Backyard Produce Delivers the Farmers’ Market to Your Front Door

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No apology comes with the admission that I have an aversion to shopping, even for the necessities. Though I work from home and my car often sits in the driveway for days without being started, I still dread the weekly grocery shopping trip. I am a domesticated and introverted homebody who has no difficulty entertaining myself for days without ever leaving the house. Who needs external activities when you have a home full of pets, gardening, books and comfortable furniture? But one cannot live healthfully on dry goods alone, nor should one rely entirely on frozen and canned foods to fulfill the dietary recommendation of 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

In addition, grocery stores are adding more locally grown and organic produce, but the availability is unpredictable for many reasons. Growing seasons, weather and regional challenges in arranging timely transport before food spoilage are just a few factors that influence availability and price. And those are all factors of influence before grocery store chains gain possession of the produce for distribution to their individual stores. So while things are improving there, I prefer a way to improve the odds of eating locally and organically grown produce without having to shop in several stores, the farmers’ market or in those high end expensive health food supermarkets. Eating healthfully should not be a privilege reserved only for those with significant financial means, so I personally boycott health food stores. Every dollar spent on any good or service is a vote. I would rather give my votes to more equitably available methods of obtaining healthy food while also living bioregionally.

There are many businesses dedicated to delivering produce to your door step. I recently joined Backyard Produce, based in Cary, North Carolina, and signed my husband and myself up to receive the family of four variety box each week. We eat a lot of produce, especially during the summer months when so many tasty options are available. So far we have enjoyed local potatoes, corn, squash, zucchini, mushrooms, blueberries and tomatoes. When a locally grown option is not available, organically grown from other regions is made available. At regular intervals, there are also locally baked goods or locally raised meat and eggs available.

Backyard Produce delivers fresh produce in an insulated box with a frozen bottle of water to preserve freshness.

Backyard Produce delivers fresh produce in an insulated box with a frozen bottle of water to preserve freshness.

Backyard Produce offers a weekly subscription service for one of five of the following basket sizes:

Super Duper: 15-17 items. 120 points.
Extended Family: 12-15 items. 100 points.
Family of Four: 9-12 items. 80 points.
Just for Two: 7-10 items. 60 points.
Flying Solo: 5-7 items. 40 points.

Each week, customers have the option of accepting the variety box that is chosen as the standard selection for that week or can go online and customize their selection, based on the points allowed by their weekly subscription service. I accepted the variety box for the first two deliveries but have since customized the weekly selection. Backyard Produce emails their customers each week as a reminder that the online ordering page is available for a set period, after which time anyone who has not customized their order will automatically receive the week’s variety box by default. 297889_567629489930176_314893898_n

Now, every Tuesday morning I set my previous week’s box and packing materials on the front porch (reduce, reuse, recycle) and a few hours later it is replaced with a box full of goodies that not only make my family healthier but also support no less than twenty-three local farmers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. That is a win-win!

If something like this appeals to you, you need only search the internet for “home delivery of local produce” and you will likely find dozens of providers in your region. Share your experiences in the comments here and let us know how you are supporting local farmers while supporting good nutrition for everyone in your household.

Another typical weekly variety box from Backyard Produce.

Another typical weekly variety box from Backyard Produce.

Homage to the Month of June

The author with two of his children examining an eastern spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata ). Copyright: Melissa Telford, 2015

The author with two of his children examining an eastern spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata ). Copyright: Melissa Telford, 2015

By Richard Telford

Last month, I noted how long-time New York Times natural history columnist Hal Borland once wrote of June, “The wonder of new beginnings is everywhere […] The world is hushed and waiting.”  Several weeks ago, plowing through piles of end-of-semester literary analysis papers, I was reminded of Borland’s words when “June Hymn” by the Decembrists spilled from a random YouTube playlist.  In it, Colin Meloy writes, “Here’s a hymn to welcome in the day/Heralding a summer’s early sway/And all the bulbs all coming in,/To begin.”  As a teacher, June ushers in a time of spiritual and intellectual renewal for me, just as the natural world renews itself in patterns formed over millennia—bud to leaf, bulb to flower, egg to fledgling, life emerging from death and rushing toward it again.  Working in my carrel on that early June day, I paused to jot the torpid fragments of early summer brewing in me, the near apparitions of possibility and rebirth.  Borland was right.  June is a time of new beginnings.

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) at rest at the edge of the author's yard. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) at rest at the edge of the author’s yard. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

Each year, June for me seems first to be defined by the sudden emergence in one form or another of visible and vigorous life from its latent, hidden state. This year, it was the explosion of dragonflies sweeping the cut yard of our 1770 farmhouse that brought June fully to life. Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) and Twelve-spotted Skimmers (Libellula pulchella) rippled the air, alighting only momentarily to bask in the sun.  I have written previously of my passion for photographing dragonflies, but, on this particular day, I did not reach for the camera, as these specimens, fresh from emergence and their teneral state, hurtled unrelentingly in concentric circles, voraciously shoveling prey from the air.  Our yard became a complex, irregular, predatory clockworks ticking down the two- to six-week spans of these short, magnificent lives.   Several days later, after a late outdoor supper, I brought my two older children, ages three and six, to the edge of our yard, where a shock of dense grape arbor lines a Colonial-era stonewall. There, a Twelve-spotted Skimmer hung vertically by its six spike-laden legs in slumber, having transformed from a gilled creature of the nearby pond to a dominant aerial hunter in the span of a day. June is a time of unrelenting growth hurtling toward an unseen end.

A Red-spotted Admiral (Limenitis arthemis) photographed by the author in early June of 2015. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

A Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) photographed by the author in early June of 2015. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

The following morning, I was up at 4:30 am, out at daybreak to see if the sleeping Twelve-Spotted skimmer remained, and it did. Enduring a swarm of mosquitoes rising in the damp dawn air, I set my camera on its tripod and shot a series of images. A host of work-related stressors lingered in the near atmosphere of my mind, the brightening of the day leading inexorably to my departure to face them, but, with my knees in the wet grass and my eye to the viewfinder, I turned away from them and, for a moment, shed them. Pressed for time, I crossed the short span of our yard, my steps arrested by a Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) that landed in my path. Once again I knelt down to photograph it for a few minutes, a second, finite shedding of the world’s concerns, a much-needed renewal. June is a time to ground ourselves in what matters, a time for us to grow by sloughing off the inconsequential.

An Eastern Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) rescued from the center of his road. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

An Eastern Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) rescued from the author’s road. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

Later that week, driving to a Conservation Commission meeting, I came upon a male rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) in the center of the opposing lane, one wing splayed to keep itself upright, a few downy feathers plastered to the moist edge of its stout beak. It made no attempt to flee as I approached, nor as I lifted it into my hat. I promptly detoured home, placed the still-stunned grosbeak in a small, open box and, in turn, placed the box in a screened portable crib on our front porch, likewise open-topped. The portable crib on our raised porch, I reasoned, would give adequate protection from predators while allowing the grosbeak an easy exit if it was simply stunned and recovered prior to my return. Before leaving, I gathered my children to examine the grosbeak. My sons and daughter gazed at the white patches mottling the deep blue-black back, the rich scarlet triangle emblazoning its breast, the pale ochre of its angular beak—tones and textures that no high-definition screen image can truly capture. Just as June is a month to explore and to feel wonder for the emergent life around us, it is likewise a month of rescue as that life emerges in the complex maze of human encroachment. We often spend our early summer days moving wildlife across the road—Hyla peepers, American toads (Bufo americanus), eastern spotted and snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina), to name a few. In these acts, we teach our children and remind ourselves of the reverence we can and must feel for the complex and wondrous systems in which we are privileged to reside. By our advancement we have carved out too deep and detrimental a place for ourselves in those systems, and we must teach and, more importantly, model a better way at all scales. June is a time to praise life, to protect and preserve it.

Today, one day after the June Solstice, small pears and apples hang from our trees, still months away from harvesting. A dense patch of Eastern Hay-scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) flanks my small woodworking shop, and the sun’s early rise is cadenced by the raucous orchestra of calling birds of all sorts. The road-struck grosbeak flew from its box later that evening several weeks ago, first to a porch ceiling joist, and then into the dark. I like to think its call is among those I hear at daybreak now. In our woods, the Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) has emerged from the dark, compost-rich soil. Barred owl calls that carried for miles in winter are muted by the swelling canopy. My children’s lives are loosely governed by an open agenda of what the weather brings, and I, when I submit my final grades in the morning, will be free to join them. September, for a short time, perhaps the lifespan of a summer dragonfly, will seem far off. While we can, we will ward off the societal drive to over-program the lives of our children, a drive that has whittled away the unfettered and aimless summers that taught our generation and previous ones so much about the world, so much about ourselves. June is a time of promise, and, in the rich, recurrent rhythms of life, countless promises are made, fulfilled, broken, and made again. June is a time of new beginnings; a time to ground oneself; a time to praise and protect and preserve; a time to rescue; a time to explore; and a time to wonder. Let us begin anew, and end, and begin again.

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?

A message of Optimism on World Oceans Day

Another blogger taking the positive approach

Kristen Cheri Weiss

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Today is World Oceans Day—a day to recognize the life-giving resources the ocean provides, and a day for all ocean-related organizations to create a united front on social media to bring attention to ocean issues.

In my last post, I discussed my capricious relationship with social media and its ability to both connect us with pressing global issues and to distract us with fluff and humor. Nonetheless, a large portion of my job involves keeping track of and contributing to social media, and I recognize how useful these venues can be for sharing positive stories of change that may even ignite action, whether it be signing a petition or joining an awareness event.

This week, hundreds of organizations are contributing stories and posts to the web-o-sphere via the #OceanOptimism hashtag to spread messages of hope and solutions in the face of daunting environmental challenges. As I’ve written before…

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In a world of disasters, how do we cultivate hope?

Kristen Cheri Weiss

Oil in wave An oil-filled wave off the coast of Santa Barbara in the wake of this week’s crude oil pipeline burst. (Photo by: Spiritnthesky. Sourced from CrowdAlbum)

My home state of California has been hit with two disasters in one week–a raw sewage spill in Monterey Bay, and the more devastating crude oil spill off the Santa Barbara coastline. These two spills are only the latest examples of the thousands of human-caused disasters that plague our shorelines every year (not counting all of the natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes that add to these impacts).

The combined impact of these acts of negligence to our own health and the health of coastal ecosystems, while only partially known at present, are unquestionably negative and potentially long-lasting as has been shown for the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf.

Dead fish, kelp and other sea life start to wash ashore in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara oil spill. (Photo: RaeAnn Christiansen. Sourced from CrowdAlbum) Dead fish, kelp and other sea life start to wash ashore in the aftermath…

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Five cents adds up

By Neva Knott

Just this last month, I returned home to Portland, Oregon. I went about my shopping and recycling, having forgotten about the Bottle Bill. Then a friend reminded–those bottles are worth a nickel each. Oops; I’d tossed some coin into the bin.

In 1971, Oregon passed the country’s first bottle refund bill, as a way to curb litter. For each bottled or canned beverage sold, the consumer pays a five cent surcharge. When the bottle is returned to the retailer the consumer gets back the nickel. Statistics from the Oregon.gov website state that road-side litter reduced from 40 percent to six percent when the bill went into effect. Currently, the return rate is 70 percent of all returnable bottles sold.

Oregonians know the drill–drink, put the bottles in a separate bin, take them to the store, get cash. Back in the day, returned bottles were counted by a cashier at the grocery–most likely the lowliest new-hire teenager.

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Then came the automated return machines. All I have to do is insert each bottle into the machine’s mouth. A scanner reads the label and tallies my count. When I’ve pushed through  all the returnables I came with, I push the green button and the machine gives me a receipt. I present it to a cashier and am given my due.

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Some folks set bags of cans and bottles on the sidewalk to be gathered by homeless people–it’s a Portland kind of social service.

The whole stashing of cans and bottles until there are enough to take back is a bit messy and smelly, but I think it’s worth the effort. Recently I read a complaint that, since we pay for city recycling, we shouldn’t have to do the bottle return shuffle any longer.

Here’s what the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has to say about the bottle bill:

Oregon’s bottle bill helps ensure materials used to manufacture beverage containers are recycled, thus reducing the energy required to produce the containers and reducing greenhouse gases. In 2009, more than one billion beverage containers were recycled under the bottle bill. Recycling those beverage containers saved three trillion BTUs of energy, equivalent to the amount of energy in 24 million gallons of gasoline. That recycling also reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 200,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents – equal to the amount of carbon dioxide produced by 40,000 cars. These savings should increase as the bottle bill’s expansion goes into effect. Beverage container litter has also been substantially reduced under the bottle bill, leaving Oregon’s roadsides, parks and public lands much cleaner.

All these benefits for a nickel.

So, today I made my first trek to Whole Foods, bags of bottles in hand. I got two bucks. Sometimes we pay to play and sometimes it’s just the right thing to do.

White Nose Syndrome: Formidable but Not Undefeatable

Some months ago I shared with readers information about the ecological and economical value bats provide in the widely various ecosystems in which they live. They are particularly valuable in protecting crops from destruction by insects, gobbling up so many bugs that bats are estimated to save farmers up to $53 billion in pest control each year. Bats are also very important for pollination and tropical reforestation. More than 1,331 species of bats have been discovered worldwide. But my favorite fact about bats is that they are the only mammal to evolve true flight. There are other animals that glide but bats are the only mammal that truly have wings and self-propelled flight capabilities. Such marvels!

Bats are now vulnerable to a large and rapidly increasing threat known as white-nose syndrome (WNS), named for the white fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans that appears on the muzzle and other body parts of hibernating bats. WNS is associated with extensive deaths in eastern North America, affecting entire colonies in some cases. WNS invades the nose, mouth and wings of bats during hibernation, when bats’ immune systems are largely shut down. Research indicates that the fungus may lead to dehydration, causing them to wake more frequently and burn precious fat reserves, which leads to starvation. WNS has spread rapidly across the eastern United States and Canada, and has been detected as far west as Oklahoma. WNS has killed more than 5.7 million bats in eastern North America.

According to White-Nose Syndrome.org, at the end of the 2014-2015 hibernating season, bats with WNS were confirmed in the following 26 states and five Canadian provinces: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec. The fungus that causes WNS has also been confirmed in Minnesota and Mississippi.

In this context, it is with cautious jubilance that I share the news that 150 bats that were part of the first field trial were released after having been successfully treated for WNS. Scientists and conservationists that are part of the large network of collaborators combating WNS gathered in the evening of Monday, May 18, 2015 at the historic Mark Twain Cave Complex in Hannibal, MO and released these bats back to the wild.

Sybill Amelon, USDA Forest Service research wildlife biologist.  Credit Katie Gillies, Bat Conservation International.

Sybill Amelon, USDA Forest Service research wildlife biologist.
Credit Katie Gillies, Bat Conservation International.

Beginning in 2012, Dr. Christopher Cornelison and other Georgia State University peers determined that the bacterium, Rhodococcus rhodochrous, can inhibit the growth of some fungi. They found in the lab that Rhodococcus rhodochrous, without even directly touching the Pseudogymnoascus destructans, could strongly inhibit its growth. Dr. Cornelison, U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Dr. Sybill Amelon and research plant pathologist Dr. Daniel Lindner continued to conduct laboratory research on the application of this bacterium, and in the winter of 2014 conducted field trials in Missouri and Kentucky caves, thanks to funding by many organizations including Bat Conservation International, the U.S. Forest Service and the Tennessee Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. 

Multi-agency collaboration has been integral to the search for a treatment for White Nose Syndrome. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers most of the federal funds provided by Congress to fight the disease, and many state wildlife agencies contribute staff and funds of their own in surveying for the fungus as it has traveled throughout their regions. There are also numerous private donors. This elaborate network of scientists and financial backers will continue this management-based research to control the mortality of WNS and, I believe, eventually eradicate its destruction of bats.

Here is a video produced by Texas Parks and Wildlife describing WNS and the importance of bats.

Reviving John Burroughs’ “Silent Throngs”

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

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

By Richard Telford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Shauna Potocky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rethinking Wilderness After The Wilderness Act

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

Peeling Back the Bark

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

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

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