If you’ve never stared off into the distance then your life is a shame…                                                Counting Crows, Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby

By Neva Knott

Redmond. This Central Oregon town hasn’t changed much since its founding a hundred years ago. It is a typical Oregon small town in the organizational sense; there is a one-way leading in, through, and out of town to the south and there is a one-way leading in, through, and out of town to the north. There is an intersection with a highway to the west and one with a highway to the east.

I came to Redmond from Oregon’s big city, Portland, from the north. I came over snow-capped Mt. Hood, then across the dusty, sand-orange colored Warm Springs Indian reservation, dropping down into the Deschutes river canyon with the shimmering black-blue of the water, and ascending back up to the sage-covered plateau. After driving a long stretch across the res, I dropped back down and into the green agricultural town of Madras, a place that holds the scent of the garlic grown there. Continuing on, I passed the Smith Rock formation to the left, cross the Crooked River canyon, passed a red cinder rock butte on the right, and will then was welcomed to Redmond by a bronzed statue of a cowboy riding a horse.

The High Cascade Range of volcanoes creates a boundary between Central and Western Oregon. The Redmond side of the Cascades sits in a rain shadow which causes this drastic and immediate change from the Portland side thick and dense Douglas fir forest with its rhododendron, salal, Oregon grape, huckleberry, maple understory to a less dense mix of Ponderosa pine forest, Juniper trees, sage, and rabbit brush. Redmond sits upon an expansive landscape, the High Lava Plains, across which one can see for miles, taking in buttes and mountains.

This is a farm town. The Deschutes County Fair is here, ranching is the industry, and Big R is the place to shop. People here love the land, the hunting life, and outdoor sportsmanship.

I didn’t intend to relocate to Redmond. Nor did I intend to leave.

In Portland, I worked at the high-pressure college prep Lincoln High School. Due to constant budget cuts, lack of a district superintendent, and weak leadership from our principal, the general vibe of the school was increasingly dysfunctional. Professionalism was eroded. My colleagues were a group of stressed, strident, self-serving skitterers. The stress was eroding my love of teaching. I also had a personal reason for escaping both Lincoln and Portland. My partner, Adam, had died in a car crash two years prior.

After the accident, the Lincoln community and the structure of work provided me much support. But after a couple of years, I was tired of people looking at me with the unasked question, “Are you all right yet?” I gave my notice, intending to return to Maui to bartend for a year and sit on the beach, work on my photography and write, sort out myself.

I gave my notice on June 1, 2007. As I sat at graduation a few days later, I looked down the row of teachers, their slumped postures, wound tight faces, and bad hair dye jobs and thought, thank god I’m getting out of here.

I let go my Portland apartment, spent a week couch-surfing and saying my goodbyes, and then—I panicked. I’d fucked up my life. As much as I’m a traveller, adventurer, and espouse big dreams, I also value professional security. I grew up in a hard-working, work-a-day blue-collar family in which the job is a prime directive. I wasn’t trying to quit teaching with my leave-taking from Lincoln. I was burnt out, traumatized, and grieving, and I knew I needed a break to regain sense of self after my loss. Now what?

In desperation, I began applying for teaching jobs.

Redmond School District had an opening for an English teacher at the new International School of the Cascades. The description read as if it were tailored to my resume. Though I left Lincoln seeking a break, this was the type of position I hoped to find when I reinvigorated my career. At the ISC I encountered a friendly, smart, fit and worldly group of professionals and really nice, motivated students. I bought a sweet little ranch style house on the edge of town, near a llama field and the Baptist church.

On the High Desert, I encountered an expansive landscape. Open. Clean. Qualities I was seeking in my life and in myself. As I struggled to re-establish the outward aspects of my life, my internal landscape became closed, obscured, and small. I felt lonely in a way I don’t think I’ve ever been before. I photographed nothing. I wrote not a word. I didn’t make friends. That type of inertia is not me. As much as there is a line between the Portland side and Central Oregon, there seemed to be an imaginary boundary to what I set out to accomplish.

Some sort of tenacity kept me there.

Redmond is the type of place where, on a cold winter’s morning, before first light, a group of tough construction workers sits in Starbucks, conducting a Bible study. It’s a place where the coffee stand man knows your name and greets you every morning when you drive through on your way to work. Where people stop, smile, and wave as they let you cross the street. Where it’s effortless to buy local because every business is owned by someone born and raised here. The grocery checkers are always the same and chit-chat with you in a way that makes you feel you’ve participated in community.

The culture of Central Oregon is built around playing outside. Mt. Bachelor is a ski destination, the Chain Breaker is an annual cyclo-cross race that draws the state’s best riders, the Metolius and the Deschutes rivers provide some of the best fishing in Oregon, and Smith Rock is a world-famous climbing spot. I’m not an extreme athlete as are many I met there, but I hike with my dog. After work I’d choose a trail along one of the rivers or drive to the Ponderosa forest just outside of town. Within twenty minutes, I could be in wilderness, which is where I spent my weekends and school breaks. On one summer trip, out to the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, I drove home after sunset with all the windows down. It took four hours to traverse the various ecosystems. I discerned changes in the landscape by scent and temperature; it was a tactile connection made between me and the Oregon I was travelling across in the night air.

I shaped my life there around the landscape. In the process, I found all of the attributes of the outdoors lifestyle I sought on Maui, and I found more—a sense of being grounded, rooted, part of a bigger place than just that which I inhabited. I felt bigger than work and chores and adult-life obligations. I felt bigger than what I’d lost.

Somehow, inexplicably, I needed the lack of familiarity I experienced in Redmond so that I could push myself forward into the shape I wanted for my life. Was I still the take-life-by-the-horns, make-it-what-you-want-it-to-be bad ass I fancied myself to be?

Then came the recession. In spring of 2009, twenty per cent of the teachers in the school district, myself included, were laid off. We were told not to expect to be called back to work in the fall. I’d gone to Redmond with just over ten years of experience; sadly, in Oregon one does not retain one’s seniority or years of service when one changes districts. I found myself at the bottom of the pile.

The bell rang and my students poured out of my classroom, on their ways to another. I took a quick break myself. In fact, I pulled myself up short with a life-changing realization while in the faculty bathroom, all in the few precious moments of passing time. As I washed my hands, I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I was going to work another 20 years. I was 47, and we’d all been given our lay-off notices that day. We knew they were coming—Central Oregon was reportedly the fourth hardest hit place in the nation in the “economic downturn” as this new devastating recession was being called. There had been talk of nothing else at lunch, for weeks. I think by the time the actual day came, some of us—I know I did—felt sorrow for our supervisor who had the horrible job of actually handing out the individual notices.

So that’s how I found myself washing my hands and talking into the mirror, making a big life decision in the four minutes of passing time. I told my reflection, “You’re going to work another 20 years, you know. And your whole career in teaching has been budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts. You have no seniority here—this will only get worse. Just try something different. You can do anything you want.”

So I did. I applied to a graduate program in Environmental Studies. I love the out-of-doors, nature. I had an idea of becoming a sustainability consultant, and of using writing and photography to help people understand how and why to live sustainably.

The following June, I returned to Redmond to participate in the graduation of the last class of the International School of the Cascades, the new school that held my dream job just three years earlier. The program had been cut in the budget shortfall. I wore the black robe and the mantle of my alma mater that signals my stature as an academic. I sat in the front row with my former colleagues, all of whom I respect and admire. I felt sadness and shame and failure about my professional experience there, and a longing for a life that I know I won’t have in this place of grandeur. I drove over Mt. Hood, across the reservation, through Madras. As I drove along the plateau, I looked at the sky. At once, across the High Desert, it was a dark and ominous grey, crossed by a swathe of blue-white. A mile off in the distance, a bright spot of sun shone through and illuminated the grey above me as it pulled the blue out from behind a pink-tinted puff of cloud. The sky’s colors and luminescence elucidated for me the meaning of my time in Redmond. As I looked into the distance, I knew that it was the landscape that allowed for my time of cleansing and expansion.

Stepping Out of the Digital Sphere: Reviving Film, Reviving Ourselves

A fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond in Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

A fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond in Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut, where naturalist writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale spent the latter part of his life. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015

By: Richard Telford

A photograph taken during the author's travel through Arizona's Painted Desert in the summer of 1995. Copyright Richard Telford, 1995.

A photograph taken during the author’s travel through Arizona’s Painted Desert in the summer of 1995. Copyright Richard Telford, 1995.

In June of 1995, several days after the last school day of my second year of teaching, I packed the capped bed of my 1988 Toyota 4×4 pickup with clothes, camping gear, books, and other necessities.  I shut off the utilities in my Connecticut apartment, paid all of my bills, made several phone calls, and left for the summer to see my native land and, with a little luck, return feeling renewed.  Using a newly-purchased Rand McNally North American Road Atlas, I set a loose course westward.  I drove along the northern border, out to Anacortes, Washington, then headed south to the Mexican border, eventually returning east along the southern border.  By the time I arrived home again, I had added 8,300 miles to my odometer and a flood of life experience to my twenty-five-year-young consciousness.  During that summer sojourn, I took with me a now-antiquated Nikon 4004s film camera and a pair of zoom lenses, along with a small cooler full of Kodak Kodachrome 64 and Ektachrome 100, two richly saturated slide films. I had no working knowledge of manual camera operation, so I kept the camera in the program mode, shooting nearly 1,000 frames.  To Nikon’s credit, nearly all of them came out well, but I found myself nagged by a slight sense of disconnection; while I had had the vision to see the potential image itself, I hadn’t the faintest notion of how the camera had negotiated the available light to capture it—at best a half victory.

The author as passenger in a Cessna light plane flying over the San Juan Islands, Washington State, in the summer of 1995.

The author as passenger in a Cessna light plane flying over the San Juan Islands, Washington State, in the summer of 1995.

Thus, during the following fall, I searched newspaper ads for a used, fully manual camera sans automation.  While in Michigan, my brother had introduced me to the 1994 McBroom’s Camera Bluebook, and, after dog-earing numerous pages and balancing features with price, I settled on the purchase of a first-generation 35mm Canon F-1n, manufactured from 1971-1981, a simple but nearly indestructible professional camera.  As I have written about elsewhere on The Ecotone Exchange, with that purchase I began a photographic journey that has included shooting with nearly all commonly available film formats and camera types, including both 35mm and medium format SLRs and rangefinders, and even several 4×5 inch sheet film view cameras from the 1940s.  I became proficient in hand-developing and printing my own work, had several gallery shows, and even worked a two-year stint as a part-time photojournalist, from 1999 to 2001, when film was giving way to the early digital SLRs—a change which I lamented deeply.  Despite recognizing digital photography’s enormous potential, I mourned the loss of a form that had reached its apex, a feeling that has not altogether left me even now.

The front cover of Edwin Way Teale's 1937 book Grassroot Jungles.  From the collection of the author.

The front cover of Edwin Way Teale’s 1937 book Grassroot Jungles. From the collection of the author.

I eventually sold off most of my film equipment and stored the rest, shifting entirely to digital shooting.  Still, my love for film never waned, and, for many years I formulated and reformulated plans to return, at least in part, to film photography.  Recently, once again feeling a strong compulsion to do so, I began to research mail order developing companies that could likewise perform high-quality scans of medium format negatives.  I took my medium format equipment—a trio of 6x6cm Rolleiflex SLRs and three fixed focal length Carl Zeiss lenses out of storage after a nearly ten-year hiatus.  In doing so, I aimed to recapture the sense of wonder inherent in photography that, absent an LCD screen, is rooted in knowledge of the interplay of shutter speed and aperture and film speed, photography for which the shutter release is an act of faith in the latent, unseen image soon to emerge.  I hoped to shed the speed of the world around me, if only a little—to compose, to see, to allow a finite number of film frames to open my creativity in a way that a high-capacity memory card cannot.  For me, there was no better place for this reawakening than the Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut, the former private sanctuary of American naturalist writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale, which is now owned and managed by the Connecticut Audubon Society.  Teale pioneered insect photography shortly before and during World War II, astonishing the world with his close-up insect images in two books, Grassroot Jungles (1937) and Near Horizons (1943), winning the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing for the latter.  Teale himself had tramped the sanctuary grounds countless times with camera in hand, and, with his wife Nellie, had likewise cut the trails I would walk that morning.  Together, they created numerous names by which to delineate those Trails and their notable features, names that persist to this day.

Arriving to Trail Wood before dawn, I shouldered my tightly-packed bag and tripod and headed up The Lane, the dirt access road that leads to the Teales’ 1805 center-chimney Cape Cod home, which is pictured on the cover of his 1974 book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm.  The weather report predicted a clear day, and I hoped to position myself to photograph the early sunlight that Robert Frost so aptly characterizes in his famous short poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”  I considered as subjects one of the open pastures near the house:  Firefly Meadow or The Starfield or Monument Pasture. I likewise considered heading toward the Upper North Woods to capture the breaking light as it spread its arc across three-acre Beaver Pond, or heading eastward to capture the light rising over the nearly-frozen, south-flowing Hampton Brook. I momentarily chided myself for not having come with more of a plan but as quickly dismissed the feeling.  In our frenetic, technology-driven lives, we feel compelled to over-plan our fragments of “down time” so much that we render ourselves unable to enjoy them.  In our compulsive drive to infuse them with value, we risk devaluing them.  On that brisk morning, as I tromped up The Lane, my ears filled with the steady crunch of rime-coated soil and stones beneath my feet, I was determined not to do so.

The author's Rolleiflex 6006 Model 2, manufactured from 1989 to 1993.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

The author’s Rolleiflex 6006 Model 2, manufactured from 1989 to 1993. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

Shooting 120 roll film, which has remained largely unchanged since Kodak introduced it in 1901, imposes limits that are largely anachronistic to the digital majority of the present time.  Though it might seem ironic, this, I would argue, is its chief strength.  In a 6x6cm camera, a roll of 120 film will produce 12 images.  The finished roll must be removed from the camera, at which point the photographer must fold the paper backing, lick a strip of adhesive-backed paper attached at the roll’s end, and wrap the roll tightly to avoid exposure to stray light until the film can be processed.  To load another roll, the photographer reverses this process, opening the paper backing at the start of a new roll of film, threading the paper onto an empty spool, advancing it first by hand and then with the camera’s mechanism.  These processes form a kind of precursor and postscript to the taking of the images, which is itself a process made more deliberate and more meaningful precisely because of its seeming limitations.  Each frame is carefully composed and recomposed; ambient light is calculated and recalculated; focus and depth of field are checked and rechecked; the final composed shot is assessed; and, in the end, the shutter may or may not be tripped.  On that recent January morning at Trail Wood, I shot only twelve frames in three hours, and most of those were taken within a few short intervals.  I composed and left unrecorded far more shots than I took.

At daybreak, the sun did not, as it had been predicted to do, break through the low cloud cover, leaving the pasture light rather dull and unremarkable, so I took to the woods.  As I headed to the north and east, toward Beaver Pond, the sun did break through the low clouds for several minutes, only a few degrees above the horizon.  It bathed the upper branches of the mature canopy with fiery orange light, and, almost as quickly as I set my camera up and began to compose, I halted the process, immediately aware that I could not capture what I was seeing in the way that I wished.  That image, though not captured on film, will remain in my mind for many days to come.  For me, photographing nature is as much about seeing as it is about recording.  While a 32-gigabyte memory card loaded in a sophisticated digital SLR may enable one to shoot with abandon and hope for the best, film demands a different approach, a different impulse, a different, and to my mind deeper, way of seeing.  This is especially true when shooting with a simple array of fixed focal length lenses, as I was that morning.  Are these limits?  In a way.  Do they limit our vision?  I don’t think so.

Needle ice forming at the edge of Beaver Pond at Trail Wood in Hampton, Connecticut, where naturalist writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale spent the latter part of his life.

Needle ice forming at the edge of Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

As I walked alongside the diminutive Hyla Pond—named by the Teales for its breeding population of Hyla crucifer, the spring peeper—a barred owl (Strix varia) crossed the trail before me and roosted in a venerable red oak (Quercus rubra) near the trail’s edge.  Although we frequently hear the calling of barred owls around our old farmhouse, I have seen them only a handful of times, and here again was a photograph of the mind never to be recorded on film, though not lessened by that fact.  Reaching Beaver Pond, I composed numerous images but shot only a few.  Even those did not seem to me to be fully realized.  Some images are final destinations, while others are necessary steps along the way.  Both are equally important.

A second view of the fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

A second view of the fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

Upon my return, not far from where I saw the barred owl, I noticed another venerable red oak, this one toppled by wind or disease.  Its broken form, running parallel to Beaver Pond to the west, cut across the living lines of forest that unfolded in dense succession to the east.  The oak’s exposed red sinews flowed in liquid form, seeming to burst from its deeply furrowed bark.  At the center of the break, splintered points formed jagged fans that followed the arc of the canopy above and of the earth itself.  I spent nearly an hour working my way around the fallen giant, framing one image after another, only rarely tripping the shutter.  I mostly worked along the Beaver Pond side of the trunk, but, upon circling the fragmented root mass to examine the other side, I found the image I wanted.  After composing and recomposing, moving my tripod near and away, raising and lowering its height, I shot my twelfth frame and listened to the hum of the camera’s motor drive as it pulled the last of the paper backing off the starter spool.  Though I had more film with me, I chose not to load another roll.  Three hours and twelve frames later, I veered off from the path I had taken to Beaver Pond and cut through The Starfield to head for home.

My simple in-home darkroom was dismantled long ago, and I have no plans to recreate it. Nor do I plan to walk away from digital photography, as I am deeply grateful for what it offers me in terms of production speed, ease of publication, and the capacity for wide dissemination of my images. It has creative benefits as well.  For example, my digital camera work in macro photography, a technique laden with lighting and exposure challenges, has opened up new worlds for me.  This has been especially true in my photo-documentation and identification of the dragonflies that frequent our property, which I have written about elsewhere on The Ecotone Exchange.  No single photographic format or medium has ever been or will ever be ideal for all subjects.  By the latter half of the twentieth century, the 4×5-inch Graflex view camera and the 6×6-centimeter Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera, formerly journalistic mainstays, had been largely superseded by a new generation of faster, lighter 35mm cameras, just as the latter have been superseded in kind by their digital counterparts.  This is, perhaps, the trajectory of all technologies that we develop to automate the processes in which we engage, artistic and otherwise.  The inherent danger of this trajectory is that we become more and more alienated from the processes facilitated by those new technologies as more is done for us and less is required of us, both in thought and action.  In many ways, our detachment from the processes that govern our daily lives likewise fosters a corresponding detachment both from the natural world and from our role in it.  Perhaps in choosing to view nature through a simpler lens, both literally and figuratively, we are given a clearer view both of nature and of ourselves, allowing us to value each more fully.

Taking The Long View

El Capitan,  Yosemite National Park, California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

By Shauna Potocky

This week Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall, considered one of the hardest climbs in the world. In fact, due to the sheer face of the wall and its technical aspects, it was considered impossible to free climb—until this week.  Suspended on the granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, the climb took them 19 days to complete. Yet, what most people may not realize, is that their effort did not start on day one of their 19-day journey.

The journey to the Dawn Wall began more than six years ago—built on vision, planning, and preparation.

In short, the attempt at freeing the Dawn Wall, required taking the long view.

As we begin 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s feat is an excellent reminder for all of us to consider taking the long view. It is the perfect time to reflect on the benchmarks, milestones, and successes of previous work and to be inspired by the work ahead. It is also an opportunity to acknowledge that there will always be work ahead. By taking the long view, we begin to see that success between quick wins and real vision, means being patient, planning and often times includes building a network of support.

Detail of climbers base camp on the wall of El Capitan. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

Detail of climbers base camp on the wall of El Capitan. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

Consider the remarkable story of the recovery of the Peregrine falcon in the United States. In hindsight, it becomes clear that although the obstacles may have seemed overwhelming at the time, they provided the best opportunity for innovation and creating a completely novel conservation and management strategy.

In 1970, only two nesting pairs of Peregrine falcons existed in the California and the species had already gone extinct on the east coast of the United States. After extensive efforts—some of which people doubted—the Peregrine falcon emerged to re-inhabit its wild spaces as well as take up residence in our urban landscapes.

Ultimately, the Peregrine falcon recovery proved to be a remarkable success with the species being delisted from the Endangered Species List and becoming an inspiration for other recovery efforts.

And, just like the Dawn Wall ascent and its pre-planning and vision, the recovery of the Peregrine falcon and its success was built on significant touchstones, many of which preceded the recovery effort.

Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, bringing to light the challenges to the environment in the face of industry and human impacts. Carson revealed the realities of bioaccumulation and the resulting issues facing wildlife. Within a few years, the Environmental Protection Agency would ban the use of DDT (dichlorodipheyltrichloroethane), which was having a significant impact on Peregrine falcons and other bird species. Soon after, President Nixon would sign into law the Endangered Species Act, and two bird conservation groups would take on the challenge of trying to bring the Peregrine falcon back from the brink of extinction in the United States. All these efforts contributed to groundbreaking change—and collectively, the recovery of the Peregrine falcon is just one example of their success.

Ano Nuevo State Park, located within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is well-known for its seasonal Northern Elephant Seal population.

Ano Nuevo State Park, located within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is well-known for its seasonal Northern Elephant Seal population. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

Then there are the efforts to establish the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which began in 1967 and would not come to fruition until the Sanctuary was established in 1992. Success was realized due to the acknowledgement that the Monterey Bay, along with its associated coastline, featured some of the nation’s most diverse ecosystems—all of which would face significant impacts if not protected from oil exploration or other large-scale industrial operations.

The vision of the sanctuary culminated through various efforts over a long period of time, and included work by the Sierra Club, various counties, and stakeholders. In the end, Leon Panetta, then a representative of California, carried forth the legislation, protecting the Monterey Bay and more than 250 miles of coastline.

Today, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is nothing short of a national treasure.

Harbor seals resting on a beach on the shores of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

Harbor seals resting on the shore of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

There are also important human stories of taking the long view. In Kenya, organizations are establishing relationships with local communities, providing opportunities for innovative and sustainable employment. These solutions allow residents to transform their living situations and the environment. Zawadisha is just one example of an organization that is empowering people to transform their own lives and livelihoods while providing them access to resources that can also make a difference for the environment.

A Zawadisha workshop focused on leadership development in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

A leadership development workshop held in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

The examples do not end with reaching the top of the Dawn Wall or empowering change in Kenya. Consider the ecosystem cascades associated with the reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone National Park. The continued habitat protection even in the face of drought in California, which includes assuring wildlife refuges still receive water allotments in order to maintain the integrity of important habitat for resting, breeding or wintering birds along the Pacific Flyway.

There are many successes, and we need to take time to really acknowledge this work and know—it does not always come as a quick fix—often it is a long vision, made real.

The Merced Wildlife Refuge in the Central Valley of California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

The Merced National Wildlife Refuge in the Central Valley of California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

As we enter 2015, we know there are big issues to be decided and no shortage of environmental challenges to face. A vision and what emerges from the idea of what can be, creates the resilience needed to face these issues and challenges with grace and poise.

The successful freeing of the Dawn Wall by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson can inspire us all to consider what it takes to think big–to plan, prepare, practice, and then do. Each pitch on the route was a milestone, and their perseverance is a great reminder to us all of the real value of taking the long view.

Sentient Sandra and a Landmark Ruling on Animal Rights

This nearly mature male orang utan (Jenggo) was released several years ago from the Frankfurt Zoological Society Reintroduction Centre in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of WWF and obtained at © Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-Indonesia

This nearly mature male orangutan (Jenggo) was released several years ago from the Frankfurt Zoological Society Reintroduction Centre in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia.
Photo courtesy of WWF and obtained at–3
© Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-Indonesia

Last month, amid the holiday hustle and bustle and with little fanfare, a landmark legal ruling in the world history of animal rights occurred in Argentina. The ruling concerned an orangutan named Sandra, a resident of the Buenos Aires zoo for the last twenty years. The court ruled that Sandra was considered a “nonhuman being” and she was granted basic rights, such as life, freedom and a premise of “no harm” either physically or psychologically. Argentina’s Federal Chamber of Criminal Cassation ruled the primate is a subject of law, “a nonhuman being that has certain rights, and can enforce them through legal procedure,” according to Andrés Gil Domínguez, Sandra’s attorney. Previously in Argentina, as in the rest of the world, the law interpreted animals as things.

Lawyers for Argentina’s Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights (Afada) had argued that Sandra was “a person” in the philosophical, not biological, sense. They argued further that she was in a situation of illegal deprivation of freedom as a “non-human person” and had filed a “habeas corpus” writ in her favor last November over “the unjustified confinement of an animal with probable cognitive capability.” The court judges had rejected the writ several times before deciding finally that Sandra could be considered to have rights to freedom which needed defending.

Sandra was born in 1986 in a German zoo and was transferred to the Buenos Aires zoo in September 1994. She was considered to be shy and regularly tried to avoid the public in her enclosure.

The Buenos Aires zoo has 10 working days to seek an appeal, after which time there are plans to transfer Sandra to a sanctuary to live out the rest of her years. Captive orangutans have been known to live as long as 60 years, while the average lifespan of a wild orangutan is 35-45 years.

Afada lawyer Paul Buompadre was quoted as saying by La Nacion newspaper: “This opens the way not only for other Great Apes, but also for other sentient beings which are unfairly and arbitrarily deprived of their liberty in zoos, circuses, water parks and scientific laboratories.”

Similar cases are occurring more frequently. A U.S. court this month rejected a similar case regarding a privately owned chimpanzee in New York. The court ruled that “Tommy’ was not a “person” entitled to the rights and protections afforded by habeas corpus.

In 2011, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit against Sea World, alleging five wild-captured orca whales were treated like slaves. A San Diego court dismissed the case.

Orangutans at the Toronto Zoo. Photo from the Creative Commons.

Orangutans at the Toronto Zoo. Photo from the Creative Commons.

As one with experience working in zoos and aquariums, I am heartened by the progression of mankind towards consideration of the sentience of animals, albeit slow progress. There would be no captive animals in a perfect world, but the world is far from perfect. Man kept captive animals as long ago as the Neolithic era, possibly earlier. In the U.S. alone, 175 million people visit AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums annually. Therefore, there is still much to achieve towards establishment of animal rights and a movement away from animals in captivity. A shy, unassuming orangutan named Sandra has quite possibly set us upon a new path. She will be known by name among the masses and for decades to come. Her name will be in all the relevant college texts and legal briefs.

I am already her biggest fan.


Of Yoga and Trees


Rubber tree tapping. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

By Neva Knott

This weekend I started a yoga intensive program–not a teacher training, but a 100-hour series on deepening my personal practice. For the intensive, I bought a Jade yoga mat. It was a purchase that took very little consideration, because Jade mats are environmentally sustainable, made in America, and degradable. Also, for each mat purchased, Jade plants a tree through Trees for the Future. All of the things I care about in one purchase: yoga, environmental care and social justice in production, and global promotion of good work, also environmentally sustainable and focused on social justice, with the profits.

Jade mats are made from natural rubber that is, “tapped, like maple syrup, from a tree.” The tree continues to grow and produce, making it a renewable resource, and the tapping a sustainable extraction of a natural resource. Because Jade mats are made rubber, they will degrade when worn. This is a sharp contrast to regular yoga mats, most of which are made from plastics, which don’t degrade. And, in my research, I’ve found few recycling programs for used yoga mats. My Jade made will live out its existence in the cycle of life–it came from nature and will return there.

When trees are left standing and used in a sustainable way, like having the rubber or maple syrup tapped out of them, they remain able to perform ecosystem services. Ecosystem services include provision of habitat, stormwater control, and carbon sequestration.

Not only are Jade mats made of such eco-friendly material that comes from a sustainable natural resource, the mats are made in America, which ensures that they are produced, “in compliance with all US environmental, labor, and consumer safety laws.” This is an encouraging contrast to yoga mats that are produced in China, a country without these same important protections.

The Jade Yoga company promotes several environmental and social causes. The cause specific to the purchase of a mat is tree-planting in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, global regions that have suffered such extreme resource extraction that ecosystem services provided by trees no longer function. In many of these places, there are no trees left.

Jade Yoga partners with Trees for the Future. Jade is a Leucaena-level Partner–this designation translates to donation of 500,000-999,999 trees, a value of $50,000-$99,999. Interestingly, actual Leucaena trees, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, are the most widely used forage trees and “can provide firewood, timber, human food, green manure, shade and erosion control.”


Leucaena tree. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

Trees for the Future offers this explanation of their organization:

In the early 1970s, Dave and Grace Deppner served as volunteers in the Philippines, where they witnessed the human tragedy brought on by illegal logging and unsustainable land management systems. Working with community leaders in nearby villages, the Deppners found a way to offer hope. They revitalized degraded lands by providing farmers with tree seed, technical training, and on-site planning assistance. People responded enthusiastically,  joining in to save their homes and way of life.

After returning from their overseas assignments they continued what they had started, communicating by mail with rural community leaders, providing information, seeds, and training materials. Over the years TREES has assisted thousands of communities in planting millions of trees in 19 countries including Ghana, which have restored life to land that was previously degraded or abandoned.

According to the organization’s website, Trees for the Future has developed the following programs:

  • Africa: We have helped plant trees in an incredible range of environments from coastal areas to mountains, restoring soil that had been unproductive for decades or even hundreds of years.
  • Asia: On the islands of the Pacific, the combination of high tides and heavy rains brings great danger to the people of the coastal plains. We are working with local groups in Indonesia and the Philippines to restore tree cover to upland areas, so the land can absorb more water during storms and reduce the likelihood of flooding and mudslides. Other projects in India aim to restore trees to both drought-stricken and flood-ridden sections.
  • Latin America: We are planting trees in Haiti, Brazil, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In 2011, Trees for the Future’s Haiti Program delivered three critical services – tree planting, agroforestry training, and technical assistance – to local farmers in three regions of the country: the Arcadine Coast, Chaine des Chaos, and Gonaives. In Honduras, Trees for the Future planted more than a million trees in conjunction with one of our local partners.

Beyond the immediate provision of ecosystem services and regeneration of renewable resources for human use, these programs are the type of efforts that will assuage global climate change.

Here’s a thought: what if every product you bought came with these types of benefits?

Here’s another thought: what if all the money spent on football fan-ship came with these types of benefits?

There are two ways of production of consumer goods–one that pillages, and one that sustains. My goal is to make more of my purchases the latter.

My yoga teacher asked, during the first class after the New Year, what can you let go of to be more whole? In that moment, I set an intention to let go of simple convenience in favor of finding more companies like Jade Yoga, and to let go of my general daily busy-ness so that I can participate in programs like Trees for the Future.

The Local Yolk–Beer, Backyard Chickens, and the Business of Building a Sustainable Food System


By Neva Knott

When the environmental movement began in the 1970s, the focus was on protecting and honoring nature instead of depleting it for human consumption. While this same protection of nature is still at the core of environmental advocacy, a new environmental perspective has emerged recent years, a more personal movement–that of food sourcing.

I’ve heard that the easiest way to go green is to green your food source. It’s certainly the most immediate and possibly the most effective.

To eat within your foodshed, to eat the 100-mile-meal, to know your farmer are practices that benefit your health and promote a green triple bottom line–people, the planet, and profits. In graduate school at Green Mountain College, I learned that most food on the American table travels 2,000 miles before eaten, a shocking and disheartening statistic. John Emrich’s new book, The Local Yolk–Beer, Backyard Chickens and the Business of Building a Sustainable Food System, tells stories of the “good food movement,” the alternative to commercial, bland, environmentally exploitive, well-traveled food.

All writers here at The Ecotone Exchange hold Master’s of Science degrees in Environmental Studies from Green Mountain College. John is no exception–he was one of our cohort there. Previously an investment banker, he now runs Backyard Chicken Run, an urban chicken supply business in Chicago, and gathers stories of other entrepreneurs looking join the local food movement. Though I haven’t yet convinced John to join our team at the EE, I did get his permission to share a segment of his book here.

When I first read The Local Yolk, my heart was warmed by the case studies John had collected, putting faces to the ideal of greening your food source. What most impressed and enthused me, though, was John’s explanations of how to make growing and sourcing good food–sustainable agriculture–a profitable venture. Profitability is story not yet told in, and one that is often easily lost in the check-out line when buying organic, local food. With John’s permission, I give you an excerpt from Chapter 17, Tao Theory: Zen and the Art of Investing in Sustainable Food…

“In my prior life, I had owned shares in one of the publicly traded fertilizer companies, so I understood the “bullish case” for fertilizer from the perspective of the chemical companies: a billion or so people in Asia were moving to the middle class and would switch from a rice diet to a protein diet (i.e., a diet with more meat), generating rising demand for the grains to feed livestock and therefore the inputs of chemical agriculture that made monoculture grain-growing viable on a massive scale. At the time I met with the fertilizer manufacturer, the company was forecasting that the United States would become an exporter of corn to China the following year. The future was bright.

“As I tried to put a value on the organic farm, the light bulb went on. The chemical companies’ gain was the farmers’ pain. The chemical inputs of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium were all either directly or indirectly tied to natural resources that would become increasingly scarce and expensive over time, but farmers had to have them to succeed in conventional agriculture. Moreover, industrial farmers buy seed from a monopoly. The two things that an industrial farmer or farm investor could say for sure were that they had no control over their costs, and their costs were going higher. Farm subsidies are often criticized for being a gift to larger corporate farms. They would be more accurately described as a subsidy to the chemical companies and industrial buyers of grain (food processors). The conventional farmer, big or small, is getting little more than his costs reimbursed over a lifetime of work.

“The sustainable farmer doesn’t have the same exposure to cost pressure. After the sun itself, manure is the ultimate renewable resource, replacing the increasingly costly fertilizers. Yet, because I believed in the secular trend towards organic food, the sustainable farmer would continue to benefit from rising market prices for organic crops (for example, organic grains) over time. I was concluding that sustainable farming was a good business investment.”

John writes on to explain the mechanics of Impact Investing and Micro-Lending, and how these strategies can promote the good food movement while providing economic opportunity and promoting environmentally sound agriculture.

The Local Yolk is a smart blend of case stories, anecdotes, background knowledge, and research. You can follow The Local Yolk and Back Yard Chicken Run on Facebook and can learn more about the book at

Practicing a Sustainable Conservation Ethic: Truth, Compromise, and the Persistence of Questions

A pair of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) fly in tandem in southern Puerto Rico.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2008.

A pair of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) fly in tandem in southern Puerto Rico. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2008.

By Richard Telford

In his landmark 1949 book A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, Aldo Leopold called for a land ethic that “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”  Each year, practicing such an ethic, which I will broaden here and term a conservation ethic, grows more challenging as both the benefits—real and perceived—and the harmful by-products of not practicing such an ethic multiply.  These harmful by-products manifest themselves most plainly and directly in their environmental cost, but there are social and spiritual costs as well. As we advance in technological terms, these costs grow increasingly difficult to navigate and, for many, even to see at all. Leopold noted in 1949, “It was simpler, for example, to define the anti-social uses of sticks and stones in the days of the mastodons than of bullets and billboards in the age of motors.”

The first paperback edition cover of Aldo Leopold's seminal 20th-century conservation book.

The first paperback edition cover of Aldo Leopold’s seminal 20th-century conservation book.

Now, the “age of motors” seems remote and simple compared to our present age of information, powered by cadmium, selenium, and other heavy metals, an information age in which the quest for knowledge is so often overshadowed by the pursuit of hollow adulation and illusory self-worth.  In Leopold’s era, the natural world was threatened by a pervasive public near-ignorance of the full scope of destruction we could levy through our progress.   In the present age, when such knowledge is so readily and immediately available to us, the threat lies instead in its being drowned by a cascade of largely vacuous social media utterances that foster isolation and indifference.  It lies as well in the widespread American corporate campaign to link consumption to self-worth and to obfuscate both the environmental and social costs of that campaign.  It is not hyperbole to say that we need a conservation ethic now more than ever.  Arguably, such a claim will be equally valid in each of the eras to follow ours; thus, we must foster such an ethic not just in ourselves but in our youngest generation.

In order to achieve its desired effects—which I will drastically simplify here as environmental, social, and spiritual sustainability—a conservation ethic must ultimately be practiced with consistency along all scales: individual, local, societal, global.  Each scale is laden with challenges, and, to navigate these, we must avoid setting end targets that are too measured, too inflexible.  A sustainable conservation ethic cannot be an all or nothing proposition.  Instead, it requires us to continuously reevaluate its truths, to compromise when necessary, and, perhaps most importantly, to value questions more than answers.  There are few simple answers in the practice of a meaningful conservation ethic.  Such an ethic must evolve, and we must evolve with it and be committed to doing so for the long haul.

The window display of the Salvation Army where the author's family buys virtually all of their clothing and durable goods second hand.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

The window display of the Salvation Army where the author’s family buys virtually all of their clothing and durable goods second hand. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

No conservation ethic can take root in society as a whole without doing so first in the individual.  As much as it might seem counterintuitive when we reflect on the scope of the world’s problems, environmental and otherwise, it is at the individual scale that we can do the greatest good.  Our actions can, by example and through direct interaction with others, multiply outward.  As an environmental journalist, I consider the effect of a Rachel Carson or an Aldo Leopold, and I am encouraged.  These are exceptional examples of the power of action at the individual scale, of course, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that all of our conservation ethic-driven actions have the power to influence friends, children, colleagues, even passersby.  There is a real danger in losing sight of the power of our daily acts.  There is likewise a danger in holding ourselves to such a high conservation ethic standard that we wallow in our inevitable failures to meet that standard.  It is not easy to be a conservationist in a society that lauds and demands consumption beyond our own and the planet’s means.  It is not easy to be a conservationist when one of our fundamental, instinctual drives is to protect our individual interests and those of the people closest to us.  It is inevitable that, having developed a conservation ethic, we will violate it with some regularity.  Arguably, the more developed our conservation ethic is, the more our violation of it becomes a conscious act.  Such an ethic requires both commitment and compromise, both self-criticism and self-forgiveness.

The conundrum of a conservation ethic on the individual scale is aptly illustrated by American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale in an August 2, 1959 journal entry he recorded shortly after his move to Trail Wood in Hampton, Connecticut.  He writes of destroying a large white-faced hornet nest in a tree less than fifty feet from the 1806 farmhouse he would later make famous in his 1974 book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm.  Teale notes in his journal that “white-faced hornets are large, numerous and not mild-dispositioned like the Polistes,” and so he concocted an elaborate plan to set the nest afire and let it drop to a steel garbage can below.  This was the same Edwin Way Teale who had published in 1943 The Golden Throng, a 208-page text in which he wrote with wonder about the extraordinary society of honeybees.  In in his 1937 book Grassroot Jungles, Teale had noted that the wasps, which include hornets, “with the ants and the bees […] form a triumvirate which demonstrates the wonders of instinct.”  Teale’s anguish over his destruction of the nest is clear in following passage from the entry:

“So at 9:25 P.M. the life of this insect city ended.  The catastrophe was sudden and complete.  I had done what had to be done.  I had done it with split-second timing and complete success.  Yet I went to bed uneasy in my mind.  For I had demonstrated that fiendish side of the human mind that, as much as benevolence and kindness, if not more, accounts for Man’s position as Lord of the Earth.  And I was not proud of it.”

This summer, I discovered a ground nest of yellow jackets (Vespula maculifrons) in the north corner of our garden and, like Teale fifty-five years ago, I will dig it up this winter and dispose of it in our woods, filling in the ground cavity to dissuade a new nest in spring.  It is a not a task I relish, for, like Teale, I am decidedly on the side of life, but I have a vivid boyhood memory of a neighbor boy, David Cohen, stepping in a similar nest deep in the woods behind my childhood home.  I recall clearly his leaps and screams, his mother hosing him down with a garden hose, the yellow jackets that poured out of his untied canvas Keds.  As a father of three small children, the fate of a nest inches form the footpath to our backyard, and any such nest too close to the paths of our daily life, is self-evident.  At times our conservation ethic must yield to other needs, and it is at these times that I am reminded of Aldous Huxley’s foreword to the 1946 reissue of his seminal 1932 novel Brave New World.  In that foreword, Huxley asserts, “Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment.”  He further admonishes the reader that “Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”  As noted earlier, a conservation ethic at times requires self-forgiveness to avert a greater, crippling sense of defeat. Here lies the difference between a conservation ethic that is sustainable and one that is not.

Nonetheless, self-interest, in all of its magnifications along all of its scales, is the greatest challenge to the conservation of the natural world.  Just as we must strive for environmental sustainability in the sum total of our daily actions and interactions, so too must we seek a sustainable conservation ethic.  It is impractical to expect that our self-interests will or even should always yield to environmental considerations.  What is realistic, productive, and sustainable is to develop the expectation that we will defer to the greater environmental good when possible and, when we cannot, we will at least moderate our actions to minimize their negative effects.  Living in a rural area with negligible public transportation, I cannot elect not to drive my car, but I can moderate my use of it.  The challenge of such an approach is building the capacity to separate need from want, a capacity that is severely undervalued in our consumption-driven culture.  There is no greater friend to the natural world than a severe economic downturn that arrests unfettered development and runaway consumption.  Such times can and should offer us opportunities for reflection, reflection that must extend beyond environmental considerations alone.  According to a 2013 study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 3.9 million American households with children “were unable at times during the year to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children.”  During the same year, Forbes reported an average National Basketball Association player salary of $5.15 million.  These numbers should give us pause.  As a society, what do we value?  What do we prioritize?

While the contrasting statistics above speak primarily to the skewed valuation system that permeates our society, they also have considerable environmental implications.  Food insecurity, for example, which the USDA study defines as “lack[ing] enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members,” inevitably drives those affected by it to purchase low-cost, low-nutrition, unsustainably harvested and manufactured foods, often from big box retailers.  These same retailers flood the market with a vast array of low-cost, low-quality, short-lived “durable goods” that pour into American landfills at unprecedented rates.  We see over and over again the staggering long-term environmental and social cost of the two-dollar Walmart T-shirt that simply cannot, in real and sustainable terms, cost two dollars.  The salary-inflated network of professional sports organizations likewise leaves in its wake a terrible environmental cost.  Consider the refuse production, energy consumption, and food waste in one arena during the course of one sporting event.  Consider as well the vast array of memorabilia produced and sold in this context.  How much of it is produced with an eye on sustainability?  How much of it is destined for a speedy trip to the local or regional landfill?  Thus, we cannot separate a conservation ethic from the larger ethics systems that govern our behavior in society, nor should we.

Returning again to Leopold’s call for humankind to shift from conqueror of the natural world to plain member and citizen, I must likewise return to the fact that this is not a simple proposition, or even a fully realizable one.  Our capacity to reason and our drive to improve our lives renders impossible our taking a role of equal citizenship.  For better or worse, we are, as Teale notes above, the Lords of the Earth, in so much as we possess an unparalleled capacity to irreversibly alter it through our disproportionate consumption of its finite resources.  This imbalanced relationship will persist short of a catastrophic event, natural or anthropogenic, that annihilates the human race.  Thus, it is more pragmatic, and therefore sustainable, to aim instead for a role of benevolent citizenship framed and guided by a developed conservation ethic.  This is an attainable goal toward which we can and must strive while tempering our expectations to accept the inevitable periodic failures both of ourselves and the greater society to meet it.  While at times this failure will simply result from our choosing what is convenient over what is sustainable, this is not always the case.  Two brief examples follow to illustrate this distinction.

A view of the firebox of the author's Jotul F500 Oslo woodstove loaded with red maple, black cherry, and red oak at startup.  Photo by Richard Telford, copyright 2013.

A view of the firebox of the author’s Jotul F500 Oslo woodstove loaded with red maple, black cherry, and red oak at startup. Photo by Richard Telford, copyright 2013.

As I have written about in a previous Ecotone Exchange essay, we heat our 1770 northeastern Connecticut farmhouse exclusively with two wood-burning stoves.  Wood-burning as a primary heat source both challenges and reinforces a conservation ethic.  Done properly, burning wood in an EPA-certified stove or insert can yield 85-90% efficiency, and wood is one of a handful of truly renewable energy sources.  Furthermore, the argument is often posited that wood is a carbon-neutral energy source, as the carbon released in burning would be released over time anyway.   I would like to put my full faith into this last argument, but even a quick review of scientific literature shows it to be an oversimplification, and, in the world of complex environmental issues, oversimplifications have a way of imploding.  Even if one accepts the carbon-neutral argument for responsible wood-burning, there is nonetheless the nagging question of particulate matter pollution, a serious issue both for its environmental effects and the public health concerns it raises.

A cross-section view from one of the author's woodpiles.  The end cracking visible in these logs indicates that they are well seasoned and will burn efficiently and cleanly in the woodstove.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A cross-section view from one of the author’s woodpiles. The end cracking visible in these logs indicates that they are well seasoned and will burn efficiently and cleanly in the woodstove. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

Particulate matter pollution is a necessary by-product of using wood as fuel, regardless of efficiency improvements.  It is the excessive emission of this particulate matter that has made the primitive but popular phase one outdoor wood furnaces the subject of increasing public concern and anger.  By design, these units convert wood to heat through smolder-burning at less than 200 degrees Fahrenheit and thus can belch particulate-loaded smoke that can travel for miles.  This has led many states and municipalities to ban their use outright and has also led the EPA to introduce stricter efficiency standards on newly manufactured units.  By contrast, an EPA-certified in-home woodstove typically burns at 400 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing for a nearly smokeless burn at optimum temperature as off-gasses are burned in-stove rather than emitted through the chimney.   Still, even wood burned efficiently produces four times more particulate matter than home heating oil and twenty times more particulate matter than natural gas.  Additionally, short of a return to the exclusive use of the axe and bucking saw, the harvesting and transport of fuel wood likewise produces carbon and other emissions.  Each heating season, I once again contemplate and struggle with the environmental consequences of our woodstove use, and I affirm once again that we are, I believe, right in our actions, though not without a cost.  I contemplate the finite supply of fossil fuels, which correspondingly demands increasingly invasive and irreversibly destructive means of extraction.  I contemplate the piping of tar sands oil through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that, regardless of the assurances of lobbyists and scientists-for-hire, will inevitably suffer a catastrophic break with equally catastrophic ecological effects.  I contemplate the deleterious process of fracking and its poisoning of groundwater.  I contemplate the extraction of undersea oil by deep-water drilling and the steep environmental cost of getting that oil refined and transported to my home.  These and other factors lead me to decide that locally harvested and responsibly burned wood in a region that is 78% forested produces a lesser net negative result, and I am reminded once again that a conservation ethic fosters and demands an ongoing process of evaluation and reevaluation, a process that is driven more by questions than it is by answers.

The author's created wool bear caterpillar habitat suitable for hibernation.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

The author’s created wool bear caterpillar habitat suitable for hibernation. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

For my second example, I turn to the ubiquitous wooly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella).  In early December of this year, we noticed a wooly bear inching across the front room floor of our old farmhouse.  Due to the house’s fieldstone foundation and 244 years’ worth of unseen field mouse passageways among the old timbers, wildlife has a way of finding its way in.  My six-year-old daughter’s immediate response was to declare it her pet.  Normally, we allow nothing wild to be kept captive in our house, and we have worked hard to foster in our children the idea that nature should be observed and appreciated with as low an impact as possible. I waivered, however, in the case of the wooly bear.  I put my daughter down to sleep with the assurance that I would decide by morning what we would do with it.  With a quick online search, I found hundreds of sites touting the ease of hatching wooly bears into Isabella Tiger Moths in captivity. This particular specimen, if released outside, would either promptly hibernate or die trying to do so.  In the end, I took an oversized Ball canning jar, poked some holes in the lid, and created a simple habitat suitable for hibernation.  In doing so, I violated a cardinal tenet of my own conservation ethic, but I likewise seized a valuable opportunity for my children to watch and appreciate firsthand this magical transformation.  How can we hope to foster a conservation ethic in our children without providing them such interactions?

Environmental educators bringing children into the field face a daunting challenge in a time when the world is experiencing an unprecedented loss of biodiversity due largely to anthropogenic causes.  It is, of course, vital that we foster a leave-no-trace mindset in the children we educate, a mindset that may in the future guide their personal and professional lives.  However, many of us with a deep love of the natural world will readily trace that connection to the unfettered explorations of childhood, an inherently destructive process at times, intended or not, but an infinitely enriching one as well.  I have written about this duality in my own childhood elsewhere on The Ecotone Exchange.  While we may cringe at the thought of dragging a seining net across a pond bottom and laying it out on the shore edge for examination, there is no better way for a child to see at once the complex benthic world hidden beneath the water’s surface.  If we are going to engage children with the natural world in meaningful ways, such compromise, and the discomfort that comes with it, is necessary.  This compromise must be guided by a cost-benefit analysis of sorts, and the questions that drive that deliberation will rarely yield easy answers.  As noted earlier, a conservation ethic has never been, nor will it ever be, an all or nothing proposition.

In the end, a conservation ethic is necessarily subject to evolution, responding both to personal growth in the individual and change in the society.  The latter kind of change simultaneously alters the environmental paradigm and the appropriate response to that evolved paradigm.  In simple terms, a conservation ethic has the power to give our daily lives greater deliberateness and meaning.  It offers a potent antidote to the sense of futility we inevitably feel when confronted by the consumerism and greed and ignorance that imperil the natural world.  As we work to develop a sustainable conservation ethic, we must seek questions as much as we seek answers—not in a way that paralyzes us and makes us put up our hands but in a way that empowers us to envision and bring to fruition significant changes in our resource use on all scales and in our broader treatment of the natural world on the whole.  I can see no other workable course.

The Author wishes to thank the staff of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, where the papers of Edwin Way Teale, including his private journals kept at Trail Wood, are permanently housed and generously made available to the public.