"In wilderness is the hope for the world."
John Muir

I love wilderness. This is not to say that I am anti-social (although that I may be, at least often) nor that I do not appreciate the benefits and some subtle refinements of civilization, but it is a good idea for us metropolitans to recognize tha baseline reality of the world and the energy requirements we invest to stay sustained in a contrived environment. The man-made design is often cloying, and even more often polluted by its own excesses, so that I like to "lift mine eyes unto the hills" often, and to get out into them as regularly as possible. The thrilling pace of the Big Apple's rush is nowhere as soul-satisfying as carrying a quite real apple into a forest and watching the web of life of God's green earth around us, and finding anew our place in it. Some Parts of the good earth are not green but are desert brown, glacier white, or rock grey. Let's go a'wandering through a few parts of the planet.

In other parts of this web you can link over and look into Adventures together, or see exotic parts of the world in Travels ; in many of these we can admire Wildlife , go Bird Watching, Fishing, White Water Rafting, Running, Hunting, but here we will look into the topography and flora of various lattitudes and altitudes from poles to the Equator.


Life at the poles is harsh, cold and transient, supported by pulling in expensive supplies from the outside. It is also, quite surprisingly, arid. Antarctica is officially a desert on the basis of the very limited amount of precipitation that falls there, almost all of which, of course, has remained, in compressed solid state that makes an enormous ice bowl of the accumulated scarce snowfalls of millennia. There is either too much or too little daylight, with the sun never rising when it is standing over the further tropic, or never setting when it is overhead the nearer tropic as the earth tilts its annual way through its predictable wobble. Further from the ice caps, it is still cold, and submerged under wind-driven snow for much of the year, is a land called "barren ground". But that phrase must have been applied by someone who did not take the time to look closely. Granted it does not have large flowering plants and towering trees; this is hardy life in the environmental extremes and has taken on the tactic of miniaturization. This is tundra.

Look closely it is beautiful! Both "tundra" and "tiaga" are terms that originated in Russia, where they have a whole lot of it to be admired, stretching across the largest of earth's land masses. Tundra refers to the dwarfed plants in mixed communities, and tiaga, the stunted trees, that sometime act as a real "moving forest" when they slide downhill on the summer melt over the permafrost base.. The colorful and complex spongy mass of the tundra is a complex community of plants with microenvironments for various animals--all about ten inches tall. I have a way of looking at it from coming up from equatorial lattitudes--I see the layers from the canopy to the roots of the tropical rainforest, all compressed on a scale of 100:1. There are fewer species, but there are much closer cooperative relationships, such as lichens, which represent obligate cohabitation of a pair of species so that either may survive.

There are fruiting plants, in miniature, like the dwarf blueberries, and there are plants that can take the weight and the cold of long winters, then have to make quick work of the short growing season with its very long periods of daylight and abundant rain. The intensity of life in these conditions is abruptly switched at fall to a hibernation state for a long period of torpor. Unlike the large hoofed stock like the caribou, who cannot overwinter in these areas, even with the availability of the lichens, their reserve foodstock to keep them from starvation, the plants are fixed in position and cannot migrate out to a better environment so they have to be responsive to extremes of climate to which they must respond with a ready on-and-off switch. The caribou themselves are in an interesting relationship to the flora, since they must browse on very low nutrient density woody tundra plants, and, when pushed to it, the lichens. But they cannot digest the cellulose and other forms of carbohydrate in which the plant stores the energy synthesized in the long sunlit days of summer. But the caribou has a large rumen and cecum in which a free ride is given to commensal bacteria that can and do break down the cellulose from the dwarf plants and the other energy stores in lichens. Without these bacilli to which it plays host (recolonizing the young caribou by feeding on fecal pellets to set up a new fermenting rumen) as might occur if they were dosed with antibiotics to decontaminate the gut, the caribou would starve quickly.

The warm blooded animals can migrate as do the caribou and the Canada geese when the long winter nights return to lock the tundra in what is often called the "frozen wastes", but some have nowhere to go, and have to stay as do the plants. The marmots and the bears then take a page from the tundra plants' survival tricks and switch their metabolism to the lowest gear for the long period of winter torpor--they hibernate, after storing up some energy in fat from a greedy gulping of those dwarf blueberries in late summer. As the caribou migrate, so also does the wolf pack, to be close to its principle source of winter food. My excursions into arctic tundra have been at this change of seasons when the restless activity of autumn has the migrants ready to move out, and the hibernators seeking denning, and each engulfing as much of the summer provender as they could store away for their respective coping strategies for the coming winter.

One thousand vertical meters can take the place of several degrees of lattitude. This is nowhere more apparent than at the peak of MT Kilimanjaro, where I have stood on an equatorial mountain snowcap. But I have also abruptly recognized the same tundra I had seen adjacent to the arctic circle on the top of Yavi Tepuy on its first ever exploration in the Amazonas region of Venezuela--tropical tundra! (seen above). That snowcap on Kilimanjaro does not mean that there is a lot of rainfall on top of this mountain, a volcanic cone that represents the roof of Africa and is the tallest freestanding mountain on earth, not part of a range. It, like the Anarctic Continent gets so little precipitation that it also qualifies as a desert. But the little moisture that does descend stays here in this Alpine Desert as it would have for millenia on the polar continent.

What determines a rainforest is, no surprise, rain! But we have heard so much about the tropical rainforest, and I have been so consistently exploring these very rich ecosystems, that we have not heard or thought much about rainforests outside the tropics. One of the bigggest of the temperate rainforests is in the Olympic peninsula in upstate Washington. The Olympic Range, including MT Olympus itself, pushes up the oceanic airmass arising from over the Pacific's Japan Current and produces several hundred inches of rain on the Westerly slopes. This makes for a very interesting moist incubator of flora and the fauna to which they vitally relate. Here you see the "club moss" which festoons the big spruce trees (even though the "club moss " is neither club shaped nor a moss, but a fungus.

Here you see a favorite "still life" in the Olympic Rainforest, with the frog living in the same sort of environment that its poison arrow frog cousins find in the tropics. The comparisons and contrasts between tropical and temparate rainforests is an intriguing study that had unfolded recently as I shuttled between them.


The most threatened of the world's forest regions are the dry forest or the scarce cloudforests where the air currents rising up mountain ranges near the sea causes a perpetual heavy mist. One such cloudforest is in tiny Costa Rica that has protected more of its land mass in national parks proportinal to its size than any other nation. This has been a far-sighted preservation move, but is also a savvy strategy, since eco-tourism is on the rise. On one memorable hike aong the "sindero" into the cloudforest at Villa Blanca with the president of Costa Rica, President Jaun Calderone, we spotted birds and butterflies in such profusion that no other nation its size can match. Here the collsion of three mobile air masses cause a "nieble" in the cloudforest that nourishes a number of unique aerophaghic plants and related fauna: one is coming down form the large Lake Nicaragua toward the south, one comes from the Pacific over the coastal mountain range, and the third comes from the Caribbean Atalntic at the origin of the Warm Gulf Stream across the country westward until it encounters the other two moving air masses and dissipates its moisture in heavy due and in lush vegetation.

The "Debt for Nature" and other schemes for encouraging preventing the ruin of more acres of primeval forest is probably less fickle, but not as real as the appreciation of these magnificent resources for their own sakes. Costa Rica, like the tundra, is a compressed version of a lot of the information that one can learn from strolling the rainforests with opening eyes.