Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Bicoastal Oaks

The 2018 fall foliage season was a bust.
Many friends on each coast - - and points in between - - said colors were muted or the leaves just turned brown and dropped.
Even at the height of fall foliage season in October, this view in Washington County, New York was underwhelming.

Oak trees, however, saved this disappointing fall foliage season. 
Before this year, I thought that, if fall foliage was a television series, that the moment the oaks appeared it would be a great time to get food and drink in the kitchen.  So many oak leaves are brown and leathery.
Without the brighter leaves of other species, there are less distractions from the great qualities of oaks. 
Before going much further, one of the foremost qualities of oaks, according to my friend John Graham, a Forester for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in Cortland, NY, is the number of different, sometimes almost wacky varieties.  “There are,” John explained, “over 600 species of oak worldwide and over 90 in the United States.”  In New York, red and white oaks are common.  The South is home to the majestic live oak.  The West coast is home to the: California black oak; coast live oak; valley oak; and canyon oak. 
A few weeks ago, Dorothy and I were driving to meet our friends Jack and Nancy.  Along the way, in the fading daylight, we saw red oak leaves spiraling to the ground.  Oak leaves tend to be long and narrow.  Their bottom edge is swept back like a fighter plane wing.  In calm air, an oak leaf spirals down rather than waft or parachute down, as does a maple leaf. 
Painting by J. Rowen
Even though so many oak trees go almost the entire winter with tough drab leaves, some oaks at this time of year have unexpectedly bright colors.  The brightness intensifies when the tree is in direct morning sunlight, as was the case in this photo of an oak after a recent sunrise.

Once oak leaves - - or any other leaves - - hit the ground, the first concern for most people is managing them.  Low-cut grassy yards are a tradition - - and a requirement for those who live in tick or snake country.  Leaves must be removed or mulched, or they will smother the grass.
As the photograph below, from my friend Ken Relation, shows, dealing with leaves can be a long task.  Of raking, my friend Steve Jaffe says “It doesn't matter where the leaves get placed. It seems we are at the intersection of the four winds. They just keep coming from all directions.”

Photograph by Kenneth Relation
During the fall, there’s a lot of pressure to get all the work done before the snow flies or the temperatures drop.  But if you have a minute to look at the leaves on the ground, you will see a great variety of colors, shapes and sizes.

The round lobes on these oak leaves are a good clue that they came from a white oak.
While researching this post, I spoke to my friend Jennifer Tiara, a landscape architect at the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS).  When she heard about Ken’s and Steve’s situation, she said, “I feel like your friends as I have 3 large oak trees in the backyard and have leaves and acorns dropping all over the place.” “But the colors are changing,” she continued, “and to see the bright yellows and reds and purples from the Chinese pistache, maples, purple leaf plum and oaks - - it’s a great time of year in northern California.”

John explained that trees have smaller leaves at the top and larger at the bottom.  “Leaves that are lower in the tree,” he said, “are larger to maximize the area to catch sunlight and sustain the tree.” 
"Some people think the smaller size makes it easier for the leaf to avoid overheating,” he said, “Others think the smaller size allows sunlight to pass through to the lower leaves."

Some Westerners have less of a leaf problem than others.  Jennifer said the coast live oak and canyon oak keep their leaves year-round.
The canyon oak keeps its leaves year 'round.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Wind and Waves: A Long Island Nor'easter!

Although a Nor‘easter is a storm not as well-known as its cousins the hurricane, typhoon and tornado, it can still pack a wallop. 

In fact, according to Montauk’s Greg Donohue, who wears the hat of Director of Erosion Control to protect the Montauk Lighthouse, that 1991 storm immortalized in Sebastian Junger’s book, The Perfect Storm and the movie of the same name was a Nor‘easter.

The National Weather Service (NWS) website defines a Nor’easter as “a storm along the East Coast of North America, so called because the winds over the coastal area are typically from the northeast.”  “These storms,” the website continues, “may occur at any time of year but are most frequent and most violent between September and April.”

The NWS website goes on to explain that

Nor’easters usually develop in the latitudes between Georgia and New Jersey, within 100 miles east or west of the East Coast. These storms progress generally northeastward and typically attain maximum intensity near New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. They nearly always bring precipitation in the form of heavy rain or snow, as well as winds of gale force, rough seas, and, occasionally, coastal flooding to the affected regions.

A recent family visit to Long Island put me in the path of a particularly strong Nor’easter on Saturday October 27, 2018.

The Calm Before the Storm

Thanks to modern weather forecasting techniques, meteorologists can see a storm coming well in advance.  On Friday, October 26th, while all the television stations were working themselves into a lather about the storm, the weather and water on Long Island was calm.

In the Springs neighborhood on the South Fork, the main sign of the impending storm was that a contractor for a Town government was working overtime to complete work to place protective large boulders along a vulnerable causeway.

The following photograph shows a place where large equipment has been placing stone to protect the second of two causeways on Gerard Drive.  But notice that the water in the photo is flat and deceptively calm.

Hitting the Fan
On television in the days before a storm, it seems the news and weather people draw morbid energy from the impending disaster.  But in the case of this Nor’easter, their concern was warranted.
Saturday morning arrived with a roaring at my mother’s house.  The sound came from wind in the trees and high waves in the bay five minutes from her house. 

Out in the open, the rain was heavy, and the wind was the strongest I can recall.
On a reconnaissance trip to check the progress of the storm, large waves were breaking on the protective rocks along the first causeway on Gerard Drive.
But on the second causeway, the score was “Gardiners Bay 2, causeway 1”.  The causeway was still there but it was covered by big waves and the Town Highway Department was soon out with cones and a truck to close the road.  Having the Highway Department watching the roads and protecting motorists was most appreciated.
During past Long Island Nor’easters, and hurricanes, many places lost power because trees knocked down power lines.  Since Hurricane Sandy, the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) and PSEG Long Island have been better about cutting limbs and trees that could fall on power lines and cut service.  During this Nor’easter, the lights in my mother’s neighborhood flickered twice, but stayed on for the entire storm.  Thanks, LIPA and PSEG!
The Day After
On Sunday, the weather was sunny with a slight breeze.  As the photos below show, the raging waves of Saturday had changed to calmer rolling ones.
The Town had closed Gerard Drive.  But in my mother’s neighborhood the main evidence of the storm included big puddles and downed tree limbs and leaf clusters.
During a walk on the beach, I looked out and saw something sticking from the water that initially looked like the dorsal fin of a large shark. 
The large something was moving slowly along the beach.  When a wave came along, it moved tantalizingly closer to the beach - - but then bobbed back out.
Since it was low tide, I decided to wade in and get the object.  While the beach in this place shelves off gradually, the object was, of course, in deeper water than I thought.  I pulled it in and discovered it was a kayak.
The kayak looked like a shark fin because its stern was full of sand and rocks.  Pulling the kayak to shore was an arduous process, reminding me of that saying, “Never wrestle with a pig.  You’ll get dirty and the pig likes it.”
I got the kayak onto the beach and away from the water’s edge.  Perhaps the owner will spot it there, or someone else who likes boating will adopt it.
Also, while walking the beach, I saw some colored things bouncing in the water, in a way that was reminiscent of bouncing lottery balls during the nightly drawing.  
I went into the water; the “colored things” turned out to be 10 golf balls. 
The Town reopened Gerard Drive and life has gone back to normal in my mother’s neighborhood.  Elsewhere on Long Island, people were not as lucky.  A road segment collapsed in Orient Beach State Park and there was big flooding in Freeport on the South Shore.
I used to think a Nor’easter was just a storm.  But after this experience, I will never again think, “Oh, it’s just a Nor’easter.”