Reviving John Burroughs’ “Silent Throngs”

The dawn light illuminates the surface of Hampton Brook where it runs through Trail Wood in Hampton Connecticut. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015

The dawn light illuminates the surface of Hampton Brook where it runs through Trail Wood in Hampton, Connecticut, near the site of Edwin Way Teale’s long-time observation blind. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015

By Richard Telford

The cover image for Hal Borland's 1979 book Hal Borland's Twelve Moons of the Year.  From the author's collection.

The cover image for Hal Borland’s 1979 book Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year. From the author’s collection.

At a recent library sale held at my daughter’s school, I bought a discarded copy of Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year.  The 1979 book, a posthumously published selection of Borland’s natural history editorials printed in the Sunday New York Times from 1941 until his death in 1978, brims with keen observations rendered in concise, poetic language.  Twelve Moons is organized in almanac format, with 365 dated entries that follow the course of one year.  It is reminiscent of Donald Culross Peattie’s An Almanac for Moderns (1935) and Edwin Way Teale’s A Walk Through the Year (1978).  On January 1st, Borland writes of “The glint and glitter of frost crystals in the air, dancing like motes of diamond dust in the sunlight.”  On June 1st, he tells us how “The wonder of new beginnings is everywhere, in the dew-wet grass, in the breeze-shaken leaves, in the shimmering spider web and the night-washed faces of buttercup and wild geranium.”  He adds, “The world is hushed and waiting.”  The start of September, Borland confides, “is August ended, October inevitable, summer’s ripeness and richness fulfilled […].”  When the year ends on December 31st, Borland notes that “the seasons overlap the arbitrary divisions we make, and year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a part of the infinite whole.”  The relegation of this poignant volume to the discard table reminded me that authors, too, have their seasons.

John Burroughs, in his 1902 book Literary Values and Other Papers, offers a moving assessment of the effects of time’s passage on the authors of any generation:

The day inevitably comes to every writer when he must take his place amid the silent throngs of the past, when no new work from his pen can call attention to him afresh, when the partiality of his friends no longer counts, when his friends and admirers are themselves gathered to the same silent throng, and the spirit of the day in which he wrote has given place to the spirit of another and a different day. How, oh, how will it fare with him then? […]. The new times will have new soul maladies and need other soul doctors. The fashions of this world pass away—fashions in thought, in style, in humor, in morals, as well as in anything else.

Holding Borland’s book in my hands on that early May morning, I thought of this passage by Burroughs.  It is a passage I have often reflected upon while researching and writing about the life of Edwin Way Teale, who, like Borland, has passed largely into obscurity.  When Burroughs published the passage above, he was a national figure whose circle of friends included Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford.  Still, it seems impossible that one who could pen the lines above could believe that he himself might avoid his own passage into the “silent throngs of the past.”  I have reflected regularly on this inevitable passage during the last several years, both in the context of my research on Teale and in my reading of other time-shrunken giants of natural history writing: Sally Carragher, Loren Eiseley, Donald Culross Peattie, and Franklin Russell, to name a few.  I have thought less on how or why these authors and others have faded, agreeing with Burroughs that it is inevitable, and have instead considered whether some of these individuals might, even in a limited way, be revived in the public consciousness.

The title page for Donald Culross Peattie's 1935 book An Almanac for Moderns.  From the author's collection.

The title page for Donald Culross Peattie’s 1935 book An Almanac for Moderns. From the author’s collection.

The greatest natural history writers of any generation teach us the power of observation, the capacity to look outside of ourselves before looking inward, to see that, in the context of a complex and extraordinary world, we are very small.  It is this awareness, I believe, that allows us to turn inward and truly see ourselves.  All of us, writers or not, will pass into “the silent throngs of the past.”  Framing their observations in geologic time, natural history writers often see this more keenly than most, and they help us both to see and to contextualize it as well.  They do so not to devalue the lives we live as insignificant but to encourage us to see those lives in the greater context of the natural world, thus deepening our appreciation for the life we are given and the life that surrounds us.  They encourage us to be keen observers of the natural world, to be teachers of an environmental ethic, to be stewards of the Earth that we can come to love so deeply.  We are, however, especially challenged to be observers in a time when our gaze, both by obligation and by choice, is largely transfixed on a variety of electronic screens, a time when our collective quest for an illusory self-worth blurs our ethical standards and undermines our stewardship, a time when our children experience the natural world firsthand less than any previous generation did. There is still a place for Hal Borland in our daily lives, as there is for Edwin Way Teale or Donald Culross Peattie, but can they fill that role once more?  Can we revive them in the public consciousness?  Can we bring them back from Burroughs’ “silent throngs”?

The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that Trinity University Press in San Antonio, Texas has undertaken efforts to “advanc[e] a Peattie revival” by reissuing nine of his books.  The available titles, many of which have been out of print for decades, can be viewed here.  Edwin Way Teale is likewise the subject of similar revival efforts.  I have previously written about Connecticut Audubon Society’s efforts to revitalize Teale’s long-time Connecticut home and private sanctuary, Trail Wood.  This summer, CAS will welcome five accomplished writers and visual artists to Trail Wood for week-long residencies through the Edwin Way Teale Artists-in-Residence at Trail Wood program.  These efforts to revitalize the important legacies of both Peattie and Teale are significant. They are born, I think, of the realization that, despite the legitimate gains we have made through ongoing modernization, we have likewise lost a great deal.  These efforts, and others like them, represent an acknowledgment that many writers relegated to “the silent throngs of the past” still have much to teach us.

A copy of Edwin Way Teale's A Walk Through the Year inscribed by Teale to his doctor, Jack Woodworth.  At the time of the inscription, Teale had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  From the collection of the author.

The endpaper of a copy of Edwin Way Teale’s A Walk Through the Year inscribed by Teale to his doctor and friend, Jack Woodworth. At the time of the inscription, Teale had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. From the collection of the author.

Borland, Peattie, Teale, and many other twentieth-century natural history writers forged their careers during the Great Depression and, subsequently, the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe during World War II.  Teale lost his only child, David, to a U.S. Army reconnaissance mission along the Moselle River in Germany in 1945. This was a period that poet W.H. Auden famously termed The Age of Anxiety in his book-length poem of that title.  The natural history writers of that age found respite from the weight of that anxiety through immersion in the natural world.  Perhaps now, fifteen years into the twenty-first century, we might characterize ours as an “age of distraction.”  Borland, Peattie, Teale, and others were terribly distracted as well, given the world events during their formative years as writers, but therein lies the difference—a malady in need of cure.  Largely, our distraction lies with ourselves.  We have turned inward, not in self-reflection but to shape ourselves to meet an external and often arbitrary set of expectations defined largely by social media in its various forms.  We construct an illusory life to combat our inner emptiness, but doing so inevitably fails, both individually and societally.  The great natural history writers of preceding generations likewise turned inward and encouraged their readers to do the same, but, in that inner place anchored by outward observation of the natural world, they shaped themselves in the context of its complex and wondrous order, an order of which they felt a part.  We need such a connection now more than ever if we wish to preserve both ourselves and the natural world itself.  Reviving voices from the “silent throngs” can help us forge that connection

An Emerging Voice in Film and the Environment: A Special Interview with the Winner of The Nature Conservancy Eco-Comedy Film Competition, Patrick Webster.

Immersed in the wonder of the kelp forest. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Immersed in the wonder of the kelp forest. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

by Shauna Potocky

One cannot doubt the power of film, social media and the internet to connect people to stories, issues and challenges—whether on a local or global level. These same venues for communication also hold the power to share important positive stories, to educate, inform, empower and create space for important self-reflection.

One example of powerful storytelling emerged recently through The Nature Conservancy Eco-Comedy Film Competition. The competition was hosted in collaboration with the American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking and gave participants a venue to connect audiences to environmental issues through the power of humor and storytelling. What emerged was a highly engaged audience who rampantly shared the videos, providing a wide reach for the issues and giving emerging voices a platform for sharing and educating in a truly unique and engaging way.

The People’s Choice and Grand Prize Winner of The Nature Conservancy Eco-Comedy Competition is the brilliant and inspiring Patrick Webster, a Program Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who specializes in educating the visiting public about marine science and ocean conservation issues. Patrick graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz and was employed at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at Long Marine Laboratory where he credits making the connection between “dry, academic science and translating it into words and concepts people can relate to and care about.”

Patrick Webster in his element. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Patrick Webster in his element. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

I recently had the opportunity to connect with Patrick and congratulate him on his recent award winning film. It also presented the perfect opportunity to ask him about his emerging voice in the area of film and the environment, as well as his thoughts on engaging audiences and making tough issues accessible to people. Nothing short of thoughtful—one of the things that I was most struck by, was the assurance that young voices are emerging to help carry and create connections that can inspire change—and that they are doing it in new and fresh ways—ways that work.

Shauna Potocky: It is clear that you have a robust grasp of environmental issues, especially facing the ocean. What is your background in education or environmental work?

Patrick Webster: I’ve been working in the world of informal science education for about eight years now. I studied marine biology at UC Santa Cruz, and I was thankfully employed at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at UCSC’s Long Marine Lab for my whole college career. I’m also a big fan of stand-up and improv comedy—my “arts” requirement at UCSC was fulfilled with a stand-up class—and I am currently employed with this extremely niche set of marine-science-comedy-performance skills as a programs specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

I think I defaulted into conservation and environmental work from studying marine ecology and living in the Monterey Bay area—the culture here is very ocean-minded. When you’re learning about how organisms affect and are affected by their environment, just by doing whatever it is they do to survive, and when you apply that ecological thinking to people, it changes how you think about your place in the world. When you see what we’re capable of doing—both bad and good—to our local ocean, you learn quickly that if you’re not careful with what you’re doing now, you could blow it for [everyone else in] the community, human or otherwise. I like to talk to people about conservation issues, because they really boil down to our priorities and choices: we’re lucky as humans that we can pick the role we want to play in the environment—and we know now that you can make a better living whale watching in the Monterey Bay than you could whaling!

S.P.: Many of your films include underwater scenes. How did you get into scientific diving?

P.W.: I have wanted to be a marine biologist since I was five years old, ever since I saw the sea otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But growing up landlocked in the French Alps and the suburbs of Stockholm, diving wasn’t ever on the radar as something that anyone does until the college years. It was when I started taking upper-division classes in marine science, that I realized all the people I looked up to were scientific divers, and all the best stories told by the “elders”-involved dive trips and associated shenanigans. That’s when I knew I had to be a science diver, too. It also helps as motivation that 99% of the real estate on planet Earth for life to live is in the ocean—might as well get out there if you can!

S.P.: How did you find your voice in video and film production?

P.W.: The first time I realized I might be on to something in film was the reception to my submission to the “Youth In Yosemite” film contest. It was a very personal story about my connection to Yosemite through my late grandpa and my rock climbing hobby. I liked how it came out, but the response was very humbling. A lot of people said they connected with the story personally, that they cried and were reminded of their own family history of visiting the park. A long-time Yosemite resident told me that I was the first “outsider” he’d met who “got it”, and he thanked me. That gave me the confidence to enter more contests, and when I won the BLUE Ocean Film Festival’s YouTube contest that same year—with comedy instead of the dramatic Yosemite piece—that’s when I knew that “Hey, maybe people want to hear what I have to say.”

S.P.: What gives you hope or inspires you, when you consider the environmental issues that the world or the ocean face currently–such as what you highlighted in your film? They seem like huge challenges, how do you see us facing them?

P.W.: There are so many environmental success stories out there that we simply don’t notice for the same reason we don’t notice things getting bad in the first place: shifting baselines. Every time I see an otter in the kelp right outside, that is an incredible sight, and every time I see an otter I should be saying, “HEY EVERYONE, STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING, THERE’S AN OTTER RIGHT THERE!” I mean, they literally recovered from being classified as extinct! We are so used to seeing otters that we forget it is like seeing a kelp grizzly. Same thing with peregrine falcons, pelicans, all the whales in the Monterey Bay—those were all on the brink of disappearing forever. Now they [sea otters] are back and doing good. But we don’t notice them because they’re normal again, which is great as long as we don’t forget where we came from.

All it took for those animals to recover was for us humans to simply stop doing stuff we didn’t need to be doing. That is what is hopeful to me about “conservation issues”: they all boil down to a matter of choices and priorities. All it takes is for enough people to say “Hey, why don’t we just stop doing that?” and things start recovering right away. DDT is killing birds? Let’s stop doing that. Catching too many fish is bad? Let’s stop doing that. The climate is wrecked by burning fossil fuels? Let’s try to stop doing that. It has worked for us before to just stop doing bad things for things to get better. It is a matter of willpower.

For a lot of problems, that willpower is blocked by a lot of moneyed interests. And that’s hopeful too, because it means that if you can figure out how to make conservation more profitable than exploitation, you win. If the worst of humanity’s traits is greed, then flipping that for the planet will save us all and then some. It’s totally doable. I think that people are realizing the economic value of keeping ecosystems healthy, and I see that reality every day. Looking outside my window, I can see a bay that swapped whalers for whale watchers, flensing beaches for seal sanctuaries, a cannery for an Aquarium.

S.P.: If you could encourage others to make a difference–what advice would you give? How can people find their own voice, like you did through film? 

P.W.: Find out what you’re good at, and then keep doing that. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s also very accessible. We all have our passions and our skills, and finding where they overlap is key. I’m passionate about marine science, but I’m not that dedicated a marine scientist. Had I gone the bachelors-masters-PhD-in-a-row route, I would have been ignoring the fact that I’m a far better communicator and I am an investigator. Talking in public about science has always been easy for me; writing scientific papers has always been a struggle. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it on things that are merely tangential to your actual niche. Each species out there does at least one thing better than everybody else, and people are no different.

Then, you have to listen to the people in your life, the strangers and the loved ones, and especially to the people who don’t owe you a thing. If they’re giving you feedback, it’s honest. If they tell you you’re on to something, make a note of that, because that might be where your voice is hiding in plain sight. Self-reflection is key: what is it that I do that comes easy and that people resonate with? If you find that nugget, that’s your gold vein, and you work it for all its worth.

Patrick Webster, an extraordinary emerging voice in film and the environment. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Patrick Webster, an extraordinary emerging voice in film and the environment. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Patrick Webster’s current projects can be viewed at www.vimeo.com/underwaterpat and by following him on Instagram @underwaterpat. Be sure to stay tuned for his upcoming launch of www.upwellingmedia.com.

 

Rethinking Wilderness After The Wilderness Act

nevaknott:

Dear Readers, I am moving this week, so instead of writing for you, I’m sharing this excellent article with you from another blog I really enjoy and admire. Neva

Originally posted on Peeling Back the Bark:

Have you ever been in an urban forest and had the feeling that you were off in the wild because you could no longer hear any cars? Did you find yourself on a river trail and felt as Emerson did when he wrote, “In the woods, is perpetual youth”? Or have you been in state park, turned on a trail and thought, “Geez, I’m in the wilderness!”? I can answer “yes” to all three of those questions. Here in the Durham area we have Duke Forest, the Eno River, and Umstead State Park, respectively, to explore and escape to. I find being in the forest—and what feels like wilderness in this increasingly urbanized region—is often restorative, if not transformative.

Scholars will tell you there are both legal and cultural constructs of wilderness. While Duke Forest, Eno River, and Umstead State Park are not, by legal definition, wilderness, such places do…

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One of the World’s Largest and Oldest Sustainability Projects

After the difficult winter of 2015, many of us have our hearts and minds transfixed on outdoor gardening activities. In my gardening research, I came across a huge success story in the world of sustainable living. I hope this information will inspire you, as it has me, to begin using a fertilizer brand for your lawn, vegetable and flower gardens that comes from the oldest recycler in the United States.

Over more than 85 years, the City of Milwaukee has undertaken one of the world’s oldest and largest recycling projects. In 1913, the City of Milwaukee created a sewerage commission to clean up the city’s waterways. By 1919, The Milwaukee Sewerage Commission’s laboratory formally adopted a new process for responsible recycling of biosludge. By 1921, all municipal sewers were connected to this system and processed in a central location at Jones Island, on the shore of Lake Michigan. In 1923 construction began on the first large-scale activated sludge plant in the world.  In 1925, the Sewerage Commission concluded that the disposal problem they faced could be solved by producing and marketing fertilizer. In 1974, the Jones Island Wastewater Treatment Plant was named a National Historic Engineering Site by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Jones Island in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Jones Island in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Specifically, this new sewerage treatment process was the production of solids – the microbes left over from the treatment process and there was one problem. There were 50,000 – 70,000 tons of dried microbes left after the process and no one thought it responsible or even prudent to dispose this volume of waste and potential valuable resource in the landfill.  So the Sewerage Commission joined forces with the University of Wisconsin College Of Agriculture, where Professor Emil Truog and O.J. (Oyvind Juul) Noer began investigating uses of activated sludge as a fertilizer.

Noer determined that the average nutrient analysis of the material was 6.2 percent total nitrogen, with 5.17 percent being water insoluble nitrogen (83% WIN); 2.63 percent available phosphate (P205) and 0.4 percent soluble potash (K20). In his literature review, Noer found that the available nitrogen generally resembled so-called high-grade organic nitrogenous fertilizers and gave superior growth results compared to manures and chemical fertilizers of the time.

Noer experimented with field crops and vegetables and on golf courses, the use of this organic nitrogen fertilizer and found it superior and one-third the cost of other fertilizers commonly used at the time. Also, there was no danger of burning the turf even with over-application and it produced a dark green dense turf without causing excessive top growth. Noer knew he had a commercially viable product when word traveled throughout several golf clubs.

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Courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Following are examples of how Milorganite has adopted to market changes over the years. In 1926, most of the Milorganite was sold in bulk, but by the mid-1930s it was also packaged in 25, 50 and 100 lb. bags. In 1955, packaging changed to offer 40 and 80 lb. bags and again in the 1970s as 20 kg bags were introduced with the movement to metric in the U.S. Today, Milorganite is sold in a distinctive 36 lb. bag and a 5 lb. bag exclusively for the retail market, 50 lb. bags for the professional market, and reusable bulk bags for large area applications.  The blending market continues to be important as other companies find the nutrient analysis to be a valuable addition to their products.

Milorganite continues to help fund many important research projects at universities across the country including projects that study nutrient leaching and run-off, the effects of different fertility regimes and sources on irrigation requirements, and the effect of Milorganite phosphorus in the environment.

Milorganite summarizes its success as follows:

  • Since 1926: 9.5 billion lbs of waste diverted from landfill to re-use
  • $308 million dollars generated, providing tax relief for residents of Milwaukee
  • 8 million tons of Milorganite sold
  • Milorganite is regulated by the EPA and complies with the most stringent requirements
  • Milorganite uses alternative energy sources such as solar, landfill gas, and digester methane.
  • The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is leading the nation in “Green” solutions.

For more information and to determine where to purchase, you can visit Milorganite’s web site. You can watch this video to learn more about the product as well.

Inspired by the Planet: Celebrating Earth Day and National Poetry Month

KKeelerPoppies

Poppies on the west slope of the Sierra. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

The Sweet Spot of Spring

By Shauna Potocky

 

The shadows are leaning long

on the north east side of the house

so the crickets start singing,

even though there are a couple

more hours before nightfall.

 

The cold spring breeze is carrying

a thin film of burn pile smoke

from the western slope of the Sierra

down to the San Joaquin Valley;

it slips by like high clouds.

 

In the shadows the faint build up

of buds can be seen; the trees

are waking. Dangling mistletoe needs trimming

like the grasses, topped before burrs form

dry and tangle in the fur of unsuspecting cats.

 

Spring is divine. All the grasses

green and lush; wildflowers rise, bloom, seed.

The birds fill the forest canopy with chatter

song, a fair bit of whimsy.

It is the sweet spot of spring

before summer.

 

April offers much to celebrate—profound signs of spring along with two celebrations: Earth day and National Poetry Month.

This year, don’t miss the chance to find an Earth Day event near you and get out there to connect to the remarkable and unique environment in your community. Check your local community calendar listings; you are sure to find something spectacular. Many events are hosted at local parks and public lands, through businesses, by a local tribe or through full-scale festivals.

Look for local poetry events as well. Don’t miss all the talent blooming this National Poetry Month at your local bookstores, cafes, pubs or poetry slams. Many of these events are filled to the brim with eager people just waiting to share their thoughts and latest creations with you. Don’t let them down—sometimes the greatest thing we can do is show up—and you might just walk away WOW’ed and inspired.

If you’re really lucky you might just find a grassroots event that celebrates both!

SPotockySkyPilots

Sky Pilots in the High Country. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky.

This year, the connection of Earth Day and National Poetry Month came together at Intermountain Nursery in Prather, California, an exciting event inspired by music, storytellers, poets and of course, great food.

Intermountain Nursery specializes in California native plants and events that engage and empower individuals to embrace using natives as a smart source of landscaping. The nursery proactively educates people on common landscaping issues such as replacing water-thirsty landscaping with drought resistant plants and native species—a much needed consideration in the drought stressed state of California.

The nursery features an incredible array of community events, from their annual Harvest Festival to weekend classes on American Indian basketry, plant propagation techniques, illustration classes and much more. New for this year, Intermountain Nursery brought a unique blend of nature and art together in order to recognize and celebrate Earth Day and National Poetry Month.

Senator Gaylor Nelson fought a hard battle in 1970 to create Earth Day. Since then, his efforts have paid off. Today, Earth Day is an international event that is celebrated in schools, communities, public land sites and supported by international organizations and agencies.

Due in part to environmental champions as well as the awareness raised by Earth Day, the United States has put significant protections in place including the banning of DDT, creation of critical laws such as the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and establishment of the Endangered Species Act. Although Gaylor Nelson was not responsible for all of these efforts, the momentum he created propelled many of these issues and solutions into the public eye.

National Poetry Month was established in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets to bring wider attention to the amazing legacy of poetry. The Academy worked in collaboration with schools, libraries, literary organizations and writers, thus becoming the “largest literary celebration in the world, ” according to Poetry.org.

There is no denying the remarkable connection writing and poetry can create with the environment. Nature writers such as Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry along with poets such as Gary Snyder and Mary Oliver have captured our attention and held it, helping us keep the environment close at hand even when it seems far away from our busy urban lifestyles.

This month, take the opportunity to celebrate both Earth Day and National Poetry Month. Find some inspiration outdoors or curl up with a book from a celebrated poet or someone completely new to you—you might just find that they can connect you to the magic of the world we live in. Poetry might not be science, but it is a powerful art and its ability to help us discover and make connections to the natural world should not be underrated.

Sandhill Cranes over water KKeeler

Sandhill cranes at sunrise. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

Edge of the Refuge

By Shauna Potocky

 

Held down all night

the Tule fog breaks as the dawn does

it rises, ethereal, masking the sun’s luminance;

beneath this low cloud, living things stir

water moves, ripples–and the bird calls come.

 

In the rise, wings   s p r e a d,   e v e r y t h i n g

o u t s t r e t c h e s ,   l i f t s in the coming light.

Song, chatter, foreign languages of the past

stir the damp cold of morning, every little thing

shattering in the waking of day.

 

The genes of wildness and knowing pass through the generations

they face boldly, calmly, the hunts, migrations, births, deaths

and this morning, all who wake, have triumphed.

They gather, breed, sing, sigh, continue the journey

their breathy words rise, sink, fade…

 

Their final syllables muffled as they come to rest

at the edges of the wetland, dampened by the wild

songs of the redwing black birds, who hold the line

in the tall, wind chilled icy reeds

that hold back the hunters and the rest of us.

Predators at my Window: The Recovery of Predator Populations in Southern New England

The author's rapid sketch of a bobcat (Lynx rufus) spotted outside his study window.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

The author’s rapid sketch of a bobcat (Lynx rufus) spotted outside his study window. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

By: Richard Telford

On an early Saturday morning this past January, working at my desk that faces the eastern sunrise, my gaze was arrested by a sudden movement crossing the breaking sun.  My desk window faces a break in the 18th century stonewall that encloses our 1770 northeastern Connecticut farmhouse on three sides; beyond this wall break is a massive brush pile that I have created as I’ve cut back overgrowth along the wall edges to increase light and decrease Lyme tick habitat.  On this particular morning, I experienced a momentary disconnect as I gazed at the unusually stocky, bob-tailed housecat that had broken the line of the emerging sun, quickly realizing that it was, of course, no housecat but instead a bobcat (Lynx rufus).  While bobcats are reasonably common in our area, they are crepuscular—largely active in the twilight hours—and thus difficult to sight.  Further, like most mammalian predators at the upper trophic levels, they are discreet in their interactions with humans. In the twelve years I had lived in our farmhouse, I had never seen one prior to that morning.

The author's six-year-old daughter's sketch of the bobcat seen from his study window.

The author’s six-year-old daughter’s sketch of the bobcat (Lynx rufus) seen from his study window.

I quickly called my wife, six-year-old daughter, and two-year-old son to the window, where we watched this particular specimen as it stood with its forelegs perched on an angular piece of granite half-buried in front of the brush pile, likely a stone toppled from the wall years earlier.  Finally, the bobcat vanished into the woods east of our house, likely heading towards the series of stepping stone parcels that comprise the 324-acre Natchaug State Forest, which borders the 1765-acre James L. Goodwin State Forest, providing a significant habitat for bobcats as well as a sizeable eastern coyote population.

Seeing the bobcat at our window was for me a euphoric moment, similar to the moment I first saw a black bear (Ursus americanus) in the wild at close quarters fifteen years ago while through-hiking Shenandoah National Forest with my brother, bypassing the summer-crowded Appalachian Trail leg in favor a network of abandoned club trails dating to the 1930s.  In both cases, each moment of wonder was tempered by concern, and it is this balance that, in my view, largely defines the interaction of the American public with regional predator populations.  We long for wilderness, but we likewise crave safety, not just in the context of the natural world but in the whole of our lives.  The former impulse can lead us to conserve, while the latter may prompt us to destroy.  Effectively balancing these two desires is central to ensuring the safety of both predator species and their human observers.

In Shenandoah, my brother and I would go on to have eleven more close encounters with black bears which, like us, gravitated to moving water sources in the valleys during a period of severe drought.  Each interaction filled us with wonder, but we also remained aware that an encounter gone bad could end terribly, both for us and the bear.  One afternoon, crossing a brushed-choked summit with a narrow cut-through along its ridge, we became acutely aware of this.  Pounded by rain that largely drowned out most other noise, we repeatedly heard the crushing of brush in feverish spurts off to our right.  We continued to hear these irregular utterances until, perhaps ten yards off the trail, we saw the head of a large black bear rise like a periscope from the brush, its nose drawing in heavy drafts of air that no doubt included our scent.  Perhaps a second or two later, a movement to our left drew our gaze, a cub that had treed itself in the skeletal remains of a long-dead conifer.  Alarmed, we sprinted down the trail, our heavily-laden packs jangling loudly as we put distance between ourselves and the franticly searching sow bear.  Though with less urgency, the need to balance the desire for wilderness with the desire for safety permeated our sighting of the bobcat less than fifteen feet from our house on that early January morning.

While a bobcat poses no significant threat to an adult human unless it is rabid, our three children—ages six, two, and one—fall well within the weight range of typical bobcat prey.  A study published in The American Midland Naturalist documented the bobcat’s ability to take prey up to eight times its body weight, in that case fully grown white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Further, while bobcats in southern New England feed primarily on Eastern and New England cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus and Sylvilagus transitionalis), in winter they will vary their diet significantly when prey is less abundant.  Pound for pound, they are fierce and capable predators.  Thus, though our sighting of this particular bobcat filled us with wonder, it also made us pause in terms of managing the threat that it represents, albeit a remote one.  While this may seem an overreaction to some, the lack of such caution among the general public, arguably, represents a more serious threat not just to humans but to upper-level predator species as well. One widely reported negative predator-human interaction has the capacity to significantly alter the public view of a predator species, even when that interaction stems primarily from poor decision-making at the human end—e.g. the classic bear-feeding dilemma at refuse dumps in national parks and other such sites.  Thus, if we wish to preserve these species, we must shape our interactions with them with greater awareness.

During the first half of the twentieth century, upper-level predator species in Connecticut had largely been eliminated, but by the 1950s, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, western coyotes (Canis latrans) migrating eastward reached northwestern Connecticut, eventually dispersing statewide. Interestingly, the eastern coyote is considerably larger than its western counterpart, a likely product of interbreeding with Canadian gray wolves (Canis lupus) during migration.  Additionally, a 1988 reintroduction program aimed at restoring Connecticut’s fisher cat (Martes pennant) population, decimated in the late nineteenth century by excessive logging, has been successful in establishing a robust enough population that the state initiated a limited trapping season in 2005.  Red and gray foxes (Vulpes vulpes and Urocyon cinereoargenteus) are likewise abundant in Connecticut, and the black bear population has grown considerably over the past twenty years.  From a practical point of view, the recovery of predator populations in Connecticut has lead to a significantly healthier food web, and a more vital and ecologically sound set of natural systems and organismal interactions.

From a spiritual point of view, there is an unquantifiable gratification that comes from living within a more complete ecosystem.  At night, we frequently hear the howling of coyotes along with the calling of barred and great horned owls, and, though these sounds are ubiquitous in rural northeastern Connecticut, they never fail to evoke in us a sense of gratitude for the privilege of living beside these remnants of long ago wilderness, these creatures that have adapted to a shifting landscape that has been shaped and reshaped by anthropogenic change.  Interestingly, one particular anthropogenic change, late nineteenth-century farm abandonment, has probably bolstered the aforementioned recovery of upper-level predator populations in Connecticut more than any other single factor.  Northeastern Connecticut, for example, has returned to a 78% forested landscape, albeit a fragmented one in contrast to pre-Columbian days.  Thus, this recovery will likely maintain an upward trajectory until the various populations approach their respective carrying capacities.  This is cause both for celebration and caution, as noted earlier.  We must eschew the historic, almost fanatical human impulse to extirpate predator populations, an impulse largely rooted in fear—a tall order when, as a society, we grow increasingly transfixed to electronic screens and increasingly disconnected from the natural world.  The fear, whether it relates to physical or economic harm, must be mitigated through education, must be tempered by on-the ground realities.  It cannot, however, be fully eliminated, nor should it be.

The author's six-year-old daughter's sketch of a red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

The author’s six-year-old daughter’s sketch of a red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

Last month, I walked with my daughter out to the brush pile outside my study window. That morning, we were looking for evidence of cottontail rabbits—likely introduced eastern cottontail rather than the declining, native New England cottontail—that we believe are occupying a former woodchuck (Marmota monax) burrow.  Down the hill from the brush pile is an old farm dump that, based on its contents, appears to have been used by former occupants of our house from the late nineteenth century through the 1960s. I asked my daughter if she wanted to walk down to the dump, and her response surprised me.  She told me she did not want to walk in woods where there might be foxes.  I assured her that a fox would likely never attack her, especially with an adult present, and, by the time we reached the farm dump, she seemed to have shed her fear entirely.

The author's six-year-old daughter examines fox tracks left by a likely breading pair that passed near the author's study window in the early morning hours.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

The author’s six-year-old daughter examines fox tracks left by a likely breading pair that passed near the author’s study window in the early morning hours. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Several weeks later, early in the morning, I saw through my study window what looked to be a breeding pair of red foxes.  They trotted along the edge of the clearing south of the brush pile and quickly vanished.  The night before, a light, late-season snow had covered the ground, and, when my daughter awoke, I told her what I had seen.  When breakfast was done, I took her and our two-year-old son out to see if we could find the track trail.  Though the snow was wet and already melting, we were able to distinguish several tracks, and my daughter quickly grew engrossed in the process. This prompted other observations as well: several small rodent tunnels in deep pockets of snow; a lone, half-opened milkweed pod with the gauzy filaments of its coma ruffling in the light breeze; a half-toppled apple tree, its sweet bark gnawed by a hungry white-tailed deer.

I aimed that morning to ease the sense of fear my daughter had expressed several weeks before and foster instead her already-strong sense of wonder.  The latter already largely defines her view of the natural world, and it took little that day to draw it out, but it is tempered at times by the equally natural and logical fears of childhood.  As noted above, we must mitigate but not shed those fears entirely in adulthood as we look to coexist with increasing upper-level predator populations.  A healthy fear can guide us to interact with these populations with foresight and a sense responsibility for their continued survival; it encourages us, as well, to foster such interactions in our children.  A healthy fear can guide us to take reasonable precautions: to secure our refuse properly, to protect small pets and livestock from undue exposure to predation, to manage compost piles and bird-feeding stations with awareness of the drawing effect they can have for upper-level predators.  A healthy fear in this context perhaps translates to a deep respect for these extraordinary creatures, for their survival needs, for their instinctual drives developed over millennia, for their right to exist in the world, and for the way in which they enrich that world by their presence and diminish it with their absence.

Honu, the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle–A Conservation Success Story

By Neva Knott

I saw more honu, Hawaiian Green Sea Turtlesthis trip to Maui than I did during the whole year I lived there. Maybe because I snorkeled more. One day, I swam about 10 feet above a small specimen, following him on his morning tour of the coral reef in Ahihi Bay. The next, while snorkeling at Five Graves, I saw two turtles napping in small caves along the reef. Later that day, while body boarding and swimming at Kamaole Beach Park, a sand-covered turtle swam right past, making his way down the shoreline. He came from a black lava outcropping, where two more bobbed in and out of the waves. There were a few little boys playing in the waves, local boys, who kept yelling “shark” with nine-year-old boy abandon each time they’d see the turtle. When he swam past, one boy said to another, “Ride him.” I looked at him, knowing he knew better, and said, “No ride ’em” in my best pidgin, my way of letting him know I knew he knew better.

The last full day of vacation, my friends and I ventured to the North Shore, to Baldwin Beach. While the beaches along the south shore where I’d seen the other turtles are along the protected side of the island, Baldwin runs along the over open ocean. As I walked down that mile-long stretch, I came across a large turtle out of the water. A young woman was standing, watching. She explained to me that this same turtle had been basking in this same spot for a week or more, a spot just out of a little calm pool created by lava rock. People were concerned, and someone had called the wildlife agency. Nothing seemed to be wrong with the turtle; she seemed to need time out of the water, possibly in anticipation of laying eggs, I thought, having seen a turtle lay her eggs once, in Mexico.

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I sat and watched her bask for awhile. The combination of the trade winds, the lapping of the blue water on the black rocks, the sand on my feet, and the expression of life given by the turtle seemed to be all that existed. As I watched, another turtle swam ashore and nuzzled the one basking. He’d nudge her and she’d move closer to the water. Then the second turtle put his head upon that of the first. I don’t know if this was a sexual act or one of comfort, but it was universal in depth of emotion.

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The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. According to literature published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), honu populations were in severe decline in the 1960s and 1970s, due to over-harvest. Since protection was granted for the species, it has made an incredible recovery, increasing over 53 percent in the last 25 years. Not only are honu part of island lore and culture, an emblem of the islands, this recovery makes them an icon of successful conservation efforts. All it took was a change in human behavior. Now that harvesting turtles and turtle eggs is illegal, honu surround the islands.

Even though the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle populations are increasing, both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA recently published a report on the Federal Register stating, ” we do not find delisting warranted.”

Honu are part of the beauty of the islands, and their presence is a reminder that the natural world and the human world only work in balance.

Follow this link to detailed information about the natural history of the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle.