Restoring the Johnson Creek Watershed with Native Plants

By Neva Knott

Restoring urban watersheds is an important part of developing a city’s green infrastructure. These streams and surrounding landscapes comprise an important ecosystem for wildlife and humans. Urban watersheds are habitat for fish, animals small and large, birds and plants. They also provide important ecosystems services, like filtering rain and groundwater and capturing carbon and other air pollutants. Urban watersheds are landscapes that connect people to nature within the business of city life.

Last Saturday, I donned rubber boots and rain gear and headed out to the Lower Powell Butte Floodplain along Johnson Creek, part of the Johnson Creek Watershed in Portland, Oregon, to lead crews of volunteers for Friends of Trees in planting several species of native trees and shrubs to restore a section of the creek bank.

Map of Johnson Creek

Map of Johnson Creek Watershed

Project History, provided by Friends of Trees: “In partnership with the Johnson Creek Watershed Council and Portland Parks & Recreation we will be planting native trees and shrubs to improve the creek side native plant community.  This project is supported by the East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District and Metro. PP & R has been working for a number of years to treat invasive species in the area, primarily Reed Canary Grass, to prepare the site for replanting. This planting will be the second at the site and will expand upon the area planted by Friends of Trees in 2014. FOT has performed summer maintenance and monitoring for the past two seasons to keep invasive species down and help previously planted natives become established. The native trees and shrubs planted here will provide greater wildlife habitat, increase native plant diversity, and enhance water quality by filtering pollutants and assisting with erosion control along Johnson Creek.”

On Saturday, the FOT crew and volunteers planted 690 native trees and shrubs–Black Hawthorne, Oregon Ash, Black Twinberry, Pacific Ninebark, Thimbleberry, Swamp Rose, and Snowberry. These species are often used in stream bed restoration because they tolerate wet-to-dry conditions.

Plant Flags

Each flag identifies where a shrub or tree was planted

My team was in charge of getting the Black Twinberries into the ground. We planted starts–each plant was just about four inches tall, dormant with no leaves or fruit yet, but with vibrant root systems. Thimbleberries grow rapidly though, and form dense thickets up to seven feet tall. The mature shrubs function as habitat in that they provide food for many types of animals, cover from predation for small species, and regulate ground, stream, and air temperature. When our thimbleberries mature, they will bring wildlife to the area–to include several bird species, rabbits, beavers, deer, coyote–helping to create a once-again functioning ecosystem along Johnson Creek.

Teaching volunteers to plant trees is something I enjoy and value because it allows me to help people interact in a very intimate way with the ecosystems we depend on. This past Saturday, I had several seven- to nine-year-old scouts on my team. Planting with children is extra fun; they are so simply in awe of the effects of their own efforts. And, they love finding worms.

Working with Friends of Trees not only allows me to help others connect to nature, understand ecosystems, and find worms, it allows me to learn more about plant species. I am intrigued by ethnobotany–the study of the relationships between plants and people. This cultural value of native plants is another important reason for using them, and is an aspect of plants that can connect the past to the present. A source I regularly look to is The Wild Garden: Hansen’s Northwest Native Plant Database, where I found that First Nations groups harvested thimbleberries for a variety of uses:

  • The leaves were mixed with those of wild strawberry and wild trailing blackberry to make tea
  • The sprouts were collected, peeled, and eaten raw as a vegetable
  • Berries were eaten fresh and dried, sometimes with the addition of clams and pressed into cakes, for winter use
  • While still pink, they were harvested by some tribes and placed in cedar bark bags, water was sprinkled on top and they would ripen in the bag
  • The leaves were also used as padding to line baskets
  • The boiled bark was an ingredient in soap
  • Dried, crushed leaves were laid on burns to prevent scarring

Native plants are most of the choice in restoration work. They allow for a sense of place and let flourish the botanical uniqueness of the region. They attract and feed native insects, birds, and wildlife. Their genetic design allows them to flourish with other native species in the same environment and in that particular set of conditions. And, native plants require fewer inputs–fertilizers and extra water–because they are attuned to the soil and weather of the region.

One of the goals of the restoration work along Johnson Creek is to improve water quality for the salmon who navigate through the watershed to breed and spawn.

Muddy Johnson Creek

Muddy Johnson Creek with clean rainwater in adjacent gully

Johnson Creek is unique in that it is the only salmon-bearing stream in the city. This is significant because salmon are a keystone species in the Pacific Northwest, supporting 137 other species. The viability of salmon is an indicator of watershed quality and health. Salmon also holds high cultural value in the region because it is a traditional ceremonial food of the Native tribes and has long been an emblem of Pacific Northwest culture and cuisine. Salmon definitely is a food that connects past to present and it is a fish species that pulls together the peoples of the region across ecological, economic, and cultural boundaries. A regional ecological concern is water quality for salmon.


Salmon in stream

The ecosystem services watersheds like Johnson Creek provide serve wildlife and humans; more importantly, watersheds connect nature and humans and remind us that much can be gained by looking to nature for solutions to particular problems of urban (and non-urban) environments. Whereas technological structures, such as sewer pipes underground in a city, serve as solutions to many environmental problems, plants can provide cheaper and more readily usable solutions. Green infrastructure is forward-thinking, often more effective, and always less costly that man-made infrastructure.

There’s a lovely walking and bike path along the creek and our planting area, next time you need a break from hectic city life. And, the thimbleberries ripen in late July.

Media Credits

  • Map of Johnson Creek Watershed: US Geological Survey
  • Thimbleberries: The Wild Garden
  • Salmon in Stream: US Fish and Wildlife
  • All other photographs by Neva Knott









One of the World’s Largest and Oldest Sustainability Projects

By Maymie Higgins

After the difficult winter of 2015, many of us have our hearts and minds transfixed on outdoor gardening activities. In my gardening research, I came across a huge success story in the world of sustainable living. I hope this information will inspire you, as it has me, to begin using a fertilizer brand for your lawn, vegetable and flower gardens that comes from the oldest recycler in the United States.

Over more than 85 years, the City of Milwaukee has undertaken one of the world’s oldest and largest recycling projects. In 1913, the City of Milwaukee created a sewerage commission to clean up the city’s waterways. By 1919, The Milwaukee Sewerage Commission’s laboratory formally adopted a new process for responsible recycling of biosludge. By 1921, all municipal sewers were connected to this system and processed in a central location at Jones Island, on the shore of Lake Michigan. In 1923 construction began on the first large-scale activated sludge plant in the world.  In 1925, the Sewerage Commission concluded that the disposal problem they faced could be solved by producing and marketing fertilizer. In 1974, the Jones Island Wastewater Treatment Plant was named a National Historic Engineering Site by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Jones Island in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Jones Island in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Specifically, this new sewerage treatment process was the production of solids – the microbes left over from the treatment process and there was one problem. There were 50,000 – 70,000 tons of dried microbes left after the process and no one thought it responsible or even prudent to dispose this volume of waste and potential valuable resource in the landfill.  So the Sewerage Commission joined forces with the University of Wisconsin College Of Agriculture, where Professor Emil Truog and O.J. (Oyvind Juul) Noer began investigating uses of activated sludge as a fertilizer.

Noer determined that the average nutrient analysis of the material was 6.2 percent total nitrogen, with 5.17 percent being water insoluble nitrogen (83% WIN); 2.63 percent available phosphate (P205) and 0.4 percent soluble potash (K20). In his literature review, Noer found that the available nitrogen generally resembled so-called high-grade organic nitrogenous fertilizers and gave superior growth results compared to manures and chemical fertilizers of the time.

Noer experimented with field crops and vegetables and on golf courses, the use of this organic nitrogen fertilizer and found it superior and one-third the cost of other fertilizers commonly used at the time. Also, there was no danger of burning the turf even with over-application and it produced a dark green dense turf without causing excessive top growth. Noer knew he had a commercially viable product when word traveled throughout several golf clubs.


Courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Following are examples of how Milorganite has adopted to market changes over the years. In 1926, most of the Milorganite was sold in bulk, but by the mid-1930s it was also packaged in 25, 50 and 100 lb. bags. In 1955, packaging changed to offer 40 and 80 lb. bags and again in the 1970s as 20 kg bags were introduced with the movement to metric in the U.S. Today, Milorganite is sold in a distinctive 36 lb. bag and a 5 lb. bag exclusively for the retail market, 50 lb. bags for the professional market, and reusable bulk bags for large area applications.  The blending market continues to be important as other companies find the nutrient analysis to be a valuable addition to their products.

Milorganite continues to help fund many important research projects at universities across the country including projects that study nutrient leaching and run-off, the effects of different fertility regimes and sources on irrigation requirements, and the effect of Milorganite phosphorus in the environment.

Milorganite summarizes its success as follows:

  • Since 1926: 9.5 billion lbs of waste diverted from landfill to re-use
  • $308 million dollars generated, providing tax relief for residents of Milwaukee
  • 8 million tons of Milorganite sold
  • Milorganite is regulated by the EPA and complies with the most stringent requirements
  • Milorganite uses alternative energy sources such as solar, landfill gas, and digester methane.
  • The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is leading the nation in “Green” solutions.

For more information and to determine where to purchase, you can visit Milorganite’s web site. You can watch this video to learn more about the product as well.

Chipmunks and Carbon Storage

By Maymie Higgins

Sometimes the best positive stories of the environment come from our own backyard. When you sum up the effects of millions of backyard naturalists, the positive impact is significant for the planet. The personal story I am sharing here will hopefully inspire, enlighten and encourage the development of even more backyard biophiliacs.

Last March, several trees were downed in my front yard by a heavy ice storm. Many other trees had significant loss of limbs. The clean up required a professional. Fortunately I am childhood friends with someone who married a certified arborist. He gave me a few options, when possible. One of the options was to either dig up and grind stumps for some pine trees that did not fully erupt from the Earth or to just saw them at the bottom and let them sink back into the Earth as much as possible. Two factors influenced my choice: the price to my wallet to dig and grind the stumps versus the price to the environment to dig and grind the stumps. The price for both was pretty steep.


Conventional wisdom always chooses to make our lawns “pretty,” often with little regard to the effects of fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides and selection of native plant species instead of ornamental non-native plants. Non-native plants often compete with native plants and rob wildlife of hosting sights and food resources which can only be provided by native plants. Also, one man’s yard trash can be a critter’s mansion. With that in mind, I opted to keep the stumps. I can see the grove of pine trees from my home office window and enjoy watching a great variety of wildlife supporting their lives there on a daily basis. Last week, I had the joy of watching a chipmunk sunning himself on one of the stumps. Chipmunks hibernate and the cutie had emerged from the den beneath the stump on an unseasonably warm day. Smart rodent.

Wildlife habitat was not my only motivation for keeping the stumps. If you recall the biology of photosynthesis, you know that plants absorb energy from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air around them to fuel themselves. Plants store the carbon that is obtained from the break down of the carbon dioxide molecule and, in most cases, release the oxygen back into the air. Those of you with lungs probably already understand how vitally important oxygen is to all non-plant life.

Graphic from the creative commons.

Graphic from the creative commons.

When vegetation, large or small, dead or alive is made into smaller pieces through chopping, grinding, sawing, mulching or most any other type of processing, it immediately releases a large amount of carbon. Of course, vegetation naturally rots and releases carbon but much more slowly. If you consider that deforestation is occurring on a global scale, thereby decreasing the amount of trees producing oxygen, and couple that with net carbon release because of these activities, it is clearly not a sustainable practice that will support a well-oxygenated planet. When you understand this, you never look at a stump, downed tree, logging operation or old wooden furniture in the same way. In my mind, all these kinds of items have a large invisible label that reads CARBON STORAGE (open with care).

Eastern bluebird fledgling just moments after leaving the nest, perched on stump about 30 feet from bluebird nesting box.

Eastern bluebird fledgling just moments after leaving the nest, perched on stump about 30 feet from bluebird nesting box.

How can you help? Keep that old adage “think globally, act locally” in mind when you engage in lawn and gardening activities. Piles of limbs, old logs, even leaf litter can be used by many animals for many purposes. For more tips on how to make your lawn and garden friendly to wildlife, check out tips at the National Wildife Federation’s website.

The Local Yolk–Beer, Backyard Chickens, and the Business of Building a Sustainable Food System

By Neva Knott

When the environmental movement began in the 1970s, the focus was on protecting and honoring nature instead of depleting it for human consumption. While this same protection of nature is still at the core of environmental advocacy, a new environmental perspective has emerged recent years, a more personal movement–that of food sourcing.

I’ve heard that the easiest way to go green is to green your food source. It’s certainly the most immediate and possibly the most effective.

To eat within your foodshed, to eat the 100-mile-meal, to know your farmer are practices that benefit your health and promote a green triple bottom line–people, the planet, and profits. In graduate school at Green Mountain College, I learned that most food on the American table travels 2,000 miles before eaten, a shocking and disheartening statistic. John Emrich’s new book, The Local Yolk–Beer, Backyard Chickens and the Business of Building a Sustainable Food System, tells stories of the good food movement, the alternative to commercial, bland, environmentally exploitive, well-traveled food.

All writers here at The Ecotone Exchange hold Master’s of Science degrees in Environmental Studies from Green Mountain College or similar. John is no exception–he was one of our cohort there. Previously an investment banker, he now runs Backyard Chicken Run, an urban chicken supply business in Chicago, and gathers stories of other entrepreneurs looking join the local food movement.

When I first read The Local Yolk, my heart was warmed by the case studies John had collected, putting faces to the ideal of greening your food source. What most impressed and enthused me, though, was John’s explanations of how to make growing and sourcing good food–sustainable agriculture–a profitable venture. Profitability is story not yet told in, and one that is often easily lost in the check-out line when buying organic, local food. With John’s permission, I give you an excerpt from Chapter 17, Tao Theory: Zen and the Art of Investing in Sustainable Food…

“In my prior life, I had owned shares in one of the publicly traded fertilizer companies, so I understood the “bullish case” for fertilizer from the perspective of the chemical companies: a billion or so people in Asia were moving to the middle class and would switch from a rice diet to a protein diet (i.e., a diet with more meat), generating rising demand for the grains to feed livestock and therefore the inputs of chemical agriculture that made monoculture grain-growing viable on a massive scale. At the time I met with the fertilizer manufacturer, the company was forecasting that the United States would become an exporter of corn to China the following year. The future was bright.

“As I tried to put a value on the organic farm, the light bulb went on. The chemical companies’ gain was the farmers’ pain. The chemical inputs of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium were all either directly or indirectly tied to natural resources that would become increasingly scarce and expensive over time, but farmers had to have them to succeed in conventional agriculture. Moreover, industrial farmers buy seed from a monopoly. The two things that an industrial farmer or farm investor could say for sure were that they had no control over their costs, and their costs were going higher. Farm subsidies are often criticized for being a gift to larger corporate farms. They would be more accurately described as a subsidy to the chemical companies and industrial buyers of grain (food processors). The conventional farmer, big or small, is getting little more than his costs reimbursed over a lifetime of work.

“The sustainable farmer doesn’t have the same exposure to cost pressure. After the sun itself, manure is the ultimate renewable resource, replacing the increasingly costly fertilizers. Yet, because I believed in the secular trend towards organic food, the sustainable farmer would continue to benefit from rising market prices for organic crops (for example, organic grains) over time. I was concluding that sustainable farming was a good business investment.”

John writes on to explain the mechanics of Impact Investing and Micro-Lending, and how these strategies can promote the good food movement while providing economic opportunity and promoting environmentally sound agriculture.

The Local Yolk is a smart blend of case stories, anecdotes, background knowledge, and research. You can follow The Local Yolk and Back Yard Chicken Run on Facebook and can learn more about the book at

Shovels and Shade Provide Healing at the Footprints of Terror

By Maymie Higgins

Recently, I visited New York and New Jersey in order to attend a family reunion. My last visit to Manhattan specifically had been in 1988, when the World Trade Center buildings still cast their tall and defiant forms across the skyline. This recent visit included plans to pay my respects at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

During my college years, I visited with my paternal uncle in New York many times, and I would accompany him on his commute from Staten Island to Manhattan’s Financial District where he had a seat at the New York Stock Exchange. Uncle Bill had parking privileges at City Pier A on the Hudson River at Battery Park. From 1960 to 1992, the pier was used by the New York City Fire Department as a fireboat station. Uncle Bill was awarded the parking privileges for his role during a city blackout in coordinating and providing alternative communication through Amateur Ham Radio. It was quite the treat to spend the day exploring the city with my aunt and then simply meet Uncle Bill back at the car at the end of the work day.

On one of my visits, Aunt Beth and I rode the high speed elevator in the World Trade Center South tower and toured the roof observation deck. For many reasons, September 11, 2001 was not just an attack on “those tall buildings in New York and the Pentagon.” It was personal. Even though Uncle Bill had retired by that time, he still lived in the region and it was possible for him to have been in Manhattan. Much of my family still resides in the region and I am grateful none of them perished on 9/11. However, many of them lost friends and still feel an acute sense of trauma and grief.

World Trade Center photo taken by author in 1986 with Kodak Disc Camera.

World Trade Center photograph taken by author in 1986 with Kodak Disc Camera.

On this recent trip, I was eager to see if I still had my skills to navigate the big city. I drove my husband and myself from New Jersey to the Staten Island Ferry, successfully parked and hitched the free ferry ride across New York Harbor. We disembarked and made a beeline up Greenwich Street. No sauntering like a tourist for this gal, at least not until a surprising sight caught the corner of my eye. To my left was a huge garden in a place I had remembered as being mostly paved pathways and park benches. Now it was an eruption of green foliage full of activity as people hoed, raked, dug and harvested vegetables….in Lower Manhattan! Though my schedule did not allow me to linger very long, I made a mental note to research Battery Urban Farm, which had sprouted in the footprints of tragedy. Here is a video explaining the story:

We made our way to the 9/11 Memorial plaza, where massive pools with fountains flow in the footprints of the World Trade Center towers. Each fountain is surrounded by parapets that have inscribed in bronze the nearly 3,000 names of the men, women, and children killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. The contrast in stimulation of the senses within the plaza and that in the periphery of the plaza was palpable. In the periphery there were the sounds of jackhammers, cranes, sirens, car horns, and vehicle back up beepers. All this was suppressed and muted within the plaza, done so by the sound of massive waterfalls and rustling of leaves in the more than 250 swamp white oak trees. In fact, I felt cradled and shielded by their canopy. For more about the story of the trees chosen for the Memorial plaza, watch this video:

The Memorial plaza is one of the most sustainable, green plazas ever constructed, with irrigation, storm water and pest management systems that conserve energy, water and other resources. Rainwater is collected in storage tanks, meeting a majority of the daily and monthly irrigation requirements.

E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia, which literally means “love of life.” Humans often seek to nurture life in various ways in an effort to soothe their grief, but it was surprising to see so much plant life in a concrete jungle. However, surprise was not my most overwhelming reaction. What concerned me that my heart might burst from my chest was an enormous sense of pride in the human race. Most humans innately know that, although individual lives may end, life itself goes on. Those who are still alive will see to it. No terrorist will ever destroy that rule of the universe.

Featured image: 9/11 Memorial Plaza shaded by swamp white oak trees courtesy of Silverstein Properties, Inc.

Ireland’s Sensible Energy Conservation Practices

By Neva Knott

Home, and going through my notes and photographs from Cork, Ireland, where I spent a month, late June to mid-July. Two years ago, I travelled to Edinburgh, Scotland for the same writing workshops. On both trips, I noticed the energy efficiency that is a well-integrated part of life in those two countries of the UK. What’s most impressive is that people in Cork and Edinburgh live very similarly to those of us here in the US. They depend on electricity for heat and lighting, have laptops and TV’s and all the other energy-using modern conveniences. Yet, UK household and per capita energy use is almost half of what it is here in the US.

Not only is energy conservation important in relationship to available energy supply, energy waste translates to carbon emissions and increases global warming. Also, energy conservation is smart household money management.

According to Lindsay Wilson of, households in the UK consume 4.6 thousand kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year, while US households consume 11.7 thousand. Wilson gathered these statistics from World Energy Council.

Wilson also cites per capita usage of electricity. Individuals in the UK use 1.9 thousand kilowatt hours per year, in contrast to the 4.5 thousand for each person in the US.

In Ireland and Scotland both, it is common to see on/off switches next to each electrical outlet. These switches accomplish the same cut-off of electricity flow as unplugging does. For example, each morning when I used the electrical water pot to make tea, I first turned on the switch, then turned on the appliance. When finished, I turned off the appliance and the switch. Same for the microwave, clothes washer, wall outlets. Use of outlet switches is an easy common sense measure. Here at home, I have started unplugging lamps in rooms that are only used occasionally, such as the guest bedroom, and I unplug my TV and wireless router each night. I also unplug my phone and laptop chargers as soon as charging is complete. Even these simple steps have lowered my kWh usage. Imagine how much good those little switches do.


While going about my daily routine in both Edinburgh and Cork, I noticed the prevalence of automatic motion-sensor lights in public restrooms, hallways, and other such use-specific spaces.

Also, when shops and businesses close for the day, the last person out turns off the lights. At night in these cities, it’s dark, rather than needlessly illuminated by neon marquees and office windows still bright. Not only is turning off commercial lights at the end of the day an energy savings, it is better for nocturnal creatures, and has human health benefit as well. And let’s face it, leaving on those glaring signs and desk lamps on the twelfth floor serve no purpose anyway.

These common sense measures allow for necessary energy use at the time of need, and allow for abundant energy savings by simply switching off the flow of electricity when it’s not needed or in use. Additionally, Ireland has several programs in place to help residents further decrease their consumption of electricity, and other household energy.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland runs a program called The Power of One Street. The program outlines five steps to follow to lower household energy consumption. All steps focus on eliminating energy waste, controlling energy flow, and using attributes of the home–such as natural lighting, and making thoughtful, practical choices about energy usage.

Step 1 evaluates energy use for space heating, Step 2–water usage, Step 3–small power (appliances and such), Step 4–lighting, and Step 5–cooking. Each step takes just a few weeks to implement.

The SEAI website offers anecdotes of actual families that participated, explaining their initial concerns, the changes they made, and the savings in both energy and money. For example, by following the recommendations for Step 3, the Heffernan Family reduced their small power usage by 20 percent, which reduced their carbon footprint by 1.4 tonnes of CO2, and creating a 334 euro ($468) annual savings. The Brennan Family, by following Step 4, reduced their lighting usage by 34 percent, reducing their carbon footprint by .5 tonnes, and created a cash savings of 110 euro ($154) per year.

Practical measures are at the fore of Ireland’s energy management. The other significant difference I noticed was that the rhetoric is different. Energy conservation is not a topic fraught with tension and derisive language, it is not politicized into an us v. them battle. Take, for example, this from the report, Maximising Ireland’s Energy Efficiency–The National Energy Efficiency Action Plan 2009-2020:

“We have been successful in building a knowledge economy, attracting key international organisations because of a skilled and innovative workforce. We now need to challenge ourselves to replicate this success in the energy sector and create a smart economy, one that is underpinned by green goods and services and which leads the world in innovative adaptation of sustainable research. Internationally, the energy sector is increasingly seen by investors as the single most attractive investment opportunity available in a turbulent market. The United Nations Environment Programme, New Green Deal, seeks to mobilise the global economy towards investments in clean technologies. Ireland needs to position itself as central to this process, bringing knowledge, skills and robust practical research with it.”

This statement co-joins business, economics and the discussion energy conservation in a way I’ve not seen in the US.

I was similarly impressed with a couple of signs I saw. Both made plan and clear statements about energy.

One was posted in the dressing room of H & M, a global women’s fashion retailer, urging customers to wash clothes on a lower temperature setting:


The other was the placard on a fuel tanker that clearly depicted the environmental danger of a spill:


Here in the US the fashion industry doesn’t give voice to the issue of energy conservation by connecting it to the washing of clothes, and placards on tankers are an obscure set of numbers, letters, and colors that do nothing to communicate to the general public the dangers of spills.

People in Ireland and Scotland live very similarly to people in the US, yet it seemed to me that they have a more honest awareness of the interconnectedness between their way of life and their energy sources, and a more real view of the correlation between energy sources, the natural world, and environmental problems. Both Ireland and Scotland have adopted an attitude of solutions. I hope the US will soon do the same.

Cultch is Clutch in Wellfleet Harbor

Wellfleet Harbor.  Photo by Christine Harris.

Wellfleet Harbor. Photo by Christine Harris.

By Christine Harris

For seafood aficionados the town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts is synonymous with one thing: oysters. These briny morsels have been a staple of the town’s economy since the 1700s and are known far and wide for their unique flavor. The decline, recovery, and cultivation of oysters in Wellfleet follows the ecological understanding of these animals and has led to an innovative recycling project in the town.

First called Oyster Bay by Samuel de Champlain when he explored the area in 1605, Wellfleet Harbor has been a hotbed of oyster harvest and cultivation for over 300 years and was likely harvested by the native Wampanoag people for centuries beforehand. However, by the beginning of the 1800s the oysters in Wellfleet Harbor were gone. The disappearance is likely due to a combination of overfishing and a lack of cultch in the harbor. Cultch is a term used to describe broken shells used by baby oysters or “spat” as a substrate on which to grow. The spat attach to cultch and grow and live affixed to that substrate.

Oyster. Photo by David Monniaux courtesy of Wikicommons.

Oyster. Photo by David Monniaux courtesy of Wikicommons.

During the 1700s the shells of oysters and clams that were harvested from the harbor were used to make shell lime for mortar for construction and thus not returned to the water. Without the return of shells to the harbor spat had no cultch on which to grow and over time the oysters disappeared. With little understanding of the life cycle of the oyster, many of the people of Wellfleet believed that God was punishing them for their sins by taking away their most valuable food and economic source.

With the loss of its native oysters, the people of Wellfleet began to bring in oysters from the Chesapeake Bay to grow in the waters of Wellfleet Harbor and later be sold in markets in Boston. Though the oysters may have originated elsewhere, the flavor of an oyster comes from the waters in which it lives, so these imported oysters still tasted like Wellfleet oysters. Today the cultivation of oysters in the harbor continues to thrive.

In celebration of the importance of the oyster to Wellfleet, an annual Oysterfest is held in October each year. The event has grown in recent years and in 2013 an estimated 25,000 people descended on the small town to indulge in a variety of oyster dishes, listen to live music, browse products from local artists, and have a good time. With so many people consuming oysters many shells are left behind. At the event in 2012 an estimated 100,000 oysters and 10,000 clams were consumed. Five tons of oyster shells were collected and recycled, amounting to 43 percent of the waste stream from the event. These shells, and others collected since, are now being used as cultch in Wellfleet Harbor and are providing habitat for future generations of shellfish.

It is estimated that in the three years since the shell-recycling program began enough habitat has been added to Wellfleet Harbor for 60 million new oysters which is 15 times the annual harvest rate. The oysters also improve the water quality in the harbor by filtering 3 billion gallons of water a day. In 2012 Shellfish Promotion and Tasting (SPAT), the organization behind Oysterfest, and the Town of Wellfleet won the Municipal Innovation Award at the annual Mass Recycle Awards.  This innovative program holds promise for the future of oysters in Wellfleet Harbor and beyond.

What We Pick Up


All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others.

Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?     Buddha

By Natalie Parker-Lawrence

The leathery anchor looked a little sick at the end of the evening’s news story from Ft. Worth, Texas. Evidently, he had not read it to its completion before going on air. The coyote puppy had to be euthanized. It was not the sweet finish of a girl-finds-puppy-behind-dumpster feel-good story. The young woman thought she was doing a good deed for a homeless and sick dog. And she was, cradling the quiet and confused creature in a blue blanket.

This girl, like many others, has made animal rescue a daily quest.

The news station, of course, did not broadcast that very last scene of her screaming while they wrenched the coyote puppy from her, just before they had to chop off its head to procure the brain tissue to test for the presence of rabies. Because that’s what health departments do. And because animal scratches can spread rabies, we know that the girl might have had to be tested as well.


Coyote pup. Photograph courtesy of wikicommons.

My daughter does not live far from that dumpster. She, too, would have picked up that coyote puppy and taken her home. Her dog, Mackie, is a found dog, or as the vet called her: the luckiest dog in the universe. Not remotely attractive, my grand dog is one lucky animal. It was a dark and stormy night. The dachshund and terrier mix, whimpering and hiding under a parked car, had to be dragged out. The next day, the vet began the process of ridding the sad beast of all kinds of worms for an exorbitant sum. But, to be fair, the dog has been her constant and loyal companion since she moved from Memphis to Dallas several months ago for her first real job. Her cat, Susie, an animal-shelter rescue, treats the dog with a cruel mixture of indifference and loathing.



So, last weekend, when Mackie was attacked (no need to read quickly to the end, the dog lived) by a much bigger dog off his leash on the way to the dog park (which, by the way, serves margaritas to dog owners while their pets frolic—who thinks of these things?), my daughter became a real parent. She screamed and beat the bigger dog in the head until he let go of Mackie. She took her home to wash and dress the wounds. She ignored Susie’s meows of self-righteous indignation. She took the dog to the vet. She paid the bill. She took the bill to the aggressor dog’s owner’s apartment. She left a snarky note about his aptitude as a pet owner. She cashed his check for the entire vet bill amount.

A happier ending, considering all the main players began the conflict being aware and following through on their responsibilities to nature and society with science and technology, protecting the weakest among us.

Coyotes are not the number one enemy in Texas when it comes to rabies, although a few cases have been reported. The number one enemy anywhere is irresponsible people: those who don’t take their pets to get their shots, those who abandon sick and old pets by the sides of too many roads, those who don’t spay and neuter their pets, and those who feed feral beasts that lure coyote families to urban buffets and their doom.


Urban Coyote. Photograph courtesy of wikicommons.

How many people devote time to their local animal shelter and search for homes for lost and mistreated animals? Millions of people volunteer their time each week and somehow keep from killing ruthless and soulless human beings who abandon and torture vulnerable creatures because they believe they are somehow above beasts who have no voice that will call their paltry asses to account.

My daughter called me last week to rant about people who leave their children in hot cars. She wanted to know how many children were left in cars that were not hot. A very good question. And maybe that’s when you know you’ve raised good children, when they begin to rant, when they notice that they must follow in the giant footsteps of those who speak up and take actions for those who cannot speak or bark for themselves.


Editor’s note: Coyotes are part of every urban landscape. While their threat to humans is low, human threat to the coyote’s habitat is high–and is the root of the problem. As Natalie aptly suggests in her article, dealing humanely with urban coyotes is as important as humane treatment of domesticated animals.

Here are some links to information on urban coyotes, their behavior, and how to live harmoniously with them in our cities:






Windows to the World



To survive we’d all turn thief and rascal, or so says the fox, with her coat of an elegant scoundrel,
her white knife of a smile, who knows just where she’s going . . .
                                                            — from Margaret Atwood, Morning in the Burned House

By Natalie Parker-Lawrence

            She was biting on her hind leg for what seemed like a long time to a church congregation who had long stopped listening to the minister. The fox, sitting, pondering, on the grass was not interested in the two hundred people behind the glass wall who look out upon the Mississippi River every Sunday morning. She (I surmise) was more interested in the river, the rain, and the brushy hedge than disturbing the Unitarian zealots in the pews. To be accurate, we are more radical about rivers and beasts than God; most of us find the divine in the serendipity of a foxworthy glimpse.

Having been the attention victim of many foxes and coyotes, some with their furry young ones, the minister knows that he must wait until the parade of creatures darts away out of sight. Then we can go back to listening to his sermon. But we are thinking of that fox. We are relishing that fox. We anticipate with all the joy in the universe when that fox (and it would be prudent to remember that over twenty-five years that I have attended this church that myriad generations of creatures have appeared and disappeared) will again appear with a longer tail or a brighter coat or three cuddly pups that we know need a safer home than the one they now possess.

The Mississippi River passes along the downtown Memphis river bluffs; therefore, this hairy creature is an urban fox that must contend with tourist traffic, tornado threats, lost musicians, barbeque eaters, flooding waters, basketball lovers, and festival crowds.

I bet she contends with the raccoons and their packs that dance through our city like gangs from West Side Story. The children of the fox and the raccoon are both called cubs, but a fight between them would not be pretty, their claws and teeth like switchblades.

She takes her delight in feeding herself, the husband, and the kids with park leftovers, not yet ravaged by pigeons or city rats. She gobbles up a pigeon or a squirrel while basking in the late-day rays of the sun setting over that big river water. She might find the divine in the flow of water or in that sun or in that rat. I believe in my heart that she finds, as I do, that squirrels are the henchmen of the devil; they are nasty rats with cute tails. Their marketing plan, however, has been too good down through the ages: humans tend to want to cuddle squirrels and shoot foxes, even if there are very few chicken coops around downtown.

To see wildlife in any city’s downtown, many believe, is an unexpected and joyful gift. Many people also believe that their spiritual life takes place at The Church of The Outside. Foxes, I pray, do as well.

Lyme Disease, Public Health, and the Conservation Movement

A blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) removed from the authorthe primary vector for Lyme Disease.  This tick was removed

A blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), the primary vector for Lyme Disease. This tick was removed from the author during the completion of this story. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

By Richard Telford

In the fall of 2013, our five-year-old daughter complained of soreness in one of her wrists.  We asked if she had banged it or taken a fall.  She said no.  Comparing the wrist in question to her other one, we realized that the swelling was bilateral.  The lack of an obvious cause of injury, in conjunction with an observable sense of malaise in an otherwise energetic child, raised alarm bells for us.  We promptly asked her pediatrician to order a test for Lyme disease; several days later, the test came back positive.

Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, a bacterium transmitted through the bite and subsequent engorgement of its primary vector, the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), also known as the deer tick. Immediate symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and, sometimes, what is commonly called a “bull’s-eye rash” at the site of the bite.  Untreated, the disease can infect the joints, heart, and central nervous system, causing an array of serious and debilitating symptoms.  Early treatment with doxycycline is effective in most cases, but in 10- 20% of treated cases, serious symptoms can persist in affected individuals for several years or more.  Commonly called Chronic Lyme, the Centers for Disease Control terms this condition Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome, or PTLDS.  The existence of PTLDS, which is largely attributed to residual tissue and immune system damage, has been the subject of great controversy, and I plan to write about this controversy in a later post on The Ecotone Exchange.

According to the CDC, in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, our home state of Connecticut had 1653 confirmed cases of Lyme disease and an additional 1004 probable cases, with an incidence rate of 46 cases per 100,000 population.  The CDC further reports that Lyme disease is “the most commonly reported vectorborne illness in the United States,” which is striking in that 95% of Lyme disease cases were reported in only 13 states in 2012.  Even more striking is the fact that the earliest cases of Lyme disease, 51 in total, were first reported in 1975, only 39 years ago.  In a 1976 letter to Connecticut’s regional and local directors of health, State Department of Health Commissioner Douglas S. Lloyd noted that 51 residents of Old Lyme, Lyme, and East Haddam Connecticut had been diagnosed with a form of arthritis characterized by “short and mild but often recurrent attacks of pain and swelling in a few large joints,” as well as “fever, headaches, weakness and a skin rash […].”

The Commissioner went on to note that “seasonal and geographic distribution of cases and the association with a skin lesion suggest that a virus carried by a biting insect may be responsible for this disease.”  However, until researchers could “isolate an infectious agent,” Lloyd cautioned, “Any other action taken now to prevent contact with an unknown virus carried by an unknown insect would disrupt the community far more than is warranted by the facts.”  There could be no sense at that time that the occurrence of this mysterious disease would rise meteorically in the coming decades, spiking to a high of 29,959 confirmed cases in the United States in 2009.  It is important to note, too, that these statistics almost certainly represent a significant underreporting of actual cases in the United States for a variety of reasons, which the CDC itself acknowledges.

In the spring of 2012, the Connecticut Audubon Society held a series of four public panel discussions in which they asked panel experts and audience members to answer the following question: Where is the next generation of conservationists coming from?  As a professional educator and CAS volunteer, I was invited to sit on one of these panels.  At the center of the discussion was the fact that children today spend considerably less time directly interacting with the natural world, especially in unsupervised exploration.  Reasons posited for this included the influence of personal communications devices and social media platforms, over-programming of extra-curricular activities in children’s lives, the lack of well developed environmental science curricula in many schools, and fear in various forms—fear of abduction, fear of animal attack, fear of injury, and, most pertinent here, fear of Lyme disease.

A group of blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis), collected from the author and his family.  These ticks are the primary vector for Lyme disease.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A group of blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis), collected from the author and his family. These ticks are the primary vector for Lyme disease. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

The proliferation of Lyme disease has serious long-term implications for the conservation movement that mirror its serious long-term implications for public health.  This is especially true in the northeastern and upper midwestern states, where it is not hyperbole to characterize the proliferation of Lyme disease in these regions as epidemic.  In the 72 hours leading up to the submission of this essay, I removed one imbedded blacklegged tick from our two-year-old son’s ear, two from my leg, one from my stomach, and a number of others from our and our children’s clothing.  Blacklegged ticks are ubiquitous and can often imbed themselves and transmit the Borrelia burgdorferi spirochete undetected.  In spring, summer, and fall, thorough nightly tick checks are a necessity in our family, yet we fear we are instilling in our children the notion that the natural world is a hostile place rather than a welcoming one, a place of danger rather than a place of solace and rejuvenation.  Children who grow up fearing the natural world have little incentive to help conserve it.

Eight months after my daughter’s treatment for Lyme disease, she shows no signs of being in that 10-20% of the Lyme-affected population with persistent, recurring symptoms. Her initial test results suggested an early diagnosis, and we are hopeful that this was the case. Along with that hope, though, we are plagued with a persistent fear—that, in the act of immersing our children in the natural world that we ourselves love so much, we must also subject them to the onerous and potentially long-lasting symptoms of an unseen and virulent disease carried by a likewise unseen host.  This is a fear with which the conservation movement needs to come to grips.  It cannot be dismissed or minimized.  It must instead be openly acknowledged and addressed through increased, proactive education on prevention, identification of signs and symptoms, and treatment of Lyme disease. This must be done both for the benefit of public health and for the benefit of the natural world itself.