December 27, 2014

6, 37: Blur

In passing

  • Our Southern Acela Correspondent, Robinson M., suggests this and this as essential Avocado tweets. (Late-breaking news: When I asked for permission to quote him, he said “I would only amend by adding the very recent one about avocado being okay with you not telling the truth”, referring presumably to this one.)

  • I keep thinking about the theory that spammers deliberately show their hand in order to attract gullible people. (I think Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria? is the canonical presentation of the idea.) There’s something there: something about exclusivity and building in-groups and signaling.

  • Data URL problems.

Indirectly via @interdome, a particularly lovely time-lapse of laser-sighted telescopes. The Q&A (isn’t it fun to see Q&A called Q&A instead of FAQ?) is pretty great. I had never thought of this:

the telescope has to send its target list to Space Command ahead of time. Space Command then tells them not to use the laser at specific times, ostensibly to avoid blinding spy satellites. However, you could calculate the spy satellite orbits if you knew where they were at specific times, so Space Command also tells the telescope to not use the laser at random times when no satellites are overhead.

If it were truly at random, you could do spectrum analysis to pick out which ones were real. In other words – sketch version – you could say “ah, whatever else happens, every 17.321 hours they shut that telescope down, so something important is on an orbit that crosses that often”, and work a process of elimination. To avoid giving away so much information, you would want to make up a number of plausible orbits and black those out too. This suggests that they maintain a database of virtual – ghost – spy satellites that exist only to help hide the real ones. That’s one of several odd implications of the story.

Also, I like the way this fellow thinks:

Every telescope should have a laser, regardless of whether or not it would actually have any scientific benefit. The dishes of the Submillimeter Array in particular each need a laser. I think there will be widespread support within the photographic community for this upgrade, airplanes and satellites be damned.

And speaking of time-lapses, @outwardfacing and I were in Marin last weekend. Marin is the hills across the bay from San Francisco. Inland it’s forest, proper forest, with ferns and everything, closer to the Bay – which have I mentioned has a full thousandth of the Earth’s population? – than seems plausible. The towns remind me a bit of towns back up home like Anacortes, Friday Harbor, or Port Townsend, places that have galleries for tourists and, four blocks away, feed stores. Towns with one terrible bakery, one okay bakery, and one excellent bakery. (Okay, the good ones, last time I was there: Calico Cupboard in Anacortes, Café Demeter in Friday Harbor, and in Port Townsend of course … noooohoho, Bread and Roses closed?!)

The forest is mostly second growth of doug-firs and redwoods. Redwoods are almost new to me: the northernmost wild ones on the West Coast just barely creep up into southern Oregon. An elderly gardener neighbor did have, well, let’s tell this story in order.

As perceived by Eurocentric institutional science’s taxonomy, here is the state of play as regards redwoods in the early 20C:

  • A minor Austrian polymath, Stephan Endlicher, tangentially involved in the Year of Revolution, named a subfamily of cypresses Sequoia. (Cypresses include, as well as the obvious, junipers and western red-cedar. Think of pleasant-smelling trees with fibrous wood.) Endlicher was a linguist, and the name Sequoia might be a memorial to Ssiquaya, mentioned in the last newsletter, but then again it might not. Now the subfamily has two genuses, each with one species:

  • One is Sequoiadendron giganteum, the giant redwood, which grows in inland California and is the largest living thing on Earth by volume.

  • The other is Sequoia sempervirens, the coast redwood, which is what you find in Marin. If you leave it alone for a few thousand years it will end up the height of the London Eye, or a Saturn V.

  • There are fossils of these species and their ancestors and some relatives that did not survive.

So. In 1941, the Japanese paleobotanist Shigeru Miki notices that some of the fossil sequoia fragments he’s looking at have slightly different seed-cone and leaf structure from others, and decides to distinguish them as a genus. He names the new group Metasequoia, μετά- (click “Middle Liddell”) meaning among. As a genus names go, Metasequoia is taxonomist-speak for “another damn kind of sequoias”.

The government of Japan in 1941 is controlled by right-wingers pursuing an ambitious project called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which is causing a lot of distractions from pure research in biology, and even at the best of times most people don’t care when a paleobotanist renames a fossil leaf, so Miki’s paper did not make a splash.

Two years later, in China, the botanist Zhan Wang has moved twice to avoid the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which includes some of the most grisly war crimes ever recorded. He’s on an expedition out of Chongqing, in Sichuan (I’m inconsistent and anachronistic in my romanizations here; deal with it), to survey timber in Shennongjia – and, while he’s at it, to find out for science whether the yěrén is real. On his way he gets malaria, so the expedition puts up at an agricultural school in Wànxiàn County (now Wànzhōu District, a suburb of Chongqing, partly flooded by the Three Gorges Dam). The principal, Longxing Yang, had known Zhan as an undergrad. He has a question: what is the strange tree in the valley three days away? Zhan is an affable and self-deprecating scientist, a patient teacher, but completely gung-ho about stuff like mystery trees. He detours the expedition and finds the tree, where the locals – who call it a water fir – have put a small shrine under it. In and around that valley it’s not a particularly rare species, but to Zhan and other experts it’s a surprise. The logistics of identification are so slowed by the war that it’s only in late 1946 that they get good samples to Beijing. There the great taxonomist Hú Xiānsù has just returned, to a looted institute, from his own political rustication.

( is a poet, a literary and cultural critic, an early skeptic of social Darwinism, a founder or caretaker of several important institutions, a translator and advocate of Irving Babbitt, and an education theorist, as well as the preeminent plant taxonomist of China, and in 1939 he’d said something that the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere puppet government disapproved of. I don’t know what it was, but given his general outlook and panache I bet it was pretty good. Later he’ll be criticized during the Anti-Rightist Movement, and get in trouble for anti-Lysenkoism when China is trying to cozy up to the USSR. In late ’65, he’ll suggest root-level taxonomic reclassifications in a foreign journal without permission. In early ’66, the Cultural Revolution will rise, and that paper will be part of the evidence that he’s a reactionary. He’ll tell his daughter quite plainly that he will die before he regrets his work. They will confiscate his apartment, possessions, and salary. On 1968-07-15 he will be due to report to the Institute of Botany to be isolated from his family, but will have a second heart attack and die instead. We would all do well to consider the title of a memorial paper that translates to Hú Xiānsù should not be forgotten.)

Hú recognizes the samples as what Miki had described in fossils. He and Zhèng Wànjūn name it Metasequoia glyptostroboides. (Translating freely: “yet another sequoia-like thing, but this one looks a bit like a Glyptostrobus”.) The tree with the shrine becomes the type specimen, and seeds from it and its neighbors arrive at research gardens in Oregon, California, Massachusetts, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. The journalist Milton Silverman happens to be in the room when Ralph Chaney at UC Berkeley – an expert on sequoia fossils – opens the package with samples from Hú. According to legend, when Chaney realizes he’s holding still-green Metasequoia leaves, he faints at his desk. Silverman rides with Chaney on a cloud of deserved hype to visit the trees in Sichuan, and coins the common name: dawn redwood.

There’s this phrase “living fossil”. From a botanical point of view, the interesting thing is not so much that scientists saw it in rocks before they saw it in the wild. It’s that the fossils from 65 million years ago were so much like the living ones. This despite noticeable differences in things like leaf color among trees from the same valley. The sequoias have been doing the sequoia thing for a very long time.

And they used to be all over the place. In late dinosaur times, they were common across the Northern Hemisphere. There are sequoia fossils in Svalbard, in Greenland, all through Canada and the US, over to Japan and China, and from the near side of Siberia clear across to Svalbard. It’s one of the more common fossils in Oregon and up into the Columbia Gorge: near Larch Mountain is a Metasequoia Creek, an echo of what’s now called Metasequoia Valley in Sichuan. It’s a fitting though obscure local glory that a specimen in Portland was the first Metasequoia to put forth seeds in the Western Hemisphere in roughly 6 million years. It’s tree #313 in the Hoyt Arboretum, on the Wildwood Trail. Look for the Oregon Heritage Tree plaque. Always read the plaque.

Metasequoia – I’m kinda on the fence about “dawn redwood” – is a gorgeous tree. It has a kind of dignity even as a sapling and retains charm when huge. From a distance, it’s a big shaggy cone; up close, it has some of the zig-zaggy swoop and gnarl of a yew. The bark is red to gray, sometimes taking on lichen, and the feathery leaves go from lawn green in the spring to an almost impossibly tasteful shade of salmon/gold/fire in the fall. It grows quickly from cuttings in nearly any temperate climate, is not prone to diseases or parasites, and responds well to pruning: yea, even unto bonsai-ness. (Did I mention it grows from cuttings? Ask permission, of course.)

But wait, you say. What we’ve just described is a tree that used to grow over a sizable fraction of the world, and still will if you give it the chance. Why does it need the chance? Why did it go away at all? Why do we have forests of pine and fir and elm and oak and maple and aspen but no redwood?

No one knows. The best hypothesis I’ve seen is from LePage, Yang, and Matsumoto (p. 27). It goes roughly like this:

  1. At a peak in the early Eocene, 50 million years ago, global temperature was about 13 °C above what it is now. Over the Eocene, to about 35 million years ago, it slid down to +6; then it stayed relatively steady on the long scale; and over about 15 million to 1 million years ago it ramped down again to −2. In the really big picture, most of the time since the non-avian dinosaurs died has been spent on an extremely slow cooling trend. That turned a lot of tropical forest into temperate forest, and temperate forest into boreal forest.

  2. Coast redwood, for example, barely resists frost. A small one growing on its own (without the insulation of a thick canopy) can easily die in freezing weather. But Metasequoia grows happily in places like St Petersburg. It’s deciduous, which suggests it’s adapted for the dark winters near the pole. If the more cold-delicate coast and giant species could make 50-million-year marches to frost-free redoubts, Metasequoia should have been fine. If cold itself were the problem, we would expect vast Metasequoia forests only a few degrees of latitude south of where they were in the Eocene. So there has to be something more complex.

  3. Cooler forests form more nutritious soils, because the microorganisms that decompose fallen leaves, dead trees, dead animals, and so on are far more efficient when it’s warm. (Buy two figs a day and put one in the fridge and the other on your living room table. After a week you will have sludge on your table and seven good figs in your fridge. The fridge contains more useful nutrition because it’s colder. Same principle.)

  4. Redwoods compete for ecological niches with their cousins in the pine family. The pines have ectomycorrhizal roots: symbiotic fungi coat them in mantles and interpenetrate between their cells with Hartig nets. The fungi act as delicate extensions of the roots and supply extra water, phosphorous, nitrogen, and other nutrients in exchange for photosynthate sugars. Redwoods go further, with endomycorrhizal roots. Their fungi are allowed not only into the root tissue, but through the membranes, inside the redwoods cells themselves, where they establish tiny dendriform special economic zones called arbuscules.

  5. In present-day plants, trees in cool and dry forests seem broadly to prefer pine-style symbiosis, while the sequoia type is relatively common in marshes and jungles. Some botanists suspect that this is because the pine-style roots are a little more efficient at picking up nitrogen or other nutrients in richer soils.

So: the slow cooling of the last 50 million years changed forest soils in a way that gave the pines and firs and spruces a slight nutrient-collection advantage over the redwoods. The story is merely plausible, not convincing, but as far as I know it’s the best one going.

It looks like Metasequoia is very close to being viable in the wild – but not quite there, not over tens of millions of years. On the human timescale, it holds on where it’s put. There is a speech here about climate change and rewilding that I will, I think, leave as The World’s Loudest Subtext. (“The preserve is tentatively scheduled to open to the public in 2035.”) Anyhow, when you learn to spot Metasequoia, you will. It’s lining residential streets, on courtyard lawns, in back yards, and in the orchards and arboreta of certain kinds of gardeners. Which is where I saw it first, and why I had some sense of the habit and aspect of the coast redwood up close despite never having seen one that I remembered. They loom in a very hospitable way.

To me they do. After two years living away from forests, I also saw through the eyes of city people for whom ruralness is tangled up with terror. Having spent a pretty benign childhood in the woods, it’s not-sad-just-disappointing how much urban/suburban American culture has come to lean on woods as a shorthand for awfulness. I have no particular ability, or desire anyway, to scalpel into why it happens. I just wish that trees weren’t the accepted symbol for the threatening other. That’s troubling. The actual population of malign witches, cannibal small-town mayors, horse-sized spiders, and incestuous bandits is lower than you might suppose. (Shhh, I still love Twin Peaks, shhh, shhh. And Shirley Jackson’s novels. And her domestic semifiction! Which, if you remember Barry, well, she was driven to the hospital to deliver him by Ralph Ellison.) Or whatever, be wrong, see if I care. But driving on a windy road in the dusk mist between big trees will be a sacrament of the cult I keep procrastinating on founding.

I keep thinking of Unreality Star, which is almost too easy, too on-the-nose, about one of the things that gives me the wilburs about cities:

“Rapid expansion of technology raises questions about the reliability between clinicians in determining which delusions are possible and which ones are bizarre.”

compli ¯\(ツ)/¯ cated

And so back between soggy golf courses and buzzard-patrolled horse pastures to San Rafael, a larger and more touristy town, with a cinema that couldn’t be anywhere else. It has that feeling of a nonprofit institution kept as a pet by wealthy benefactors who don’t want to change its character. Lucasfilm has Marin roots, and Skywalker Sound’s eponymous Ranch is not far away. It seemed apt that we saw the trailer for Monk With a Camera, which feels so cheerful, so clean, so totally inept. (Incidentally, I appreciated the lines from “But many Americans still manage” in The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side. I don’t think I’m disrespecting the practices of Buddhist friends by saying that mainstream coastal American culture tends to give Buddhism, as a … [makes framing gesture], some scary free passes.) (Also incidentally, I kind of freaked out in the cinema because I thought maybe the photo that Vreeland was cleaning at about 1:03 to 1:12 was printed on fabric. In fact, stepping through frame by frame now, it’s that they used some kind of weird motion smoothing, and the algorithm, maybe confused by motion blur, is failing to separate the background from his hand.)

But we were there to see Antarctica: A Year On Ice. It’s as beautiful as you would think. Some of its charm is in its willingness to not really get into anything. It was organized around season alone, with no backbone to the story: the narrator’s life, the ecology, the Earth science, the photography itself, and the social life of the station could each have knit the thing together, but no. He had the gentle audacity to present it as haphazardly as a vacation slideshow, just a bunch of vignettes with one or two obvious through-lines. I recommend it especially to people with an interest in photography or infrastructure. As well as some solid night sky work (Orion upside down!), it has a shot of the inside of a radome in hurricane-force winds, and a clip I’ve admired for years on YouTube.

I got to thinking about the short human history of Antarctica, and how time-lapses compress time, and how time seems to drag in the polar night, and about whether when we read history we should be trying to be there with it or trying to see the patterns in the blur.


The too-big-to-think-about context of the photo caption on p. 111 of Metasequoia glyptostroboides: Its Present Status in Central China. The effort behind metasequoia.org. The touches in the Red List account: ONMMTs! Holding a Metasequoia seed and knowing that everything about how to be that tree, even how to make friends with the fungus, is in there, and has been since the Cretaceous.


I think I ran long. If you like this newsletter, share it with a friend. If you don’t like it, unsubscribe. Have you tried putting a little fresh ginger in with your herbal tea? Thank you for reading.