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

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Not your typical Mother's Day

Some years ago, my son Corey started taking me birding early on Mother's Day.  Well, I technically took him since I drove, but he served as my guide.  Often we would be up at 3:00 a.m. to drive to South Jersey/Cape May to be there by dawn (while many other moms are treated with a day to sleep in).  But as a reward, a Prothonotary Warbler was often one of our first sightings, followed by lots of Blue Grosbeaks and Chats and Summer Tanagers, other migrants, and then shore birds.  Alternatively, we would head out in search of Cerulean Warblers and other special species like the Yellow-throated Vireo.  This year, I was a bit sad thinking we wouldn't go since he did a 24 hour "big day" yesterday, and didn't get home until about 1:30 a.m.  And next year, he will be away at college.

So it was a big surprise when he was up early and asked if I was ready to head out to some "secret spots".  This year, he was able to drive, and we went to some new destinations.  These spots could be described as tick-infested clearings (the worse I have ever seen) and bogs with lots of bugs and poison sumac.  OR I could say that we went to special habitat #1 and found 7 Golden-winged Warblers (my birder friends know how special it is to find these) and then to spot #2 to see the delicately lovely Painted Trilliums and spring ephemerals in bloom.  He scoped the areas out yesterday and knows how much I miss the woods full of trilliums from where I grew up.
Could I be more blessed?

(And not to leave out Joren:  He spent a few hours last night trying to teach me how to solve a Rubix Cube. It was hopeless on my part, but we had fun hanging out together.  And both decided to take me to the new Chipotle Restaurant in the area since they know I like the philosophy behind this company.)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Lament amongst Celebration

I am feeling a bit blue tonight, perhaps from the exhaustion of the end of the semester.  Maybe it is because some really superb students graduated today, and while they are all headed to really exciting next-steps in their careers, I will miss them a lot.  Or perhaps it is because of the recent horrific news stories ranking from the senseless deaths in Bangladesh to the bombings in the Boston region to the monster that held three girls – now women – for a decade and subjected them to unimaginable physical and mental abuse.

Besides these potential explanations, I have been pondering the significance of the planet hitting the 400 ppm atmospheric CO2 mark this week.  When I was in graduate school, we used 340 ppm for setting instruments and calculations.  This summer, my research student Marla (who graduated today) used 400 ppm as "ambient conditions" to calibrate the equipment that she was using.  Perhaps it is these types of little things that make the issue so real for me. 

Another graduate from today, Caiti, has already taught the public about the impacts of climate change at Exit Glacier in the Kenai Peninsula.  After a lot of research and personal experience, she wrote an amazing paper this semester on climate change and coastal communities -- focusing on NJ, the islands off of Louisiana, and Alaskan communities - weaving common themes between these seemingly disparate regions of the country. 

I wonder what the CO2 number will be when Marla and Caiti will be teaching students or National Park visitors in the future.

Today’s faculty speaker at graduation (Chris, from my department) spoke of the importance of education, of fighting against those who would try to keep us ignorant.  Malala Yousafzai comes to mind.  But Chris reminded us of the 25 year old U.S. diplomat Anne Smedinghoff, killed in April while delivering books to a school in Afghanistan.  This sad story gets buried under all the current media coverage and politics surrounding the attacks in Benghazi.  Was Anne’s death any less disturbing or important than that of Ambassador Christopher Stevens?

Chris spoke of the growing anti-intellectualism in this country.  This is something I worry about a lot, especially as it related to the public's fear-turned-distrust-turned hostile sentiments towards science.  We all know of climate deniers and those who say evolution just couldn’t be true.  (Because us scientist types like to make up elaborate hoaxes.)  But there are also plenty of other examples where ignorance, especially about science, rears its ugly head.  This piece is just one small example of what we are up against:  Thank goodness for children who try to educate the teachers and for those like Adam Frank who say it like it is:

But I digress from my ponderings on greenhouse gases and their impact on our world.  My honors student from last year (Anna, '11), examined long-term data sets, and documented the changing migration patterns of songbirds.  When she enters medical school, she is likely to hear about the health impacts of climate change.  Very likely she will be treating patients in the future for diseases once considered tropical, for heat stroke, or for pathogens we don’t even know about yet.   So many changes in the world around us; perhaps this is why I am sad.

A former student Sarabeth ('10) has gone to Peru and seen first-hand the impacts of climate change (water shortages) in rural communities - where many people don't know about climate change (as opposed to denying that it exists).  Paradoxically, next year, as she enters graduate school, she will work closely with a professor who studies the sociological impacts of flooding along the Mississippi River.  In a recent email, Sarabeth wrote

After coming home from Peace Corps, its became clear to me that community efforts at a local level are enough to get larger, regional forms of government to step-up and pay attention.  If they have a leader willing to put it all on the line...
You are so right Sarabeth.

I am beginning to sense that the current youth are igniting an activist movement that will once again – as has often happened in history – change the course of events for the better.  Recently, efforts at several colleges and universities aimed at getting campuses to divest in fossil fuel companies have caught the media’s attention:   

I can't imagine that my institution will go this route any time soon, but as the NPR story notes, "So far only a few small colleges have opted to drop investments in fossil fuel companies."  Small schools like College of the Atlantic and Swarthmore are taking the lead.

There are things for which my institution has taken a leading role (thanks mostly to faculty and students).  One example is our accreditation status as U.N. civil society observers for the climate conferences (the “COP” meetings).  Like with divestment, only a few small colleges (5 to be exact) have this distinction.  Sadly, it is not recognized by everyone on campus as something to promote and support more fully.  There is a growing call by many others for higher education to step up and show leadership with respect to climate change; thus, we should be proud of our leadership role here.

Another example where the college shines is in the number of students who have done important research in the restoration work at the Palmerton Superfund Site or within local watersheds.  Restoration is becoming increasingly linked to sustainability and building resilience to climate change.

So while I am extremely proud of the students who have walked across the stage at recent Moravian commencements, I am also frightful of what the future will hold for them and for my own children.  Maybe that is why I am a bit sad tonight.  But when I reflect on what they have already accomplished, what they will be doing, and the deep passion they demonstrate to be change agents, my sadness is tempered with a sense of hope.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

May Day 2013

It is a blessing to have such a long-term relationship with a landscape that you become familiar with its most intimate details – its inhabitants, the phenophases of its plant life, its sounds and smells.  This is the time of year where we marvel at the miracle of migration as our summer neighbors return and begin to put things back in order.  Not only do species generally return to the same region each spring, but some seem to relocate their favorite tree.  How do they do that?

Today, the Ovenbirds and Black-and-white Warblers were on territory, trying to out-project each other.  (If you are familiar with these species, you know who wins this competition.)  The first Wood Thrush of the season was singing from our neighbor’s majestic spruce.  Pileated and Red-bellied Woodpeckers are hollering, and I heard incessant rapid-fire tapping on trees, most likely the old oaks.  Are they looking for food or a possible nesting site?

As I looked out at the Appalachian Mountain – known locally as the Kittatinny Ridge or Blue Mountain – I see the Serviceberry (Amelanchier Canadensis) at the highest altitudes are at the peak of their bloom.  Also known as Shadbush, this tree began to bloom on the south side of the mountain and in the valley to the south about two weeks ago, coinciding with the run of the fish of the same name.  At the lower elevations, the modified leaves or bracts of the dogwoods are emerging, revealing the small greenish, yellow flower buds within.  Is there a woodland tree more graceful?

In the woods, the sweet birch, maples, and aspen have their first small leaves, but the canopy is sparse, so you can still find the warblers and other birds perched on treetops.  The pollen count is high.  The sassafras has its yellow-green flowers and leaf buds.  Did you know that the stems, when scratched, smell like Fruit Loops?  A few weeks ago, the Spicebush was quite pungent.  Have you played Nature’s scratch and sniff game?

Emerging from the woods to the edges of our old farm, I see flowers on the plum and pear trees, and the apples are about to burst with fragrant blossoms.  When they do, the bees will move from the cherries to the apples, their buzzing louder than the spring peepers.  Barn swallows, catbirds, mockingbirds, sparrows of various types, robins, starlings, blue jays, and crows are darting back and forth and calling away.  A discordant chorus at times, but pleasing nonetheless, don't you think?

This is the time of year in eastern Pennsylvania where the temperatures are perfect – not too hot during the day, with crisp clear mornings.  It is the perfect time for the unwieldy growth of grass and weeds, but still too cool for the worst of the bugginess or to put out the tomato starts.

As I type this, Purple and Gold Finches in full breeding plumage are at the thistle feeder, joined occasionally by a migrating Pine Siskin.  They are being watched by an Eastern Phoebe at the top of our pear tree.  The phoebes usually build a nest under our deck, and this particular bird seems to be checking out this possibility again for this season.  The juncos left about a week ago, and today was the first day that I didn’t hear a White-throated Sparrow.  Have they moved on to their summer homes and friends farther north?

I hope that on this May Day, you have time to enjoy one of your favorite landscapes and to count the blessings that Mother Nature shares with us.