Can We Save the Botany Degree?

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

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

By Richard Telford

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

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

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 Teale chronicled this transformation in The Hampton Journal, 1959-1961, the first of four 500-page unpublished observation journals he kept at Trail Wood over a period of twenty-one years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The author wishes to thank the staff of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, where the papers of Edwin Way Teale, including his private journals kept at Trail Wood, are permanently housed and generously made available to the public.  The author likewise wishes to thank the staff of the Northeast Programs office of the Connecticut Audubon Society for providing full access to Edwin Way Teale’s home and writing cabin.

Summer Leavings: Finding Ourselves in the Turning of the Seasons

A dead eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) left in the nest at the end of summer. Copyright 2015: Richard Telford

A dead eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) nestling left in the nest at the end of summer. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

By Richard Telford

The eaves along the east side build-out of the author's 1770 farmhouse, where, prior to the installation of fascia boards, American robins built five nests this past summer. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

The eaves along the east side build-out of the author’s 1770 farmhouse, where, prior to the installation of fascia boards, American robins built five nests this past summer. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

Several years ago I removed the rotten eaves of several sections of our 1770 farmhouse and began to reproduce them with like materials. I extended the rafters, cut and installed soffits, even drilled holes for louvered vents to be installed at the project’s conclusion. During this time, we completed tests for lead paint throughout the house, tests that yielded levels so high that we cleaned and packed all of our belongings, found a temporary apartment, and moved ourselves and our sixteen-month-old daughter out of the house in less than ten days. We would remain out of the house for nearly a year, during which time we undertook a full lead abatement followed by a comprehensive interior restoration. Nonessential projects were put aside, and, in the years that followed, the eaves were left open, waiting for fascia boards to seal them. In the interim, the soffits provided ideal nesting platforms for a host of backyard birds—ironically with no greater use than this summer, just as I had bought the materials to finally finish the project. On the west side of a circa-1850 build-out of the house, American robins (Turdus migratorius) built five nests, none of which was ultimately occupied, while, on the east side of the build-out, eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) built two nests, from one of which two sets of nestlings were fledged by mid-August. The other remained unoccupied.

A yellow-legged meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), a late summer dragonfly in southern New England. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

A yellow-legged meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), also referred to as the autumn meadowhawk, a late summer dragonfly in southern New England. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

When it was clear that the robins had ultimately raised their broods elsewhere (at least one in the rafters of our open garden shed), I cleared the abandoned nests and began cutting, painting, and installing fascia boards on the west side of the build-out. In mid-August, when the phoebe parents had ceased their constant foraging of our backyard, I checked the nests and, finding them empty but for one dead nestling, I cleared them out and finished the eaves there as well. I wrote last month of my children’s deep interest in the lives of our backyard birds. Finding the dead nestling, I did not hesitate to show it to them. In fact, in it I saw an important opportunity. We have worked hard to give our children a deep appreciation for the natural world, and such a deep appreciation must, at least in part, be predicated on understanding what we, as a society, often characterize as the harsh realities of nature’s cycles. To appreciate fully the way in which utterly helpless phoebe nestlings metamorphose into strikingly dexterous and proficient aerial hunters in less than a month, we must understand the short odds of their surviving the fourteen to twenty day nestling period. Without such knowledge, the depth of our appreciation is inherently limited. Thus, it is important that we resist the ready impulse to frame our children’s sense of wonder for the natural world, and also our own, in one-dimensional, incomplete terms.

The remnants of a tent caterpillar nest formed by a silk-wrapped leaf of a scarlet oak tree. Copyright 2015: Richard Telford

The remnants of a tent caterpillar nest formed by a silk-wrapped leaf of a scarlet oak tree. Copyright 2015: Richard Telford

Several months ago, I wrote for The Ecotone Exchange an “Homage to the Month of June.” In it I reflected on a time when, as long-time New York Times natural history columnist Hal Borland once wrote, “The wonder of new beginnings is everywhere […].” Now, in late August, reflecting on the dead phoebe nestling, it seems a time for a different kind of homage, as the husks of once-abundant summer life amass around us: the shed exoskeleton of a dogday harvestfly (Tibicen canicularis); a cinched, gauze-enfolded scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) leaf that formerly housed eastern tent caterpilars (Malacosoma americanum); the brittle, browned-out flower heads of red clover (Trifolium pratense), once vibrant, now melding with the yellowing stalks of upland pastures. Then, too, absences abound, which, like their counterpart abundance emerging in June, amass just as exponentially as summer gives way to autumn, then winter: The midsummer dragonflies, the eastern pondhawks (Erythemis simplicicollis) and twelve-spotted skimmers (Libellula pulchella), no longer hunt the pond and field edges; the summer fledglings that remained and foraged for a time near their nests are gone, too, some to migration, others to predation and starvation; absent, too, are the spicebush swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus), the great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele), the American copper (Lycaena phlaeas). In late August, past summer’s prime, we witness the remnants of lives ended, both in evidence and by absence, but we see, too, the foreshadowing of lives yet to be lived. We see clearly how one life must give way to another, how each organism sews the seeds, in one form or another, of its generations to follow. Placing ourselves in this context, it is inevitable that, in the passage of the seasons by which we mark time, we see an analogy for the passage of our lives.

As we do with so many aspects of the natural world, we impose our own hierarchies on the seasons, attach our own meanings to the life processes that define them. British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his 1819 poem “Ode to the West Wind,” paints fall and winter as times of decline and death, writing in the poem’s opening stanza, “[…] thou breath of Autumn’s being,/Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead/Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing […].” By the poem’s end, however, Shelley writes of the hope fostered by the coming spring: “O Wind,/If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale likewise saw spring as a time of hope and renewal while he struggled with prostate cancer from 1974 until his death in 1980. In an April 1977 journal entry, he writes with deep gratitude for the news that hormone therapy seems to have momentarily checked the progress of the cancer: “More months to work on my book—more months to enjoy the spring! How hard it would be to receive bad news in the spring!” American poet William Stafford, in his short poem “Fall Wind,” writes, “Pods of summer crowd around the door;/I take them in the autumn of my hands.” Later, the speaker of the poem “shiver[s] twice:/Once for thin walls, once for the sound of time.” As summer winds down, it is hard not to wallow in a sense of decline, but the end-of-summer leavings challenge us to do otherwise. In the fragile husks of life extinguished, life still abides, and we are reminded that in nature change is constant, life is fragile. We are reminded as well to shed our imposed hierarchies and relish both the beauty and the harshness of each season, allowing both to feed our sense of wonder in equal measure.

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

A Near Complete Commercial Trade Ban on Ivory in the United States

ivory crush

Ivory Crush at Times Square (photo from the Creative Commons)

It is estimated that one elephant is killed in Africa every 15 minutes, mostly conducted by militias and militants turning tusks into cash to be used for funding efforts towards destabilizing nations and looting them of their resources. Elephants could be extinct in a few decades at this pace.

Two years ago in Tanzania, President Obama announced an executive order to direct action and better organize the U.S. government’s efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. This week, he proposed a new rule that is a derivative of that prior declaration. So much will come of this including investment by the U.S. Agency for International Development in new programs across more than a dozen countries to help combat wildlife trafficking. Congress has called for a study on the link between poaching and terrorism, and the Department of Defense is now getting involved to track down terrorist poachers. Private donations are resulting in additional weapons and game wardens to help fight, throughout Africa, the militants that target and kill elephants for ivory to fund their activities. Botswana has banned all sport hunting of elephants, and has begun humane ecotourism development to support their economy.

When I posted on the Facebook page for my own blog, The Whisker Chronicles, the news of President Obama’s issuing of a proposed rule that will establish a near-complete ban on the commercial ivory trade in America, some readers posted compelling questions. What does a near-complete ban mean? Why is there not a complete ban?

Existing U.S. ivory regulations mostly concern the import and export of the material from the country, while allowing some legal trade of the material between states. The new regulation, which will be finalized later this year, would restrict interstate trade to antique items that are over 100 years old or contain a minimal amount of ivory. The proposed rule also contains new restrictions on the international trade.

Prior to this past Saturday’s announcement, many animal conservationists had argued that allowing some legal ivory trade provided a cover for criminals who were actually selling illegal ivory. Ivory has been part of an international commercial industry for items such as piano keys, dominoes, false teeth, billiard balls, along with a multitude of every day items for various purposes. Unfortunately, there are also a multitude of trinkets, carvings and adornments from an era of luxurious indulgences that gave no regard to the life taken for such purposeless things.

Much of the world is no longer willing to participate in or tolerate this behavior. It is challenging and sometimes impractical to gather up every antique ivory item created decades ago or to spend resources to punish those long in possession of ivory items, however acquired. Now even antique dealers will be under more scrutiny. In a 2009 investigation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials seized more than a ton of ivory from a Philadelphia art store that had been manipulated to appear old enough to meet federal standards. Ivory from that seizure was destroyed at an “ivory crush” event in Times Square last month. For a full explanation of the changes, visit The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Proposed Revisions document.

Personally, I have legally handled ivory and other animal parts that are banned for commercial trade in various roles as a zoo keeper, aquarist and zoo volunteer. There are certain exceptions to the laws about possession when items such as ivory were not illegally obtained and will not be sold for commercial gain but will be used for scientific education. Even then, those possessors are merely being allowed to hold the items which really are property of the U.S. Government and can be seized at any time. The ivory I handled was the end of a tusk that had broken off naturally from a young, healthy elephant that lived in the zoo. There was nothing nefarious about it. But the looks on the faces of the kids that got to touch a real elephant tusk while looking out on exhibit at the elephant it once was attached to was priceless. I doubt that any of those kids started thinking about how to make money from that tusk.

Little Diamond at the North Carolina Zoological Park (Photo courtesy of NC Zoo)

Little Diamond at the North Carolina Zoological Park (Photo courtesy of NC Zoo)

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

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

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

By Richard Telford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.