Wednesday, November 20, 2013

La Luna

Note: This program first aired on November 16, 2013.

Late fall is a time of quietude, of contemplation, and of reflection. The settling that is an inevitable result of the shortening days and the withdrawal that so easily comes with the cold wind, prepares us for the introspection of the long nights of the winter ahead. Along with darkness winter brings with it cold dry air, and nothing feels as naked and stark as staring up at a winter night sky, the cold infinity of deep space brought just that much closer by the utter lack of mist or cloud or earthly dampness of any kind. We are watery beings, full of fluid and lust, water is the fundamental unit of life. It is no coincidence that our most barren landscapes, our driest ecosystems are infact cold deserts, basic physical principles assure us that cold air can hold less water vapor than warm air, and all humidity is relative to temperature. So when we turn our eyes upward in the deepest of winter nights, the utter blank of the universe is just a little bit closer, we are just a little less insulated from it. That makes winter the perfect time, not only to contemplate our infinitesimal place in the universe, but also to watch the stars and the moon, and learn their patterns, learn their secrets.

When we look to the sky night after night, some things appear with regularity, though their positions change, they change so slowly that unless we are dedicated star watchers, we may not notice the subtlety of this gradual shift. Other things appear, on casual observation, completely randomly. In this shape, in this part of the sky one night, a different shape, at a different time in a different part of the sky on another. The worst offender in this second group is of course, the moon.

The moon is the closest celestial body to the Earth, by far. It functions as Earth’s natural satellite, a body captured in orbit, stuck in place by the perfect balance between the force of Earth’s gravity working the mass of the satellite, and the satellite’s own tendency as a body in motion to stay in motion in a straight line. Cut the cord of Earth’s gravity on the moon and where does the moon go? Not flying off perpendicular to us, straight out into space, but flying off on a path that follows the tangent line of whatever instantaneous location the moon occupied the moment gravity cut out.

We take the moon for granted, shining down on us on clear nights, keeping us awake but if you look at it long enough, and with a quiet enough mind, you will remember to ask the essential questions: what is the moon? What is it made of? And where did it come from? How did it get there? The simple answer is the moon is made of us. The same stuff that makes up the corporeal parts of our being is the material of the moon. As the song says, we are stardust, and it is worth remembering that every once in a while. We’ll look at those questions in more depth next week. In the mean time, as the moon is rolling towards full, take a moment each night to watch it with a quiet mind. And listen to the questions the moon asks you.

Photo by Rob Thomas, November full moon 2013.


From the Planetary Science Research group, info about lunar geology:

Many scientists are very devoted to the moon, and fund their own institutes pursuing lunar science:

They like to chat it up at NASA, here’s the transcript of a NASA chat about the moon:

One of the driest places on Earth:

How to Keep a Moon Journal and Support Community Radio at the Same Time

Note: This program first aired on November 1, 2013.

Its Funathon, the time of year when WERU raises the money it needs to keep itself going. And when I say, itself, I really mean everyone involved in the station, volunteers like me, professional staff, listeners around the state and the globe, business members and underwriters. We are all part of this ongoing project, this experiment in community building through radio waves.

Fall is the time when we hopefully stop running around like crazy, like we did all summer, when it gets cold enough and dark enough to hunker down around the woodstove, when we can take a moment to give thanks to those people and things that enrich our lives. As a listener, but even more so as a programmer, I am incredibly thankful to WERU for letting me do what I do week after week. I’ve talked about transgendered fish, glaciers and ancient volcanoes, baby birds and frog eating snakes, seasonal flu and the human microbiome. I’ve kids talking about science topics on their minds. I talk about sperm and eggs and sex on the air on a regular basis. Where else would this be encouraged, but on community radio?

Today’s show is all about action, things I want you to do. First I want you to call 1 800 643 6273 and make a pledge of financial support to this radio station. If you value locally produced news and short features like this program, now is the time to pony up. If you appreciate the coverage of science and nature topics on the air, let the station know by calling in or pledging on line now. You will feel better, knowing that you are even that much more engaged in the programing you appreciate. Pledging takes you from the role of passive listener to active participant, and we thank you for that support.

Now, for the rest of the show, I have another way for you to make that leap from passive to active as well. In the next few weeks I will be doing a short series on the moon. To get this series started, I want to begin with an experiment in everyday science. I want you, the listener to watch the moon, and keep a moon journal. All you need to do is, when you see the moon, you note what time it is, where it is in the sky, and what it looks like, what shape it is. Do this over time, a month at least, and if you skip a day, it doesn’t matter. There are plenty of cloudy days when you won’t see the moon. Just keep track of when you do see it.

What you will find is, once you collect this data for a while, you will begin to notice patterns.  The moon is incredibly regular in its patterns, and being on a monthly cycle, it enables us with our short attention spans to actually be able to follow them. After noticing the lunar cycle patterns, you will find yourself starting to make predictions, having expectations about when you are going to see the moon, where it will be in the sky and what it will look like. At that moment, you will have crossed the threshold from being a passive observer to having an active relationship with the moon. And I can tell you, it is incredibly gratifying when the moon is exactly where you expect it to be, when your expectation is based on your own observations and hypotheses. That is your homework, in preparation for the upcoming lunar shows. Having your own learning in process will make whatever I say to you that much more valuable.

So take this time to become an active participant in community radio, and an active participant in the world around you, around us all. It is a win, win, win situation, and I thank you in advance for your support.

PS, You can go online at and make a donation at any time!

A Visit from the Grackles

Note: This program first aired on October 26, 2013.

Just last week, my neighborhood was taken over; from high up in the tree tops came a sound like the rusty hinged doors in a creepy haunted house, opening and closing over and over again. Interspersed with the creaking came squacks and knocks, it was a noisy crew of interlopers up there. The tops of the trees in my home territory were full, at least for a fleeting moment, of grackles.

Grackles are icterids, a family of songbirds that includes blackbirds, cowbirds, meadowlarks, bobolinks and orioles. They are an entirely new world group that encompasses about 100 different species between North and South America. The grackles in my woods were common grackles, Quiscalus quiscula, and if you look in the bird books you will find that there are several different races of this species, geographically distributed around the eastern half of North America, though they are making their way west as well. Grackles are birds of edges, they thrive in patchy habitat, open areas interspersed with wooded cover. Before European settlement they were not especially common, because much of North America was thickly wooded, too thickly wooded for grackles to proliferate. The subsequent development of the landscape here has been a boon for them, and their population has increased right alongside ours, as we clear more land for our homes and farms, and they respond in kind. In a sense, their population is tied to ours.

Which is interesting and a little ironic, because many people don’t like grackles all that much. Bird books describe them as boisterous and noisy and they are noted agricultural pests.  Online bird forums are loaded with irate posts from backyard bird watchers, all desperate for ways to keep grackles out of their feeders, as the grackles are thought to bully the other birds and prevent them from accessing food. While they are in the Passerine order, the song birds, grackles are not likely to sing you to sleep, their chorus sounds more like this: (play chorus from ebird). People like sweetly singing, little rare birds; common, loud, indistinct markings? Grackles have all the chips stacked against them.

That being said, I have nothing against grackles, and in fact, walking out into the yard and having my attention drawn to the cacophony in the trees was a magical moment. It was the end of a gray day, and suddenly there was new life in the air. These gatherings are their good byes, they are massing in preparation for leaving, or perhaps are already on their way, using my oak trees as a rest stop to eat acorns as they make their way south. And eat acorns they do. Have you ever tried to bite into an acorn? Its not easy, yet acorns are a favorite winter and migration prep food for grackles. They actually have a sharp keel in their mouth on their upper pallet that allows them to cut open the acorn. They are smart too, they are among the birds that practice “anting”, a behavior in which they land on the ground and allow ants to crawl up into their feathers. The presumed function of this behavior is to rid themselves of parasites. And they are beautiful. From a distance or in flat light they appear black, but when the sunlight hits them just right, their feathers reflect a gorgeous array of irridescent purples and greens.

So I was sad to see them go. One moment they were there and the next it was just silent empty trees. The briefness of their presence made it all the more special. Perhaps, had the whole flock taken up residence for the summer, I would have grown tired of the squeaks and scratches. But that isn’t what happened. Instead they were here just long enough to draw my attention, and then before I got a really good look, they left, leaving me wanting more. It is a reminder to not take anything in nature for granted, regardless of how common place it may seem to those around you. One person’s mundane is always another’s magic.


From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (the definitive online resource):

Nice info from a local North Carolina Audubon chapter newsletter