Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Monday, March 3, 2014

What Fires Should Educators Light?


Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

William Butler Yeats

Good educators really “get” the first half of this quote from Yeats.  Rote memorization of facts does little to inspire students.  We doubt that it does much for learning either, preferring to focus instead on developing critical thinking skills and tools for life-long independent learning.  But while few would question the value of a focus on critical thinking, we do debate our role as educators in lighting fires. 

Throughout my teaching career, I have been a proponent of providing opportunities for students to engage in undergraduate research – intense experiences in which students are co-creators of knowledge, rather than simply vessels to be filled with facts and ideas that others have already published.  It was the transformative opportunity of doing independent research that lit my own fire as a first-generation student, so much so that I went on to graduate school to pursue a research-focused career.

As both an undergraduate and graduate student in science, I was trained to believe that the process of doing science is an objective one.  But this never totally made sense to me.  Science performed in a vacuum does little other than to satisfy one’s curiosity about the world around us or about the secrets of life at the molecular level.  What makes science so exciting and so important is that it provides us with the ability to solve complex problems or to create technology which can be used to improve the quality of life.  However, as we learn those secrets of nature and transform them into tools to manipulate elements of our natural world, including humans, we are faced with tremendous ethical dilemmas and a realization that the information we learn can be exploited and used in ways never intended.  Knowledge comes with power, something that is rarely objective.

So as educators of science, do we stick to the facts and theories and “the” scientific method (as if it is a single linear process)?  Do we continue to perpetuate the myth that science is not subjective at times or could never be used for questionable purposes?  I think not.  It is important to teach about the social context of science and to critically evaluate the outcomes of scientific research.  Would this crush an aspiring young scientist?  I certainly hope not.

My personal career path in science and education has certainly not been a linear one.  I was fortunate to have one of those early research experiences – working on a project that had an environmental chemistry focus.  I had, after all, grown up during the first environmental movement of the 1970s and was clearly influenced by it and by the wilderness-like settings I lived in. I then went on to graduate school in plant at a time when genetic engineering of plants was a new field.  Because I understand the science behind the technology, and probably also because I know personally some of the individuals who created the first genetically modified plants, I tend to have more positive views about GMOs than many of my friends, despite my ongoing love for wild places. 

Graduate school was followed by a stint in cancer research when HIV/AIDs first emerged as a new disease within the gay community.  How can you stay objective when you attend a conference in San Francisco and walk to the venue through crowds of terrified men – many the same age that I was – facing an early death and begging you for information on what advances in science will help them?

To this day, I show my students the film “And the Band Played On” so that they might know the early and ugly history of this disease – the science, the cultural context, the politics, the religious fanaticism, and the fear.  This fear was not only experienced by those dying of HIV infection, but also by the public who was afraid they might catch this dreadful disease for which there is still no cure over three decades later.  I share my stories of those days in San Francisco – both the horrors I witnessed and the egos of scientists who cared more about their future fame than the lives of so many.  I find that I can’t simply stick to the facts about the biochemistry of this disease.

As fate would have it, I eventually returned to my environmental roots and now work in the areas of ecological restoration (which involves value judgments about what to “restore to”) and climate change.  Today, it is the scientists who are fearful – this time not about a disease, but about the fate of the planet.  They find themselves caught up in a bizarre social frenzy which is fraught with controversy, public distrust, media manipulation, and politics.  Top climate scientists are the ones facing the threats of death – simply because of their area of research.  There are many who aim to silence the voices of researchers like Michael Mann and James Hansen, attempts that go way beyond those who tried to silence and discredit Rachel Carson as a “hysterical female” who set aside her science and, in a “tragic turn” in career began to write fables that encouraged “some of the most destructive strains within environmentalism: alarmism, technophobia, failure to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives, and the discounting of human well-being around the world.”[1]

Science textbooks don’t tell stories about the character assassinations and death threats.  And nowhere in my science training was I told that these sorts of things might happen, perhaps because it didn’t happen in the past.  But today, be it climate change, evolution, nutrition, or genetic engineering, science has been flung into the throes of political battlegrounds.  Should I ignore this in my teaching?

At a time when society is faced with tremendous challenges of poverty and growing inequality, global environmental problems, food security, new and emerging diseases, scarcity of resources, and conflict, more than ever we need not only science and technology, but also innovative thinkers, advocates and activists.  We need educated people who aren’t content with simply finding a job, but are still idealistic enough to want to change the world for the better.  In other words, we need higher education to lead the charge in lighting fires, to be inspiring the next generation of problem solvers who will work at the front lines of these grand challenges of the 21st century.

So is this happening?  Today, there is pervasive criticism of higher education on many fronts ranging from tax payers to the White House.  Administrators don’t want to rock the boat, or more precisely, are begging faculty not to rock the boat.  They implore us to be more balanced in what we teach or in who we invite as speakers to campus – so as not to offend or discourage potential donors or prospective students.  Public institutions fall into line of submission for fear of losing state and federal funding.  The modus operandi is to keep the faculty busy learning new technology which supposedly will enhance learning or filling out assessment reports to appease Washington, so they say.  But perhaps it is really just to keep faculty busy so that we don’t have time to incite a movement or write a provocative op-ed.  We wouldn’t want to tarnish the image of the institution. 

What happened to the times when college campuses were at the forefront of calling for social change – be it during the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, or calling for divestment during the times of apartheid?  I applaud the handful of students who are now calling for divestment of another sort – aimed at shifting investment funds from fossil fuel-related corporations and calling attention to global climate change.  And kudos to the almost 400 students who were arrested in Washington, D.C. this past weekend.  They, along with busloads of others were protesting the Keystone XL pipeline project. 

A few years ago, during the fall of the Occupy Movement, I participated in a march in Washington about the same pipeline project.  When I came back to campus and told students in my Introduction to Environmental Science course about the experience, it was obvious that they were a) shocked that I would do something like this (it isn’t what scientists do), and b) fearful that it was my expectation of them to do sometime similar (it wasn’t).  But, we talked about their obvious aversion to political activism.  Some noted that such activity would be a black mark on their record, thus hurting their chances for securing a job in the future.  Most didn’t have a clue as to what the Keystone Pipeline XL project was.  My bad.  I hadn’t yet gotten to the chapters on energy or climate change.  But surely they must have seen something via social media from 350.org or other organizations?  Nope, they had no idea who Bill McKibben is.  I witnessed, with some sadness, the same reaction and lack of awareness of current events from students in my first year seminar which had the title of The Future of Nature and Humans: 21st Century Environmentalism.  My fault I guess.  I hadn’t yet added those details into their pails. 

Since that incident, I have been thinking a lot about these messy issues.  My work with the United Nations on climate change has taught me that while science might get countries to the negotiations table, policy and multilateral agreements will ultimately be battles about economics, cultural differences, national priorities, and politics.  Nothing about the process is objective or logical.  But the process is filled with passionate people who care about the future of the planet, or at least their countries, and about protecting their people and national interests.  In too many of my students, I see apathy, disconnect with current events, and a lack of awareness of historical context.

Over the past few years, we have brought some fascinating speakers to campus.  Some were involved in the civil rights movement (Jesse Jackson and John Lewis).  Winona LaDuke talked about environmental and cultural sustainability initiatives on reservations.  Students wanted to know how she dealt with the label of “activist’.  Her response:  “I don’t consider myself an activist, just a responsible citizen.”  Perfect.  Ph.D. biologist and author Sandra Steingraber spoke of the need for a liberal arts education to understand issues like natural gas extraction (fracking), to be able to formulate educated positions about whether it is a good idea or not.  Yes, she is an activist, but that wasn’t her message on our campus.  Each of these speakers illustrated to students what it means to be engaged in a cause, to care about something. 

What has been the response?  Students texted during the talks, and administrators ask us to be more balanced in our choice of speakers (reportedly because some donors and board members were upset).  Aren’t issues like inequality, the impact of the forces of capitalism, the consequences of past and present exploitations, social and environmental justice, clean energy (or energy independence), and climate change the very ones that we should be lighting fires over?  If not us in higher education, then who?  Many colleges and universities have somewhere in their mission statement a line about preparing students for “service for the common good.”  If we aren’t tackling the big questions of our time, what “common good” are we working towards?  And who decides?  These aren’t questions that are objective, or ones that any science I know can answer.

Recently, I was reading a blog post that pointed out that more than twenty years ago the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS 1990) concluded that scientific goals to solve society’s problems are fostered by a greater emphasis on liberal education.[2]  In other words, it is the liberal education of students that will help move science out of the laboratory and into practice for the common good.  To create those responsible citizens that Ms. LaDuke spoke of.  Along these lines, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has a major initiative known as LEAP:

Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) is an initiative that champions the value of a liberal education—for individual students and for a nation dependent on economic creativity and democratic vitality.[3]

In making a “Civic Case” for a liberal education, AAC&U has a slide presentation on their LEAP website (see reference 3) that is really worth all of us on college campuses to peruse.  Two slides in particular that caught my attention contained excerpts on “Education and Citizenship” from Ben Barber in An Aristocracy of Everyone[4]:
 
The fundamental task of education in a democracy is the apprenticeship of liberty—learning to be free... The literacy required to live in civil society, the competence to participate in democratic communities, the ability to think critically and act deliberately in a pluralistic world, the empathy that permits us to hear and thus accommodate others, all involve skills that must be acquired..

“Democracy is not a natural form...; it is an extraordinary and rare contrivance of cultivated imagination... [E]ndow the uneducated with a right to make collective decisions and what results is not democracy but...the government of private prejudice and the tyranny of opinion...”

Reviews of this book indicate that Barber’s perspectives are controversial, critical of conservative views, and exciting.  Exactly the types of topics we should be debating on campuses over twenty years later.

In 2010, I wrote a chapter for a monograph published by the Council on Undergraduate Research entitled “The Role of Department Chairs in Promoting and Supporting Transformative Research.”[5]  In that chapter, I noted that
 
In defining liberal education, the AAC&U LEAP initiative speaks of preparing individuals to deal with complexity—to “develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.”

The goal of creating an academic environment that could lead to transformative research is certainly not contrary to the institutional goals of liberally educating students and preparing them for making a positive impact on society. Indeed, students who are being taught in an environment that promotes critical thinking, a sense of social responsibility, and the application of knowledge gained to solve real-world problems are precisely the type of students who will likely be the next generation of innovators.

In rereading this now, I realize that the experiences of my non-linear career path were starting to converge in those words.  My role as educator, was to not only teach students about science and to give them experiences in research, but also to inspire in them a desire to be socially responsible and use their knowledge and experience to solve some of the world’s most challenging problems.  A lofty ambition, perhaps, but in my mind, an essential one.

I take students to the United Nation climate change conferences so that they can see the many world views on this topic that differ from the official position of the U.S.  We grapple over environmental and social justice issues when we are in the field of the largest Superfund site east of the Mississippi River, trying to figure out how to revegetate a mountain.  We even read excerpts from those who started the environmental movement and maintain it today.  Some of those famous scientists, writers, and activists have radical views, but they have changed public policy in this country, and some have had global impacts.  Certainly not the stuff of objective science, the type that is safely done in laboratories, hidden amongst the beakers and solutions and equipment.  If my students and I simply stayed in the labs and focused only on reciting the facts, would we be working on problems that really matter?  And if so, we would be doing so without really understanding the social and political context of the problems or any solution that we might come up with. 

~~~
If you are still following this rambling, you may be wondering what prompted this diatribe.  Several times in the past few months, I have found myself at conferences where the question of whether scientists should be engaged in advocacy on issues such as climate change.  I have been approached by some who fear that my climate change work is too liberal.  And recently, our college president chose to publicly admonish a colleague who wrote a thought-provoking, well-written opinion piece that was published in a local paper.

 What is this left-leaning work of mine that has some concerned?  I lead a project that involves ecological monitoring of eastern Pennsylvania, to see if there are signs of the impacts of a changing climate and whether we can predict vulnerability of species and habitats.  I serve on both state and international committees trying to advocate for science to be used in developing policy related to climate change.  My students, colleagues, and I blog from the U.N. meetings to report on what we are hearing and learning, since most of this is not covered by the U.S. media.  I even occasionally have an op-ed published, some of which are subjective, non-scientific pieces.[6]  Others are carefully crafted responses (retorts) to some really uneducated letters-to-the-editor that are filled with all sorts of factual errors, especially ones on the topic of climate change.  All radical stuff, I suppose, at least for a scientist and an educator.

I have a number of colleagues from other institutions who believe that it is an ethical obligation of higher education to deal with climate change – through curriculum, research, modeling best practices of sustainable practices, and public outreach.  I was recently reading a blog post on this topic and realized that Dr. John Lemons from the School of Law at Widener University captured the very essence of what I have been thinking in a much more articulate way that I could have written.  So to conclude, I share four excerpts from Dr. Lemons’ essay with emphasis added.[7] 

Why should universities deal with global climate change in a more wide-spread and comprehensive manner? The reason lies within university responsibilities to educate about important societal issues across all disciplines, including the benefits of liberal education for all students. Recent quantifiable scientific evidence concludes that mitigation of serious and irreversible consequences of global climate change are plausible but only if urgent action is taken within about a decade or so. Drawing on assessments about the efficacy of environmental and sustainability programs, it seems clear that “piecemeal” approaches to addressing the complicated root causes and possible solutions to global climate change will not work. Because of the pervasive influences that have caused global climate change, its solution needs to include all disciplines and programs.

In order to foster comprehensive education about global climate change, it will be necessary for educators and environmental scientists and managers, and high-level university administrators to advocate for university reform. One might not relish being involved in advocacy, but the stark choice is this: Either engage in advocacy or not. But if not, understand that this is a decision, intentional or unwitting, to support the status quo that is responsible for global climate change. Scientists or other educators who might be reticent to engage in advocacy because of fear that it might compromise real or perceived objectivity would be well advised to read Lemons (1987), Nelson and Vucetich (2009), and Moore and Nelson (2010) which dispel myths about the legitimacy of such reticence.
 
Seth (2008) makes explicit the failure of higher education to address the strong ties between capitalism and ever-increasing consumerism which, of course, increases the problems of global climate change. Vucetich and Nelson (2010) demonstrate how the lack of inclusion of ethics into sustainability programs, and by extension those with a focus on global climate change, is stifling progress. Nussbaum (2010) also lends her voice to how universities have neglected liberal and civic education and by doing so contribute to the root causes of problems such as global climate change.  

The failure of universities to develop comprehensive global climate change programs might also stem from a lack of attention to responsibilities that come with the protection of academic freedom, which not only allows faculty to conduct their own teaching and research, but also entails the responsibility to enable all students through university-wide programs of study to acquire learning to make significant contributions to society (AACU 2006). Academic freedom therefore requires faculty to advocate for the inclusion of comprehensive global climate change programs. Surely, global climate is a huge societal problem. Further, if faculty members avoid taking action this implicitly or unwittingly represents a form of advocacy because it is tantamount to supporting continuation of the status quo that is responsible for global climate change.
 
These excerpts include citations that can be found at the link that I provide; I highly encourage you to read the entire piece by Dr. Lemons.  And thanks for reading mine.





[1] Roger Meiners and Andrew Morriss, Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic, PERC Policy Series #51, 2012, available at http://perc.org/articles/silent-spring-50.  Or, see Miller, H.I. and Conko, G. “Rachel Carson’s Deadly Fantasies”, an op-ed in Forbes (9/5/12) available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/henrymiller/2012/09/05/rachel-carsons-deadly-fantasies/.


[2] AAAS American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1990) The Liberal Arts of Science: Agenda for Action. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C.



[4] Benjamin R. Barber, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, Oxford University Press, 1992.


[5] In Kerry K. Karukstis and Nancy Hensel, eds., Transformative Research at Predominately Undergraduate Institutions, CUR Publications, 2010, available at: http://www.cur.org/assets/1/7/TRFull.pdf 



[7] John Lemons, Universities And The Need To Address Global Climate Change Across Disciplines and Programs, See: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2011/03/26/universities_and_the_need_to_address_global_climate_change_across_disciplines_and_programs/#more-120

 

 

 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Rediscovering my winter roots

Photo by Dave Husic, Week 1 of Feb, 2014
Where I grew up, winters were long. Snowy boots and encrusted mittens handmade-by-grandma lined the vestibule. Wet socks were exchanged for a new pair on a regular basis, and rosy cheeks were a better shade than any rouge could ever match.

I haven’t been outdoors much in the past few weeks. Not with a hectic schedule of work, snowstorms, preparing for conference presentations, a bad cold, too much travel. Poor justification, I know; I should take care of myself better. Isn’t that I what I teach my students?

It is easy to get caught up in the winter griping with colleagues and friends, or to make excuses about aching knees and aging bones. Wouldn’t want to fall and break anything. When we do have winter here in eastern PA it is too often punctuated by ice storms.

Lately, treacherous walking conditions have been the norm, especially if you have a very energetic dog on a leash. It reminds me of the days of beginning ski lessons on the bunny slopes being pull by the tow ropes. But then, the only casualties were rope burns if you didn’t have leather ski gloves. And, of course, we knew not to wear scarves that could get tangled in the towline.

Now I think of broken legs, or backs.  Have I become a fuddy-duddy, or just smarter?

I have a bad habit of checking Facebook before I start the day, you know, just to see what’s happening and who might have a birthday. Yesterday, someone had posted journal entry by Thoreau from 160 years ago to the date:

Thoreau's Journal: 12-Feb-1854

To make a perfect winter day like this, you must have a clear, sparkling air, with a sheen from the snow, sufficient cold, little or no wind; and the warmth must come directly from the sun. It must not be a thawing warmth. The tension of nature must not be relaxed. The earth must be resonant if bare, and you hear the lisping tinkle of chickadees from time to time and the unrelenting cold-steel scream of a jay, unmelted, that never flows into a song, a sort of wintry trumpet, screaming cold; hard, tense, frozen music, like the winter sky itself; in the blue livery of winter’s band. It is like a flourish of trumpets to the winter sky. There is no hint of incubation in the jay’s scream. Like the creak of a cart-wheel. There is no cushion for sounds now. They tear our ears.

Oh man…why have I been complaining? I love winter. And what a beautiful description Mr. H.D.T. We haven’t had many perfect winter days in quite a few years. I and my zone 6 and 7 plants have done just fine in what used to be zone 5. But I have been missing something too.

My goodness, after watching Chasing Ice the other night and seeing what Mr. Balog will do, bad knees and all, to make sure the world knows what is happening to our glaciers, I don’t think I have too much to complain about. Why haven’t I been outside? Who knows if we will even have winters in the future when those glaciers have departed.

So yesterday was the day that I was going to break away from the routine, and the excuses. With a pending storm that would dump about a foot of new snow, and likely some fresh ice, walking won’t get any easier this week. My get-out-of-jail card was a trip to the dentist to repair a chipped filling.

I snuck home early, a full hour and a half before dark. I bundled up and asked Revi the Retriever if he too was tired of being cooped up (silly question for a flat coated). He may not take Best of Breed in Westminster, or any dog show for that matter. But he has boundless enthusiasm, can follow a trail that is days old, and is about the happiest creature I have encountered in life.

Walking with Revi in fall (he's tough to photograph against the snow)

I was trying to walk in the footsteps of the previous person who ventured into our back 40 (Dave, most likely) and that worked -- sort of. If I walked on unchartered paths, I broke through the icy crust, making the only noise in the calm-before-the-storm woods.

In his enthusiasm, Revi plowed me over. It is difficult to get up with a 70 pound dog on top of you and snow that keeps caving in beneath. There was that moment when I remembered that I am no longer young and no one knew where I was.

Anyone who has lived where snow is frequent knows the look of the sky before a big storm. It has a color – somewhere between lavender and gray and the color of azure butterflies.  My friend Julie recently described it as “Mood Indigo” (1):

We walk to this place
where blue hills meet steely sky
The mood's indigo.
Before we get back
darkness will fall in the woods.
Snow lights our path home.

Perfect, Julie, just perfect.

After reaching the old meadow at the top of the rise, Revi and I saw the diffuse sun over our blue hill – Blue Mountain, the Kittatinny Ridge – just before it slid behind the terrain.  But unlike Julie, I didn’t want to head back down the icy trail in darkness, so we couldn’t linger.

Back down, safely, we grabbed the bird feeders for restocking before the next round of bad weather. Earlier in the day, I had heard both male cardinals and tufted titmice singing their spring calls. Silly birds. Them gals aren’t going to be interested in this cold weather. Trust me on that one. I don’t think I could wear enough layers in the evening during this time of year.

Looking back towards the west, the sun is almost gone now, the clouds a bit thicker and the sky a bit icier blue-gray than before. Snow’s a-comin’. I wish I could paint the colors of the winter, highlighting our gingerbread-like house with its fresh snow white icing, the lovely shadows and textures in the snow. I can’t, but I know people who could though.

Our gingerbread house
Back inside, it was time to strip the wet mittens and socks, and line them up like I did when I was young. It was time to settle in, and wait for the storm, and maybe even complain a little about winter.


1) http://juliezickefoose.blogspot.com/2014/02/mood-indigo.html

Saturday, February 1, 2014

We all need some spirit nurturing sometimes

I have been feeling a bit glum lately, not inspired in my teaching (largely due to unreceptive audiences), and disappointed in this country's lackluster leadership with respect to many issues, especially the environment. But today, I am catching up on reading some articles and blog posts, including some by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez. 

http://bethechange2012.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/respecting-our-elders/

http://bethechange2012.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/we-are-all-noah-now/

I want to thank Jennifer for reminding me that, even when we are in a lull, we must remember Pete Seeger and Wangari Maathai and Nelson Mandela – inspirational elders who have all left us now – left us with unfinished missions that must be continued. I realize that if those of us who teach today’s youth don’t continue to march along in this duty, then things will continue to grow more dire. 

Students in my classes don’t know these important names, much less why these individuals are so revered. It is our job to teach these students, to engage them, to inspire them. Jennifer expresses it well when she notes that “we are all Noah now.” I think this is true whether we are trying to save biodiversity or humanity or important history and culture.

When I responded to one of Jennifer’s blog posts with similar comments to what I wrote above, I said that we must continue to "trudge along in this duty", rather than "march along". I was thinking about trudge -- as in making slow progress despite hard work -- rather than considering the task as drudgery, but she was quick to respond with the following:

Diane, have you read Charles Eisenstein’s latest book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible? He notes how important it is for those of us who are awake to the ecological crisis to connect with each other–it’s not “preaching to the choir,” it’s nurturing each other’s spirits so that we can continue solidly and strongly in our chosen paths. I am glad my blog posts served that function for you today!

I feel very lucky with the students I’m working with this semester. Remarkably passionate and aware young people. With your “unreceptive audience,” how can you get under their skin and find the sweet spot where you will be able to wake them up from their media-induced sluggishness? Sometimes it happens when you dare to reveal your own vulnerability, your fears and grief and love. I hate to hear of you “trudging.” See what you can do to dance in front of the class, and get them up and dancing with you!

She is correct. Trudging is the wrong way to think about this, although my discouragement was worsened by my experiences this week. I am just back from the National Council on Science and the Environment conference on "Climate Solutions" having taken some students with me. I tried desperately to get the students to network given the many influential people who were in attendance: Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space (who is now at NOAA), James Hansen and Richard Alley (great climate scientists), Gina McCarthy (the current EPA director), and many other researchers and policymakers. How could they not be inspired?

On the way home, as we crossed over the Millard E. Tydings Memorial Bridge in Maryland that spans the Susquehanna River(dedicated, by the way, by John F. Kennedy eight days before he was assassinated), a bald eagle flew over the car hood - so close you could see into its eyes. Yet they couldn't be bothered to look up from their smart phones since they had important messages about the "100-days-to-graduation party" they would head to when we returned to campus. As they party their way towards graduation, I wonder what their longer-term plans are. And I wonder why I care so much about their future. So yes, Jennifer, some spirit nurturing is indeed needed at the moment. 

Thank goodness for some words of encouragement from another foot soldier in this effort! On Monday, I must try to remember to dance again.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Holiday Season Reflections on 2013

I learned a while back that getting Christmas cards or letters out in a timely fashion doesn’t work so well when the academic semester runs until so close to the holiday season. While students stress about exams and semester grades, I am frazzled about trying to figure out what to get family members for Christmas (especially those that live 1000 miles away) and whether I can get the house cleaned up and decorated. And then there is grading, too much grading. It’s not that I don’t think of friends and family. I do. A lot. And it stresses me out that I end up setting aside things that are really important to me because of other deadlines.

So here I am on New Year’s Eve, now New Year's Day, writing a holiday letter for the first time in many years. I can’t even recall how many years it has been. There is much to catch people up on (unless we are Facebook friends). Mostly, I will focus on this past year, which had a lot of “firsts” for us. Here goes…

Last year at this time, the household drama included the stress that goes along with college applications. Applications are due, but then there is the dreadfully long lull while the applicant and their family wait. And wait. More on that topic later.

In the 2012-13 year, I served as the co-chair for the Center of Investigation on Sustainability on campus. We hosted a number of speakers and events on topics such as environmental toxins, the future of fracking, local foods, the role of indigenous people in the sustainable movement, and “just” sustainability and urban design. Speakers included Sandra Steingraber, Winona LaDuke, Julian Agyeman, and others – all apparently controversial to someone or another as I learned. I found the talks inspiring; I hope that the students in the audience learned a thing or two that they won’t hear in the media. Lafayette College also had a good array of speakers this year including Jane Goodall, Jimmy Carter, and Tony Blair. It was quite special to get to meet Ms. Jane!

As part of the campus sustainability theme, I was asked to lead a service-learning trip over spring break to the Grand Canyon. The first week of March is not necessarily the time to head to places like this, and I was glad I convinced the student-life planners (who didn’t go) that tent camping was not a good idea. We stayed in the labor cabins at the park instead – with cooking facilities and some heat! We had a wonderful experience doing tree and limb removal (damage from insect infestations and RV’s), helping with the development of some sustainable expansion projects for visitor services, and serving as secret shoppers in the restaurants. A fairly significant snow storm hit the region at the end of our week, making the drive back to the airport in Phoenix a bit hairy. Seeing the canyon with snow was a first, and an experience that I recommend. Watching the storm roll in the canyon from the watchtower at Desert View Point on the east end of the park was spectacular. However, being solely responsible for a group of undergraduates (including cooking with a limited budget, driving, etc.) for a week is not something I would advise. I politely said no when they asked me to do it again this coming March.

Dave and the boys had coinciding spring breaks later in March and they headed to warm southern Florida. Warm enough to stay in tents, good birding, and no snow! Disappointingly, I don’t think my break will ever be at the same time as Dave’s.

The college acceptance/rejection letters and emails came while they were away, and I had to anxiously wait until Corey’s return to hear the verdict. He was accepted to several really top-notch schools, the most surprising of which was Harvard. Not that Corey didn’t have good credentials, he did. But I think he applied there somewhat on a whim, not necessarily thinking he would get in. So on the first weekend of April, I was headed for my first trip to the Boston area and to Harvard Yard. I kept thinking he won’t like it. Too urban. Too snotty. Too far! But, like it he did. Then reality hit. Too expensive. The one school in his list with need-based only financial aid. Dang. So much for Dave and I retiring anytime soon!

At least the stress was over. Or so I thought. But to actually be admitted, Corey had to continue to do well in his last semester of high school. His parents weren’t worried, but he was. And then there were a slew of very difficult placement tests over the summer. I saw the readings and prompt for the writing test and concluded that many of my students ready to graduate from college might not do so well on that one. Graduation was in May, and Corey graduated at the top of the class, raking in a number of awards and honors. Our first child, now done with high school. When did he get to be an 18-year old adult?

Joren finished his first year of high school, also recording a stellar performance. We will soon start the cycle of PSATs, SATs, applications, etc. again, all too soon. He loves computer programming (a self-learner on this), chess, jazz music, Chinese, Spanish, and all things Tolkien. Both he and Corey ran cross-country (Corey made it to states in his last year) and they both ran in track. And we learned that both had hidden from us for some time that they had their first girl friends.  Dave and I certainly have entered a new phase of our lives watching our fledglings take flight.

Despite my experience in March, just two months later in May, I headed to the Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks with the Rocky Mountain Science and Sustainability Network for a week-long institute with college students. This time, I was surrounded with lots of other professionals and there was a professional cook at the Murie Center. A much better arrangement and the food was plentiful and excellent! We had an incredible week of learning together, hiking, meeting with National Park Service employees to hear about their work and how climate change and sequestration was impacting our national treasures. And it was the first time I got to encounter a moose along a trail while hiking and to see the peaks of the Tetons (when I was there before, the clouds never lifted).

Back at Moravian, we had to move out of our science building this summer for some demolition and renovations.  This was a good excuse for not accepting any research students, and instead taking our first family vacation (as in all 4 of us together) in years. With Corey heading off to college, we realized that there may not be another such opportunity. Plus, we needed to celebrate his graduation. So in June, we headed to Alaska – a first trip to this destination for all of us. We stayed in quaint cabins, first in the Kenai Peninsula near Exit Glacier, then in Denali – hiking, birding, swatting mosquitoes, and taking in some of the most amazing landscapes we have ever seen. Glaciers really are blue and sometimes very dirty, but they are receding rapidly. We didn’t expect to experience record high temperatures (in the high 80’s) in Denali! If you haven’t done it, take a drive along the Denali Highway and eat Thai food from a truck near the end of the 100+ mile passage. Take a 9-hour boat ride through the fjords. We had two weeks of being unplugged and loved every minute of the spectacular views and many new birds (first sightings) for our respective life lists. And yes, there were salmon running up the streams to spawn by the thousands, grizzlies, caribou, moose, and alpine butterflies. Personally, I was privileged to visit 5 of this country’s most amazing national parks within just 4 months in 2013!

Closer to home, we were thrilled to celebrate the end of a 12-year battle to preserve a plot of land along the mountain near us that had been slated to be turned into a private race course. Kudos to a small conservation group (comprised of mostly neighbors and friends), known as the Blue Mountain Preservation Association, for their efforts. At the end, some other groups stepped in to help seal the purchase the land from the developer, and now it is conserved as state gamelands. The first day it was in public ownership, Corey visited the site and discovered a new species of dragonfly for the state! BMPA was honored at the annual Northeast Pennsylvania Environmental Partners awards dinner. In addition, for a long list of accomplishments, Corey was the recipient of the Emerging Environmental Leader award. He couldn’t come down from college, so his parents and his mentor, Dan Kunkle of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, proudly accepted on his behalf.

Corey and I took an end-of-summer trip to Ohio and then Michigan to visit family and friends. The time was too short, but it was good to see my parents and the shores of Lake Superior and to spend quality time with Corey before he went off to Cambridge. A day of hiking in the Yellow Dog Plains, picking blueberries, picnicking, and visiting Fred Rydholm’s cabin with his daughter-in-law Kathleen Heideman was particularly special. For those of you not from the Upper Peninsula, Fred was my 7th grade science teacher, but was a historian, naturalist, and story-teller extraordinaire. I hadn’t been to the cabin since high school. I also had to good fortune to return to the U.P. in September when I was honored as a distinguished alumnus by Northern Michigan. It was fun to see former classmates, a member of the swim team, and my undergraduate professor, advisor, and research mentor.

Sending Corey off the last weekend in August was both exciting and tearful. Without him around the house, we all sense the “hole”. But he is learning amazing things with opportunities galore. After adjusting to the urban setting and to having a roommate, it appears as if he loves it there. But there were lots of new firsts – first time he didn’t do the fall “big sit” in our field (for counting birds over a 24-hour period), not being home for my birthday, etc. Despite my dislike for Apple products, I do appreciate Facetime – and our almost weekly chats with Corey from various locations on campus. I got to visit him in early November when I went up to do a talk at Stonehill College where a dear friend works. Not surprisingly, Corey and I left the campus to go birding.

~~~

Dave is still in the Chemistry Department at Lafayette. He must be approaching a record for longest time spent as a department head! When he is not teaching about Appalachia or biochemistry or doing chores on the farm, he plays music with the Lost Ramblers (or with Corey when he is home). This fall, he was busy conducting searches for new faculty colleagues – a less than fun task. 

Somewhere along the line, my career as a biochemist took a rather dramatic turn. These days, my scholarly efforts are mostly directed at ecological monitoring and restoration, climate change, the intersections of art and science, and conservation. These areas of focus are reflected in the honor’s thesis projects of students I mentored over the last two years:
  • “Determination of the impact of heavy metal contamination on plants at the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge” (work at a Superfund site).
  • “Barnegat Bay Explorer Program: Using Public Education in the Barnegat Bay Protection Effort”.
  • “Using Ecological Monitoring and Citizen Science to Better Understand Climate Change Impacts in Eastern Pennsylvania”.
Besides science, I have been working with local nature centers on nature journaling projects and gave my first talk at an art museum in December! I also had my first trip to Poland (Warsaw) this fall to attend the U.N. climate conference. This is the 5th of these conferences that I have attended in Copenhagen, Cancun, Durban (South Africa), and Doha (Qatar). The meetings always occur late in the fall semester, adding to my complicated schedule and providing yet another reason for not getting holiday letters out. It is frustrating to watch a lack of progress on international agreements aimed at addressing climate change and to see politics and economics overshadow what the science is telling us. But it is fascinating to meet people from 195 countries –all under the same roof, all of whom are at least trying to reach some sort of consensus on what to do.

Given that I am half-Polish, it was interesting to get a small taste of this culture. I really liked Warsaw, was saddened by the WWII and German occupation history, loved the (unhealthy) food, saw some lifers (birds), went to see a wonderful ballet, and visited the Madame Curie museum. Although Marie did most of her work in Paris, she was from Poland. I went to the museum with 3 female chemistry undergraduate students, and it seemed appropriate to pay homage to this woman who not only had amazing scientific discoveries, but did so at a time when women weren’t encouraged to be professionals, much less scientists. Excerpts of her letters indicated that society didn’t think it was appropriate for her to be working and traveling internationally while her children were left at home. 

In thinking back, I certainly traveled a lot this past year (and I didn’t even describe all my trips to meetings in Maryland, Denver, Indianapolis, and Texas)! Dave gets on my case about my carbon footprint, given my work in sustainability and climate change, but supports my work and holds down the fort while I am away. While I love to travel, it is particularly nice to hang out on the farm over this semester break. We certainly have been blessed with amazing personal and professional opportunities, great children, and the opportunity to be stewards of an old farm and views of the stretch of Appalachians that runs through our “neighborhood.”

Here is hoping that you all have a wonderful 2014 – filled with family, good health, and time for friends and reflection.

The Husics – Dave, Diane, Corey and Joren

For some pictures from this past year, go to: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/hia8949g2dlcl9o/TiNnM13W6V

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Winter ramblings on a soggy day (a.k.a a tale with many bends)

It is a rare moment when I don’t have an immediate deadline, and, on top of that, the house is quiet. Very quiet. One son is driving to Ohio; the other is in his room learning some programming language. Dave is out playing tunes. And, oh, is it dreary. Pouring rain with temperatures in the 30’s is not my favorite weather condition.

Earlier today, I was out grocery shopping to gather things for a New Year’s celebration at the neighbors. I decided to come home along a different route from my normal drive to and from work. The snow of early December is mostly gone, except for a few dirty piles where plows pushed it off the roads and into edges of parking lots. There is too much impervious surface in the Lehigh Valley. They paved paradise sang Joni. Here they paved over superb topsoil and historic farmland. I think of all the salt and grime that combines with this melting snow to run directly into the Monocacy Creek that meanders along the road. Especially on rainy days like this. Do the fish and macro invertebrates sense these spikes in saline concentrations? Or are they just trying to stay warm?

In spring, this creek receives the runoff from the few remaining farms just to the north. The Monocacy flows into Bethlehem, collecting storm water runoff and dust from cement companies along the way. In some places, the lime raises the pH of the water enough to make it appear turquoise in color. The creek passes through the historic district of the city and joins with the Lehigh River to flow past the skeleton of the Bethlehem Steel plant. Reportedly, the name "Monocacy" comes from the Shawnee name for the river, Monnockkesey, which translates to "river with many bends." 

The country’s first municipal pumping system – the Bethlehem Waterworks – was built along the Monocacy in the 1750’s. According to the National Park Service, the system served the growing city until 1832, but the area had supposedly become an automobile graveyard by the 1960’s. Who knew? This area, known as the Colonial Industrial Quarter, is fortunately now a National Historic Landmark; the stone pumphouse was restored in the 1970’s – long before I moved to the area. The original plans for the waterworks were preserved in the Moravian Archives, not the collection near the campus where I work, but rather in Germany. I wonder why they weren’t kept in Bethlehem.

This year, the dam was removed from the Monocacy in the historic district, with hopes of lessening the flooding that has plagued the area of late. Our students have documented the increase in frequency of the creek reaching flood stage over the past two decades, coinciding with increased sprawl and blacktop, and increased heavy rain events. (Put up a parking lot or at least another strip mall or distribution center.) Some, including one of my colleagues, hopes that this dam removal will help restore the shad fish run up the creek in spring.

Bethlehem Steel began as the Saucona Iron Works in 1857. Once the largest steel-producing plant in the U.S., it filed for bankruptcy in 2001. Some of the former industrial site is now a casino/resort/arts center. I don’t know what possessed someone to build such a complex on a designated Brownfield, but I presume they test the dust and the water for contaminants. Certainly, the little town of Bethlehem receives some nice tax benefits that they weren’t collecting on 1600 acres of vacant, polluted land. Render onto Caesar.

I have a friend who has dedicated her time and talents over the past several years to salvage the former estate of the first mayor of Bethlehem, who also happened to be an important executive at Bethlehem Steel. You can tell that the grounds and 1920’s mansion of Archibald Johnston’s place were once spectacular. His descendents left the 55 acre estate to Bethlehem Township in 2005, but the property has been sorely neglected. My friend has copies of the original garden plans. No native plants, but pretty nice, nonetheless. Her persistence just may save this piece of Bethlehem history.

For a region steeped in history (dating back to 1741) that possesses the 6th oldest college in the country and buildings where the Continental Congress once worked and that served as the hub for the launch of the Industrial Revolution in this country, you think that more of its residents would care about preservation and honoring the past.

In historic Bethlehem on Christmas Eve
 ~~~

As I drove home, I notice that some of the yards are greening up from the warming spell we have had. I pass fields of unclaimed pumpkins that have been through many freeze-thaw cycles by now. Squishy fields, squishy pulp and flesh. Soon to be frozen again, given the looming forecast. While I don’t miss the bitter cold, long winters of upper Michigan, I do miss the seemingly ever-fresh snow cover, the evergreens and birch bark, and glittering ice on the Big Lake. Here, the winter palette is rather drab – sullied browns and grays.

While out shopping, I rescued a fine specimen of a Red Aglaonema to brighten up my office for the winter. (I am not sure why they call it spring semester.) I dropped it off as I had to stop by campus to check on the greenhouse. New windows in our science building means I don’t have to worry about plants getting too cold as they sometimes used to, but they still need to be watered. The large rambling "Wandering Jew" (Tradescantia Pallida Purpurea) plant that is climbing up a palm was in bloom. (I have no idea why the plant has the common name that it does.) These tiny purple flowers didn't have any scent, but really stood out visually on this lackluster day. No other souls were around (duh, it is semester break), so I was able to enjoy these tiny treasures in wonderful solitude.

I am feeling a bit guilty. Part of my shopping run today included a stop at a box store (yes, the type that adds even more paved surfaces) to purchase some incandescent bulbs before they are no longer produced as of the end of the year. Ms. Sustainability/Ms. Climate Change activist must confess that while I appreciate the energy savings of CFLs, I do not like the fluorescent rays  that they emit.  They are not as bad as mercury-vapor lamps, which actually make me nauseous, but still, I am not fond of fluorescent lights. I have allowed Dave to install CFLs and LED’s throughout the old farmhouse, but have balked at putting them into the fixture over the sink in one of the bathrooms. My indulgence, I guess. So I “had” to stock up on 40 watters, enough for a few years, anyway, just for this room. Does the fact that I drive a Subaru with 209,000 miles make up for this in anyway?

Well, in rereading this, I smile, as this quiet writing time was supposed to result in a belated holiday greeting letter. Perhaps I was feeling a bit too melancholy for that. This will be the first New Year's Eve without Corey. Not that we ever do anything particularly exciting to mark the passing of one year or to welcome in the new one, but when he is not here, I deeply sense the void. I realized that about ½ hour after he went off to college in August. This has been a year of many “firsts” – some wonderful, some bringing the realization that Dave and I are entering a new phase, a new bend in our river of life. Guess I will have to write that piece a little later.

On a sunnier day before the snow melted
Home sweet home