Archive for December, 2019

Ferns and other unusual plants

28 December 2019
maidenhair fern
Photographed with a Pentax SLR camera on color slide film.

Last week I noted that ferns were springing up along the American River, even though it’s winter. I thought I’d go a little deeper into ferns and other odd plants in this post.

The beautiful symmetry of the maidenhair fern pictured above is unusual even for fern plants. I have always treasured this photo, taken in Ann Arbor when I was in high school, simply for the dramatic pattern displayed by this plant.


I was studying botany at the time, not as a passion exactly, but mostly as a way into the world of living systems and the exhaustive naming and categorization procedures of the life sciences. It had started with a penchant for taking long hikes in then-nearby Bird Hills. I wanted to know what the plants were, so I got into field botany (plant identification). I even did a science project based on it! This park (Nature Area) continues to be maintained by the city and its ecology is probably not that much different than when I lived there in the 1970s.

I found many old books on the subject; most were filled with drawings of plants, which interested me much more than all the theory in the text.

Asa Gray's fern illustrations
Asa Gray’s fern illustrations.

The thing about ferns is that they don’t have flowers and seeds. The leaves hold the reproductive parts, and reproduction is accomplished either on the leaf or on the soil, in the presence of moisture. Once a new plant has started to grow and established itself, the need for moisture may be much reduced, though moist environments are still favored.

And so it is that new fern leaves are sprouting up now, in “winter,” because it is the rainy season.

Typical bracken fern habitat along American River.

These ferns (the “weedy” type known as bracken fern) seem to favor the old rock piles left by the gold miners. These piles of rocks are now 100 to 150 years old, and in the parkland areas have remained largely undisturbed for most of that time.

sun shining through a fern frond, showing the "dots" that can bear spores.
The dots seen on these leaves may develop into spore sacs.

I wanted to get a fern leaf (or frond) with the sun shining through it to emphasize the pattern of spore sacs. By inspection, these have not yet matured on these plants.

Ferns in other places

The common bracken fern lives everywhere around the world, and is the archetypal “fern.” But there are many other ferns. The maidenhair is only one example of how amazing the fronds can look.

My nephew took a trip to Indonesia several years ago and provided the following photos via his blog:

fern of Harau Valley Sumatra
Harau Valley, Sumatra
Fern near Telaga Warna, Indonesia
Near Telaga Warna, Indonesia

There is so much possible variation in this group of plants, as is true of so much of life.

Other interesting plants

pitcher plants
Pitcher plants, Harau Valley

Andy got some great photos on his trip to Indonesia. Pitcher plants grow in many boggy places all over the world, but these are a great example. They are a “carnivorous” plant; they feed on insects that fall into their specialized leaves and get trapped.

Andy with Rafflesia
Rafflesia, plant with largest flower.

Rafflesia, however, is much less common. Andy made an extra effort to find and photograph this specimen is its native habitat. This plant attaches itself to certain vines, then grows this monster flower. It has no stems or leaves.

Another plant that uses other plants to settle on is Spanish Moss. However, it is neither a moss or particularly Spanish. It is a seed plant that grows on trees, probably to obtain more sunlight and avoid getting drowned by floods.

Spanish Moss, Florida
A Spanish Moss growing in Panama City, Florida.

I got this photo while I was visiting Florida as a Volunteer Minister to help with emergency supplies and clean-up after Hurricane Michael.

But for sheer lushness of undergrowth, there is nothing like a young forest’s floor during the warm moist days of a Midwest summer, such as we always experienced in Michigan.

Michigan forest floor
Typical Michigan forest floor, summer.

There are about six different plants in this photo, including the kidney-shaped leaves of Wild Ginger. I’ve never seen a habitat like this in California. Perhaps there are some coastal areas that get close.

Winter’s Spring

22 December 2019
december clouds sacramento

A funny thing about this area is that it gets almost all its precipitation during the three (or four) months of winter. It seldom freezes here – if so, not for very long.

As a result, many plants start their “spring” cycle, essentially, with the first winter rains. Shortly after the first rains, you’ll see green grass everywhere. I really noticed it this year, as I have been braving the cooler weather to continue my weekly bike rides (when there is no rain). I thought this area was particularly pretty:

New green grass – at the beginning of winter!

While most of the trees act like it really is autumn, many of the smaller plants on the ground that don’t have access to the deeper water reached by the tree roots take advantage of the rains to start a new growth cycle.

winter ferns by the american river

If you look closely you can see that many of these fern leaves are sporophylls (fertile leaves). I hardly ever notice these ferns during the summer. This must be their time of year. After the rains leave they probably die back.

He’s hiding from me!

Grazing animals benefit from this burst of new growth, I’m sure. We have deer in the park – too few, it seems to me. And also quail which like to stay out of sight, and turkeys which like to go anywhere they please.

Not hiding from anyone!


There is a bush that is very common along the river that has caught my eye several times. But now it is particularly visible because it is staying green. I didn’t think I knew this bush, but I thought “that looks like Artemisia.” Problem was, I’d forgotten what Artemisia was! Well, it’s sagebrush, and there’s a lot of it along the lower river.

sagebrush closeup

The bushes along the river flower profusely very late in the year, but the flowers are rather nondescript. Its leaves are quite small, and new foliage is bright green. These bushes can stand 6 or 8 feet tall.

Other river visitors

It is still spawning season on the river. Big salmon from the ocean swim all the way up here, spawn in the pebbly shoals, then die. They attract gulls and many vultures, but the birds don’t seem to like the dead fish that much. I don’t blame them.

vultures in a tree

This day (the last day of fall) the vultures were particularly numerous. Notice the one towards the bottom of the photo that is spreading its wings to dry them out.

I also spotted a kingfisher. This bird may be living here year-round, but they also migrate. The smaller birds are difficult for me to catch with my camera, so I am proud of myself every time I get a decent picture of one.

kingfisher on american river

The Mergansers return!

20 December 2019

The Folsom Mergansers were first mentioned here:

This is the first time I’ve been able to photograph one myself. As you can see, they are a striking bird (technically, this is the Hooded Merganser).

My understanding is that they migrate down from northern areas to winter in warmer areas like the California Central Valley.

Other returnings

Life Force Tree electronic art.

I have revived two of my older electronic art (eArt) projects. Above, the “Life Force Tree,” comprised of eight concentric circles of lights, each ring with one more light in it than the next inner one. That means 3-4-5-6-7-8-9 and 10 lights. I have switched this to be fed from a shift register, which needs only 3 signals to run 52 lights. This makes having a remote controller a lot easier. I added a pretty nice wood frame to make it look a little more elegant.

My other project uses rewired Christmas lights. They are in a 6 by 10 array, but my current electronics only controls a 6 by 8 array. Again, a shift register scheme has been used to reduce the number of wires needed to control all these lights. I am just beginning to work on a remote control box for this project. This is where the real creative work comes in, as the pattern that is generated (and constantly moves and changes) is a result of the interaction between the signals generated by the controller and those used to operate the display itself.

Electronic art using Christmas lights.

Happy holidays!


7 December 2019

I have added this new category under Spirit to provide a place for a type of writing that I have been using for a long time.

The word “dialog” (more properly spelled “dialogue”) comes to us via Latin directly from Greek, where “dia” represents “through or between” and “log[os]” represents “talk or word”. Thus, it resides in a group of words beginning with “dia-” that includes the modern coined word Dianetics, “though mind”.

I am of the habit (some consider it an ability) of imagining dialogs or speeches or presentations interrupted by questions as a way of thinking through how more difficult concepts could be conveyed, or made understandable, to others.

Here’s an earlier example of my experiments with dialog in writing:

A more recent example appears here:

I often do something like this at night, while others sleep (peacefully or otherwise). For some reason, I find it difficult to sleep in an unpeaceful world. I feel some need, or duty, to further the postulate that this will change, and that a higher sort of peace than mere “absence of war” can be achieved on this planet.

In that vein, I offer this video:

I intend to create some more dialogs as an extension of my “science fiction” story called The Lands. All it really intends to do is to point out to those curious enough to read it that solutions for some of our more basic challenges here on Earth are closer than they might have realized. That’s all I really want to accomplish at this point: To let the planet know that a new kind of future is available to it; that we only have to reach for it.