Always to the frontier

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. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

What Toronto Looks Like Now (Winter 2014)

Toronto is what most people who know anything of it would expect it to be, a rather large city that sprawls horizontally beyond the typical vertical business district downtown.  There are large buildings, a public transportation system covering most of the high traffic areas, and a general environment of connection with the rest of the world.  In comparison to New York, Toronto is much more spread out and less dense, but in comparison with Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, or Montreal, the scale of the city does not necessarily shrink in relation to distance from the economic core.  There are skyscrapers of considerable height all over the place, often dwarfing the neighborhoods around them or consumed by them.

Example provided farther below in image with lots of taller trees.

Despite being a relatively young city (200 years plus to foundation), at least in terms of it's current level of importance (50 years or so), Toronto has not developed into a clean grid.  This is in part due to topography, and in part due to another grand feature of what makes her somewhat special in North American standards of cities: foundation era historical buildings being located in developmental harmony with modern structures.  These are everywhere in the city and surroundings, probably due to the Canadian virtue of a respectful, if somewhat nearly religious attitude toward the past.  As I can probably break many such images into further posts, I will just present a few of the most striking examples, with captions, here.

This is Campbell House, one of, if not the, oldest surviving houses in Toronto.  Despite being so deep into the retail core of tightly-packed Queen Street west, the Georgian survivor still bears a large lawn space and stands out even while it is near other historic buildings of larger scale.  Campbell House is a fine example of how the cityscape has not demolished a sense of historical memory, which will be useful in building a better Toronto.

This is the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, one of the best surviving examples of Canadian Railroad grandeur, typical of the Edwardian and Late Victorian architecture still in vogue in Canada in the 1920's, long after England and the United States had moved on to other styles.  She was the tallest building in the British Empire when built, and today is dwarfed by the commercial district towers.  Still, she stands out even better this way, another part of a Toronto that cherishes history even while seemingly isolating itself from consciousness of any time period. 
 That said, Toronto is hardly just a museum of Georgian and Victorian glories sharing space with International style homages to Manhattan architecture.  There is indeed that towering business district, complete with canyon like streets that turn a gentle breeze into a violent, chilling wind.

This is also the sort of big city downtown that paves everything over with concrete and maybe throws occupants some rather artificial looking reminders of the nearby presence of nature.

King Street just west of Bay.

Toronto, of course, is full of trees.  Any look beyond the concrete jungle of the money district will demonstrate that.  The residential neighborhoods are well-treed, with an urban canopy that does a fairly good job at hiding most of what lies below.  Toronto does this better than most other cities I have seen, with the only other dense urban canopy of comparison being in Detroit (honorable mentions given to smaller southern cities like Richmond, Memphis, and Charleston).

Notice the twenty story apartments at the end of this relatively well-treed residential street, a typical example of the merging of densities common in the cityscape.

Then there is the abundance of park space and natural land which we covered in our last post.  Spurred on by Hurricane Hazel and given continuing promotion by environmental groups, the city has enough green space to compete well on the world stage in this regard.  Sadly, especially if there have been no recent rains, Toronto does not have a pristine blue sky to prove this point to the average visitor.  The sky is bleak and brown, not quite to the level of Los Angeles or Mexico City, but definitely far worse than what can be found in New York or even industrial Gary, Detroit, or Pittsburgh.  This is in part because Toronto has a very typical North American addiction, the automobile.  Highway 401, the main artery of traffic in the Montreal-Chicago corridor has the responsibility of moving not just a heavy percentage of trade between the United States and Canada (and thus also land based trade between Canada and Mexico), but also commuter traffic between the city and its eastern and western suburbs.  Southern Californians may mock the concept, but Toronto often has worse traffic than the usual nightmares one can find on Los Angeles parking lo... er freeways.  The horizon suffers for it dearly, and while I did notice that breathing was not the chore it seemed to be in London or Mexico City, the place is far from having a nice effect in the sinuses. 

She also has an ugly side here and there.  While on the whole Toronto is a fairly clean place (as bad as the locals claim it can be, the subway here is miles ahead of the smelly mess down in Manhattan and about the same as London's Tube), some of the infrastructure does show age and deterioration.  The Gardiner Expressway, in addition to being an eye sore which has long since divided downtown from the waterfront on Lake Ontario, looks rusty, broken, and far more Detroit or Chicago than Toronto.

In some places the electric lines, streetlights, and streetcar cables add to the dated image of the city, which, to be fair, is not entirely a bad thing.  Toronto definitely looks like it just stepped out of the late 19th century on some streets:

Queen Street east in an area called "the Beach" or "the Beaches", depending on who you ask.

That said, a quick turn of the head usually shows off the ever present construction going on.  This is a very strange, amazing city that refuses to forget itself, even while it also thinks too much or too little of itself.

Those are the buildings of the Ontario Legislative Assembly, a.k.a. Ontario Provincial Parliament.  They are surrounded by an ever expanding provincial capital. 
 Expect more up close looks at various little bits of Toronto, and of North American cities in general.  Remember, there is always something right around the corner that is worth taking another, if not a first look, at.