City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

July 16, 2017

July 15th

The Homeless and the Canyon

External Link to Image

Bluets on Bulrush in City Creek Canyon at Seep (Lat. 40.8014929, Long. -111.8749328). Author taken July 2017.

3:30 p.m. True summer heat near 100 degrees Fahrenheit returns and the canyon air takes on oven-like qualities of later in the season. While I was born in the cold of the northeast, part of my adolescence was spent under the blazing sun of southern California deserts. My now heated adapted summer body takes the high temperatures easily. The pulse slows; veins and arteries expand; blood flows and cools in hands and legs. Limbs become flexible; muscles relax; and toxins escape through open pores. The mind becomes lethargic and meditative, but with exercise in heat, thinking remains clear.

The heat has emptied the first mile of road, and only a few joggers are present. The road becomes as empty as in the opposite side of the temperature scale, that is in the depth of winter (December 27th). As in winter, I no longer recognize in myself the person who ran through five degree temperatures.

The heat also affects mammals and insects. Counter-intuitively, it makes Rock squirrels active, and I count three in the first mile. Insects begin to succumb. On the road’s surface, Grasshopper (Melanoplus sp.) lays dead, baking on the road, and that carcass is followed by a Giant western crane fly. Next, I find a spent Cabbage white butterfly. This allows me to examine one this usually hyperactive insect with my hand lens. As their name implies, the Cabbage whites are white in color, but close-up their abdomens are jet black. Numerous white hairs cover that segment and make the butterfly appear all-white.

The earth has dried out, and turns the rare cases of stationary surface water in the canyon into oases. The oasis at the seep about 100 yards below picnic site no. 6 (Lat. 40.8014929, Long. -111.8749328) has reached an idyllic peak of diversity. In an ellipsis of sixty by twenty feet, Circumpolar bluets rest on Bulrushes surrounded by Indian ricegrass and fronted by Kentucky bluegrass. These grasses surrounds a water rivulet in which Western Yellowjacket wasps and White Admiral butterflies stop and rest for a drink. Giant cattails are flanked on one side by six foot tall Horsemint (Agastache urticifolia (Benth.) Kuntze), a.k.a. Nettleleaf Giant Hyssop or Nettleleaf Giant Horsemint, covered in Cabbage white butterflies. On the other stands five foot tall blue Chicory. Stands of Starry solomon’s seal are backed by a large grove of Western poison ivy and are intermixed and are intermixed with Common California aster. A cultivar Weeping willow (Salix babylonica) shades the up-canyon end of the glade.

A short-distance downcanyon, three rare butterfly visitors are seen with orange wings, a black circumferential band and white wing spots. These are Mexican queen butterflies (Danaus gilippus strigosus), and they are usually restricted to New Mexico.

Up-canyon, this season’s teasels (Dipsacus sylvestris) have risen to four feet in height below the Red Bridge. For some weeks, the great two foot triangular leaves of the Burdock (Arctium minus Berhn) invasive weeds that line the canyon road have been raising two and three foot vertical stalks, but their purple flower heads have yet to open.

Today, I place three sponges in the lower canyon. The first is in the stream below the pond at picnic site 5. The second is in the seep 100 yards below picnic site 6, described above, and the third in at the watercress stand at the tunnel seep 50 yards below picnic site 6. I will retrieve these in a few days to see what mirco-life has become trapped or grown in the sponge’s cavities.

The intense Sun has boiled huge summer cumulus clouds from the reservoirs that line the eastern side of the Wasatch Front Mountain Range, and the clouds frame the north and eastern ridgelines of the canyon as I reach the Gate. Those reservoirs provide the valley with most of its drinking water. In the parking lot, an elderly gentleman, who each day leaves a homeless concentration zone at 500 West and 200 South in the City to seek the canyon’s cool breezes, sits on a bench eating a sandwich.

* * * *

The homeless have long had a relationship with City Creek Canyon. In addition to the homeless person who spends the day at a picnic parking lot, another homeless individual frequents the canyon during the winter, but spends cold nights in a local supermarket. Sometimes in the depths of winter, I have taken the homeless who come to the canyon with the intention of camping overnight back to the city and advise them that they have underestimated the sub-zero temperatures of canyon winter nights. Some are obviously mentally ill. They talk to themselves and their mental illness is either the result of the stress of becoming homeless or an effect of their pre-existing mental illness. For many years, there was a small homeless tent city near the parking lot gate off the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, but in recent years, the County and the City cleared the camp out. Now the watershed patrol vigorously patrols the canyon and takes any homeless citizens back to the concentration zone on the valley floor citing the fear that persons in a homeless camp might set the canyon’s grasslands on fire. While that is a legitimate concern, I suspect the City also quickly acts to remove any homeless from the canyon in part because middle-income citizens simply do not want the homeless there. They fear the homeless as potentially violent and secretly they fear becoming homeless themselves in an uncertain economy.

Salt Lake citizens struggle with the moral ambiguities created by their city’s homeless concentration zone. City residents have long resisted building sufficient facilities to house the homeless on the unsupported theory that building more beds will attract more homeless, and residents, like most other major United States cities, have long avoided building enough affordable housing. The City also struggles with the practice of surrounding communities and hospitals shipping their destitute and ill residents to into the City’s concentration zone. In the 1980s, Salt Lake City took the lead on homelessness by opening Utah’s first homeless shelters. Rather than expending monies addressing their own homeless problem by building their own shelters, for years, neighboring cities have shipped their destitute to the concentration zone citing that Salt Lake City was the only municipality with facilities to house them. Although the concentration zone has become a state and national embarrassment, city residents prefer to keep the homeless out-of-sight and away from other areas of the city, including out of the canyon.

The homeless’ relationship with the canyon goes back farther than this: the homeless built the canyon’s infrastructure. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the City dealt with its homelessness problem by shipping the destitute to the canyon. An early Utah statute permitted cities to impress the destitute and mentally ill convicted of the crime of vagrancy into road work gangs (Utah Code Ann. 10-8-85). In the early 1900s, when the City wanted to build a wider, graded road up City Creek Canyon to promote the new automobile tourism, it began systematic sweeps of the city, arresting the homeless for vagrancy as needed to supply laborer for building the canyon’s road (e.g., Salt Lake Herald, Sept. 26, 1910; Salt Lake Telegram, Nov. 11th, 1913). The city police were sophisticated in their sweeps. For example, in 1908, the road gang needed an experienced “dynamite man” to handle explosives used to break up rock ledges along the canyon road’s path. The Police Department did a sweep of vagrants seeking to arrest one with necessary skill (Deseret Evening News, April 24th, 1908). Unemployed miners got wind of the scheme and fled the city. A particularly racist cartoon, by modern standards, in the August 14th, 1904 Salt Lake Tribune shows who was working on road gangs and what residents’ attitudes were towards the poor. The gangs consisted of elderly unemployed men, persons with alcohol addiction, and minorities. On April 28th, 1908, Mark Aaron, a prisoner serving a 90 day sentence for vagrancy, was shot to death in the canyon will attempting to escape the road gang (Deseret Evening News). The officer claimed that he was aiming for Aaron’s legs, but missed and instead the bullet entered Aaron’s head. In 1972, the United States Supreme Court declared vagrancy laws unconstitutional.

This darker era in Salt Lake’s past provides some instruction for the City’s modern homeless problem. What the destitute need to restore their dignity is a roof over their heads and paying employment, even if that means government provided make work. If at night there are any ghosts wandering the canyon, they are probably of homeless men rattling their work gang chains.

* * * *

On July 15th, 2015, Mayor Ralph Becker proposes a “Connecting to Nature” plan in which $125 million USD bond would fund park renovations and new land acquisition (Deseret News). On July 15th, 1938, hard oil surfacing of the scenic drive along Bonneville Drive and 11th Avenue was nearly complete (Salt Lake Telegram). On July 17th, 1915, the U.S. Weather Bureau installed an advanced stream flow measuring gauge at the High Line Water Tanks in Pleasant Valley (Salt Lake Herald). On July 15th, 1891, the Red Bird Mine reports opening a four foot wide vein that may contain 1,000 ounces of silver (Salt Lake Times). Fifteen men are working at various prospects in City Creek Canyon (id).

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July 13, 2017

July 13th – Revised

The Thoreauian Experience

4:00 p.m. In the near 100 Fahrenheit degree afternoon heat, at a seep along Bonneville Drive leading to the canyon, there is a thick stand of Common goldenrod. Its inflorescences have up to 30 small yellow flowers that each extrude 10 to 15 stamens. It is distinguished from roadside Missouri goldenrod by its serrated leaves (Pratt, Banner, and Bowns 2013). On one flower, a small 2 mm pink unidentified nymph solider beetle is grazing, and as I rotate the angle of the sunlight, its iridescence changes to lavender. Like yesterday, I again go for a short jog to milepost 1.0 and then back down the Pipeline Trail.

With summer’s heat and the proliferation of leaves, disease and opportunistic parasites arrive. In the first one-third mile, there are numerous Narrowleaf Rocky Mountain cottonwood saplings. One the saplings, something is attacking the leaves. At first glance, their leaves look like locust bean pods that have opened, but on closer inspection, some disease is forcing the leaves to fold back and grow four to five small bean-like pockets on each leaf. The newly grown pockets are open at the bottom. I pry several open, but find only one that has a small 1 mm fully-formed gnat inside. It is not clear whether this is some hatched larvae that forced the leaf to form the pockets or whether the gnat has simply crawled inside for protection. On the Pipeline Trail, a single Gambel’s oak leaf that has about ten small red-orange insect larvae attached to its underside. I mark this for a future check to see what develops.

There are only a few butterflies along the road, but at the seep Horsemint (Agastache urticifolia (Benth.) Kuntze), a.k.a. Nettleleaf Giant Hyssop or Nettleleaf Giant Horsemint with lavender inflorescences has matured. The small stand is covered with about 12 Cabbage white butterflies. In the heat, only a few people are on the quiet road and none are on the trail. I am restored.

As I jog through today’s canyon, I try to clear my mind of all thoughts and just experience the canyon’s nature. Although the benefits are commensurate, the amount of time that each day’s excursion takes is great, and this reduces my engagement with friends and a social life. Some see it as self-absorption, although I view it as centering. At a minimum, the practice of daily nature observation provides a restoration of mental attention and executive functions (April 24th and April 25th). From that renewed and centered emotional strength, a better understanding of the day’s political, social and economic events can be had, and only from a position of understanding can actions be formulated that will not make things worse for oneself or ones friends. But is a Thoreauian daily nature experience of nature just another form of modern narcissism?

Based on my experience visiting the canyon each day for almost a year, it is not. Close observation of nature is about sensitivity to and recognition of subtle biological relationships between plants, animals, geology and weather. That study is undertaken in the spirit of husbandry, since humans are the only beings on the planet with sufficient sentience to willfully modify the environment. There are few better metaphors for preparing oneself for a life moral well-being. It is a form of practice for being sensitive to and understanding human relationships. But its practice is only a sufficient condition to becoming a good person, and it is possible to study nature and biology for a lifetime while ignoring the lessons of interconnectedness that it provides.

* * * *

In dueling articles 2015, Pulitzer Prize winner Kathryn Schulz argued in The New Yorker Magazine that Thoreau did not deserve his literary fame: he was simply a self-absorbed narcissist (Schulz 2015). Essayist Jedediah Purdy responded the following day in The Altantic: Thoreau was engaged in the issue of his day – the abolition of slavery – and however awkward he was socially, he wrangling with moral issues remains an instructive today. Thoreau developed the stream in American thought that community injustice committed against some of its members is an injustice against all members of the community. Purdy notes that like Thoreau in the nineteenth century, life today involves moving in the alienating gray area “between feeling the justice and wrongs of our communities as our own and becoming insensate to them” (id). Thoreau’s method of thoughtful engagement, which grew out of his daily, careful observation of nature, is a good approach for daily life in our complex modern world.

That sense of alienation in a gray area of indecisiveness is magnified in modern culture by our cultural insistence that policy decisions should not be based on human values alone, and that experts should quantify and model issues to guide our selections (April 27th). Our ability to quantify and model reality has increased exponentially still the beginning of the digital industrial age in the 1980s, but this has the effect disempowering ordinary citizens (id). Many of the mathematical models that guide modern society, in particular in economics and commerce, are simply rough guides with little statistical validity, and although such modeling does provide a useful check on often-wrong intuition, they are not replacements for the human-valued centered decision-making of Theoreau’s century (id).

Our increased technological ability to collect enormous amounts of information and to model reality continues the dualism between Plato and Aristotle that set the structure of Western civilization two-thousand years ago. Plato was the ultimate deductionist: he felt that the characteristics of an underlying transcendent reality could be deduced and from inferior models of the everyday world. Artistole was the penultimate observationalist and inductive thinker: he felt that things in the everyday world were ends in and of themselves, and thus, observing and enumerating the infinite variations of natural objects was an end in and of itself. Our modern technological society are simply augmented versions of that duality and of Thoreau’s era. I can view mountains of information about the small 3 by 12 square mile canyon collected from sensors and quickly scan millions of research journals and academic books about its weather, wildlife and plants, but in the end, modern scientific research (and my amateur enjoyment of it) is Aristotelian observation followed by Platonic deduction and modeling. Again (see April 27th), the uncertainty generated by knowing the limits of one’s knowledge and careful decision-making supplemented by consideration of expert scientific opinion are important values, but at times, a Thoreauian sense of community alienation and indecisiveness must be set aside and directions chosen from human-centered values.

This tension between our increasing technological prowess and stifling emotional alienation were known to Thoreau. Norte Dame English professor Walls in the preface to her biography released on Thoreau’s 200th birthday (July 12th) argues that since Thoreau lived at the beginning of the Anthropocene era (April 27th), he was struggling with prospects of future environmental destruction, given the American character and that humanity had begun to modify the nature environment on a continental scale (Walls). Menard notes that early American divided their identity into two parts: a “British” identity that was associated with European industrialization and an “American” identity that was forged from their encounter in the new continent (Menard 2012, 600-602). In Thoreau’s famous essay Walking, he concluded that the American character had been shaped by the nature’s wildnesss. Thoreau argued in his famous statement that “Wildness is the preservation of the world”, that nature is a source of continuing replenishment. As America developed across the Mississippi and into the western United States, it needed to preserve undeveloped wilderness in order to maintain its vigor as a society:

“The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. . . . The founders of every State which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source” (Thoreau 1862, 665).

And societies that over-develop and destroy their wild places lose the ability to replenish their vigor and creativity. He attributes that loss to the end of the Roman Empire:

“It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf [their destroyed wildlands] that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the Northern forests who were” (Thoreau 1862, 665).

In Walking, Thoreau predicts that if Americans do not preserve wilderness as they expanded into its western territory, e.g. – the Salt Lake valley in which City Creek Canyon is located, then the American character will degrade and decline into a mere “English” society (Menard, 605, 607-608):

“[Y]et we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man, – a sort of breeding in and in, which produces at most a merely English nobility, a civilization destined to have a speedy limit” (Thoreau 1862, 670).

One-hundred years later and after considerable development of the West, Wallace Stegner in his Wilderness Letter echoed Thoreau’s reasoning. The American character was uniquely shaped by wilderness and to maintain that character, the residual of wild places left by 1960 must be preserved:

“I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people. . . . Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; . . . We need wilderness preserved – as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds – because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed (Stegner 1960, and “wilderness was working on us”).

Thoreau also argued that daily exposure to natural places was necessary for the maintenance of mental health: “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements” (Thoreau 1862, 658). Regular exposure to nature was a condition to well-being: “Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically under these influences?” (id at 664).

Foreshadowing the development since the 1980s of biophilia and attention restoration therapy (April 19th to April 27th), 100 years later after Thoreau, Stegner also concludes that wild places are necessary for our emotional health in light of continuing hyper-development of Western lands:

“One means of sanity is to retain a hold on the natural world, to remain, insofar as we can, good animals. . . . . We simply need that wild country available to us, . . . . For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope” (Stegner 1960).

The history of the early resource exploitation of City Creek’s Canyon and its subsequent preservation as a natural area parallels these tensions and contradictions (March 20th to April 3rd).

* * * *

On July 13th, 2007, a man was robbed by two women who drove him to City Creek. A second man, working with the women, came out of the bushes and robbed the man using a BB gun (Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, July 14, 2007). On July 13th, 1930, forty school girls hiked up City Creek to Rotary Park (Salt Lake Telegram ). On July 13th, 1912, a large fire was reported to have burned between City Creek and Dry Fork Canyons, and E. H. Clark, Wasatch Supervisor organized a canyon fire patrol (Salt Lake Tribune). On July 13, 1908, thousands of residents escaped high summer heat by going to resorts and to City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On July 13th, 1906, efforts to remove the last industrial facility in lower City Creek Canyon, a rock crusher owned by P.J. Moran, continue (Deseret Evening News).

April 11, 2017

April 11th

Queen Bee

4:00 p.m. Below picnic site 6, an aging tree has toppled, but this was not from high winds. The amount of rain from the last storm was so large that the soil around the tree, which sat on the inclined road bank, failed, and the entire tree slide down the slope. This has occurred before for several large cottonwood trees. Either they fall across the road, are removed, and leaves a scalloped mark on the road bank or their bleaches trunks fall against their neighbor. They rest there for many decades until wind and insects take them away. Near mile 0.2, a two foot by four foot by three foot segment of the side-bed of the road has broken away and fallen into the stream, and the stream bank is reduced to two feet from the road. This is geologic erosion in real time. To erode the both sides of the stream bank of the first mile two feet back and ten feet down to the stream bed would take about 35,000 such events.

Jogging up canyon, a kingfisher that flies by also traveling higher, and he alights on the power lines strung across the canyon at Guardhouse Gate about two hundred feet above the ground. There, he sits and watches my progress. The opposite of the down-canyon flight behavior seen on April 6th occurs. As I reach underneath him, the kingfisher noisily flies off going up canyon. He lands one hundred feet away, and when I reach him a second time, he again flies up canyon for another one or two hundred feet. This repeats four times as we reach below the picnic site 4. Then the kingfisher loops back and starts flying close above the stream in one hundred foot stretches. As on April 6th, he is looking for dinner. A few moments later, an unidentified raptor with a five foot wing span glides down canyon below the western canyon wall. He or she is too far and too quick to make an identification.

Under the snow’s effect, the flowers of the glacier lily fields along the road have shriveled, and in one field, I can find perhaps seven intact blossoms. Their passing was too quick, and I have seen no pollinator working their flowers. Will they try for a second bloom?

On this overcast day, I choose to jog back down the Pipeline trail to Shark Fin Rock, and I come across loud single chirps from the Gamble oak forest and an unseen bird. Its single chirp is loud and piercing, and the calls registers 70 decibels on my sound meter. A few minutes of patient waiting reveals a pair of Black-capped chickadees. Several hundred feet up canyon, another chickadee responds to my new neighbor’s call. Then for some unknown reason, the kingfisher from the stream below joins in with its loud rapid fire call, and the three take turns calling.

Along this trail, I see the first large bumblebee of the season, and it has a black rump, dark brown wings, and a single orange abdominal band. It is almost one and one-half inches long, and the bee is grazing on the many open poison ivy blooms along this section of the trail. It is a Hunt bumble bee (Bombus huntii), and given its size and the month that it is active, this may be a queen (Koch 66-68). Koch’s annual timeline for this specie’s annual activity suggests that the queen will be active for one month. During this period, she is building her underground nest and laying the eggs of her future sister workers. In May, these workers will slowly become active as their queen retires underground. Returning to the road, the land dwelling shrimp, the common pill bug (July 31st), has returned and it plods along the road apparently oblivious to temperature.

* * * *

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on April 11th, 1852, he describes the close inspection of a stream bottom including micro-air bubbles in the water and yellow mica on the stream bottom. In the Riverside Edition of Thoreau’s “Journal”, new entries begin again on June 1st.

* * * *

On April 11th, 1904, the Utah Audubon Society noted a drop in the City Creek bird population (Salt Lake Telegram). On April 11th, 1904, George W. Root announces that he had located a gold ore vein in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Herald).

February 22, 2017

February 22nd

Tree Trunks

4:00 p.m. This a year of extremes: on February 21st, the temperature was sixty-six degrees and yesterday and last night and today, after raining for almost ten hours, the temperature has dropped to thirty-three degrees Fahrenheit. As I enter the canyon, it is snowing, but this is light snow that turns to water when it touches any physical object. The high ridgelines and Pleasant Valley are covered in snow dust, perhaps one-eight of an inch thick, but it will not last. This is the second sign of the coming spring now one month away: The battle between spring overtaking winter (September 22nd) has begun. There are other signs. At Guardhouse Gate, I see my first, fat and healthy Rock squirrel of the season. It runs across the road and is busily inspecting bushes for fresh buds. The constant rain has driven three earthworms on to the road, even though temperatures are freezing. High on the ridgeline near mile 1.1, I see my first mule deer in over a week. Even at this distance, it is skittish; it tentatively comes out of a copse, feeds, and then retreats for cover.

The lichens and mosses are the most responsive to the hours of light rain. Everywhere the orange, yellow and green colors of lichen and mosses have deepened, and a few trees become vibrant flames amongst winter’s brown, grey and white. Black cankers on tree branches that normally turn to dust when touched have become plump, fat and solid with water. It is the time of year for the simplest organisms, for the earliest life.

Tree trunks have so many varieties of forms. Above picnic site 6, some trees are like brothers and sisters. The trunks of two 4 inch diameter immature river birches intertwine in a playful embrace, and they spring from a common root. Next to the River birch, are three immature Box Elder trunks that also rise from the same root. These stand tall and vertical like two brothers. At and down-canyon of picnic site 6, large Mountain cottonwoods have large bulbous galls on their lower trunks, and this is evidence of old attacks by insects, bacteria, and fungi. Other trees in the lower canyon have partially or completely succumbed to age and disease. At picnic site 6, an ancient tree has been broken off to about four feet above the ground and spilt in half. The remnant remaining in the earth is pock marked with with trails and caves of insects that reminds me of the cave houses carved out of volcanic tufa in Cappadocia in Turkey. In the lower canyon, still half-alive cottonwoods have had much of their bark stripped away, and underneath the xylem and heartwood has taken on a sinuous, smooth, yellow texture like human skin. At Pleasant Valley and at picnic sites 9, 7, and 2, dead cottonwood snags are bleached grey-white. Where large trunk stubs are near the road, erosion has exposed their subsurface tap roots, and this reveals a tangle of gnarls that remind of Eastern paintings of nature. An example is below the Red Bridge.

Traveling down-canyon, a familiar pattern appears in the River birches, Box elder and Mountain cottonwood trees that line the stream. Multiple, large, mature trunks sprout from a single root, and at the base, numerous suckers rise. For these trees, the mixture of angled mature trunks and smaller shoots gives the impression of a circular fan opening or a fountain of water rising. In this respect, trees are simply a larger, woody version of the brome grass bunches in Pleasant Valley, further up canyon. I realize that my impression of trees as organisms that are born, grow, have a middle age, and the die is mistaken. Angled older branches grow and fall away, and this gives the young shoots an opportunity to grow and replace them. But both originate from the same tap root, from the same genetic material. In this sense, most of the trees in the lower canyon that surround the stream possess a form of immortality. My misconception of the lives of these trees is the result of my biased exposure to shade trees in the city. Those trees mimic the cultured form of an English oak forest. There, trees are manicured and husbanded as individuals by their human farmers. Those trees do experience an individual birth, a middle age, and a death. But the English form of a forest is only one classical European choice, and here in the canyon, the stream trees pass their lives in a cycle and not along linear time.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on February 22nd, 1856, he observes the first insects of spring crawling over snow.

On February 22nd, 1910, the City Council debated whether to lease a second gravel pit in lower City Creek (Deseret Evening News). On February 22nd, 1894, an attorney sought permission from the City to hunt a mountain lion in City Creek Canyon. Permission was granted and the hunter took a cougar (Salt Lake Herald).

February 19, 2017

February 19th

Filed under: Blacked-Headed Chickadee, Horsetail, Lichen, picnic site 4, picnic site 6 — canopus56 @ 6:19 pm

Blue-Green Lichen

4:00 p.m. It rains into the afternoon, but around 3:00 p.m. the Sun reappears. Horsetails have tan pads that divide each green segment, and usually, these go unnoticed. But the rain makes the green more vibrant, and where horsetails hang over the stream, the beige segments are highlighted. Drops of rainwater stick to the cylindrical segments and randomly fall into the stream below. In response to the continuing warmth, the Black-capped chickadees have moved further up canyon to mile 0.6. Now that the snow is gone, it leaves behind a flattened mat barely 1/16th inch thick of soaked leaves. In the autumn, these covered the ground to a depth of four inches. Scraping at the mat with a stick, one small insect is dislodged. All is primed for leaves’ decay back into soil, and the ground only waits the addition of spring’s heat. Testing the Box Elder catkins, the helicopter seeds easily come loose and are awaiting the strong winds of March. At picnic site 4, an unusual lichen stands out. Lichen is uniformly orange on trees in the lower canyon, as was this specimen. But the lichen on this tree has changed in the last week; it now has an orange green tint. Examining the lichen closely, under the orange lichen miniature green moss-like leaves are fruiting. Interspersed with these plants are three-quarter inch circles of a kaleidoscopic blue-green lichen. The centers are slate blue, the border is light blue, and a splash of new growth light blue-green tops the mass. At mile 0.2, I find another “mystery hole” next to the road (December 3rd). This hole is only four inches in diameter, and on exploring it with a stick, it is at least eighteen inches deep.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on February 19th, 1852, he notes that the lengthening of the days is a sign of the coming of spring. At night, he sees a bright auroral display that covers the entire northern horizon. On February 19, 1853, he finds more insect cocoons.

On February 19th, 2006, a moose wandered out of City Creek Canyon and into the Avenues where wildlife officers tranquilized it for removal (Salt Lake Tribune). On February 13th, 1913, 49 head of cattle were found illegally grazing in City Creek Canyon and were impounded by the City (Salt Lake Herald). On February 19th, 1912, Superintendent of Waterworks Charles F. Barrett recommended tunneling in City Creek in order to develop new water supplies for the City and to reduce current water shortages (Salt Lake Telegram). On February 19th, 1903, City Councilperson Hewlett recommended building a reservoir in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On February 19th, 1896, Charles Stewart, the manager of a mine in Hardscrabble Canyon just on the other side of the City Creek divide, argued for the development of a road down City Creek Canyon from Morgan County (Salt Lake Herald).

January 7, 2017

January 7th

Filed under: Geology, Guardhouse gate, picnic site 6, picnic site 7 — canopus56 @ 10:02 pm

Volcanic Past

5:00 p.m. Temperatures in the canyon are in single digits and overnight the City fell to -2 degrees Fahrenheit. Three walkers and runners pass by mile 0.3, but then I have the entire canyon to myself. I am in the canyon looking for an example of Van Horn and Crittenden’s “Tv – Volcanic breccia (Tertiary)” described as “Primarily andesitic breccia consisting of angular clasts of purplish porphyrtic andesite in a fine-grained matrix. Locally, clasts are rounded and have undergone some fluvial transport.” In short, this means the layer is an intermediate form of not quite lava that includes embedded crystals. A Utah Geological Survey publication provides a photographic exemplar and is a guide to locating a sample, but I am unsure if I have found this type of rock. The Utah Geological Survey publication shows the layer between picnic sites 1 and 6 and then again from just below picnic site 7 up canyon to picnic site 9. None is visible below picnic site 6, but across from picnic site 7, I find a small that may be of the right material. About two-hundred feet below picnic site 7 and on the south bank of the stream, there is a large boulder that also may be made of a volcanic conglomerate. Van Horn and Crittenden date the age of this volcanic breccia layer between 35 and 37 million years old. Their 1987 geologic map shows extensive layers of this material going down to the red bridge. Another small outcrop of this breccia is shown on Van Horn’s map just north of the Little Twin Peaks. These deposits are geologically related to the tallest peak at the south end of the Salt Lake Valley, the 11,253 foot granite Lone Peak, and to the formation of Utah’s current geology.

Hintze and Kowallis of Brigham Young University, Willis of the Utah Geological Survey, and Stokes of the University of Utah describe how the Sevier Orogeny shaped the state’s modern landscape and the canyon, as originally proposed in 1991 by Richard Livaccari of the University of New Mexico. An orogeny is a mountain uplifting event that can last millions of years. The cause of the Sevier Orogeny was the Farallon continental plate. Currently, there are about fifteen principal continental plates, but there used to be a sixteenth, the Farallon Plate, between the well-known North American and Pacific Plates and their border, the San Andreas fault off of the United States west coast. According to Hintze and Kowallis, about 105 million years ago the Farallon plate began subducting under the west coast of the United States (Hintze and Kowallis, 67-77; Stokes, 144-145). The Farallon Plate takes its name from a remnant of the plate found at the Farallon Islands off of the coast of San Francisco. In 2012 using mathematical inverse image techniques to reconstruct the plate from seismic waves, Pavlis, Sigloch, Burdick, and colleagues visualized the remains of the Farallon Plate whose melting carcass is now embedded in the Earth’s mantle a thousand miles below the midwest (see Sigloch and Mihalynuk 2013). Willis likens the response of Utah’s surface from the Farallon Plate passing underneath to a boat riding a passing wave on water (Willis, 4). A more familiar visualization would be a resting surfer, seated on her board as a wave passes underneath.

As Utah and Nevada rode up the leading face of the wave between 105 and 80 million years ago, a cordillera – a vast north-south mountain range similar the the Canadian and United States Rockies – rose in Nevada and western Utah (Hintze, 67, Fig.s 98 and 103; Livaccari, 1106, Fig. 1(a)). Utah was compressed. Hintze and Kowallis conclude that Utah’s western border was about sixty miles closer to the current location of Salt Lake City during this event (Hintze, 5). Between 80 and 65 million years ago, those mountains eroded away and the crest of the Farallon Plate continued to migrate under Utah (Livaccari, 1106, Fig. 1(b), Hintze, 6). Central and eastern Utah, including the canyon, were part of inland sea, and the sandstones and the red conglomerates in the canyon, including the natural bridge at mile 0.9, were deposited from the erosion of the cordillera mountains to the west. Next, about 35 million years ago, the melting of the Farallon Plate as it passed under Utah resulted in a volcanic era, and volcanoes formed in west central Utah around present day Tintic (Hintze, 6). Where molten lava reached the surface, as at Van Horn’s “Tv” conglomerate layer between picnic site 6 and picnic site 9 at mile 1.1, breccia formed. Where molten lava remained trapped beneath the surface, the granite that formed Lone Peak was created (Ut. Geo. Survey, Pub. Info. 87).

Finally, as Utah slid down the backside of Fallaron wave, the land stretched (Hintze, 6). Utah’s western border expanded to its current location. As the land stretched east and west, north-south faults formed in the thin crust, and one of those lifted the Wasatch Front Mountain Range into the sky. The lifting was uneven between the canyon and Lone Peak. At the City Creek end, uplift exposed rock to the Tertiary era, but in the north in Farmington, uplift raised older Cambrian rock to the surface. At the Lone Peak southern end of Salt Lake Valley, the lifting was more extreme. Erosion removed the Cambrian rock entirely, and subsurface pockets of frozen, granitic lava were lifting to 11,000 feet. Thus, the lowly breccia in City Creek share the same parent as the lofty heights of Lone Peak.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on January 7th, 1851, he enjoys how the winter sun lays a yellow tint on pine trees. On January 7th, 1852, he describes a sunset where one-half of the sky in the east is covered in white clouds and one-half of the sky is in west is blue and clear. On January 7th, 1853, he sees a sunrise where a white mist covers low lands. On January 7th, 1855, he describes an early thaw. The morning overcast sky is tinged with blue, green and red. On January 7th, 1857, he notes it is the fifth consecutive day of cold, windy weather, and he describes the renewing psychological effect of getting “a mile out town” and taking a walk in nature’s solitude. On January 7th, 1858, he again notes speckled crystals on the surface of fresh snow.

On January 7th, 1903, hunters collected County bounties on a total of twenty coyotes killed within or just outside the city (which then included the high Avenues). Hunter George McNeil stated that “City Creek canyon is full of them [coyotes,] and I killed two wildcats up there a few days ago.”

December 21, 2016

December 20th

The Canyon at Rest

12:00 pm and 5:00 p.m. It is the last day of Fall, and tomorrow the tilt of the Earth keeps the canyon furthest from the life giving Sun for the longest part of the day. Nature in the canyon is in a deep sleep. The trees are still; all natural sounds are silent. The air is warmer today, but not enough that snow and ice on the trees melts. Sun warmed ice melded with tree branches expands slightly and then breaks away. Instead of raining droplets as with the last storm, today trees rain tiny chunks of ice. There are two places in the lower shaded canyon where the stream freezes over. The first is the perpetually shaded bend between picnic sites 7 and 8. There the stream is completely frozen over for several hundred feet; the stream is milky white and stone-like. The second is between the up canyon end of Pleasant Valley at mile 1.8 to milepost 2.0. There the stream is eighty percent frozen over. At Bonneville Drive, about twenty percent of the surface of the flood retention ponds is frozen. At mile 1.3, where animal tracks make impressions that are kept partially in shadow, half-inch hoarfrost crystals sublimate, but then evaporate in the warmer late afternoon air. Although the canyon looks dead, the irrepressible force of life continues.

Lichens and mosses respond to the wet cold and grow both on the trees and on rocks in the stream. Digging some leaves up from underneath the snow, some show signs of the beginning of bacterial decay, but mostly the leaf litter and the microbes are dormant, waiting for spring’s explosion. At the surface, data by Whitman, Coleman and Wiebe at the University of Georgia suggests that there are about 3.5 x 10^15 microbes per square meter in woodlands and shrublands and about microbes 5.7 x 10^13 in each square meter of deciduous forests (Whitman 1998, Table 2). In 1995, Richter and Markewitz estimated that there were about 1.1 x 10^12 bacteria and fungal microbes in each gram of soil at the surface (Fig. 3a), and their density decreases to about 4.1 x 10^7 at 8 meters beneath the surface. In 2014, Raynaud and Nunan found an average of 8.9 x 10^9 microbes in the top 0.6 meters of each gram of agricultural field soil (Table 1).

But life does not stop there. Whitman et al also estimated that between 10 meters to 3,000 meters below the surface, there were on the order of 10^6 prokaryotes per cubic centimeter. They made an order of magnitude estimate that in a cubic centimeter column going from the surface down to 4 kilometers, there are a total of about 2.2 x 10^30 prokaryotes (id., 6579). But life exists even further down in the subsurface column beneath the canyon’s surface. In 2006, Li-Hung Lin, et al. discovered Archean microbes living at 2.8 kilometers beneath the Earth’s surface in a South African gold mile, and those microbes were genetically related to Archean microbes living the Yellowstone Hot Springs a few hundred miles north of the canyon. These subsurface microbes may comprise a substantial fraction of biomass in the canyon. Whitman et al estimated a wide first-order ratio of the mass of subsurface prokaryote carbon to plant surface carbon at 60% to 100% (id., at 6580).

I stand at the surface in the canyon, I and am part of this scene. In 2013, Bianconi et al estimated the number of cells in the human body at 37 trillion. In a 2016, Sender, Fuchs and Milo at the Weiztmann Institute for Science in Israel, revised estimates of the total number of cells in the human body and the number of microbes that inhabit each of us. They found that along with the approximately 3.8 x 10^13 (38 trillion) human cells in a 70 kilogram person, another 3.0 x 10^13 foreign microbes live (cooperatively but sometimes uncooperatively) within us or about 44% of the total (3.0/(3.0+3.8)). Because of the exponential power of these estimates, the 10^13 cells, both human and parasitic cell in me, are a minuscule portion of of 10^30 prokaryotes that are in just one 4 kilometer deep column of soil that is one centimeter square. Subtracting my 10^13 cells, there are still 9.999999…. x 10^29 prokaryotes under each square centimeter of subsurface. I measure the bottom of one of my shoes and find conservatively guess there are about 450 square centimeters in the soles of my feet.

Around and above me, even the air above the road contains some levels of bacteria, fungi, and pollen as part of the daily PM10 daily air particle count. In 2009, Wiedinmyer and colleagues counted on average 3.5 particles of DNA containing material per cubic centimeter of air collected from a mountain summit in the Rocky Mountains (Table 1) or about 3.5 million particles per cubic meter of air. Whitman et al estimated that there were about 1.8 x 10^21 microbes in each cubic meter of air from the surface up to 3 kilometers (id., 6580 reporting 5 x 10^19 per cfu). This continues into the high upper atmosphere. In 2013, DeLeon-Rodriguez and her colleagues at the University of Georgia and NASA found 5,100 cells per cubic meter in samples taken from air 10 kilometers above the surface of the Caribbean ocean.

Microbes also dominate the stream’s bedrock. In that aquatic environment, deep blue-green algae grows in thick mats, and at the stream’s edges, large mats of watercress thrive in the freezing water. Although no trout are seen in the lower canyon stream; they move upstream and a group of about fifteen congregate just below an old water head gate at mile 2.8. At the stream’s edge, horsetails are still green, and this indicates that photosynthesis is still occurring despite the cold.

At the retention ponds, a male-female pair of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) rest. The female is in the sleep position with her head laying on her back. The males feeds on the algae on the pond’s bottom. At picnic site 2, there is a small unidentified sparrow that is not a European sparrow. Further up the canyon, near picnic site 3, there is a Belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)! No avid birder will probably believe this, since this kingfisher is far out of its winter range, and I am unable to take a photograph of it. I first had a fleeting view of this bird on December 7th at the south end of the circle where the Pleasant Valley reservoir once stood. Then it was too far away to see clearly. Today, I am able to watch it for several minutes at the top of a snag about 100 feet away. Then the bird sees me, spooks, and flies down canyon to another snag, and again I am able to catch up and watch it closely for another few minutes. At picnic site 4, I am greeted by a flock of mountain chickadees, and they sit in several trees calling back to each other. Below picnic site 5, a flock of six Black-hooded juncos feed and preen themselves on a red osier dogwood bush. The coldest winter makes some birds more tolerant of humans, and I am able to stand directly next to the bush and about four feet from juncos. They grab a piece of snow-ice from clumps of shriveled white berries that still cling to the tree. They eat part of the ice and then dip the rest into their feathers to clean themselves. Then they try to eat the sour fruit of the dogwood (see Nov. 6th), but most of the fruit seems to drop to the ground and not into their beaks. I again see an unidentified raptor that patrols the lower canyon just before twilight. At mile 1.3, a magpie can be heard in the distance. A series of tracks in the snow tell of two birds that had landed on two adjacent rocks that stick up out of the snow. They then hopped across the snow for about 20 feet.

At mile 1.0, high on the western ridgeline, a single anterless elk digs through the snow to green grass underneath. And, in the early morning hours as I am returning home on other business, two mule deer that are refugees from the canyon are grazing a few hundred feet from my urban front door. As for humans in the canyon, there is myself and about twenty other walkers, runners, and bicyclists.

In short, the canyon is asleep, but life cannot be stopped. Life can be attenuated from its peak productivity (August 31st), and today, like sunlight, life in the canyon is at its nadir.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on December 20th, 1851, he observes a high-flying hawk that is patrolling for prey. He lists the colors of the winter landscape: red, white, green, and brown. On December 20, 1854, he feels that the winter sun has more relative warmth on his skin than the summer sun.

December 12, 2016

December 12th

Filed under: Meadow Mile 2.1, picnic site 3, picnic site 6, Sounds, Weather — canopus56 @ 7:50 pm

Loud City Rumble

8:00 p.m., December 9th, 2016: After a hectic night and day of work, I am spent. Having aged, I am more aware that I should give myself a full day. My circadian rhythms are disrupted and to help them reset I go for a late night jog. The Moon is three-quarters full and the sky is partly overcast, so there is sufficient light that seeing is not a problem. It is late on a Friday night, it is at the height of shopping season, there is major sports game downtown, and jetliners taking off from the airport are routed over the canyon. To my surprise, city rumble noise (November 18th) is deafening deep into the canyon. I try to outrun it, but even at milepost 2.0, the mechanical noise level is still around 20 decibels. I have never heard it this loud; city rumble usually cuts out within the first one-third of a mile near picnic site 3. Although there is no healing solitude in the canyon tonight, I am rewarded with moonlit silvery shadows cast by myself and the trees. 5:00 p.m., December 11th, 2016: City rumble is still relatively loud. Going down canyon, I first detect it around picnic site 6. 5:00 p.m., December 12th, 2016: The noise of City rumble has retreated to below picnic site 3.

While noise becomes softer; temperatures rise: 8:00 p.m., December 9th. The arctic air pocket has dissipated, and the resulting higher temperatures have changed the snow. It is now partially melted and a shoe into its surface parts with wet compaction. It is what backcountry skiers would call a fast snow: skis glide at a high-speed through the snow, but there is a reduced ability to control turns. Almost all of the pack on the north west side of the canyon has melted away. 5:00 p.m, December 11th: Temperatures remain in the high thirties, and as a result the Gambel’s oaks are drying out and those trees of the half Black Tube (Entry, Dec. 11th) are becoming gray again. Yesterday’s rain has changed the snow. Now it has a crusty surface. A foot breaks through the surface, and the fast snow of yesterday is underneath. Backcountry skiers know this to be a difficult snow. The crust breaks in varying degrees of resistance, and on occasion, will pile up and grab a ski, thus bringing the skier to an immediate stop. 4:30 p.m., December 12th: Jogging up canyon, slopes that face down canyon and the Sun are free of snow. Upon reaching milepost 1.5, I turn around, and find the opposite is true. All of the north up-canyon are still frosted in snow. Snow only remains on the north facing slopes and in the very bottom of the canyon. Further up canyon at Black Mountain, heavy snow still covers the ground and the trees remain frosted.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on December 12th, 1858, he observes large flocks of red polls, an eastern finch similar to the European house sparrow found in the western states.

November 3, 2016

November 3rd

Helicopter Seeds

5:00 p.m. After a major storm on October 31st that involved wind gusts up to thirty-five miles per hour, today parts of the road are still covered in the lobe shaped seeds of Boxelder trees. The seeds are about three-sixteenths (4mm) in diameter, but are attached at the end of a half-inch “wing”. Overall, the seed and wing give the impression of a musical note. The seeds hang in symmetrical pairs on a catkin, a collection of about twenty seeds. Along the road in the first mile, there are many of Boxelders up to fifty feet in height that are covered in catkins. I walk up to one to pull a couple of seeds off, and each seed is surprisingly still strongly attached to its catkin, even though the tree is leafless. I can see why it took thirty-five mile per hour winds to dislodge the seeds that are on the road. I raise one above my head let it go. It starts to rotate quickly and like its cousin, the maple seed, it “helicopters” down to the ground. Testing several Boxelder seeds, they travel an average trajectory at about thirty degrees from vertical. As any middle or high school geometry student can tell you using a 30-60-90 degree right triangle, this means that a seed released from the top of a fifty foot tree might travel twenty-five feet horizontally from its parent tree. This is just enough to land outside the canopy of the mother tree.

During a wind gusts on October 27th, as I jogging past Boxelders near picnic site 6, a few of these “helicopters” would dislodge and float down will a light rain. One was freed from the highest branch by a first gust of wind, and as it floated to eye level, a second wind gust blew through. With that burst of wind, the helicoptering seeds stopped in mid-air and rose slightly, but as the gust diminished, it resumed its descent to the road.

Until relatively recently, the aerodynamics of these flying seeds was a mystery. Using the same principles of flight that govern birds and jetliners, the seeds should technically not float or “helicopter” slowly to the ground. The seeds should drop like a stone. Solving that mystery also explained other instances of creatures that should not fly and should not be able to hover, including several found in the canyon, i.e. – bees, dragonflies and hummingbirds.

In 1991, Lentink at Wageningen University of the Netherlands, Dickson and their colleagues determined that helicoptering maple seeds had a different mechanism of flight than that used by bird or man. As the seed helicopters, the leading edge of the seed’s wing generates a small, horizontal tubular vortex over the wing. This generates a low-pressure vacuum that lifts or sucks the seed upward. Unlike a bird, the wing has no familiar aerodynamic lifting shape. In normal flight like that of a bird or airplane, a smooth laminar flow over a wing’s special shape, similarly generates low-pressure above the wing, and the relatively higher pressure under the wing then lifts the wing and plane or bird into the sky. These horizontal vortices are called leading edge vortices or LEVs.

You may have seen analogous vortices when using a paddle in the water, when moving your arms while standing a pool, or when a plane lands through fog. Horizontal vortices form off the tips of paddles, your arms, or the tips of an airplane’s wing. In the case of the seed, a spinning vortex forms over the entire length of the wing’s flat surface.

In 1996, Ellington of the Vrije University in the Netherlands and his colleagues extended this concept to explain how many insects, like bees, moths and butterflies, can fly when aerodynamically, they should be unable to do so. They found the beating wings of moths generating the same leading edge vortices seen in helicoptering maple seeds. In 2000, Z. Jane Wang at New York University modelled flapping insects wing and noted that for some insects, two counter-rotating vortices are formed. One is a higher pressure vortex under the wing and it pushes up, and the second is a lower pressure vortex that “sucks” the insect up. In 2001, Lauder at the Harvard University built mechanical insect wings in order to better model the leading edge vortices. In 2004, Adrian Thomas at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and colleagues studied dragonflies tethered inside wind tunnels, and they imaged the counter-rotating leading edge vortices (id. Fig. 11). In 2011, Liang and colleagues at Purdue University built mechanical wings with rigid veins similar to those seen in both Boxelder seeds and dragonfly wings, and they found that the ridge veins increased flight performance.

Wasps, bees and dragonflies have a different number of wings. Wasps only have two wings; dragonflies and bees have four. Bees have smaller fore-wings that lock into the larger back wings to form a single wing surface during normal flight. Only the dragonfly has two sets of independently moving wings, and only it moves the wings out-of-phase: while one wings goes up, the other flaps down. The dragonfly can rotate the angle of attack for each wing independently. In 2008, Z.J. Wang noted that the out-of-phase beating gives the dragonfly additional-enhanced lift. These results of Ellington, Lauder, Wang and Thomas give a clearer picture of how the dragonflies seen in the canyon hover and do their amazing acrobatic maneuvers (August 11th).

In 2005, Warrick at the University of Oregon and colleagues showed how hummingbirds also use leading edge vortices to feed while hovering in front of flowers.

In conclusion, the canyon currently hosts many examples of where nature has solved the problem of flight and hovering using leading edge vorticies instead of a bird’s flapping aerofoils or man’s propellers: Boxelder seeds, maple seeds, Variegated Meadowhawk dragonflies, red-rumped central bumble bees, Bald-faced hornets, Black-chinned hummingbirds, and several moths, butterflies and other flying insects. The first dragonflies, the massive Protodonata with 30 inch wingspans, appeared in the fossil record 325 million years ago. Flowering trees first began to dominate forests in the Cretaceous period beginning 145 million years ago, and they co-evolved with bees. Hummingbirds appeared 22 million years ago (McGuire et al. 2014).

Today in the canyon, even though the Boxelders where hammered by the strong winds, only a small fraction of their catkins were dislodged. Most Boxelders are still thick with seeds, and I can still look forward to more future showers of helicoptering seeds on windy days.

October 25, 2016

October 25th

Filed under: Cattails, Milk Weed, picnic site 6, Unidentified — canopus56 @ 7:58 pm

A Cat’s Tale

5:15 p.m. Today, a Tuesday, has been a warm, almost summer, day with clear skies. On the canyon road, there are about twenty-five walkers and runners, but only two cars with hunters. At milepost 1.5 and looking south, the foreground trees and background trees on the slope are all grey, with only four exceptions. Nonetheless, against the deepening turquoise sky, the leafless Pleasant Valley has its own appeal.

Jogging up canyon, I pass a small marsh below picnic site 6 on the west side of the road. The two stands of common cattails (Typha latifolia L.) in the canyon have almost turned completely brown. Some green remains at their bases. The first stand fills the flood retention pond where City Creek Canyon Road intersects Bonneville Drive. There the cattails are over six feet tall and are capped by foot long spikes. The second is a small stand of four plants in a small seep marsh where the road bends just south of picnic site 6. The few cattails here stand in here against two unidentified shrubs: the leaves of one are deep purple, and the other a dark wine red.

In the 1980s and 1990s, this used to be one of my favorite places in the lower canyons. This mini-marsh was thick with cattails, but in the early 2000s, a City front loader came in, scoured the ground clean, and removed the cattail grove. The City may have been concerned that the marsh was retaining too much water, and the water would seep underneath, the water would freeze and then destroy the road with winter heave. Now, fifteen years later, a few cattails have found their way back into the marsh, along with, Utah milkweed Utah milkweed, a less dramatic version of the common Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), and a large grove of western poison ivy. Birds have probably carried the seeds the approximately seven-tenths of a mile between the flood retention pond at the canyon’s mouth and the seep. In another ten years, I hope to see the full cattail grove restored.

The common cattail is a world-spanning plant. University of New Mexico botanist H. D. Harrington, in his classic book “Edible Plants of the Rocky Mountains”, describes the many ways this edible plant can be used. The early shoots can be eaten raw and added to salads; the early tubular flower stalks can be boiled; pollen can be shaken from the mature flower tubes and the pollen is used as a flour; and, the mature roots can be leeched and then boiled like potatoes. The root tuber has such a high starch content that it causes illness if eaten without preparation. The tuber needs to be chopped and leeched of part of its starch, which leaves enough starch behind that cattail root is similar to a potato. And as noted here previously, cattail groves provide shelter and a hunting ground favored by hummingbirds (August 1st). After finishing today’s jog at the flood retention pond, I try to pull a cattail out of the marsh bottom. It breaks near the surface but brings out part of the root tuber. The tuber is a reflective, bright white, and the white appears similar to the children’s paste which is also made almost entirely of starch. I will have to return with a shovel in order to extract one.

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