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

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Holiday Letter for a Most Unusual Year

The corn was frosted, taters is scarce, an’ I lost my best houn’ dog but just the same Christmas is Christmas.

This was the saying on the front of a Christmas card pack I bought many years ago. I don’t recall why I bought the cards other than perhaps I was stunned by the depressing holiday message. I vaguely recall that we did lose our beloved Labrador Retriever, Sam, that year. But back then, we certainly never imagined a year like 2020.


Last December, I found myself in cold, rainy Madrid. The United Nations Climate meetings (COP 25) were supposed to be in Santiago, Chile, but political unrest and violence led to a sudden shift of the conference to another continent and a lot of scrambling to find new accommodations and flights. And here I sit, a little more than a year later, on a cold rainy day here in Pennsylvania (well, actually, it is in the 50's which is odd for December), watching the snow remnants turn to slush and mud and thinking back on the months since COP25.


Colleagues at COP25

A mini reunion of some RMSSN "alum"

Christmas 2019 was quite different. David dropped Joren and me off at Newark airport early in the morning. Our friends Terry and Sally Master were on the same flight, and when we arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica later that day, we met up with Corey who had flown in from California. We had a late lunch and spent the night in the city at Hotel Don Carlos, one of my favorite hotels which has sadly permanently closed – a victim of the pandemic. The next morning, our friend and Tico colleague, Israel Mesen met us and we picked up others: Tom LaDuke, three of his children, the primatologist Jill Pruitt and one of her graduate students who had all flown in from Texas, Jenn Lansing, and members of the Brink family. Terry, Tom, Israel, his relative Eduardo (who was with us on our Panama venture a few years ago), Jenn (who I do restoration work with), the Brinks, and I are co-investors in the Camaquiri Conservation Initiative.

We headed north and over the mountain range to Camaquiri. Our holiday season was spent “christening,” celebrating, and exploring this new site situated on approximately 500 acres of spectacular rain forest in the Caribbean lowlands. We had wonderful leisurely hikes through the forest, met our new “neighbors,” and discussed future plans for the field station that we had invested in. It was a wonderful way to welcome in the new year (despite the mud), flawed only by Dave’s decision to stay in PA to take care of the animals and farmhouse over the holidays.


So much rain and mud!

The kitchen/dining area at Camaquiri

The daily review of wildlife sightings


A few weeks later, I flew to the NCAA annual convention in Anaheim as a part of the work that I continue to do with that organization. The panel sessions focused on student-athlete welfare and well-being, rules compliance, communicating the value of sports, etc. Little did we know that in less than two months, intercollegiate athletics, including March Madness, would be suspended. The best part of the trip (besides seeing long-time acquaintances at the convention) was meeting up with Corey afterwards to do some birding along the shore and in the mountains, touring Caltech’s campus, and going to a Deep EndSessions dinner/concert with the Lonesome Ace Stringband at the amazing Deep End Ranch.


The kitchen at Deep End Ranch

I returned to campus to my dean-work and teaching my Environmental Health and Costa Rica as a Model of Sustainability courses. At the beginning of that course which is taken mostly by public health majors, I introduce epidemiology and we discuss John Snow’s early “detective” work with cholera outbreaks in London in the 1800's. In the news, there were the first reports of a new infectious disease in Wuhan Province, likely zoonotic (jumping from animal to human) in nature. This provided a contemporary case study for us to follow and to "practice" some epidemiology in real time, using the John Hopkins dashboard as a tool. Within weeks, it became a bit too real as we watched this initial outbreak spread around the world.


Days before faculty and students were to leave for course-related spring break trips, I was called into meetings to decide whether one trip to Rome was still a good idea. Given the rapidly rising number of cases of COVID-19 in Italy, I thought not. But the group went anyway. I left with students on February 26th to head back to Costa Rica; COVID had not yet reached Central America. It is always wonderful to introduce students to the wonders of the tropics and the people of a country I love. But many of my days were interrupted with long-distance Zoom meetings back to campus as administration began to fear for what was coming. The students who went to Rome would have to self-quarantine for two weeks when they returned. This was particularly important for several nursing majors on the trip who would not be allowed back into their clinical sites until they were cleared after quarantine. While we felt safe at our remote field stations, I could sense the growing fear about what was to come. Two days before we were to return to the U.S., Costa Rica reported its first case of COVID and we were a bit nervous having to go through both the Miami and Newark airports on our return to Pennsylvania. My colleagues Terry and Tom from East Stroudsburg University (where I used to work) had their course trip canceled by the institution, just 7 days after we had left to come down.


Finca Cristina - a shade-grown coffee plantation

Life on the river

Israel teaching!

My colleagues Jenn and Natasha

Students at Camaquiri

Lynette and Carmen - our cooks


The rest of March is a bit of blur.  About a week after returning from Costa Rica, we were told to be prepared to go online with our teaching “just in case.” On a Thursday, there were plans to have faculty practice online teaching either the following Tuesday or Wednesday. The next day, I met a former colleague for a drink and distinctly remember wondering if it was such a good idea as we were beginning to realize that the virus was no longer just overseas, and we had seen the overfilled hospitals and death toll in China, Italy and Spain. Later that day, the college announced that we were going fully online by Monday. My public health students no longer wanted to follow the epidemiological patterns, and several were starting to question their choice of majors.


It was fortunate that Moravian College had good technology in place and all students and faculty have the same Mac laptops. Several faculty had been teaching virtually either for some online programs already in place or during a mumps outbreak on campus in fall of 2019. We already knew the students in our courses pretty well since we had made it half-way through the semester in-person. Still, the transition was not easy for many on either the teaching or learning end. And it was somewhat disastrous for the sciences and health fields that rely on hands-on learning in the laboratories or clinical settings, especially programs that are accredited and have required hours of practicum for graduation and eventual licensing to practice. I can't imagine what it was like for faculty who had school-aged children at home that they had to help with online learning too.

Joren came home from U Chicago about this same time to finish out his 2nd and 3rd terms of his junior year from home. With him doing his classes and Dave and I both teaching online, there was a bit of a “strain” on our limited bandwidth since we still get our internet through a DSL connection. No cable or broadband in these parts. With two classes and more meetings than I ever remember, I spent way too many hours in front of the screen on Zoom.

Working from home does have its advantages are you can find time for middle-of-the-day walks with Revi the retriever and baking -- if you could find flour and yeast. I became quite good at finding supplies online including two-pound blocks of yeast and bulk-order specialty flours from a regional mill run by Lafayette graduates. I have also found the best online site to order spices! With the current shipping delays and bizarre rerouting, this isn't such a good idea, but we didn’t yet have that problem back in spring and summer. I have baked a lot of bread this year. It is a good thing that we don't have gluten sensitivities in this household! I am not sure we can return to store bought bread - ever!


Spring blended into summer. Dave and I joined Terry and other friends for an annual spring bird count in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. We stayed socially distanced and it was great to see and hear both spring migrants and other people! Last week, we again joined Terry and others for our annual Christmas Bird Count in the Allentown area -- our coldest ever (it was 4 degrees when we started at 7:00 a.m.)



Corey came home to visit in early summer and was able to get his negative COVID test results back in time so that we didn’t have to mask and stay socially distanced in the house the entire time he was here. He somehow managed to get a sourdough starter through TSA and now making sourdough bread has become my new hobby.


July - the last time we were all together

While birding with Corey, we found an abandoned young cat who had apparently recently given birth. She was soooo sweet that we couldn't leave her behind. So Riley became the newest addition to our family. Five months later, she is still really sweet and is accepted by Zzzy and Rory.

My friend and collaborator Gillian drove out from Colorado to try to see her mother in an assisted living facility, but wasn’t allowed in. She visited us for a few days and drove back with an extra dog – her mom’s – to care for. We met at the climate meetings back in 2009 - the first one for both of us. Since then, we have collaborated on a number of projects and grants, including a new one that was awarded by the National Science Foundation in August of this year.


Gillian and I at the Lehigh Gap

Summer was spent in more Zoom meetings and developing protocols to get faculty and student researchers and our health programs back in-person as quickly as possible.  Joren had a virtual research experience with Caltech doing theoretical physics (that is about all I understood of the project). I swam a lot and am so grateful that the pool in nearby Palmerton opened in early July for people who had purchased annual memberships. Dave ran more than usual. We hiked and birded and gardened – all things that kept us sane and got us outdoors safely and often. 


The Palmerton Pool

Dingman Falls

At Rickett's Glen State Park


My first vegetable garden in several years - and a good harvest for months!

Mid-summer, we learned that Joren, as a senior, would have to move off campus as dorms would be saved for first- and second-year students. It is not easy to find an apartment to rent when you are over 700 miles away. He finally had success and left in August, six weeks before he needed to be back on campus, but ready to escape his parents. About a year and a half ago, he became a vegetarian, so Dave and I tried a number of new recipes over the summer. They were good, but we enjoyed adding meat to the menu occasionally after Joren left! His senior year will be so different with few in-person courses, missing his dorm housemates, and not being able to gather in person for the choirs that he has been a part of in college. I am so grateful that I was able to visit him on campus twice in his time there, including November 2019 where I attended a choral concert of his, took him to see a production of Hamilton, wandered downtown Chicago and the lake shore together, and had some good restaurant meals.


Back in LA County, Corey has had to deal with campus closures and still only can get into the lab part-time. There is a time-share protocol in place so they can remain as safe as possible in the region of the country with the highest number of COVID cases. It is so tough to try to do your graduate research that way, but he copes by getting out to the mountains to bird, spending time with Melvin his adopted rescue cat, and enjoying all the wildlife that visits his backyard. Like with Joren, I am glad that I was able to visit Corey last January for a few days when travel was still possible. Neither of them can come home for Christmas ’20 as it simply isn’t safe to fly. 😓


This fall, Dave’s courses were fully online. I taught in-person on Monday nights with my colleague Hilde, but we had to be flexible as we had a rotating cast of students joining in virtually on any given night. Some were in self-quarantine or isolation, and a few were stuck in Saudi Arabia unable to come into the U.S. even with student visas. The dreadful, seemingly endless Zoom meetings filled too many hours every day. I am so grateful that campus is closed for 2 weeks over the holidays, not only for the break (I had only 2 vacation days in 2020), but also for the Zoom-less days.


As someone who normally travels a lot for work, it has been odd being so homebound. The NCAA leadership institute I normally facilitate has been replaced by a series of virtual webinars that I have had to design with the help of my steering committee members. I am not planning a course trip to Costa Rica for March ’21 due to campus travel bans. COP26, which was to be held in Glasgow, Scotland in November, was postponed to 2021 and the U.S. officially left the Paris Agreement, going back on our promises to the world from 2016. There have been some virtual sessions and much discussion of “building back better”, but it isn’t the same as being at the in-person negotiations and meeting with friends from around the world.


In fall ’19, I was honored to be asked to serve on the board for Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. That organization, along with the Lehigh Gap Nature Center (where I have worked on the restoration of the contaminated landscape since 2007) and the Kittatinny Coalition (which works to conserve the section of the Appalachian Mountains in PA) were all doing strategic planning this year. More Zoom meetings! At least it was safe to hike at Hawk Mountain, at the Lehigh Gap, and along the Appalachian Trail this year so we could get out an appreciate all the conservation work and the wildlife we try to protect. Dave and I explored some new areas, especially state parks a bit farther away and away from the crowds; we found exquisite sites especially during the gorgeous fall color season.


A view from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

The restoration work at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center (on a Superfund site)


Birthdays have passed uneventfully. No dinners out; we have braved take-out only a few times. Dave and I have seen way more of each other than we usually do and so far, still like each other! 


We have been through the most contentious (and long) campaign season that I ever remember and now live in a country so divided that family relationships and long-time friendships have ended or are on rocky ground. It has been a year like no other.


We try to stay positive and focus on what is good. We are healthy and live in a beautiful place that makes isolation quite tolerable. 



We have good jobs, that while they are quite different right now, still give us a chance to educate the next generation of scientists, conservationists, healthcare workers, etc. These young adults are struggling with the current “new normal” yet itching to solve some of the global challenges facing humanity and the planet. They give us hope for a brighter future.


So, with that thought, we send wishes for a restful holiday season and a better 2021. It may be different this year, but we hope that you can reflect on what is good in your lives and how we can each do our part to make the world a bit better. While it was too cloudy in eastern PA to see the great conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, the photos we saw from around the world were stunning. I took this rare astrological event as a sign that the world can and will be a better place.

Happy holidays!

Diane and Dave

Happy holidays from the Husics!



1 comment:

  1. Wow, when I read all that you have on your plate, I can only wonder exactly when it is that you sleep. I wish that you guys and your boys have an absolutely fabulous holiday. And I hope to see you all in the new year. Maybe at the lake where we did not go this summer :-(