Urban Lichens, Part 2 of 2: A Visit With a Lichenologist

A woman holds a hand lens up to a tree trunk.Yesterday: Urban Lichens, Part 1: OMG! Urban Lichens!, in which we learned that there are lichens in the city.

So I’d established that lichens can, sometimes, live in cities. The next step: round up a lichenologist.

On a sunny December afternoon, I met up with Manuela Dal Forno, a lichenologist. To be precise, she’s a lichen systematist. That means she studies how various species of lichens relate to each other. Originally from Brazil, she specializes in tropical lichens and recently got her Ph.D. from George Mason University in Virginia.

I had figured out for myself that there were two kinds of lichen on the young, new trees that had recently been transplanted near my office. One was a bold, sage-green, splotch with ruffled edges. The other was a subtler sort that seemed to lie closer to the bark. Two species of lichen, I thought. That’s interesting.

I had no idea.

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Urban Lichens, Part 1 of 2: OMG! Urban Lichens!

a sage-green lichen on a gray tree trunk

It was the big new concrete transit center that brought the lichens to town.

In September, a huge new structure opened next to the metro station closest to my office. It has three levels, for buses, more buses, and taxis. It was held up by construction delays and disputes. The county and the transit authority are suing various construction companies for a very large amount of money.

The whole time it was being built, standing partly finished, and being worked on again, the many buses that bring people to and from the station had to stop on the streets nearby. The sidewalks were crowded with bus shelters and passengers. When the transit center was finally opened, the bus shelters eventually went away, leaving bare concrete pads in their place.

Then, one day, in November, something else appeared: trees. Six spindly trees planted along the sidewalk, each about 15 or 20 feet tall, bare of leaves, tied to stakes with lengths of wire, run through garden hose to protect the bark. The first time I saw them, I stopped in my tracks, delighted. It wasn’t the trees; it was the lichens. Continue reading

The Elephant in the Bedroom


Just recently, the Chinese government ended its one-child policy, telling married couples they could reuse their nurseries one more time. It wasn’t out of the goodness of officials’ hearts. The original policy, put into effect in the late 1970s, was about demographics, an attempt to control the pull on the flailing economy. The change is still about demographics. Eventually a child-limiting policy tips a populace toward the elderly, and the Communist Party is now ready to pump more young bodies into the system.

That a government can have any say over baby making is hard for many of us to swallow. It’s a true violation of the most personal of freedoms.

But Earth–or really, Homo sapiens—has a big problem. There are, at the moment of my writing this, 7,299,918,507 people sharing the planet, and those last digits are clicking up fast. [Watch it yourself.] China, India, and the little-old U.S. of A are the most prolific (the first two have whizzed past a billion each). A commonly cited estimate is that every second we humans have around four babies while only two of us die. Sounds like growth to me.

Growth isn’t spread evenly: In some countries it has slowed considerably, and worryingly for those governments. Parts of Europe are even seeing population shrinkage, as is Russia and Japan. But overall expansion continues: We are still projected to have a world population of 9.6 billion by 2050.

The U.S. government has been a big supporter of growth. After devastating losses from WWI and WWII, officials encouraged people to have more kids using tax incentives. Those haven’t gone away. Most U.S. parents today receive a $1,000-$3,000 credit on their federal tax return for each child dependent. Other countries have related incentives, whether straight-up money per kid (e.g., Australia) or, as in Germany, free childcare.

The economic model that many countries aim to follow, in fact, goes against logical science. Unlimited growth with limited resources is clearly unsustainable. Technology can only take us so far.

No one likes talking about overpopulation. It leads to often-ugly debates over what may be the most human thing we do. One can’t discuss making fewer babies without sounding elitist, racist, and many other “ists”…there are cultural, religious, and practical reasons some people have larger families than others. Those who suggest any of those reasons are outdated or selfish or bad for the planet are bound to feel the burn of a sizzling backlash.

Meanwhile, a federal government like ours is an animal that demands to be fed, by taxing the electorate and taking on massive debt based on the promise of repayment by generations to come. A country needs people to fill those coffers, to care for the elderly, to build roads and schools and banks, to spend their earnings and grow the economy. And maybe, robust populations of young people making a difference in the world are a source of national pride. No government wants its country to become a side note.

Can migration fill the void? In an ideal world, perhaps. Equitable distribution, open arms to those in need of a home, a neat blending of cultures that celebrates both differences and common ground…it sounds perfectly logical and moral. But wherever in the world I’ve been where diversity has become policy, I’ve seen it—discrimination, self segregation, battles over assimilation and representation. Distrust and all around bad behavior. Multiculturalism is a messy thing that, sadly, brings out all those ‘isms’ that divide us.

I’m no expert on population or on government policies related to demographics. I’ve simply been thinking about all this recently because I’ve been talking to scientists about panda conservation, for a Nat Geo article I’m writing. One source, Sarah Bexell of the University of Denver, took a step beyond the usual answer to “why are these animals in trouble.” Yes, it’s habitat destruction and lack of enforcement of reserve boundaries and the changing climate and the other usual suspects. But the core of the problem isn’t as much what we do as people as it is how many of us there are doing it. “Population growth the world over is at the root of all species declines,” she said.

Of course, she’s right. And this goes well beyond endangered species. Population is at the root of pollution, of poverty, of environmental degradation, of desertification, of food and water shortages. Name the issue and one could argue that with fewer people needing (and taking) resources, the problem would be manageable.

I’d be remiss not to note, though it’s obvious, how completely unbalanced that resource taking is around the globe. Our Western footprints are those of giants compared with so much of the larger world population. People in the West may be making fewer babies, but our outsize “needs” make us highly culpable in what’s happening to our environment.

I don’t know the answer to this Herculean problem, of course. If I did, I’d be getting all kinds of prizes. My husband and I don’t have children, and while overpopulation was on our minds as we made our decision, it wasn’t the main factor. Mostly, we just don’t like kids. (Just kidding. We like them. We just don’t want them touching our stuff.) We try to use resources wisely. But we use plenty of them.

I hate the idea of a government regulating family size. I would never argue for that route, here or in parts of the world that are growing fast. But incentives that go the other direction, that make small families, requiring less stuff, a good choice? Can a government support the truth that more of everything isn’t always best, and give credit to those who get behind that idea? It seems to me a better, more moral way to address the human problem, a shift more people can live with (though it would be political suicide for anyone in democratically elected office).

I know most adults feel a great pull to have children—it is, after all, what we’re built to do. I believe those people should be allowed to exercise their reproductive rights. And I know governments have economic reasons for growing the populace (which often don’t make real sense—a topic for another time, perhaps). It takes a bold leader to suggest that less is more.


But when I step back to look at the global picture and trace the trajectory of our current path, I see excellent reasons for more of us to walk that path two by two.






Photos from Shutterstock

Nobody Knows What Makes Something a Copycat Crime


On July 31st, five women robbed a bank in Olympia, Washington. While one stood watch outside, four of them entered the bank wearing hoodies and dark stocking caps and wielding handguns. Inside, one stood guard, another called out the time in in five second intervals, while the remaining two leapt over the counter and stole the money.

The heist took 53 seconds. The five women left the bank, and ran into a nearby forest to get rid of their clothes and stolen handguns. Then they took a bus going West, back to where they lived, in a town called Aberdeen 60 miles outside of Olympia.

It took officials only a few weeks to catch the thieves. Several of them lived together, and in their home, officials found the blueprint they used to plan the heist. It wasn’t a map or a written list of instructions though. It was a copy of a movie called Set it Off, starring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise. The women had watched the movie several times to prepare for their heist, using it as a template.

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The Last Word

FullSizeRender-3January 18 – 22, 2016

Pity the eastern LWONians, in fact the whole American eastern coast, tunnelling through the snow in a direction they hope is up, looking for some blue sky, some sun again.

I thought maybe, yes maybe, I could do my bit for STEM education and connect up that kid who’s so crazy about astronomy.  It was a good thought but it hasn’t worked yet.

Erik sets our hairs on fire with the blazing truth:  journalists dislike Sean Penn because nobody should be writing incompetent puff pieces about death-dealing criminals and calling it journalism.

Craig graffiti’ed his own hand, then remembers all the other hands he’s seen on cliff walls and in caves, the most ancient art, saying “Here I am.  This is me.  I made this.”

Guest Ben Goldfarb finds little Italian wall lizards non-invasively invading his neighborhood, his soul, and the minds of neighboring entomologists.

You want to know how the Oregon Trail and Indian trails get saved? how the greater sage grouse won’t be knocked out? Follow Sarah into the sculpted white canyons of bureaucratic jargon.


Pretend this Environmental Impact Statement is a national park: A brief tour of a virtual landscape


Behold, the majestic white cliffs. They form ghostly canyons that stretch into forbidding fog. Swallows build mud-daub nests on their walls. Falcons dive from their precipices to eat the swallows. Some say people have vanished here without trace, back during the first days of exploration.

Limestone? you ask. The incised and sculpted leavings of an ancient seabed?

No. Paper. Thousands of pages of stacked paper. But really, we’re not concerned about those cliffs. We must look beyond them: The landscape we’re here to “see” is contained therein, and it looks nothing like this one. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Lizards of Hastings-on-Hudson

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 5.04.15 PM

The legend begins thus: In 1967 — or maybe it was ’66 — a pet store truck overturned in Long Island, sending a few dozen finger-length Italian wall lizards scampering into the bushes of Garden City. There Podarcis siculus thrived, slurping up arthropods along rock walls and sidewalks, dodging beaks and claws and tires. Over the decades, the lizards, elegant Mediterranean natives whose emerald torsos taper to long pewter tails, turned up in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, flourishing in drainage ditches and grassy cemeteries. One amateur biologist estimated their dispersal rate at a block per year.

As far as scientists knew, however, the animals didn’t trespass north of New York City. Until, this summer, in Hastings-on-Hudson — the Westchester town, 40 minutes above the city by rail, where I grew up — I saw one.

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The Mark We Leave


Rounding a corner in Manhattan last week, I saw a handprint spray-painted on a wall. It was my hand. I had put it there last summer, my first and only piece of graffiti. It was nothing special, no artistic flair other than my five fingers. I had gloved my hand in plastic wrap and waved spray paint over it, creating a simple stencil out of part of my body, one of the oldest forms of enduring human expression.

The wall of the building had originally been a sprawling gallery of graffiti until, against the wishes of those living inside, the city whitewashed the whole thing. I was staying with one of the residents when the white-washing occurred. She invited me to go to the wall and plant a new seed. She was hoping graffiti artists would soon return and start the process again. A print was needed to kick off the next wave.

Last week, I was glad to see that the seed had taken hold. Several new images had sprung up. Continue reading