Sunday, April 26, 2009

Confessions of science geek

I had a goal a couple of years ago to really increase my field botany skills: to remember all of the stuff I had learned from classes and naturalists over many years and add to my knowledge base. I wanted to be able to walk into a Northeastern forest and know all of the trees and the wildflowers. I am almost at that level of competence and I have become quite handy with a field guide so I can look up easily what I am not sure about.
My efforts involved lots of time spent outside in the woods, investigating roadside plants and muddy trips into the Salt Marsh. I took a couple of field botany classes at the Botanical Garden. In the middle of my class last fall, I took a trip to Portland and the young women sitting next to me on the airplane asked me what I was reading and I told her, "A Key to Fruits and Nuts." I must say in my defense that I don't just like terminology and plant physiology, I also really like the history of how plants and people interact known as ethnobotany.
Jove has been along side me on my plant world adventures and I have accompanied him in his search to know, understand and collect insects. Jove is a great collector of detritus, dead things on the ground, and I can always count on him to bring home pockets full of forest nuts in the fall and discarded bud scales, flower petals and catkins (long drupy, male flowers) in the spring.
Right now is actually a great time to go on a Spring collecting walk in the Northeast or Midwest. Many trees have shed their flowers, the flowering trees are dropping their petals and some bud parts lie piled on sidewalks.

I feel a sense of accomplishment in terms of my botanical pursuits and I have decided that my next goal is to become a good amateur birder. I know about as much as any non-birder about birds, but I long to be able to recognize them by their calls and know more about them. I have announced my plan to Jove and he tells me that we need books, pictures and recordings of what they sound like and we should draw and write down everything we see. Sounds good to me.

Here we go "Summer of Birds." I will be chronicling some of our birding adventures here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Earth Day ramblings

On this Earth Day eve, I feel compelled to share my thoughts and feelings about our planet, nature and our role in understanding it and protecting it. I have many ideas related to this topic so I apologize in advance to any disorganization of this essay, after all, I have been up since 5am and made approximately 15 meals today.
First of all, let me say that I am very hopeful despite our planet having a lot of people, many wasteful practices and a lot of poverty; all of these seem to make ecological conservation impossible. There are huge barriers to overcome, certainly, but we have better technology, awareness, appreciation, communication of ideas and science than ever before in the history of humanity. For every gloom and doom story there is a story of hope.

What is my vision of sustainability? An end to poverty, access to clean water, adequate food, gender equality, education for all children, the sharing of technology and profits within and between nations, an economic system that includes environmental and social damage in the price of its goods, taxes on corporations that pollute in order to create subsidies for emerging technologies (solar, hydrogen,etc...), building codes that require developers to build green buildings, protection for land and aquatic ecosystems of value financed by the governments and private citizens of rich nations, tougher environmental regulations with better enforcement, financial support for small and sustainable farms and an end to subsidies for agribusiness.

So now that I have shared my pie in the sky world vision with you, I must admit that the level of change necessary both structurally and in terms of people's mindsets is tremendous. But, our society has changed tremendously since it began and every generation represents an incredible opportunity to do things the right way. When I was child, no one I knew recycled, the Internet wasn't public, there were few farmer's markets or small organic farms, global warming was something only scientists and a few daring politicians talked about and there were no hybrid or hydrogen cars. There are so many things that have changed for the better and I believe the American public is ready for more change to protect the quality of our lives. I also believe that whatever is done here will have world wide impact both economically and emotionally.

Enough of the big picture, here is what I think of the small picture and what makes me most hopeful: love will conquer fear and education will conquer ignorance.

"In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; we will understand only what we have been taught."
-Baba Dioum, Senegalese ecologist

I have been teaching young people about nature and our relationship to it for many years and now I am teaching my own children to love nature. The first step to understanding the material aspect of our Earth is to experience it with all of your senses: hold an animal, stick your hands in the dirt, smell the rain, watch a butterfly drink, smell a pine tree, feel the rain on your face, watch a fire, plant a seed and watch it grow, listen to the chorus of birds in the morning, feel the sun on your face and swim in the ocean.

As anyone imagines themselves doing any of these things they feel a sense of peace and relaxation and I argue that this connection to nature is vital to our happiness. The famous biologist, Edward O. Wilson, coined the term biophilia to describe humans' attraction to nature, our primal need for it. A more recent author, Richard Louv, author of The Last Child in the Woods writes that many children today suffer from nature-deficit disorder because they spend too much time indoors leading to sub-optimal physical and mental health. The details are different, but the message is the same: humans evolved in nature, camping out as it were, and our modern lives, and its ailments, can be healed by reconnecting with nature, including other humans.

Is saving our planet as easy as taking a hike in the woods? Yes, it is. A person that spends time outdoors and in wild places will develop a sense of curiousity that will guide all of her endeavors and a love of special places strong enough to fight to protect them. All great naturalists and environmental crusaders started by turning over a rotting log or watching the patterns of the clouds in the sky. And people like you and me started caring about our Earth because of some other seemingly insignificant event. My point is that none of our experiences are insignificant; every moment spent appreciating our world matters.

I choose education as my platform and nature as my teacher. What do you love and teach as you go through your days? What do you care about enough to pass on and to protect? your children, a garden, a wild animal, a pet, a craft, a trade, your music?

I hope you all get to spend a least a few moments everyday outdoors in a beautiful place.

I leave you with a quote from one of my heroes, Rachel Carson:

Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Love, sand, dinosaurs and a hammock

During my pregnancy with Miranda, Jove would cuddle under a blanket and pretend to be in my pouch, as if I was a kangaroo. There was also a seasonal variation known as Santa belly but that only lasted a month or two. Then Miranda was born and nursed and Jove would want to be under my shirt pretending to nurse. Now, Miranda is weaned, but for old times sake she still likes to cuddle under a shirt with Jup, Jove or I. Jove would probably like to be under someone's shirt too but he doesn't fit. Belly love is very popular around here and I will miss it when it isn't anymore.

A few warm days and a delivery of new sand to the sand box means that Jove is again spending as much time as possible in the backyard. Sometimes we are all out there and sometimes he stays out there for an hour or two playing by himself. This, blessedly, usually falls during the time of day when Miranda is napping and I am getting dinner under way. Now, I wouldn't want to leave you with the misconception that Jove spends his time in the sand box. The sand box is only the place where the sand is stored; it gets used all over: to build houses for ants, fire pits to contain the fires we have in the back (don't tell the authorities), to make "bessie," otherwise known as asphalt, out of sand, dirt and water and any other mixture or experiment he can think up. Needless to say, despite my best efforts most of the time there is a thin layer of grit from tracked in sand on my kitchen floor. Spring is here!

Jove had never shown any interest in dinosaurs until we read a book called The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins. It is based on the true story of a British artist and natural scientist who was the first person to create three-dimensional models of dinosaurs based on fossil discoveries in Europe during the Victorian Period. Hawkins was contracted to make models for a paleontology museum that was supposed to be constructed in New York City and a corrupt New York City official, Boss Tweed, paid thugs to destroy his work and pieces of it are buried under Central Park. This story struck a chord with Jove; and I planned a trip for just him and I to go the Natural History Museum to see their fossil collection. The museum was so uncrowded that we were really able to explore and linger at our own pace. I was delighted by the seriousness of Jove's interest in the subject and I learned a lot myself.
We have been reading more books with dinosaurs in them, both factual and whimsical stories.

We went to a small museum in Connecticut a couple of days ago and there were original paintings by Waterhouse Hawkins. I was excited to see them myself.
There was also a simulated paleontological dig site complete with chisels, brushes and a key to the embedded fossils. At home, Jove likes to sort his plastic dinosaurs by characteristics (walks on two legs vs. four, big head vs. small head) and re-create dinosaur interactions that don't bode well for the plant-eaters, if you know what I mean. I am excited to see where his interest will go next, more dinosaurs or on to the next topic.

Not just a hammock, the hammock: I love it and I admit I was wrong about how great it would be. About a month ago, Jup started researching hammocks to sleep in while backpacking because sleeping on the ground is hard, literally. So he tells me he plans to buy a hammock and I am skeptical about how useful it would really be and my inner frugalista is thinking, do you really need a hammock? you just bought a tent 8 months ago? But, Jup was determined to become a hanger instead of a ground dweller, these people even have their own lingo...
So, the hammock arrived a little over a week ago and Jup has been practicing rigging it up: Once in the backyard and the kids and cousins tried it, once in a local park unsuccessfully because of the wind and last night in the basement. Jup cleaned and reorganized the basement and then strung up his hammock. I came downstairs to check it out this morning and ended up napping in it for at least a hour. So if you come to our house and we have replaced all of our furniture with hammocks, you'll know why. Mighty comfy...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Orchard Beach

Yesterday was a warm, sunny Spring day that we spent at our nearby Bronx beach with some good friends. Jove and his friend spent many hours moving sand, building moats and channels to create islands, chasing seagulls, running up and down the beach, collecting seaweed and shells. Miranda spent the day getting progressively more of her body wet until the pants had to come off. She loved walking at the water's edge and having me bury her feet in the sand.

Jove and his friend share a special bond and it has been a gift to watch the friendship grow. I am reading a book called The Hurried Child, by David Elkind and it discusses the importance of chumships, intense friendships between young children, in the development of the skills necessary for intimate friendships and relationships in adult life. I thought immediately of Jove and his friend when I read this. They can play together for hours, talk almost constantly, make up games and jobs to do, have their own secrets and experience missing each other.

Yesterday seemed magical to me and I can only imagine that it was for the kids as well.