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My usual MO when teaching the kids to drive was to get them somewhat acclimated to the clutch and gear shifting in the driveway and then take them to a desolate stretch of dirt road with some ups and downs. Here, they could practice putting it all together before subjecting the rest of humanity to their learning process.

I typically used the same stretch of dirt road but, in the case of one of the girls, this did not work out so well. We were in the midst of one of the repeating stop and go practices to get used to not rolling back or stalling on takeoff. She had just put the Bronco into second, very smoothly by the way, when she suddenly appeared to go berserk, flooring it, spewing a rooster-tail of gravel and drifting back and forth, all while in the process of crossing a bridge.

Every bit as abruptly, she settled down and began to work smoothly through the gears. When I finally shook off my fear rictus, I had her stop and asked what that was about. Seems, unbeknownst to me, she had always been terrified of bridges, was convinced the car would veer over the edge at any moment and always held her breath when we crossed to make the car lighter so the bridge would not collapse. Her primary focus was to go as fast across the bridge as possible. I do not think the intervening decades have changed that behavior.

Bridges seem to present challenges for a number of people. Several time a week we go past a large metal bridge. The lanes on the bridge are exactly the same size as the lanes on the road entering it, however, there are no shoulders, only large metal uprights. This causes no end of panic. Instead of simply staying in their lane, many folks spook at the bridge structure and cross exactly in the center of the road. That is, if and when they actually get the gumption to start the crossing.

Most creep up and slam on the brakes if anyone is coming in the other direction, sometimes generating a standoff on the opposite shores. Interestingly, drivers in big trucks from pickups to delivery vans seem unaffected, unconcernedly meeting each other. Sometimes, if the mental calculus indicates the large mirrors might be close, one or both of the drivers will fold theirs in to avoid a “kiss.” None of the distaff portion of my family can understand how cars can possible meet on the bridge, equating to each incident to alchemy (after shrieking at me to stop and being ignored).

The most recent such incident was exacerbated when, as we were passing the large truck, I pointed to the nice bed of ferns on the riverbank and suggested that if we were knocked off the bridge, at least we would have a soft place to land. She does bite when provoked.

The point of my alleged wit, the humble fern, has also been a victim of misconception. In my school days, I was provided with contemporary wisdom about them that was absolutely false, causing no end of confusion by the time I hit college.

Ferns are an ancient family. They first developed in the Devonian Period, about 370 million years ago, and became the absolutely dominant land species during the following Carboniferous Period. It was a very warm wet period. The ice sheets were gone, great tree fern rainforests covered the globe and fern life was good for the next 60 or 70 million years.

The atmosphere filled with a toxic gas — oxygen — at the highest levels ever, allowing the animals, predominately fish, crustaceans and amphibians, to grow to huge size. Finally, the ice returned, and in the newly harsher drier conditions, conifers and angiosperms (flowering plants) developed to handle these challenges. The ferns that survived were pretty much what we have today — small, very complex organisms that continue to exist in wet acid conditions similar to where they evolved.

In fourth grade I learned that ferns, while they are vascular plants with well-developed root systems, reproduced asexually through spores. I later discovered this was only half the story. Ferns actually have a two-generation reproductive system, so complex it is amazing it can work. You may have noticed that on the large complex leaf systems of ferns, called fronds, some have a series of black, red, gray or orange bumps along the underside. These are often mistaken for some sort of parasite but actually they are spore-producing organs called sporangia. The fern has no flowers or other sexual organs. The sporangia release spores, impossibly tiny chunks of life that float about and, if they land in a fertile and, most importantly, wet spot, produce a fully functional organism.

This does not look much like a fern. Typically a small, squamous, heart-shaped chunk of leaf, this unremarkable lifeform is called a protothallus. So small as to escape the casual glance, the protothallus is actually a pretty sexy beast in the fern world. They produce an egg, which remains within the protothallus, and a bunch of sperm cells. If the fern is in a sufficiently wet area the sperms swim off through the water questing for another protothallus. If one is found, the egg is fertilized allowing the protothallus to change and grow into the spore-producing fern we recognize.

Given that we are in a nasty climate phase (from a fern perspective) conditions are often too cool and dry for this elaborate and fragile system to play out. In these cases, the fern can pull a couple of other tricks. If fronds wilt such that their tips touch the ground, new root systems can sprout from the tips, ultimately producing a clone of the mother plant which can release spores when conditions improve. They can also reproduce through their root systems with rhizomes producing sprouts, also clones of the parent and also in the spore-generating stage.

I could suggest that hanging upside down in a vehicle flipped off a too-narrow bridge would provide the perfect vantage for studying fern mating behavior — but that probably would get me punished again. ...

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Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.

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