Tuesday, December 22, 2009


New York Times article on the sophistication of plant mechanisms:


Should we still eat plants??" The article half-jokingly questions.

Yes, yes you should.

We can't photosynthesize, people. But I also do not believe there is anything morally wrong with the idea of eating animals, so some may disagree.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


This horrifying picture is of a hookworm. A microscopic parasite that lives off of a host by attaching to the intestine. Pretty scary. I have recently learned that this little guy might actually have a lot to offer humans. Since the beginning of the hookworm and human relationship they have evolved together quite literally. Not necessarily peas in a pod but there have been benefits to each.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Will My Cats Ever Really Listen to Me?

My two cats, Salix and Sorrel, have a unique technique of getting onto my lap while I work at my computer (work being a debatable term). It involves a complex series of events that ends with their claws tearing away small ribbons of my upper thigh as they scale their way up my swivel chair. This dance usually starts with them placing their front two paws on my leg staring at me with their head slightly cocked to one side while I begin yelling "No, no, no, no! WAIT!! I'll pick you up!" Needless to say they either do not comprehend my pleads, or more likely, sadistically choose to ignore them.

Every evening I silently convince myself that I will develop a way to communicate with my furry companions to prevent these situations from occurring again. Of course I'm not the first one to think about animal communication. This morning I came across an article in the New York Times about a group of scientists that claim they have deciphered the Campbell's monkey vocabulary. While these scientists and my own motives may have been slightly (ever so slightly) different, our curiosity over one question was identical. Why can't we talk with the animals?

As I begin nursing my bleeding thighs and look into the content eyes of my attacker, I can interpret their purring as nothing less than an expression of their satisfaction. After reading the article I naturally ran over to the one place that holds all the answers to the universe, Wiki. To say I was overwhelmed was an understatement. The debate over whether animals are even capable of communication was an online war I didn't even know was being waged. It seemed strange to me that people could think animals can't communicate. When your dog dances around at the front door when you first come home, is that not a clear communication of their happiness of your safe return?

It very well could be, however the debate really isn't about inter-specie communication, but rather inter-specie language or intra-specie language for that matter. As it turns out the real heart of the debate is over whether or not animals engaged in vocal exchanges are speaking in a language or merely communicating threats or desires. The difference is subtle at first. Certainly one can communicate through language, but what defines communication as a language.

Well, according to the Animal language wiki, the following properties of the human language are what differentiate it from animal communication:
  • Arbitrariness: There is no rational relationship between a sound or sign and its meaning. (There is nothing intrinsically "housy" about the word "house".)
  • Cultural transmission: Language is passed from one language user to the next, consciously or unconsciously.
  • Discreteness: Language is composed of discrete units that are used in combination to create meaning.
  • Displacement: Language can be used to communicate ideas about things that are not in the immediate vicinity either spatially or temporally.
  • Duality: Language works on two levels at once, a surface level and a semantic (meaningful) level.
  • Meta-linguistics: Ability to discuss language itself.
  • Productivity: A finite number of units can be used to create an infinite number of utterances.
A host of experiments have proven that animals are able to meet any number of these requirements, however no animals examined to date (at least that wiki is aware of) have not met all of them. Chimps and apes have been observed "talking" to each other about approaching threats. Bee dances are able to describe elements of spatial displacement. Some apes have even been taught rudimentary forms of sign language. But is a bee dance saying "Hey, there is some great flowers 20 meters away North of here.", or is it merely a communication to the other bees "Flowers 20 meters North.". Is this communication or a language? Anyone present in my high school Spanish classes will inform you that I am not qualified to make that distinction.

The main criticisms of animal language studies is that most of the experiments are bad science. The majority of animal language studies lack any kind of controls to discount bias in the interpreted results. For example, a chimp that signs the word for Bill when a researcher points to Bill may be reported as understanding what the scientist said to it. More likely the chimp is simply able to associate the name Bill with Bill. Animal language scientist have been scolded for over-interpreting their results and projecting understanding and comprehension on their subjects with limited results to reinforce their claims.
Whether you are think animals have the ability to use language or lack it, the subject is undeniably fascinating. I can only hope that a human-cat dictionary is published before I go bankrupt from buying new pairs of jeans.

Monday, November 16, 2009

GEE Moon Office?

In case you missed it -- NASA found "a significant amount" of water on the moon. The Lcross satellite crashed into the moon about a month ago, sending up a plume that, after later analysis, was determined to contain at least 26 gallons of water.

Sounds like a wetland impact to me.

(photo credit NYTimes)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Newtown Creek Nature Walk

This past weekend ZL and I took a stroll on the Newtown Creek Nature Walk. It's an unlikely place for a "nature walk" -- on the shore of a heavily polluted tidal inlet, above the largest underground oil spill in the US. And there's the sewer treatment plant (see photo). But it is surprisingly -- nice. Pleasant. Designed by George Trakas, it has some great views, and some "nature" -- at least in the form of native plants.

The "get-down" into the Newtown Creek is an optimistic design choice -- only crazy people touch that water -- and the intertidal vegetation there seems to feel the same way. Most of it is dead, though there are some grasses and stray goldenrods and asters. I'm curious -- does anyone know if that area was originally planted with salt marsh plants all the way down into the creek? Even the official flyer photo looks pretty sad (upper right).

But overall -- it's worth a visit. The contrast of fall foliage and careful paving patterns surrounded by the sharp industrial colors and textures is refreshing. And the dark polluted water of the creek makes for some nice reflections. More photos here.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Defining the Line of Conservation vs. Preservation

Attending school at an exclusively environmental college in Maine was an informative experience for me. With students studying every hue in the spectrum of environmental studies, from conservation law enforcement and policy to horticulture and molecular biology, debates raged all over campus on any number of issues. My personal favorite was always between conservation and preservation.

You'll be hard pressed to find someone who openly hates national parks. But you might be surprised at just how many people clash with the parks system on a regular basis. The parks by definition protect large tracts of land, and more importantly, large amounts of natural resources. To the conservationist these resources should be used for the benefit of everyone and be maintained in a sustainable manner. While the preservationists prefers by definition a more hands off approach.

As a newly enrolled student at Unity College I was a preservationist to the bones. I grew up with Captain Planet, and the Rescuers Down Under and was devoted to stopping the rampant destruction of natural resources. But after only a few classes I realized this issue was almost never so cut and dry.

For instance most people agree that everyone should have the equal opportunity to experience the natural beauty of the parks. But what about people with limited mobility such as someone in a wheel chair? Will you deny the construction of roads and paved paths for the sake of preservation or deny handicapped individuals the opportunity to experience the park? Even oyster farmers who have been in operation since before the parks establishment are affected.

It's a debate that never really seems to have a definitive answer or ending, which is probably what makes it so interesting to talk about.

Relevant articles:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Farewell Lawrence Halprin

This past week the landscape architecture community lost one of its most influential designers of the postwar era. Lawrence Halprin, FASLA, passed away at 93 on Sunday from natural causes. Halprin created many iconic landscapes such as Ghirardelli Square, San Fransisco, Lovejoy Park, Portland, Oregon and probably his most famous, FDR memorial in Washington D.C.

At the 2007 ASLA convention in San Fransisco I got the opportunity to hear Halprin speak at the closing general session.

I will post my photos of his work soon.

Monday, October 26, 2009

How Food Shapes Our Cities

Another interesting presentation from TED about the history of city planning and how food played an essential role in the layout of pre-industrial age cities. She also talks about the future of city's relationship with food and how agriculture and food distribution systems around the world need to change.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Landscape Ecology on Terragrams

I recently found this wonderful podcast hosted by Craig Verzone from Verzone Woods Architectes called Terragrams. They interview great designers such as Ken Smith and James Corner. My favorite episode is with Richard Forman. He is a wonderful scholar sometimes referred to as the "father of landscape ecology". I highly recommend his book Landscape Ecology Principles for Landscape Architecture and Land-Use Planning. It is simple and fundamental. In the interview he mentions his new book out Urban Regions: Ecology and Planning beyond the urban city. Within the book Forman presents a critical look at 38 different cities around the world, comparing science, planning, and society.


I read the following article in the paper not that long ago, and wondered why someone did not do this earlier. So green!! Check this out.


Project Mannahatta - Before the City

For those of you who are not familiar with the TED site, it is a site about ideas. Guest speakers give short presentations which are posted online about technology, science, and art. To anyone interested in these fields I strongly suggest adding TED to your favorites folder.

A featured presentation recently posted on TED spotlighted the Mannahatta project, run by Eric Sanderson. He uses state of the art Geospatial Information System (GIS) technology to recreate Manhattan before European settlers arrived. This is a fantastic history of our favorite island from an ecological perspective.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mind Blowing

When I start thinking about who our ancestors were, where and how they might have lived, and what they may have looked like, it can really become overwhelming. It's no wonder that evolution can be such a push button issue when it can be so hard to get your head around. It's hard to believe we're figuring this stuff out!


Animal Behavior Study: Pavlov's Fish?

The New York Times posted an article today in their science section about a new animal behavior study being done in Australia. A research team led by Ulrike E. Siebeck, at the University of Queensland, trained coral reef fish species to associate specific colors and shapes with food.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Green Skyscraper

An 82-story building, still being built in Chicago, is using materials which will help minimize birds strikes. Kudos to designer and architect Jeanne Gang! Check out the original article here:


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Foraging in Prospect Park

A trip to Prospect Park this past Saturday with “Wildman” Steve Brill was a strange but insightful experience. Equipped with a stroller and a whistle Steve was ready for an afternoon of foraging and brilla-phone entertainment. Steve showed tasty plants and warned which should be avoided. Among the favorite treats found were Washington Hawthorn berries, Asiatic dayflower, Yellow wood sorrel, Wild Mustard seed, and Sassafras root. Sign up for a tour at http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/, but remember don’t eat the White Snake Root!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wandering the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Last weekend I tried out my new membership at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, breezing through the "members only" entrance with a flash of my shiny green card. Nice.

I ended up in the Native Flora Garden and happily toured the masses of vegetation, looking for shade tolerant plants for a particular project involving constructed rocky stream banks adjacent to high security walls.

Some of the more interesting plants included:

Fuzzy on top, with very minty leaves (above): Mountain-mint (Pycnanthemum muticum)

Bizarre, extremely poisonous berries and a creepy, fitting name: Doll's eyes (Actaea pachypoda)

And, just for fun, this artistic conifer cultivar with curled needles: Twisted white-pine (Pinus strobus 'Contorta')

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Hudson River Foundation Seminars

The Hudson River Foundation is sponsoring a seminar series on scientific issues related to the environmental quality and resources management of the New York/ New Jersey Harbor Estuary. All Seminars will be held at Hudson River Foundation, 17 Battery Place, Suite 915, New York, NY 10004. RSVP to info@hudsonriver.org or call 212-483-7667 (seating is limited)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009 @ 10:30 AM
Ecological Functions of Hudson River Salt Marshes and Submerged Vegetation
Dr. Stuar Findlay, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

Tuesday, November 10, 2009 @ 10:30 AM
Salt Marshes: A Natural and Unnatural History
Dr. Judith Weis, Rutgers University

Friday, December 4, 2009, 10:30 AM
Historical Changes in Bathymetry in the Lower Passaic River
Dr. William Hasen, Worcester State College
Welcome to GEE's blog. We hope to keep you updated on all that is ecology, the environment, green design, and natural resource technology! Check back often for new information on what's going on in YOUR community!