Feeling the Bite of the Bark Beetle

Facing an unprecedented tree die off, California's forests and its management face change. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Drought and an unprecedented tree die-off are proving to be a critical test in resource management. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

by Shauna Potocky

It is shocking. That is the only relevant descriptor—even for someone who has watched the forest turn under the pressure of drought and bark beetles, day by day. The once emerald canopy of spires continues to change, shifting from vibrant green to a pale dusty green-gray and finally to a burnt umber of brown-red. Single trees turn into patches, which turn into ridges or valleys and become full drainages of standing dead Ponderosa pines.

I have watched the Sierra National Forest change day by day, week by week, over the last four years. In 2014, as California’s drought labored on in year three, forest managers and fire agencies delivered the news that we would lose nearly 40 percent of the forest that year. When winter didn’t return again, for the fourth year in a row, the sound of people’s hearts breaking was audible and everyone in the region could feel the pressure mounting. By 2015, the forest along the western slope of the Sierra, and specifically in the foothill communities of Madera and Mariposa Counties, was poised for a massive die-off. Literally, on a daily basis, I watched trees succumb to the lack of water, which leaves them defenseless to burrowing bark beetles.

In a press release, Governor Brown recently stated, “California is facing the worst epidemic of tree mortality in its modern history.” In response, the Governor’s office of California declared a State of Emergency because of the unprecedented die-off. In October of 2015, estimates indicated approximately 22 million dead trees with potential increases as the drought and beetle kill continues.

Trees succumbing to the pressure of drought and bark beetles become a fire hazard. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Trees succumbing to the pressure of drought and bark beetles become a fire hazard. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Bark beetles are opportunistic, able to take advantage of stressed and weakened trees, particularly during drought. They bore into a tree, and if the water pressure within the tree is not adequate and the tree is unable to mount its defenses to force the beetles out, they can then establish themselves, damaging the tree, which can result in its death.

This crisis of lack of water, increased wildland fires and the nearly unstoppable spread of bark beetle infestation, has made me seriously question: what good can come of all this?

California’s drought and the unprecedented tree die-off of the state’s forests may be the environmental issues needed to help people fully understand and engage in proactive and nimble resource management. As pressure increases on limited water resources, and the state’s forests succumb to the perfect storm of environmental pressures resulting in an increase of wildland fire hazards,  we need management strategies, skilled professionals and citizens poised and empowered to make decisions that will lead to long-term sustainability of resources.

In the fire scar along Bass Lake, California. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In a fire scar on the edge of Bass Lake, California. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Management Matters:

When Euro-Americans settled in the Sierra Nevada, their suppression of fires dramatically shifted the fire regime and density of biomass within the forest ecosystem. Fire had been a natural occurrence on the landscape, returning in regular intervals, which served to thin the forests and recycle nutrients by burning woody debris that had settled on the forest floor. The local tribes of the Sierra utilized fire as a tool on the landscape; they used fire to manage meadow lands, clear space around important tree species and to manage the health and production of various plants they depended on.

The western slope of the Sierra Nevada ecosystems evolved and are adapted to fire as a natural part of the landscape. Some species of plants and trees possess substances that provide them with fire resistance. In the case of the Ponderosa pine, the tree possesses, several adaptations, which include bark that sheds easily and features a crown structure that prevent them from burning or torching during low intensity fires. Alternatively, others species require fire as a necessary element of their reproduction cycle, needing fire or heat to open their cones or clear the forest floor providing space and nutrients for germinating seeds, such as Giant Sequoias.

When fire is suppressed in these ecosystems, it allows forest debris to build up and create large fuel loads under stands of trees, increasing the risk of large, hot wildland fires such as the Rim Fire or the Rough Fire—as observed in recent years in the Sierra Nevada.

Fire suppression also allows the forests to become overgrown, with large numbers of trees in densely packed areas, forcing them to compete for resources such as light and water. In these densely packed stands, trees become more susceptible to stress and disease—consider the analogy of children with a cold virus all in one classroom—when in contained spaces or areas, it is much easier to spread an illness, or in the case of bark beetles, an infestation.

Low water levels, dense forests filled with stressed trees contribute to the spread of disease and bark beetles. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Low water levels and dense forests filled with stressed trees contribute to the spread of disease and bark beetles. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

What the drought and beetle kill is creating, besides anxiety and pressure, is movement. Governor Brown stated, “A crisis of this magnitude demands action on all fronts.” Today, there is significant movement as citizens launch Fire Safe Councils and Firewise Communities, while federal and state agencies proactively address issues, reevaluate management practices and provide funding as well as resources to mitigate hazards, easing the burden of overwhelmed communities and agencies. From grassroots efforts, county participation and state and federal support, work is being done on a daily basis to address the issues, on the ground, at all levels.

Reintroducing fire as a management tool in forests will help to reduce fuel loads, restore natural fire regimes. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Fire as a management tool in forests will help to reduce fuel loads and restore natural fire regimes. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

So as I look out over the forest from where I write, and see the mix of oaks and pines. A tartan pattern of green and dead, it seems a long stretch to pull some positive parable out of this situation, yet, I honestly believe this has been a critical turning point for California. For people who seemed yet untouched by drought, fire, forest management practices, and climate change, this has been the reality check, reaching into all walks of life and emerging as the situation that is moving the needle.

We are poised to take a serious compass baring and find a new direction that inspires us to address critical issues collaboratively, engage them in a timely way and manage our resources wisely in order to minimize crises. We are better together, pulling resources and knowledge, leveraging skills and the best we each have to offer to address water use, battle the bark beetle and our old ways of thinking.

It is an unprecedented time and we need to shift the paradigm from crisis management to sustainable management; we have the resources, the knowledge and the people to do it, now we need the resiliency, political systems and backbone to make this shift, because the challenges will keep coming and together we can do better in facing them; the drought, bark beetle and resulting wildland fire hazard might just be what gets us there.

The Story of Birds Brought to Life in a Brushstroke

Just one of the stunning illustrations by Jane Kim in the newly completed exhibit at the Cornell Lab Visitor Center.

Just one of the stunning illustrations by Jane Kim in the newly completed exhibit at the Cornell Lab Visitor Center. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

by Shauna Potocky

Artist Jane Kim’s hand crafted installation, “From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Diversity and Evolution of Birds,” fills the largest wall of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Visitor Center in Ithaca, New York. Also known as The Wall of Birds, it is a striking art and education exhibit, unprecedented in its scope and absolutely stunning to see and explore.

The extraordinary hand painted piece blends the realism of scientific illustration with the dramatic character of the birds it represents. Commissioned by Cornell Lab as a celebration of its centennial, the project features 270 species of birds. Each bird is painted to scale and the artwork brings 243 families as well as 27 ancestors and five recently extinct relatives, into focus. The work connects the evolution and diversity of birds while demonstrating their distribution world-wide.

The project took two and half years to complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

The project took two and half years to complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

This month, Jane Kim, creator of Ink Dwell, an art studio inspiring people to love and protect the natural world one work of art at a time, took a moment from her schedule to share some of the key highlights of the Cornell project—from its vision, content, and life size scale to Cornell Lab’s dedication and commitment to handcrafted artwork.

Through the commissioning of this one-of-a-kind project, Cornell demonstrated how much it values scientific illustration, the of blending art, science and engagement as a meaningful tool for education. In total, the project scope took two and half years to develop and complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting.

A close up view of the Great Hornbill. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

The Great Hornbill. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

Shauna Potocky:  This project is truly inspiring. What do you hope the project work conveys?

Jane Kim: The project is meant to convey the awe of how many birds there are in the world; it also demonstrates how remarkable it is that birds have diversified to such an extraordinary extent. To see two hundred families is remarkable, and they are life size, placed on a world map with relative scale, and viewable in one location.

SP: How can people see and experience the work?

JK: One of the best ways to see it is in person. Since it is featured inside the Cornell Lab Visitor Center, it can be viewed during normal visitor hours. In addition, Cornell is currently building a digital interactive that can be used to experience the wall and will be released in February 2016.  The interactive includes high-resolution images of every inch of the wall! This will allow viewers to zoom in to see the images—you will be able to see every brush stroke. It will allow viewers to select a bird, learn about it, and hear its call. One of the great features is that Cornell has the largest collection of sounds in the world.

SP: What was one of the most exciting aspects of the project?

JK: It is unprecedented—completing a hand painted mural of all the birds–it was such a large project and took so much time. Researching, learning the subjects, developing the work and then painting it. Cornell truly demonstrated that they value hand crafted murals and value the time it would take to complete such a piece. From start to finish it took two and half years and required 16 months of on site painting. Now the piece is bringing art and education to people and engaging them.

SP: What was the most challenging aspect of the project?

JK: The balance of art and science because there was a high demand for scientific accuracy. It was working with a high bar for accuracy and creating a portrait that captured the spirit of the bird. In addition, painting it so it can be viewed from all distances and still be viewed beautifully. The work needed to read beautifully in the interactive and from far away.

Jane Kim at work on the Wall of Birds, a project celebrating Cornell Labs centennial. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

Jane Kim at work on the Wall of Birds, a project celebrating Cornell Labs centennial. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

SP: Were there any species of birds that captured you, that perhaps you had not known previously?

JK: I didn’t know each bird, so every bird was a surprise. I enjoyed discovering fun facts like the Saddle-bill Stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) with the only difference between male and female being the color of the eye. So I made it a female, with a yellow iris. I tried to depict females as much as I could, since males are often showier and represented.

The North Island Giant Moa (Dinornis novaezealandiae) female is also depicted because they are the bigger sex. There was a time when it was thought that they were two species—one being a subspecies because of the size differences. Testing showed that the birds were the same, males were smaller, females were larger.

Fun behaviors are also represented, such as the Long-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia linearis) with its fun little mating dance. There are also Gouldian Finches (Erythrura gouldiae), a set of three because they have three different head colors, yellow, black and red, but they are the same species.

SP: How do you hope this work touches people?

JK: I hope it is inspiring to see, and I hope it is statement that demonstrates how Cornell values hand painted creations that can be inspiring and useful tools for education. I hope it also inspires people to ask a lot of questions and sparks a new generation of scientific illustrators—we need that. I hope it allows others to think big, take the time and make the effort.

Taking a step back to get a view of the scope and scale of the project. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

Taking a step back to get a view of the scope and scale of the project. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

In many ways “From So Simple A Beginning” is a remarkable gift—it celebrates 100 years of Cornell Lab’s work and endeavors for birds, while providing an unparalleled learning opportunity through quality artwork that also celebrates the profound and quiet power of scientific illustration—a field that is rarely discussed yet touches so many of our lives.

With the recent completion of “From So Simple a Beginning,” Jane Kim already has new projects in the works, including the next addition to the Migrating Mural—so stay tuned as we wait to see what her next projects and remarkable artwork have to teach us.

After the Wildfire

Flowers rise and oaks sprout in the fire scar. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Flowers rise and oaks begin to sprout in a fresh fire scar. Photo by Shauna Potocky

By Shauna Potocky

After the wildfire, you face the fire scar and all the standing dead trees turned to charred stoic poles whose fate now will be decided by the winter or the wind. If you’re curious, you find yourself walking the fire line, listening to the bugs eating into the wood, spotting the handful of wildlife that thrive here, specializing in preparing the burned landscape for its next phase. You hike through two worlds with no mirror or mysticism between them—they are separated by pink retardant or a hand-cut fire line—a line in the sand, if you will.

On one side, sound comes under foot as you crush leaves and dried pine needles, where your eyes can marvel at the bright green tones of foliage and the tall spires that point to the sun, yet carpet the forest with shade.

In the fire scar, your footsteps have no sound as the barren black earth turned soft and to ash gives to your weight. Sometimes you posthole, your foot stepping right through the surface, as the roots that once held the ground in place have left nothing but vacant tubes of air below ground and your presence collapses the labyrinth. There is no shade between the skyward poles, but there are water scars from the helicopter drops and pink splotches of retardant that have yet to fade away, and there are lupine, black oaks, and wild roses already taking the forest back for themselves. The seed bank and roots that survive will sprout, racing to compete for all that sun and any moisture that will come.

The beginning of the fire as seen from the authors house. Photo by Shauna Potocky

The beginning of the fire that changed the neighborhood dynamics, as seen from the author’s home. Photo by Shauna Potocky

After one fire you watch for the next. It is unnerving. These summers, I once heard them described as “white knuckle,” are relentless. And then there are all the opportunities for error, human actions that can spark a wildfire, sending people and animals into panic. The undoused campfire, a dragging trailer chain that throws a spark, the car that pulls over into the dry grass, or the dreaded cigarette launched without a thought into the roadside brush—so many things that, in the past had space for forgiving, today leaves no room for error.

Then there is this—you notice all of your new neighbors. The types who don’t knock on your door, or have a specific address, but come to your yard looking for water or in search of some food. Just as people lose their homes in fires, wildlife lose their habitat. They lose their den trees, or foxholes, their water sources, or the prosperous stands of Manzanita or the downed trees filled with grubs. So they come looking for what they need to make a living, and that place might just be the same place you call home.

I love all my new neighbors, the coyotes that are now coming into their winter coats, Great Horned and Western Screech owls that fill the night with breathy talk, expanded herds of Mule deer and the most elusive, a large Black bear who leaves only paw prints and scat.

The new neighbor, an American Black bear, as captured on a wildlife camera. Photo by Shauna Potocky

A new neighbor, an American Black bear, as captured on a wildlife camera. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Each night since the fire I can hear their footsteps crushing the fallen leaves and shuffling through the straw-dry grass. I can hear their deep inhales and sensing breaths as they determine where I am. I hear their snorts and their young peeping. At day break there is evidence everywhere—large bear scats filled with crushed Manzanita berries, clawed wood on the downed tree, deer pellets dotting the yard in patches, hedge high trimming to all of my edible plants, and flattened grass that reveals where the deer have bedded down for a rest in the lengthening night.

We respect each other, keep our distance, simply watch. I don’t leave out any food and make sure my car and garbage are buttoned up tight. It is too easy for wildlife to lose their foraging habits if they learn they can obtain food from housing areas; pet food, birdfeeders, trash, all of this can become a lure, which changes normal behaviors and can ultimately put wildlife at risk for conflict. It is a critical time, keeping this wildlife wild while they hover on the edge of the neighborhood and the forest.

Young deer following their mother on a well traveled route through the woods. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Young deer following their mother on a well traveled route through the woods. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Daily migrations of Mule deer are commonplace but the presence of a large black bear fills me with immense joy. There hasn’t been evidence of a bear here in nearly five years. Honestly, I am honored that the landscape of my property, which remains connected to the forest via an open fence, that has been tended exhaustively to clear for fire yet held space for native plants to thrive, can sustain large mammals found in the Sierra Nevada.

Manzanita berries are an important food source for many animals in the Sierra Nevada. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Manzanita berries are an important food source for many animals in the Sierra Nevada. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Now, I watch carefully to see how the Manzanita berry crop is doing and wonder how long the bear and I will both call this place home. It is welcome to stay as long as it likes and for certain, as long as it needs, though I hope things will return to a new state of normal, with the bear fattened in Fall in order to den for Winter and a return of rain and snow to California, in order to ease the drought and end this marathon fire season.

Refuge, Wilderness and Restoration After the Trauma of War

K Bay from Homer SPotocky

Just one of Homer, Alaska’s stunning views. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

By Shauna Potocky

Volcanoes rise out of the mist and gray mirror of the Alaskan sea as the arrival of Fall storms bring rain and cold winds. Born out of the Ring of Fire, islands form the volcanic chain of mountains and ridges that define the West Coast of Alaska and make up the Aleutian Islands, which provide remote habitat for an impressive number of birds and marine mammals.

Alaska’s coastline, including the Aleutian Islands, provides an impressive array of opportunity for a diverse range of species. From mudflats to rugged rocky outcroppings, sandy beaches or cobbled shores, the diversity of landscapes are as engaging as the animals found upon them. Some of these areas are easy to visit while others are incredibly remote, yet all of it comes to life through the story of its conservation.

As recognizable as this landscape is on the map, and as remote as much of it may be, what might be more elusive is the story of its protection. Much of the Aleutian Islands as well as significant amounts of Alaskan coastline are protected and designated as the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Its story steeped in lore, history and war comes to life at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center and Refuge headquarters in Homer, Alaska—a town famously known for being “at the end of the road.”

Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center close up SPotocky

The Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center located in Homer, brings the story of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge into incredible focus for visitors. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

It seems timely to revisit the story of the refuge, particularly the Aleutian Islands, because as the world faces war and human displacement today. This story serves as an important reminder of what war does, and how in the face of conflict wildlife and the environment become remarkably vulnerable and often go unprotected. The story of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge demonstrates what can be accomplished once all the turmoil ends.

The great islands that make up the Aleutian chain and other areas of the current refuge were first utilized and inhabited by people for what is estimated to be over 11,000 years ago. Today, a rich diversity of first peoples, including the Inupiat, Yup’ik, Unangan, Aleut, Dena’ina Athabascans, Alutiiq Koniag, Haida and Tlingit, continue to be deeply connected to this landscape. Their lives are filled with the knowledge of specialized skills, culture, and stories of this unique place.

Beginning in the late 1700s, expanding into the 1800s, these people were affected or displaced by an insurgence of Russian fur hunters. Russian settlements were focused on resource extraction and, once established, their skills and appetite, fed by the fur trade, depleted the area of several marine mammal species, resulting in an awaking.

Fox fur and trap SPotocky

Non-native species, such as foxes, were introduced to the islands, resulting in significant impacts to native species. Foxes were introduced in order to establish and grow fur trading operations and are a significant part of the story on display at the visitor center.  Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Due to the decline of sea otters and other marine mammals, Russians began restricting areas for hunting, essentially setting up refuge areas in order to assure the survival of species they depended on.

In 1867, Alaska was purchased from Russia by the United States. American hunting, development and extraction ensued. Over the course of generations, Alaska was opened for exploration, hunting, fur trade and adventure.

Then something unbelievable unfolded—an event that would mark a moment in time and the world’s history.

In 1942, during World War II, the Japanese began a campaign to take the Attu and Kiska Islands of the Aleutian chain. This followed actions in defiance of a fur hunting treaty and escalating tensions. Once the insurgence began it displaced island populations and included taking a number of native people hostage. This conflict launched the Aleutian Campaign in which Allied troops and military operations ensued on the islands and in the surrounding areas. The islands were horribly affected. Island populations were displaced, communities destroyed, bombs and ammunition rounds unleashed, military operations and encampments established, while contaminants and military waste were discarded and left behind after the war effort.

In the end, the landscape and islands were left ravaged and damaged, scarred with the remnants of bombshells and littered with abandoned waste. They stood in disarray; masses of twisted metal, discarded ammunition, contaminants and a newly raw history of war lay in its wake.

War items on exhibit SPotocky

Remants of war on display at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In Alaska the tides are dramatic—a deep pulling out and heaving in, over great distances and heights, similar to a great pendulum swing. Just as remarkable as the tide and its swift sweeping change, the future of this landscape began to emerge into something new, something with wider protections and a future. In the end, something positive is emerging out of the turmoil.

Wildlife refuges and wilderness areas protected significant tracks of land and habitat along the coastline of Alaska. In 1980, via the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), signed by President Jimmy Carter, astounding areas of Alaska’s protected lands, along with newly protected areas, including the Aleutian Islands, were consolidated and established as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Refuge view in Homer SPotocky

Located at the base of the visitor center is a small wildlife refuge area that allows visitors to see the land-sea connection. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In total the refuge encompasses approximately three million acres, with a mission to conserve habitats and species, manage international treaties related to the habitats and species, as well as provide for local subsistence. The refuge is also used to conduct scientific research and maintain water quality in ways that support the primary role of the refuge.

Today, people carrying out the mission of the refuge are working to repair the damage, specifically on islands that have been touched by fur trade or war. There is significant work being done to remove invasive species, such as rats and foxes, that were introduced to the islands. These introduced species out-compete, destroy and kill native species by eating the eggs of nesting birds, killing young and upsetting the balance of an ecosystem that initially developed without the presence of land-based predators.

Exhibit displays SPotocky

Exhibits bring the story, restoration, research and habitats to life for visitors. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In addition, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is focused on removing contaminants as well as accumulations of waste and debris that were left on the islands during wartime.

Today, the incredible acreage of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge protects diverse habitat for millions of seabirds and an wide array of marine mammals, while doing something even bigger. With respect to the Aleutian Islands, it serves as an example of what protection, restoration and conservation can look like after truly troubling times. It proves that war is not the end.

Intertidal display SPotocky

Detail of intertidal display in the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

What the refuge represents to me is that after the conflict is over, when the heartbreak and battles are done, we can choose to pick up the pieces and do something bigger, do something positive. We can take all that seemed broken and left behind, the battle scars, the waste, the heartbreak of war and repair it. Collectively and carefully, damaged landscapes can once again become incredible habitat or a place people can feel comfortable calling home.

Entering the World of Whales: the Exquisite Photography of Bryant Austin

by Shauna Potocky

A rare encounter as captured by Bryce Groark. Bryant Austin and a Sperm whale meet. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

A rare encounter as captured by Bryce Groark. Bryant Austin and a Sperm whale meet. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin has seen whales in a way most people will never experience—he has floated for hours in their realm simply waiting for them, waiting for a connection and an opportunity. Today that patience and care represents the most exquisite collection of life sized and detailed whale photographs in the world.

Austin has traveled to remarkable locations in order to wait—places such as the Caribbean, Australia and the South Pacific. When his waiting results in a connection, both whales and the world are rewarded. He is then able to capture and create composite photographs resulting in 1:1 scale portraits of whales—life-sized. Yes, whale sized photographs.

Austin’s work has brought the essence of whales to humanity in a way that is profound. This work has resulted in worldwide recognition, from gallery exhibitions to whaling conventions.

Bryant Austin specializes in 1:1 scale, life sized composite images of whales. This is a Minke whale composite on display during an exhibit at Tamada Museum. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin specializes in 1:1 scale, life sized composite images of whales. This is a Minke whale composite on display during an exhibit at Tamada Museum, Tokyo, Japan. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Recently I had the opportunity to connect with Austin and ask about his inspiration, challenges and insight.

Shauna Potocky: Your work is recognized around the world and is so incredibly unique. What inspired you to do this work?

Bryant Austin: I’ve always been unsatisfied by the way whales have been photographed underwater. In the beginning I thought that there were no other options for photographing them underwater in ways that would make them more compelling.

By a completely random event in 2004 with a humpback whale mother and calf, who moved right up to me while I was on snorkel—they were less than six feet away at times and I could see for the first time, their true colors and all of the fine texture and detail that makes them real. This is what started the process for me to think about how I could photographically capture those moments and recreate the emotional sensations I experienced.

SP: Your incredible body of work has led to you to participate in conferences or other opportunities that address issues facing whales and marine mammals. What meetings or events have you participated in? What role did your work contribute to these meetings? What was the outcome or your thoughts on the proceedings?

BA: In 2008 I had my first opportunity to exhibit my work at the International Whaling Commission meeting in Santiago, Chile. The exhibit itself didn’t change any of the outcomes. However, there were indicators of its power to move viewers. Outside of the main meeting room, where everyone breaks for coffee, were massive tables filled with brochures and pamphlets either for or against whaling. As my exhibit was in the main lobby, we asked the IWC Secretariat if we could display my first life size portrait of a humpback whale calf in this area and with no text of any kind. The Secretariat said “no,” stating that it would be too provocative and contentious to do so. The idea of a life sized portrait of a baby whale being contentious made me realize that my photographs may indeed have the power to inspire change in the coming years.

SP: Art can be a powerful tool for education and engagement. Have you found that your work has inspired others to care for the ocean, for whales or other marine mammals?

BA: When my work was first exhibited in Norway, I realized it had the potential to speak to a wider audience, including those living in countries that commercially hunt whales. I remember a press conference where former whalers were invited to see my work. At times they were moved to silence and I was captivated by their expressions as they studied my prints, seeing a whale in a way they’ve never known.

SP: What challenges did you face along the way to following your path working with whales and sharing your work as an artist?

BA: The biggest challenge is funding. My work had no precedent for a reason; it is very expensive and risky. It can cost as much as 2,000 dollars per day to work alone at sea with these creatures. I float alone in the ocean among them and patiently wait for them to approach me on their terms. I may go three months in the field and only have one or two encounters that are meaningful to my work. Other times, I may be in the field for five weeks and return home with nothing. This is the risk I must face in order to create something very special that has never existed before.

Even after a successful field season, the challenges continue as I must raise enough money to frame and mount my largest works which can cost as much as 85,000 dollars. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate exactly why this has never been done before. In a lot of ways this work shouldn’t exist, but it does so, against all the odds.

Bryant Austin's book, Beautiful Whale, brings the reader into the world of whales. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin’s book, Beautiful Whale, brings the reader into the world of whales. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

SP: You recently published the book, Beautiful Whale. Can you share with us a highlight for yourself in completing this book?

BA: One of the highlights was returning to the Kingdom of Tonga in 2011. Five years had passed since my last trip there and it was cathartic to be back. I was there for only five weeks and was attempting to compose a few more portraits for the book. I had many great and memorable encounters, and it was great to apply all that I’ve learned over the years with the whales who originally inspired my work.

SP: Your art has been featured in some remarkable locations. Do you have a favorite exhibit? And, do you have any upcoming exhibits scheduled?

BA: The one exhibition that always stands out in my mind is Beautiful Whale at the Tamada Museum in Tokyo, 2010. My largest photographs were printed and mounted for the first time and debuted at this museum. It was only the second time I had ever seen these prints full size and it was a heartfelt experience to see the responses from the overwhelming number of visitors that attended.

My most recent show at the USA Gallery at the Australian National Maritime Museum came down this year. I currently have no plans for another major solo show in the near future; however, several of my prints will be featured in a group show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts starting in October, 2015.

SP: What do you feel is the most critical issue facing whales today? What can people do to help protect marine life?

BA: There are many issues threatening the survival of whales today and few that we can change as individuals. However, the one thing we can do as individuals is to simply stop eating seafood. It is estimated that 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die entangled in commercial fishing gear each year for our love of seafood.

More whales are dying every year entangled in commercial fishing gear than at the very height of commercial whaling. I would encourage your readers to make a commitment to no longer eat anything from the ocean.

Reflecting on Austin’s comments regarding entanglements, important quantitative information is coming to light. In a study published in Conservation Biology in 2006 by by Andrew J. Read, Phebe Drinker and Simon Northridge, the paper focused on determining global rates of bycatch and subsequently reported “an annual estimate of 653,365 marine mammals, comprising 307,753 cetaceans and 345,611 pinnipeds.” Today efforts are increasing to address this issue.

Bryant Austin's whale photography is extraordinary. This image is titled, A Mother Listens. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin’s whale photography is extraordinary. This image is titled, A Mother Listens. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin’s work captivates. He has connected people to one of the terrestrial world’s greatest mysteries—the ocean and the world of whales. Through his work, book and exhibitions, these monumental beings receive the awe and respect they deserve. Yet, their journeys and livelihood are not without peril. Today, the world is more equipped to protect marine mammals than any other time in history. If we cannot directly stop whaling or the impacts to marine mammals, such as entanglements, we can directly address the marketplace that drives the harvest or mechanism of their decline. When we make choices the marketplace listens and that, scaled up, results in change.

Power Down to Charge Up

SPotockySunrise

Sunrise at Lava Beds National Monument. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

By Shauna Potocky

It is summer, the season of long days, academic breaks and get aways. School age youth and college students are ready to get out and about, while parents and adults with vacation time are left planning the details of family trips, recreational adventures, weekend get aways or the fabulously easy “staycation.” At the same time, long days allow time for getting out after work and enjoying those late sunsets or warm starry nights.

While summer seemingly offers time off to recharge, refresh and de-stress, there appears to be one aspect of this time off that is not getting time off; in fact, it is spending more time being on. That on time is actually all the screen time with the wide range of digital devices at people’s fingertips. Regardless of how that screen time seems to fill us up, studies show it is wearing us down by affecting our sleep and as well as our emotions. With this in mind, it seems that powering down and getting outside is actually a great way to recharge ourselves.

So take advantage of the long summer days, whether after work, on weekends or your hard earned vacation. Make time for quality, in-person connections and get that recharged, refreshed, and de-stressed composure by powering down and giving all the media chatter some time off, too.

A great way to change the pace and the scenery is to get outside.

A great way to change the pace and the scenery is to get outside. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

What better time than summer, with the long days and favorable weather, to get outside? It is too easy to have hours slip away surfing when so many fun outdoor activities exist. Plus, powering down comes with plenty of other benefits. You can save money on energy costs, and the annual research poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation shows that powering down promotes better sleep, and is particularly important for children. In addition, recent studies on outdoor recreation, like that from the California Department of Parks, demonstrate the positive influence outdoor activities have on countering aspects of depression and anxiety, common emotions linked to individuals who engage in a significant amount of screen time.

For many, powering down can seem daunting; ease in and consider some of these great suggestions for a week’s worth of options to take back some of that screen time and reengage in the outdoors:

Embrace the Digital Sunset: Turn off devices when the sun goes down. Then enjoy your evening by getting outside—consider going for an evening walk, map the moon and the stars, sit and enjoy the sounds of the evening—whether urban or rural, there are wonders that only come out at night.

Visit Your Local Park: Summer is an extraordinary time to visit local parks, explore trails or take part in park programs like ranger strolls, presentations, docent-led tours, hands-on explorations or camping. Exploring and learning about where you live can empower you to care more deeply for it.

Whether an overnight trip, weekend excursion or longer, camping is a great way to disconnect from devices and reconnect with the outdoors.

Whether an overnight trip, weekend excursion or longer, camping is a great way to disconnect from devices and reconnect with the outdoors. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Visit a Farmers’ Market: There is no better place to see and enjoy the colors, flavors, scents and surprises one can find in the booths of hardworking farmers who make our bioregions unique, tempting and tasty. Just try to resist all that summer fruit, honey, heirloom tomatoes and flowers… just try!

Ride Your Bike: What better way to get out and about to see the sites? Cycling burns calories and lets you get farther, faster. With all the fun you can have riding, you may not even notice that it is also one of the best sustainable transportation options out there.

Play Pick Up: Is there a local park with space for playing baseball, basketball, or Frisbee? Maybe just an evening of laughs is in order—if you have no space for a big game, grab a hacky-sack or hula hoops and let the fun begin!

Many dogs are happy to help motivate for a neighborhood dog walk or a bigger adventure.

Many dogs are happy to help motivate for a neighborhood dog walk or a bigger adventure, even if it means getting up early or staying up late. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Walk the Dog: Do you have a family member that gets extra motivated by the word “walk”? Let that energy carry you! Leash up and get out there. Dogs can be great motivators and some even give friendly reminders that walking daily can be a really rewarding activity.

Play Music: There is nothing better than getting friends and family together to play some tunes, sing songs and just relax. Gather the musicians together on a deck, in a yard, at a park, and bring some snacks and refreshments. Enjoy an afternoon or evening filled with song!

Go on a Scavenger Hunt: A fun activity that is easily done walking around the neighborhood. Grab a sheet of paper and a pen, then go out looking for plants, bugs, designs in nature, sounds and more. Write down your findings; if you do this activity several times you’ll be sure to find different things at different times of the day and throughout the seasons of the year.

Journal Outside: Go outside with paper and pencils to journal. Write about the summer, draw something of interest, record some hopes and goals for the remainder of the summer or the year. Paint, sketch, map, compose, collage, trace…whatever works. Plain paper with a set of colored pencils, pens, markers, or paints are a great way to start. If you want some extra inspiration, look at this feature on The Ecotone Exchange specifically on journaling.

Volunteer: There is almost nothing as empowering as helping someone else or assisting your community. Pick up some volunteer hours and watch your time make a difference. Many communities have volunteer options that are inspiring and help connect people to the outdoors. Assist with a beach or river clean-up, plant trees or remove invasive weeds at a park or open space, help animals at the shelter by assisting with dog walks and playtime. Volunteering is a great way to make a difference and an empowering way to reallocate that screen time into something meaningful.

Being outside to recreate, take a walk or spend time with others allows time to recharge and disconnect from social media. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Being outside to enjoy the scenery, slow down or spend time with others provides space to recharge and disconnect from social media. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

When we stop to consider that today’s younger generations have all grown up with devices and media as central components of their lives, we begin to see how vitally important it is to take a break, power down, and get back to quality connections and spending time outside. Today, growing numbers of people all over the world are finding themselves addicted to the internet as sited in studies. As daunting as powering down may seem, it is time to reframe screen time.

It is the perfect time, in the midst of summer and long days, to take back some quality outdoor time and power down our devices.

I covet my evening dog walks, they always provide an unexpected surprise. Sometimes it is the scent of trees swirling on an evening breeze or watching the first stars emerge in the new darkness. Feel free to close this article, power down and go enjoy an outdoor adventure of your own. Report back if you like but most importantly, I hope you find a quality connection between powering down and getting yourself charged up.

Sustaining the Ocean that Sustains You: More than Celebrating National Oceans Month and World Oceans Day, Things We Can Do

Sunrise and sunset are always inspiration times to have a quiet moment on the coast. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

Sunrise and sunset are always inspirational times to have a quiet moment on the coast. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

Regardless of where you live, land locked or ocean side, each day you touch, use and take in water that is part of a large planetary cycle. This cycle connects you to the weather, watersheds on land and ultimately the oceans.

As the world took time to celebrate World Oceans Day on Monday, June 8 and a United States Presidential Proclamation declared the month of June to be National Oceans Month, we have the opportunity to use these events as a timely reminder that the ocean affects each of us, where we live and the resources we all depend on. It is the perfect time to explore the ocean’s impressive influence and employ some easy, yet powerful, choices that ultimately invest in the ocean’s long-term health and functioning.

We rely on the ocean and the services of its water more than one might expect. For example, it is connected to fresh water resources, food supplies and weather, in ways which may not be evident.

The Earth’s oceans account for about 70 per cent of the planet’s overall surface. Of the water on our planet, only about 2-2.5 per cent is considered fresh water, with less than about 1 per cent  available for us to actually consume. Remarkably, our bodies are also made of a significant amount of water, about 60-70 per cent, so our dependence on fresh water is undeniable—and ultimately this comes to us from the ocean.

The ocean serves as the major weather and climate regulator of the planet. Its currents and temperatures affect the trade winds, as well as the cycles of El Nino (characterized by warm, wet winters on the North American continent) and La Nina (characterized by cold, dry winters on the North American continent). The cycling of temperatures and currents in the ocean play a critical role in the weather patterns experienced in locales around the world.

Snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where seasonal variation plays a critical role in California's water supply. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

Snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where seasonal variation plays a critical role in California’s water supply. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky.

Weather plays a critical role in the supply of fresh water on the landscape during a season, translating into snow pack, rainfall and fresh water availability. Water availability directly affects human usage: agriculture, water storage, hydroelectricity generation and much more. In addition, water availability affects ecosystem health, with an overabundance leading to flooding or saturation issues and a deficit leading to drought and scarcity.

The ocean also has a huge influence on where people live and on food sources. Much of the human population lives along coastlines and the ocean provides one of the most important protein sources worldwide.

Even in landlocked areas, people are still intimately connected to the ocean via the weather and watershed functioning, which then affects food supplies such as agriculture. Most rivers flow to lakes or tributaries that eventually make their way to the oceans; thus, activities upstream have a direct effect on aquatic ecosystems. If a river makes it all the way to the ocean, it will affect the ocean ecosystem itself. Thus, people living inland also have a direct effect on water quality and ocean health.

Sea otters are a celebrated sighting on the coast of California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

Sea otters are a celebrated sighting on the coast of California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

It is true that the ocean is facing significant pressures and our dependence on them for regulating weather, climate and supplying food cannot be undervalued. The media is constantly relating stories of oil spills, crashing fish populations, pollution issues and much more. So with such dire stories, what is working? Where is the inspiration to make things better or sustain healthy systems?

Right here. These are some great examples of what is working and choices you can make to create a cascade of positive change:

Seafood Watch: Knowing that the number one source of protein on the planet comes from the ocean should inspire people to make good choices to maintain the world’s fish stocks. Understanding sustainable fishing methods and which fish are good choices in the market place seems daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to research the natural history of fish and where it comes from to make a great choice for your next seafood dinner—the work has been done for you and that makes choosing sustainable seafood easy.

The Seafood Watch program has complied the latest information to make your choices easy as well as effective. Simply go to the website, get the app or download a card for your wallet or refrigerator. It takes the guesswork and research out of making an informed decision for the ocean. There are cards specific to various locations and sushi information as well. You couldn’t be more set up for success for your next seafood dinner date.

Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s): Essentially these areas protect critical habitat in the ocean, giving them special protections, similar to a national park or wilderness area on land. These protections allow biological hotspots to either recover from impacts or be protected from potential pressures. Long-term monitoring of MPA’s has shown that, when these areas are protected, they provide benefits that reach beyond their boundaries, essentially overflowing into surrounding areas. Currently about 1 per cent of the ocean is protected, so there is significant room for growth. Consider supporting MPA’s via your local National Marine Sanctuary or talking with representatives in your area to implement a new MPA and create the space for long-term ecological benefits.

Oiled Wildlife Care Network: The reality of today’s global economy is that oil is not going away any time soon. With economic pressure to keep up the supply and demand of oil, the threat of oil spills will continue to haunt the world’s coastlines. Spills can be truly disastrous. Today, there are networks of wildlife experts who strive to directly and immediately address the needs of wildlife during an oil spill—and you can become a volunteer and learn first-hand, from them, how to make a difference. Working an oil spill is stressful and emotional work, but it is also powerful and rewarding. Washing birds or marine mammals can directly impact their ability to survive such an event. It will also make you look at oil in a completely different way, a change in perspective could ultimately benefit the whole planet.

Banning plastic bags: Many communities have come to grips with the issues surrounding the use of plastic bags. Unfortunately the wide-spread use of plastic bags and their convenience has led to their wide-spread distribution in the environment as trash. Often plastic bags end up in watersheds then find their way into the ocean, and once there, find their way into the mouths of birds, turtles and whales. Luckily, many communities have taken steps to ban plastic bags and educate consumers about their impacts as well as sustainable alternatives. Foregoing the use of plastic bags will help make major strides in protection of watersheds, oceans and the wildlife associated with these ecosystems.

The ocean plays a critical role in all of our lives, whether we live along a coastline are live in an inland community. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

The ocean plays a critical role in all of our lives, whether we live along a coastline or live in an inland community. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

As the world celebrates World Oceans Day and the United States acknowledges National Oceans Month, let’s do something more–let’s really value the ocean for the significant role it plays on the planet and its amazing effect on each of us. Then consider what exactly you will do to restore and protect our ocean resources, from protecting fish stocks, eliminating plastic pollution or reducing oil consumption.  What will you do to sustain the ocean that sustains you?

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.

 

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

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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!

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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.

Recreate Your Commute

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Excitement builds for the kick off of Bike to School Day in Santa Cruz, California. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.

by Shauna Potocky

How long is your commute?

How many hours do you spend traveling to and from work, school or completing your errands? What if this time could be transformed into something that actually invested in your own well being? What if your commute time translated into health-benefits, saved you money—maybe even made your community a little nicer—by helping clean the air or reduce traffic congestion. Would you be interested?

Walking, running, skating, bicycling or using human-powered modes of travel are known as active transportation or non-motorized transport (NMT). When people empower themselves with these types of transportation options, individuals as well as communities see remarkable outcomes.  These outcomes are studied and evaluated,  such as through the work of Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, and via this work the benefits become increasingly clear.

Take the example of bicycle commuting: this single mode of transportation has the ability to produce positive change by freeing people from single vehicle transportation. It opens the door to providing physical exercise—burning approximately 500 calories an hour, while saving money directly related to gasoline costs, vehicle maintenance, registration, insurance and parking expenses. In addition, cycling is commonly used as a recreational activity, so there is the added benefit of cycling actually being fun, getting people outside and being practical.

Bike commuters at their way to the Santa Cruz Bike to Work event . Photo courtesy Dan Coyro, Sentinel Newspaper via Ecology Action.

Bike commuters at their way to the Santa Cruz Bike to Work / School event . Photo courtesy Dan Coyro, Sentinel Newspaper via Ecology Action.

How does bike commuting improve communities? Studies have demonstrated that by choosing to bicycle commute individuals have a direct and positive impact related to reductions in air pollution, traffic congestion and carbon emissions.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) provides this incredible example as reported on their website, “On average, WSDOT adds more than 20 miles of new sidewalk, trails and paths each year. A recent federal study showed that when bicycle and pedestrian safety increases, total vehicle miles traveled is reduced by an estimated 156.1 million miles over the course of a year. These investments can mean savings of more than $23 million in fuel costs, and 67,000 metric tons of reductions in CO2 emissions.”

In addition, bike commuting can have even broader and longer-term positive impacts related to community planning. As communities embrace bike commuting as a viable option for individuals, they may invest in additional bike lanes, bike paths separated from roadways, bike commuting programs, bike lockers, and initiative options that further enhance cycling as a long-term transportation goal. Great examples of cities that have impressive bike commuting cultures include Santa Cruz, California and Portland, Oregon just to name two. Both areas take pride in their robust cycling infrastructure and community, which has embraced and grown truly passionate about cycling.

Museum exhibit celebrating the cycling community, culture and bicycle frame builders of Santa Cruz.

Museum exhibit celebrating the cycling community, culture and handmade bicycle frame builders of Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

As positive outcomes increase, communities often build on these successes, resulting in expanded investments or programs, which further benefit bicycle commuters as well as other stakeholders. Consider the success of Rails to Trails initiatives, which seek to transform train/rail systems into multi-user travel corridors that often include pedestrians, cyclists and recreational user groups. For an excellent example of a program designed to build community engagement—consider the popularity of Bike to Work days, which occur in cities and communities throughout the United States as well as internationally. Bike to Work days inspire people to take to the bike—either as a newcomer or as an experienced rider and provides encouragement, safety messaging and often food as positive ways to reinforce the effort.

Bike to Work Day in downtown Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.

Bike to Work Day in downtown Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.

One surprising or often unseen benefit to community investment in non-motorized transport projects is that ultimately they help to create more “efficient and equitable transportation systems” as reported in the study released in February 2015 by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

How can a transportation system become more equitable? Investments that improve active transport such as walking or cycling actually translate into benefits for individuals who rely on these modes of transportation due to socioeconomic factors or physical capabilities. Thus, when a community invests in transportation modes outside of motorized use, they create benefits for user groups beyond the regular commuter. It is a true win-win for citizens and the community as a whole.

Safety signage as well as designated pedestrian paths or bicycle lanes enhance safety and awareness for all citizens. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

Safety signage as well as designated pedestrian paths or bicycle lanes enhance safety and awareness for all citizens. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

What if breaking into a new commute mode is daunting? Find some encouragement here! There are great resources to help get you started. Ecology Action, a pioneering organization in Santa Cruz, California has one of the most successful and inspiring Bike To Work programs around. Their site has plenty of resources, advice, tips from the pros and more to help inspire a ride to work or school by bike.

Ecology Action is an excellent example and role model for getting people inspired to make a shift in their commute—and they are just a starting point. If you are interested in taking a more active approach to your own commute consider your options and then do some homework. Depending on the mode of transportation you would like to try—whether walking or bike commuting, you may want to search for resources in your community.

Specifically for bike commuting, some employers, schools and communities offer bike purchasing assistance programs. Many bike commute programs also offer assistance with helmet purchases or bike light advice. A trip to your local bike shop can also be a great first step—experienced staff can help answer questions on what kind of bike you need or what maintenance your current bike might benefit from—in order to make your first miles smooth. In addition, they can provide advice on the proper fit of a bicycle as well as your bike helmet.

Community Bike to Work or School events encourage riders of all levels to take to the bike. Surveys help organizations measure participation and learn about potential barriers that can be addressed to help more people use alternative transportation modes.

Community Bike to Work or School events encourage riders of all levels to take to the bike. Surveys help organizations measure participation and learn about potential barriers that can be addressed, thus helping more people embrace alternative transportation modes. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action

Perhaps having a commute partner will help make those first few miles easier. If that is the case, not to worry, some organizations, such as Ecology Action, help provide connections through Bike Buddy programs. In addition, asking friends, family or looking for riding partners via your work, school or local bike shop can be great places to start as well.

So as the days get longer, the weather gets warmer and Spring emerges, consider all the ways you can recreate your own commute. You never know how it might just transform you and your community.

You never know where your commute might just take you!

You never know where your commute might just take you! Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler