‘Tree of Heaven’ belongs in hell

Pic of the fruit of the alainthus, the ironically named tree of heaven — supposedly named that by the Chinese because it grew so tall, not for any heavenly qualities.

One tough invasive, known for its ability to grow almost anywhere there’s a thimbleful of dirt. This year, we had one actually growing OUT of a storm gutter on the street.

Here’s what I wrote about it when I did a piece on our worst invasives.

Having tried to stop one ailanthus from growing near my house, I can testify how hard it is to kill the Tree of Hell. It was called Tree of Heaven in its native China because it grew out of rocks on mountain heights where other trees woulheaven (566x800)d not grow.

It is notorious for its ability to grow in hostile environment, from pavement cracks, to vacant urban lots to mounds of garbage. Its tenacity is such that in the best-selling “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” it is the symbol of a poor family’s hopes and aspirations.

It first reached the U.S. in Philadelphia in 1748, introduced by a gardener. Then nurseries on the East Coast sold it because it was pest free, grew quickly and, as we know all too well, will grow just about anywhere.

It’s so tenacious because it sends up many root sprouts, rapidly forming a dense colony and it releases chemicals from its roots that hinder the growth of other plants.

Eliminating it is difficult. It can also be dangerous. Its sap contains quassinoids, chemicals that have caused heart problems and blinding headaches in some people who don’t protect themselves from exposure when cutting or handling the trees, according to the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Upcoming: Feeding birds by hand and “weeds in winter.”

My outdoor page editor has green-lighted two stories.

First is feeding chickadees by hand, as this photo I somehow managed to get in the 1/2 second the little guy was in my hand shows.  I told him it wouldn’t be a how to but a reflection on man and nature.

I am so enamored of these one-ounce fearless balls of tough.  When I was living in my one-room cabin ($45 a month!) at Whipples Dam I had a feeder outside the window, mixed seed. When all the black oil sunflower seeds were gone the chickadees would actually peck at the windowsill until I put out more. How could you not love them.

This will run Dec. 16 to coincide with the annual bird count.

The second piece will be on “weeds in winter” and probably won’t run until January, after all the killing seasons are over. Will probably contain as many wildflowers and plants as weeds, as this wild hydrangea, whose geometric precision never ceases to intrigue me.chickadee (800x463)

hydrangea seeds (800x449)Wild hydrangea is a hardy, adaptable shrub grown for its large, cloud-like clusters of early summer flowers that start out pale green and turn to white then eventually fade to brown adding winter interest to the landscape. Since it flowers on the tips of the new growth its flower buds are not diminished by harsh winters. It is native to woodlands in the eastern U.S.  For garden purposes, cultivated varieties are more attractive.


Prayer: A denial of the reality of nature

My next essay for Harrisburg….this should get the folks riled up.prayer

Bob Quarteroni


Let us, from the view of an extreme non-believer, consider prayer, that quaint custom of begging for something from a supposedly omnipotent god, sort of a cosmic dialing for deities.

Or, as Ambrose Bierce so nicely put it: “Prayer. To ask the laws of the universe to be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.”

What a mind-boggling concept. Something – some UberAll – looming over a universe that is about 93 billion light years in diameter – is listening to a short-order cook in Cleveland who is praying that he doesn’t get fired.

The absurdity is such that you would think rational people would have dropped this concept not long after realizing that the earth wasn’t all that flat and that, despite the mutants who espouse “young earth creationism,” the earth is NOT only a few thousand years old.


Well, it turns out that there might be less rational people around that I thought. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, four in 10 Americans believe God created the Earth and anatomically modern humans less than 10,000 years ago.

More? According to an article in LiveScience, many Americans “could use a refresher course in the basics. For instance, a 2014 National Science Foundation study found that only three out of four Americans know that the Earth revolves around the sun… Large percentages didn’t know that the father’s sperm determines a baby’s sex.”

Yes, blue stork means boy…

That explains a lot of weird behavior, including why people pray. If you’re that unmoored from reality than copping a plea to a Giant Maybe doesn’t seem all that strange.

But for us non-believers, it is a knee slapper, right up there with UFOs, Bigfoot, military intelligence, reasonable politicians and SCoseMer, the mutant Zooboo black-hole whisperer.

I can understand that it makes a spooky world less so for those who cling to the need for something more than our brief time on earth.

As Jeremy E Sherman Ph.D. said in Psychology Today, “As a meditation or source of self-soothing, as a form of therapy prayer makes perfect sense. Think of it like talking to your pet fish. You might get some benefit out of thinking you’ve got a dialogue going on, even if the fish doesn’t understand a word.”

And at least the fish exists, which is more than can be said for a god.

It makes no sense, for a whole lot of reasons.

First and foremost, the concept of a god getting personally involved in our sloppy little lives is so absurd that it barely requires rebuttal. We are the merest specks of cosmic fluff and to elevate our station so incredibly high in our minds that we would believe that a cosmic overlord would care if our appendectomy was successful is beyond silly.

And the god that seems to be the most popular worldwide is the one who seems to dislike humanity the worst. Always killing millions – Holocaust, cancer, malaria, wars, famine – and then asking the “faithful” to pray to him for justice and mercy.

That is one very, very mean dude you all seem to want to be friendly with.

As Shakespeare so eloquently said, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: They kill us for their sport.”

Or again, Annie Dillard in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”: “We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet.”

Aside from being unspeakably cruel, this Big Unlikely needs to be liked more than even Donald Trump, and THAT is saying something.

As Bertrand Russell said, “And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.”

Added Frederick Nietzsche’ “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.”

Nor can I.

Be you might ask, what about selfless prayer, prayer for world peace, for human harmony, for enlightenment and thousands of other worthy things so many people pray for.

I would answer as Gustaf Lindborg did: “The sailor does not pray for wind, he learns to sail.” Or the similarly sage Russian proverb: Pray to God, fine; but keep rowing to shore.

And that’s what most gets under my saddle about prayer. It’s a withdrawal from reality, a cosmic punt, walking away from real problems with real solutions in favor of some kneeling mumbo-jumbo.

As ordained pastor Mark Karris wrote on a blog, “We cannot afford to spend our time engaging in immature forms of petitionary prayer and superstitious practices. We cannot engage in spiritual activities that cause us to feel good, thinking we are accomplishing great things, but ultimately do not achieve the good they set out to accomplish. Or worse, they contribute to the evil and suffering in the world.”

Of course, prayer is but a tiny part of that vast evil, organized religion, a true scourge on our planet.

Whether it’s radical Islam now or the Catholic Church of the Inquisition, the Crusades or the French religious wars, millions upon millions have been killed because ridiculous religious beliefs A were different than ridiculous religious beliefs B.

The mindset that leads to a willingness to fight and kill over miniscule beliefs that separate believer from infidel was most memorably skewered by Jonathan Swift in “Gulliver’s Travels,” where he detailed the beliefs of two warring factions in Lilliput. The Big-Endians, who broke their boiled eggs at the big end, rebelled against the king, who demanded that his subjects break their eggs at the little end.

Yes, and medieval theologians used to argue about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. So it goes.

I know I won’t be changing any minds with this. Believers will just write it off as the raving of an unbalanced atheist who seems to have an irrational hate of all things religious.

Maybe they’re right. But I just can’t look at the hypocrisy and mayhem associated with religion and keep silent.

And prayer is the cosmic internet for all those believers, sending mindless messages to an invisible recipient, and feeling good about it.

Alas, as Voltaire said, “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.”





This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs…

toad(Note: Word Press was not working right yesterday, hence the lack of a post.)

That was the famous — infamous rather — tv commercial that showed a frying pan and then when an egg was cracked into it and sizzling said “…and that’s your brain on drugs.”

Which leads to me. Mr Anxiety visited in a big way yesterday and my brain felt like this; toad skin lichen: dried out, stretched, wasted, a thing clinging to a rock. What fun, fun, fun my brain is!

Toadskin lichens get their common name from their many “warts.” They attach themselves to stone at a single point that looks like a belly button, and that makes them an umbilicate lichen. This toadskin is very special, because it is the only one I’ve ever seen that wasn’t on a hill or mountain top

Mother Nature can be a cruel mistress; when it comes to the flu, you need to stand up to her.




That nature is a cruel mistress, we know all to well. That nature does not care how good a person you are we also know.  But nature can be stopped by nurture — in this case GETTING YOUR GOD-DAMN FLU SHOT!!!!!I

It does not hurt one bit, believe me. Why take a chance on becoming a statistic when, with five minutes of prevention, you can immeasurably increase  your chances?

Don’t. Your life may depend on it,

By Bob Quarteroni


“World War I claimed an estimated 16 million lives. The influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. One fifth of the world’s population was attacked by this deadly virus. Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history.” The National Archives


“The seasonal flu vaccine prevented more than 40,000 flu-associated deaths in the United States during a nine-year period from 2005-2006 through 2013-2014 according to estimates in a new study published in the journal Vaccine.” Centers for Disease Control


“Wow. I have studied the influenza vaccine for years and I know that there is not one study that has shown the flu vaccine very effective for preventing the flu….Flu season is approaching. Should you get a flu vaccine that fails the vast majority–98 percent –of the time? Fuggetaboutit!” Health Impact News


What is it in the human psyche that seems sooooo ready to deny facts and seek some dark conspiracy in its place?

Whether it’s the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, UFOs, Bigfoot or Donald Trump’s sanity (sorry, couldn’t resist) people seem like iron filings drawn to a powerful magnet when presented with any weird, convoluted, easily debunked theory.

And that’s the case here.

Vaccines have saved, literally, millions upon millions of lives. They are medical science at its best and have transformed the world in ways that would seem magical if they weren’t real.

I’m old enough to remember – just – when kids were being put in “iron lungs” to breath for them when polio still ravaged the planet.

Then in 1955, the Salk vaccine was introduced. The reaction then, however, wasn’t one of doubt and skepticism: it was one of jubilation in the realization of a long-sought solution to a devastating disease.

“People were hugging in the streets, kids were let out of school, Salk was invited to the White House where Eisenhower broke down in tears thanking him – it was really this shining moment of great faith in science and in medical research,” said David Oshinsky, Pulitzer-prize winning author of Polio: An American Story, as quoted in Forbes magazine.

And why wouldn’t they be ecstatic? The vaccine was a miracle in a syringe: Just six years later, the rate of polio had dropped 96 percent.

The vaccines (later Sabin and then others) have been so successful that polio cases have decreased by over 99 percent worldwide since 1988, from an estimated more than 350 000 cases then to 37 reported cases in 2016.

And the same can be said for vaccination campaigns against a host of other killers.

Measles, rabies, whooping cough, chickenpox and many others have gone from worldwide scourges to mere vestiges of the holocausts they were, thanks to a simple jab in the arm.

The most successful vaccination program of all time eliminated smallpox from existence, except for a few canisters in some heavily guarded labs. It was eradicated by a collaborative global vaccination program led by the World Health Organization. The last known natural case was in Somalia in 1977.

With this litany of successes, why are people so insistent on denying the efficacy of vaccines?

The usual suspects trotted out by the vaccine deniers include their belief that the vaccine causes the flu, that it leads to autism, that it is tainted with mercury, or preservatives, that it’s a money making-scheme by Big Pharma, that it causes miscarriages and other allegations that disappear in the clear light of day – and actual evidence.

This denial of scientific fact isn’t confined to vaccines, unfortunately. As Stephanie Pappas points out on Livesicence.com, “The U.S. has a science problem. Around half of the country’s citizens reject the facts of evolution; fewer than a third agree there is a scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, and the number who accept the importance of vaccines is ticking downward.”

It’s ticked downward to where only 42 percent of Americans get the flu vaccine. It’s their right to not get the flu vaccine and to believe whatever they want to believe about its merits or demerits.

But they are gambling with their lives. If a flu pandemic similar to 1918 were to strike, its victims would suffer as this account form Popular Mechanics outlines, which is eerily reminiscent to how Richard Preston describes how Ebola virus ravages victims in “The Hot Zone.”

“Deep brown spots would appear on a victim’s cheeks and a thick, bloody fluid would begin to overwhelm his lungs. Starting at the ears, their faces would gradually turn blue as circulating blood could not get oxygenated. Soon, victims would start to drown in their own fluid — often coughing up a pinkish froth as they fought to inhale.”

And, sadly, 1918 might not just repeat itself, it might be much, much worse. Bill Gates said that the 1918 outbreak was the worst pandemic in modern history “Today, with how interconnected the world is, it would spread faster,” he said.

Is it worth the risk? I don’t think so, which is why when I went to get vaccinated at Wegman’s last week, I took the high dose option. Better safe than sorry, methinks.




Coral Berry: A bright November jewel

While trying to shake the last few nuts free from the — knock on cyberwood — so far blight free fairly large American chestnut tree I’ve been monitoring for the last eight years or so, and with ongoing failures to get the nuts to sprout, I ran across a second patch of coral berry, reassuring because I know of only one other.

This is what I wrote about the little guy in an article on “nature’s winter colors.”

CORAL BERRY: Also known as Indian Currant, this beauty turns brilliant red when other plants are losing their leaves, and it brightens the understory with its cluster of pinkish purple fruit all winter long. Cut branches make wonderful displays in the house during winter.

The berries are eaten primarily by overwintering robins and it is a favorite food plant of white-tailed deer.

And as every wild plant I’ve ever run across, it has medicianal uses. A decoction (boiling in water to extract the flavor or active component) of the inner bark or leaves has been used as a wash in the treatment of weak, inflamed or sore eyes. A cold decoction of the root bark has been used as an eye wash to treat sore eyes.

Coral berry can be grown as a hedge or informal screen. It is very tolerant of trimming. Plants have an extensive root system and, since they also sucker freely, they can be used for soil stabilization.

This coral berry was found at the Bear Creek Recreation Area.

coral (2)

I’ve taken a likin’ to reindeer lichen

Insignificant looking, perhaps, but that belies a richer truth.


Reindeer lichen Facts

Reindeer lichen is an unusual organism that consists of two different species: fungus and alga (or cyanobacterium). These two species live in symbiosis (mutually beneficial relationship). There are several species of reindeer lichen that can be found in the northern parts of Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. Reindeer lichen grows in woodlands, coniferous forests, lowland bogs, mountains and alpine tundra. It prefers well-drained, sandy, usually acidic soils and areas that provide partial shade. Reindeer lichen occasionally grows on the surface of rocks and logs. Number of reindeer lichen in the wild is dropping due to wildfires, overgrazing and pollution of the air. Reindeer lichen in Great Britain is listed as critically endangered.
Interesting Reindeer lichen Facts:

Reindeer lichen can form low, bushy clumps, roundish, cauliflower-like heads or dense mats on the ground. It can reach 4 inches in height.
Reindeer lichen produces hollow, branch-like structures with cottony surface. They can be whitish-green, yellowish-green or grayish-white, depending on the species.
Reindeer lichen can reproduce sexually via spores (reproductive structures) or vegetative via fragmentation of thallus (shoots-like, undifferentiated vegetative tissue). Light-weight spores usually travel by wind.
Reindeer lichen thrives in areas with harsh, cold climate. It can survive nearly total loss of tissue water. Crunchy, dry “branches” of reindeer lichen easily catch and spread fires in the wild.
Reindeer lichen form dense groundcover in the boreal forests which prevents growth of other vascular plants.
Reindeer lichen cannot survive in polluted areas. People use reindeer lichen as indicator species to assess the cleanliness of the air.
Reindeer lichen is important source of food for caribou, musk-ox and reindeer.
Reindeer lichen is used as animal fodder in the northern parts of Europe. Cows fed on reindeer lichen produce milk with creamier texture. Their flesh also has sweeter taste.
Indigenous people from the circumpolar areas sometimes consume partially digested reindeer lichen obtained from the stomach of caribou (humans cannot digest and obtain nutrients from the fresh reindeer lichen).
Akvavit is a typreine of alcoholic beverage made of reindeer lichen. It is popular and often consumed in Scandinavia.
Green reindeer lichen can be used in treatment of intestinal worms. It can be consumed in the form of tea or powder.
Grey reindeer lichen can be used in treatment of common cold, fever, cough, jaundice, constipation, convulsions and arthritis.
Yellow reindeer lichen contains usnic acid that can induce rash, itch and rarely formation of pimples, when it comes in contact with skin (condition known as lichen dermatitis).
Reindeer lichen grows slowly and produces one branch per year. Age of reindeer lichen can be determined by calculating the number of the main branches along the stem.