Friday, May 26, 2017

The not-so-happy Memorial Day

In recent years, maybe because social media allows one to be instantaneously connected to the masses or perhaps because Americans have a declining appreciation for history, I’ve witnessed far too many people, and a growing number of them, wish others a “Happy Memorial Day”.

Every time I hear or see that, I cringe.

There is nothing happy about the concept of Memorial Day.

For many Americans, it is a day of sadness and reflection, a day of remembrance for those who gave all.

It can be one of the most painful days of the year for them, as they wonder what could have been had their best friends not died in front of them in World War II, had their brothers not been killed in the jungles of Vietnam, or had their sons not died in Middle East.

I understand that to others the long weekend is a joyous occasion, the unofficial start to summer, and an extended respite from the daily grind of work or school. But, that shouldn’t mask the real meaning of Memorial Day.

Men and women gave their lives so that we – and others around the world – might savor these rare long weekends shared with family and friends.

So, it’s vitally important that each and every one of us take some time to honor those who fell in battle. You need not partake in a parade or attend a solemn service but you should, in your own way, quietly and genuinely reflect upon and appreciate the accomplishments and lives of our fine armed forces of wars past and present.

Since the start of the Revolutionary War, almost 1.4 million Americans have paid the price for our nation’s goals and the American Way. To put that into perspective, that’s more than the population of the entire Western New York region.

Imagine all of the homes and streets being completely devoid of people from Niagara Falls to Jamestown and all points in between and near. That haunting visual should give you a feel for the scale of sacrifice and a better understanding of the solemn nature of the day.

It should also give you ample reason to set aside some time, even a moment of silence, to appreciate the meaning of those sacrifices. Those soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen gave their lives so that others may live, for the creation and preservation of human rights here and abroad, and for the furthering of our national interests.

America, the greatest and freest nation ever conceived, would never have existed had men not fought to the death against British tyranny.

She would never have remained intact, nor would 3.5 million blacks have been freed from slavery, had the North not found it morally necessary to preserve our nation or better the human existence.

The whole modern world would have been torn asunder and many millions more innocent lives taken by evil, had we not entered the two World Wars which cost over a half-million American lives.

Communism would have gained immeasurable might and influence had we not waged a proxy war against its principle powers – China and Russia – in the Koreas.

The Vietnam War may have been the most contentious in American history. 58,000 perished while having the honor, patriotism and allegiance to stick with America, regardless of our nation’s sociopolitical divide.

The War on Terror was waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, with our men and women volunteering to fight for our security, wanting not to see a recurrence of 9/11 on our soil and ensuring those who initiated the attacks experience what their victims had. Nearly 7,000 men and women lost their lives in those theatres.

American history has long been saddled with military conflicts and occupations. Those high profile wars mentioned above are but a few of the dozens that have occurred in and out of our borders. In all of them, many died in – and sometimes later because of - combat.

All of those fallen soldiers should be recognized for giving of themselves so that America can be and will be a nation of power, honor and integrity, just as those individuals were in the moments leading up to their ultimate sacrifice. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.

So, please, memorialize them today. It’s our patriotic duty and the right thing to do.

And, please, never, ever wish anyone a “happy Memorial Day.” In a public setting, it’s not out of the question that someone in ear shot is numb, tending to a broken heart and expressing their love and respect to someone who left us far too soon in an unfathomable way. It’s definitely not a happy day for them.   

From the 29 May 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

Thursday, May 25, 2017


For generations of rural Western New Yorkers the white trillium was one of the most recognizable wildflowers of the spring woods. The brilliant plants would stand a foot tall and boast 3 magnificent bridal-white petals atop 3 large leaves (hence “tri”-llium). It was commonly found throughout forests and woodlots with rich or moist soils.

I write in past tense because those days are long gone.

Younger WNYers – like Millennials– rarely have the chance to see them now and there’s a very good chance that the next generation will never get a chance to experience this wonderful plant.

Trilliums are under attack.

And, in this case, it’s not by man.

Nature is killing off the trillium at unprecedented rates.

When I was a wee youngster traipsing through our Gasport woods over 35 years ago, the trilliums were incredibly abundant and put on quite a show. Every spring during my childhood and early teen years, like clockwork, the forest floor in one woodlot would be blanketed by nearly 2 acres of the showy flower.

Fast forward to 2017 and you would never know that happened. Now, that section is devoid of trilliums and they are an uncommon find in the rest of the woods. Where once stood hundreds now stands the periodic lone sentinel.

It’s not coincidental that the whitetail deer population has exploded in this neck of the woods. Going back those same 30 years, I remember deer always being an uncommon sight on the farm. Now, there are so many that you don’t even look twice when they appear out of the brush. It’s not uncommon to see multiple herds of 20 to 40 deer here in the winter months.

Although plentiful farm crops are available seasonally, the deer have to eat for the other 7 months out of the year. So, they take to the forests and overgraze the understory, eating every plant in sight. They find the trilliums to be especially attractive as compared to other plants, because the leaves and flowers are equally tender and nutritious.

When they dine on trilliums they kill them. Many plants can survive browsing, coming to bloom the next year thanks to healthy bulbs. The trillium, though, has a weaker, shallower-running rootstalk, which needs the leaves to make as much energy as possible and bring life. If those leaves can’t take advantage of their short window of existence (3 weeks of photosynthesis), the plant dies. And, by eating the succulent flowers, the deer takes away the trillium’s ability to reproduce.

The deer kill trilliums at an amazing pace. A 1998 study that was printed in a 2001 edition of the Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society found that deer ate 26 percent of the trilliums in a measured lot. Imagine such destruction continuing on an annual basis!

This overbrowsing has wiped vast out stands of trilliums, just like ours, across the northeast. It is a major fear of we amateur naturalists and the professionals (the likes of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation) that deer are forever altering the forests, killing not only trilliums, but countless other wildflowers. It is believed that wild ginseng (another plant beloved by deer) will become extinct in the northeast by time this century closes, solely because of deer and not by ginseng profiteers.

The DEC has obsessed a great deal about overgrazing by whitetail deer and officials within the organization believe that were deer to be fully removed from WNY forests most woodlands wouldn’t be able to return to their natural pre-deer- boom state, even after 20 years of regrowth. Many of our wildflowers are never coming back.

So, appreciate trilliums while you can. One day, and likely – and sadly – soon, you will see the last one that you ever will.

The DEC currently lists the white trillium as “exploitably vulnerable”, meaning it is attractive enough to be picked or transplanted and people will do that and kill it. I guarantee, though, that within the next 10 years, the plant’s status will be downgraded to “threatened”, maybe even “endangered”.

It’s that dicey of a situation we are dealing with. We have a deer problem. And, it’s a big one.

From the 25 May 2017 All WNY News

Monday, May 22, 2017

Businesses should open doors to school kids

There is a growing crisis in the job market. Well-paying full-time jobs with good benefits are going unfilled, with owners and managers of blue-collar employers (factories, farms, trucking firms, the building trades) having a difficult time finding skilled workers or even apprentices interested in that line of work.

It’s an outcome of a couple decades of misplaced priorities in society and education. Adults, whether in the home or in the classroom, had purposely driven kids away from the trades, thinking that such careers are demeaning and low-paying, on the path to extinction, and that college is the unquestioned key to success.

None of those beliefs are true nor have they ever been. Now, the adults who once believed them are waking up to that, especially since recent college grads find themselves crushed by debt and unable to find a good job due to an overabundance of college degrees, alleged over-qualification, and a tipsy economy.

Teachers, counselors, policy makers and parents now find themselves doing a 180, changing the culture that their predecessors had put into play for far too long. They are seeing the value in all work and all trades and doing what they can to promote them among today’s youths. But, after decades of society going in the other direction, it’s a tough sell and a slow one.

That’s where employers can help out.

Those same bosses who routinely complain about the deficient workforce need to do something other than whine.

They need to do as they do in their workplaces – get their hands dirty, get involved. They need to reach out to the schools and put themselves out there. Guidance from real world people can go a long ways in getting students interested in skilled work and settled on a career that will keep them comfortable for life.

It’s an easy and effective pursuit, one that we’ve practiced for some time at the plant and I strongly encourage other employers to follow suit. There are three simple ways that you can do this: speak to classes, host tours, and let kids shadow.

Speaking to a classroom is the easiest investment of your time. You have a captive audience that you can speak to for a half-hour to an hour and those students tend to be appreciative and interested as it’s a break from the routine of that same room. While it’s the easiest option, it’s the least effective, as other than a slideshow or brochure, the kids really can’t see what you do. 

Experiential learning is the best way to garner interest and that’s why tours are a far better option. You can give the same spiel that you would in the classroom, but the kids can also see people working, machines functioning, and goods being produced. That awesomeness of what you do every day can be an attention-grabber. It doesn’t matter if you manufacture kayaks, milk cows, or build warehouses – kids will eat it up. I’ve had fifth-graders, middle schoolers, high school seniors and college students go through the factory, all of them with wide eyes and keen interest.

Shadowing takes tours to another level and to make it happen it generally requires a full day and your willingness to share a lot of your time and knowledge -- and that of your coworkers – with students. We’ve done this at the plant quite a few times with students from schools like Barker and Niagara Catholic. They were able to choose from various career paths (machining, maintenance, trucking, business) and get to feel it out with a watchful eye as a learner, observing what our folks do while hearing of the finer details of why they do it.     

While most employers won’t directly benefit from such activities -- the chances of you recruiting someone for your company is slim (and it should not be your goal) – those kids with whom you speak will. It will give them interest, purpose, and direction.

If you are serious about the quality of our workforce, the future of our kids, and the health of our economy, open your doors and open your hearts and partner with our local schools. We have a culture in education and employment that we need to transform, and it takes baby steps like these to affect change.  

From 22 May 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

Friday, May 12, 2017


Bloodroot is one of the harbingers of spring on the Niagara Frontier -- and it is certainly one of our most interesting vernal wildflowers.

From mid-April to early-May this member of the poppy family adds beauty to the barren woodlands as it opens for the sun each day, its fragile white petals spreading in the morning, exposing a golden yellow center.

At night, those same flowers close shut. Quite a few species of flowers do that (especially in the summer), but the bloodroot is unusual for the fact that its leaf closes, too. The single, scalloped leaf, told by its large lobes, wraps around the flower stalk.

This plant is called bloodroot because it’s deep, large underground stem bleeds when cut. While it might appear brown and potatoey on the outside, an orange or red sap flows through it. That juice had many purposes for the Native Americans.

Indigenous peoples used a diluted version of the plant blood as war paint and as a marking during special ceremonies. It would stick to the skin or mud applicant for days and its latex-like properties could handle sweat without coming off which allowed for its use during long battles.

That sort of permanency also allowed for its use to paint baskets and dye clothing. Even early French settlers to North America used the root to dye wool.

The plant also had some medical purposes – when taken sparingly.

Being a member of the poppy family, it has some of the properties of opium. It contains the compound protopine, which when consumed in small amounts can cause nausea. When taken in large amounts, it’s a poison, as it will slow down the heart and kill the user.

Native Americans found a way to temper that and put the plant to good use – or more appropriately good uses; bloodroot provided a veritable laundry list of benefits.

It stimulates mucus production so it was used as a natural cough drop and it treated bronchitis and other respiratory ailments.

In amounts that weren’t diluted like the war paints were, it served as an aggressive destroyer of flesh, so it was used to remove ringworm, warts, polyps, skin cancers, and bodily fungi.

Although its roots create strong interest, especially for any outdoorsperson interested in seeing them bleed, it is strongly encouraged that you leave the plants alone. Once you dig up the root the plant is dead.

Because of that, the state considers it a plant susceptible to exploitation – and it certainly is: I know of very few bloodroots in Western New York and those that I do are in very public areas (Royalton Ravine Park and Lockport Nature Trail). Their numbers have decreased in both places, no doubt due to being dug up by curious hikers.

So, please, let these interesting plants be. Let their beauty – and their stories – reappear every spring.

From the 11 May 2017 All WNY News