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A Problem Solved: WMU’s BTR Park Downtown on Arcadia Commons


The following was submitted to the Kalamazoo Gazette on 8 June. The next day the Gazette’s Community Engagement Specialist informed me that it would be published as a guest column within the next few days.  This has not happened as of 15 June so I decided to post it here in a slightly expanded version.

Solutions may not show up until long after a problem arises. For example, smallpox appeared as a new disease in humans thousands of years ago, but vaccination wasn’t invented till 1796.

A quicker match has appeared for one of Western Michigan University’s problems. WMU needs a substitute site on which to build a new BTR park. Currently, the school plans to use the Colony Farm Orchard, a largely natural wooded site adjacent to Asylum Lake Preserve.
The group Save the Colony Farm Orchard has suggested that this development is a bad idea because–among other problems– it would destroy the historic orchard with its varied flora and fauna, would have a harmful influence on Asylum Lake Preserve, and would intensify the already-unpleasant urban sprawl of this region where Kalamazoo and Oshtemo Township meet.

More than a few people have pointed out that brownfields or other vacant lands in downtown Kalamazoo avoid all these problems and are the logical place for WMU’s new BRT park.

And now comes the Gazette for 4 June 2015 with its front page headline
“Developers sought for Arcadia Commons.”

The story begins, “A task force is looking for someone to help it decide what to do with the undeveloped Arcadia Commons property in downtown Kalamazoo.” It goes on to describe the four-block property bordered by Kalamazoo Ave, Park St, Water St, and Westnedge Ave. The site is slightly more than 6 acres, and WMU already owns half of it.

This is one of those rare situations in which two individual problems: (1) Where should WMU’s BTR park go? and (2) What is a viable use for the area northwest of Kalamazoo’s central business district? each forms the solution to the other.

Clearly, the stars have aligned to tell us that WMU’s BTR park should go on the Arcadia Commons land.

Land that once, a few years ago, was being considered as a place to house some combination hockey arena/assembly hall we now see is meant to hold the second stage of WMU’s BTR park.

Possibly the rich assortment of medical resources downtown, including WMU’s new medical school, is pointing to the area of emphasis for the new BTR park.

Earth Day 2015 Colony Farm Orchard Protest

The Save the Colony Farm Orchard group held a second protest rally at the Orchard on this day (22 April 2015). Three speakers made brief remarks. The following is approximately what I said plus a few things that I left out for brevity or that I should have said but didn’t.

My topic was What would be the ecological effects if Western Michigan University develops the CFO as it proposes and turns it into another BTR park?

A quick answer is that everything currently there would be obliterated.

What in particular would be lost? Two things: the history of the land and the natural history of the land.

The CFO is land that was once part of a tall-grass prairie, the Genesee Prairie, surrounded by a bur oak savanna. The CFO was probably mostly in the savanna.   In the 1800s what’s now the CFO was part of private farms that included orchards.  Later it was the orchard part of the Colony Farm of the state mental hospital. The Colony Farm ceased its agricultural operations beginning in the 1950s and the CFO was all but abandoned by about 1970.

The CFO as it stands could provide information, in the plants and in the ground, of the history of the site from Paleo-Indian times to settlement, on through the 20 century. Mark Hoffman, the historian of the Colony Farm, can tell us that Neil Hindes had an orchard in the area, consisting of 100 apple trees plus others, in 1844.

Apple trees are long-lived.  Could  the apple trees there today be the same ones?

Will we find out the age of these trees when we count tree-rings on the stumps after WMU cuts them down?– Just before the bull-dozers move in?

Of many specifically ecological effects, I’ll mention three.

(1)The first is speeding up return of the sequestered carbon of the site to the earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Included will be the carbon in the living and dead trees–many quite large–in all the rest of the living vegetation including a very dense understory, and in the thick, long-undisturbed soil–the leaf litter, the humus. The stored carbon will go into the atmosphere and contribute to global climate change. Of course, in the global scheme of things, the carbon from only 40 or 50 acres is small. Somebody should calculate how many more LEED certified buildings WMU would have to build to save enough energy to achieve a balance.

(2)The second is the loss of the plant-animal community of the CFO. The CFO is an odd, interesting site. It has gone nearly 50 years with minimal direct human influence (except for the devastated southern end where the electrical substation was put in in 2001).
The CFO is a site of surprisingly high diversity, both as to species number and also in patchiness. There are patches dominated by native plant species (such as bur oaks and other species of the primeval prairie and savanna. Other patches are dominated by non-natives, including some considered invasives. There are lots of species of plants that flower at different times making it good habitat for honey bees–and probably also native, solitary bees.

Much of the CFO land has a thick understory–head-high and taller–making it excellent cover for many smaller mammals and ground-inhabiting birds.

The thick understory also makes it slow walking for people. This is not a park; visitors have to zig-zag their way along, following the route of least resistance.

Animal species diversity here is high too, partly based on the small human presence and partly based on vegetational diversity.  A morning bird walk here in most seasons would probably produce as many or more bird species as a walk of the same length through the woods on Asylum Lake Preserve.

(3)The third effect and probably the one of greatest ecological consequence, is the effect on Asylum Lake Preserve. Loss of the CFO is another step in the ecological pauperization of the supposedly protected Asylum Lake Preserve. The CFO  is, functionally, 54 acres of complementary habitat added to the scant 274 acres of the preserve. Coyotes, red foxes, and deer slip back and forth between the Asylum Lake Preserve and CFO. Many bird species, including ground-nesters such as as American woodcock and wild turkeys can nest here, probably including ones that forage on the Asylum Lake Preserve. And there are many other connections.

It’s a well-established conservation principle that bigger is always better where preserves are concerned. One important reason is that the rate of local extinction of species is lower in bigger preserves. With a lower extinction rate, species diversity tends to be higher, and higher species diversity usually is accompanied by greater ecological stability.

Besides these connections, the CFO serves as at least a partial buffer for the noise, fumes, lights, and so forth coming from what’s in and around Stadium Drive, 131, and 12th Street. Even a little BTR Park like the CFO would  yield will, with its roads and parking lots and business operations, bring noise, lights, and chemical emissions just across the road from the Asylum Lake Preserve.

The WMU administration has reminded us repeatedly that they have
no intention to harm Asylum Lake Preserve. Where I come from, making a big deal of  the fact that you’re promising to do what you’re legally required to do would prompt sarcastic comments.

But the claim is a sign of a serious problem. WMU administrators apparently think that only direct assaults on a site can harm it. That the structure and functioning of Asylum Lake Preserve would be damaged by interfering with the Colony Farm Orchard seems to be beyond their ken.   We’ve listed a few of the connections between the plant and animal populations of the two sites, and the list goes on. Connections are what ecology is.



Spring Wildflower Walk at Brewer Woods


Under the auspices of the Southwest Chapter of the Michigan Botanical Club, I will lead a field trip at the Michigan Nature Association’s Brewer Woods Sanctuary on Saturday 2 May 2015. It begins at 10:00 AM at the woods, located in Pavilion Township.

The 41-acre preserve is mostly beech-maple forest, or southern mesic forest. On the west edge it grades into slightly wetter forest, including some vernal pools. It has a remarkably rich display of spring-flowering herbs. I’ve written about in often in posts of earlier years.

Here are the directions for getting there, as provided by the Botanical Club:

Please  car pool at the I-94, Oakland Drive Park-and-Ride, and to leave there no later than 9:15 A. M. From there drive East on I-94 and exit South on Portage Road. Turn left ( East ) on Bishop Road. Drive East about 3.9 miles ( thru Sprinkle road, continue East, then Southeast, then East again) Bishop road becomes East P-Avenue, then East P.Q.-Avenue). At the T-intersection with 29th Street, turn Right ( South), about 1.5 miles to East R-Avenue. Turn Left ( East) about 0.7 miles to 8297 East R-Avenue ( the entrance to Brewers Woods preserve). At the driveway turn left ( North) about 1/4 mile to the house and garage. Someone will be there to guide you as to where to park.

I would only add that car-pooling is essential. Space for parking within the sanctuary is very limited, and no parking is available on the driveway or on the street (R Ave.).

Early May should be a good date for a spring wildflower walk this year. The season so far is quite late. A friend and I visited Harris Sanctuary just about a week ago (6 April) and in a quick walk around found almost nothing above ground as yet.

We did see the leaf tips of a couple of wild garlic clumps and a very few just-emerging plants of toothwort, Dentaria laciniata (which, as my friend noted, is now given the name Cardamine concatenata). We also saw a few widely scattered,very small plants of cleavers, Galium aparine.

So it’s a late season, presumably related to the cold and snow-covered  February and March.

We do have bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, in bloom here in Oshtemo Township as of today (12 April) The bloodroots were transplanted; they are growing well enough here among the oaks but probably were rare or non-existent in this habitat in pre-settlement times.

There is a patch or two of bloodroot at our field trip destination in Pavilion Township, but they were transplanted there too. However, their source was Myrtle Powers’ place just north of Scotts, only a few miles to the east of Brewer Woods. Myrtle was in the Biology Department at Western Michigan University when I arrived.

Katy pointed out the bloodroot flowers to me and mentioned that she had seen leaves of hepatica above ground–no flowers. But, spring is coming. and by May 2 there may be a good representation of early, middle, and late spring flowers.

The bloodroots in Pavilion probably won’t still be in bloom. The flowering period of bloodroot is very short. But the single leaf each plant has will still be there, as will fruiting stalks with the capsules that are a good indication of bloodroot’s membership in the poppy family.

Today (13 April) around noon I noticed that the bloodroot flowers were still closed from their usual night-time closure. It’s a cloudy, dark, rainy day.

The night-time closing behavior of plants has the technical name nyctinasty. Just so you know.

Another sign of spring, the shadbush in our yard (Amelanchier) as of this morning has swollen flower buds.

Two last notes on the bloodroot. The sun came out and by late afternoon, the flowers were fully open, but by the time I got back from a meeting, around 7:30 PM, with the sun still shining but low in the sky, the flowers were nearly closed again.

See you at Brewer Woods Saturday, May 2.

Must the Colony Farm Orchard Be Developed?


Between 1959 and 1977, Western Michigan University (WMU) received gifts of  land–the Colony Farm–that had been acquired by the state with tax-payer money several decades earlier. The land came to WMU with a restriction that it was to be kept as open space for public use. The gift and the restriction were mostly the work of two Kalamazoo brothers, Jack and Bob Welborn, who were serving in the state legislature.

In 2009, at the instigation of WMU, claiming that it would soon need to enlarge its BTR Park (Business Technology Research), the Michigan legislature passed, and the governor signed, a bill removing the open space/public use restriction on one parcel of the land, the Colony Farm Orchard. This happened following a long battle that involved an unprecedented outpouring of grass-roots opposition to the action, in the media, at local gatherings, and in letters, phone calls and personal visits to legislators in Lansing.

Now, about 5 years later, WMU is trying to move forward with the invasion, and destruction, of the Colony Farm Orchard for a BTR park expansion, as threatened in 2009.

Some local residents, remembering the long battle and the loss in Lansing, resulting in the removal of the open-space covenant, have concluded that the land must now be developed.

This is not the case. Even though the restriction is gone, WMU is not compelled to expand the BTR park onto this land. The Orchard land is still perfectly available for permanent protection.

It is a fact that the original language of the bill that WMU gave to Kalamazoo Representative Bob Jones to carry to Lansing called not just for removing the open-space restriction, but also for replacing it with a new one. The new one would have required that the land be used exclusively for expanding and improving the BTR Park.

But not even the 2009 Michigan legislature would buy that.

The finished version of the bill had only one restriction–that any “aboriginal antiquities” found on the site belonged to the State.

So, the open space restriction is gone. As far as the law is concerned, WMU can now do whatever it likes with the land. This means that the life of Colony Farm Orchard is in the hands of President John Dunn and the eight members of the WMU Board. Thumbs up or thumbs down.

The president and the board at most universities have a lot of power over property, programs, and positions. Mostly, it seems to me, universities behave pretty decently and not as arbitrarily as they could behave.

One reason is respect for their constituencies–alumni, current and future students, local citizens, faculty–present, past, and potential– patrons of concerts, sports fans, donors of many sorts, and so on down the list of people who are watching and forming opinions.

But I suppose universities may also listen to other constituencies , ones whose interests run more to corporate, mercantile, commercial and political matters, tax-sharing and such, and not so much to  things like science, history, or art.

Will the Colony Farm Orchard be developed? The answer depends directly on the president and the board.

It could also be said that the answer depends on who of its constituents WMU chooses to listen to.


Petition to Save the Colony Farm Orchard is Available to Sign

Western Michigan University has once again renewed its attempt to demolish the naturally occurring vegetation and fauna of the Colony Farm Orchard (CFO). The purpose, it is claimed, is to expand WMU’s Business, Technology, Research (BTR) Park.


Many of us will remember the battle between WMU and the pro-environment opponents that occurred in 2009-2010.  For anyone who doesn’t remember, this website has a few dozen posts from 15 July 2009 to 23 July 2010 concerning that battle.  It was too complicated to summarize quickly, though I may take a shot at it in a later post.


The object of this post is to point out for those of us who would prefer that the CFO remain as natural open space rather than be turned to some unknown BTR-type use, a petition to that effect has been started by a bunch of WMU students, a few faculty (mostly retired as far as I know), and assorted local residents.


The petition asks that WMU live by the original restriction and consider the Colony Farm Orchard a part of the Asylum Lake Preserve.  It also asks that Oshtemo Township and Kalamazoo County refrain from joining WMU’s  plans to develop the land.

But any interested parties will need to read the petition, which can be done here:

The petition was put up for reading and signing sometime Thursday night (26 March 2015).  By 3:45 PM 27 March, 109 people had signed. When I looked in on the website about noon today (30 March), the number was about 450.

The more the better, of course, so check it out soon and sign if you agree with the cause.

February 2015, California and Kalamazoo

Katy and I gave February in Kalamazoo a miss for 2015, as did a few other people we know.  The Polar Vortex of 2014 was what prompted our and others’ decisions. And away to warmer climates was the right direction to take: The vortex was operating this year too.  Here in Kalamazoo, the daily low temperature  was below the long-term average low for the date  for 23 of the 28 days of February.

Unfortunately, we came back a week too early; the first seven days of March also had low temperatures below the long-term averages, culminating in  Friday  7 March when the low was -2 degrees Fahrenheit, to be compared with the long-term average low for that date of 24 degrees.

Snowfall for February 2015 wasn’t so bad, but  at the end of January there was already plenty of snow here in Oshtemo Township from the snows of  November.  In fact, I can still see a fair amount of that same snow as I look out my window today (20 March).  For the first couple of weeks we were back, driving through the parking lots of the big box stores  was like navigating among icebergs.

We spent February in California, in the Bay area, most of the time in Silicon Valley. The temperatures were mostly 50s at night and 60s during the day.  We saw a lot of birds, especially shorebirds and water birds in the Baylands around Palo Alto.  We  also saw a version of the future for a lot of other parts of the US , if we don’t change our ways.

In the next few weeks, I’ll try to write a little about California and also, of course, about what’s going on around here.

For example, I’m supposed to lead a field trip to the Brewer Woods Nature Sanctuary in Pavilion Township on Saturday 25 April to see–among other things–the spring wildflowers.  The SW Chapter of the Michigan Botanical Club  is the sponsor. I’ll say a little more about the field trip closer to the date.

That’s on the pro-environmental side.  On the anti-environmental side, the Colony Farm Orchard is once again threatened by WMU expansion.  The Kalamazoo Gazette is only a shadow of what it once was, but is still the main way most of us have for keeping up with the local atrocities.  The print version as well as the on-line version, Mlive, carried the 18 March story about the Colony Farm Orchard and Western Michigan University’s renewed attack on this  preserved land.

I’ll have a little more to say about Colony Farm Orchard too.

As I finish this short post today, Saturday 21 March, 2015, the sun is shining.  Almost all the snow is gone–not quite, not here in at the east edge of the snow belt.  With a temperature of 49 degrees. I wouldn’t call it warm. But the sandhill cranes have been overhead, flying north, red-winged blackbirds are back, and the flowers of winter aconite and snow drops are ready to open. The future looks bright.  Except for Colony Farm Orchard.


A Day at the Elkhart Jazz Festival, 2014

The Bucky Pizzarelli Trio at the Elkhart Jazz Festival, 26 June 2011.  Photograph by Richard Brewer

A Bucky Pizzarelli trio at the Elkhart Jazz Festival, 26 June 2011. Photograph by Richard Brewer

Elkhart, a middle-sized town in northern Indiana, holds a jazz festival every year on the weekend closest to the Summer Solstice. Katy and I drove down for the Saturday afternoon session this year.

Jazz musicians don’t tend to be early risers, so not much was happening until 10 or 11 AM other than high-school jazz bands performing either on the outdoor stage in the Civic Plaza or in the 1500-seat Lerner Theatre (built as a vaudeville and movie house in 1924 and re-opened after restoration in 2011). But the high-school bands that come to Elkhart are worth listening to; they’re well rehearsed, they swing, and they almost always have one or more excellent soloists.

The  jazz groups perform in several venues–the two already listed plus the Knights of Columbus hall (the only venue where alcohol is served),  the New Life Community Church, and a couple more. Performances last an hour. Half begin on the hour, the others on the half-hour.  By careful scheduling combined with fast foot work, it’s possible to hear four or five complete sets and get a good taste of four or five other groups before things wrap up for the afternoon.  There’s usually enough going on that you’re likely to miss 2-4 groups that you’d like to hear if you attend just one session of the festival as we did.

We began with a Dixieland band, the River Rogues. One of the strengths of the Elkhart Festival is that it includes a wide variety of jazz forms, old to new. The seven Rogues are from Grand Rapids, Michigan, so the river is not the Mississippi, the Swanee, or even the Wabash (It’s the Grand). The band provides an energetic, enjoyable romp through the Dixieland repertoire.

About 11:30 we hustled over to Alfonso Ponticelli & Swing Gitan, Swing Gitan is the name of the Chicago-based group and Ponticelli is the guitarist leader. Others involved were a virtuoso violin player capable of playing notes so high they resembled the call of the broad-winged hawk, as well as a bassist and a cimbalom player. The cimbalom, a form of dulcimer played with two spoon-shaped hammers, is popular in Hungary.

The Festival program identifies the musical style of the group as Gypsy Swing.  In their high-energy, lengthy renditions, the group has what I don’t doubt is a Gypsy sound, but not, to me, a sound very close to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelly. Perhaps Gypsy Swing has moved on.

We moved on, to two other guitarists, the duo of Bucky Pizzarelli and Ed Laub. Bucky is 88 years old and has played guitar professionally for 70 years. I don’t remember if he performed at the first Elkhart Jazz Festival in 1988, but I’m pretty sure he’s been here all through the 2000s.  He is, of course, one of the great jazz guitarists, rhythm but also single-string improvisation. Laub, his current partner, plays guitar and sings in a relaxed style.

One of the first tunes they played was Two Funky People which according to Bucky was composed by Al Cohn,  based on the chord changes of Street of Dreams (a Victor Young tune from 1932). One of Laub’s first vocals was a pleasant version of  Then I’ll Be Tired of You, an under-appreciated love song by Arthur Schwartz and Yip Harburg. Harburg also wrote the words for the songs in “The Wizard of Oz”–as well as Brother, Can You Spare a Dime and April in Paris, among many.

A new young singer that we wanted to hear was scheduled to start a half hour before the Pizzarelli-Laub set ended, so we slipped out and moved to the Knights of Columbus Hall, not far away, in time to get good seats for the Lena Seikaly trio.

Ms Seikaly–tall, dark-haired, and striking looking–is a major new talent. Several of the tunes were from her recent CD,”Looking Back”, which features songs mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, especially ones recorded by Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, and Ella Fitzgerald. As far as influences go, I didn’t hear much connection to Ethel Waters or Mildred Bailey but traces of Ella and Billie are there–as they almost have to be in any young female jazz singer. Ms Seikaly did Foolin’ Myself this day, beautifully — a nice tribute to the early Billie. Possibly Ms Seikaly’s scat singing on another couple of songs represent Ella’s influence, though in form they seemed more connected to the modern instrumental jazz of recent decades.

Ms. Seikaly has the vocal equipment, musical education (vocal performance, mezzo-soprano, at U. Maryland), stage presence, and enthusiasm for jazz to do great things.  My only question is whether the America of 2014 cares enough about jazz to support her efforts or the efforts of the many other excellent young jazz musicians that are coming along.

It would be unfair to say that female vocalists have been a neglected  category at Elkhart; there have been a couple  who were regulars for considerable stretches of time.  I’m thinking of Becky Kilgore and Joan Collaso.  Becky Kilgore was the key member of a group that used for its name the acronym BED. It stood for Becky, Eddie (Erikson, guitar), and Barrett (first name Dan, trombone). In later years, a bass player, Joel Forbes, sometimes joined the group, which might then be called the  Rebecca Kilgore Quartet.  Ms Kilgore did most of the singing–straightforward, unadorned readings of the American song book in a clear, persuasive voice. Barrett, a fine soloist, has played in many contexts including the sound-track of several Woody Allen movies. He was the trombonist in the band that Woody took to Europe (in the documentary “Wild Man Blues”) If my memory is correct, Barrett was the only  member of the band–except Woody (on clarinet)–who had a solo included in the movie.

Ms Kilgore is from Portland, Oregon.  The second female singer presented at many Elkhart festivals, including something like the last dozen, is Chicagoan Joan Collaso.  The Elkhart program states that “she blends the textures of jazz, R&B, Blues, and Gospel.” Other than these two women, though, female singers have been few and far between, so I was glad to see Ms Seikaly on the schedule.

About 2 PM, we started back toward the Lerner Theatre but stopped on the way to catch most of the set by the Gene Knific Trio at the outdoor stage in the Civic Plaza. This is probably the largest venue, with vast expanses of folding chairs. Its excellent  sound system  had no trouble with the nuances of the acoustic trio of piano (Knific), bass (Geoff Saunders), and drums (Evan Hyde).  The three young men are talented and well-schooled.  Knific and Hyde have western Michigan connections and all three have Florida connections.  Knific is a student of Shelly Berg, a well-known pianist and jazz educator at the University of Miami school of music–and performer at  several earlier Elkhart festivals.

Like nearly every group,the trio had a new CD for sale at the end of their set.  Their CD (“If I Could Find You”) includes some original compositions, some jazz-tinged classical music such as the first movement of Faure’s Requiem in D Minor, and popular songs such as  On the Sunny Side of the Street and I Hear a Rhapsody.  The trio’s version  of the latter could be named I Hear a Fugue.  The opening contrapuntal section is a refreshing contrast to the florid treatments of the song we usually hear.

After a late lunch at the beer-and-wine-garden tent next to the Lerner Theater, we caught the Pat Mallinger quartet with Bill Carrothers , a fine example of the saxophone-with-rhythm-section instrumentation that was the small-jazz-group model for decades. Mallinger, who plays all three saxophones, lives in Chicago.  Carrothers, the pianist, lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, far from any population center, but spends several weeks every year performing in Europe. At least that’s the latest information I found on the Web.

We finished the afternoon by staying put in the same space to hear the EJF All-Stars. The All-Stars seem to be the 2014 descendant of Bill Allred’s Classic Jazz Band, which played at the Elkhart festival for many years. For 2014, the group has shrunk from an octet to a septet, and a few long-term members are gone.  But the All-Stars do a fine, professional job of producing the main-stream jazz of the 1930s-1950s. Allred on trombone, Eddie Metz, Jr., drums, and Terry Myers, saxophone, were returnees.

Halfway through, Shelly Burns, wife of guitar and banjo player Bill Dendle, one of the new guys, sat in long enough to sing a couple of songs. One was another entry in the under-appreciated section of the American songbook– I Thought About You, words by Johnny Mercer, music by Jimmy Van Heusen.  The impromptu rendition was nice but not as nice as Karin Krog’s recording of about 40 years ago.

The room filled up. At a little before 5 PM, only one other group was still performing. Things would  heat up again when the Saturday evening session started at 6 PM. One of the two festival headliners would play from 8 to 10.  This was Aaron Neville, a singer of whom I know little.  The other headliner–the Preservation Hall Jazz Band–had played Friday evening at 8 PM.  The festival typically begins around 5:30 PM on Friday and runs to around 4 PM Sunday.

Katy and I moved out to the corridor to help make room for late-comers for the All-Stars. We found a couple of seats and stayed a few more minutes–the end of  a pleasant day at the festival.

Find the three birds orchid in Michigan beech-maple forest, please

Today is a good time to take a walk in the forest, but then any time is.  It’s a really good time for a walk in the beech-maple forest, because a very rare orchid blooms this time of year.

In beech-maple forest, the canopy is continuous and dense except where a tree has recently been lost. Photo 29 August 2011 Pavilion Township by Richard Brewer

The orchid is three birds orchid (Triphora trianthophora).  It’s known from Kalamazoo County and in fact from much of the eastern U.S., but in most places it has become rare. It is now considered threatened, endangered, or extirpated in most states. The last record in Michigan was evidently in 1981, from Berrien County.

It’s possible that three birds is gone from Kalamazoo County and Michigan. Perhaps the observations in the 20th century just caught the tail of a population dwindling toward extinction–in this region; three birds seems a little more numerous in the South.  However, there are some reasons why not many people are out looking in the beech-maple forests when it’s visible, and also some reasons why, even if you’re there, three birds isn’t necessarily easy to spot.

First, almost nothing else is in flower in the mesophytic forests at this time of year, so there’s not much to look at.  The many species of spring ephemerals that covered the ground in April and May are gone.  A few species that flower in summer are now in fruit, and it’s pleasant to be able to see the doll’s-eyes and blue cohosh.  But, in general, the beech-maple forests of late summer are dark, and the ground is obscured in many places with seedlings and saplings,

Doll's-eyes (Actaea pachypoda) in fruit in beech-maple forest. Photo Oshtemo Township 17 August 2009 by Richard Brewer

mostly sugar maple, or with thick foliage of ferns, wood nettle (Laportea), wild ginger, and a few other herbs.

Three birds is a short plant, 6 inches or thereabouts, so I imagine in the shade and under the foliage, it’s not easy to see. Nevertheless, considering how important rediscovering the species would be, if you can get to a beech-maple forest in the next few days, you ought to give it a try.

There is much yet to learn about the habitat and life history of three birds.  Within its mesophytic forest home, it’s said to favor sites where there’s a build-up of leaf litter and humus.  Probably this means small depressions.  Leaves accumulate other places, such as between two large fallen trunks, but I’m not sure if that microhabitat would be long-lived enough to allow time for the orchid to invade.  But maybe it would. From observations of the Michigan botanist Fred Case in his Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region (Cranbrook Institute of Science, 1987), I suspect that most dispersal is through underground tuberoids that are dug up, carried off, and stored in the duff and litter by red squirrels, or perhaps chipmunks.

Late in the summer, fleshy stems sprout rapidly from the underground tuberoids.  Each plant bears only a few leaves which are oval, alternate, and clasp the stem.  Usually there will be a few stems in a clump. Not long after the plants appear, one or occasionally more of the buds open.  Flowering is possibly triggered by a couple of chilly nights in a row.  It is reported that most of the plants in a given area produce their first blooms at the same time.  After a day or so, the first set of blossoms shrivel, and in a few days, a second round of flowering may occur, and perhaps a third.

The flowers (often three per plant) are recognizably orchids but small, perhaps about an inch wide and an inch tall and are mostly whitish or pinkish with a greenish bearded stripe on the lip.  The fruits last for a couple of weeks before slits develop that allow the release of the spore-like seedsin the following days.  Although the plants are not at their showiest when they’re in fruit, this is the probably the longest period of their above-ground life.  You can see how the plant looks with fruit at this Connecticut Botanical Society site with photos by Eleanor Saulys.   The same site shows some plants in flower. Many more photos of flowering plants by Jim Fowler are shown at the North Carolina site  linked to earlier.

So, have a look at the photos and head for the nearest beech-maple forest.  If you find three birds orchids, please tell us about it in the comments section.  But don’t mention exactly where you found them. (If you do give information that might allow someone to locate them, I’ll edit your comment to remove those details.)  Rare plants, especially such things as orchids, have been known to disappear from sites that become known.  However, you should let the Michigan Natural Features Inventory know.  They’ll be tickled that three birds is not extinct in Michigan.–as will we all.

Quote 4, Jeremy Grantham on human population size as the latest bubble

Button found 14 April 2011 and reused

Whether the stable population will be 1.5 billion or 5 billion, the question is: How do we get there?… I have no doubt we’re going to have a bad hundred years.  We have the resources to gracefully handle the transition, but we won’t.  We apparently can’t.

–Jeremy Grantham


Jeremy Grantham is an investment strategist who has specialized in identifying bubbles–Japanese stocks in the 1980s, dot-com corporations in the 1990s, housing in 2008.  It appears that he has come to see the current world population size as a bubble.  If so, he may have reached roughly the same position as Richard Heinberg, senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, who has suggested that we have passed or are about to pass, not just peak oil, but peak everything.  Heinberg published a 2007 book called just that, Peak Everything.

Of course, peak oil is the trigger. As fossil fuel energy becomes more expensive, everything gets harder to do.  Mining, food production, transportation and travel, providing potable water, all become more expensive, and eventually too expensive.

That there is such a thing as a carrying capacity for humans and that exceeding this carrying capacity can lead to degradation of the environment in such a way that the carrying capacity is itself reduced are not new ideas.  Thomas Malthus, William Vogt, Garrett Hardin, and Paul Ehrlich are a sampling of those who made the case from 1798 to 1968.

But the idea that there can be too many people is not popular, and such words as “overpopulation” and “population control” and “ZPG” have not been heard much in the U.S. since the 1970s.

In the New York Times Magazine article (“A Darker Shade of Green” 14 August 2011) from which this quote is taken, author Carlo Rotello also quotes Grantham as saying that people won’t listen to environmentalists, but will sometimes listen to people like him.  Rather than concentrating on overpopulation and global warming, he talks about our coming problems with commodity shortages. “Global warming is bad news,” according to Grantham.  “Finite resources is investment advice.”

Will enough people connect the coming shortages and rising prices of potassium and phosphates and other such shortages and dislocations with global climate change resulting from overpopulation (combined with our energy technology and corporate/political system)?  Possibly.  Grantham’s newsletters posted on the website of his investment management firm make the connections.  Here is a link to the July 2011 newsletter, Resource Limitations 2: Separating the Dangerous from the Merely Serious.

Hazelnut, Fire, Oak Openings, Nostalgia

Hazelnut catkins in Oshtemo Township, Michigan. Photo 10 April 2011 by Richard Brewer

Early this April, I saw a tall skinny shrub without leaves but with catkins.  It reminded me that early last fall I had come across a clump of similar skinny trunks that bore pointed, toothed leaves.  The leaves were more or less like leaves of several groups of woody plants–birches, elms, hornbeams, and conceivably a few others.  I had been puzzled by the plant and hadn’t identified it for sure but had narrowed it down to a handful of possibilities.  One of the possibilities had been American hazelnut (Corylus americanus).  The books I was using commented that catkins are produced in the fall but don’t open to produce pollen until the following spring.  These catkins weren’t quite open yet, but seeing them there tilted me toward thinking that the plants must be hazelnuts.

The plant was in a handy place to observe, so I was able to keep track of it over the next couple of weeks as the catkins lengthened and then opened, shedding pollen.

Hazelnut catkins, Oshtemo Township, Michigan. Photo 11 April 2011 by Richard Brewer

The pistillate flowers of hazelnut are tiny buds, but recognizable by the thin red styles–ready for pollen–poking out the end. The styles are easily seen with a lens. The hazelnuts when they ripen in the fall look like the European filbert of commerce, but smaller. They’re also similar in taste.

The first time I saw hazelnuts I was probably six or seven years old.  My parents took me along when they went hazelnut picking one day in the fall.  The spot wasn’t far from where we lived east of Murphysboro, Illinois, probably a quarter of a mile down the county road toward Route 13.  I enjoyed eating the nuts at the time but never became a big filbert fan.

I’ve seen hazelnut fruits in the wild in Michigan a few times, but never in these woods.  Two possibilities occur to me.  The first is that the woods are too shady, especially with the increasing abundance of red maple, for the shrubs to accumulate enough energy to produce fruits.  The second is that the nuts are so attractive to the squirrels, woodpeckers, and jays that they have always been eaten (or stored)  before I chance to wander by in the fall.

Hazelnut in oak woods--former oak openings--in Oshtemo Township. Photo 21 June 2011 by Richard Brewer

Now that I’m attuned to the look of hazel even without catkins or hazelnuts, I’ve seen several clumps  in both drier and wetter parts of the oak woods. Most of the clumps are between knee high and waist high, only a few head high or taller.

Since I’ve been in Michigan, I’ve associated hazelnut with the edges of prairies, and I think that’s apt.  But now I’ve begun to understand (1) its remarkably wide ecological amplitude and (2) how widespread it must have been in almost every permutation of prairie and savanna that existed in pre-settlement southwest Michigan.

One indication of hazelnut’s wide habitat occurrence can be drawn from John T. Curtis’s The Vegetation of Wisconsin. This excellent book has a species list in the back (after the Literature Cited and before the index), that gives the plant community where the species most frequently occurs and also given  the number of plant communities in which Curtis found the species in his studies. The community in which the species was found most often–the modal community–is presumably the most characteristic community; the number of communities from which the species is recorded is a measure of ecological amplitude of the species.

The book recognizes 34 plant communities. American hazelnut was reported most frequently from dry forest, but it occurred in 20 other communities, or  62 per cent in all.

I didn’t go through the species list line by line, but I did check on some species that I think of as occurring in a wide variety of situations. There were a few species in the 15-18 community range and at least one species that occurred in the same number of communities as hazelnut–21.  This was Cornus racemosa, gray dogwood.  Vitis riparia, river-bank grape, had a 22. There were only two species clearly ahead of  the hazelnut, dogwood, and grape.  These were Va. creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, 1n 25 communities and poison ivy, Rhus radicans, in 26 (76%).  It may not be accidental that all five of these species are woody and have animal-dispersed seeds.

Hazelnut’s broad distribution more or less centered on dry forest fits well with the conception of oak openings that Kim Chapman and I expressed in an article (“Prairie and Savanna in Southern Lower Michigan: History, Classification, Ecology”) in the January 2008 Michigan Botanist.  We see oak openings in the pre-settlement landscape as a diverse community, the composition of which varied in space–different in low and high spots, north slopes and southwest slopes, sandy sites and gravelly sites. But it also varied in time at any given point based on the  latest disturbance (fire, tornado, insect infestation) and how recent it was, but also on the historic frequency of disturbance.  A north-facing slope running down to a pond in a small kettle might have included a set of plants much like mesic forest.  A gentle loamy slope after a few years of near-annual fires might have been covered with dry-mesic prairie.

This is oak openings in the sense of Michigan pioneer botanist Ruth Hoppin’s description (quoted on pages 7-8 of Chapman and Brewer). In this view, most of the prairie and savanna types are just different faces of one big community type.  Mesic prairie and bur oak plain, I would say, are different and so, of course, is mesic forest.

Hazelnut seems to have the life history traits to be a near-perfect fit to the oak openings habitat as it was.  Hazelnut can get around readily by the nuts being carried, and often buried, by mammals and birds. Over short distances, it spreads readily by rhizomes. It tolerates a wide range of light intensities though it tends to decline in deep shade.  It tolerates fire, but only up to a point. Most of its rhizomes and roots are in the upper six inches of soil.  Light fires kill the above-ground parts of the plant but stimulate vigorous sprouting from the rhizomes.  Fires hot enough to consume the litter often kill the underground parts.  Hence, hazelnut might be at least temporarily eliminated by fire from certain habitats where hot, litter-consuming fires occurred.

I suspect most of the hazelnut plants I’ve been finding in the Oshtemo oak woods are just hanging on, waiting for the fires the openings used to have, the fires that would stimulate sprouting and open the canopy to enough sunlight to yield a good crop of nuts. One more reason why few of the hazel bushes grow tall may be the high populations of deer these days.  Hazel is a favored browse plant of deer, so high populations may keep it pretty well clipped.