Archive for October, 2011


Here’s an article by Jill Saka that relates the incidence of deer ticks to the presence of honeysuckle — one of the most fierce and destructive invasives in our woodlands.   I have only taken a casual swipe at the honeysuckle on my property yet, but this article is more than motivating.

Invasive shrubs increase

spread of tick-borne disease

For a hungry tick, bush honeysuckle is as good as a drive-through.

The common invasive shrub is a popular habitat for deer, which in turn are ticks’ favorite blood source. As the deer move through the honeysuckle, loitering ticks can easily grab hold of a passing meal — and in the process become infected with pathogenic bacteria.

The density of white-tailed deer in honeysuckle-invaded areas is roughly five times that in areas without honeysuckle.

New research reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the presence of bush honeysuckle substantially increases the risk of human disease.

The study found that the density of white-tailed deer in honeysuckle-invaded areas was roughly five times that in areas without honeysuckle, and the density of nymph life-stage ticks infected with bacteria that cause human disease was roughly 10 times higher. The researchers confirmed these large-scale results with an experiment that removed honeysuckle in some areas but not in others. When honeysuckle was removed, deer activity was greatly reduced and the density of infected ticks dropped.

The research was led by tick expert Brian F. Allan, who just completed a postdoctoral appointment at Washington University in St. Louis, and conducted by an interdisciplinary team of ecologists, molecular biologists and physicians from Washington University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“One of the really exciting things about this study is the finding that an invasive plant alters deer behavior in a way that changes how deer and ticks interact, and in a way that promotes spread of disease,” says John Orrock, a co-author of the study and new professor of zoologyat the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“The deer used the open areas less than the honeysuckle patches and we don’t think it’s because they’re eating the honeysuckle; we think they’re using it for physical structure,” says Allan. “They like to bed in it because it’s the densest thing out there, the best structure in town. No native species comes close to achieving the same density.”

Honeysuckle in winter. It's easy to spot. (The green on the right is buckthorn -- another nasty one.)

Moreover, he says, bush honeysuckle retains its leaves longer than most native species do. It’s the first thing to leaf out in the spring, and it’s the last thing in the understory to drop its leaves in the fall, so it creates structure for a large portion of the year — including the critical windows when larval ticks emerge in search of their first blood meal.

“The larval ticks become infected when they take their blood meal from an infected host, usually a deer, and the next life-stage, the nymphs, may spread disease to people if they grab onto them for the next blood meal,” Allan says.

The researchers collected lone-star ticks from experimental plots with and without honeysuckle in a conservation area near St. Louis and applied an innovative DNA assay developed by Washington University scientists Robert E. Thach and Lisa S. Goessling to analyze what they were eating and whether they were infected.

The dreaded dear tick. Check out this site for every possible image of this beast:

The ticks present a much greater challenge than other bloodsuckers like mosquitoes, which dine frequently over a short period of time. “It’s much harder to get blood from a tick, which usually takes only one blood meal per life stage,” Thach says. “By the time we capture the tick, eight months to a year may have elapsed. The tick has had a long time to digest that blood, so there may be only a tiny amount of DNA left — if there’s any.”

The team did two assays on tick DNA: one to identify pathogenic bacteria and the other to identify the animal that provided the tick’s last blood meal. The ticks sometimes bite coyotes, foxes and other animals, but their favorite hosts are wild turkey and white-tailed deer.

The results showed that more blood meals were taken from deer in honeysuckle-intact plots.

Bush honeysuckle is already common in Wisconsin, and Orrock says it is likely that a similar relationship exists among the shrubs, deer, and ticks in this state.

The current study did not assay for Lyme disease, which is also transmitted by ticks, but did identify bacteria that can cause a less well-known tick-borne disease, ehrlichiosis. Ehrlichiosis begins with symptoms typical of bacterial infection, such as fever, headache, fatigue and muscle aches. More serious symptoms, such as joint pain and confusion, may occur and in rare instances the disease is fatal.

Right now honeysuckle is easy to identify by its red berries.

“Many studies around the world are showing an increase in the risk of infectious disease as a result of the loss of biological diversity,” says Allan. “This may be a case of win-win ecology. Honeysuckle control would benefit native species but it would also benefit human health.”

The big question now, says Washington University professor of biology Jonathan M. Chase, is whether what holds for honeysuckle holds for other invasive plants as well. “This may be something that’s occurring quite broadly, but we’re really just starting to look at the connection between invasive plants and tick-borne disease risk.”

October 28, 2011 at 12:06 am 3 comments


Last weekend we got to visit the Whole Tree Construction, straw bale house that we helped build last year.  Doug and I participated in a 6-day strawbale, clay wall workshop.  (See posts Straw bale – Bending Walls  , Stitching Straw Bales Makes Strong Walls, and Earthen Clay on Straw Bales – a Match Made in Heaven. )

The frame we started with in our 2010 workshop.

Kara House was designed and built for two sisters of the Wheaten Franciscan Order , which focuses on

  • Promoting peace;
  • Effecting reconciliation;
  • And being in solidarity with the poor; thus,
  • Bringing hope to all.

That makes for worthwhile organization to this non-religious observer, and meeting Marge and Gabriel, reinforced reinforced my positive impression.  These two sisters built their home at The Christine Center which has turned 125 acres in central Wisconsin into a spiritual retreat, where cottages cluster near a environmentally-conscious, central-meeting and dining complex.

It was a pleasure to be there for six days of camping, building in the woods and eating hearty, vegetarian fare with the center’s various pilgrims. I’ve been looking forward to the time when we could return and see how the house turned out.

I’m also eager to see any other whole tree houses I can at this point before we finalize our plans and start building next spring.

Every Whole Trees house is a combination of accumulating green-building craft and nudging the frontiers of sustainable construction.  It’s reassuring and illuminating to see what has come before as we get ready to inch forward.

Here is a photo essay of what we saw.

This house is straw bale with a sod roof. and passive solar design. The entrance is between the two round rooms.  The room on the left is a studio, and the room on the right is the kitchen/dining/living room.  

The exterior is a concrete stucco with a life-edge facia board.

The south-facing wall collects a lot of solar energy during the day and Gabriel says that as the sun sets, the room is filled with a golden glow as well as a lot of great solar warmth.

Here is the same window from the inside.We sat in the living room and had a great chat about the comfort level of in-floor hot water heat.

The kitchen space seemed really pleasant.Open-shelf storage has many advantages.

1.  You don’t lose things in the bottom of drawers or the back of the cabinet.

2.  You can’t cram them so full, and it keeps one from accumulating excess items.

Though I have conventional cabinets in my current kitchen, I’m looking forward to having open storage in our place next year.Extending from the circular main room is a wing that contains bedrooms, bath, mechanicals and a study.Whole tree rafters and live-edge trim makes a room feel very connected to the source of its materials.

The studio was the room we spent most of our time working on during the 2010 workshop.  It became a very wonderful space as soon as the straw bales were stacked to enclose it. 

Both circular rooms are topped with a tractor tire rim and a sky light.

It was very gratifying to see the finished home that we worked on.  This project really gave us a feel for how whole tree timbers, straw bale and clay can come together.  Every step is so direct and logical, yet every step is also personal and hand-crafted.  It felt really good to work with these materials, and they make amazing dwellings.

October 25, 2011 at 12:05 am 4 comments


Next Monday, October 24, is Food Day, sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit watchdog group.  This organization has been working for safer food since 1971.  They promoting meals built around vegetables, fruits and whole grains instead of processed packaged foods.  They have coordinated many events for Monday to highlight healthy eating.

There are so many reasons to support their goal.

Public Health Issues

If you want to see a frighteningly graphic image, click on this animated map  of the percent of obese adults in the U.S.

Environmental Issues

Food Day supports small and mid-size sustainable and organic farms as opposed to the agribusiness practice of producing monoculture commodity crops and factory farms that manufacture misery, environmental devastation as well as some pretty awful meat.

Social Justice

They want to protect farm workers from harmful pesticides and abysmal working conditions.

You can look for an event near you at this link.  Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver Urban Gardens and Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council are hosting a celebration at the gardens.    In Washington DC there will be an exhibit, “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” at the National Archives.   In Seattle WA there will be a Local Food Dinner highlighting produce and meat from Washington State.  I found 4 events happening in Madison, WI alone.


  1. Coca-Cola, the most aggressively promoted and widely consumed brand of sugar-loaded “liquid candy” in the world, has contributed mightily to the obesity epidemic.  Each can of Coke contains 9 teaspoons of sugars.
  1. McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, a Coke and Fries typified many restaurant meals: short on fruit and vegetables, but bulging with calories, sale, saturated far, added sugars, and white flour, which promote obesity, hypertension and other diet-related diseases.
  1. Salt, which we over consume from countless packaged foods, restaurant meals and salt-enhanced meat and poultry, is the single most harmful substance in our diet.  Excess sodium causes more than 100,000 fatal heart attacks and strokes each year.
  1. Feedlot beef is unhealthy for humans (saturated fat, raised with antibiotics), harmful to the animals (crowded, filthy feedlots), and environmentally destructive (requires massive amounts of energy and resources for feed, pollution from manure and methane).
  1. Kellogg’s Froot Loops, a fruit-less sugary cereal gussied up with synthetic dyes, is one of a host of junk foods marketed heavily to kids.  Kellogg is one of many companies seeking to kill the government’s voluntary nutrition standards intended to promote children’s health.
  1. Jack DeCoster’s egg farms, which in 2010 experienced huge Salmonella outbreaks, recklessly disregarded consumers’ health and dramatized the need for tougher enforcement of food-safety laws to clean up the whole food industry.
  1. Powerful lobbying groups – from soft drink meat, food processing, grian, advertising and other industries that thwart important reforms of marketing to kids, food labeling, farm policies and other issues.
  1. Subsidies to companies that blend corn ethanol into gasoline leading to higher prices for corn and foods with corn ingredients for a program without significant environmental benefit.
  1. White flour – used in bread, pizza crusts, pasta, doughnuts, cakes, burritos, cookies and many other foods – has spurred the obesity epidemic by adding evermore vitamin-depleted fiber-poor calories to the diet.
  1. Vending machines dispensing soft drinks and candy – those metallic monsters lurking everywhere, promoting unhealthy diets 24/7.

What would you add to this list?

Whether or not you get to a Food Day event October 24, let’s all try to munch mindfully on Monday.  

October 21, 2011 at 12:06 am 9 comments


Acoustic tomography.  Ever heard of it?

Della Hansmann and Kysa Heinitz conducting acoutsic tomography.

This is a nondestructive imaging technique to determine what’s going on inside a tree.  According to “Evaluation of Acoustic Tomography for Tree Decay Detection,”   internal decay is an ever-present possibility which seriously compromises lumber production.  For every 100 million board feet of timber harvested annually in the U.S., interior decay is estimated to destroy about 30 million board feet.

Acoustic tomography can help maximize lumber production and it is also used in urban forestry to assess the health of trees.  Now it has a new and exciting use.

 Whole Tree Architecture and Construction is partnering on research  with the US Forest Products Lab using acoustic tomography as the one of the steps in determining the strength of forked tree limbs for construction.

A dead ash tree. photo credit

The test is being conducted on ash wood because Wisconsin is about to feel the full force of the Emerald Ash Borer invasion , which will jeopardize our state’s 757 million ash trees.  We will soon be looking at millions of dead ash trees, and it would be good to have something constructive to do with them.  Whole Trees uses and promotes the use of unmilled timber — particularly from waste trees, so this is a good opportunity to get some solid data on the strength of these millions of branching timbers.

Whole Trees is working with acoustic tomography equipment they rented from Bruce Allison,  a prominent arborist in the area who has worked with many landmark trees.  The same equipment was recently used to assess the health of the grand old trees on the UW-Madison Union Terrace.

The first step of the process was identifying, peeling and harvesting the test trees, most of which came from LaCrosse and Vernon counties, which are under quarantine now that Emerald Ash Borer has been identified there.  Each tree had to be thoroughly inspected by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection before it could be moved to Madison for testing.

Next the trees have been kiln dried.  A living tree is positively sloshing!  When we were peeling trees for our house last summer, you could actually get splashed sometimes as the bark pulled away.  According to Marc Joyal, kiln manager at the Forest Products Lab, a living tree can be up to 70% water.  Lumber is considered ready to use at somewhere between 14-19% water.  Marc said kiln drying whole timbers is new for the lab, and they are perfecting their technique as they work on this project.

The circumference is measured just below the fork, and 7 nails are placed at equal distance around the tree.  Then the nails are attached to equipment and each nail is tapped with a special tool while the computer calculates the speed at which each other sensor picks up that signal.  The process is repeated 12 inches below the fork, and the computer produces an image that indicates the soundness of the wood.

“The whole point is to figure out what is going on inside the wood,” explained Kysa Heinitz of Whole Trees. “ Then we will correlate it with a test of the strength of the branched timbers.  This will provide the numbers we can use to test in the field and be sure which trees are strong enough.”

When trees grow branches, bark tissue at the joint can get turned in under growing wood.  That’s called included bark, and  can keep on growing for a while, then ultimately decay to create a weak spot.

An example of included bark at a fork.

Computerized image of same timber. The purple indicates the included bark.

After the tests are done, Whole Trees hopes that they will be able to tell which joints are strong enough for construction projects.  “We would like to have a really simple test we can do in the field,” says Della Hansmann of Whole Trees.

It’s cool to see this non-conventional building process getting the kind of scientific evaluation that can influence future green building projects.and even building codes.   I’ll be writing more next week when the trees are tested to the breaking point.

October 18, 2011 at 2:00 pm 2 comments


Here is an intriguing press release I got this week from University of Wisconsin-Madison about a new phone app that should be out soon.  This seems like a great idea.  One of these days, I’m going to get a smart phone, and apps like these will be a big part of the reason.

Squinting into wind-blown trees and bushes is for the birds, especially if it’s the birds you’re looking for.

“You have to listen. There’s no way around it,” says Mark Berres, a University of Wisconsin-Madison ornithologist. “The most difficult aspect of bird-watching is call identification, but calls are the most important tool for identifying birds.”

Even the most experienced birders have trouble matching more than a handful of songs with species, but by melding his background in our feathered friends, teaching and genetics, Berres may have answered the prayers of bird-watchers, researchers and even the most casual naturalist.

Naturally, salvation comes in the form of a smartphone app. And naturally – for a university professor – the inspiration started with a graduate student, one that stepped into Berres’ office a few years ago to show off a nifty iPhone trick.

“He recorded a short bit of music coming from the radio in my office, tapped an ‘identify’ button, and in a few seconds it told him the name of the song we’re listening to,” Berres says. “Right away, I thought, ‘We can use this for birds.’”

For more than a year, Berres (and his graduate students, of course) have been testing and improving the fruit of that inspiration: WeBIRD, the Wisconsin Electronic Bird Identification Resource Database.

Like music-identification apps Shazam and MusicID, WeBIRD allows anyone with a smartphone and a mysterious bird nearby to record the bird’s call, submit it wirelessly to a server and (after a few seconds) receive a positive ID on the species of bird tweeting away within earshot.

“I am amazed at how good it is,” says Berres, who has also used WeBIRD to identify grasshopper species by their clicking calls and frogs by their croaks. “In fact, not only can WeBIRD tell you which species you’re hearing, it’s good enough to identify individual birds from their song.”

For birders, the former qualifies as a reason to rejoice. For researchers, the latter could change the nature of field studies. For the birds, WeBIRD – which hopes to make available to the public in time for the spring migration in 2012 – could be a lifesaver.

Any way to deepen the ties between people and their natural surroundings is a helpful step toward conservation.

“If people can appreciate intrinsic beauty – and birds have got that part down – a closer awareness of the natural world will follow,” Berres says. “Fostering a connection with wildlife is one of the ways we’re going to save it, and WeBIRD puts that connection to birds in the palm of your hand.”

Accurate automated analysis of recorded songs could help researchers track the comings and goings of flocks and individuals. Instead of sending students and scientists out into the wild to collect data – collection that could be hindered by variations in hearing, fatigue, biting insects and the very presence of a human being – a research team could venture out periodically to collect recordings of research plots and analyze the results with WeBIRD.

To place a bird call with its species is a chore far more complicated than the music-matching apps.

“Their problem of comparing a high-quality reproduction to the original is really a fairly easy one,” Berres says.

Analyzing bird calls, on the other hand, is a little like trying to match a live cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to the version Simon and Garfunkel recorded for their 1970 album.

“When a bird sings, the song itself may have varying amplitudes and frequencies,” Berres says. “It can also speed up a little bit, slow down a little bit. They may throw in a note here or take out a note there.”

Birds also differ their calls throughout the day. And a bird of a particular species on UW-Madison’s lakeside campus may develop an accent of sorts, distinct from birds of the same species living just a few miles away at the UW Arboretum.

The WeBIRD algorithm dices bird calls into time-ordered chunks of frequency and energy, using data-organization techniques more often applied by geneticists to jumbled bits of DNA geneticists to “align temporally misaligned data, working around a lot of the variation,” Berres said.

The data-handling trick practically puts Berres himself – who knows his birds, and expects his ornithology students to learn 140 calls – in your pocket.

“When I’m out in the field, I can interact with the students,” says Berres, who will put students to work testing WeBIRD in fall ornithology courses. “I can say, ‘Stop. Listen to that. What is it? And how do you know that?’ But what do you do when the instructor isn’t there?”

Or if you are your own instructor?

“With an app like this, you can get confirmation of what you think you’re hearing along with pictures and videos and range maps for the birds in your backyard or the park,” Berres says. “You’ll learn more about the world around you, and there’s nothing but good in that.

Have you got a smart phone yet?  Do you use it for things like this?

October 14, 2011 at 9:21 am 4 comments


Our house will be built of unmilled timbers, which we selected from our woods (see  my post How to Peel Trees).  Most of them have been peeled and are starting to dry before they will be felled this winter.  Some are too tall to peel until they are felled.  It’s going to be an action-packed winter.

This black walnut is destined for the northeast corner of our house, and will fan across the bedroom wall.

I have been mulling how to finish these timbers. I spent a formative few years of my youth as bookkeeper in a Scandinavian furniture store and came to love the light finishes of every non-teak surface.  I’m also a sucker for the interiors I often see in dramas on BBC television, which have white-painted woodwork and deeply colored walls.  How would a timber frame structure look stained or painted white?

The timbers for our house have been chosen equally for their usefulness in the building process and to prune the woods, so they include pine, oak, black walnut, cherry, elm and others – each with its own subtle character, and it’s own response to white stain. Doug and I selected three small trees that were good culling candidates, peeled them a while ago, felled them last week and spent the weekend experimenting with a pickling white stain and a white paint.

Paint forms a thin film on top of wood and creates an entirely new appearace for the surface.  We started with a good primer, followed by white paint.   It hides those nicks and sanding blemishes to some extent.

Stains change the color of the surface while bringing out grain.  But grain is created by cutting across the ring patter of wood, and since our timbers are unmilled, they don’t really have grain.  They do have interesting color patterns that occurred when the surface molded after peeling and where a bit of the cambian is still attached.  More stain tones occur because the different woods have different porosity and natural color.  Stains penetrate into the fibers of wood, but the pigments – such as the white pigment in white stains – need something go grab onto.  They get caught in the irregularities of the wood surface, including nicks and sanding scratches and really highlight them.

For the sample pieces, we  tried out the angle grinder we recently inherited from Doug’s dad to smooth over spots where branches were chopped off.  The angle grinder, equipped with a tiny chainsaw blade is an intense tool, and will take some practice.

Then we scrubbed the timbers with soap and water to remove as much of the mold stain as possible.  (Freshly peeled trees make mold think it has died and gone to heaven.  Removing the bark exposes a moist, carb-rich  surface that reacts the same way those leftovers you forgot in the back of the fridge do.)

We had amazing weather last weekend for a paint/stain project.  It was very warm for early October – up into the 80s (F) with a constant breeze.  Both stain and paint dried in record time.  The man at the paint store told us to wipe on the stain and leave it for up to 5 minutes. In practice, we wiped it on and wiped it off again as fast as we could before it dried to a chalky film.

Black walnut with stain and paint

In the end, I stood there staring at the three sample timbers, walking around them, siting down them, leaning in close, striding away, carrying them in and out of the barn, and I’m quite perplexed.

If all the wood was walnut, I would call white stain the clear winner.  It gives the wood a quality of driftwood by moonlight – an ethereal homage to the tree.  The pine (which will make all the rafters) also looked good.


But the cherry pretty much dissed the stain.  Cherry must be much tighter, smoother grain and did not absorb much pigment into its surface.

The paint covered every tree type and erased their varying tonalities.  It abstracted the wood into something at once very beautiful like an alabaster statue of wood but also less approachable.

top to bottom: cherry, pine, black walnut


October 11, 2011 at 8:55 am 6 comments


If you had been in Washington D.C.  in the past few weeks, you would have seem some very hopeful houses popping up like mushrooms on the Mall.  Unlike mushrooms, these structures thrive on light.

Every two years the U.S. Department of Energy hosts a Solar Decathlon where college teams design and guild energy efficient houses powered by the sun.

University-led teams step forward with their ideas of what the future might look like.

I feel connected to this event because my architect visted the very first Solar Decathlon, and I’m sure some subconscious influences are going to be manifesting themselves in the house we build next year.

I also feel tired and stiff tonight, having hauled more than half a ton of water out of our pond today and poured it on the roots of our recently transplanted trees (see my post Pines and Cedars Make their Move).

So, I invite you to visit Della Hansmann’s blog Dwelling Places to read more:

Solar Decathlon: First Light 

Lunar Anniversaries and Solar Decathlons .



October 7, 2011 at 12:43 am Leave a comment


If  you live in deer tick country, tuck your pants in your socks.  

 I just read in my October Arboretum Newsletterthat the deer tick population there is on the increase.  Researchers are on the lookout for these little beasties there, and this past summer they found deer ticks in multiple locations.

Just because the ticks are out there, that doesn't mean you can't be out there too.

Up through 2010, only one deer tick had been found in the Arboretum.  They conduct this search by walking slowly along the trails and dragging a flannel cloth over vegetation.  This year 12.5 hours or dragging collected more than 100 deer ticks.

In Wisconsin Lyme disease, transmitted by deer ticks, continues to expand, with a 35 percent increase in human cases in 2010.

Susan Paskewitz , UW-Madison expert on mosquitoes and ticks says, the pretty much everywhere in Wisconsin is infested with deer ticks now, and they are being found in the state’s most heavily populated areas.  She predicts that even people in urban areas need to be on the lookout for ticks.

To find out the risk in your area, check out this National Lyme Disease Foundation risk map .

That doesn’t mean we should all hide indoors.  We just need to understand their life cycle and take a few precautions.

According to the National  Lyme Disease Foundation, the deer tick has a two-year life cycle, and we should all know it well if we intend to be out in natural areas.  The ticks go through three stages: larva, nymph and adult, and they need a blood meal for the oomph to make the transition in each stage, but some times of year are more dangerous than others.

The larva stage peaks in August.  Larvae can’t infect us, but they may become infected themselves, and then they turn into infected and dangerous nymphs.

Nymphs are most active during the summer, and it is nymphs that give most people lyme disease.  They are really tiny.  From May through July they lurk on leaves near the ground waiting for a mammal or bird gets close enough for them to latch on and start feeding.  Then they drop off and become adults.

Adult deer ticks are active in spring and even more active from late October through early November.  They lay in wait up to three feet off the ground on tall grass and leaves.  About half of them are infected with lyme disease, which they can pass to us.  They are tiny and hard to see — about the size of an apple seed.  But in most cases they are still large enough to be noticed and removed before they transfer infection.

That means, if you are out and about, you need to be very methodical about checking yourself over when you get back inside.  It takes at least 36 hours for disease transmission to occur.

Adults who haven’t had their blood meal, will drop to the ground and go dormant when temperatures drop below 45 degrees.  That means we get a little break in the cold months, but with global warming, we need to be wary during any unseasonable thaw in the winter.

Wear long shirts and pants with the pants tucked into the socks.  Then give your clothes a spritz of DEET-containing insect repellent.

Now get out there and enjoy the gorgeous autumn!

October 4, 2011 at 12:30 am 12 comments

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