Misty Watercolor Memories

It is very difficult to select memories to reminisce about after 45 years with the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, all to secure the permanent protection of the Long Island Pine Barrens.  Literally hundreds of memories from hikes and field trips, speaking engagements (scores of slide lectures about the Pine Barrens to diverse audiences), public hearings, court testimony, lobbying activities in the halls of Hauppauge and Albany, and, of course, quarterly board meetings of the Society at which we strategized to set policy and direction.

The Following are but a few.

I remember well several hikes, a few of which were in the Dwarf Pine Plains. Early in the Society’s existence we led many hikes to promote public awareness of the Pine Barrens. One of the more successful hikes involved co-founder John Cryan leading a walk to see buck moths during their annual autumn mating flight.  Prior to the start of the hike John found several female buck moths. He put them in a fine wire cage where, hanging from the top, they began to do what female buck moths do: release pheromones to lure males to create the next generation of moths. And lure they did for quickly a dozen or so males, adorned in their beautiful white, black, and orange coloration converged on the cage trying to get inside to mate!  The more than 50 participants were excited to see up close one of the iconic species of the Pine Barrens.

The Dwarf Pine Plains have been the site of several other memorable encounters. Leading a hike of a dozen people on a full moon night to listen for “goatsuckers”, such as whip-poor-wills and chuck-will’s-widows about a decade ago, we walked through the Dwarf Pine Plains listening for their distinctive calls. By the end of the hike, we had heard a dozen “whips” and three “chucks.”  I’ve two special memories from hiking the Plains in which I came across two rare Long Island mammals – striped skunk and grey fox.  Both were foraging for food and because they were so focused on their search, I was able to get a wonderful close up view of each species.

Another hike that I led with co-founder Bob McGrath took place further west in a large expanse of Pine Barrens, Manorville Hills, the largest block of contiguous open space found on Long Island. Approximately 25 participants were treated to a stunning display of an eastern hognose snake going into its famous “death feign act” whereby the disturbed snake, coiled alongside a sandy trail, went into spasms and convulsions, turning over on its back, with its tongue hanging out of its mouth, “dies.”  Another “herp” I have a special memory of was seeing a congregation or breeding congress of tiger salamanders in a pond in Manorville. Male and female salamanders were entwined in a ball in the water in a breeding frenzy; this activity results in male salamanders laying sperm packets or spermatophores on the pond bottom, which a female salamander will straddle and bring it into her body.

A hognose snake with its mouth opened wide.

 A “threatening” Hognose Snake. Photo by Bob McGrath

Another memory I have with Bob is when we traveled to the World Trade Towers to participate in an Army Corps of Engineers. The hearing was focused on the filling of freshwater wetlands just south of Swan Pond to construct a golf course. We made the mistake, being young, enthusiastic and foolish, of running up 45 flights of stairs. We were winded quickly and the hearing didn’t go much better as the Corps, mind-bogglingly, issued the permit to allow for the destruction of the wetlands.  To this day, the golf course remains an ecological travesty – a use of the land that destroyed wetlands and forest, and which continually inputs fertilizer into a naturally nutrient poor ecosystem.

The Society has conducted a fair amount of lobbying in advancing the protection of the Pine Barrens and two events stand out.  Mike Deering, who was Society president for a while, and I were at the Suffolk County Legislature in Hauppauge to express support for an amendment to the Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program; at that time the land acquisitions were “pay-as-you-go”, meaning the funding used for land purchases was made available on an annual basis. Since land values were escalating rapidly, we argued the County should bond for the money as this would result in more properties ultimately preserved, even though the County’s overall amount of money would be reduced because of necessary interest payments on the bonds. We pigeonholed then county legislator Steve Levy, a very fiscally conservative lawmaker, in the hallway next to the auditorium speaking to argue our point that although the County would be required to pay interest, more acreage would be preserved – the very purpose of the land acquisition program.  While Levy still voted against it, the measure, thankfully, was amended and the County bought lots of Pine Barrens properties.

Yet another significant memory was the first time I communicated with Dick Amper, the long-serving Executive Director of the Society.   It was through a phone call on a Sunday night. Dick called to learn more about the Pine Barrens as he and other neighbors were fighting to stop a development from being constructed on the eastern side of Lake Panamoka.  I could tell he was quite interested and intense and a very quick learner. One thing led to another, and the development was stopped, the property preserved, and the Board of the Society realized that Dick was a very talented person. — a many decade long relationship was born.  Combining Dick’s public relations and media acumen with the other talents of Society board members proved to be an unbeatable combination!

Perhaps the memory that is foremost in my mind occurred on a spring night in Albany in 1993.  After many months of negotiating between the LI Pine Barrens Society and the towns and developers, the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act was passed by the New York State Legislature. The same night the state legislation creating the Environmental Protection Fund  passed, providing funding to purchase lands in the Core Preservation Area of the Pine Barrens. It was a great night and fun to be sitting in the gallery of the NY State Assembly when the final vote was tallied.  A close second was the press event at Southaven County Park, several weeks later, at which Governor Mario Cuomo signed the measure into law.

These memories depict “The Way We Were.”  With the Society’s advancement of the “Best of the Rest” Initiative, I’m hoping we’ll develop many more pleasant watercolor memories to add to the collection.

By John Turner, Long Island Pine Barrens Society Founder

Cover Photo by John Cryan

The Genesis and Meaning of Moths of the Past

Buck Moth in the Long Island Pine Barrens

I was forced to retire early in mid-2015. My wife, Christina, had had open-chest surgery the year before, and though she made it through that, she was never the same afterwards. I moved upstate full-time to care for her in the cabin we’d built together over the previous decades, up in what we called ‘The Land of Manitou’, otherwise known as the Catskill High Peaks. She wanted to stay there.

During the years that followed, Christina’s condition declined further. She developed several serious autoimmune disorders which compounded her pain and suffering. I did the best I could in a very remote location, and luckily had a sympathetic and competent general practitioner and pharmacist within a few miles willing to make house calls when necessary. For her last five years, Christina was bedbound on oxygen 24/7.

Before that happened, in the evenings I spent small amounts of time starting to organize the results of a project I had begun in my teen years, which morphed after college into a lifetime pursuit, a single, 50-year-long ‘life experiment’ – crossing various populations of Buck Moths from across the US in an attempt to figure out who was related to whom, and what unknown force had created a new kind of Buck Moth my best college friend Bob Dirig and I had discovered in 1977, my senior year at Cornell.

By the end of 2016 I hadn’t progressed far. Christina had gotten worse and worse. I managed with her permission to sneak off to the tiny local library for a half hour every now and then in a desperate attempt to speed-read online science papers from the last half-century hoping to find some sort of clue.
That effort came up empty, though I caught up with a lot of science.

A tiny bookstore opened in the local village. With no internet at home, that became my last resort.
I couldn’t afford to be away from Christina, but I could afford to buy books, especially paperbacks.

Chaos became my mantra and my business. I made a study of it.

What I found out was nobody knew much about it. There was a new thing in science called ‘Chaos Theory’, but it wasn’t really about chaos. It was about randomness, a totally different thing, and it included some kind of new bullshit called ‘Complexity Theory’, or, if you will, ‘Emergent Complexity.’
There were popular bestsellers over the past few decades about this malarkey. But on actual chaos? Nothing. Neither scientific nor popular writing. A huge void. An empty space big as the Universe.

“Why was that,” I asked myself. Something’s seriously amiss here. Scientists are usually not afraid to study anything. What makes chaos such a no-no?

What I found in pretty short order was that scientists weren’t avoiding chaos; they had no ability to study it. That’s because chaos is not amenable to math. Math can’t model it. And since math is the language of scientists, scientists just ignored chaos. They studied order only, because that’s what math can do – model order. Not chaos. Randomness was the closest to chaos math could come. But randomness is a form of order. It has rules. Chaos doesn’t. That’s why it’s called chaos.

So, I was stuck. As the country went haywire, I contemplated chaos and what it meant to have such a huge gap in science. After all, chaos is everywhere. The newspapers I brought to Christina to read in bed every day were full of chaos.

Somewhere in 2017, I had an epiphany. The epiphany turned into a brainstorm. I started scribbling.
The epiphany centered around something in one of Darwin’s notebooks, which had been lost awhile but recently found again. It was a simple question: ‘Why is life short’. Darwin had scribbled it so fast he forgot the question mark at the end. But a question it was anyway, and a really big one at that.

When I read about the lost and found notebook containing the really big (big because neither Darwin nor anyone else had ever found a satisfactory answer to it) question, I realized this was the key to my dilemma. Solve that question, and I will solve the Buck Moth mystery, and probably much more.

And chaos certainly lay at the center of any solution. It was the biggest thing I knew that science couldn’t touch.

So I took one last quick trip to the library to get a list of the biggest gaps in science. The unanswered questions scientists were dying to answer, but didn’t know how or have the tools yet to study. At the heart of just about all of them lay more than a bit of chaos.

I also found out about interlibrary loans. This tiny branch had access to the entire Hudson Valley. Now I was in business.

I made a map of all the gaps in science, and determined to fill them, realizing chaos was what was missing. And I bought, and took out, a ton of books. Each night, I read whenever I couldn’t sleep.

One by one, the brainstorms came over the next three years, like a pinball game lighting up. Bing-bang-boom! Before I knew it, one thing had led to the next to the next and I had two interlinked, brand-new scientific theories, one in physics, the other in biology, specifically evolution. Chaos lay at the heart of all of it. The Chaon-Convolution Theory was born.

I kept my friend Bob, who is a polymath in the arts and sciences, totally in the loop. He got all my ravings, all my scribblings. All he said was “when you’re done, send it all to me and I’ll turn it into a science zine. This is your life thesis.” Thus was born Moths of the Past.

It was published by our longtime mutual friend Don Rittner, who himself has authored and edited over 30 books. It came out three years ago, just as the pandemic hit full force. Don had to coax the hard copies out of the last printhouse still running in America, down in South Carolina. But out it went, into a world in agony. We sent out several hundred author copies to select people and institutions around
the country and world. Because of its enormous scope, and Bob’s creation of a work that truly blended art and science, we deliberately went for as wide an audience as possible, knowing scientists would probably be the last to embrace it, or even deal with it at all. After a year, we went to free internet distribution, and Moths of the Past went viral. It has been read by millions, around the world, and its audience is constantly expanding.

Somehow, over the last few years, I was able, again working in bits in the middle of the night, to complete and distribute 14 additional implications white papers, supplements to the original concepts in Moths of the Past, both expanding and extending them. I’m working on more now.

But in that same period, my beloved Christina slowly weakened. She never lost her mind, her love or her fighting spirit. On the early morning of February 16th, at sunrise, she left this world. I miss her.

By John Cryan, Long Island Pine Barrens Society Founder

Cover Photo by Don Henise

Man surrounded by buck moths in the Long Island Pine Barrens

John Cryan with Buck Moths