Power Down to Charge Up

SPotockySunrise

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

By Shauna Potocky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

KKeelerPoppies

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

The Sweet Spot of Spring

By Shauna Potocky

 

The shadows are leaning long

on the north east side of the house

so the crickets start singing,

even though there are a couple

more hours before nightfall.

 

The cold spring breeze is carrying

a thin film of burn pile smoke

from the western slope of the Sierra

down to the San Joaquin Valley;

it slips by like high clouds.

 

In the shadows the faint build up

of buds can be seen; the trees

are waking. Dangling mistletoe needs trimming

like the grasses, topped before burrs form

dry and tangle in the fur of unsuspecting cats.

 

Spring is divine. All the grasses

green and lush; wildflowers rise, bloom, seed.

The birds fill the forest canopy with chatter

song, a fair bit of whimsy.

It is the sweet spot of spring

before summer.

 

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

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

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

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

SPotockySkyPilots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandhill Cranes over water KKeeler

Sandhill cranes at sunrise. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

Edge of the Refuge

By Shauna Potocky

 

Held down all night

the Tule fog breaks as the dawn does

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

beneath this low cloud, living things stir

water moves, ripples–and the bird calls come.

 

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

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

Song, chatter, foreign languages of the past

stir the damp cold of morning, every little thing

shattering in the waking of day.

 

The genes of wildness and knowing pass through the generations

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

and this morning, all who wake, have triumphed.

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

their breathy words rise, sink, fade…

 

Their final syllables muffled as they come to rest

at the edges of the wetland, dampened by the wild

songs of the redwing black birds, who hold the line

in the tall, wind chilled icy reeds

that hold back the hunters and the rest of us.

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

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

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

By: Richard Telford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Neva Knott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maui Reflection

By Neva Knott

To watch the sun rise over Haleakala, Maui’s dormant volcano, is to watch the world begin. Simultaneously, darkness lifts across the island and silhouettes become palms, hibiscus and plumeria. The birdsong begins and the ocean’s surface turns from a black void to rippled water. By the time the sun is above the volcano, Maui is alive.

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Photograph by Neva Knott.

Each morning on my recent trip, I arose in the pre-dawn darkness to walk. It’s the best way to get a sense of the place. The first morning, I found a shore bird nesting sanctuary just near the Kihei boat ramp. According to Andrew Engilis, Jr. and Maura Naughton, authors of the U.S. Pacific Island Regional Shorebird Conservation Plan, “The USPI [United States Pacific Islands] are home to one endemic shorebird,the endangered Hawaiian Stilt, and are important wintering areas for three species of Holarctic- Nearctic breeders: the Bristle-thighed Curlew, Pacific Golden-Plover, and Wandering Tattler. The majority of these species’ populations overwinter in the Pacific Islands, and these islands are critical to the maintenance of these birds.”

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Hawaiian Stilt. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

As Engilis and Naughton mention, the Hawaiian Stilt is an endemic species. Endemic species are those only found in the region they inhabit, and no where else in the world. Island biogeography and islands as ecosystems are interesting in that they are closed systems, microcosms of larger landmasses; endemic species add a layer to what scientists can know about a particular ecosystem and it’s health.

I love awakening to a new day on Maui. It feels pure. It feels like all life is interconnected. I feel alive there, and part of the web of life created by the sunrise and birdsong. I feel privy to the ancient truths embodied by the mountains.

Later that first day, I snorkeled at Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve, a bay created by Haleakala’s lava flow. I watched species of fish feed and swim, and I knew that they were as important to the day as any other species, just as important as any one of us. Because fish do what they do, humans exist. In the ocean that day, I witnessed the mystery of life.

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Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

Islands can teach humans much about keeping the environment healthy. Just as each island species adds value and continuity to the web of life, it is easy to see on an island how each act of depletion causes irreparable harm. On an island, each piece of trash matters–will it blow into the ocean? Will it make it into a land fill? Where will it go when the land fill is full?

When I exited the ocean after my snorkel, the island was doubly alive–alive with the natural web of life and alive with consumeristic tourists, all of whom were excited about the fish and coral and the blue of the water; none of whom seemed concerned about their part in the web.