Saturday, February 12, 2011

Shattered Illusions

Since returning from the California desert I have been freshly shocked to see how quickly the trees in New Jersey are deteriorating, after only a week away.  What makes me able to recognize how obviously wrong these sights of lacerated bark are, while most everyone else is oblivious?  I had a dream that I had adopted a young tiger cub, and was trying to find another home for him.  I was terrified because although he was very beautiful, I could not control his unpredictable instinct to suddenly attack and kill.
For years I liked to walk about eight miles several times a week, it was such a pleasure out in the country where I live, to watch the changing seasons and view a seemingly endless array of nature's gifts.  I stopped soon after I realized the ecosystem is collapsing, because I couldn't stand the sight of mutely dying trees, mutating before my eyes into freakishly dwindling tree zombies, punctuated with more and more of the contorted standing and fallen dead.  Even people who know I think that trees are dying don't always understand why I stopped walking - but how can I pass these tragic specters without experiencing grief that is unbearable and intolerable?
Nevertheless, I went back to my familiar loop a couple of days ago, and along perhaps just 1,000 feet of a rural dirt road that winds parallel to the Black River, I took all of the pictures in this post.  I wonder if perhaps because I was brought up godless, that the illusions promoted by our consumer society were shattered for me at an early age.  Just learning about the Nazi death camps was enough for me to doubt the essential goodness of humanity, and whether we deserve to inherit the earth.  It isn't so much of a leap from there to understand that it is within our ability to destroy the entire world, given enough time for exponential growth.
Maybe, because most people are indoctrinated from birth to believe in some sort of deity or other, they just can't imagine humans have the capability to ruin what is god's creation - so they can't get even contemplate the possibility without having to repudiate their most core beliefs, never mind acknowledge that human culture as it has been practiced needs to adapt some fundamentally different assumptions and adjustments.  Risible!
In one intriguing examination of the human propensity to unreasonably rely upon habit, a book called:  "The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable" describes the premise as follows by one reviewer (all quoted passages are colored purple):

"...observing an event once does not predict it will occur again in the future. This remains true regardless of the number of observations one adds to the pile. Or, as Taleb, recapitulating David Hume, has it: the observation of even a million white swans does not justify the statement "all swans are white." There is no way to know that somewhere out there a black swan is not hiding, disproving the rule and nullifying our "knowledge" of swans. The problem of induction tells us that we cannot really learn from our experiences. It makes knowledge very problematic, if not impossible. And yet, humans do behave -almost without exception- as though they believe that experience teaches us lessons. This is forgivable; there is no better path to knowledge. But before proceeding, one must account for the limits that the problem of induction places on our claims to knowledge. And humans seem, at every turn, to lack this critical self-awareness."
As time goes on and the terrible news of floods and droughts, and there appears to be less rather than more recognition of our role in climate change, in the media and in politics, I become more jaded and cynical (if possible!).  If anything our government is worse than the autocratic dictatorships around the world, because they have mastered the pretense of a democracy.  The current administration, I gather, lies pathologically about the true impacts from the spill in the Gulf.  Watch this CNN report of how Dick Cheney personally interfered with EPA scientific recommendations so his polluting pals could continue poisoning the world without interference from regulations.  (Or if you would rather laugh in the face of doom, watch Jon Stewart's version).
Whatever you want to call the impending upheaval - the great inflection, the end of history, or as I tend to think of it, the trifucta (a coming together of three great crisis, any one of which would be sufficient to end civilization - the economic collapse based on unsustainable borrowing and debt; peak oil and resource extraction; and climate change together with the destruction of the environment through pollution)....going back to some simpler life like a hunter gatherer won't be possible, because the resources they enjoyed - abundant, clean water, fish, game, wild nuts and berries and fruits - have been destroyed.  That, and there are just way, way too many people on the earth to subsist that way.  I am at a loss as to how I could help my children prepare for the imponderable.
I heard an interview on NPR, in honor of Black History month, with an elederly lady who in her youth refused to move to the back of the bus as it reached the border with North Carolina.  She was arrested for this, before Rosa Parks famously sparked the civil rights movement.  I have been thinking about that obscure act of courage - and the bravery of the Eyptian people - and wondering why the American population is allowing the billionaires to pillage all the wealth - all the money and especially all the natural resources, including the ability of nature to absorb pollution - with barely a peep of complaint. I think it has something to do with the teevee.  And I wonder what more I should be doing, myself, to stop it.
Youngest daughter sent me a brilliant essay from 1968 By Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," which I recommend being read in its entirety.  Here, however, is a sample of his crisp and unrelentingly blunt analysis:

"Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.  Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all."
Richard Brenne was prompted by this to share a contemplative tribute written by the physicist Albert Bartlett, upon learning of Hardin's Hemlock Society death, comparing him to a mighty tree.  Here is an excerpt:

"...A few days earlier, as AMTRAK train No.3 (the Southwest Chief) was bringing us down out of the mountains toward Los Angeles from the east, I watched the transformed landscape as it swept by outside of our window. I had had a brief acquaintance with the Los Angeles area fifty years earlier, and I was trying to imagine how the beautiful valley must have looked eighty years ago at the time Garrett was a child in the mid-west. I tried to imagine the valleys quilted over with the endless bountiful agriculture of citrus and other crops, with small hamlets and towns scattered randomly about.

But as the train moved through the valley toward Los Angeles, most of what one could see was now the melancholy miasmic landscape of an industrial wasteland, punctured by run-down residences, abandoned autos, and all manner of debris and decay. Streets and highways were everywhere. Vehicles that jostled for places on the roadways were emitting the largely invisible gases that contribute to an ominous and oppressive atmosphere that is better not breathed. In Garrett's lifetime this beautiful valley had been largely transformed from Eden to anthills, and the tentacles of the cancerous transformation were reaching ever outward, seeking new lands to despoil.
Why? People; large numbers of people, forever crowding into paradise past, hoping to savor what little remains of the earlier flavor. But the panorama passing the train window was clearly one of paradise largely lost. The lifeboat is full and is in danger of sinking, as thousands who founder are trying to scramble aboard, making the situation ever more perilous for all. The lifeboat and all in it are in danger of being swamped and lost.
Garrett understood this. Garrett wrote about this. Garrett had the courage to speak about the problem of overpopulation. Few have the good sense to listen, and fewer still have the willingness and courage to act to advance his message and to work to preserve our great land from the perils of overpopulation. Garrett recognized that H.L. Mencken was right in observing that people tend to reject those things that are true but unpleasant and to embrace what is obviously false but comforting. But, in spite of this recognition, Garrett never gave up his crusade to educate the public to the perils and problems that face the human race."
Of course to me the saddest line in the eulogy is:

"Unfortunately, trees are not a part of the world technologists have in mind for us."
This magnificent old maple stands in front of the Brady Life Camp, where inner city children are allowed to play outdoors for about two weeks every summer.  Like every tree, under closer inspection, fatal lesions are evident.  Here's a view of a high branch:
Each of these trees on the high bank of the river below are in their death throes.  The one in the center is worth a closeup or two.
These gaping holes are ubiquitous.
The top is nothing but a stump.
The forest looks so brittle, and bright because the branches are covered in a reflective, nitrogen-gobbling lichen that is growing many times faster than normal.  Notice the semblance of pines on the left of the picture.  Only a smattering of green needles remain.
This is what the lichens look like close up.  Once a trunk or branch is smothered, it is guaranteed a swift demise.
Just for fun, every now and then I google for "ozone damage to plants" or something similar.  Every time I do that there are more, as slowly, the serious nature of the threat is emerging.  This time I got over 70,000 results.  Some links were for this very blog, WitsEnd, but most led to various university research programs, international government agency publications, and the US Park Service websites.  I will copy from a few below, and will be adding more later in another post.
At the end, I embedded a brief and devastating video called "Salad Slaves," about the immigrant laborers in Spain.  The workers were encouraged to come, to provide obscenely cheap labor for the greenhouses which supply Europe with hothouse vegetables.  Many of them planned to send money back to their extended families in Africa - but now, work has evaporated for all but a few and, lacking papers, they are stranded.  Left desperate, they can't go home, and they have nothing to live on.  Talk about shattered illusions.
Now to the ozone results - here's a fascinating example which I have linked to before but this particular report, believe it or not, was posted on FOX News!  The thing is, it's from 2007.  Back then, they were thinking maybe ozone might be a bit of a problem for crop yields in 2100, so there was some public discussion about the potential for a future threat.  You don't hear much about it since then, because, it's already a huge problem, and nobody wants to admit it.  Here's what they said in the article:

Plant growth might be stunted worldwide by the end of this century due to air pollution, a new report concludes.
Mounting ozone concentrations resulting from pollution will damage plants and block them from taking up the invisible, odorless gas that gives them life, the thinking goes.
The change would occur despite the carbon dioxide boost to greenery that some have said global warming will provide.
As a result, carbon dioxide concentrations would build up in the atmosphere even more than expected, the study researchers say.
Some scientists have said that one of the benefits of global warming will be a boom in the plant population brought on by higher carbon dioxide levels that feed plants through photosynthesis.
Plants do in fact act as an important carbon sink, or means of taking the potent greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.
But other factors, including ozone, come into play and may prevent plants from taking up as much carbon dioxide as they can get their leaves on.
Previous models have included the beneficial effects to plants, "but they haven't included the negative effects," said Stephen Sitch of the U.K. Met Office, lead author of the new study, published in the July 25 online edition of the journal Nature, which does exactly that.
Good and bad ozone
While ozone forms naturally in the atmosphere from other chemical compounds, the amount of ground-level ozone has been increasing because these compounds are emitted by the burning of fossil fuels.
Although stratospheric ozone is beneficial because it acts like a planet-wide layer of sunscreen, ground-level ozone can be harmful to humans who breathe it and toxic to plants that absorb it.
Plants normally take in ozone and other gases through their stomata, or pores, but when ozone levels surpass a certain amount, the gas causes cellular damage inside the plant's leaves, and they become visibly damaged with brown splotches.
The ozone also reduces the rate of photosynthesis in the plant and cripples its ability to grow.
"In effect, the cells have been disrupted," Sitch told LiveScience. "Essentially the photosynthetic apparatus has been damaged."
Such damage could cause large economic losses through reduced crop yields.
Ground-level ozone has already reached high levels in some areas of the world due to industrial emissions, and concentrations of the gas in the atmosphere are expected to rise throughout this century.
Ozone vs. carbon dioxide
But the problem isn't just a matter of more ozone. When carbon dioxide levels also rise, a plant can close some of its stomata and still take in the same amount of carbon dioxide it needs to feed itself. But the closures block ozone, possibly mitigating some of the gas's harmful effects.
On the other hand, if ozone levels rise above certain concentrations, they can close the stomata so they take up less carbon dioxide. Limiting uptake of carbon dioxide would inhibit photosynthesis in the plant even more.
To tease out the overall effects of the gases on plant production, Sitch and his colleagues modeled the effects of human-caused rising ozone and carbon dioxide levels on plant production.
They found that while increased carbon dioxide levels do boost plant productivity and plant carbon uptake by the end of the century, rising ozone levels suppress these increases so that they are not as high as they would be in the absence of ozone.
But the authors note that there are uncertainties involved in how specific plant species respond to increases in the two gases.
If plants take up less carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then levels of the greenhouse gas could build up more than is now expected, amplifying the predicted effects of global warming.
The study's findings also suggest that ozone, which is a greenhouse gas itself, may contribute more to global warming through its effects on the plant carbon sink than through any absorption and re-radiation of Earth's heat itself.

Next, here's an informative webpage, from the Earth Observatory at NASA, which is so cringe-inducingly frightening it amounts to a criminal indictment of all those politicians who would hamper EPA regulations:

Global Warming
Ozone’s Effects on Plants
Because ozone formation requires sunlight, periods of high ozone concentration coincide with the growing season. Just as in damage to people, ozone damage to plants can occur without any visible signs. Many farmers are unaware that ozone is reducing their yields. Ozone enters the plant’s leaves through its gas exchange pores (stomata), just as other atmospheric gases do in normal gas exchange. It dissolves in the water within the plant and reacts with other chemicals, causing a variety of problems. Plant physiologists are still trying to understand the specific pathways and locations of ozone’s effects within plant cells. Physiologists know that some cell membranes become leaky, possibly because of ozone’s ability to interact with lipid (fatty) components and/or membrane proteins. Photosynthesis slows, resulting in slower plant growth. Compounds resulting from oxidation by ozone interfere with the cell’s energy production in the mitochondria. Such ozone-induced compounds also decrease the numbers of flowers and fruits a plant will produce, and they impair water use efficiency and other functions. Plants weakened by ozone may be more susceptible to pests, disease, and drought.
Photo of Potato Leaves Damaged by Ozone
Browning on potato leaves shows evidence of exposure to high concentrations of ozone. (Photograph courtesy UDA-ARS Air Quality Program, North Carolina State University; photo by Gerald Holmes)

Severely affected plants do show symptoms of ozone stress. Leaves may have tiny light-tan irregular spots less than 1mm in diameter (flecking), small darkly pigmented areas approximately 2-4 mm diameter (stippling), bronzing, and reddening. An increasing number of reports have appeared during the past 25 years regarding ozone-induced injury to plant leaves in many countries. (Krupa et al. 2001).

Although research shows that ozone pollution harms forests and that prolonged exposure has serious consequences, the precise extent of ozone damage to mature forests has proven a difficult issue to resolve. Natural ecosystems are highly variable and complex, and laboratory studies can never fully simulate them. Variability extends to individual plant species, subspecies, and varieties; some react to ozone more strongly than others.

Among crop plants, tobacco is a "canary in the mine" (or early warning) for detecting harmful levels of ozone. Plants such as soybean, cotton, peanut, clover, quaking aspen, and yellow poplar (dicotyledons) tend to be more sensitive to ozone than plants such as sorghum, field corn, and winter wheat (monocotyledons). Agricultural researchers study ozone’s effects on major crops that include tobacco, soybeans, cotton, wheat, and corn because they’re important to our agricultural economy.

Studies of ozone’s influence on crop yields differ in their results. Studies of soybean yield at the University of Maryland found a 10 percent loss of soybean crop due to current levels of ozone in that state, which are commonly 40-80 ppb during the growing season, with particular episodes much higher. The same study showed that ozone exposure causes the loss of 6-8 percent of winter wheat and 5 percent of the corn crop yields to Maryland farmers. (Mulchi 2001).  The National Crop Loss Assessment Network in Raleigh, North Carolina, found a 2-5 percent loss for winter wheat at current levels of ozone (which usually average between 50 and 55 ppb). (Heagle 2001)
The Ozone We Breathe
Related Articles
Related Data
Graph Showing Crop Loss Due to Tropospheric Ozone
Some species of crop plants react more strongly to high concentrations of ozone than others. This graph from a study by the Environmental Protection Agency shows the reduction in yield of crops exposed to ozone. At an ozone concentration of 60 parts per billion, soybeans yields decrease to about 75 percent of normal, while wheat, corn, and alfalafa yields decrease to about 90 percent of normal. (Graph by Adams et al., 1989, adapted by Chameides et al., 1999, based on data from the National Crop Loss Assessment Network)

Chemical changes in the atmosphere spread throughout other parts of the Earth system, including land, water, and living organisms. Effects of crops’ exposure to ozone appear in the soil as well as in the plants themselves. In soybeans, overexposure to ozone results in the plant metabolizing less carbon dioxide. This reduces carbon flow from the atmosphere to the roots. Reduced carbon flow suppresses nitrogen fixation, and the plant then "mines" the soil for some of the nitrogen it needs to grow. Under conditions of high ozone exposure, soybean farmers who want to maximize their soybean crop production must add more nitrogen to the soil than it normally requires. In Maryland and nearby states, an overabundance of nitrogen runoff from the land causes serious and expensive problems for natural ecosystems and fisheries in Chesapeake Bay. While the exact extent of this nitrogen runoff due to ozone exposure remains to be established, adding more nitrogen to the watershed presents an unattractive solution to the ozone pollution problem.
Image of Plant Photosynthetic Efficiency
Fluorescence imaging technology captures soybean plant responses to elevated levels of ozone. Within each image, the two leaves on the left-hand side grew in control chambers, and the two leaves on the right-hand side grew in chambers with moderately elevated ozone concentrations. Purples and blues in ozone-exposed leaves indicate that the leaves are carrying out photosynthesis less efficiently than leaves in the control chambers, where deeper reds and yellows appear. (From Kim, M.S., McMurtrey, J.E., Mulchi, C.L., Daughtry, C.S.T., Chappelle, E.W., and Chen, Y.R. Steady-state multispectral fluorescence imaging system for plant leaves. Applied Optics, 40:157-166. 2001)

High ozone concentrations can affect not only plant growth, but soil fertility. Plants exposed to low ozone concentrations normally metabolize a certain amount of carbon dioxide. They send carbon to their roots, and then to the surrounding soil. Microbes in the soil make use of this carbon. Plants that are exposed to high ozone concentrations metabolize less carbon dioxide, so less carbon is available in the soil, and fewer soil microbes grow and thrive. Microbial activities that result in soil enrichment and carbon processing decrease, with the result that soil fertility diminishes.

Ozone’s harmfulness at ground level extends to non-living things. In the earliest days of ozone research, cracks in rubber served as the indicators used by scientists to determine atmospheric concentrations of ozone. Ozone accelerates fading in dyes and speeds deterioration of some paints and other coatings. It also damages cotton, acetate, nylon, polyester, and other textiles. Photographic paper companies caution users about ozone exposure.

Of particular interest to me was this statement:  "Physiologists know that some cell membranes become leaky, possibly because of ozone’s ability to interact with lipid (fatty) components and/or membrane proteins."
Perhaps that is why trees are actually leaking fluid, and their trunks are stained?

This link has a chemical smog primer:

Formation of photochemical smog

When pollutants like hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides combine in the presence of sunlight, smog is formed. This is a mixture of gases and since it is formed by photochemical reactions, it is called the photochemical smog. The word 'smog' is derived from the two words - smoke and fog.
It forms a yellowish brown haze especially during winter and hampers visibility. It also is a cause of many respiratory disorders and allergies as it contains polluting gases.
Photochemical smog is mainly composed of ozone (O3), peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN) and NOx. It is also known as brown air where solar radiation is intense. In seasons of lesser solar radiation or areas, smog formation is incomplete and the air is referred to as grey air.
causes of photochemical smog
A simplified set of photochemical reactions involved in smog formation is as follows:
Reactions occuring inside engine:
Reactions occuring in atomsphere:

Smog ozone may damage plant as well as animal life. Several species of plants are very susceptible to PAN in smog. PAN damages choloroplasts, which results in reduction of photosynthetic effeciency and growth of plants.
effect of peroxyacetyl nitrate on leaves
Here is just one from the National Park Services:

Ozone Effects on Vegetation

Ash Leaf with Ozone Damage
One of the most widespread air pollutants is ozone, which harms vegetation as well as human health. Ozone is not emitted directly from smokestacks or vehicles. It is formed when other pollutants, primarily nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, react in the atmosphere in the presence of sunlight, usually during the warm summer months. Ozone causes considerable damage to vegetation throughout the world, including agricultural crops and native plants in natural ecosystems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established an ozone standard to protect human health. EPA has adopted an identical standard to protect public welfare, including plants, from ozone effects. However, there is evidence to suggest that this standard, based on human health effects, is not protective of very sensitive plant species; these plants may be harmed at ozone levels below the standard.. 

Ozone injury on wild grape
Ozone enters plants through leaf openings called stomata and oxidizes plant tissue, causing changes in biochemical and physiological processes. Both visible foliar injury (e.g., stipple and chlorosis) and growth effects (e.g., premature leaf loss, reduced photosynthesis, and reduced leaf, root, and total dry weights) can occur in sensitive plant species In a natural ecosystem, many other factors can ameliorate or magnify the extent of ozone injury at various times and places such as soil moisture, presence of other air pollutants, insects or diseases, and other environmental stresses. Ozone effects on natural vegetation have been documented throughout the country, particularly in many areas of the eastern U.S. and in California. To learn how ozone affects tree growth, read more...
For more information on the effects of ozone:
Specific Park Websites with Ozone Information:
 Life struggles on...imagine this:  I bought youngest daughter some mixed tiny cacti, about two inches high, at Home Depot, maybe ten years ago.  We made two mini gardens for a sunny spot in her bedroom, which they soon outgrew.  So, we moved them to the kitchen and look at the size of them now!
Then just this morning, as I was finishing up this post, I noticed that they are actually blooming, for the first time ever.  It could be because they are stressed being crowded in such small pots, or maybe the ozone is getting to them, and they are frantic to reproduce.   But it's pretty exciting anyway!
Here is the video described above - "Salad Slaves":

Lastly (out of pure vanity) is a comment RBrenne left on a Climate Progress post - thank you, Richard!

"Gail at Wit’s End (#30) – You’re our heroine, or at least heroin for doomers, with your irrepressible spirit and quest for knowledge, truth and justice.
Look at my comment just above yours (#29), citing your tireless work, then Catman306 just below (#31) agreeing with you as much as anyone.
You and I and Mike Roddy and Richard Pauli are like Richard Dreyfuss and the others who were irresistibly drawn to Devil’s Tower, in their case to make the first close encounter of the third kind. We’re drawn toward the evidence that we’ll all be meeting our Maker or whoever sooner than we might have expected. Maybe “We’ll meet again. . .” in another life as Ethel Merman sings at the end of Dr. Strangelove when the Doomsday Machine (which is really climate change, ozone and all other human impacts) has gone off. I’ve accepted all of this myself (it hasn’t been easy), maybe because I’ve always wanted to meet Ethel Merman.
Anyway, these are the kinds of comments you more than anyone has been working to get us all to understand, so we need you and your wisdom in these comments.
And often these end-of-post comments especially when they’re from people like you, Mike, Richard, Lou Grinzo, Jeff Hughes, Colorado Bob, Prokaryotes and the newest Romm’s All-Stars Mulga Mumblebrain and Sailesh Rao are incredibly valuable, deep, philosophical and insightful. I feel that surfing the ends of the most valuable posts for just these kinds of comments is one of the many treasures of CP.
Gail, you might not realize it yet, but when you took all of this on because of your rare combination of talents, you were accepting the most difficult job of all: Prophet."


  1. Oh Gail - Richard Brenne is so right on. You are all of these things and more. So much more that I can correct Richard about the music at the end of Dr Strangelove - possibly the greatest doomer movie of all time, it was Vera Lynn - not Ethel Merman..(Ethyl?)
    IMDB says: "We'll Meet Again" (1939) (uncredited)
    Music and Lyrics by Ross Parker & Hughie Charles Performed by Vera Lynn and chorus at the end

    We all love you and your hard work.

  2. Your photos could have been taken in the woods within a mile of my home. Even the Chinese privet, an invasive species around here, is dying. I've started some bamboo to replace the privet as a screen. I'll be really glad in a few years.

    Five or six years ago the dead zone started with the loss of small plants on the forest floor. It's been working it's way up the trees and I guess it's now between 15 and 20 feet up. This means that there's almost no green between the ground and the upper limit of the dead zone.

    Plants will come up with Spring's arrival, but most will die before next winter. Almost none will survive more than two or three years.

    Bamboo doesn't yet seem to be stunted by our ozone levels. Maybe because it grows so fast?

    Anyway, RPauli, I began noticing this die back perhaps 10 years ago and thought it was pollution from the road or smoke from my woodstove, then I realized it was happening everywhere I looked, and only Gail's ozone hypothesis explains how it can be happening in so many places (maybe all places) at once. It's happening slowly, almost imperceptibly; it's insidious.

    Someone defined propaganda as the lies of omission that prevent us from thinking about matters that the propagandizer doesn't want us to notice. Koch and Exxon/Mobile don't want Americans to notice the widespread death of trees throughout the countryside. We just might want to really DO something to keep ozone out of our air. Something like criminalizing the burning of fossil fuels.

  3. crystalwolfakacaligrlFebruary 14, 2011 at 1:06 AM

    Dear Gail,
    It is b/c of you I look at all my trees and surrounding plants with a different look! I went to pick a few lemons last week and the leaves have yellow spots there! The trees get no fertilizer and totally organic the County monitors for airborne pest with a trap.
    A neighbor down the street has a "prickly pear cactus" that until recently was quite healthy.. now its dropped many branches(?) and the pears have dropped too. Its got blackened areas all over. This was a very Healthy Vast cactus a couple of years ago.
    Gail I try to tweet your stuff out...I wish you would join twitter, your research is so important to get out.
    Our Earth is dying....!


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