An Octopus’s Garden By the Sea

octopus

Monterey Bay Aquarium

I met Steve Vogel after a Rotary International meeting in Carmel, California. Steve is the head of animal husbandry at the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. He had come to our club to make a presentation on how the Aquarium tags sharks.

I have had up close one-on-ones several times with sharks so there was no news to me there. I was interested in the octopus.

As I explained to Steve, I was at the Monterey Bay Aquarium several years ago during the “member sleep-over.” Yes, as an Aquarium member, you may spend the night inside several nights each year. Now the term “sleep-over” is a misnomer since there is no actual sleep involved due to restless kids and snoring grandpas, but you get to snuggle up with the kelp forest tank none-the -ess.

I should mention that from age six to college, I aspired to be a marine biologist. My first open water expedition revealed that I get invariably seasick. I am now a botanist—a much more terrestrial endeavor—but I still yearn for the sea.

One Aquarium sleep over night, I was wandering around in places uninhabited by the other guests. Of course, they show the movie Jaws at midnight, thus removing all the children from the rest of the venue. I came upon a large enteroctupus dolfleinii, also known as the Giant Pacific Octopus. She or he (Steve made it known that they are not sure of octopus sexes) was attached to the thick Plexiglas side of her tank. I stood there marveling at her anatomy (I will use the term ‘she’ just for reference). She opened her eyes seemingly from a little nap and spotted me. Her eyes locked on to mine and she began to move. In an undulating fashion, she placed her magnificent body right in front of me while I was standing at her tank. She spread her eight tentacles in calculated moves as if she wanted to wrap her arms around me. But that is not what astounded me.

She looked deeply into my eyes, first with one eye, and then the other. The only way I can describe the experience is that we had a “moment.” We related somehow. I am not sure how cephalopods relate to each other, much less a human, but this was really something. I will never forget how that felt.

I described this event to Steve Vogel. I told him that since that encounter I refuse to eat Nama-tako (octopus in Japanese) at the sushi bar. I told him how mortified I was during Red Wing hockey games, without knowing why, when deranged fans threw dead octopi on the ice (this has since been outlawed, thank goodness).

He tilted his head. “Would you like to meet one?” Would I!!!!! As a science and environmental writer, I do get to do some pretty cool stuff. But this was special. It took several emails to make the arrangements, but yes, I did get to be with one.

My Magic Moment

I arrived with my old friend Danny McCarty, a professional photographer, and his 14-year-old daughter Alea. We were greeted by Cynthia Nolan, the new COO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who had been apprised of the encounter. I actually had not slept the night before as I was so excited. After all, how many people in the world get to do something like this? Steve arrived and took the three of us deep into the bowels of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Steve was very clear. “The octopus is a wild animal. It may or may not like you. If it doesn’t, it will go to the bottom of the tank and ignore you completely.” I knew this but was secretly hoping that we would have the “moment” that I had with the other octopus a few years before. That being said, I would be heartbroken if she rebuked me.

So we entered into the dark underbelly labyrinth behind the scenes at the world-acclaimed location. Steve led us up the stairs and opened the enclosure to the octopus’ garden.

“Now, it may not come. It has been fed already and it won’t be interested in eating.” Steve then started splashing water gently towards the creature. She was not far from us and reached out a tentacle. He splashed her a little more. She came right to me.

Octopi have taste receptors in each and every sucker. They have an incredible sensory and nervous system that can maneuver, extrapolate, decipher, and analyze information. She reached up to me and touched my arm. Then, the realization of my wildest cephalopod dreams, we fell in love.

She engulfed my upper torso. She stroked my face, my arms, my waist, and my shoulders. She looked at me as she caressed my body. She gently tried to assuage me to join her in the tank and I wanted to acquiesce. She was very strong. Steve mentioned that she was only twenty pounds. They had a seventy pound octopus before aptly named Octzilla. I was glad I was not so enamored with that big boy, because that could be dangerous.

My friend Danny reached his hand out to one of her larger suckers. She spit him out. She had no interest. She somewhat liked Alea, but not so much.

Now keep in mind, I was careful not to apply any lotion, oil, make up, or anything that would taint our tete a tete. I wanted an authentic experience, not to mention not wanting to spoil her garden.

Truth be told, things got a little heated. She had me engulfed, tugging hard to get me to dive in and play with her. Steve had to peel her off me to slow things down a little. She was excited. I felt her pull me into the center of her body. When I could feel her beak in the innermost folds of her skin, I asked Steve if she would bite. He said that she absolutely would not bite me, she never had. About three minutes later, she gave me a little love nibble. I will proudly wear that scar for the rest of my life.

After Steve pulled her away, sucker by sucker, tentacle by tentacle, we sadly said goodbye. I was so exhilarated by the experience, I practically skipped down the stairs. Steve led us through another labyrinth and out into the Aquarium itself. We looked at her through the Plexiglas in her own little garden where we had just been entwined. She was still lingering by the enclosure entry where we had been. She already missed me.

So I am now an advocate for the appreciation and conservation of the octopi. They are sentient beings living their lives the best they can—just as we are. How would you feel if someone came and yanked you from your home to be the nightly special at the sushi bar?

As stewards of this planet and all of its inhabitants, it is important to keep ourselves open to those “moments” with creatures with which we co-exist. It is imperative to protect their habitats and their lineages. There is something special between us Hominidaes and the other Kingdoms, Phylums, Classes, et cetera.

Something very special.

 

 

THE LAST STRAW – How Starbucks can change our culture for the planet’s best interests

5-gyres-ocean-plastic-pollution
5gyres.org–ocean plastic pollution

Monterey County Herald Interview

Starbucks is a worldwide phenomenon. Not only does the company employ hundreds of thousands of people, it constitutes a brand that most urbanites embrace, nay, cherish.

Since Starbucks corporate policy has embraced the preservation of Mother Earth, perhaps they could help instill a different culture in the consumption of beverages for the massive number of the java-enamored. This change would mean one itty, bitty urge in the direction of conservation for their patrons, and more important to Starbucks, give itself another push in the name of cool branding. In the process, it could save billions of tons of petroleum based waste.

I give you – the straw. When did the straw become an absolutely essential appurtenance for every beverage? God gave us lips for crying out loud! Unless you are a 2-year-old and are in need of a sippy cup, this utensil is superfluous.

Straws are made of plastic and yes, most plastic is petroleum based, although we are making huge strides in other compostable bio-based eating accessories. Starbucks is on the leading edge of this technology.

The reality is that only 27% of all plastics get recycled. The other 73% goes into landfills and particulate matter in the ocean.

The use of straws with beverages goes back to the Sumerians in 3000 BC. Straws were made of gold and lapiz and were presumably used to keep the settled matter at the bottom of home-brewed beer away from one’s palate. Modern day straws were patented by the creative and thirsty Marvin C. Stone, in 1888, whilst sipping a mint julep on his front porch on a hot day in Washington, DC. The straw of choice in those days was made from a type of rye grass. Although tremendously eco-friendly, Marvin did not care for the way it tainted his bourbon. He had the notion (after a few juleps I’m sure, as the most creative ideas appear at such auspicious moments) to take a strip of paper, wrap it around a pencil and apply glue, later perfecting his invention with wax.

Every beverage in most every corner bar and eatery provides you with a straw, even when one asks specifically for its deletion. Try it and you’ll see, even when you remind the well-intended server that you didn’t want a straw, they will take it out of your soda and throw it in the trash. When you order another drink, purposefully leaving the straw on your napkin to be used with the subsequent beverage, they will throw away the napkin and the straw, missing the point entirely.

The Starbucks staff has the wherewithal to not insert the straw into your drink. In fact, by company policy, they are not allowed to touch it. There is a bevy of straws lounging on the Starbucks condiment table covered in paper sheaths (provided by trees of course) for each customer to insert at their own discretion. My research points to the fact that nearly 99% of customers exercise that option.

But almost every other restaurant, diner, bar, coffee house, and deli will insert a straw in your drink, happily toss it in the trash when you are finished, and provide you with a brand new tubular utensil with your next order, even though you are drinking the same gin and tonic and possess the same lips.

This oral addiction has been totally engrained in the hospitality industry.

Paper straws are not common. They tend to get soggy, like the rye grass straw, especially with warm liquid. Take in point my Sikh friend who was in definite need of a straw for sipping his chai tea as his mustache and beard (the pruning of which is against his belief system) would coalesce foam remnants on his glorious grey facial cascade. The paper straw at Flora Grubb was a great and heartfelt concept but not exactly practical, not to mention the fact that they are not really earth-friendly either. They are derived from trees after all.

Sometimes a plastic straw is covered with a plastic sheath – both being discarded in regular trash (yikes, a double negative!).

Let’s say you spend your afternoon at Starbucks on your laptop and drink three Caramel Machiattos, extra espresso, low-fat whatevers. Most patrons will garner three straws. Since it is the same beverage and you have the same mouth, harboring the same germs, wouldn’t it be environmentally prudent to remove the straw from your first oral orgasmic experience and re-use it for the rest of your laptop jabbing afternoon? After all, it has been marinated. Not to mention, straws give you upper lip lines, like those found on smokers’ faces.

And, let’s not forget the cost (both fiscally and environmentally) of manufacturing the straw, transporting the little culprits, and the price of all that extra trash. Starbucks would not only look cool if they campaigned against straws, they would save tons of cash!

Are straws important for certain people like my Sikh friend and Stephen Hawking? Absolutely.

Are there millions of plastic straw particles swirling around in no less than five global garbage vortexes floating in our oceans? Yes.

Are they necessary for the general public? No.

Straws are occasionally appropriate. But, every day? With every beverage? For every person? No way. We have got to get a collective grip!!!

Starbucks has a very unique and perhaps THE most influential opportunity to affect this beverage application culture. Starbucks could implement a sincere start for cultural change for the benefit of our one and only planet. This cool, no-straw policy could create a huge branding in the positive and essential global direction, amassing necessary cultural changes. Just a little coercing from a giant like Starbucks (yes, there are over 500 Starbucks just in China!) could make a small stab at the reversal of climate change.

And right now, that’s all we’ve got – small stabs. But collectively, on a planet with billions of people, cultural changes could be the most influential.

One straw at a time.

Author and Conservationist, Brandon Wiggins

 

Wind and the White Bird

Red Bird of Paradise flower
Orange/Red Bird of Paradise flower

Brandon Wiggins, Author and Conservationist

The unpredictability of gusts is the fertilizer of structural stability.

Strelizia nicolai, also known as the “White Bird of Paradise,” is unique in a number of ways. Strelizia is one of the most widely used ornamental species in the world. Unlike most other cultivars, the “White Bird” is used in both interior and exterior applications. Check out any casino in Vegas or senior facility landscape in Tampa and one can find the strelizia genus, especially the “Red Bird,” in lobbies as well as parking lot dividers.

The Bird is able to not only survive but to flourish in a multitude of habitats. She exhibits incredible flexibility in both genetic structure and fortitude. There are very few species that can, and perhaps in an abstract way will, achieve success through sheer botanical determination under such circumstances.

The “Bird of Paradise” has a willowy stem structure. In the interior placement, the “branches” (technically petioles) tend to droop. In the exterior landscape model, Strelizia reginia remains upright and vigilant, needing only an occasional nitrogen fertilizer supplement for the ideal “V” shape.

Wind, coming from multiple directions with a variety of speeds, strengthens stem structure from all angles. The fibers and cellulose in the tissues of the long stems react to breezes with a growth habit constructed to keep its foliage during storms. Without gusts, Strelizia leaves are flaccid.

The stem structure of Strelizia needs controversy to be strong and resilient.

Unexpected gusts are beneficial once in a while. Humans also have the capability to bend with the wind and rebound from adversity. Winds strengthen our structural stability as well. Without the occasional tossing about, the human psyche could be weak during more serious torrents.

Unpredictability is perhaps the greatest psychological threat to humans. It seems that the modern-day Homo sapiens have lost genetic touch with the inevitability of change. One can surmise that Homo habilus and “Lucy” (H. australopithicus) were deeply entrenched in the absolute certainty of change on a daily (most likely hourly) basis. They had a much shorter life span than twenty-first century humans, yet grasped the concept.

Climate change will bring about the obsolescence of “normal.” This is certain. Unless Homo sapiens can join the strength from a lifetime of wind gusts with a conscious, intelligent, bipartisan action to affect political policy, Homo s. will face the consequences of a flaccid global action and a non-effectual result.

If the unpredictability of adversity, i.e. the change of the wind, is not embraced as the fertilizer of stability, there can be no strong structure to weather the change that is coming.

The “White Bird of Paradise” has the right idea.

LET’S STIR THINGS UP! In an eco-friendly manner

Ah, a delicious cup o' java!
Ah, a delicious cup o’ java!

Brandon Wiggins, Author and Conservationist

Coffee Stirrers. These, my friends, are perhaps the biggest environmental affront in the entire array of unnecessary disposable culinary accessories.

Stirrers come in red and black, tall and short, wood and plastic. They are displayed on the coffee condiment tables of every cafeteria, diner, break room, and beatnik java house from Berkeley to Boston, Pike’s Market to Pensacola.

The issue is, as tiny and seemingly inconsequential as these little buggers are, if you mathematically assess each coffee stirrer thrown in the trash from every borough in every country, it adds up to tremendous tonnage poised to infect the natural order of chemistry.

And yes, the balance of global chemistry is precisely the issue.

Plastic is a petroleum product. Due to the worldwide political and industrial machine, plastic is light, accessible, and cheap. Wood is not as bad, as it is also biodegradable. That being said, did you know that the average Smart and Final java stir stick is made from the White Birch (Betula pendula)? That this majestic beauty is cut down for stirrers? Seems kind of superfluous, don’t you think?

Let’s also not forget that every tree on this planet sequesters an amazing amount of carbon. Putting together the eradication of a live tree, the dirty fuel used to harvest it (gas burning farm and forestry implements are the worst offenders), and the manufacturing process consuming tons of fresh water, and we have issues on the larger scale…

If each coffee-drinking inhabitant of this tiny planet could just make a few miniscule changes in their daily rituals, we could begin a cultural change in favor of our Mother.

Here is the dilemma. You have coffee. It must be creamy—and of course you need sweetener. I for one dislike coffee but love cream and sugar. Nonetheless, they must be as one. So how can one accomplish a pleasing formulation of that silky sweet chemical concoction?

Here are some suggestions.

There may be a utensil on the table you can use. The use of your spoon is by far friendlier to the environment than any disposable stirring apparatus, but not as good as the next suggestion (unless your spoon was going to get dirty anyway).

If you want a sure-fire environmentally kind fix, try this:

Colloidal suspension: In your empty coffee cup, put in your sweetener. Liquid or powder, the science works the same. Add cream and swirl the mixture about while holding the cup. Then add your coffee. This is called a colloidal suspension. You will find that it mixes itself with absolutely no damage to the planet! If you use a powdered creamer, just pour a little coffee to mix it with in the beginning to achieve the same effect. The energy expended is your own, not the lumberjack, exporter, manufacturer, distributor, stocking clerk, waste management facility, or the regal Birch (not just any tree!) all who utilize countless ecological systems to create this beverage emulsifying product.

Now, I don’t mean to preach like your hippie Aunt Moonbeam but we have got to get a collective grip! We can do this. It requires our conscious choice.

We can start here, one little beverage accessory at a time.

How to Save the Planet While at the Bar

Enjoying your drink even more.
Enjoying your drink even more.

Brandon Wiggins, Science Writer at Large

Out on the town on a Friday night? Celebrating your big corporate promotion as a project developer in a green company? Perhaps putting a rough week to bed? Maybe your mother-in-law is—well, just who she is…

Here is a way to help the environment, and your future sustainability with no sacrifice on your part.

Let’s say you intend on having more than one cocktail (as if you were going to only have one). After we get past the bartender insisting that you need a straw like you were two years old, ask that your next drink be provided in the same glass with the same ice.

After the look of incredulity from the bartender, you explain that the ice has been “marinated” and since you are having the same drink and possess the same germs, it saves fresh water if you re-use your glass, both for the water used for washing and ice creation.

The reality is that for every glass washed in every bar (let’s just leave out restaurants, diners, etc. for mathematical purposes) a minimum of .2 gallons of fresh water is used to wash them. If you add in the electricity (often provided by polluting sources, i.e. coal or nuclear power, etc.) to heat the water, the detergent used to disinfect, the chemicals needed to treat the water, the sewer runoff into the bay, and a myriad of other toxic and semi-toxic scenarios, the well-intended bartender has unnecessarily harmed the planet.

Changing glasses is a cultural habit that became ingrained somewhere in the mid twentieth century. Cowboys in the Old West used the same shot glass and bootleggers undoubtedly clinked multiple use vessels.

So next time you belly up—speak up for a positive change in our beverage consuming existence. It is up to us to change the culture—one cocktail at a time.

California Oak Moths—Not All Bad…

 

Carmel Valley Oaks
Carmel Valley Oaks

Brandon Wiggins, Science Writer at Large

Perhaps the California Oak moth is not such a pest after all. Carmel Valley, as well as many other central and northern California areas, has been inundated with squishy worms, defoliated trees, and a brownish-gold detritus covering every surface from the driveway to the kids’ bikes. Albeit messy, the oak worm has its positive aspects.

With two breeding cycles in most years, the Oak Moth (Phryganidia californica) can heavily infest our local Quercus agrifolia, the coast live oak, every five to ten years. Locals have noted that the last infestation this severe was in 1984, yet another year of apocalyptic trepidation. During May and June, the juvenile half to one-inch multi-colored caterpillar will skeletonize the perennial oak’s leaves, cover decks and patio furniture in wormy goo, and chrysalize into many vein-winged oak moths within a few weeks.

Here in Carmel Valley where we have a unique mix of Quercus species, we are prone to these infestations. The deciduous oaks, the Holly Oaks (Quercus ilex), for example, are not eaten by the insatiable larva, but do host the female Phryganidia’s nesting requirements. Although the moths do not ‘eat,’ a job completely undertaken by the larval caterpillar stage, they do lay eggs on the underside of the deciduous oak’s leaves, ready to restart the cycle. Therefore those who have coastal live oaks near perennial oaks will suffer defoliation the most.

A completely fascinating process on its own, chrysalization encompasses the complete morph of liquefied stem cells that re-invent themselves into entirely new beings. Whose idea was that?

Distressingly, the Oak Moth may temporarily feed on other species that are not oak related. These insects will be unable to mature on this material and most will perish before crysalizing into moths. Along that line, if the oak has been completely defoliated, the caterpillars will become malnourished and eventually die without maturing into an egg laying entity. That would explain the putrefying material under the BBQ cover that was left in the corner…

The good news is that the caterpillar droppings, also known as frass, have a tremendous benefit to our overall ecosystem. That thick grainy substance is full of nitrogen and mobilizes overall carbon distribution. It also increases soil respiration and has a direct and indirect effect on nutrient and nitrogen cycling. The best treatment of this material is composting, along with other spring and kitchen waste, for your high nitrogen (green as opposed to flowering) crops.

As for our precious oaks, the University of California – IPM website states, “Healthy oaks generally tolerate extensive loss of leaves without serious harm, so treatment to control oak worm is usually not recommended.” Spraying for Phryganidia could harm birds and beneficial insects and only add more chemicals to an already inundated ecosystem. The oaks will completely recover unless they were weak and ready for their timely demise in any event. As of mid-June 2011, we are seeing new growth on the beleaguered oaks sprout with wild abandon.

As in life in general, the messy bits, also known as “squishy goo,” can nourish the most barren but fundamentally strong beings, given the opportunity and enough time to cycle through the natural processes. The oaks will come back more beautiful than ever. Maybe a few weeks of unsightly mess are worth it!

 

 

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Fertilizer, and More!

Ficus carica and sweet allysum groundcover.
Fig tree (Ficus carica) and sweet allysum groundcover

Brandon Wiggins, Science Writer at Large

What is fertilizer? Simply put, fertilizer combines the nutrients that plants need to grow—potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus—in a form they can digest. Think of it as plant food.

As crops grow, they absorb, or mine, nutrients from the soil. When crops are harvested, so too are the nutrients that were absorbed by the plants. Commercial  fertilizers nourish the soil by returning the “food” that next year’s crop will require.

Nitrogen is a key element in protein. Like the human body, plants need it to grow. Phosphorus is the plant world’s equivalent of carbohydrates—it provides the energy for plants to thrive. And potassium is a mineral that helps plants fight stress and disease. It helps plants grow strong stalks, in the same way that calcium gives people strong bones.

Are there chemicals in fertilizer? The three main ingredients in fertilizer—nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus—come from nature. They are not man-made. Fertilizer companies simply convert them into a form that plants can use.

Fertilizer producers can blend nutrients into precise combinations to match the unique needs of different farms, crops, and fields. In this way, farmers can feed their soils with the most effective and efficient blend of potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen to achieve optimal yields.

Do farmers need to use fertilizer? In a word, yes. Every season, plants draw from the soil the nutrients they need to grow. When a crop goes to market, so too does the potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen it has absorbed and used throughout the growing season. When farmers fertilize, they put back into the soil the nutrients their next crop will require.

Soils do not naturally contain all the nutrients that crops need. And while some of the same nutrients in fertilizer are found in soil, they are not present in a sufficient supply for today’s high-yield farming.

It can take years—even decades—for nutrients to build up in the levels necessary to nurture a good crop. A single season can wipe out many years’ worth of naturally produced nutrients. Fertilizers give Mother Nature a helping hand.

Where does phosphorus come from?  Phosphorus used in fertilizers comes from the fossilized remains of ancient marine life found in rock deposits in the U.S. and other parts of the world. This raw ore is processed to create water-soluble compounds that make the phosphorus available to plants as a nutrient.

Phosphorus helps early plant health and root growth. It is involved in seed germination and ensuring plants use water efficiently. Phosphorus is the plant world’s equivalent of carbohydrates—it provides the energy that a plant needs to grow.

Where does potassium come from?  Potassium is the seventh most abundant element in the earth’s crust. Through natural processes it is filtered into the planet’s seas and oceans. As these bodies of water evaporate over time, they leave behind mineral deposits. Fertilizer companies mine potassium from these deposits.

Potassium is a mineral that helps crops fight stress and disease. It helps plants grow strong stalks, in the same way that calcium gives people strong bones. 

Where does nitrogen come from?  The air around us contains huge amounts of nitrogen. In fact, nitrogen makes up about 78% of the atmosphere. Fertilizer producers combine nitrogen with natural gas to change it into a form that plants can digest.

Nitrogen is nitrogen, whether it’s used by plants, animals, or people. It is a key element in protein. Like the human body, plants need nitrogen to grow. Often used in greater amounts than other nutrients, nitrogen helps make plants green and plays a major role in boosting yields.

What are the essential mineral nutrients?

  • Macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulphur
  • Micronutrients: boron, chloride, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and zinc
  • Essential or beneficial for some plant species, not all: silicon, sodium, and cobalt
  • Essential for animals but not for plants: selenium
Grapefruit Tree
Grapefruit tree (Citrus paradisi)

FERTILIZER AND FOOD

What role do fertilizers play in feeding a growing world population?  Fertilizers play a huge role in helping feed the world. Thanks to modern fertilizers, world food production has more than doubled since 1960. Today, an estimated one-third to one-half of our global food supply is directly linked to use of commercial fertilizers.

If we are to meet growing demand for food, however, we will need to double our current levels of production. We can’t do that without fertilizers. Just to match current production, we’d have to put into production every available acre outside urban areas—including forests, wildlife habitats, and leisure areas.

In Canada, an estimated 40% of yield increases achieved by farmers are a direct result of commercial fertilizers. Continuing to make better and more efficient use of fertilizer will help us feed the planet.

What would happen to food prices without fertilizer? 

Orange Tree
Orange tree (Citrus sinensis)

One of the biggest benefits from efficient fertilizer use is inexpensive food. Worldwide, one in three people can neither grow nor afford to buy enough food. With the help of commercial fertilizer, North American farmers are able to produce the most abundant, nutritious, and affordable food on the planet. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons why people on this continent spend less for food than any other nation on earth.