Some Winds were benign, but the Storm-Winds wreaked havoc upon land and sea, so it was up to Aeolus to keep them bottled up. This he did, mostly, but if Zeus ordered them cut loose, so be it.

These days we have windy.com with its entrancing animations. (Warning: serious time sink!) We don’t make sacrifices to the gods the same way, either. Instead of slaughtering a beast and burning offerings on a pyre we build super-computer forecasting ensembles that churn through powerful algorithms. This takes a lot of energy. Not just the human physical and mental energy, but the enormous amount of electrical energy devoted to these tasks.

And important tasks they are!

In geology, aeolian processes are ones involving the erosion, transport, and deposition of sediments by the wind. Winds don’t just affect our weather but also our landscape.

Particulate material from wildland fires can travel across the globe. While we are trying not to breathe in the smoke and ash from our nearby fires, long-traveled micro-debris from fires in other places comes our way as well.

I root for a fresh, cleansing breeze to scour out the valleys and let us breathe again. But I know that firefighters are also at the mercy of the winds, and the best-laid firefighting plans could be scuttled by abrupt changes in wind direction and speed. So, I hope for the best instead.

We all want it to cool down and we all want the rains to come, but it is only September and we have some weeks to go yet.

Stay safe out there!

Aluminum

Here’s a graph. It’s like a lot of other graphs that have to do with natural resources in that it is “going up.” We need a lot of natural resources to live our 21st century lives.

The graphs shows the production and consumption of aluminum, which is expected to reach 65 million tonnes annually. (The graph is in kilo-tonnes, so the 60,000 kilo-tonnes above is the same as 60 million tonnes.) A tonne is a thousand kilograms or about 2200 pounds, so 65 million tonnes is 1.433 x 1011 pounds or 140,330,000,000 (140 billion) pounds. That’s twenty pounds for each person on the planet.

The graph comes from the website of Rusal (Russia Aluminium), the second-largest aluminum producer in the world. (They still call it “aluminium” over there.) It’s the largest company outside of China which dominates the global aluminum market, both producing and consuming more than any other country.

Aluminum is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust. It is a very reactive metal and is bound up tightly in the rocks. It is hard to separate as a pure metal and the processes require enormous amounts of electricity.

But our lives depend on aluminum. These days we make just about everything out of the stuff.

What’s weird about aluminum is that is has no biological function. Our bodies need lots of metals like iron and calcium. Zinc, copper, cobalt, magnesium—all are found in living systems. Not aluminum. It isn’t particularly toxic to us either as we tend to pass it out readily via our urine and feces. You can cook with aluminum and store food in it, it won’t cause Alzheimer’s or anything like that.

Most of the aluminum in the world is used to build lighter ships, planes, cars, and other transport vehicles. Aluminum is strong for its weight and modern alloys are nearly corrosion-proof. Only steel is used more.

We don’t need aluminum to be alive. But we certainly need it to live.

Caltrop

Perusing Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching I came across a section about how to make a caltrop. A caltrop is an ancient weapon. The Romans called it a tribulus. It looks like this:

Four metal spikes (or two twisted together) in a tetrahedron shape means no matter how you toss it on the ground at least one spike is sticking upwards. Obviously they are for disabling men, animals, or rubber-tired vehicles. Strewn across a road, trail, or pathway they can make life mighty painful or at least terribly inconvenient.

There’s a common plant called caltrop, better known to locals as “puncture vine.” The botanical name is Tribulus terrestris. The fruits of this persistent, ground-hugging, noxious weed are spiky and harden into bicycle tire-hunting demons. They are often called “goatheads.” Anyone who rides a mountain bike can tell you about goatheads. I upgraded to extra-beefy tires and tubes on my bike after too many flats from those things.

The nuisance impact of puncture vine is so great that weevils have been imported and released in order to help control it. The plant originates in southern Europe and the weevils are imported from France as well as India. They lay eggs on the stems and seed pods and the larvae emerge and eat and weaken or kill the plant.

Here’s a picture:

You’ve seen this plant on every roadside!

Here’s what it looks like when the goatheads have launched their assault on your tires:

A weed is a plant you don’t want. Most folks consider Tribulus terrestris to be a weed. Farmers and ranchers know it to be a serious agricultural pest. But some folks are interested in caltrop for its medicinal value.

Yes, the lowly puncture vine, it seems, is an aphrodisiac. The leaves and roots have many (supposed) health benefits. Do a search using the botanical name and you’ll find plenty of stuff about it. I’ve taken herbal supplements that had “alfalfa” as an ingredient. It’s a crazy world out there in supplement-land, you never know what you are getting! So if the herbal way is your thing check out caltrop. Me, I’ll avoid ’em.

p.s. I’m not an eco-warrior or anything like that, I just like reading weird stuff. (That’s my disclaimer if the FBI is reading my blog.)

How’s the air?

With wildfires raging across the West many of us are experiencing nasty air pollution, the most obvious being the gray-brown smoke that settles in every valley. But much of the issue with polluted air involves the invisible stuff, the tiny particulates that you don’t see and don’t notice you are breathing in.

The EPA measures these particulates when determining the Air Quality Index for an area. One of the standards involves particles that are less that 2.5 microns in diameter. A “micron” is another way to say “micro-meter” which means 10-6 of a meter (0.000001). So 2.5 micrometers (µm) is 0.0025 millimeters (mm) or about one ten-thousandth (0.0001) of an inch. That’s about the size of a bacterium.

The standard involves expressing a particle density as µg/m3, or micrograms per cubic meter. Something on the order of 35 µg/m3 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, 55 µg/m3 is considered generally unhealthy, and 150 µg/m3 is very unhealthy.

This is just the PM 2.5 standard. The AQI involves other inputs like carbon monoxide and such. But I want to look at just the fine particulates because of this outfit called PurpleAir.

PurpleAir makes sensors that anyone can purchase and begin monitoring their air quality. They also have a network where the data from the sensors can be accessed in real time. I discovered on their map page that my next door neighbors, the Siskiyou County Office of Education, has a sensor installed. In fact, they are installed at schools all over the County!

There’s a circle on the map with a number (PM 2.5 in µg/m3) and if you click on it you get a couple of pop-ups:

There’s a little + sign in the corner of the map that produces this pop-up:

You can use the pull-downs to change what you see as there are twenty different variables measured such as humidity and temperature as well as different particulate standards.

You can see from the graph that the air here in Yreka has improved quite a bit since midnight last night.

There are a number of health issues associated with breathing particulates so it is good that we can keep track of this and use it to make decisions about our activities. Just because you can’t see or smell smoke doesn’t mean you are immune from its effects!

The EPA also has a site where you can enter your ZIP code and get the AQI and they also have a fire and smoke map.

Copper and Gold

For five bucks you can get a pound of copper and will probably get some change, too.

Not so much with gold. A troy ounce of gold goes for about two grand these days. A “pound” of gold would set you back about twenty-five thousand simoleons! I put pound in quotes because gold is not measured in pounds, at least not the kind of pounds we measure ourselves and everything else with. It’s a small point, but a troy ounce is about 31 grams whereas as an everyday common ounce (1/16 of an everyday common pound) is about 28 grams. The everyday common system we use for most things is called avoirdupois.

Gold has its own system, and there are twelve troy ounces to a troy pound which comes out to about 373 grams. An avoirdupois pound (sixteen ounces) is about 454 grams.

So it is hard to compare a pound of gold—twelve troy ounces—with a pound—sixteen avoirdupois ounces—of anything else. Other precious metals like silver and platinum use the troy system, but more pedestrian materials like copper use the pounds we are familiar with.

Now gold is interesting stuff. It is durable. It doesn’t lose its luster. It doesn’t oxidize or tarnish. It can be beat into most shapes including thin foils and it can be drawn into wire. But its too soft to really work with so it has to be alloyed with something like silver, copper, nickel, or zinc. American Gold Eagles, for example are 22 karat or not quite 92% pure (22/24 = 0.91666…).

Eagles are about 3% silver and about 5% copper.

Copper is the only other colored metal besides gold. Colored other than silvery-grey, that is! Copper is incredibly useful. In fact, our entire modern world could be said to be built on copper since it is required in all electrical devices and all electrical wiring. Think about your complete immersion into the electrical world. Don’t worry, you are not alone. We are all there with you. Our lives are entirely dependent on our electrical system. No copper, no electricity. No electricity, no modern civilization.

Gold has messed with the minds of men for millenia. I live in the Golden State, and that does not just describe the color of our sunsets or of our sun-baked grasslands. Driving the back roads of the county this morning we encountered tailings piles that would take an army of dump trucks to move that were washed off the hillsides 150 years ago. El Dorado infected more than just the conquistadors.

Copper, like gold, is found in its native state, that is as a pure metal and not as a compound. Iron has to be extracted from ore, for example, as does aluminum. Ancient peoples knew all about copper. Copper dulls over time, as do bronze and brass, the well-known alloys. Patinas on bronzes, for example can be part of their charm. Copper kitchenware and things like brew kettles have to be cleaned and buffed to keep their shine. I particularly like the reddish cast of copper and the so-called “pink” or “rose” gold alloy is usually 18-karat and thus 75% gold with 25% copper (18/24 = 0.75).

Gold gets a lot of attention these days. In times of uncertainty people invest in gold. Or hoard it!

But copper is deserving of a place in the pantheon. We can live our whole lives and never need an ounce of gold. The average American, to live at his or her preferred standard of comfort, will require about thirteen pounds of copper per year. Over a lifetime of 85 years, that’s 1105 pounds. Just think, a THOUSAND POUNDS or half a ton of the stuff!

Good thing it’s only five bucks a pound.