A Line Down The Middle—The Landscape of Garry Winogrand’s Photograph, New Mexico 1957

 

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New Mexico 1957 by Garry Winogrand

By Neva Knott

Preface: each term in my composition classes I assign a photo analysis. I wrote this as an example for my students. The photo and the exercise allowed me to blend two of my loves–black and white photograph and nature, specifically thinking about the relationship between human spaces and landscapes.

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A landscape divided. To the left, the carport and driveway of a small ranch-style house. To the right the flatlands and hills of a desert. A baby stands at the top of the driveway, having just emerged from the dark carport. The child’s tricycle lays abandoned on its side further down the drive. The desert in the foreground is dry and only partially covered in patches with shrubbery. There is one larger tree just to the right of the driveway, as if put there for landscaping decoration. The hills in the distance are also dark, shadowed by clouds that gather above them. A cloudscape covers the mountains and also floats above the roof of the house. There is a sense of anticipation in the photograph. The sharp contrast between the human area and the natural area in this photograph, taken by Garry Winogrand in New Mexico, 1957, suggest that humans might be out of place on this desert.

The baby is the brightest object in the frame. She is dressed in white and is standing in front of an almost solid black opening to a carport. Because of this stark contrast, her spot in the photograph becomes the focal point.  White is universally considered a color of innocent, nascence, and hope. While it may be incidental to this photograph that she is dressed in white, when I consider the baby within the setting of the photograph—in front of a new house in a presumably new development—I can infer she is part of the package of, and symbolizes, the pathos of beginnings for this family.

I begin to explore other aspects of the photograph to gain a sense of context for the baby’s positioning. The house stops at the left edge of the image. It covers most of the left of the frame, from bottom to almost the top.  The driveway runs along about three quarters of the bottom edge of the image and dominates the foreground. It is an upward-sloping drive; my eye is drawn along it to the baby and the faint shadow of another person behind. The house is also positioned in front of the picture, though most of it is cut off. The carport is in full view, but only the corner of the house to which it attaches, the edge of a bank of windows on the front of the house, some stones that seem to mark a planter, a patch of dirt not yet planted with grass, and part of the roof, show.  Bare soil extends from the driveway to what I can surmise is the lot line. The house is simple and sparse in design, suggesting that it is a starter home—the type first purchased when a couple begins their life together.

On the right of the carport there is a partial wall that’s held up by a simple ground-to-roof post. The house number, 208, is attached to the post. This low number designates this house as one of the first in the development and furthers the impression of new beginnings.

The partial wall forms a boundary between the house and the land, yet the desert and hills are visible through the space between the wall and carport roof. Beyond the carport wall, four aspects of the desert are depicted. Closest to the driveway is barren except for a few clumps of weed and one decorative palm. A few yards out, presumably at the lot line, some sort of scrub brush grows, standing just a couple of feet tall. Beyond the scrub, a sand pit comprises the middle distance of the image. More vegetation grows around its edges. Just past the sand pit the mountains rise up and meet the sky—just at the top third of the image. The most defined line of mountain peaks  are darkened by cloud cover. Along the side of the foothills is a U-shaped clearing that looks like a road and cul-de-sacs for a future housing development.  In looking at the vegetation surrounding the house, it is easy to see this is not a place that readily supports life.

The clouds are the only element in the photograph that span both human and natural spaces. They run along the top border of the image, whereas the rest of the image is abruptly divided by the line of the driveway and edge of the carport. There is no transition between the house and landscape except for the partial wall in the carport; furthermore, there is no overlap in use of space—the human side is devoid of anything natural, and except for a child’s wagon off to the right, there are no human elements on the natural side of the image.

Aside from the baby and the shadow figure in the carport, the house itself, the driveway, and the U-shaped clearing, the only human elements in the photograph are a child’s tricycle and wagon—both of which were left tipped over, one in the middle of the drive, and one along the lot line, just at the boundary between home and landscape—and an oil spot on the concrete. These indicate a haphazard regard and lack of care for one’s possessions. Toys are not put away, and cars are not maintained. The house itself is quite plain and appears to be kept tidy, but is obviously low-cost. Might the inhabitants be living beyond their means in taking on home ownership and parenthood? If they don’t care for the child’s toys or their own car, will they care for this delicate landscape upon which they live?

A desert is classified as such because of limited rainfall, yet a desert is a hardy landscape. Plants and some animals that live in such places have adapted to manage periods of drought, and extreme temperatures both cold and hot. Humans do not have the capacity to adapt so must convert their homes and man-made spaces to accommodate limited water supply, winters and summers. Humans are naturally unequipped to live within the carrying capacity of a desert landscape. The harsh line in the photograph made by the driveway and edge of the carport creates the impression that the people who live in this house intend to keep separate from the life of the desert, yet the clouds that cross over both parts of the photograph remind the viewer that nature surrounds them and its effects are inescapable, regardless of this delineation. The only connection between the house and the surrounding landscape is one of darkness. The carport is dark as is the line of mountain peaks in the cloud’s shadow. While the baby in her white clothes works to symbolize hope from within the darkness, the darkness of the clouds suggests that nature is the controlling force in this place.

Garry Winogrand is one of my favorite photographers. From my study of his work I know that it was not his practice to set up a shot—he took pictures of what he came upon, of what was in front of him. He chose subject matter based on what he felt would make a good photograph. In studying his work, I’ve come to realize that much of it documents some sort of incongruity between people and the places in which he found them. In this photograph, the incongruity draws my attention to the rationale behind suburban development, and begs the question, at what point must a homeowner consider livability of locale? Moreover, I’m analyzing this image 57 years after its making, at a time in human history where issues of water availability are critical. Photographs capture a moment in time, yet exist in the present and into the future; in this way, Winnogrand’s photograph of a starter home in the New Mexico of 1957 can speak to the importance of choosing a place for one’s nascence that can support life.

 

 

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An Ode to Green Mountain College

By Neva Knott

The bell rang and my students poured out of my classroom. 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—it was 2009, and Central Oregon, where I lived and taught, 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.

The International School of the Cascades was housed in an old middle school, a smaller building that a traditional high school, more intimate, and designed for more interaction between teachers, students, and classes. All of us teaching in the program ate lunch together every day, also something different than what happens at regular high schools. For this mid-day meal we gathered in a small room off the health and math hallway and sat at round tables. On Wednesdays one or two of us cooked lunch for the group. This was pre-arranged at the beginning of the year and a nice break to one’s own leftovers. Given that we taught in an international program, the flavors were often inspired by other cultures, places, and the travels of the cook.

Many of us had moved there, to the small town of Redmond Oregon–population 24,000–to teach at the ISC. It was a magnet program for Central Oregon, drawing students from Bend, La Pine, Sisters, Madras, Prineville and all rural points in between. The ISC opened during the 2006/2007 school year, yet here we were, March 2009, talking about lay-offs. Cuts dug deep– into twenty percent of the school district, which meant that any teacher with fewer than four years in the district was fated to the unemployment line. Since most of us had moved there for the opening of the school, that meant the ISC team was all under threat.

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 at Green Mountain College. 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.

Entrance to Green Mountain College, Fall 2010

I started this blog after graduating from Green Mountain with a Master’s of Science in Environmental Studies, Written Communication. My impetus was the need I heard over and over again in my studies: to communicate the science to the public. When I started the blog, the news cycle rarely included reportage on environmental issues, and those reported were all doom and gloom. I wanted to showcase all of the positive work I saw happening in the environmental world.

We have had some guest contributors, but the core of the content for The Ecotone Exchange has been written by fellow graduates of GMC.

We were all shocked to learn, just about a week ago, that our graduate school will close at the end of Spring term.

Green Mountain College was founded in 1834. It sits in the small, very small, town of Poultney, Vermont. The town is so small that, the first time I went for residency, the woman at the hotel told me to “turn left at the big rock” and I’d find campus. So small that a few years ago the college President funded a food co-op so the students would have a healthful grocery. So small that the College’s closing will likely wither the economics of the place.

Place-based ideology was a cornerstone of our work at GMC. The master’s program by design was innovative–low residency, conducted through online classes, so each student’s study would be set in the bioregion where he or she lived. Our training was designed to make us experts on our home landscapes.

Panorama Motel

At the beginning of each year, we attended residency in Poultney, giving us a chance to know our on-screen classmates, take face-to-face workshops from our professors, hike together, and play games at the town’s one pub each night. We all stayed at the Panorama Motel. It was during residency that now long-standing friendships were formed and the idea of this blog was born.

Green Mountain was innovative with other programs, too. The Sustainable Agriculture track had developed nicely by our second residency. The opening reception meal was all grown on site, cooked and served by chefs developing the concept of farm to table.

The campus itself is a place I’d hoped to visit time and again. Old and brick, welcoming and collegiate. Grounds that invite contemplation. But it seems, as articulated in this InsiderHigerEd article, that the days of small liberal arts colleges have waned. What saddens me the most is the suggestion that a niche focus on environmental studies was not enough; issues and ideas about sustainability cannot sustain this old school.

Campus Labyrinth

I still teach, and I worry that the value of education–the value of learning from experts for the sake of learning–is no longer a value.

What I do know is that those of us who completed the MSES program, in both branches–Conservation Biology and Written Communication–did important work there. I know that we carry a sense of scale of place, bioregional living, importance of the connection between humans and nature, advocacy, and science, into all that we do. That alone is legacy.

Me at the pub in Poultney

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.

To Preserve or to Conserve: Navigating the Conflicted Language of Environmental Advocacy

Hampton Brook, Hampton, CT, during a mid-winter thaw. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2016

Hampton Brook, Hampton, CT, during a mid-winter thaw. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2016

By Richard Telford

Writing for The Ecotone Exchange during the last three years, I have advocated for certain actions I see as critical to mitigate the present environmental crisis. These actions have included engaging children with the natural world in a deliberate way, encouraging the exploration of one’s immediate environment, rethinking the disregard we sometimes afford to common species, and forming a more thoughtfully developed environmental ethic, among others. In writing these and other pieces, one dilemma of word choice has vexed me more than any other. Do I call upon the reader to act in order to preserve the natural world or to conserve it? To some, this may seem a trivial question, one of semantics or aesthetics, but for me the distinction matters. I have stared on many occasions at a particular sentence, reading it aloud, inserting first one verb and then the other, only to delete and start again, often restructuring the entire sentence to accommodate each change only to return shortly after to a previous revision. Quite often, it is in one of these sentences that I am trying to culminate an argument that I have shaped first for myself, through the process of writing, and then for the reader. The weight of such sentences only muddles the choice further; such sentences require an investment of belief.

When, for example, I challenged the long-term efficacy of using charismatic species to enlist public support for environmental causes, I wrote, Is this a sustainable long-term approach by which to conserve the Earth’s biodiversity?  However, in that same piece, when I argued for the value of local, common species and their capacity to build connections between us and the natural world, I wrote, All of these common summer residents of our region have evoked in our children and in us that sense of wonder that is so crucial to the long-term preservation of the natural world. When writing about my father, who, more than any other individual, helped me to form my own environmental ethic, I elected, with some concern about redundancy, to incorporate both terms side by side: Such relationships, I believe, can and must guide us as we contemplate the long-term conservation, preservation, and restoration of the natural world. Finally, when I examined the importance of forming and living by a conservation ethic, I opted for conservation as the more pragmatic and appropriate term with which to define the ethic, but I avoided both verbs in my culminating argument of what we must do with that ethic: 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.

So, in the end, does it matter which word is invoked? I think it does, not just in terms of precise word use—which in my view matters a great deal by itself—but in terms of how word choice, especially in this case, can shape public discourse, can clarify respective positions on complex issues, and can prompt action aimed toward the greater, long-term good. Thus, I set out here to answer this question of word choice that has vexed me so greatly. I do this realizing that I will not, in the end, be able to answer this question with surety, but I realize too that the questions with which we struggle are often more valuable than the answers to them.

When I wrestle with a particular word choice, I first consider the word’s denotation—its literal definition—and then consider its connotation—the associative and emotional responses the word may evoke. While a quick Internet look-up usually suffices to recall a forgotten denotation, for weightier word choices I turn to my 1988 reprint of the 1971 Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The word “compact” here seems a bit out of place, as its two hefty volumes contain a total of 6,165 pages, each of which features four full pages of the original 13-volume OED “reproduced micrographically” and requiring the use of a magnifier to read. To this, I add my 1412-page 1987 OED supplement, and whole new word-worlds are opened to me. For context, the last print edition of the OED was issued in 1989 and is still in print; now, however, all updates are done quarterly and are maintained electronically, accessible through subscription.

The 1971 Oxford English Dictionary offers three related definitions for the transitive verb form of preserve: 1) “To keep safe from harm or injury; to keep in safety, save, take care of, guard,”  2) “To keep alive, keep from perishing, to keep in existence, keep from decay, make lasting,” and 3) “To keep from physical or chemical change.”  Interestingly, the definitions offered by the OED for conserve in its transitive verb form are strikingly similar. The first definition for conserve combines nearly all of the content of the first and third definitions for preserve cited above, reading as follows: “To keep in safety, or from harm, decay, or loss; to preserve with care; now usually, to preserve in its existing state from destruction or change.” In kind, the second definition offered for conserve closely parallels the second definition cited above for preserve, the former reading: “To preserve or maintain in being or continuous existence; to keep alive or flourishing.” By denotation, preserve and conserve are effectively synonymous. As defined, they are interchangeable, which should solve the dilemma I introduced at the start of this essay. But it doesn’t. Like all language invoked in meaningful discourse, these terms are evocative, loaded with past history, with present associations, and with future implications.

In historic terms, the preservation versus conservation conflict that profoundly shaped the modern environmental movement is most often associated with the early-twentieth-century feud between John Muir, who advocated for the preservation of wilderness for the sake of its aesthetic value and beauty, and Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, who advocated for the conservation of the nation’s natural resources—responsible, sustainable use with maximum benefit to society. That feud climaxed in the famous Hetch-Hetchy controversy, in which conservationists, led by Pinchot and former San Francisco, California mayor James Phelan, lobbied the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the 1913 Raker Bill (H.R. 7207), which would authorize the damming of the Tuolumne River in the Hetch-Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to create a water supply for the city of San Francisco. In testimony before the House, Pinchot argued that “the fundamental principle of the whole conservation policy is that of use, to take every part of the land and its resources and put it to that use in which it will best serve the most people […].” Preservationists, led by Muir, lobbied vehemently against the project. In a pamphlet produced to garner public support “to save the famous Hetch-Hetchy Valley and stop the commercial destruction which threatens our national parks,” Muir wrote, “[…] this great natural wonderland should be preserved in pure wildness for the benefit of the entire nation.” Primary source documents from both sides of the debate are available from the U.S. National Archive, and some of these can be viewed here.

The Hetch-Hetchy controversy had profound effects on the environmental movement in the United States, and it polarized into camps individuals who, in many ways, were likeminded in their appreciation of the natural world but diverged on questions on how it best served humankind. Despite the denotative equivalence of preserve and conserve, the Hetch-Hetchy controversy entrenched a connotative distinction that manifested itself many times over and persists even now. At times, I hesitate to use the term conserve, even when it seems most appropriate, as, connotatively, it confers an implicit permission to exploit the natural world. In pragmatic terms, I understand that we must exploit the natural world to survive, but the idealist in me wants to aim for preservation even when conservation—the responsible and sustainable use of resources—is the only viable path. As I note above, the language of any cause that matters is necessarily evocative and loaded, especially for writers.

While it is easy to laud Muir and condemn Pinchot in the context of Hetch-Hetchy, to do so terribly oversimplifies the greater debate between preservation and conservation, both as it existed then and as it does now. It was Pinchot, for example, who fought vehemently against the common timber company practice of clear-cutting western mountains, leaving them bald and desolate for the sake of a profitable but unsustainable harvest. During the Raker Bill hearings, when Representative John E. Raker, for whom the bill was named, asked Pinchot if dead timber could be taken from Yosemite for commercial use, Pinchot replied, “I think we can have a little timber fall down and die for the sake of having the place look like no human foot had ever been in it. I do not think that the national parks should be used as a lumber supply.” When Raker pushed the question a second time, arguing that such a harvest “does not affect the scenic beauty of the park,” Pinchot responded, “[…] here is one of the greatest wonders of the world, and I would leave it just as it is so far as possible in the Yosemite National Park.” Pressed a third time on the issue, Pinchot added, “I will mention that among the greatest of the beauties are some of the fallen trees. I would not touch one of them.” These responses serve to soften the contrast between Muir and Pinchot, and they demonstrate that the connotative views of preservation and conservation are not mutually exclusive, no matter how fervent the debate, then and now.

As Aldo Leopold would later state so eloquently and succinctly in A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949), published three years after Pinchot’s death: “Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow.” Like Muir, Pinchot was certainly not ignorant of this fact. His testimony on the Raker Bill bears this out. Leopold’s own call for a land ethic acknowledged that preservation in the purist sense, as advocated by Muir, must be balanced with our need to use the land to our own ends and for our own comfort. In the closing pages of his seminal book, Leopold wrote: “We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good points, but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use.” While preservation is an ideal worth striving for when possible, conservation, viewed connotatively in the framework above, is more often the pragmatic approach, achieving many, though not all, of the aims of the former approach.

As I sit and write this piece in the early morning hours of the New England winter, looking out my kitchen window at a fresh snowfall, I am warmed by a 550-degree-Fahrenheit woodstove that requires harvesting the land and, in some ways, sullying the environment that Muir advocated preserving in its purest form. My computer is powered by electricity which, at least at present, necessitates burning coal or natural gas. Thus, my own environmental advocacy comes at an environmental cost, as does my continued existence in the simplest terms, and I would be naïve or disingenuous to ignore this reality. It is in this conflict within myself that my conflict of word choice—to preserve or to conserve—is rooted. It is not a question of semantics or aesthetics. It is a question driven by a complex set of realities that shift and change with changing anthropogenic influences and impacts. It is a question that lacks and always will lack a finite answer. All good questions do.

As I noted earlier, the Oxford English Dictionary, with its rich etymological entries, truly opens new word-worlds to the reader, and I will close here by sharing a few additional insights I gleaned when researching preserve and conserve. The OED traces the word preserve back to the 14th century French word, preserver, meaning “to save from an evil that might happen.” The use of the word “evil” frames the act of preservation in moral terms, which I find especially apt in our present time. As much as our actions undertaken to mitigate the present environmental crisis are pragmatic ones, aimed at not degrading the world’s biodiversity and habitat to such a degree that it leads to our own demise, our actions must likewise be framed in moral terms. Because our actions for or against the natural world will be handed down for generations, we have a moral obligation to those later generations. Our present environmental crisis is, at its core, a moral crisis, and where we fail the natural world through our careless actions, it reflects a failure on our part to realize our own insignificance in a complex and extraordinary world, and a failure to act in accordance with that realization. This links in a profound way to a final denotative entry from the OED worth examining here: the noun form of conserve, conservation.

The third definition for conservation in the OED refers to the scientific principle of the conservation of energy, the “doctrine that ‘the total energy of any body or system of bodies is a quantity which can neither be increased nor diminished by any mutual action of those bodies, though it may be transformed into any one of the forms of which energy is susceptible.’” Reading this, it occurred to me that an argument could be made that we are not truly destroying the natural world, no matter how terrible our actions toward it. Instead, we are reshaping it, redistributing its energy into heretofore unseen configurations. Viewed superficially, this could almost seem comforting. But it isn’t. While the transmuted energy may still be present, we will lose a complex and beautiful system built over hundreds of millennia, and we will lose ourselves, both spiritually and in real terms. For me, there is something deeply moral in the effort both to preserve and conserve as much of that system as we can, and there is something deeply moral in recognizing our individual insignificance and acting for the greater good. As we debate and plot a forward course, the words we choose matter, but our actions matter even more.

 

Can We Save the Botany Degree?

Fall ferns at the Trail Wood Sanctuary in Hampton, CT, the former home of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Fall ferns at the Trail Wood Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut, the former home of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

By Richard Telford

On October 17, 1959, less than six months after moving to Trail Wood, the beloved private nature sanctuary where he would spend the rest of his life, American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale wrote the following entry in his private journal:

We are presented with life memberships in the Baldwin Bird Club and   given a fine vasculum for collecting plants. So we round out our long association with this nature group—over a period of more than 20 years.  Now we ‘have other lives to live.’  We watched them go with thankfulness in our hearts that we could stay.

I first read this passage two summers ago while researching Teale’s early days at Trail Wood with the generous support of the University of Connecticut, where Teale’s papers are permanently housed in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. At the time, I was examining the extraordinary transformation that occurred in the lives of Edwin and his wife and collaborator Nellie with their move to Trail Wood, a site Edwin would subsequently declare to be “our Promised Land” (September 8, 1959). Teale chronicled this transformation in The Hampton Journal, 1959-1961, the first of four 500-page unpublished observation journals he kept at Trail Wood over a period of twenty-one years.

The vasculum presented to Edwin and Nellie Teale by the Baldwin, Long Island Bird Club in 1959, celebrating the Teales' arrival to Trail Wood. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

The vasculum presented to Edwin and Nellie Teale by the Baldwin, Long Island Bird Club in 1959, celebrating the Teales’ arrival to Trail Wood in Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Before moving to the next entry in the journal, I completed a quick Google search for “vasculum,” a word with which I was wholly unfamiliar. In this context, I found, it referred to a tin box used to collect plant specimens. A quick image search yielded two predominant groups of vascula: those of a utilitarian kind, painted in various shades of olive drab; and those of a decidedly aesthetic bent, identical in construction but tole-painted with intricate designs or featuring scenes of nature or idealized Victorian children engaged in nature study. Most examples appeared dated to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period when the popularity of amateur nature study was at its apex.  Quick searches of eBay and Amazon yielded a handful of antique vascula for sale but no new examples. Even the Carolina Biological Supply Company yielded a dead end. This surprised me. How, I wondered at the time, could the need for some kind of specimen case for botanical collecting have simply evaporated? The question lingered, but, pressed for time to complete my reading of The Hampton Journal, I abandoned this research side trail and returned to the Teales’ early life at Trail Wood.

Shelf fungi on a mature hickory along The Lane at Trail wood, the former home of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale. In the background two problematic invasive species are visible, oriental bittersweet and burning bush. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Shelf fungi on a mature hickory along The Lane at Trail wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, the former home of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale. In the background two problematic invasive species are visible, oriental bittersweet and burning bush. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Recently, however, I felt compelled to revisit this side trail after reading a slew of articles about the precipitous decline of formal botany study at the collegiate level. Allie Bidwell, writing for U.S. News and World Report, for example, cites a study completed by the Chicago Botanic Garden and Botanic Gardens Conservation International, which found that, in 1988, “[…] nearly three-quarters of the nation’s top 50 most funded universities offered advanced degree programs in botany. But by 2009, more than half of those universities eliminated their botany programs.” The study further found that the number of undergraduate and graduate botany degrees conferred during that time declined by 50% and 41% respectively. An article published by Great Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society in its magazine, The Garden, declared in a January 2012 headline, “Death knell sounds for botany degrees.” The article’s author, Sally Nex, noted the planned closing of the botany degree program at the University of Bristol in 2013, the last program of its kind in Great Britain. Has the study of botany nearly vanished from university campuses? Not exactly. It has, however, largely been shifted to a place under the degree umbrella of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and such a shift necessarily dilutes the study of any highly specialized field to a handful of elective courses at best.

The writing cabin of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale, located on the one-acre pond below the main house at Trail Wood, the private sanctuary where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

The writing cabin of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale, located on the one-acre pond below the main house at Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, the private sanctuary  where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

This past summer, while I was orienting a visiting artist to Trail Wood as part of the Edwin Way Teale Artists in Residence Program, I entered Teale’s writing cabin, which was built on the edge of the one-acre Hidden Pond the Teales had drilled in 1959 not long after their arrival. The writing cabin, built to match the dimensions of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden, provided Edwin a place to isolate himself from the stream of visitors, often uninvited, and the telephone. The Connecticut Audubon Society completed a restoration of the cabin last summer so that visiting artists could, as Edwin had, have a place for quiet study and contemplation. As I entered the cabin, I spied an olive drab, semi-cylindrical metal case with a steel strap loop at either end. I knew immediately what I was looking at, and a set of pressed plastic labels on the lid of the case confirmed my suspicion. They read: Edwin and Nellie Teale/The Baldwin Bird Club/1959. It was a deeply moving moment for me, the kind I so often have when reading Teale’s private journals; in this case, the entry I had read the previous summer seemed to materialize before my eyes, and I stood silent for some time.

A close-up shot of the label of the vasculum presented to Edwin and Nellie Teale by the Baldwin, Long Island Bird Club in 1959. The presentation celebrated the arrival of the Teales to Trail Wood, their private sanctuary in Hampton, CT. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

A close-up shot of the label of the vasculum presented to Edwin and Nellie Teale by the Baldwin, Long Island Bird Club in 1959. The presentation celebrated the arrival of the Teales to Trail Wood, their private sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Seeing the Teales’ vasculum that midsummer afternoon, I thought back to my research side trail of the previous summer; to the absence of new vascula for sale; to the decline of botany; and finally to Edwin Way Teale’s declined legacy, which I have written a good deal about over the last two years. All of these phenomena, and a host of others, are linked by a common thread: our epidemic disengagement from the natural world, and our immersion in a virtual and often vacuous and unsatisfying one. While the decline in collegiate botany study may in part be explained by the greater financial earning power of other specializations, a factor cited in some articles on the decline, this answer simply is not adequate. A study completed by Kathleen Wallace of Washington and Lee University found that, during the same period that botany study precipitously declined, the number of students declaring philosophy and religious studies majors increased by 153%, exceeded notably by declared visual and performing arts majors, a group which increased by 293%. These latter fields are hardly seen as having high earning potential, yet they have experienced significant growth. Thus, the financial argument against botany study, with its high earning potential in the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors, among others, seems dubious.

The view from naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale's cabin at Trail Wood, in Hampton, CT, the private sanctuary where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

The view from naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale’s cabin at Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, the private sanctuary where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

I am convinced, instead, that we have largely lost the capacity to appreciate exhaustive hours of patient observation, to find wonder in complex and always-evolving taxonomical systems and the larger contexts they inhabit, to see ourselves as just one component in a marvelously complex system of life, and to understand that our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of that system as a whole, with no part of that whole being insignificant. It is to these lost capacities, in my view, that botany study is succumbing, as the field of natural history did before it, only the pace seems accelerated, just as the pace of the world around us, speaking societally, likewise does. In his 1948 book Days Without Time, Edwin Way Teale writes, “The centrifugal force of civilized life draws us out thin, stretches us to the ultimate of our resiliency. Days out-of-doors give us release. They permit us to contract back to the center of life.” More and more we feel drawn thin, but do we, societally, still have the capacity to seek out that “center of life,” or even to realize how desperately we need to do so?

For a variety of reasons, the loss of botany study, and, for that matter, the loss of any area of specialized scientific study, should ring alarm bells for us. In practical terms, botany study, in light of the accelerated pace of anthropogenic climate change, grows more critical daily, as we seek, for example, to address food scarcity while trying to mitigate the environmental impact of industrial agriculture. Botanical knowledge is likewise an essential component of land and resource conservation, as well as ecological restoration. Mapping botanical changes in the coming years will help us to understand and, hopefully, respond effectively to climate change, but who will be equipped to do this if the current trend continues? Finally, the pharmacological applications of botanical sources, even in the present time, are staggering in scope and number, and their collective effect on public health cannot be fully quantified here. We must consider, as well, that the sheer volume of these applications is likely exceeded by those we have not yet discovered, but, if the pipeline of future botanists is slowed to a trickle, who will make these discoveries? Who will suffer in their absence?

A corner of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale's study at Trail Wood, in Hampton, CT, the sanctuary where he spent the last 21 years of his life. Atop the shelf sits a stack of pressed botanical specimens believed to have been collected at the site. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

A corner of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale’s study at Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, the sanctuary where he spent the last 21 years of his life. Atop the shelf sits a stack of pressed botanical specimens believed to have been collected at the site. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

As part of the bequeathal of Trail Wood to the Connecticut Audubon Society, Nellie Teale, who outlived Edwin by thirteen years, requested that Edwin’s study in the main house be preserved exactly as it was at the time of his death in 1980, and CAS has honored this request. In a corner of the study, at the intersection of two bookshelves, there is a large, bound stack of plant pressings done by the Teales, presumably at Trail Wood. These have not been examined, out of concern over their fragility and the fear that poor handling could destroy a wealth of botanical knowledge of the site. Still, in ten to twenty years, who will have the training to handle these specimens or the knowledge to understand their significance? Amplify the concerns for the long-term preservation and use of this small, site-specific collection to the challenges faced by large-scale, institutional herbaria, and it further highlights the dire implications of a wide-scale loss of formal botanical study. It is a crisis on many levels, but it is not an irreversible one.

The single most critical step needed to avert the full demise of botany as a specialized branch of study at the collegiate level is the incorporation of more substantive botany curricula from the earliest days of primary schooling through the final days of secondary schooling. This curricula should follow best practices in environmental education, many of which revolve around direct engagement of the learner with the study subject. Children need to get outside, loupe and field notebook in hand. It is not enough, however, to simply drop them into a lush botanical landscape. Instead, they must be immersed in age-appropriate field work that connects them to their subject. As children grow older, this field work can and should be aimed at identifying problems and positing solutions. It might involve ecological restoration or the completion of a flora survey with a specific goal. It must, at all levels and in all tasks, contextualize the study subject to the greater whole of the natural world and to the individual learner as well.

Two of the author's children sitting on the steps into naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale's writing cabin at Trail Wood, in Hampton, CT, where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Two of the author’s children sitting on the steps into naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale’s writing cabin at Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

We can likewise engage our own children in botany study, filling the inevitable gaps of a public education system burdened with manifold demands from as many parties. Should we consciously drive them toward careers in botany? Not necessarily. However, we can and must instill in them the value, the wonder, and the joy of close study of natural phenomena. We must aim to show them, firsthand, the interconnectedness and the interdependency of the complex life system of which we are only a small, though disproportionately influential, part. Though the potential demise of formal botany study has garnered much recent attention, it is only a symptom of a larger ailment rooted in a set of societal norms that value speed over deliberateness, gratification over patience, answers over inquiry.  It seems inevitable that other fields of study are following or will follow a similar trajectory, driven by like forces. However, we can change that trajectory through the actions outlined above and others. Doing so will require a significant shift in thinking, but that shift can be driven by the realities of anthropogenic climate change that demand it. That shift, while helping to address those harsh realities, can also reawaken in us the joy and wonder that we so easily lose in the flurry of our days. And thus we win on two counts, neither of which can we afford to lose.

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.  The author likewise wishes to thank the staff of the Northeast Programs office of the Connecticut Audubon Society for providing full access to Edwin Way Teale’s home and writing cabin.

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.

The Extraordinary Gift of Common Species: Rethinking the Charismatic Species Paradigm

A female Canada Goose (Branta Canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

A female Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

By Richard Telford

Can we view the ubiquitous eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) with the same sense of wonder or spirit of inquiry with which we view more exotic animals—the African elephants (Loxodonta exoptata and adaurora), for example, or the gray wolf (Canis lupus)? This question (paraphrased, here) was posed by Dr. Laird Christensen to our Field Journaling class at Green Mountain College in the summer of 2012, and it is a question upon which I have since often reflected, both on the individual level and on the larger scale. The latter two species in the preceding comparison are largely seen in conservation circles as charismatic or flagship species, which the 1995 United Nations Environment Program’s Global Biodiversity Assessment defined as “popular, charismatic species that serve as symbols and rallying points to stimulate conservation awareness and action.” By stimulating such awareness and action, the reasoning goes, both the charismatic species and the larger systems they inhabit can be preserved, benefitting life at all scales. When done right, it is a win-win approach.

An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.

An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.

In many courses in the GMC Environmental Studies graduate program, we analyzed campaigns that featured charismatic species as a kind of holdfast with which to anchor public support for broader conservation efforts. While I came to accept the value of this approach, I often found and still find myself conflicted over it, as it creates a hierarchy in which megafauna are disproportionately valued to the exclusion of virtually all other organisms within staggeringly complex systems of life. Is this a sustainable long-term approach by which to conserve the Earth’s biodiversity? What does such a hierarchical approach say about the way we value life? What does it teach the next generation of conservationists?

While charismatic species can evoke strong response from the public, building support for important conservation actions, the majority of the public will never have any direct interaction with these species except perhaps captive specimens in zoo settings. Thus, support is elicited for a cause from which the general public is largely removed, and that support is often built principally on aesthetic factors, absent a full ecological context. Such support, in my view, is inherently limited in what it can accomplish on a greater scale, and it is likewise potentially short-lived. The reliance on charismatic species to drive conservation efforts may in fact have the potential to undermine those efforts by reducing the public’s personal investment in them to an unintentionally detached, flavor-of-the-month mentality. I do not mean to suggest that charismatic species have no conservation value; on the contrary, their potential to generate both personal and financial investment is well-established. Instead, I am suggesting that such support does little on a larger scale unless it is framed by a more developed set of personal connections to the natural world, connections that are forged by consistent, direct experience framed by a fuller ecological context. It is the common species that inhabit our day to day lives that have the power to forge and meaningfully develop those connections, much more so, I would argue, than exotic species that elicit a strong but potentially fleeting response.

The cover of Rachel Carson's 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

The cover of Rachel Carson’s 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

Rachel Carson, in the preface to her 1955 book The Edge of the Sea, writes, “To understand the shore, it is not enough to catalogue its life. Understanding comes only when, standing on a beach, we can sense the long rhythms of earth and sea that sculptured its land forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed; when we can sense with the eye and ear of the mind the surge of life beating at its shores—blindly, inexorably pressing for a foothold.” Here, Carson’s “eye and ear of the mind” represent the deepest connections to nature that we can make, but to make those connections of the mind we must first stand on the beach; we must run fine sand between our fingers, gaze upon the complex interactions of tidal pool life, feel the blast of wind that has shaped the land for millennia, hear the roar of the surf breaking on the coast. To fully value natural systems, we must fully immerse ourselves in and interact with those systems. It is the common species, rather than remote and exotic ones, that allow us to do so in the most meaningful and efficacious way for long-term conservation of the Earth’s biodiversity.

This summer, our yard has been the site of a flurry of nesting activity among the common songbirds that spend their summers in our region, particularly the American robin (Turdus migratorius) and the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). This winter, my six-year-old daughter and I made a robin nesting platform, which we attached this spring to the standing remnant trunk of a once-towering eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) at the edge of our yard. That platform remains vacant, but a pair of robins did in fact nest in the unfinished soffit of an adjacent shed. During early summer, we watched the parent birds harvest worms from our yard and shuttle them to the growing nestlings. Several weeks ago, late in the day, with the nestlings close to fledging, I carried my daughter up on a ladder inside the shed to view them for a moment. We slipped quietly in and out in less than five minutes, but the view of the downy nestlings with mouths stretched upwards has remained and will remain in my daughter’s memory. That image—framed by the coming dusk, the cooling air, the waning buzz of carpenter bees mixed with the rising evening bird chorus—can shape her connection to the natural world in a way that no virtual image of a more exotic species can. In fact, such experiences can potentially provide a transferrable, interpolative context for more exotic species for which a direct experiential context may be less accessible or altogether absent. When we understand the complex interactions of one natural system, we can at least imagine the like processes of another system.

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated “cells” in the membrane of each individual wing, Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

The North American Association for Environmental Education, defining “Standards of Excellence” for environmental education in 2010, noted, “Providing opportunities for the growth and development of the whole child, opportunities to develop a sense of wonder about nature, and earnest engagement in discovery about the real world are the foundation for learning in early childhood.” For my children this summer, the opportunities to build such a foundation have been manifold, provided by common, readily accessible species: a returning mating pair of nesting Canada geese (Branta canadensis); scores of American toads (Anaxyrus americanus); an eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) rescued from the center of a country road during our drive to swimming lessons; common whitetail (Plathemis lydia), twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella), widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), and other dragonflies hunting the overgrown ecotone that separates our cut yard from the surrounding forest; turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) shadowing the ground in soaring, dihedral flight; eastern eyed click beetles (Alaus oculatus) sidling along our garden fence. All of these common summer residents of our region have evoked in our children and in us that sense of wonder that is so crucial to the long-term preservation of the natural world. We have viewed each as an integral part of a marvelous, complex, and unified system to which, in reality, we are adjunct, despite are disproportionate capacity to degrade it. In understanding that system more fully, we cannot help but understand ourselves more fully too.

I have previously written about the complexities of forming and developing a conservation ethic, both in ourselves and in others, and I am fully convinced that such an ethic is shaped primarily by direct, daily actions and interactions. Personal investment in a handful of exotic species, absent these meaningful daily interactions with common species, is not enough to forge and develop that ethic. Such an ethic, which can guide our daily choices in the spheres we influence, can contribute to the conservation of the earth’s biodiversity in a way that remote investment in a handful of compelling species cannot. As Robert Michael Pyle observes in The Thunder Tree, “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?” The appeal of charismatic species taps a laudable impulse and can be a valuable conservation tool in its own right, but the effectiveness of that tool is inherently limited. When we open ourselves to the charisma of and deep connection to common species, and foster that openness in others, we enrich our lives on the individual scale and optimize the efficacy of conservation efforts on the broader scale. By doing the latter, we can likewise enrich the lives of generations to follow.