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

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:

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